August 30, 2023

Even in Russia, where the line between fact and fiction is often impossibly blurred, the life and death of Yevgeny Prigozhin is a fantastic tale. Two months ago, having been pilloried as a traitor who had threatened to bring down Vladimir Putin and execute a host of senior military leaders, Prigozhin seemed to have gotten away with his coup-that-wasn’t when he returned to Russia and retained control of his Wagner mercenary group.

The former warlord’s stunning death in a plane crash in Tver Province seems — or so the story spreading on social media and in the Western press goes — to have confirmed the fate that awaits challengers to Putin’s iron rule: a spectacular execution ordered by a mafia-like leader. The traitor lies dead, an example to all. But could there be one last twist in the story of Yevgeny Prigozhin?

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The circumstances of Prigozhin’s death remain clouded in the fog of Russia’s unreliable information sphere. Various explanations have, aided by Russian propagandists and astroturfed groups, torn through social media networks like Telegram and VK (Russia’s equivalent of Facebook). A bomb on board the plane may have exploded mid-flight. The plane was sabotaged on the ground by buyers invited to view the vehicle, which was purportedly for sale. An air defence missile struck and destroyed the plane. Or perhaps, one story goes, it was all a terrible coincidence. And who did it? Perhaps the order came from Putin directly. Or it was Ukrainian saboteurs, the FSB, or rogue army units.

Neither we nor the Russian public will know what really happened any time soon, even if Western intelligence agencies currently favour the bomb story. Such is the nature of Russia’s media. The aim of propagating material is not the dissemination or discovery of the truth, but the creation of a malleable reality where anything can become possible — and where the life of Prigozhin can be rewritten into the state’s chosen narrative. The reality of Prigozhin’s life was already deeply contradictory before his death. Within the last six months alone, he has been a deliberately sadistic warlord — the public embodiment of ultranationalist, genocidal violence; a would-be revolutionary persona non grata; and, mere days before his death, a willing instrument of Russian state power in Africa.

Many of these shifting and contradictory stories were shaped by the vociferous Prigozhin himself, who masterfully used the megaphone that networks such as Telegram provide wannabe powermongers to draw attention to himself and recreate his own image over and again. Nobody in Russia has so successfully created alternatives to the state’s media — even if Prigozhin frequently adopted the same narrative flexibility as the Kremlin. Now that Prigozhin is dead, however, the state can leap into this space and recreate the life of the dead man on Putin’s terms alone.

Western media and audiences have voraciously consumed stories about Prigozhin’s demise: the front pages of publications on both sides of the Atlantic are packed with obituaries and speculation. Yet Russia’s news media — not usually known for its reticence to cast judgement — has thus far been surprisingly quiet on the topic. Reports on the circumstances of Prigozhin’s death have been bland, describing, for example, a “plane crash in which eleven people died” with only a brief mention of the man himself. The Kremlin has issued rote denials of Western claims about Prigozhin’s death and claimed that crash experts are busy analysing the events that took place above Tver (although, on past evidence, their analyses are likely to be misleading).

The few obituaries published have been equally unremarkable. The “businessman and founder of Wagner PMC” had a long career as the founder of a catering company, but his military activity in Ukraine is deserving only of a brief and vague footnote. Pravda, Russia’s newspaper of record, has published a paltry seven stories mentioning Prigozhin in the last three days. The fired general Sergey Surovikin, meanwhile, has featured in eight articles in the same time period. It seems that, for the time being, the Russian newspapers are more interested in the fate of the glamorous stewardess killed in the Tver plane crash than in Prigozhin.

Yet by shifting the focus away from Prigozhin the sadistic warlord, the Kremlin will have the chance to slowly rewrite his story in the public eye. Indeed, early signs suggest that Prigozhin is to be commemorated as an exemplary military hero, a man whose sole fault was that his patriotism was so fierce as to force him into a confrontation with the apathetic elites holding back the war effort.

A leading article for Pravda signalled this shift. Prigozhin, the man who mere weeks ago had been threatening to unleash violence on Moscow and execute the Minister of Defence, is now “the most controversial but tough and straight-talking patriot and hero of Russia… a symbol of honour, courage, and the motherland”. This Prigozhin is a man who “forced senior officials to listen to the voice of the people”: the latest in a long line of Russian historical courtiers who have pluckily alerted the tsar to the incompetence and malice of those surrounding the country’s leader. The article concludes on a note of tangible, shared grief: “We are saying goodbye to an epochal man, a heroic man, a legendary man.” In this way, Prigozhin’s death is transformed from Putin’s deadly revenge on a political opponent, a moment to reject a dangerous enemy, into a national tragedy — an outlet for patriots of all stripes to mourn the death of a great man.

Putin himself all but confirmed that this would be the official story in a TV address to the nation on the day after the plane crash. Prigozhin, asserted the President, was a “complicated man” who worked “for the common good when I asked for it”. While Western commentators have been quick to point out that the remarks sound like those of a callous mafia boss gloating after a hit, there is an alternative reading: Putin was confirming for the nation that Prigozhin’s hot temperament was merely the expression of an ardent patriotism, and reaffirming that there is no greater patriotic action than dying in the name of the national cause. In the days since Putin’s speech was made, public discussion turned to where to bury a “hero of Russia”. The favoured location was briefly the Serafimov Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where Prigozhin would have lain alongside sportspeople, artists, military heroes — and Putin’s own parents. The Wagner leader ended up in the city’s still prestigious Porokhovskoe Cemetery, another resting place for military heroes of the past. There was never a question of hiding the dead man in some nondescript resting place.

If the story of Prigozhin the hero is indeed the narrative to be disseminated, Russian audiences will likely accept it without question. Early survey data suggests that Prigozhin’s reputation in death is not that of a traitor. When as few as 8% of Russians are willing to state that Putin likely killed the Wagner leader, we cannot expect public opposition to a posthumous rehabilitation to be vocal. For Wagnerites, Prigozhin is to be treated with respect and accorded a place in Russia’s pantheon of military martyrs (albeit there will be vocal, and potentially violent, dissenters). For others, the coup leader will become a man who simply could not control his genuine desire to fight on behalf of “the common good”— even if that meant upsetting a few Kremlin military elites, who are widely viewed as corrupt kleptocrats. Putin, meanwhile, has clean hands.

Prigozhin’s death has provided Putin with an arsenal of political ammunition. A man made by his own relentless PR will be remade by the state’s PR machine in death. In Russia’s pantomime existence, where reality is reshaped as easily as modelling clay, yesterday’s treacherous coup leader can become today’s fallen hero — while the President emerges, yet again, unscathed.