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Putin’s Balancing, Russian Culture, and Impunity after Prigozhin’s Mutiny

 There is much confusion and scratching of the head surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seeming ‘weakness’, laxity, or permissiveness in hesitating to arrest two-day mutineer and Wagner PMC chief Yevgenii Prigozhin. Recent reports from Russia indicate that Prigozhin has been back in Russia, despite his supposed exile to Belarus along with some 10,000 Wagner fighters. Initially, in the wake of the mutiny’s dissolution Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman stated to Russian journalists that Prigozhin was to go to Belarus as part of the deal hashed out between Putin and his former associate by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka. Reports and photographs of a camp or base being erected for the exiled or redeployed Wagner troops in Belarus were published. But now it emerges that Prigozhin and 35 Wagner commanders and staff met with Putin in the Kremlin on June 29th and discussed what had happened and what the future would be for Wagner and perhaps for Prigozhin himself. In the meeting, Putin stressed both legal issues as well as the mutiny’s violation of an ‘agreement’ between himself and Prigozhin.[1]

Some propose that this boils down to some sort of softness in Putin’s personality, at least towards long-time friends and associates. Others conjecture that this is evidence of Putin’s political weakness, declining power, and failing control over his system, the so-called ‘Sistema’. There are at least three other important factors besides more situational ones such as political, military, and business considerations that help explain why Prigozhin and his co-conspirators have not been arrested. As a preface it must be said that we make a mistake if we expect Russian political actors to behave as, say, American, other Western, or even many non-Western politicians might. Russia is a different country than ours, not really significantly better or worse than ours. That said, the three non-situational factors facilitating impunity that I would like to suggest are: (1) the relatively soft form of the Putin system’s authoritarianism; (2) a tendency towards ‘arbitrary’ rule and limited emphasis on following the letter of the law, and (3) a cultural preference for unity or wholeness rather than disunity, pluralism, and conflict.

Putin’s System of Soft Authoritarianism

First, Western publics have been a caricature of Putin’s style of rule and the Russian political system by media, academics, and experts alike. Putin is either portrayed as an all-powerful dictator or a ruthless mafia don. Although there is occasional leaning in this direction and therefore a small element of truth regarding such aspects of Putin’s rule as is the case in all caricatures, they are gravely mistaken simplifications that distort more than they realistically depict matters as is also the case in caricatures.

As I have been arguing for two decades, Putin is a soft-to-medium range authoritarian leader, not a harsh authoritarian no less a totalitarian dictator. Analogies with Stalin or Hitler are completely misplaced and, indeed, downright absurd. Putin’s soft authoritarian Sistema is consistent with several aspects of Russian culture and political culture—sometimes called ‘national character.’ He has been artfully balancing not just between the republican and authoritarian personalist forms of rule for more than two decades. He has been juggling various factions in a country with a conflictive political culture and weak, non-Western legal culture and an aspiration to unity or ‘solidarist wholeness’ or tselostnost’.

In Putin’s once soft now more mid-range authoritarian system, he functions as the main arbiter, balancing between numerous competing political, ideological, clan-based, financial-industrial, class, and ethno-national groups. While he is surely the most powerful player in the system and has numerous institutional, legal, coercive, economic, and media resources at his disposal that others in the system lack, he also shares the control and application of those resources with select groups or sub-groups of the kind noted above as long as they do not threaten his hegemony over the system. Moreover, Putin is an arch-rational actor who carefully weighs issues, decisions regarding them, and those decisions’ potential consequences, intended and unintended. Personal relations with other actors matter to him. He rarely if ever has retaliated harshly against a former close associate. Putin is not a Joseph Stalin, who can send millions to labor camps, arrest high-ranking officials on a whim, or has his close associates and their family members imprisoned or executed.

In treading carefully in the matter of dealing with Prigozhin’s de jure betrayal, Putin is following his pattern, being sure not to provoke panic within the elite, disturb military function and morale, or leave his options open. By its very nature, soft-to-midrange authoritarianism requires taking into account situational factors. Thus, Putin’s restraint is also explained together and as a result of somewhat limited powers that Putin must gauge the political consequences of cracking down harshly on Prigozhin and the other ‘musicians’ of Wagner who participated in the ‘march for justice. They are regarded by Russians and, according to his own words, Putin himself as patriots who have served admirably in the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. A harsh reaction could cost Putin support among key constituencies of his such as traditionalists and ultra-nationalists.

Putin’s June 29th meeting with Prigozhin and 35 Wagner commanders and management staff was an attempt to look particularly Prigozhin in the eye in order to ascertain whether Putin’s belief that his old associate was not staging a military coup or hoping to incite a revolution from below but rather had let his anger and ambitions get the better of him in response to the Russian high military command’s attempt essentially to corporately raid ‘his’ company. This raises the second explanation: Russian culture’s preference for particularism over strict rule of law.

The Rule of Understandings and the Rule of Law

Russians place high value on personal relations over contractual relationships and legal technicalities. This is part of what is sometimes called the Russian historical pattern of ‘arbitrary rule’ contrasted with the Western pattern of the rule of law and constitutionality—what perhaps Russia’s greatest political philosopher and cultural thinker, Nikolai Berdyaev called the “Western cult of cold justice.” “Pity for the fallen, for the humiliated and offended, compassion are very Russian traits,” he observed.[2] In this way the strict, technical application of the law found in the West is often replaced in Russia by a more social or communal view of justice, where personal relationships with perpetrators and defendants and extenuating circumstances often trump carrying out the letter of the law precisely or even at all. In short, Putin’s Sistema relies less on the rule of law and more on what Russians, including officials, openly refer to ‘understandings’ or ‘ponyatii’. These are informal agreements among and between, leaders, various clans and interests sometimes backed by law, sometimes very much not.

This means that a mutiny such as Prigozhin’s is viewed more as a violation of informal understandings than it is seen through the prism of Russian law or the constitution. Putin stated that there is a Wagner “group” but it “does not exist juridically”, since there is no provision in Russian law for private military companies (which Wagner really was not and thus is beside the point), which he seemed to suggest the State Duma ought to begin work on. Nevertheless, he offered the Wagner commanders to gather the fighters “in one place and continue to serve under their direct commander” (not Prigozhin), without any mention of under what legal aegis it should be allowed to function.[3] In other words Wagner’s activities – ongoing for years – were sanctioned in an extralegal, informal form—an intra-elite ‘ponyatiya’ or understanding. Matters may be couched in strictly legal terms publicly, but behind the scenes the pivotal issue is whether Prigozhin violated an informal understanding and perhaps whether he did so first without justification or in response to his partners’ own violation of the perceived understanding.

Although revolts have not been treated with mercy and pardons by Russian rulers throughout all of Russian history, many, particularly quite recent and serious ones have. Prigozhin’s failed revolt would not be the first in recent decades in which insurrectionists might enjoy impunity. In a much stricter Soviet legal environment several political coup attempts against the great Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev went unpunished during his ‘perestroika’ era: an aborted possible autumn 1987 military coup, the March 1988 Nina Andreyeva affair, the June 1991 ‘constitutional coup’, and finally even the August 1991 Party-state apparat coup against Gorbachev and Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. After the resulting collapse of the communist Party-state regime and ultimately the Soviet state itself, all of the coup plotters were set free without trial. The same occurred after the October 1993 myatezh or revolt against Yeltsin led by his vice president and former military officer Aleksandr Rutskoi, Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, and many of the Soviets’ deputies.

In the pre-Soviet Russian Imperial era, failed palace coups and revolutions such as the constitutionalists’ plot against Empress-select Anna Ioannovna in 1730 and the 1825 Decembrist revolt – saw very different punishments meted out to the conspirators. In the former, the leaders were constantly harassed and eventually arrested, with the leader Prince Dmitrii Golitsyn imprisoned on apparently trumped up charges many years after the event. Six leaders of the Decembrist uprising were hanged, and thousands were exiled to Siberia. But in both cases, the punishments appalled the aristocracy and much of the narod or simple people alike. The somewhat failed 1905 revolution saw no one punished and led to an eventually aborted regime transformation, suggesting the more recent pattern of impunity. One might recall the case of Vera Zasulich, the pre-revolutionary Socialist Revolutionary, who in 1878 attempted to assassinate the governor of St. Petersburg and was acquitted by a jury won over by the moral sincerity of her political motives and social conscience. Russians, in Berdyaev’s words, are less legalistic than Western people: “(F)or them content is more important than form.”[4] Similarly, there is an element of the religious belief that triumphs over cold ‘eye for an eye’ justice in matters of life and death, which belong to God more properly than to man, and hence the Russians’ historical opposition to the death penalty and, to some extent, punishment in general.[5]

In the West, turns of events such as coups – of which we have few recent examples –  are not met with pardons towards the preservation of solidarity but, more often than not, Berdyaev’s ‘cold justice.’ Putting aside the American Civil War in which the southern Confederacy’s leaders were given immunity from prosecution, the recent ‘insurrection’ in the US, 1/6, really a riot provoked by the FBI and the Democrat Party-state, is a case in point of cold justice or the rule of law gone awry. Cold legality can be turned against humanistic principles of republican rule of law. Thus, rather than mercy, pardons, and dropped cases, we have seen an aggressive, over-the-top pursuit of anyone even remotely connected or near the events of the ‘insurrection.’ This aggressive posture, of course, may be driven by the fact that the ‘insurrection’ was a fake organized by the Democrat Party-state itself which infiltrated its FBI and other agents into leadership positions of the small, generally non-violent groups that merely sought to enter the Capitol building, not destroy the U.S.’s constitutional republican regime.

In the US it is unclear whether the tendency to punish insurrectionaries and separatists is a function of its political culture’s lack of a value of wholeness or a function of its strict rational-legal form of government. In Russia, some may argue that it is unclear whether Russia’s tendency to forgive putschists evidences arbitrary justice and particularistic understandings – i.e., a weak rational-legal system or culture – or simple political expediency or arbitrariness. This is a question of the weight of background cultural factors and immediate situational ones. I am concerned here with the former, another of which is Russia’s aspiration to wholeness.

Russian Solidarism and Wholeness

In my most recent book Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture, Thought, History, and Politics I argued that there is a Russian aspiration to wholeness that results from religious and other cultural orientations valuing unity and is a reaction against the highly conflictive, schismatic nature of Russian history and politics. I delineated four types of wholeness or tselostnost’ in Russian culture and thought: monism (unity of the divine and material worlds), universalism (world unity), communalism (subnational, social unity), and solidarism (national political unity).[6] In relation to the impunity of mutineers like Prigozhin or other Russian putschists, rebels and the like, the type of wholeness at issue, I contend, is solidarist tselostnost’ or solidarism. I would argue that the strong preference or cultural norm or value of national political solidarity – having evolved out of the Russian struggle to overcome the dangers of internal disunity – could be at play in decisions to pardon or simply release those involved in political mutinies, revolts and such.

Again, situational factors, such as political expediency, may meld with this aspiration to preserve unity. For example, Yeltsin may have released the August 1991 and October 1993 putschists for fear of further splitting society and state and thereby prompting another round of political infighting and coups that might lead to the breakup of the Russian Federation as had happened with its state predecessor, the USSR. Similarly, Gorbachev may have foregone criminal or serious political consequences for the early political plots against his general secretaryship in order to preserve the sacred value of Party unity at a time when he was attempting to implement potentially destabilizing reforms. In the case of Prigozhin, we know that Putin has put a premium on preserving state and social political unity, exemplified by such measures as National Unity Day, the annual May 9th mass Victory Day celebrations, and even his repeated calls for political solidarity and even a kind of historical unity.[7] Thus, in his speech to the Russian people and military officers during and after Prigozhin’s revolt, Putin thanked them for preserving Russia’s solidarity and accused of Prigozhin of treason for undermining her solidarist wholeness. Similarly, in deciding to convene a meeting with Prigozhin and Wagner personnel on June 29th we see Putin laboring to stop up small wholes in the image of unity required by the Russian aspiration to and norm of solidarist tselostnost’ and so reinforce a Russian solidarity thrown into doubt by the myatezh.

It is not enough to analyze recent events or even the intricacies of political systems or a particular leader’s political practice. Cultural factors shaped by centuries of history are at least important in helping to understand foreign politics. Russian politics’s differences with our own are deeply rooted in Russia’s own history, culture and political culture and Western analysts are at a loss to understand her and drive us into conflict with her based on the false assumptions they are deluded by as a result of ignorance of almost all of them regarding Russian history and culture. Ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and aspirations matter perhaps even more than personalities and systems, and the former differ from state to state, people to people.

[1] www.kommersant.ru/doc/6098572?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop.

[2] Nikolai Berdyaev, Russkaya ideya: Osovnyie problem Russkoi mysli XIX veka i nachala XX veka (Paris: YMCA Press, 1971), p. 89.

[3] http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6098572?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop.

[4] Berdyaev, Russkaya ideya, p. 112.

[5] Russia’s greatest and most influential pre-Soviet thinkers opposed the death penalty: Berdyaev, Russia’s greatest religious philosopher Vladimir Solovev, Russia’s foremost philosophical novelists Fyodor Dostoevskii and Lev Tolstoy, the magnificent traditional novelist Ivan Turgenev, among others. Berdyaev notes: “Tolstoy rightly believed that crime was a condition of the life of the state, as it was formed through history. He was shocked by the death penalty, as was Dostoevsky, as was Turgenev, as was V. Solovyov, as were all the best Russian people. Western people are not shocked, and execution does not cause them doubts, they even see it as a product of social instinct. We, thank God, were not so socialized. The Russians even had doubts about the justice of punishments in general. Dostoevsky defended punishment only because he saw the criminal’s need for punishment in order to ease the pangs of conscience, and not for reasons of social utility. Tolstoy completely rejected trial and punishment, basing (this) on the Gospel.” Berdyaev, Russkaya ideya, p. 155.

[6] Gordon M. Hahn, Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture, Thought, History, and Politics, (London: Europe Books, 2022).

[7] Hahn, Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture, Thought, History, and Politics, pp. 738-804; Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publsihers, 2021), pp. 352-363; and Gordon M. Hahn, “Working Paper: Russian Historical Tselostnost’, Parts 1-3, Conclusion,” Russian and Eurasian Politics, 13 April 2023, https://gordonhahn.com/2023/04/13/working-paper-russian-historical-tselostnost-parts-1-3-conclusion/.










About the Author 

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu

Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.


  1. The best explanation I have seen so far- a scholar’s knowledge is often useful. Thank you. On the other hand, I wonder how the families of the dead airmen view the aftermath of the mutiny and wonder whether part of the unwritten deal is to treat these families generously, at least financially? One is also left wondering why Putin talks about the “dictatorship of the law”, and ask whether he feels any absolute obligation to defend all of the regions in Ukraine that the Russian parliament considers part of Russia, and that the Russian president is therefore, seemingly, obliged to defend.

  2. At least one glaring error: “No one was punished for the 1905 Revolution.”

    Look up, among many other things, the “Bloody Sunday” massacre and the expression “Stolypin neckties”.

      1. Stolypin only moved into national politics in 1906. He was promoted because of his harsh repression in the province of which he was governor, Saratov, but the Stolypin necktie only became a national feature after 1905. Military courts martial circulated after 1905. I think the more limited point – that no national figures were tried for their actions in 1905, is closer to what you are, correctly, arguing about Russians and the spirit of justice prevailing over the letter of the law. Note: one of Tolstoy’s ‘Essays from Tula’complains that executions of peasants were continuing and begins strikingly ‘Executions, executions, executions.’

      2. Yeah forgot he came to power in 06 after governorship in Saratov beginning in 03. Bu again, Stolypin neckties were part of a crackdown on terrorism which subsided after 1905 and then rose again. They had nothing to do with the 1905 failed revolution. He only came to power in the MVD six months after the revolutionary threat passed with the October (1905) Manifesto.

  3. Neat article. Thank you. Small point: I don’t get the impression that the Jan 6th crowd intended to enter the Capitol but the early agitator group were the ones staging the break-in. Then we have the odd additional element that the doors were opened from the inside and now we have seen tape showing some of the officers showing people like the Q-Anon shaman around.

    In other words, the break-in was part of what was organized by bad actors to create the ‘insurrection’ narrative that will soon be used to put Trump behind bars unless there are enough journalists willing and able to debunk the entire narrative. Thus far, with the possible exception of Tucker C, there haven’t been.

    None of which has much to do with the subject of yr article!

    1. I agree about 1/6 and have written about it as part of the Dems revolution from above, using the state to seize power and change the form of rule in the country.

      1. Punishments for participation in 1905 after 1905 did not occur. Executions and arrests occurred for post-1905 involvement in revolutionary groups

    2. I think the author gives far too much credit to the Democratic Party, the “leadership” seems mostly interested in personal power and wealth, the rank and file is made up of sub-groups constantly at odds with each other. Trying to organize action within the party has been called akin to herding ferrets that have been set on fire.

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