On Friday, the man known as “Putin’s chef” seemed on the verge of overthrowing Putin himself. Now he has been exiled to Belarus, where he may be targeted for assassination. Meanwhile, Putin remains in power.
But is he really?
“Putin’s chef” rebels against his master
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin was born in 1961 and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in the Soviet Union. As a teenager, he was caught stealing and spent nine years in detention. After his release, he began selling hot dogs in Leningrad, then became involved with grocery stores, gambling, and the restaurant business.
He met Vladimir Putin along the way and began receiving numerous government contracts to supply meals to the Russian military and schools. Over time, due to catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef,” he became a wealthy oligarch.
In May 2014, Prigozhin founded the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization that has fought alongside Russian forces in Ukraine and is accused of horrific war crimes. As the invasion foundered, he became a vocal critic of Russia’s military leaders.
Last Friday, he claimed that regular Russian forces launched missile strikes against his Wagner forces, killing a “huge” number. In response, he ordered his troops to advance north on Moscow and demanded the ouster of Russia’s defense minister and chief of the general staff. In response, checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops were stationed on the city’s southern edge. The city went on alert as crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Wagner troops advanced to one hundred and twenty miles from Moscow when Prigozhin called a halt, claiming he decided to avoid “shedding Russian blood.” According to UK security services, he did so after Russian intelligence services threatened to harm the families of Wagner leaders.
In a deal announced Saturday, Prigozhin will go into exile in neighboring Belarus, charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped, Wagner fighters will not be prosecuted, and some will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
“The final chapter of his rule”
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said Putin “has been diminished for all time by this affair,” which constituted “the biggest internal challenge to President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s paramount leader for twenty-three years.”
Lucian Kim, NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief, put the rebellion in the larger context of Putin’s “suicidal war against Ukraine.” He writes: “The longer he stayed in power, the less interested Putin became in being remembered simply as the leader who stabilized Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was not enough. Putin wanted the legacy of restoring an empire, beginning with Ukraine.”
However, “Though battered and bloodied, Ukraine is unified and clear about its purpose. Now Russia looks like [a] failed state. Nobody in Russia understands what the war in Ukraine is about. And after Prigozhin’s rebellion, nobody knows if that war might not still come to Russia.” As a result, “It is unclear if we are witnessing the beginning, middle, or end of Putin’s end. What is certain is that it is the final chapter of his rule.”
The New York Times quotes Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor with Kremlin connections, who said people close to Putin could persuade him “not to stand for re-election in Russia’s presidential vote next spring.” He explained: “If I was sure a month ago that Putin would run unconditionally because it was his right, now I see that the elites can no longer feel unconditionally secure.”
British political analyst Daniel Hannan believes Prigozhin’s coup is “the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin” since his “power rests on projection, on propaganda, on the image of invincibility. Now, all of a sudden, the curtain has been snatched back, revealing the Wizard of Oz as a small, mediocre, frightened man.”
“Shadowed by an illusory person”
In point of fact, we are all such a “wizard” projecting what psychologist Karen Horney calls our “idealized self” to the world. The problem with pretending to be what we are not is not just that our fiction is inevitably known by others. It is that our fictional self is not known to God.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, the monk and theologian Thomas Merton writes, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him.”
Think about that fact: our false, idealized self does not truly exist, but God can know only that which does exist. He cannot help us contact Martians since there are no Martians. He cannot help us “know thyself,” the Western quest since Socrates, since there is no true “self” to be known apart from the One who, as St. Augustine prayed, “made us for yourself, O Lord.”
Consequently, Augustine continued, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
“An exchanged life, not a changed life”
The good news is that the God who made us and thus knows us better than we know ourselves can remake us as his “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). So, to be your best self today, stop trying to be what you want others to see and ask Jesus to make you like himself (Romans 8:29) by transfusing your character with the “fruit” of his Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
Watchman Nee was right: “Victory has to do with an exchanged life, not a changed life. . . . It is not an evil ‘I’ being changed into a good ‘I, or a filthy ‘I’ being changed into a clean ‘I.’ It is to be ‘no longer I.’”
Jesus was adamant: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Paul testified that he had been “crucified with Christ” so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And Christ living through Paul changed the world.
Will you ask him to do the same through you?