Prigozhin as Petitioner: Making Sense of the “March for Justice”

Prigozhin as Petitioner: Making Sense of the “March for Justice”

On June 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, announced the start of a “march for justice.” As many observers have noted in the weeks since, what occurred over the next twenty-four hours had not occurred in Russian history for over a century. It was also simply baffling. A rebellion had been launched by Russians themselves against the chief institutions of their state. Yet, as the rebels were closing in on Moscow, their leader suddenly withdrew his forces and called off the mutiny. The Prigozhin affair was indeed a momentous, puzzling event. Yet, in the proper historical perspective, the march and its outcome emerge as strikingly familiar, even logical. And the most fitting frame is the history of an age-old but stubbornly persistent Russian practice: the delivery of a petition to the autocrat.

Petitioners in Russia, as elsewhere, do not explicitly challenge the power of the autocrat. On the contrary, their appeals reaffirm the source of sovereign authority. To be sure, some Russian petitioners have destabilized their country’s political system, as Prigozhin appears to have done. Still, this was not their intention. In these instances, the autocrat moved to shore up his power, even by offering concessions. Such maneuvers could be shrewd, but sometimes proved to be only a short-term fix. 



No matter the case, in considering the implications of June 23–24, it is instructive that the practice of petitioning has endured, even across such divides as revolution in 1917 and state collapse in 1991. Moreover, the practice has survived as part of an equally persistent political system — one that grants the Russian leader a plenitude of power, to be exercised in keeping with his ambitions, including today in Ukraine. 


For centuries, Russians have written petitions to their country’s leader to gain his (or, in the eighteenth century, her) favor. In Muscovy and the Russian empire, illiterate peasants — most of the population — sought out scribes to put their wishes in writing. Often, rural communities sent delegations of khodoki, or “walkers,” to carry their petitions to the capital. But sometimes they went a step further. To ensure the tsar took their appeals seriously, on occasion these peasants fatefully chose to launch insurrections against his officials, whom they accused of failing to execute his benevolent will. As the peasant adage put it, “The tsar wants it, but the boyars resist.” According to the historian Daniel Field, author of the classic Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, “‘it,’ of course, was justice.” 

Peasants were not the only Russians who wrote petitions in prerevolutionary Russia. Under the Soviet Union, citizens from all demographics — workers, intellectuals, as well as peasants — sent appeals to Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and their successors. They, too, traveled to Moscow to present their petitions directly to the leader. Under Putin, these older practices have endured. In 2008, peasants from over a dozen Russian regions set out for Moscow to inform the president (then Putin’s placeholder, Dmitry Medvedev) of the sorry state of their villages. In the past and in the present, the entire enterprise — crafting and delivering a petition — was often a performance, choreographed to gain the autocrat’s attention. And, in each performance, one thing was obligatory: rhetorical subordination to the ruler. 

Sincere belief in the leader’s benevolence, or so-called naïve monarchism, was not required, however. In Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, Field argued that rebellious Russians — in his case, nineteenth-century peasants — who invoked the tsar’s will were not necessarily his humble servants. Rather, they were sly and opportunistic. For more worldly Russians, belief was more commonly absent. Tsarist officials frequently bent the language of naïve monarchism to their own ends. As Field explained, radical intellectuals even used the tsar’s myth to mobilize peasant rebels behind their cause. Naïve monarchism, however, had staying power. During the Terror of 1937–1938, intellectuals wondered if Stalin was aware of the repression carried out in his name. And, in 2008, the peasants who walked to Moscow carried placards that read, “President, you are misinformed.”  

Prigozhin’s Appeal

Yevgeny Prigozhin, to be sure, is no naïve monarchist. Nonetheless, the petition to the autocrat helps us make sense of his puzzling march for justice. Over the course of his march, Prigozhin issued a number of appeals, each of which was addressed to several audiences: to Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he put on notice; to the rest of the military as well as the security services and national guard, whom he summoned to join him or stand down; and to the Russian people, whose potential support offered him leverage. His primary spectator, however, was the autocrat himself, Vladimir Putin, the patron to whom he had not had access for months. Like so many petitioners before him, Prigozhin chose to put on a performance for the ruler. The fact that a “traditional” play was staged in part on a modern medium, the social messaging app Telegram, does not break the rules of the genre. In recent years, many petitions to the Russian president have been articulated using new media. Indeed, Prigozhin’s intentions have not been lost on some Russians. For example, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels have also interpreted the march as “the presenting of a petition to the capital.” 




In his appeals, Prigozhin focused his ire on Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he accused of misleading the president into launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In doing so, Prigozhin drew on numerous historical features of the petition. For example, his condemnation of Shoigu and Gerasimov was effectively a denunciation, a subset of the petition that became common — and was deemed high-minded — under Stalin. Also, he insisted that, in contrast to the corrupt Shoigu and Gerasimov, his own forces were the true patriots, for they had shed their blood in Ukraine. This trope — selfless sacrifice for the motherland — was frequently used by Soviet veterans of the Civil War and Second World War in their own petitions. Finally, to the lay observer, Prigozhin’s recordings may appear stunningly savage, the utterings of an unhinged man who could not possibly be acting according to a historical logic. Yet, for anyone who has read Soviet-era petitions, Prigozhin’s savagery is not altogether unusual. 

Peasant petitioners in prerevolutionary Russia, presented with the tsar’s response by his emissaries, spurned it if it ran counter to their interests. “If the tsar himself had made the journey,” Field wrote, “we may suppose that the peasants would have rejected him as an imposter.” The dissemination of the autocrat’s will was a key problem of governance in the tsarist period, and in much of the Soviet era as well. However, in today’s Russia, the autocrat may easily articulate his word far and wide. On the morning of June 24, Putin did just that. In a televised address, the president made clear that he had received Prigozhin’s petition. In brief, angry remarks, Putin tore up his subject’s appeal, condemning it as “a stab in the back.” Instantly, Prigozhin’s petition was stripped of all coherence, for the Wagner boss was now in breach of the genre’s principal rule — subordination to the autocrat. 

Prigozhin did not immediately withdraw his appeal. He chose — in perhaps his most audacious move — to evaluate the autocrat’s word. “The president is deeply mistaken,” Prigozhin stated in another audio recording. “No one is going to confess their guilt at his demand.” This criticism was relatively light, however; Prigozhin had not targeted Putin as such, only a “mistake” the president had made in a single instance. Prigozhin also failed to immediately withdraw his troops.. Then, at 8:24 pm, he posted a final audio recording, announcing — to nearly universal surprise — that his forces had turned around and were returning to their field camps. The bemused response of more than 365,000 Telegram users was to tick the clown emoji under what seemed to be an absurd finale. 

Enduring Puzzles

What is absurd in the abstract, however, becomes far less farcical, and perhaps even logical, in historical perspective. The petitioner in Russia is by definition not a revolutionary, and Prigozhin had no desire to stumble into the role. All the same, the long-term consequences of his march are unclear. Indeed, at least one Russian petitioner has unintentionally sparked a revolution. On January 9, 1905, a Russian priest, Father Georgy Gapon, led a march of laborers, members of his “Assembly of Russian Factory Workers,” to the Winter Palace, the tsar’s residence in St. Petersburg. There, Gapon and his union planned to deliver a petition to Nicholas II. Like Wagner, Gapon’s assembly had been created by the Russian state itself, as the tsarist police had hoped to organize workers into a union free of socialist influence. The tsar was not sympathetic. His soldiers and police fired on the demonstrators, killing over 130 of them. The massacre, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” led to mass strikes, social unrest, and, ultimately, the Revolution of 1905, which resulted in a limited constitutional order. 

Still, a final puzzle remains: Why would Prigozhin choose to try to carry his petition to Putin in the first place, since surely he was aware that he had little-to-no chance of earning the autocrat’s sympathy? And how precisely had he planned for this march to unfold anyway? As it happens, rebellions in the name of the autocrat in Russia are commonly quixotic and poorly planned. Under the tsars, peasant rebels regularly rose up against enormous odds and without a coherent strategy. They did so, however, because they were utterly desperate. Under the Soviets, too, citizens penned bilious denunciations of their superiors because these were often their only tools of influence. This is among the key differences between petitioners in Russia and those in the West, where citizens also issue appeals to their leaders but where this is only one tool in a larger political toolbox. 

Subject to official censure, most petitioners in Russia offered a simple justification: they had acted according to the autocrat’s true will — or so they had thought. For some, of course, it was harder than for others to convincingly make this claim. Prigozhin’s variation of this defense, which underlines lack of intent, was that he “just kind of lost it.” In the past, petitioners who presented such dubious arguments paid dearly — often with their lives — for the spectacles they had organized. Yet their most fateful error was not that they had chosen to rise up. Rather, it was in the play they had staged: They had put on a performance that their most important spectator, the Russian autocrat himself, not only did not like, but feared could destroy the theater. 

The Tsar’s Verdict

In his address on June 24, Putin drew a connection between Prigozhin’s mutiny and the “intrigues, squabbles, and politicking” in 1917 that led to “the destruction of the army and collapse of the state,” not to mention “the loss of huge territories,” including, for a time, Ukraine. Yet the myth of the autocrat in Russia is expansive. It permits the leader to be gentle, even forgiving. In the days after the rebellion, Putin, for reasons of personal and military expediency, appears to have granted Prigozhin clemency. Russia needs Wagner’s military capabilities in Ukraine as well as in Africa and the Middle East, and the Russian president has seemingly concluded that Prigozhin’s arrest or execution would threaten that relationship. Indeed, on June 29, Putin even met with his petitioner and thirty-four other Wagner fighters and, according to the Kremlin, “heard out the commanders.” 

Even myths have their limits though. Just as Prigozhin may not prove convincing in his appeals to the autocrat, Putin may have moved so quickly toward forgiveness as to suggest weakness instead of compassion. Only time will tell whether both men’s hotheaded behavior can be accommodated by the durable narratives offered by Russian history. As we look to the future, we should remember that, according to the essence of the petition, the petitioner’s fate remains in the hands of the autocrat. Indeed, at some point, Putin might choose a wholly different script if it serves his interests, whether in Moscow or in Ukraine. 



Anatoly Pinsky is a historian of modern Russia. He is currently a visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki and is completing a book on the cultural history of the Soviet Union. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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