As Russian soldiers braced in their trenches in Ukraine, a charismatic military leader suddenly marched his forces on the capital. He promised to save the nation from traitors who were pushing it toward catastrophic military defeat.
The rebels stopped just short of their goal, but the fallout from the mutiny contributed to pulling Russia apart soon after. The already weakened military collapsed, the government crumbled and the country descended into a devastating civil war.
These events took place in 1917, but they appeared to be front of mind for President Vladimir V. Putin as he reacted to a lightning raid toward Moscow by mutinous mercenaries this weekend. The rebellion had once again exposed the danger of Russia’s involvement in a prolonged, seemingly unwinnable war, showing how domestic strain can suddenly crack the country’s authoritarian facade of stability.
Mr. Putin, an amateur revisionist historian, devoted a significant part of his initial televised address during the mutiny to Russia’s downfall in World War I.
“Intrigues, infighting, political games behind the backs of the army and the people have led to immense shocks, the collapse of the military and the state,” he said on Friday night.
He appeared to be referring to the aftermath of Russia’s February Revolution in 1917, when discontent over Russia’s disastrous prosecution of the war toppled the monarchy and paved the way for the Bolshevik takeover eight months later, during the better known October Revolution.
It was in that volatile period that the charismatic nationalist officer Gen. Lavr Kornilov marched his forces from the front on Petrograd, modern St. Petersburg, the capital at that time. His goal was to take power and restore order.
Both men justified their actions by presenting themselves as the nation’s last defense against chaos, using the media of their time to cultivate an image of mystery and strength.
Kornilov, a Siberian Cossack, appeared in public surrounded by a bodyguard of tribal Turkmen cavalrymen, and posters with his image adorned Moscow streets in 1917. For his part, Mr. Prigozhin captured the imagination of many Russians with his graphic and expletive-laden social media videos from the front lines, surrounded by heavily armed members of his Wagner paramilitaries with covered faces.
The eventual leader of Russia’s anti-Bolshevik armies, Gen. Anton Denikin, described Kornilov as “a banner. For some of counterrevolution, for others of the salvation of the Motherland.”
Using similar symbolism, Mr. Prigozhin called his forces’ raid on Moscow “the march of justice.”
Both men came within hours of travel to their destinations, halting only when the prospect of mass bloodshed became a certainty.
Kornilov’s crack cavalry division stopped just outside Petrograd in the face of sabotage from left-wing railway workers and entreaties from civil society leaders. His coup attempt, although short-lived, had dealt a mortal blow to the already weakened caretaker government of the moderate socialist Aleksandr Kerensky, leaving him powerless to forestall a Bolshevik insurrection a month later.
The failure of Kornilov’s plan also accelerated the disintegration of the Russian army. Just as in Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia entered World War I in 1914 expecting a quick conflict. Instead, its army became bogged down in a losing war of attrition against the better-armed Germany in the territories of modern-day Ukraine and other western parts of what had been the Russian Empire.
“The consequences for the army command were catastrophic,” the Yale University historian Laura Engelstein wrote about Kornilov’s coup attempt in her book on the Russian Revolution, “Russia in Flames.”
Kornilov’s chief field officer, Gen. Aleksandr Krymov, shot himself shortly afterward. Kornilov and several other senior military commanders were arrested. On the front lines, soldiers increasingly refused to carry out orders, deserted and shot their officers, as Germany pressed deeper into Russia.
Similarly, Mr. Prigozhin’s battle-hardened armored columns traveled from occupied Ukraine and stopped about 125 miles outside Russia’s modern capital, Moscow, after encountering minimal resistance from forces loyal to the Kremlin. Mr. Prigozhin’s dash for Moscow punctured Mr. Putin’s aura of invincibility, exposing the shakiness of the security apparatus behind his rule and forcing him to offer amnesty to the rebels to avoid a costly battle.
“Russia’s hope that a prolonged war is in its favor, and that it can outlast Ukraine is a dangerous illusion,” wrote Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based security research group Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “Prolonging the war carries great political risks for the Russian Federation.”
Mr. Putin and the majority of Russia’s influential pro-war military commentators have denounced Wagner’s mutiny as a stab in the back. They say it has undermined the army as it tries to repulse a broad offensive from Ukrainian assault divisions trained and armed by NATO states.
Wagner’s destruction of several Russian military aircraft and their crew on their march to Moscow has only fueled accusations of betrayal.
“Everything is permissible now,” Igor Girkin, a former Russian paramilitary leader and prominent war blogger, wrote of Wagner’s mutiny. The authority of Mr. Putin’s rule has been “absolutely destroyed almost everywhere,” he added.
It is too soon to measure the impact of Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion on the Russian armed forces. Russia’s main defenses have broadly held since Kyiv launched the counteroffensive in early June, but the pace of Ukrainian advance appears to have quickened slightly since the mutiny.
In the past several days, Ukraine has liberated the strategic village of Rivnopil in the Donetsk region, and Russian military bloggers have claimed that Ukrainian soldiers have seized swampy bank areas along the Dnipro River, near the southern city of Kherson, in possible preparation for a broad attack in that area.
Like Kornilov, Mr. Prigozhin has at times exaggerated the difficulties faced by the Russian army to justify his radical actions.
“Russia will wake up one day and realize that even Crimea has been surrendered to Ukraine,” Mr. Prigozhin said three days before the rebellion. He claimed, without providing evidence, that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was rapidly reconquering land.
The analogy between the two leaders is not perfect, said Ms. Engelstein, the historian. Kornilov was an imperial officer who was trying to restore central authority. Mr. Prigozhin, on the other hand, is a rogue paramilitary leader who tried toppling the military command.
Yet both men adopted similar solutions to their country’s perceived problems.
“Like Prigozhin, Kornilov believed Russia’s setbacks in the war it was fighting were caused by the weakness of civilian leaders,” said Ms. Engelstein.
After his arrest, Kornilov eventually made it to southern Russia, where he organized an armed resistance to Bolshevik rule. He died in one of the early battles of Russia’s ensuing civil war.
Following Russia’s decision not to prosecute Mr. Prigozhin for his insurrection, he reportedly arrived on Tuesday in Belarus. Although he has not commented on his future plans, his latest statements suggest the end of the mutiny has not dampened his public ambitions.
“Many are disappointed that we stopped,” Mr. Prigozhin said in an audio message on Monday, referring to common Russians. “Because in the march of justice, they saw, apart from our fight for survival, support for their struggle against bureaucracy and other vices that exist in our country.”