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‘We Will Not Let This Happen Again’: Putin Evokes Russia’s Civil War of a Century Ago

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on Sept. 20, 2010. Prigozhin is now the head of the Wagner group that had been helping the Russian war effort in Ukraine, but on Saturday, June 24, 2022, Putin accused Prigozhin of treason as Wagner seized a Russian military facility in southern Russia.  (Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP)
Andrew Higgins New York Times

When he sent his military into Ukraine 16 months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin trumpeted the so-called special military operation as a replay of Russia’s proudest hour — its victory against Nazi Germany in World War II.

On Saturday, however, Putin was struggling to stop history from repeating itself – not the glories of 1945 but the fratricidal horror of Russia’s civil war from 1917-23.

“We will not let this happen again,” Putin told his country in a somber television address, recalling modern Russia’s darkest period as he tried to rally support against an armed rebellion by Kremlin-nurtured mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Instead of garlanding the current crisis with references to World War II – which Russia calls the Great Patriotic War, a favorite Putin topic – Putin spoke instead of 1917. “Intrigues, quarrels, politicking behind the back of the army and the people turned into the greatest upheaval, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, the loss of vast territories,” he said. “In the end was the tragedy of the civil war.”

In September 1917, a charismatic right-wing officer named Lavr Kornilov attempted a coup against an unpopular moderate, socialist-led provisional government by marching his forces on St. Petersburg, which was then the Russian capital and known as Petrograd. Like Prigozhin today, Kornilov styled himself as the nation’s savior and hoped that his relatively modest forces would grow as they neared the capital.

In the end, however, his forces disintegrated before reaching the city. Kornilov’s coup attempt is seen today as merely hastening the takeover by Lenin’s ruthless Bolsheviks, by weakening their moderate opponents.

The outcome of the struggle with Prigozhin is yet to be decided. But by drawing a parallel with the turmoil of 1917, Putin has already acknowledged the unraveling of what was supposed to be his greatest achievement – rescuing Russia from the chaos that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Throughout the 1990s, when Russia’s president was Boris Yeltsin, he and his political enemies regularly accused one another of tipping the country toward civil war. That came perilously close to happening in October 1993, when Yeltsin sent tanks into the center of Moscow to shell the parliament building that had been seized by armed rebels.

Putin vowed to put an end to all that disarray after he took over from Yeltsin at the end of 1999. Rolling back the often unruly freedoms of the 1990s, he presented his own increasingly autocratic rule as a balm to heal civil discord and keep Russians from again fighting one another.

White Russians, the fiercely anti-communist aristocrats and generals who battled the Bolshevik Reds for more than five years starting in 1917 and then mostly fled into exile, were rehabilitated in official histories as patriots. The bones of some of them were returned to Russia for reburial as a sign of national healing, and the revival of Russia as an imperial power.

Among those reinterred at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow was Gen. Anton Denikin, a White Russian leader who was reviled as a traitor during the Soviet era but was embraced by Putin as a “true Russian patriot.” He had proved himself, Putin said, by refusing to seek help against the Bolsheviks from Ukrainians who had tried to take advantage of Russia’s civil war to form an independent state separate from Russia. In the end, Ukraine became independent in 1991, as the Soviet Union dissolved.

History has come full circle. As Prigozhin sent thousands of armed followers toward Moscow on what he called a “march for justice,” Putin condemned the action as “treason” that had to be crushed.

“Putin always wanted to repeat the Great Patriotic War,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, a Ukrainian historian and lawmaker, “but he instead repeated the civil war.”