Alexander Smukler of Montclair is no more a seer, able to prophesy what the outcome of jaw-dropping events will be, than he is a mind-reader, able to explain why those astonishing, seemingly unlikely things happened in the first place.
But he is a Russian Jewish émigré with strong connections to Russia and Ukraine, which gives him a lens that not many other onlookers have. This is how he sees the June 2023 coup attempt, when Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group took over Rostov-on-Don and marched on Moscow, only to turn around to an uncertain future 36 hours later.
First, Mr. Smukler suggested, let’s consider the terminology. “We can call it a revolt or a coup or an uprising, but until a revolt or coup or uprising turns into a revolution, it is considered a crime. When it becomes a revolution, then it is a political victory.”
So, he said, it’s useful to look at similar uprisings in Russia — and there are many.
Go back to December 1825, he suggested. That was the so-called Decembrist Revolt, “when a group of Russian generals and military heroes who participated in the Napoleonic Wars came back from Paris — Paris was occupied by the Russian army in 1815 — and started a revolt against the crown prince, Nicholas I.
“They came back from France with the ideas of democracy. Their intention was to destroy the monarchy and announce a republic, similar to the one in France. The revolt continued for less than 36 hours, because the majority of the Russian army did not support it. Six of them were hanged, and hundreds and hundreds, maybe even thousands, of supporters were sent to penal colonies in Siberia, where they worked as forced laborers in coal mines.
“After that, the monarchy lasted for another 92 years, until it fell during the October Revolution of 1917.”
That one was successful.
A year later, in Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg was called then, “a group of the czar’s generals, led by Lavr Kornilov, tried to overthrow the first Bolshevick government. It failed three days after it started, because the majority of the population did not support it.”
Seventy-three years after that, in 1991, in Moscow, “there was another military coup in Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. It was aimed at the country’s ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, and “led by a group of Soviet generals,” he continued. “The coup lasted for three days, and it failed, because the majority of the population in Moscow did not support it.”
Historians also now believe that Gorbachev might have known about the attempt, and might even have supported it, and it was foiled because his eventual successor, Boris Yeltsin, “called on the population to defend the young democracy.” Later that year, the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev resigned, and Yeltsin became the Russian Federation’s first president.
Mr. Smukler, who left Russia for the United States with his family just months after this coup, has a personal story about it.
“Only three people lost their lives in the military coup in 1991,” he said. “One of them was Ilya Kritchevsky,” who was shot in the head; the other two, Dmitri Komar, and Vladimir Usov, were killed when tanks ran over them. (The commander of the tank unit was a very young Sergei Surovikin, who became a personal friend of Prigozhin’s decades later.) All three were honored as Heroes of the Soviet Union and given state funerals.
Komar and Usov were Russian Orthodox, and buried according to the rites of their religion, but Kritchevsky was Jewish, and he was buried as a Jew, as his family requested.
“Yeltsin’s secretary of state called me and said, ‘We are going to bury three heroes who sacrificed their lives for our young democracy, and for a future for our country,” Mr. Smukler said. “We want you and your friends to help organize the funeral, based on Jewish tradition.”
Mr. Smukler then was the head of B’nai B’rith of the USSR and a former executive vice president of the Va’ad of Russia, “an umbrella major Jewish organization that Gorbachev permitted to exist in 1989.” So he was a logical person to call.
But there was an unsurmountable problem with the request. The funerals were scheduled for a Saturday. Funerals are not allowed on Shabbat.
“I called a bunch of rabbis, and I called friends in Israel, and I called Shoshana Cardin,” the powerful American Jewish activist and politician who became the first woman to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,” asking for their advice.
“What could be done?
“They all said that there is no such thing as a funeral on Shabbes. If they want him to be buried according to Jewish tradition, with a rabbi, with a Kaddish, they have to reschedule. Otherwise he will be buried — but not as a Jew.
“So I called Yeltsin’s close advisor, Gennady Burbulis, and I said, ‘No, the rabbis will not participate. We cannot sponsor a funeral based on Jewish tradition. I am willing to go to the funeral, and some of the other Jewish leadership will go, but there will be no prayers. No kaddish. No nothing.’
“So he said, ‘Wait a minute. I will connect you with Yeltsin.’ He did, and Yeltsin said, ‘Do you understand what a state funeral means?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I fully understand, Mr. President, but we can’t do anything. I talked to the most famous rabbis in the world, and none of them could do it.’
“And he said, ‘If you will not find a rabbi, I will,’ and he hung up the phone.
“So a few hours later I got a call from his administration. They had been talking with Russia’s first Reform rabbi, Zinovy Kogan, and he officiated at the funeral.” (He wasn’t a rabbi yet, Mr. Smukler added; he was still in rabbinical school. Rabbi Kogan died of covid in 2020.)
In 1993, in an example of going around and coming around, General Alexander Rutskoy, “a hero of the Soviet Union, a legendary pilot who fought in the war in Afghanistan and had become extremely popular — Yeltsin had invited him to become vice president when he ran for the presidency, and the ticket won — started an uprising against Yeltsin. Rutskoy blamed Yeltsin for being too liberal.”
That coup also failed in three days.
“That coup was started by the second man in the country, the person closest to Yeltsin,” Mr. Smukler said.
His point — “Russian modern history is full of similar events. This is the third military uprising in Russia in my life — one against Gorbachev, one against Yeltsin, and now one against Putin.”
That brings us back to Prigozhin’s revolt against Putin. “Nobody fully understands what happened, and nobody, including me, can predict how it will affect Putin’s Russia in the nearest future. The revolt was not successful —it is not being transformed into a revolution. That’s because a military revolt can become a revolution only if it has two parts that connect strongly to each other.
“One is the military part. People must have weapons to fight against pro-government forces. The second is the political part, where the military is supported by a political platform that allows the population to accept what the military is doing. That combination can lead to the successful conversion of a revolt into a revolution.
“This theory was created by Bolsheviks — Lenin and his supporters — but I fully agree with it,” Mr. Smukler added; that is a rare convergence of beliefs.
“That’s why Prigozhin’s revolt wasn’t successful. The military part was incredibly well organized, but it had no political platform.”
Having both parts is necessary but not sufficient for a revolt to be successful.
“In 1825 there was a political platform but the military part was very weak and it failed,” Mr. Smukler said. “The 1918 revolt was well organized from the military point of view but it had no political support at all. It failed. In 1991, there was a strong pollical agenda but not an organized military plan, and the populace didn’t accept the political agenda. It failed. In 1993, the same thing happened. There was a weak political platform and no support from the army. It failed.”
That brings him back to Prigozhin, the bald, dead-eyed former convict, former food service entrepreneur, and constant thug whom the American Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe has said, correctly, looks like Uncle Fester from the Addams Family (with an extra layer of malevolence added that’s all his own).
Prigozhin is half Jewish, Mr. Smukler said. Both his father, who died when Yevgeny was a small child, and his stepfather were Jewish. “He was raised by his stepfather, who had very strong Jewish sentiments,” he added.
“Prigozhin was not new to the Russian political arena,” Mr. Smukler said. “He’s been around for years. He was in prison for nine years; he started that sentence during Soviet times and was liberated after the Soviet Union collapsed.
“He always introduced himself as a victim off the Soviet regime. He told people that he was in jail for political, not criminal, reasons, but that’s not true.”
He’d been a violent criminal; when he was released from prison, he became a successful businessman.
“It was pretty easy in that time, the beginning of the 1990s, for people who came back from Soviet prisons,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was the Wild West, with criminal gangs. Every business was controlled by different gangs, and no one could run a successful business in a city like St. Petersburg without protection.
“Prigozhin not only survived the criminal wars in St. Petersburg, but 30 years later he was the head of a gigantic empire. Not many people understand how deep, how wide, and how rich his empire is.
“I am speaking of gold mines and diamond mines in Central Africa Prigozhin and his mercenaries controlled. They were making enormous amounts of money in bloody diamonds.”
He grew his business with blood and fear; he was able to control “the channels for legal import and export of gold and diamonds,” Mr. Smukler said. “They were paid in diamonds,” and became expert at laundering them into huge amounts of money.
“Prigozhin and his empire also has hundreds of IT companies,” Mr. Smukler continued. “That why he was under U.S. sanctions. He created and controlled troll farms — that was his idea, and it was his firm.” One of his toll farms — a fact he first denied and then proudly affirmed — is the Internet Research Agency, which interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. “The troll farm is an enormous weapon for manipulating public opinion,” Mr. Smukler said. “Prigozhin also controlled an enormous number of media sources inside Russia, and probably outside Russia as well. His business empire includes restaurants, hotels, bar, real estate, and gambling systems. Nobody knows exactly what his assets are, but he is one of the richest Russians.
“Prigozhin organized one of the most successful uprisings against Putin, but he had no time to prepare his political platform,” Mr. Smukler said. “He tried to build political support, but he had no time.
“It seems to me that he got the idea of the uprising just a few days before it happened. He realized that he was losing in his tension with the minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu. His position was weakening every day.”
Prigozhin had been successful in going to prisons to recruit convicts to fight in the Wagner Group; if they could survive for six months, not only would they be paid but their convictions would be expunged. “The internet is full of stories about those recruits — killers, people who had been sentenced for raping children, people with life sentences. Very brutal people. Prigozhin’s said to have recruited more than 50,000 prisoners, and lots of prisons emptied out after his visits.”
But many — by far most — of those fighters were slaughtered in the abattoir that was the leveled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and eventually Prigozhin paid for that by losing power and influence to rival politicians, particularly Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov. (It’s not as if the revolt was good for those two either, though; neither has been seen in public since it happened. A stronger supporter of Prigozhin, his friend General Sergei Surovikin, “the third person in the Russian military hierarchy, after Shoigu and Gerasimov,” also has vanished.) “After Prigozhin publicized his conflict with Shoigu and Gerasimov, it became incredibly clear that Putin’s military machine and his power have enormous cracks.”
Prigozhin also needed the support of Russian intelligence, particularly the GRU, the military intelligence agency. “Without its support, Prigozhin simply cannot exist,” Mr. Smukler said. The agency is likely to come under fire because “it is ridiculous that Putin’s generals completely missed this uprising. It is impossible to imagine that in an organization like Prigozhin’s there are no sources of information.”
It’s the second such massive information failure during the war Russia began against Ukraine. The first was when Putin came to believe that his forces would be welcomed with open arms and flowers, instead of with fists and fire.
Mr. Smukler believes that a reason that Prigozhin was allowed to flee to Belarus, and as far as we know still is alive, and that the mercenaries are being treated gently, is because before he started his doomed-to-failure march to Moscow, Prigozhin and his forces were in Rostov-on-Don, a city close to Ukraine. “The central command of the war is right there,” Mr. Smukler said. “Prigozhin and his mercenaries took the city and controlled it for at least 24 hours, maybe 36, and that was enough time for them to copy all the files and maps and other information the military had. Prigozhin obviously possesses every military secret the Russians had on Ukraine.
“I think that is his insurance policy. That is why Putin did not kill him.
“That is the crime without punishment.”
To get back to his theory about how a revolt needs both military and political support to turn into a revolution, Prigozhin isn’t horrifying only to the West, Mr. Smukler said. “He’s horrifying to the Russians too.
“He was not able to win because he did not offer people anything that would attract them. They’re already stressed and depressed because of the war, and he basically offered another war. A civil war.
“And the moment that he understood that, instead of causing enormous bloodshed, he turned around and accepted Putin’s terms.”
It was bad for Prigozhin, “and it’s also terrible for Putin because he showed his weakness and incompetence. He was scared to death, and he showed it. He was lost, and he looked lost.
“I don’t want to predict results or long-term effects, but obviously this will have a long-term effect on his power,” Mr. Smukler said.