Burnt by the Sun

Prigozhin: “Burnt by the Sun”

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian mercenary leader, might have done well to watch, and learn from, the 1994 Russian film “Burnt by the Sun”.

The role of Russian mercenaries in Ukraine

I have followed closely Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). It is a European war on a scale unprecedented since 1945. Since February 2022, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have died or been permanently incapacitated. Russian attacks have also killed at least ten thousand Ukrainian civilians – the UN believes the figure to be much higher.

Following the failure of Russia’s initial attacks on Ukraine in 2022 and President Putin’s reluctance to mobilise civilians, the Kremlin allocated resources to Yevgeny Prighozhin, an ally of Putin, to recruit mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. These included large numbers of inmates from Russian prisons, who would be pardoned in return for fighting. Many surviving prisoners have since returned, free, to communities across Russia.

Prigozhin criticises Putin

Prigozhin’s mercenary organisation, the so-called “Wagner Group”, worked for the Kremlin for years before 2022, including in Africa. But from summer 2022, the role of Prigozhin and Wagner in Ukraine snowballed. In many battles, Wagner claimed they, rather than regular Russian forces, were doing most of the fighting.

Fuelled by a sense of power and invulnerability, Prigozhin became increasingly critical of Russia’s war effort. First, he attacked Russia’s Ministry of Defence, and its head, Sergei Shoigu – a key Putin ally. He attacked Russia’s ruling elite for living in luxury while Russian soldiers died in the war – a pretty fair criticism. Then, in a startling video published on 23 June 2023, he criticised Russia’s attack on Ukraine itself. He directly contradicted Putin’s justification of the invasion, implying it was based on lies. Prigozhin said Ukraine and NATO posed no threat to Russia before February 2022. He said the war could have been avoided by negotiating with Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy. He accused Moscow of lying about the level of Russian casualties.

24 June 2023: cracks in the bridge

On 24 June, a column of Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries left Ukraine to march on the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. These forces occupied Rostov, and marched towards Moscow. In doing so, they came into conflict with regular Russian military units, and shot down several aircraft. Putin described Wagner’s actions as “treason” and vowed “harsh steps” to put down the rebellion.

Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Kremlin offered a tantalising glimpse of the tensions within the Russian leadership over the war on Ukraine. The elites know full well – as Prigozhin stated – that the arguments for Russia’s invasion are nonsense. They know the war is damaging Russia. It is harming ordinary Russians, even while – again as Prigozhin said – the elites live in luxury. Yet for most top bosses, it is safer to go on supporting the current leadership than to challenge it. Better to live in luxury in a country devastated by an unnecessary war than to stand up to power, and be punished.

But those tensions within the Russian leadership are there. It’s like seeing hairline cracks in a concrete bridge spanning a river. Will those cracks cause a sudden, catastrophic collapse? It’s hard to tell. The 2023 putsch against Putin was the third against the Kremlin since 1990, including the uprising against Gorbachev in 1991 and that against Yeltsin in 1993.

Prigozhin: the end

In June 2023, Prigozhin’s challenge to the Kremlin’s power fizzled out. Prigozhin accepted a deal whereby Wagner forces would move to Belarus in return for Moscow dropping charges against him. Over the following two months, Prigozhin’s status and whereabouts were unclear, although he was spotted in St Petersburg in July. Then on 23 August 2023, Prigozhin’s aircraft exploded in mid-air over Russia. According to Russian sources, Prigozhin and everyone else on board died.

Burnt by the sun?

The trailer of the US version of “Burnt by the Sun” misleadingly presents it as a cosy romance

Why on earth did Prigozhin – by all accounts a wily operator – not take precautions against assassination? One reason may be that he was not as wily as he thought. As I argue in my book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, authoritarian leaders try to build an image of decisiveness and brilliance. In fact, examples from Saddam Hussein to Putin himself show that they’re just as indecisive and error-prone as democratic leaders.

The movie “Burnt by the Sun” illustrates a second reason Prigozhin, against all logic, may have thought himself safe. This 1994 masterpiece begins with Russian Red Army revolutionary hero Sergei Kotov enjoying a peaceful holiday in the countryside with his family. It is 1936. Stalin’s purges are in full flow. When a young security official arrives and invites Kotov to travel with him in his car, Kotov cannot imagine he is in danger. Surely as a much-loved revolutionary hero he is safe! He knows Comrade Stalin personally! He is no threat to anyone!

The scenes in the car as security heavies make it clear to Kotov that he is driving to his death are some of the most brutal and shocking I have witnessed. His wife, too, is later sent to the Gulag. The security official, who has acted out of revenge for past grievances against Kotov, takes his own life.

What Prigozhin missed

Burnt by the Sun is a great movie – one of a wave of post-liberalisation dramas such as Comrade Stalin goes to Africa and The Fountain that, in the heady, hopeful days of the early ’90s, began to explore the horrors the Soviet Union had inflicted on people’s lives.

If Yevgeny Prigozhin had been more familiar with Burnt by the Sun, perhaps he would have thought twice before boarding his final flight on 23 August 2023.

What to do next

If you have read any of my books, would you perhaps like to consider writing a review on Amazon? One line is enough! Or if not, do have a look at my thrillers, comedies and books about diplomacy at the same link.

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One Response

  1. You can’t watch Nikita Mikhailkov’s unforgettable film without feeling grateful not to have been born a Russian. But it leaves one question unanswered: What is it that dooms this country to never-ending cycles of suffering and authoritarianism?

    The fact that Ukraine has torn itself away from Russia’s self-destructive political patterns makes it that all the more excruciating that Putin is wasting Russian lives just to keep himself in power. That’s why it pains so many of us to watch the MAGA Republicans in the U.S. Congress slip off for comfortable weekends. As they enjoy themselves, Ukrainian fathers and mothers continue to lose limbs (and their lives) resisting Russian bombardments.
    It has to stop.

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