Again and again, Prigozhin has allowed himself to do and speak “openly” what others might like to do but feel constrained against, the historian continues. As a result, he is no longer “an individual but ‘a meme’ which needs to be decoded.” That isn’t as difficult as it might seem because it is clear that he is the servant of “a cult of force” unrestrained by any rules.
“Prigozhin as an individual isn’t a problem for society,” Pastukhov says; but “Prigozhin as a symbol, as a stereotype, as ‘an identifier’ is a problem because the influence of this symbol is much broader and more significant than the influence of a personality on the basis of which this symbol arose.”
Intentionally or not, he continues, “Prigozhin as a result of a number of circumstances has become a brand of a particular time, the brand name for ‘no limits,” for the use of power without any constraints. And as such, he has become a model for others who act as franchisees of his kind of activity.
That might not have mattered a lot, the historian says, were it not for Prigozhin’s closeness, rumored or not, to Putin. Because it is widely believed, this means that “the Prigozhin problem has instantly become Putin’s problem: tell me who you friend is and I will tell you who you are…”
Because Prigozhin belongs to the class of Russians who are legally “untouchable,” he can act as he likes as long as he avoids coming out of the shadows and by his actions challenging the Kremlin. But once he does “come out of ‘the shadows,’” Pastukhov says, “he becomes dangerous since his shadow falls on Putin as well.”
Consequently, what Prigozhin has done or what has been done in his name in the Novaya gazeta case represents what in politics is called “’a challenge’ but in the criminal world, ‘a set up.’”
Putin today hardly wants to be associated with such unbridled hooliganism, “even if in the depth of his soul such a style is to his liking.” That is because if Prigozhin gets away with this, others will follow – and that will create bigger problems for which Putin deservedly will be blamed.
There is an ancient Sophist “riddle,” Pastukhov says. “Can God create a stone which he cannot lift?” It he can’t, he isn’t all-powerful, but if he can, he isn’t omnipotent.” Putin risks finding himself in this situation as he wrestles with what to do in response to what Prigozhin has done lest others read into his non-action something he can ill afford.
Unfortunately for the Kremlin leader, whatever he chooses to do with or to Prigozhin will leave Putin in a worse place than he was before.