What Richard Wagner can tell us about the Wagner Group

There’s something distinctly Wagnerian about Prigozhin’s rise and fall.

Wotan's forge by an anonymous artist.
Wotan's forge by an anonymous artist. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps appropriately for a company that takes its name from a composer known for his exploration of mythology, the origins of the Wagner Group’s name are spun in mystery. So far, chief Yevgevy Prigozhin has displayed no expertise on the great composer’s epic musical dramas. But in an odd twist, the mercenary chief’s rise and fall can be seen through the lens of Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Lots of people like Mozart. People all over the world adore Bach. But Wagner inspires intense devotion of a kind that makes people think nothing of travelling to the Bavarian town of Bayreuth – home to the opera house the composer built for his works after having determined that existing venues weren’t good enough – to hear and see operas most people would consider utterly bewildering, too complex, not to mention boring. Wagner, though, was an operatic revolutionary who reinterpreted the illustrious art form. Opera, he thought, should not be about superficial love stories but about large themes, such as the relationship between gods and humans. Such was Wagner’s disdain for established systems that in 1848 he participated in the so-called Dresden May Uprising against the Kingdom of Saxony, despite being music director of the court orchestra.

By then, he’d already begun working on his ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’), Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-part cycle involving gods, humans and the end of time, which totals some 20 hours of music. (If you’re lucky enough to get tickets to Bayreuth, as I did years ago, you’ll enjoy the operas seated in uncomfortable wooden seats.) The Ring is also the perfect background against which to view Prigozhin’s rebellion. Rheingold (‘Rhinegold’), the Ring’s first opera, sees Alberich – a member of the mythological Nibelung race of dwarfs – rob the Rhine of its gold and make a ring of it. But Wotan, the King of the Gods, wants Alberich’s ring and seizes it from him, after which Alberich placed a curse on it. Now Wotan’s rule over the world is cursed.

And the curse goes on. The ring spoils the lives of valiant characters such as Siegfried, takes advantage of shady characters like Hagen and causes the heroic Brünnhilde to leap to her death out of love for Siegfried. At the end of Götterdämmerung (‘Twilight of the Gods’), which clocks in at four hours and a quarter without intervals, Brünnhilde’s selfless suicide returns the ring to the Rhine, while the gods’ dwelling goes up in flames.

Now Prigozhin, the man whose company proudly bears Wagner’s name, has staged a botched coup of his own, which resulted in him having to leave his country followed by some of his foot soldiers, whom the world has taken to calling Wagnerites. And there’s something distinctly Ring-like about Prigozhin’s rise and fall. He owed his staggering prominence of recent months to a ring: participation in a brutal war that brought him great power and influence. But the ring was cursed, as he knew from the beginning, and the more the ring enabled his rise, the more it was going to cause his downfall – because games of power and influence always end with the brutal end of one of the parties.

In the meantime, like Wotan, he enjoyed the clout the ring granted him. The ring – the execution of Russia’s war against Ukraine – gave him unexpected authority to behave with impunity against Ukraine and indeed against anyone else who happened to cross his path. The few upstanding personalities who tried to wrestle that power away from him (basically a few journalists and human-rights advocates) and return control over Russia’s fate to its people were sacrificed along the way. But the self-declared Wotan of twenty first-century Russia was not as strong as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s version of the Rhine, who ended the drama by pulling the ring back into his possession.

I’m sure you remember how Twilight of the Gods ends: with the end of the world. Russia now faces collapse as its struggling and compromised armed forces continue to fight a war that has proven too tall a task for them, and as the regime’s leading personalities continue to scheme against one another. Indeed, Prigozhin’s rebellion may only have been the beginning of Russia’s real-life version of Twilight of the Gods: now other top members may see an opportunity to stage rebellions of their own against Putin. In one Ring production I saw, the stage director added a positive ending to Twilight of the Gods: a tree sapling rising from the ground. Such optimism was not Wagner’s intention, and in today’s Russian drama similar optimism of new and pure life immediately rising from the ashes of the twilight of the gods would also be displaced.

I’m pretty sure Prigozhin has never sat through the Ring or any other Wagner musical drama. (Wagner despised the word ‘opera’ for his works.) Another warlord who liked to throw Wagner’s name around, Adolf Hitler, preferred operettas over Wagner’s oeuvres. Prigozhin has, in fact, done Wagner’s sublime music a great disservice by associating his ruthless company with it. Yet it’s fitting that the brutal warlord should unwittingly produce a bleak human version of the rise and fall of the King of the Gods.


Elisabeth Braw