Having sailed 240 km. up the river that will bear his name, Henry Hudson was detained upon his return to England, and for good reason: his cruise was done not in the service of the British Crown, but its colonial rival Holland.
Hudson was so loyal to his benefactors that he found a way to pass his expedition’s report to the Dutch, and thus helped with the establishment of New Amsterdam at his British motherland’s expense.
Hudson’s Englishness emerged the following year when he sailed to the passage between Greenland and Canada under the British flag.
Having entered what will become Hudson Strait, what now is Hudson Bay, the great navigator was blocked by winter’s ice, which stymied his objective to reach a passage to Asia – the destination he was ready to seek once spring arrived and the ice began to melt.
Alas, just when he felt his explorations were ready to climax, the man who so nonchalantly changed loyalties would himself now fall prey to disloyalty’s most dramatic form – mutiny.
Refusing to sail further west, demanding instead to return home, Hudson’s crew turned him and his seven loyalists – including his son – and left them adrift. Stranded in James Bay, more than 700 km. north of the future Montreal, the eight were never heard from again.
Such was the inglorious end of that navigator’s juggling of adventure, money, loyalty, and imperium, a grand collapse much like that which post-Communist Russia has now come to face.
The Wagner revolt was doomed from the start
THE MUTINY last week in southern Russia stood little chance of military success.
Yes, on paper rebel leader Yevgeny Prigozhin commanded up to 50,000 troops and also a fair amount of weapons, including some aircraft, according to some reports. And yes, the columns he sent north from the Ukrainian front were some two days’ drive away from Moscow after having already taken Rostov-on-Don without firing a single bullet.
And yes, footage from the field suggested passersby greeted the rebels with no hostility, some even with open applause. And yes, Russian troops are believed to see Prigozhin’s warriors as comrades in arms rather than rivals. And yes, the revolt was declared not against President Vladimir Putin, but against the Defense Ministry and the army’s top brass.
Even so, the rebels were materially outnumbered and topographically exposed while the affront to Putin was too blunt to ignore and too public to contain. Had the mutineers stormed Moscow, they would have been efficiently targeted from the air, and duly slaughtered from the ground.
The question, therefore, is not where this revolt was headed, but where it came from, and what its outbreak means about Russia’s direction during Putin’s 22 years in power, and about the Russian president’s reading of Western civilization which he both envies, loathes, and defies.
THE MUTINY came from the Wagner Group, a strange military mutation built to serve post-Communist Russia’s imperial ambitions while living off of its unique model of capitalism.
Wagner embodied the Russian perversion of capitalism. Yes, its troops were sworn to serve Russia, but in reality, they joined the Wagner Group to make money. They served in places like Syria, where they helped subdue and kill innocent civilians who did nothing to Russia and in many cases could doubtfully locate it on a globe.
In its original form, capitalism meant fostering the free flow of money and goods alongside the equally free flow of ideas, speech, and information, all under freely legislating parliaments, freely assembling parties, and freely ruling courts. That’s not what it meant in post-Communist Russia, where capitalism meant money’s free flow from a muzzled society to an omnipotent regime, and intimidated newsrooms and servile courts.
The regime, at the same time, could not fully trust anyone, because what the people understood from their leaders’ conduct was that, for the right price, anything is sellable and buyable. Mistrust was thus the price of the sudden transition from an era when hardly anything could be bought or sold freely, to its perfect inversion.
That meant anyone’s loyalty to anyone or anything could no longer be assumed as durable, because just like anything could be bought or sold, so could anyone.
That’s why a guy like Prigozhin, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for burglary, robbery, and fraud, could become a pillar of the post-Communist regime.
A Soviet court’s indictment may or may not have been reliable, but in the new Russia, Prigozhin’s moral record was as irrelevant as morality itself. What mattered was his loyalty, an asset he cultivated shrewdly and deployed skillfully as Putin’s personal cook.
That’s how the cook became a general. He possessed the one arrow that the professional generals did not have in their quivers: trust. That’s how the cook’s employer saw it, especially after his formula worked so well in Syria, from which he emerged vindicated in his belief that anything could be bought – not only loyalty, but also glory, imperium, and history’s salute.
In fairness, it should be noted that such a fundamental misunderstanding of money is not exclusive to communism’s survivors. The other week, British billionaire Hamish Hardin thought money would buy him the kind of submersible fun most people can’t get, only to end up buying a death most people would rather avoid.
Still, Putin’s misunderstanding of money’s role in his own situation was on an entirely different scale, second only to his misunderstanding of history, nationhood, and war.
Now, with his biggest loyalist disappearing into the Belorussian horizon, Vladimir Putin is asking what he, like Henry Hudson in the wilderness of James Bay, will ask for the remainder of his days: How could the people I gave so much booty, glory, and adventure, betray me?
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.