Tania Krasnova, a single mother of two in Nizhny Novgorod, put her cup of coffee on the table in consternation. Telegram was full of videos of tanks in Moscow, headlines were saying “Wagner Soldiers Have Captured Voronezh” just 300 miles from the capital. “I thought: that was quick, they were in Rostov just a few hours ago.”
It was when she saw Putin’s furious face on the television talking about a “betrayal” and an “armed rebellion” that she realized this was serious. Oh, this is not just some joke, she thought.
First the pandemic, then the war and now a coup. Krasnova, knew exactly what to do: withdraw cash from the bank account, buy buckwheat—Russia’s favorite food during any crises—and head to the dacha; many Russians have some kind of a summer house in a quiet village even if it is extremely modest.
The next question if she was to go and hide to ride this out, then for how long? “How much buckwheat should I stock?” she asked.
Olga, a retired doctor in Saint Petersburg also said it was Putin’s unexpected TV appearance that cut through. It was the words, “Prigozhin stabbed Russia in the back,” that hit home for her. For years, Yevgeny Prigozhin had been one of Putin’s closest allies, operating the notorious Wagner mercenary group, which carried it out the president’s darkest missions. On Saturday, Putin announced to the world that Prigozhin—and 25,000 of his battle-hardened men—had decisively turned on their master.
“I think Putin freaked most people out, his own words made more Russians concerned than all these videos of tanks in Rostov, since before his speech many thought it was a show, a staged performance for some weird reason,” Olga told The Daily Beast. “I am going to see if there is any buckwheat left in my grocery store on the block—that would be a sign.”
One woman in Moscow started off joking: “My arsenal of good wines is pretty big, I can last for 3-4 weeks at the dacha,” she told The Daily Beast.
Then she added seriously. “But I think it is time to fly to Turkey while the airports are still working.”
For Russia’s top Kremlinologists Prigozhin’s coup attempt was not a huge surprise. The author of All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, foresaw it and told The Daily Beast Putin’s reaction to the mess was remarkable. “We have not seen Putin in such fury for a long time. It seems there will be a real war and real blood—Putin does not have any other option to choose: if he does not bring down Prigozhin’s rebellion in the most brutal way, it will be the end of his power,” said Zygar, who has interviewed most of Putin’s allies and pocket oligarchs in the past two decades.
People in the southern district of Russia, where Wagner had apparently seized control of Russia’s military HQ, were confused and concerned. “There was some shooting but otherwise nothing special is happening, except tanks were blocking the road to Moscow,” said Lyudmila in Rostov-on-Don via a phone interview. “We hope our army will take control of the situation soon and it does not turn into a long version of the Chechen war or a massacre like in Ukraine.”
Municipal services were working quickly on Saturday to take down advertisements for the Wagner draft—they were all over the billboards in the Voronezh region, an area where the mercenary fighters themselves are now heading towards Moscow.
In Sochi, a resort city in the south of Russia, this weekend was supposed to be all about the beach. Instead everyone is hunched over phones and laptops. A 36-year-old skiing instructor, Maksim, said he was watching both the independent media and the Kremlin-loyal television news.
A lot of what he saw was surreal. He really enjoyed the image of a tank stuck in a gate of a circus published by a propaganda website, Life. “I am glad YouTube is still working, we can follow the news,” he told The Daily Beast.
Local politician Vladimir Khrykov said it was still calm in Nizhny Novgorod. “Our region is quiet, if not for Putin’s speech: people are all concerned about his words. But my sources tell me that they have agreed, Wagner will back off.”
The founder of Transparency International in Moscow, Yelena Panfilova, told The Daily Beast that friends and colleagues were urgently discussing what scenarios could play out next, drawing historical parallels. Some compared Prigozhin to Stenka Razin, the leader of one of four great rebellions that Russia experienced in 17th and 19th centuries, others to general Lavr Kornilov and his failed putsch of 1917.
Others wondered why Prigozhin was so calm, and speculated about whether some big Moscow generals, including commanders of Special Operation Forces, supported his uprising against the Kremlin and quick movement towards Moscow. “I don’t like historical parallels,” Panfilova said. “Nobody had the internet then and now people take videos of Prigozhin and tanks in Rostov, nobody can be secret, the news travels instantly.”
Panfilova said she had not yet seen anything strange-looking out of her big window in a high-rise in the heart of Moscow. The city was supposed to be ready for the huge annual weekend of graduation balls. “Just imagine how many teens are pissed off, they are talking on TikTok and other social media right now—many girls have been preparing their dresses, expecting the party tonight,” she said.
“For now, the graduation balls have been delayed for just one week, moving around Moscow has been partly restricted.”
As far away as Nizhny Novgorod, 300 miles east of Moscow, word of the balls being shut down was making waves. “My friends in Moscow say that the graduation balls have been canceled this weekend,” said Krasnova. “This really is a huge crisis that nobody could have expected.”