Indifference and internet humour: How the Russian people reacted to Wagner mutiny

Amid the confrontation between President Vladimir Putin and Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, ordinary Russians seemed conspicuously absent. Fearful of repercussions for criticising the authorities, most Russians remained bystanders as their country teetered on the edge of a potential “civil war.” While some expressed dark humour and memes online, the majority simply went about their lives. This indifference starkly contrasted with the panic-buying and fleeing that followed the invasion of Ukraine. Russians have seemingly adapted to the ongoing conflict, maintaining their routines and enjoying the comforts of imported goods. Stability, rather than political upheaval, remains their priority.

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Russians Greeted Wagner Mutiny With a Shrug and Internet Jokes

By Bloomberg News

In the turbulent confrontation between President Vladimir Putin and Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, one key element appeared to be absent – ordinary Russians.

Long fearful of harsh official punishments for criticism of the authorities, particularly over the war in Ukraine, most Russians were reduced to bystanders as their country hurtled toward what Putin called the brink of a “civil war” on Saturday.

They responded to the crisis by just getting on with their lives, though many took to the internet to laugh darkly at social media memes and jokes aimed at Prigozhin, the Russian army and even Putin. One popular meme showing the Netflix logo and a scene from a movie with the slogan: “Wagner. Coming soon.”

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Iosif Prigozhin, a well-known music producer in Russia who isn’t related to the Wagner founder, became the focus of humor on Instagram. Users asked whether Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered a deal to end the revolt, had held talks “with the right Prigozhin?” 

“People have short memories,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a Moscow-based sociologist. “They were alarmed on Saturday evening and then calmed down.”

While state media gave extensive coverage to Putin’s televised address to the nation early Saturday condemning as “traitors” those involved in the rebellion, there was scant reporting of the events that had prompted the speech.

The indifference of ordinary Russians to the mutiny contrasted sharply with the response to Putin’s announcement of the invasion of Ukraine in February last year. 

Then, many turned to panic-buying of everything from diapers to refrigerators as the ruble slumped in response to the war and international sanctions, while others fled the country. This time, the currency dipped only slightly when markets opened Monday and quickly recovered.

With the war now in its 17th month, many Russians have adapted to the situation, while shops in Moscow and other major cities display no lack of foreign brands from food to Apple devices, fashionable clothes and luxury cars brought to the country through so called parallel imports via places like Turkey, Kazakhstan and China.

In Moscow, glitzy restaurants remain full and those who can afford it travel freely to places like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and even Europe for vacations. Some use Visa and MasterCard acquired at banks in third countries after the payment cards pulled out of Russia.

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Even when photographs circulated on social media of Wagner tanks on the street of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the mood didn’t notably darken. 

High school graduates instead of going to their proms posed for photographs in front of the heavy armor and people bought pizzas for the Wagner fighters, who gave them flags and other mementos in return, said two local residents who asked not to be identified out of concern for their security.

Reaction was more nervous in Voronezh as social media filled with videos of military helicopters flying around the city of 1 million and a huge fireball that erupted at a fuel depot allegedly struck by a drone. There were explosions too on the main road leading to Moscow as the Russian air force attempted to halt Wagner’s advance. 

Still, people complained mostly that the regional governor’s appeal to stay off the roads to avoid trouble had spoiled their weekend plans to travel to their country cottages, or dachas. 

“I want to live my small life,  go to the dacha, grow plants, be busy with my kids,” said Irina, a 44-year-old housewife in Voronezh. “I don’t want to think about the whole universe.”

Read more: Andreas Kluth: Mutiny, betrayal, and power struggles – Putin’s dilemma in the wake of a failed rebellion

Ordinary Russians don’t support Prigozhin and aren’t opposed to Putin’s rule, according to Denis Volkov, a sociologist at Moscow’s independent Levada Center. “For them, the main thing is stability, so that they are not touched and not drawn into anything.” 

If the crisis is defused without further upheaval, then “all this will be forgotten in a few days,” according to Volkov.

Some prominent Russians also got in on the jovial mood as the Kremlin sought to promote the sense of a return to normalcy once Prigozhin had pulled his forces back from Moscow. 

When Moscow City Hall left in place a non-working day on Monday declared while the crisis unfolded, billionaire Oleg Deripaska quipped on his Telegram channel: “Oh, what a holiday…Let it be ‘Not Storming Bastille Day’.”

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–With assistance from Gina Turner.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.