ISTANBUL, Turkey – As events unfolded in Russia over the weekend, thousands of Russians who left for Turkey after their country invaded Ukraine remained glued to their screens. They kept up with friends and family back home and relied on the Telegram messaging app and opposition news sources as the Wagner mercenary group staged a mutiny in a march to Moscow, threatening the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Elena and Maxim, a couple in their 20s, watched from Istanbul.
“It was a circus,” says Elena.
They and other Russians in Istanbul who spoke to NPR did not want their full names used because they still work for Russian companies remotely and fear retaliation for expressing their views.
Less than 24 hours after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, began his armed uprising and march to Moscow, he called it off. A deal had been made, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. Prigozhin would go to Belarus, and charges of mutiny against him would be dropped.
Russia has depended on Wagner mercenaries to advance its military goals, including in Ukraine.
Elena and Maxim are now worried that Putin could increase repressive measures, and that life for their family and friends in Moscow is going to get much harder.
“Everyone we know in Russia is already going through like prolonged depression,” Maxim says. “Life under autocracy is something else. You can’t judge it until you are in it.”
“As we see, for people in Russia, it’s really difficult to make government go away. They have a lot of power,” Elena says.
Ilya, another Istanbul resident who used to volunteer as an election watcher in Russia, was following the events with a group of friends who are close to Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader. Even though Ilya and his friends think Prigozhin is an unsavory character, they had their hopes up.
“Everything which can diminish the power of Putin is good,” Ilya says. “So, when we heard about this news, like, we were very positive. But then it was like the worst end of a TV series. It was a fluke, nothing happened in the end.”
Ilya says he and his friends were in contact with Russian politicians from rural areas — members of Russia United, the largest political party — throughout the chaos. Even they were rooting for change, he says.
“They are part of Putin’s party, but they were hoping that it will, it will, like, bring some changes, maybe stop the war or like topple the Putin’s regime,” says Ilya. “So even, like, among Putin’s supporters, among all these government officials, there are definitely a lot of people which are against him.”
NPR has not been able to independently confirm this account.
The hope, Ilya says, was that Wagner’s march would encourage other armed groups groups like the Free Russia Legion to unite, and would turn into a bigger resistance that could bring down Putin’s regime.
“But Prigozhin betrayed this opportunity. Because we don’t know his true intentions. He’s a like a murderer himself, he’s a thief, he’s just a war criminal,” Ilya says. “But still we hoped that if somehow this internal tension exploded in Russia, it definitely should have helped Ukraine to drive back Russian troops and free its own territory. And this didn’t happen as well.”
Still, Russians who spoke with NPR agree that Putin appears more weakened now than ever before.
“I think he doesn’t care to some extent about international reaction. But for the general public, they saw that Putin is not so powerful,” Ilya says.
The chaos of mutiny may be over for now, Ilya says, but it’s only a matter of time before turmoil begins again.