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Russia and its propagandists strive for normality after Wagner uprising

When warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fighters were marching on Moscow, Margarita Simonyan, an arch propagandist who is editor of the state news network RT, was curiously silent.

Simonyan — once one of Prigozhin’s biggest cheerleaders in the Russian elite — later explained she had been on a cruise down the Volga river filming a culture documentary about centuries-old Orthodox churches, blissfully unaware the state was on the verge of collapse.

Her improbable explanation for missing the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule marked the one-day propaganda hiatus before Moscow’s elite started busily rewriting the narrative on the once-ascendant warlord, condemning Prigozhin’s actions and projecting a swift return to normality in the capital and beyond.

Across state- and Kremlin-aligned media, many former cheerleaders of Prigozhin were quick to turn on him as a traitor, accusing him of attempting to destabilise Russia. Yet they also found themselves performing a complex ju-jitsu as they sought to justify Putin’s public handling of the situation.

After mentioning her Volga excursions on a state TV chat show, Simonyan moved with supreme flexibility to offer a full-throated defence of Putin’s move to drop charges against Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, despite vowing to punish them only hours earlier.

“Legal norms are not the commandments of Christ or the tablets of Moses,” Simonyan said. “They are written by people to protect the rule of law and stability in the country . . . In some exceptional critical cases . . . they go out the window.”

Many Russians, not least those on the path of Wagner’s march, privately admitted feeling rattled, sensing that the war in Ukraine was hitting home more fully than before.

“There was a feeling that a war would start right now, in the centre of Russia with people who had already fought and were not afraid of anything,” admitted one man, a supporter of the war living in the south-western city of Voronezh, who saw videos of Wagner men streaming towards his hometown on Saturday.

“I thought Voronezh would turn into Bakhmut,” he added, referring to the devastated Ukrainian city laid siege by Wagner. “It got eerie.”

One young mother living in the Voronezh suburbs, who has been seeking to leave the country but struggled to find remote work, said the Wagner insurrection — as well as shelling in the Russian town of Shebekino — had further eroded what sense of stability was left.

“We were locked in our village [on Saturday],” she said. “This has been my main fear since the beginning of the war, that we will get stuck and not be able to leave. And here it is, realised.”

Pro-Kremlin voices were quick to praise Putin for stabilising the situation, brushing aside apparent contradictions.

Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia’s de facto chief propagandist, claimed in his flagship current affairs show that the insurrection had proved that “Russia once again passed the maturity test”. Society did not support a revolt, he said.

“Why was it possible to end an attempted insurrection without bloodshed? Because the people had supreme confidence in the president,” Kiselyov said.

But with Putin limiting his public remarks to a five-minute tirade on Monday and most of Russia’s other top officials, except for foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, keeping silent, even the Kremlin’s most fervent mouthpieces had little to work with.

A special edition of Moscow. Kremlin. Putin, a sycophantic state TV programme that focuses on mundane aspects of the Russian president’s life, was left rushing for material.

“We will follow the events along with you,” host Pavel Zarubin whispered from a room where Putin was preparing to chair a meeting with top security officials. But the only footage of Putin’s comments that made it on air was his greeting to the ashen-faced security officials, leaving Zarubin to wax lyrical in a voiceover as the camera zoomed in on the clenched fists of national guard boss Viktor Zolotov.

“Here are a few close-ups, as we say on TV,” Zarubin said. “Of course, these images will be carefully studied and [the officials’] faces will be closely scrutinised. We will learn the results of the meeting later.”

A few pro-Wagner military bloggers continued to defend Prigozhin, chiding other nationalists for their hypocrisy. “I cannot understand those who just a few days ago were furiously jacking off Wagner PMC — and are now suddenly yelling about when, how, and where the traitors should be executed,” Alexander Pelevin, a vocal supporter of the assault on Ukraine who had long cheered Wagner, wrote on his Telegram channel.

But others in pro-war media were already hurrying to dissociate themselves from Prigozhin and demonstrate fealty to the Kremlin.

One Russian political consultant recorded a statement to camera saying he had worked for Prigozhin until last year but now felt it “vitally important” to speak out, calling the warlord an “executioner” who had no righteous cause but was simply hungry for power.

Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the regime had undoubtedly come off looking weaker from the incident, but the Putin government still appeared better than the alternative.

“Ordinary Russians, even if they want changes, if they realize that these changes do not lead to better things, will prefer the usual dish on their menu — Putin,” he said.

“Yes, Putin and his regime demonstrated weakness, but if the alternative wasn’t convincing, the best strategy is to support or imitate support of Putin.”

Indeed, many Russians said they were ready to move on from the episode.

“In my circle, no one pays attention to the news and just lives their life,” said a young woman from St Petersburg. “When Prigozhin was heading towards Moscow, of course, it was nerve-racking for people . . . But to be honest, this horror has been continuing for one-and-a-half years already, and living in a state of depression, fear and horror all the time is impossible.”

Another young woman — a resident of the Voronezh region — acknowledged there had been “unpleasant” moments during the episode. She had been standing at her kitchen counter when she suddenly saw a military helicopter flying right over a neighbouring house. A neighbour sent a video of a helicopter with armed men leaning out of the door.

Still, she mocked those who had panicked, recalling the story of someone who had gone out and stockpiled buckwheat. “What are you going to do — build barricades out of this buckwheat?”

She added: “If you fall into hysteria, then what? You check into a mental hospital? We have to live somehow.”

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