What It Was Like to Be in Russia and Watch a Failed Coup

Members of the Wagner Group military company load their tank onto a truck on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, before leaving the headquarters of the Southern Military District.AP

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Тhe coup that didn’t happen began on Friday night and ended by Saturday night. Various Telegram channels reported 15 Russian servicemen dead; a plane, a few helicopters, and an oil storage facility destroyed, bridges dismantled, roads dug up…and the only thing anyone can say for sure about the whole strange operation is that the people love Wagner, the private military company that marched on Moscow in battle formation. Videos of Wagner troops pulling out of Rostov-on-Don look like they’d just won the national soccer championship.
What is the attraction of a mercenary organization that, by its own director’s admission, has seen 20,000 of its own men dead and as many wounded in a matter of months, in an operation called the “Bakhmut meat-grinder”? The attraction is that its director, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admits it. Prigozhin “speaks truth to power.” He says what everyone knows: what a clusterfuck it all is. He says that the army commanders are idiots, the official TV news reports lie; that the Ukrainian army is both well-stocked and well-staffed, and that we should never have started this bloody war in the first place.
But the solution to this mess is not to end the war. It is to win it. We must win this war, which should have never been started because we cannot lose. Because the Motherland is in Danger! Because we’re all in this together.
And this is also why people love Prigozhin. Because he gets things done. Prigozhin pays his troops in cash and arms them decently. He evacuates the bodies of his dead and sends them home to be buried; he pays monetary compensation to their mothers and widows. True, he is famous for the image of heads bashed in with sledgehammers. But hey, it’s effective! He denounces corruption, oligarchs, army elites, and the state’s rampant lies. “If he were in charge, we’d win this war!” people say, online and in person. Prigozhin himself also calls the war a war—although doing that is not legal. Russia is not at war. It is conducting a “Special Military Operation” against NATO, Nazis, Satanism, gender ideology, secret biolabs, and the US Department of State.
By Monday morning, after the non-coup, Wagner posters were back up in most major cities, and Wagner recruitment centers reopened. Wagner merch could once again be purchased online: the bull’s eye skulls, with their slogans, “Blood. Honor. Motherland. Courage.” “Nothing Personal. We’ve Been Paid.” “Our Business is Death. Business is Booming.” T-shirts and baseball caps, patches, and stickers, they’re popular with the kids.
At 10:10 PM Monday evening, President Putin took to the airwaves and thanked everybody. He paid tribute to the pilots shot down by Wagner; thanked the Russian Armed Forces for their faithfulness, courage, and self-sacrifice. He thanked Wagner troops too, for their courage and patriotism. He invited them to join the Russian Armed Forces, or go home to their families. Or move to Belarus. The choice is yours! He thanked the Belorussian president Aleksander Lukashenko for helping to find a peaceful solution. Thanked all Russian citizens for their patriotism and solidarity. And he never once mentioned Prigozhin’s name.
Prigozhin is said to be moving to Belarus with his entrepreneurial death-dealing band. But I think they’ll roll back on the scene soon enough. After all, the Motherland needs them.