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Wagner Group’s unlikely fan club Anti-war activists, teenagers, and wives of Wagner fighters explain their support for the mercenaries
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion captured the attention and sympathy of people from all across Russian society — from anti-war activists in exile to teenagers to wives who said that Wagner made their husbands into “men.” Independent Russian media outlet Verstka spoke to those who support the Wagner mercenaries, as well as psychologists and sociologists, to understand their popularity despite the fighters’ criminal histories. Meduza in English is publishing an abridged translation.
‘I wanted a bit of commotion’
On the night of June 23, Andrey, a designer from Rostov-on-Don, couldn’t peel his eyes away from the news — Wagner Group was marching straight toward his city. When he woke up the next day, he watched Putin’s televised address and then immediately hurried to the city center.
“I wanted to see it all happen in person,” said Andrey.
While some local residents were rushing to the train station to flee the city, Andrey was chatting with the Wagnerites. Any fear he had “dissipated immediately.” He found the mercenaries to be acting in the interest of “the people and the citizens,” and behaving “respectfully, adequately, and tolerantly.”
“It’s possible that people felt even safer than if it were the police standing next to them,” he remarked.
Anastasya, a content manager who lives in Moscow, tells Verstka that she was supposed to have a Tinder date on the day of the rebellion, but ultimately decided against it: “I realized that if these thugs really come to Moscow, and if they put us all under lockdown, then I’d be stuck with this guy from Tinder for the long haul.”
She considered her next course of action: stay home or leave the country? While the rebellion did scare her, she also found it quite exciting.
“I wanted a bit of commotion,” said Anastasya. “Not because I support Prigozhin, but because it makes it possible to shake things up.”
“I used to think of Prigozhin as the chilling soul of a diabolical monster wielding a sledgehammer. But when he made his way on his mutiny, I suddenly started to associate him with a bright future!” admitted Elena, one of Anastasya’s coworkers in Moscow. “I don’t support him, but [I support] his plan to tear everything apart.”
‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’
One unlikely supporter of Prigozhin is Russian opposition figure and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. On the day of the rebellion, he said Wagner Group should be supplied with “gasoline and diesel.” He added that “Prigozhin […] is a bandit and war criminal. But his rebellion is a unique opportunity, and there won’t be another such opportunity for a long time.”
Matvey Sokolovsky, a psychologist, said that the qualities Putin lacks “are projected onto” Prigozhin, which made the Wagner founder into something of a mythical figure during his “march of justice.” “Not in the sense that he’s some kind of hero, but in the sense that he was credited with some qualities that Putin simply does not possess. The enemy of my enemy is in some ways my friend. But that doesn’t mean you must completely accept your enemy’s enemy. […] When Prigozhin adopted some positions that could be considered either anti-war or anti-Putin, he momentarily became an ally of all anti-Putin forces.”
Psychologist and lawyer Kirill Fedorov explains that Prigozhin’s impulsive actions have validated the worries, anger, and disappointment of both Russians who support the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and those who oppose it. “Prigozhin has fulfilled this niche. He expresses himself, he swears, he gets outraged by injustice, he speaks openly about existing problems and their causes,” says Fedorov.
‘Prigozhin tells it like it is’
Mikhail, who’s from Voronezh, followed the events of the rebellion closely, and called Prigozhin’s directness and openness “excellent marketing.”
“Prigozhin isn’t a politician and that’s why he’s able to tell it like it is, in contrast with those bureaucrats who are scared of blurting something out [that might help] our enemies,” Mikhail told Verstka.
Yekaterina, whose husband fights with Wagner, remarked that “Prigozhin has never left our boys alone under fire, he didn’t send them to the front lines with shovels, he didn’t withhold their pay. You can see, they also didn’t abandon [them after the rebellion], they gave them a choice: if you want, go to the Defense Ministry, go home, or stay on with Wagner Group. That’s humane treatment, you understand. Humane.”
The Wagner brand also appeals to younger generations. Many teenagers click “Like” on social media posts that feature the fighters in masks and holding automatic weapons.
Georgiy (name changed), a 17-year-old, tells Verstka that he’s subscribed to a Wagner Group page on Vkontakte, a Russian social media platform. He’s been following the mercenaries since they first started fighting in Syria. They “know how to fight” and they “captured Bakhmut all on their own,” explains Georgiy. He estimates that 70 percent of people in his social circle are also interested in Wagner Group.
‘We want to marry them!’
“Wagnerites made my man-child husband into a normal man. No rebellion could ever change my gratitude for that,” said Maria (name changed), the wife of a Wagner fighter. She told Verstka that after her husband joined the mercenary group, he became more interested in family matters and “grew up.” Now, he tells her and their children that he loves them and misses them. “I never heard that from him before [he joined] Wagner Group.”
“We want to marry them!” Polina, a resident of Rostov, exclaimed. “I chatted with them, they’re smart, they have their act together. They conduct themselves with dignity.” She was so enamored with one Wagnerite that after the column left Rostov, she posted an image of him to social media in hopes of identifying him and pursuing him romantically.
‘They’re good people’
“When they were standing in position and waiting to fight [against Chechnya's Akhmat battalion], they asked people to leave the area, because they could accidentally hit civilians. They’re good people,” said Artur (name changed), a resident of Rostov.
Mikhail says the fact that there was no “bloodbath,” can be attributed to the “professionalism of the experienced fighters.” It’s hard for him to imagine that they would commit war crimes since they are professionals with “many years of experience in real combat.”
Tatyana, a resident of Simferopol, “was upset” by Putin’s attitude toward the Wagner fighters. She complained that the president and the defense minister still have yet to address important issues after the end of the rebellion.
“Who gave the order to bomb the columns, despite the fact that they were peaceful? Where were Shoigu and Gerasimov? Why hasn’t Putin denounced this?” she asks, referring to Prigozhin’s unconfirmed claims that Russia’s Defense Ministry bombed a Wagner Group base just prior to his mutiny.
‘It’s very difficult for a criminal to scare a Russian’
Why have Russians been able to look past the fact that many Wagnerites broke the law prior to joining Wagner? Sociologist Asmik Novikova explains that “it’s very difficult for a prisoner or a criminal to scare a Russian person. We have a very long and complicated history with prison as a phenomenon.”
Oxana, a resident of Voronezh, says she has no doubt that those freed after serving on the front with Wagner will behave like “war machines,” because they “have nothing to lose.” But that doesn’t frighten her — at least this helped them “make a big contribution to the special military operation,” she says. Oxana’s a bit less generous toward Prigozhin though, saying that she doesn’t trust him since “he would do anything for money,” and since he claimed there was no bloodshed during the mutiny, when in fact 10 people died.
Tatyana tells Verstka that she worries about the cruel attitude toward Wagnerites after their unsuccessful rebellion, and that she doesn’t understand how members of Wagner Group could pose any threat and what civilians could have been afraid of during the march.
“I wasn’t scared that civilians could die because of Wagner,” she said. “After all, they’re for the people and from the people. I believe those who have spilled blood for me. If I were there, I would have stood next to them.”
Abridged translation by Sasha Slobodov
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