Before the Wagner mercenaries turned around on Saturday, Russia might have been facing its largest political crisis in decades, but the mood in Moscow was calm, with cafes busy and few visible signs of panic on a warm summer day.
Security was tightened in the city center, with armed men in flak jackets guarding the parliament building and Red Square closed to the public.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said that anti-terror measures were under way, but tourists and Muscovites strolled freely in the city center. Some people bought fresh strawberries and ice cream, others walked their dogs.
Before the rebel Wagner force announced its stunning pull-back, some Russians said they were hoping the country’s army would put down what authorities called an armed rebellion and protect them from the mercenary group whose chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had vowed to topple the military leadership.
“I read the news this morning, I was very surprised,” 35-year-old Yelena told AFP, declining to give her last name.
“I don’t know how to react. In any case it’s very sad this is happening,” she said in central Moscow.
Sergei, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, admitted the quickly unfolding events made him nervous.
“I thought the whole situation might be dangerous and something like that could happen, but that was just a guess,” said the young man, who also refused to give his last name. “When everything happened, I felt tense.”
After President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022, Russian authorities essentially banned criticism of the army, and many locals are reluctant to speak to reporters.
Sobyanin said the situation in the capital was “difficult,” warned of possible road closures and announced Monday would be a non-working day.
“I ask you to refrain from traveling around the city as much as possible,” he added.
Wagner chief Prigozhin, who had been feuding for months with the defense ministry, Friday accused its leaders of killing scores of his forces and vowed to topple the top brass.
Wagner forces captured a key military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and looked set to advance on Moscow on Saturday.
But in a surprise announcement on Saturday evening, Prigozhin said his troops were turning back to avoid spilling blood.
Never calm in Russia
“Things have never been calm in Russia,” said Danil Novokreshchenov, 22, adding the country has a tumultuous history.
In an emergency television address on Saturday morning, Putin accused Prigozhin of treason and drew parallels with 1917, the year when Tsar Nicholas II’s mishandling of World War I helped inspire a popular revolt and then led to civil war.
“We will not let this happen again,” Putin said.
Olga Schmidt, a 29-year-old project manager, said she believed the army would be able to stop Prigozhin. She suggested that power went to his head. “When you have a lot of people under your command you start feeling powerful,” she said.
Olga Sokolova, a 57-year-old English teacher, said she hoped for “a positive outcome.”
“Personally, me and people I know believe and hope that everything will be fine, that order will prevail.”