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Anti-war Russians who fled to Turkey react to the failed mutiny

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What do Russians make of all of this? NPR's Fatma Tanis reports from Istanbul, a city that antiwar Russians made their haven after the invasion of Ukraine.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Elena and Maksim, a couple in their 20s, were walking their corgi when I approached them for their reaction to what was going on in Russia. They looked at each other and laughed. Like other Russians who spoke to NPR, they did so under the condition that we not reveal their full names because they still work for Russian companies remotely.

ELENA: It's circus because even they don't have power. Even they can't control their pets.

TANIS: The pet here is the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group who staged the mutiny, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Russia has depended on Wagner mercenaries to advance its military goals, including in Ukraine.

ELENA: They pay, he do something what they want, but they even can't control him.

TANIS: Prigozhin led an armed uprising, which ended only with a deal being struck that saw him exiled to Belarus. Russia also agreed to drop the charges of mutiny against him.

ELENA: He is like football player. He played bad in a Russian territory, in our territory, and another country by him.

TANIS: Elena says this was one of the craziest things that happened in Russia in her lifetime, second only to the invasion of Ukraine last year. The two are now worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin could increase repressive measures to consolidate his grip on power and that life for their family and friends in Moscow might get much harder.

ELENA: As we see people in Russia, it's really difficult to make government to go away. They have a lot of power.

TANIS: But for others like Ilya, who used to volunteer as an election watcher back in Russia, the way it all fizzled out was a massive disappointment. He was following the events with a group of friends who were close to Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader.

ILYA: Everything which can diminish the power of Putin's regime is good. So when we heard about this news, like, we were very positive, but then just it was like the worst end of a TV series. So it was a fluke.

TANIS: He says they were in contact with other Russian politicians, their former colleagues, who are also excited at what the uprising could mean for Putin.

ILYA: They are part of Putin's party, but they were hoping that it would bring some changes, maybe stop the war, like, topple the Putin regime. So even, like, among Putin supporters, government officials, there are definitely a lot of people which are against him.

TANIS: Ilya says they were all hoping that Wagner's march would encourage other armed groups and would turn into a bigger resistance.

ILYA: Prigozhin betrayed this opportunity, like...

TANIS: People see it as a betrayal?

ILYA: Because we don't know his true intentions. He's like a murderer himself, like, and he is a thief. He is a war criminal, so basically. But still, like, we hope that if somehow this internal tension explode in Russia, it definitely should have helped Ukraine to, like, drive back Russian troops and to, like, free its own territories. And this didn't happen as well.

TANIS: Do you feel like Putin is weaker now?

ILYA: Yeah, of course. At least - OK, if he doesn't care about, like, international reaction, I think he doesn't care to some extent. But for general public, they saw that Putin is not so powerful.

TANIS: Ilya says the invasion of Ukraine was the beginning of the end of Putin. The chaos of Prigozhin's mutiny might be over for now, but he says it's only a matter of time before fresh turmoil hits Russia.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.