When Yevgeny Prigozhin began his march on Moscow last Friday evening and declared open war on the Kremlin, the propaganda machine responded with a desperate attempt to fake the mutiny. At 1:30 a.m., Russia's main broadcaster interrupted its program to brand all of Prigozhin's statements as fake. These were "provocations," according to a nighttime special broadcast on the Pervyi Kanal.
In the panic that broke out, the propaganda even flouted the taboo on calling Prigozchin or the Wagner troupe by name, which had been imposed on them months before.
However, on Saturday morning, the mercenaries led by Prigozhin were already in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The mercenary leader loudly demanded the surrender and execution of Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff Gerasimov. He continued his march on Moscow unhindered - and forced Vladimir Putin out of his bunker.
The head of the Kremlin, terrified, stepped in front of the television cameras and spoke of "exorbitant ambitions and personal interests that led to betrayal. Betrayal of one's own country and one's own people". Words fell about "a blow to Russia." Words about that "anyone who consciously sets out on the path of treason, who prepares an armed attack, who sets out on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, suffer the inevitable punishment and stand up both before the law and before our people will be responsible".
Putin is actually demanding Prigozhin's head. The propagandists did the same. While Prigozhin continued to lead his troops to Moscow, some rushed to emulate the Kremlin ruler. First and foremost Vladimir Solovyov, Putin's favorite agitator. In a video message, he compared Prigozhin's march on Moscow with Mussolini's march on Rome - although he forgot that the Italian Duce once managed the coup.
Other propagandists lapsed into prayers, such as Anton Krassowski: "God protect our Russia!" wrote the man on Telegram, who recently wanted to see Ukrainian children drowned. (You can find out more about Krassowksi here.)
Meanwhile, Russian state television was constantly repeating Putin's speech and old series. Reports from Rostov, which was occupied by the Wagner mercenaries, were also popular. The central motif showed the alleged resistance of the townspeople to Prigozhin's troops. Meanwhile, social networks were flooded with absolutely contradictory shots. Here the Wagner mercenaries were greeted with flowers. Some townspeople brought food to the hooded fighters, others took selfies with them.
In the evening, however, Putin presented his propaganda with a new challenge. Prigozhin, who had been branded a traitor all day, had his column turned around. Putin announced that Prigozhin would be allowed to travel to Minsk - unpunished and blameless. The military mutiny will not be pursued. The FSB was ordered to drop the investigation.
It took time for the propaganda to digest this turnaround. Finally, on Sunday evening, Dmitri Kiselyov set the course in his news program "Westi". He started with a scene from an old interview with Putin. "Can you forgive?" the Kremlin boss was asked at the time. "Yes," was his thoughtful reply. The only thing he cannot forgive is betrayal. Apparently it is - at least that's what Russia is supposed to believe.
With that, the new narrative was set: Putin, the gracious man. The idea is that mercy and kindness should explain Putin's weakness and shame and, ideally, make them forget. "It's about a pardon. Only the president of the country has this right," emphasized Kiselyov. The mercy was granted out of respect for the merits of the Wagner mercenaries. "The most important result of the whole thing is that people have refrained from murdering each other in a senseless struggle far behind the front lines. You can call it maturity, bravery, wisdom or anything else, but the fact is that it didn't happen .Those who longed for a bloody battle did not get it." Thanks to the unshakable trust in the President, bloodshed was prevented.
According to this thinking, Putin is not only the merciful man, he is also the peacemaker. The fact that the Wagner mercenaries shot down six helicopters and an army plane during their march, killing between 15 and 20 soldiers, is not blood enough for propaganda.
The commander-in-chief will not pursue the "heroes of Russia" out of respect for their merits, Vladimir Solovyov took up the new course in his broadcast. He also claimed that bloodshed between Russians had been prevented.
Margarita Simonian, who preferred to remain silent until the new course was finally set, took on the task of explaining the absolute lawlessness. "Now many say: criminal proceedings were opened, but then they released him (Prigozhin) and he went to Belarus. This is a mockery of legal norms. But legal norms are not the commandments of Christ or the tablets of Moses. They are made by people written to protect the rule of law and stability in the country," said the boss of the propaganda channel RT in Solovyov's studio.
"And if, in a few critical exceptional cases, it turns out that they are no longer fulfilling their function and are doing the opposite, then to hell with them," she added, declaring in a few words that the rule of law was simply superfluous. If the laws don't suit you, you simply don't have to observe them - that's what their words mean. "There is nothing more terrible than a civil confrontation, including the violation of certain legal norms," Simonyan repeated. Whether only Putin can whistle on the laws, or ordinary citizens as well, she wisely left unmentioned.
"Yesterday the government showed strength and wisdom, above all without bloodlust," Solovyov repeated the words almost identically to his propagandist colleague Kiselyov.
His guest Yevgeny Buzhinsky didn't want to contradict the talk master. And yet he dared to object: "But someone must be held responsible for the deaths of the pilots." Another guest joined him: "Traitors must be destroyed," said Duma deputy Andrei Gurulev. "A bullet in the head is the only solution for both Prigozhin and Utkin (founder of the Wagner troupe)," said Solovyov's permanent guest. "I don't understand how something like this could happen. Where were the authorities who should have known about it and warned about it?"
An angry speech followed: "Treason cannot be forgiven! Under no circumstances, regardless of merit! The only way out for these people is to shoot themselves before a foreign bullet gets to them! There is no other way for traitors! "
Gurulev's fiery speech is not a sudden criticism of the Kremlin. The deputy from the ruling party United Russia is as loyal to Putin as a dog. In 2014, the head of the Kremlin personally promoted him to the rank of lieutenant general. By his own account, Gurulev was involved in directing and coordinating the operations of the Wagner squad in 2014.
His radical demand for a bullet for Prigozhin could serve to protect himself. Or, as is so often the case, she was ordered by the Kremlin - to balance the mood of the public.