“Life Didn’t Prepare Us for the Tanks”

“Life Didn’t Prepare Us for the Tanks”

“Life Didn’t Prepare Us for the Tanks”

How Rostov-on-Don survived its one-day blockade during Prigozhin’s armed mutiny.

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Waking up early on Saturday, June 24, I held on to the hope that everything would be fine despite the news that had emerged on Friday evening. Every hour, I would wake up and read the news. At 7 am, I learned that the city where I had lived my whole life before the start of the war in Ukraine had been seized by armed mercenaries. A tank was stuck at the gates of the circus, which I passed by every day on my way to school. I watched live as the most dangerous people in the world took over my hometown. Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose existence was known mostly to journalists before the war, was previously recognized as Putin’s chef, involved in all Putin’s black operations, ranging from attacks on opposition figures to operations in Africa and Syria, and interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Suddenly, it turned out that he was not only Putin’s confidant for special assignments but also an opposition politician respected by many Russians.

IT specialist Andrey spent the night of June 23–24 drinking at a bar in the city center with his colleagues. They kept track of the news, downing shots of liquor one after another. They dispersed closer to 6 am. Andrey decided to see what was happening in the center, where, judging by the news photos, there were armored personnel carriers, but Budyonnovsky Avenue, where it all took place, was already blocked. A taxi took him home via a detour.

“I arrived home and went to sleep,” he recalls. “I only slept for four hours when my mother called me around noon and told me that Prigozhin had captured Rostov. Closer to lunchtime, I learned that the situation in the city was calm, and my girlfriend and I decided to take a walk in the center. I had never seen such empty streets! As the day went on, curiosity turned into tension.”

The bar where Andrey was drinking did not open the next day. As explained by its owner, Dmitry, in a conversation with The Nation, he wasn’t willing to risk the safety of his employees and clientele.

“Well, any business owner should be prepared for any situation that may arise. Life certainly didn’t prepare us for tanks,” says Dmitry. “We completed our shift on Friday without any problems. On Saturday, starting from 9 am, I kept checking the news, and everything was calm. When the shots were fired, we closed down and didn’t reopen. I was afraid not of guys with pistols and rifles but of fellow countrymen who got carried away by the situation and could start smashing everything around. People are more important to me than a big Saturday cash register.”

In the evening of the same day, Andrey went for a walk on the city streets with his girlfriend. He had never seen such empty streets in Rostov before. Everyone who was outside at that moment gathered around Budennovsky Avenue, where the main events were taking place.

Crowds of onlookers formed in the center of Rostov, watching as the most unusual show of their lives unfolded before their eyes. A machine gunner took a firing position near an electric scooter on the city’s main street, and the central avenue was blocked by armed guards. During this time, the Kremlin was negotiating with Prigozhin, who was trying to secure the most advantageous conditions for himself. Meanwhile, the Wagner Group fighters behaved in a friendly manner towards the residents, shaking hands, expressing respect, and hugging the girls. “Enjoy yourselves, socialize, have fun,” one of them encouraged the gathered citizens.

Housewife Irina and her husband, Leonid, went to see what was happening at the seized headquarters of the Southern Military District. According to her, the situation felt like a parade on a Victory day. People seemed to be expecting fireworks after the demonstration of military equipment. Irina approached an unfamiliar Wagner fighter, around 50 years old, with “kind blue eyes,” and struck up a conversation with him. He said that they had food, water, and gasoline with them, which could be purchased if needed. When asked if they could arrest Prigozhin, the fighter categorically refused. “We didn’t come here to betray. We’ve been treated poorly. We’re tired of all this; our souls can’t take it anymore,” he replied. He wasn’t afraid of punishment and already knew that they had been declared insurgents. He didn’t consider himself such and expressed hope for a peaceful outcome.

She says she felt no fear at all. Even when there was an explosion of still unknown nature, she felt completely safe. Even running away with the crowd didn’t scare her.

All the interviewees agreed that the presence of the Wagner Group didn’t cause them much concern. They were only worried about the possibility of urban combat. They understood that no one would back down. Two hours before the end of the events, a huge column of Chechen unit “Akhmat” was spotted on its way to Rostov. According to Andrey, everyone was afraid that they would arrive and the fighting would start, and in their hearts, they rooted for neither side. He himself hoped that both teams would lose—both Putin and Prigozhin.

Many people panicked that day. A large crowd gathered at the bus station in desperate attempts to leave the city. It turned out that many exits from the city were blocked or even mined. Tickets for those directions were no longer being sold.

After the war began, German teacher Daria left Russia. She now lives in Georgia. She had traveled to Rostov for a few weeks on business and was supposed to return at the end of June. Upon seeing the news of the city’s capture by Prigozhin, she experienced a panic attack and bought a ticket for the next train from Vladikavkaz, on June 24. There were reports in the news about mined exits from the city. She worried that she might not make it out in time. She managed to secure the last remaining ticket to Vladikavkaz, a city from which people usually travel to Tbilisi, at 8 pm, and asked a friend to arrange for transportation from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi.

“A group of armed criminals with military equipment seized the city I am in. They captured the military district building. They could enter any house, and no one could resist them because they were armed, while the police simply watched from the sidelines. I hated myself for deciding to return precisely during this period. It seemed to me that I would die here now,” she recalled in a conversation with The Nation.

Daria boarded the train, practically exhausted from the stress of the day. She didn’t take the news of Lukashenko’s serious agreement with Prigozhin. She still doesn’t understand what it was, but she knows for sure that this is not the first time she has had to flee in horror because of the actions of her country’s leadership. The next day, she was already in Tbilisi and felt safe.

Rostov guides are already planning to include objects captured by the Wagner Group during the uprising in their tours. They noticed a parallel between the events of this weekend and the civil war in Russia a hundred years ago. At that time, Rostov was the capital of the White movement, and in the building of the Southern Military District captured by Prigozhin, both White and Red commanders held their meetings.

The city itself didn’t have time to recover from the news. On Monday, the local zoo caught fire, and in the evening, the city was flooded with heavy rain.

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