Vladlen Tatarsky: who killed pro-Kremlin blogger?

Blast ‘could be linked to political infighting in Russia’ rather than Ukraine as anti-war protester is detained

Flowers outside the cafe in St Petersburg where Vladlen Tatarsky was killed on Sunday, 2 April 2023
Flowers are left outside the St Petersburg cafe where Vladlen Tatarsky was killed
(Image credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The killing of the influential pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in an explosion in the heart of St Petersburg on Sunday has shocked Russia and sparked fierce speculation about who was responsible.

Described by the Financial Times (FT) as “one of the most prominent pro-Kremlin ‘military correspondents’” and by CNN as “one of Russia’s most outspoken and ultranationalist military bloggers, known for his ardent pro-war commentary and occasional criticism of Moscow’s battlefront failures”, Tatarsky was born Maxim Fomin in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The 40-year-old took his alias from a popular novel set in the 1990s by Russian author Victor Pelevin and joined Kremlin-backed separatists in 2014 when Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, before later moving to Moscow. Following last February’s invasion of Ukraine he returned to Donbas to rejoin separatist forces, amassing more than half a million subscribers to his Telegram channel over the next year.

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What did the papers say?

Following his death from what authorities called an “unidentified improvised explosive device” believed to have been hidden in a gold bust of himself presented to him by a member of the audience in the cafe where he was speaking, the Russian foreign ministry was quick to point the finger of blame at Ukraine. It claimed that Tatarsky was a “danger” and faced constant death threats from “the Kyiv regime and its abettors”.

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While stopping short of making direct accusations of involvement, the foreign ministry official said that silence in Western capitals exposed hypocrisy over expressions of concern for journalists.

Yet with no one claiming responsibility for the blast there remain many other unanswered questions. The Times noted that the cafe where the explosion took place is “owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries”.

“Like Prigozhin, Tatarsky criticised Russia’s handling of the war in Ukraine, and the army’s old equipment,” added the paper.

The BBC said Tatarsky is “among those who have gone so far as to criticise the Russian authorities, slamming the military and even President Vladimir Putin for setbacks on the battlefield”.

Military bloggers, who are frequently former veterans with contacts on the front lines, “often provide a rare insight into Russia’s real performance on the ground and are allowed a surprising amount of leeway to criticise the conduct of the war – although they rarely criticise Putin”, said The Guardian.

“In a sign of their growing importance, the Russian president last year established a taskforce to coordinate work between the government and the bloggers,” the paper added. Putin even made one of them a member of his human rights council last year, Reuters reported.

“It is not yet known for certain if Tatarsky was deliberately targeted,” said Sky News, but military analyst Sean Bell told the broadcaster that it “looks really unlikely” that the Ukrainian military was behind the attack as it was not a military target.

“The Ukrainians have proved themselves as more than capable of carrying out drone attacks and explosions deep inside Russian territory in recent months,” said the BBC, and while they rarely admit involvement they “often drop hints”.

“It is worth mentioning that Kiev placed sanctions on Tatarsky,” said Firstpost, but there have as yet been no such suggestions it was involved. Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s adviser, instead labelled the incident “domestic terrorism”.

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Prigozhin also appeared to shy away from accusing the government in Kyiv directly, instead suggesting it was likely to have been the work of “a group of radicals hardly related to the government”.

What next?

Despite initially attributing the blast to a gas cylinder, Russian news agencies have confirmed that police have now detained a St Petersburg resident who is believed by investigators to have taken the bust into the cafe. Darya Trepova, 26, was detained hours after her mother and sister were brought in for questioning. She had reportedly previously been detained for a number of days after an anti-war protest in February last year.

If it is confirmed that Tatarsky was the target, it would mark the “second assassination of a high-profile supporter of the war since Putin ordered tanks into Ukraine just over a year ago”, said The Times.

Last August Daria Dugina, the daughter of the prominent Russian ultranationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, was killed in a car bomb in Moscow. Dugin is credited with being the architect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and “Dugina and Tatarsky moved in the same circles, and they had been photographed multiple times together”, said CNN.

Believing it to have been meant for her father, Russia blamed the attack on Ukraine’s secret services, which denied involvement.

Sunday’s blast in the heart of Russia’s second city is also symbolic as St Petersburg is Putin’s home town and where he first rose to prominence. The Kremlin has yet to comment officially on the incident, said the FT, “but other Russian propagandists have called for a response”.

“What now? Will we forget? Will we forgive?” RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel.

However, the BBC said it is very possible the latest blast “could be linked to political infighting in Russia, as Kyiv has said”.

“There are now a lot of angry men carrying guns in Russia. With the military running low on troops, convicts have been let out of prison, handed weapons and sent to the front,” the broadcaster reported. It added that this may have contributed to the rise in murders committed in Russia last year, which increased for the first time in 20 years, according to Kommersant newspaper.

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