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‘The Russian idea is war’ What we know about the war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky and the Kremlin’s likeliest response to his murder

Source: Meduza
Vladlen Tatarsky, Telegram

The explosive device that went off in the St. Petersburg establishment Street Food Bar № 1 injured more than 30 visitors and killed the host of the Sunday event, Russian propagandist and self-styled “war correspondent” Vladlen Tatarsky. The prime suspect in the murder is St. Petersburg resident Daria Trepova, who had come to Tatarsky’s reading at the cafe with a plaster statuette, which she then gave to the blogger. Meduza has surveyed Tatarsky’s past publications and spoken with Kremlin insiders about the likely political consequences of his assassination.

Personally, I experienced a slight fragmentation of personality. Part of me wants to live in comfort, spend quiet evenings with my family, and work in an office; but when I hear the cannons rumbling outside my window (my home is just 14 kilometers away from the front), I realize I could drop everything and rush over there, to be at the center of the events. I’m not crazy. My problem is that I was born a Russian. And the Russian idea is war.

The man who wrote these words in 2017 was Maxim Fomin, who was by then signing his comments on the Donbas war with a nom de plume borrowed from a novel by Victor Pelevin, one of whose characters was called Vladlen Tatarsky. Six years later, Fomin (now better known as Tatarsky) was blown up in a St. Petersburg cafe while hosting a conversation on how the self-styled pro-Kremlin “war correspondents” should present Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their writing.

‘If you want power, be ready to kill’

Fomin was born in Donetsk in 1982, in a miners’ family. He would later call his father a “Russian patriot,” insisting that he had a patriotic upbringing. “Even as a child, I was conducting little dissident shenanigans in Ukrainian language class: I always tried to disrupt the classes, arguing with teachers and trying to prove that we didn’t need this. In short, I was ideologically engaged.”

He used broad brushstrokes when writing about his life prior to 2014: “I worked in a mine; I did business, some of it illicit; I served time.” When the Donbas conflict broke out, Fomin was in prison: in 2011, he’d been sentenced to 12 years for a bank robbery. He escaped from the penitentiary, hoping to join the separatist militia as a volunteer, but instead got arrested and returned to the “zone.” Later, the head of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk republic” Alexander Zakharchenko pardoned Fomin, and he signed up for a “tour of duty.” (Zakharchenko himself was assassinated in 2018.)

While serving in the military, Fomin (the future Tatarsky) went by the code name “Professor,” supposedly because of his bookishness. In 2016–2017, he decided to reinvent himself as a “war correspondent.” He started blogging and writing for small pro-Russian groups on the social media. As a blogger, he interviewed Donbas separatists and reported on combat events. His hallmark was to write about his milieu without idealizing the combatants, and he may have pioneered the use of J.R.R. Tolkien’s noun “Orcs” when writing about fighters on both sides:

These primitive Orcs are happy with far simpler things than modern weapons. A good-looking uniform… combat boots and tactical gloves, which an Orc never takes off, berets in every imaginable color, with all kinds of badges… bandanas, balaclavas, durags, combat amulets, shaved heads, phallic symbols shaped like knives and bayonets, and iron-on patches — all of this was cause for pride! And, once in possession of this stuff, an Orc had to be drunk! Then he was happiest.

Similarly, the field commander Givi, a “hero” of Russian propaganda, was just a “methhead” in Tatarsky’s writing. The blogger admitted that he’d never seen the kind of “rabble” that he saw gravitating to military operations in the Donbas, not even in prison. In 2017, he wrote:

There’s godless drinking in the trenches. There’s drinking in the headquarters. Combat vehicle crews and artillerists drink. This often has tragic consequences: not just trivial self-shoots, but also loss of positions and failure in meeting goals. I don’t know about Afghanistan and Syria, but in Chechnya and the Donbas both sides were dealing with internal conflicts.

Tatarsky wasn’t sentimental about the so-called “volunteers” and their motives. All of them, he thought, “banded together around newfangled princes, combining warfare with looting.” “All the tales like ‘I came to the Donbas from Irkutsk to protect the children and keep NATO out of Snizhne’ are nothing more than the official line. Tales like ‘I’m going to the Donbas because Ukraine’s constitution doesn’t permit cessation’ is even funnier nonsense,” Tatarsky wrote.

In his blog, the self-styled “correspondent” warned the potential combatants: “Before you go to war, ask yourself if you really want to look into that abyss. Be honest with yourself! Maybe what you really need is to take up strikeball or wrestling.” At the same time, he justified the ruthlessness of the Russian regime: “If you want lasting state power in our parts, be ready to kill those who are close to you.”

‘Hardly a Dugina’

In 2017, Tatarsky moved his blog from LiveJournal to the rapidly developing Telegram, where his audience nevertheless remained a niche one: by February 23, 2022, he had about 30,000 subscribers. Within a year, though, that number was multiplied by a factor of 19.

In spring 2022, Tatarsky claimed that he’d known about the impending invasion since November 2021. This couldn’t have been the case, given how abruptly even members of the Russian Security Council realized that Putin had made up his mind to invade Ukraine. Still, according to Tatarsky himself, on February 2, 2022, he was back in the Donbas in full knowledge of what was to come. As for his own part in the warfare, he wouldn’t just write, but also fight on the frontline.

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As a war blogger with a rapidly growing audience, Tatarsky got invited to write for RT. He became a co-host of Vladimir Solovyov’s analytical show initially hosted by the popular blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, the man behind the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Rybar.

Tatarsky’s interests shifted from “Orc” culture and drunkenness on the frontline to larger subjects. He began talking about items from the Kremlin agenda, like the “complete liquidation of the Ukrainian state.” Calling Ukraine in its “present form” an “anti-Russia,” Tatarsky wrote: “In order for this state to exist in some other form, Ukrainians should be cured of their Russophobia and nationalism, as our own forefathers once cured the excellent country called Germany of its mad führer and his ideas.”

On September 30, 2022, Vladlen Tatarsky found himself an invited guest at the Kremlin, at the annexation ceremony that proclaimed four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine to be Russia’s new territories. “We’ll triumph over everyone, kill everyone, loot everything we want,” said the elated blogger in a video. “Everything will be the way we like it. Let’s go, and God bless,” he concluded.

Unlike many other pro-Kremlin writers on Telegram, Tatarsky remained optimistic about the situation at the front, even in recent months. In the fall of 2022, he was skeptical about Ukraine’s ability to take back the Kherson region. Later, he believed that the situation in Kherson could still be salvaged for Russia. Around the same time, he began to criticize the Russian Defense Ministry, which led some to link him with Evgeny Prigozhin’s propaganda efforts. When Tatarsky was killed on April 2, Prigozhin himself had been expected to stop by the event.

In conversations with Meduza, a Kremlin insider and a personal acquaintance of Prigozhin’s both agreed that Tatarsky wasn’t exactly “close” to Prigozhin. The latter knew Tatarsky as someone who wrote favorably about Wagner Group, and that’s that, says a source acquainted with the paramilitary entrepreneur. Still, hours after the assassination, Prigozhin announced that a Russian flag had been raised over Bakhmut in Tatarsky’s honor.

Pro-Kremlin propaganda reacted to Tatarsky’s death by instantly blaming Ukraine: “When is this country going to respond?” wrote on Telegram Tina Kandelaki, deputy director of Gazprom-Media. “The terrorists have electricity, water, working railways, restaurants, Internet,” she went on, implying where action should be taken. “Well, then?” echoed RT’s CEO Margarita Simonyan, asking sarcastically: “Are we just going to forgive and forget?” Other propagandists demanded the return of capital punishment as an answer to the death of the “proselytizing warrior.”

Although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the murder a terrorist act, he said nothing about Vladimir Putin’s reaction to Tatarsky’s death. Two Kremlin insiders who spoke with Meduza doubt the administration will take any harsh measures in response to the killing. As one of them put it, “this is hardly another [Daria] Dugina murder.”

What happened at Tatarsky’s cafe reading

War blogger Vladlen Tatarsky killed in explosion in a Petersburg cafe

What happened at Tatarsky’s cafe reading

War blogger Vladlen Tatarsky killed in explosion in a Petersburg cafe

Translated by Anna Razumnaya

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