The rise and violent demise of pro-Russian war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky

Mourners visit the grave of Russian military blogger Maxim Fomin, widely known by the name of Vladlen Tatarsky, who was recently killed in a bomb attack at a St. Petersburg cafe. (Yulia Morozova/Reuters)
10 min

Vladlen Tatarsky, a convicted criminal turned popular pro-Russian blogger who published warmongering diatribes, was promoting his upcoming book to a gathering of his fans at a hip burger joint in St. Petersburg. A portrait of Tatarsky surrounded by firearms in the shape of angel wings lit up the room.

The event, on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, offered a window into how wartime fervor has gripped Russia, turning hawkish military bloggers into minor celebrities — in Tatarsky’s case with more than a half-million followers on the Telegram messaging platform.

From her seat in the back, a young woman with long auburn hair stepped forward with a gift, video of the event showed. In a wooden box was a gilded bust of Tatarsky portrayed as a coal miner — a tribute to his native Donbas, the Ukrainian coal-mining region that Russia has long been trying to capture. The audience murmured in approval.

“What a handsome fellow,” Tatarsky said, visibly pleased. Then, the statuette exploded — killing him instantly, wounding at least 40 others, and leaving the cafe a charred ruin of mangled chairs and upturned tables.

The assassination of Tatarsky, a former pro-Russian separatist fighter in Ukraine whose real name was Maxim Fomin and who once described Ukrainians as “mentally ill Russians,” has highlighted the unusual and increasingly important role of Russia’s pro-war military bloggers and so-called Z channels.

Since Russia’s invasion, such channels have served as a raw alternative to the usual Kremlin propaganda, whipping up support for the war, but also leveling harsh, unvarnished criticism at Russia’s military leadership.

Whether he was killed by Ukraine or its proxies to send a warning to other pro-Russian propagandists, or because of inscrutable Russian infighting, his death demonstrated how once-fringe figures are now at the very center of Russia’s disinformation sphere, fanning the flames of a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

Tatarsky’s Agatha Christie-esque murder also adds to a growing list of murky incidents that have fueled conspiracy theories as the war drags on.

Russia quickly labeled the bombing a terrorist attack and has blamed Ukraine’s secret services. But others have suggested that Russian interests, even the Kremlin itself, might have killed Tatarsky to eliminate an inconvenient critic who grew too loud.

Posting daily dispatches from the front, interspliced with ultranationalist and religious tirades, Tatarsky grew so prominent he was even invited to the Kremlin last September when President Vladimir Putin announced his illegal plans to annex four regions in southeast Ukraine.

There, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russia’s top political leadership, Tatarsky broadcast a live stream from St. George’s Hall. “We will defeat everyone, we will kill everyone, we will rob everyone we have to,” Tatarsky proclaimed to the camera. “Everything will be just the way we like it.”

The pen name Vladlen Tatarsky was based partly on a character from a novel by the Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin, and a nod to the blogger’s Tatar origins on his mother’s side.

Tatarsky, who was 40 when he died, was born as Maxim Fomin in Makiivka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. In 2011, he was sentenced to 12 years in jail for a botched bank robbery. He escaped from a prison in 2014 after Russia set off a separatist uprising and he joined a pro-Russian militia. He was later pardoned by officials of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Tatarsky first fought alongside the rebel leader Igor Bezler, known as “the Demon” and then the Vityaz and Vostok battalions. In 2017, he started blogging about his observations from the battlefields, and in 2019 moved to Moscow, where he published two memoirs about the conflict, entitled “Escape” and “War.” He became a Russian citizen in 2021.

Three weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tatarsky returned to Donbas and embedded alongside Russian forces, emerging as a prominent, pro-Kremlin voice.

Tatarsky was known for his hard line, bordering fascist views. In interviews, he described himself as “ideologically engaged” since childhood, and claimed to have sabotaged Ukrainian language lessons at school. In adulthood, his hatred for Ukraine solidified, often calling it a “terrorist” and “demon state” that needed to be destroyed.

When Russia began bombing Ukrainian civilian infrastructure last autumn, Tatarsky applauded the tactic, using a Russian slur for Ukrainians. “Hospitals will stop working and more khokhols are going to croak on operating tables.”

Even as Tatarsky cheered the invasion, he was frequently scathing about Russia’s defense ministry, lambasting members of the military leadership and their “soft” approach to the war. Criticism of the military is illegal under new Russian laws aimed at silencing dissent, but it is tolerated among hawkish commentators who support Putin’s overall war goals.

“He was one of the most radical and aggressive among the Z-channels,” said Masha Borzunova, a Russian journalist who tracks propaganda. “He frequently called on Moscow to go beyond what he called ‘half measures.’”

In a post on Feb. 25, Tatarsky wrote about a battlefield mishap that he said had led to the avoidable loss of a tank and slammed the military for not establishing dedicated units flying first-person view drones.

“Is the Ministry of Defense really so screwed up,” he wrote. “I know for sure that only amateur enthusiasts are doing this from our side.” He added: “We need to change our approach to the special military operation, a year has passed.”

In another post last month, he criticized athletes for not signing up to fight and proposed an initiative inspired by Hollywood actors in World War II, in which Russian celebrities would meet and “serve our warriors” returning from the battlefield.

Tatarsky began appearing regularly on state TV talk shows. “He was flesh and blood from Donbas,” said Alexander Nemtsev, a Moscow-based political analyst. “He fought there, he filmed there. He knew better than anyone else what was going on there and so his position was trusted.” Many Russians now favor bloggers with “insider” views over propagandists in Moscow, Nemtsev said.

Russian authorities swiftly arrested the woman who gave Tatarsky the statuette: Darya Trepova, 26, an antiwar activist and former vintage clothing store worker. Video of the bombing scene showed Trepova outside the wrecked cafe, visibly stunned, slowly walking away.

Trepova was charged with terrorism. In an interrogation video later released by the Interior Ministry, she admitted handing Tatarsky the gift but insisted she had no idea it was packed with explosives. Analysts said that her behavior — taking a seat close to Tatarsky and not running away as soon as the explosion occurred — signaled that she had no knowledge about the bomb.

Trepova’s husband, Dmitry Rylov, also said she was duped. “Yes, it’s true that neither of us support the war in Ukraine, but we believe that such acts are impermissible,” Rylov told SVTV News. “I’m 100 percent sure that she would never have agreed to anything like this if she had known about it.”

Tatarsky’s killing added to a growing list of opaque, internecine battles on the sidelines of the war in Ukraine, for which neither side has claimed responsibility. His murder echoed a car bombing last August that killed Darya Dugina, a close friend of Tatarsky and the daughter of neo-fascist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin.

There were also some parallels to an explosion last October in which a massive truck bomb blew out a section of the on the Kerch Bridge to Crimea. The driver, Makhir Yusubov, was killed in his truck, suggesting he may have been tricked.

Kyiv has denied involvement in both the Tatarsky and Dugina murders, and has not publicly claimed responsibility for the Crimean Bridge explosion or for a slew of drone attacks on Russian territory.

Russia’s security services, meanwhile, have accused Kyiv of organizing the attack alongside members of political opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which Trepova reportedly supported.

Recent analysis by the Institute of the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, suggested Tatarsky’s assassination could be a sign of internal struggle within Russia and a warning to those who criticize the military establishment.

The burger joint where Tatarsky held his event was owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary group founder. Tatarsky had ties to Prigozhin and sided with Prigozhin’s fierce criticism of the Russian Defense Ministry, including that Wagner fighters were not getting enough ammunition, resulting in heavy losses.

“The murder of Fomin in Prigozhin’s bar is likely part of a broader trend of escalating internal Russian conflicts involving Prigozhin and Wagner,” the Institute of War wrote in a report. “Fomin’s assassination may have been a warning to Prigozhin, who increasingly questioned the Kremlin’s main propaganda thesis about the war in Ukraine.”

Prigozhin has said that he does not believe Ukraine assassinated Tatarsky and has speculated the killing was carried out by “a group of radicals unconnected to the government.” Indeed, some have questioned why Tatarsky — a hated figure in Ukraine, but not holding any official position — would be high on Kyiv’s hit list or worth expending resources.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security policy, wrote that the nature of such a complex operation could help explain the “why Tatarsky?” question. “Was he so special to deserve such an operation,” Galeotti wrote. “It may well be that his was only one name on a list, and there are other ruthlessly imaginative assassination projects still in train, still being prepared.”

Last week, other pro-war figures told Russian state media they had received figurines similar to the one that killed Tatarsky on April 2, and that they had made reports to the police.

On April 8, Tatarsky was buried in Moscow’s Troyekurovskoye cemetery with full military honors, leaving behind a wife and 18-year-old son. Hundreds of people, including prominent pro-war figures and politicians attended the funeral. A decorated sledgehammer — a nod to Wagner’s cruel execution tactics — was buried alongside him.

“Today the country is saying goodbye to Vladlen Tatarsky, but he is a soldier who stays with us, his voice will continue to sound,” Prigozhin said at the funeral.

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, a far-right member of the Russian parliament, Leonid Slutsky, said that Tatarsky had led a “bright” and “true” life. “His life should be an example for the young people of today who live for Russia … for its future,” Slutsky said.

Trepova, Tatarsky’s young, potentially unwitting, assassin, is being held in Lefortovo jail in Moscow and faces a long prison term. According to local news reports, supporters of Tatarsky sent Trepova 30 kilograms of salt, to max out her permitted deliveries and prevent her from receiving food or other essentials.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.