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The Bizarre Life and Even More Bizarre Death of a Russian War Propagandist

Mysteries and rumors surround the killing by bomb of thuggish Vladlen Tatarsky.
April 7, 2023
The Bizarre Life and Even More Bizarre Death of a Russian War Propagandist
A portrait of Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, killed in an April 2, 2023 bomb blast in a St. Petersburg café, is seen among flowers at a makeshift memorial by the explosion site on April 3, 2023. (Photo by Olga Maltseva /AFP / Getty Images)

Last weekend, the news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was quite literally rocked by an explosion: a blast in a St. Petersburg café killing Vladlen Tatarsky (real name Maksim Fomin), a self-styled voyenkor or “war correspondent,” during a meeting with his fans. Given that the deceased was not only a notably bloodthirsty war propagandist but a fairly recent combatant, it’s not surprising that many commentators outside the pro-Kremlin orbit—Ukrainian, Russian, and otherwise—took the view that he was if not a legitimate target, then a deeply unsympathetic victim. But this lack of mourning greatly disturbed Glenn Greenwald, intrepid champion of independent journalism everywhere, who has been on a tear accusing various people of justifying what he calls a “terrorist attack” on a “Russian journalist.”

Not surprisingly, Greenwald’s righteous outrage put him in the same corner as Russian officialdom:

In fact, “propagandist” is a fairly mild term for what Tatarsky was (“terrorist” and “thug” are far more appropriate); and while one may have misgivings about the method of his removal, which reportedly injured as many as forty other people, including a 14-year-old girl, the idea that “journalist organizations” should have risen up in solidarity with Tatarsky’s mourners is the height of absurdity.

Until his assassination, Tatarsky, a 40-year-old Donetsk native, had one big moment in the annals of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Last September, a viral video clip from a livestream he did from the Kremlin after Vladimir Putin’s speech on the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces showed the gleeful voyenkor making a startlingly candid declaration: “We’ll defeat everyone, kill everyone, rob all the right people, and everything is going to be just the way we like it.” In a grimly hilarious touch, he added, “That’s it, God be with you” before signing off.

Владлен Татарский воєнкор РФ всех убьем и всех ограбим как мы любим

(Ukrainian journalist Natalia Vlashchenko, commenting on her YouTube show after Tatarsky’s demise: “God has a killer sense of humor.”)

On Telegram, Kremlin propaganda queen Margarita Simonyan tried this week to explain Tatarsky’s promise to kill and rob as the understandable anger of a man “sentenced to prison, torture, and humiliation by the current [Kyiv] regime.” Tatarsky was, in fact, sentenced to either eight or twelve years in a penal colony (reports vary), but that was back in 2011, under the Moscow-friendly regime of Viktor Yanukovych, when Tatarsky was not a dissident but a run-of-the-mill felon convicted of robbing a bank at gunpoint to shore up his failing furniture-store business.

The “Russian spring”—i.e., the insurgency instigated by Russian agents in Eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 after Viktor Yanukovych’s downfall and Kyiv’s pro-Western turn—changed Tatarsky’s life. Amidst the chaos of war in the Donbas, he escaped from the penal colony, joined the separatists, and got a pardon for his past offenses from the authorities of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” For a while, he served under Donetsk commander and reported Russian agent Igor Bezler, who went by the nickname Bes or “the Demon” and bragged about executing captive Ukrainian volunteer fighters. Then, in 2019, Tatarsky moved to Moscow, became a citizen of Russia, and began to write about his experiences as a blogger and author of three volumes of memoirs (Escape, War, Meditation). His pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky, a partial homage to a novel by Russian writer Victor Pelevin, combined a tribute to his Tatar mother with a Soviet-era first name derived from “Vladimir Lenin.” In February 2022, three weeks before the start of the Russian “special operation,” he returned to Donetsk.

Tatarsky claimed that he was raised in the spirit of Russian patriotism by his coal miner father and was “ideologically engaged” since his boyhood, when he repeatedly disrupted Ukrainian language classes in school (still in the Soviet era) because he believed there was no need for such lessons. It’s hard to know whether this was a true story or an after-the-fact self-reinvention; but there is no question that, as an adult, Tatarsky was driven by visceral loathing of all things Ukrainian. He derided as “morons” those who made a distinction between Ukrainian “fascists” and Ukraine itself, characterizing the latter as a “demon state” that needed to be destroyed. He also dispensed with the official pretense of respect for Ukrainian culture, at one point saying that any Ukrainian-born person who moved to Russia but wanted to study Ukrainian and read Ukrainian literature in the original should be investigated as a potential Ukrainian intelligence agent.

One may see a certain value in the unvarnished candor of Tatarsky’s ultranationalist warmongering: He wrote that “the Russian idea is war” and that “our guys are born as warriors who dream of experiencing the ecstasy of combat.” He fantasized about making Europe “bend over.” He could also be very blunt about the nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The expatriate Russian writer Dmitry Bykov has said that Tatarsky’s chronicles of the Donbas “insurgency” in his memoirs could be highly useful as evidence for a future war crimes trial, with their depiction of the separatist “republics” as a de facto criminal underworld in an ill-fitting mask of Russian Orthodox Christianity—“gang warfare with a dash of prayer.”

After the 2022 Russian invasion, this hideous candor made Tatarsky an equally blunt cheerleader for atrocities. Last September, he welcomed Russian strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure, gloating that “hospitals will stop working and more khokhols [an anti-Ukrainian slur] are going to croak on operating tables.” A few days before his death, reports the Moscow Times, Tatarsky approvingly posted on his Telegram channel a video said to be showing Russian artillery destroying a vehicle carrying wounded Ukrainian soldiers. And, on the morning of his death, he shared a macabre video from the Wagner mercenary group that showed several Wagner men abusing an either dead or unconscious man presented as a “Georgian mercenary,” the word GRUZIN (“Georgian”) scrawled on his forehead with a black marker. (Ukrainian media have reported that the victim, whose status is still unknown, was in fact a civilian from Donetsk.)

That Tatarsky was mainstreamed by the official Russian media in the past year—he reported for RT and appeared as an “analyst” on Vladimir Solovyov’s cable show—says a great deal about official Russian journalism. That Glenn Greenwald would also elevate him to the rank of “journalist” says a great deal about Greenwald, who, as far as I can tell, has not said a word in defense of actual journalists persecuted by the Putin regime—including, most recently, Evan Gershkovich, the American Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia on charges of espionage the government has produced no evidence to support. I suppose one should at least appreciate the fact that unlike Solovyov, who bathetically exclaimed on his show, “When are we going to avenge our saints?,” Greenwald did not elevate Tatarsky to holy martyrdom.

Tatarsky’s strange and gruesome demise would not have been out of place in a Quentin Tarantino film. On Sunday, April 2, a young woman arrived at his event at the Street Bar café on the University Embankment in St. Petersburg. She was carrying a box with a special gift for the voyenkor: a gilded bust of himself in a military helmet, supposedly made by an admirer. According to a witness, the woman, who introduced herself as Nastya, told Tatarsky that security had made her leave the box at the entrance because they thought it might be a bomb; he told her to bring it over. A video shot by an attendee shows him laughing and joking as he displays the bust to the audience (“What a handsome fellow—is this supposed to be me?”). Moments later, as he was putting it back in the box, the apparently remote-controlled device exploded in his hands, killing him instantly. Another video, filmed outside, shows a shaken young man saying,  “I think our speaker is fucked.”

The young woman, who left the café in the general commotion, was soon identified as 26-year-old Darya Trepova, a former college student, vintage clothing shop employee, and onetime antiwar protester; she is now being held by Russian authorities on charges of murder and terrorism. Official Russian media report that Trepova has confessed to being recruited by expatriate Russian journalist Roman Popkov, who supposedly asked her to pick up the bust and give it to Tatarsky, and that Popkov had another “contact” who she thought worked with the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU. (Trepova has also reportedly said that her handler told her the gift to Tatarsky contained a listening device; whether or not that’s true, it seems clear that she did not know it contained explosives, considering that she accepted Tatarsky’s invitation to sit near him after he picked up the bust.) Popkov has staunchly denied it and has pointed out, not unreasonably, that Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, could strong-arm the young woman into confessing to anything and implicating anyone. Indeed, Russian authorities have already been trying, preposterously, to implicate associates of jailed blogger and political activist Aleksei Navalny, supposedly acting in concert with the SBU.

Who was really behind it? While it’s conceivable that the bombing was a ‘false flag’ operation by the FSB, that theory raises several difficult questions: If the motive is to create new excuses for punitive measures against dissidents, it’s only fair to point out that the Kremlin doesn’t seem to need excuses for that. If it’s to whip up pro-war sentiment in the populace, Tatarsky is too minor a figure to accomplish that goal. It is also worth noting that at least some strongly pro-Ukraine commentators, such as expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, do believe that the SBU did it (and that it was an entirely justified, brilliantly executed operation to take out a terrorist).

One fascinating angle is the connection to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, who just happens to own the café where the blast happened and has turned it over to a war hawk group called Cyber Front Z to use for its meetings and events; Prigozhin is said to have been close to fellow ex-convict Tatarsky. One theory bruited about by some pundits is that Tatarsky’s killing may have been a warning from the Kremlin to Prigozhin, who has recently been at loggerheads with Russian authorities and may be seen as getting too big for his britches. Or perhaps Prigozhin himself wanted to make a martyr of his friend to boost his own status and portray himself as a noble avenger. Prigozhin was certainly quick to use Tatarsky’s death for propaganda and public relations: shortly after the bombing, he posted a video of himself planting a Russian flag on some rubble in Bakhmut that he claimed was the city hall building and saying that it was in tribute to Tatarsky. And yet, in another odd detail, the Wagner chief has also said that he “would not accuse the Kyiv regime” of orchestrating the attack and that he believes it is “the work of a group of radicals unlikely to have any links to the government.”

It is also worth noting that an entity calling itself the National Republican Army and claiming to be a group of Russian freedom fighters has, in fact, claimed responsibility for the killing of “the well-known warmonger and war propagandist” Tatarsky. (The statement also denied any connection to Trepova while hailing her courage as an anti-war protester.) But there is some serious doubt as to whether this group, which previously claimed to have carried out the car bombing that killed war propagandist Darya Dugina, actually exists. It could be a front used by Ukrainian intelligence to carry out operations it cannot claim openly. Or it could be, at least as plausibly, an FSB operation—intended, among other things, to draw out potential domestic anti-Kremlin subversives.

Given Tatarsky’s propensity for homicidal rhetoric, it’s difficult to disagree with the summary offered by expatriate Russian journalist Michael Nacke at the end of his YouTube program discussing the war blogger’s murder: “When you call for death, it answers the call and comes to you—and comes for you.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the bombing was a morally righteous act. Moscow Times commentator Konstantin Pakhaliuk, who refers to the dead man as a “bloodthirsty character,” find such justifications troubling—especially considering the injuries to bystanders—and argues that it would have been far more just for Tatarsky to be brought to trial. And, given that Trepova was apparently duped and put in harm’s way, whoever planned the attack certainly falls short of good-guy status.

But if there may be no good guys in this story, we do know at least one indisputably bad guy involved: Vladlen Tatarsky, whose mix of authentic thuggery, pseudo-religiosity, and openly fascistic nationalism made him the perfect symbol of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Perhaps the best eulogy for Tatarsky was delivered on a YouTube stream by expatriate Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky: Recalling the exchange from Berthold Brecht’s Galileo on whether the unhappy land is the one that has no hero or the one that needs a hero, Belkovsky concluded, “Unhappy is the land in which such a man becomes a hero.”

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.