The Russian military blogger killed on Sunday in an explosion in St. Petersburg was a prominent figure in an increasingly vocal and influential movement of hawkish, ultranationalist figures who broadly support the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, but often criticize how the war is conducted.
The blogger, Maksim Fomin, 40, who was more popularly known by his pen name, Vladlen Tatarsky, represented a radical faction of pro-invasion bloggers and activists — he advocated erasing Ukraine as an independent nation — and his views earned him an invitation to the Kremlin last year. The bloggers include former and current members of Russia’s armed services or its proxy forces and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and some like Mr. Tatarsky, are originally from that region.
The military bloggers occupy a unique place in Russia’s increasingly restrictive media climate of the past year, where news organizations have been forced to shut down and criticism of the military or the war has been criminalized. The bloggers are tolerated by the government even when they openly denounce missteps, and they have collected millions of followers online, making them an important source of war news, giving a far less sanitized account than the state-controlled media.
Their reporting and commentary seems to serve President Vladimir V. Putin’s purposes by showing apparently genuine and robust support for the brutal invasion of Ukraine. And while pro-democracy activists and members of the Russian intelligentsia question the war, the backgrounds of pro-war bloggers like Mr. Tatarsky — a former miner, small business owner and prison inmate — suggest a different take from less rarefied segments society.
Though they criticize the military, they never cross the red line of challenging the rationale for the invasion — in fact, some of them take more stridently hawkish positions than Mr. Putin does publicly.
The bloggers create an image of a certain plurality of opinion and also offer pro-war Russians a more personal take on the war by creating a “sense of trust,” said Irina Pankratova, an investigative journalist with The Bell, a Russian news outlet, who has studied military bloggers, including their finances. “They are not some dry news assembly lines,” she added.
Many of the bloggers have financial backing from sources like Russian state-run media or Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who runs Wagner, a private military group whose mercenaries have been fighting on the front lines in Ukraine, Ms. Pankratova said. She said that Mr. Tatarsky was a “prominent member of the community” of bloggers sponsored by a Kremlin-linked company, who repost each other’s reports and commentaries.
He was killed by an explosion in a St. Petersburg cafe owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of Wagner. Mr. Prigozhin said on Telegram that he had allowed the venue to be used by a nationalist activist group that organized the event where Mr. Tatarsky was speaking about his experiences in the war zone, and where he was killed.
His death will force other bloggers to think about their own personal security, but it “won’t affect the overall volumes of propaganda,” according to Ms. Pankratova.
Mr. Tatarsky was born in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region near Russia where loyalties to the two countries are often divided within communities and even families. Yuri Podolyaka, perhaps the most popular military blogger, is from the northeastern Ukrainian region of Sumy, also bordering Russia. Commenters like them, from Ukraine but vehemently loyal to Moscow and hostile to Kyiv, are particularly loathed in their home country.
In his videos, Mr. Tatarsky said he had opposed Ukraine’s independence since childhood. Though his great-grandmother spoke Ukrainian, he said, he would often lash out against Ukrainian language and culture and argued that Ukraine, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, must be part of Russia.
According to his own writings, Mr. Tatarsky started his career as a miner, like his father. In 2006, he opened a small business producing and selling furniture. In 2011, he robbed a bank and was sentenced by a Ukrainian court to eight years in prison for armed assault.
In 2014, Kremlin-backed forces fighting to wrest the Donbas away from Ukraine freed him from a penal colony, and he joined their ranks as a volunteer fighter, he later wrote, and fought alongside them until 2019. Then Mr. Tatarsky moved to Russia, penned two autobiographical books and a volume of short stories and, in 2021, he obtained Russian citizenship.
Since the Russian invasion began in February last year, Mr. Tatarsky’s blog had accumulated hundreds of thousands of subscribers who came to watch his snappy daily video updates, some of which were filmed after he had visited Russian military units on the front lines in Ukraine. In the videos, which he described as “the main military show of the country,” he talked about various problems faced by the Russian Army and gave his forecasts about their battlefield movements.
He began to appear frequently on Russian state television and eventually attracted the attention of the government. In September, he was invited to the Kremlin to hear President Vladimir V. Putin announce the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, a move broadly denounced by Western nations.
In his video from the Kremlin that day, Mr. Tatarsky said: “We’ll conquer everyone, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll loot whoever we need to, and everything will be just as we like it.”
He argued that Russia needed to eliminate Ukraine as a state, a position even Mr. Putin has not publicly advocated. Mr. Tatarsky and other bloggers have often said that they are prepared to accept nothing less than a total victory by Moscow over Kyiv.
Mr. Tatarsky often used inflammatory and divisive language to describe his attitude toward the Ukrainian state and culture. He argued that many Ukrainians were actually Russians who were brainwashed to turn against their homeland. He also supported missile strikes against Ukrainian civilian areas.
In an online tribute to Mr. Tatarsky, another popular military blogger known by the pseudonym Starshe Eddy called on everyone “with arms in their hands and who loved Vladlen” to remember that “there won’t be a better last feast for our brother than a destroyed enemy.”
“Russia’s victory is everything that Maksim Fomin dreamed about,” Starshe Eddy wrote in a post on Telegram. “This is everything that we spoke about at our every meeting.”
For months, Moscow’s forces have failed to make much progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of seizing the entire Donbas, an important industrial, mining and agricultural region. In that time, Mr. Tatarsky spoke about the need to “change the system,” and blamed army bureaucracy and a lack of advanced weapons, most of all drones, for stalling the Russian offensive.
But he never directed his criticism at Mr. Putin, however, whom he referred to as “Our Caesar,” instead focusing his ire on the Russian military’s top brass.