Pro-War Bloggers Like One Killed in Bombings Are an Influential Group

The Russian military blogger who was killed Sunday in an explosion in St. St. Petersburg is a prominent figure in an increasingly vocal and influential movement of hawkish ultranationalists who widely support the Kremlin's war on Ukraine but frequently criticize how it is being waged.

The blogger, Maksim Fomin, 40, who is better known by his pen name, Vladlen Tatarsky, represents a radical faction of pro-invasion bloggers and activists — he advocates abolishing 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 the Russian armed forces or proxy forces and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and some, like Mr Tatarsky, hail from the region.

Military bloggers occupy a unique place in Russia's increasingly strict media climate in the past year, where news organizations have been forced to shut down and criticism of the military or war has been criminalized. Bloggers are tolerated by the government even when they openly denounce missteps, and they have amassed millions of followers online, making them an important source of war news, providing accounts far cleaner than state-controlled media.

Their reporting and comments appear to have served President Vladimir V. Putin's purposes by demonstrating seemingly genuine and fervent support for his brutal invasion of Ukraine. And while pro-democracy activists and members of the Russian intelligentsia question the war, the background of pro-war bloggers like Mr Tatarsky – a former miner, small business owner and prison convict – suggests a different view from less clear segments of society.

Although they criticized the military, they never crossed a red line to challenge the reasons for the invasion—in fact, some of them took a more hawkish position than Putin has publicly taken up.

The bloggers create a certain image of plurality of opinion and also offer pro-war Russians a more personal view of the war by creating a “sense of trust”, said Irina Pankratova, an investigative journalist at The Bell, a Russian news outlet, who has study military bloggers, including their finances. “They are not an assembly line of dry news,” he added.

Many bloggers get financial support from sources such as Russia's state-run media or Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who runs Wagner, a private military group whose mercenaries fight on the front lines in Ukraine, said Ms. Pankratova. He said Mr Tatarsky was a “leading member of the community” of bloggers sponsored by Kremlin-linked companies, who reposted one another's reports and comments.

He was killed by an explosion at a St. Petersburg belongs to Mr. Prigozhin, who said on Telegram that he had allowed the venue to be used by a nationalist activist group that organized an event where Mr Tatarsky spoke about his experiences in the war zone, and where he was killed.

His death will force other bloggers to think about their own personal safety, but “will not affect the overall volume of propaganda,” according to Ms. Pankratova.

Mr Tatarsky was born in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region near Russia where loyalties to both nations are often divided within communities and even families. Yuri Podolyaka, perhaps the most popular military blogger, hails from the Sumy region of north-eastern Ukraine, which also shares a border with Russia. Commentators like them, from Ukraine but fiercely loyal to Moscow and hostile to Kyiv, in particular hate in their home country.

In his video, Mr Tatarsky says that he has been against Ukrainian independence since childhood. Although his great-grandmother spoke Ukrainian, he saidhe has frequently criticized the Ukrainian language and culture and argued that Ukraine, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, should become part of Russia.

According to his own writings, Mr. Tatarsky began his career as a miner, like his father. In 2006, he opened a small business that manufactures and sells 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 fought to seize Donbas from Ukraine freeing it from the 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, writing two autobiographical books and one volume of short stories and, in 2021, he acquires Russian citizenship.

Since the Russian invasion began in February last year, Mr Tatarsky's blog has garnered hundreds of thousands of subscribers who come to watch his sharp daily video updates, some of which were filmed after he visited a frontline Russian military unit in Ukraine. In the video, which he describes as “the country's premier military showcase”, he talks about the various problems faced by the Russian Army and gives his predictions about their battlefield moves.

He began appearing frequently on Russian state television and eventually caught the attention of the government. In September, he was invited to the Kremlin to hear Putin announce his annexation of four Ukrainian territories, a move widely condemned by Western nations.

In his video from the Kremlin that day, Mr. Tatarsky said“We will subdue everyone, we will kill everyone, we will plunder whoever we need, and everything will be just as we like.”

He argued that Russia needed to abolish Ukraine as a state, a position that even Putin does not openly support. Mr. Tatarsky and other bloggers often say that they are ready for nothing less than a total victory for Moscow over Kyiv.

Mr. Tatarsky frequently uses inflammatory and divisive language to describe his attitude to the Ukrainian state and culture. He argued that many Ukrainians were actually Russians brainwashed against their homeland. He also supports missile attacks on civilian areas of Ukraine.

In an online tribute to Mr Tatarsky, another popular military blogger known by the pseudonym Starshe Eddy called on everyone “with their hands in theirs and who love Vladlen” to remember that “no final party can be better for our brothers than for the enemy who destroyed.”

“Russia's victory is everything that Maksim Fomin dreamed of,” Starshe Eddy wrote in a post on Telegram. “This is all we talk about at every one of our meetings.”

For months, Moscow's forces have failed to make much headway toward Putin's goal of capturing the entire Donbass, a vital industrial, mining and agricultural region. At the time, Mr Tatarsky spoke of the need to “change the system”, and blamed the army's bureaucracy and lack of advanced weapons, particularly drones, for halting the Russian offensive.

But he has never directed his criticism at Mr Putin, however, who he refers to as “Our Emperor,” instead focusing his anger on top Russian military brass.