April 4, 2023 - 10:30am

 “Some handsome guy! Is that me?” enthused military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky on Sunday, receiving a golden plaster bust in his own image. It may be the last thing he ever saw. A vocal supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tatarsky was hosting the ‘Cyber Front Z’ discussion group with his fans at a St Petersburg café owned by Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Minutes after Tatarsky took the statue, it exploded, having been rigged with the equivalent of 200 grams of TNT. The blast ripped through the venue, killing him and injuring 33. 

Russian authorities yesterday arrested 26-year-old Darya Trepova on suspicion of involvement in the explosion. Trepova certainly has the political credentials of an anti-war activist, having been detained at protests in the early days of the invasion and at rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Yet, if Trepova was responsible, the question remains as to whether she was acting alone. 

In video footage, Trepova claims under questioning that she “brought a statuette there that exploded”. Yet, when quizzed over who gave her the item, she merely replies: “Can I tell you later?” Her husband Dmitri Rylov said that “she would never have been able to do something like that on her own […] she was set up, she was used by some people.” Meanwhile, Prigozhin himself suggested the attack was likely to have been the work of “a group of radicals”. 

Prigozhin additionally noted that “everything is similar” to the August assassination of Darya Dugina. A political commentator in favour of the invasion of Ukraine, Dugina was also the daughter of far-Right nationalist political philosopher and Putin supporter Alexander Dugin. She died in a car bombing outside Moscow, the FSB claiming that a Ukrainian woman was responsible. 

The killing bears striking similarities to Tatarsky’s death, both targeted bombings of prominent pro-war figures, conducted in public and with a flair for the dramatic. In both instances, lone female assassins reportedly planted the explosives, having established relations with the victim in advance. The suspect in Dugina’s case had moved into her apartment building, according to FSB intelligence. Meanwhile, Trepova is believed to have visited previous events involving Tatarsky and established such friendly ties that he told security guards to let her bring the statuette in and even invited her to sit alongside him, an offer which she wisely declined. 

Although ostensibly the work of lone wolves, the two incidents shed light on the burgeoning activities of radical groups. Opposition activist and ex-Duma member Ilya Ponomarev has claimed that Dugina’s murder was the work of the National Republican Army, a shadowy grassroots network struggling against Putin, corruption, oligarchy and the Ukraine war. With their tactics encompassing arson attacks against military recruitment offices and “calling for lone wolves to attack the state,” Ponomarev has suggested that the group organised Dugina’s execution as they “needed something high-profile for which they could become well-known”. He has also now claimed that Tatarsky’s death was due to resistance fighters who “eliminate war criminals”. 

A group fitting a similar profile is the RPD Black Bridge Movement. Although it has not claimed responsibility for Tatarsky’s killing, it commented that supporters of the war are “legitimate” targets. Formed last September, the movement claimed responsibility for a blast at an FSB warehouse in March. If its activists were involved in Sunday’s killing, it would constitute a significant escalation in the group’s ambitions, moving from attacks on buildings to high-profile, targeted assassinations in much the same manner as the National Republican Army. 

With protest suppressed and criticism of the war carrying jail sentences of up to 15 years, underground activists are advocating more violent means to express their opposition. The prospect of a string of assassinations of prominent pro-war figures may exacerbate anxieties among Russia’s elite. Last week a leaked recording of a conversation between record producer Iosif Prigozhin and ex-senator Farkhad Akhmedov provided a rare insight into the frustrations of Russia’s ruling class with Putin’s war, the pair criticising the intervention and discussing discontent among the President’s closest associates. 

As news of Tatarsky’s death emerged, Ponomarev posted a photo of Dugina and Tatarsky, the caption reading “One fate”. One of a number endorsing violent methods to eliminate supporters of Putin’s war, last year he asserted: “People will realise that there is something bigger happening”.