Well-known Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky has been killed in a blast in a cafe in St Petersburg, according to Russian news agencies, quoting sources as saying it was caused by an explosive device.
Russian news reports said Tatarsky was killed in the explosion at the Street Food Bar No. 1 cafe on Sunday. Twenty-five people were wounded, and 19 of them were hospitalised, according to the regional governor, Alexander Beglov.
Tatarsky is the pen name for Maxim Fomin, who had accumulated more than 560,000 followers on Telegram and was one of the most prominent of the influential military bloggers who have provided an often critical running commentary on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
He was among hundreds of attendees at a lavish Kremlin ceremony last September to proclaim Russia’s annexation of four partly occupied regions of Ukraine, a move that most countries at the United Nations condemned as illegal.
Russian media and military bloggers said Tatarsky was meeting with members of the public and that a woman presented him with a box containing a statuette that apparently exploded.
A patriotic Russian group that organised the event said it had taken security precautions, but added that “regrettably, they proved insufficient”.
Russia’s state Investigative Committee said it had opened a murder investigation. There was no indication of who was responsible.
The Interior Ministry said everyone at the cafe at the time of the blast was being “checked for involvement”.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, said there were at least 100 people in and around the cafe for the event organised by the “Cyber Front Z Movement”, where Tatarsky was speaking.
“This was a well-known and busy area of St Petersburg known as University Embankment, in the heart of the city … on a Sunday afternoon at 5pm is when the event started. There would have been a lot of people in this cafe and also in the vicinity,” Jabbari said.
Mash, a Telegram channel with links to Russian law enforcement, posted a video that appeared to show Tatarsky, microphone in hand, being presented with a statuette of a helmeted soldier. It said the explosion happened minutes later.
“According to officials in St Petersburg, they are looking for this woman who presented this gift to the organisers and the speaker himself. They’re trying to figure out what happened to her, to question her about where this gift initially originated from and what her involvement would be,” Jabbari said.
After the Kremlin’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine last year, Tatarsky posted a video in which he vowed: “That’s it. We’ll defeat everybody, kill everybody, rob everybody we need to. It will all be the way we like it. God be with you.”
Russia’s foreign ministry paid tribute to Tatarsky, lashing out at Western governments for failing to react to the attack.
Bloggers like Tatarsky “are defenders of the truth”, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram, adding that the lack of reaction from Western governments “despite their concerns for the welfare of journalists and the free press speaks for itself”.
‘Spiders are eating each other in a jar’
A top Ukrainian government official speculated that internal Russian opposition to the Kremlin’s invasion was behind the blast.
“Spiders are eating each other in a jar,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote in English on Twitter. “Question of when domestic terrorism would become an instrument of internal political fight was a matter of time.”
“He was killed vilely. Terrorists cannot do otherwise. The Kyiv regime is a terrorist regime. It needs to be destroyed, there’s no other way to stop it,” he said.
If Tatarsky was deliberately targeted, it would be the second assassination on Russian soil of a figure associated with the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Security Service accused Ukraine’s secret services last August of killing Darya Dugina, the daughter of an ultra-nationalist, in a car bomb attack near Moscow that President Vladimir Putin called “evil”. Ukraine denied involvement.
Russia’s war bloggers, an assortment of military correspondents and freelance commentators with army backgrounds, have enjoyed broad freedom from the Kremlin to publish hard-hitting views on the war, now in its 14th month. Putin even made one of them a member of his human rights council last year.
They reacted with shock to the news of Tatarsky’s death.
“He was in the hottest spots of the special military operation and he always came out alive. But the war found him in a Petersburg cafe,” said Semyon Pegov, who blogs under the name War Gonzo.
Alexander Khodakovsky, a leading pro-Moscow figure in eastern Ukraine, wrote: “Max, if you were a nobody, you’d have died of ‘vodka and headcolds’. But you were dangerous to them, you did your business like no one else could. We will pray for you, brother.”