Vladlen Tatarsky, the pro-Putin propagandist killed in St. Petersburg on Sunday in what was probably a targeted attack, was a “military blogger” (“milblogger”), a rather peculiar figure within the Russian information system. Milbloggers are propagandists who disseminate information, news and content in favor of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine mainly using the Telegram messaging platform, and who have become extremely popular and famous over the last few months, to the point of influencing the Russian debate on war.
Milbloggers are rarely professional journalists: more often they are civilians who improvise war correspondents, perhaps having some military service experience behind them. The most famous of them have hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram (Tatarsky had about 560,000, and he wasn’t even the most followed) and in Russia they have become minor celebrities.
Their popularity is due to the fact that, not being part of the institutional media, milbloggers are able to give more information or more detailed news than the media subjected to censorship. Furthermore, they often express opinions on the war that differ from the official positions of Vladimir Putin’s regime and even criticize the Russian military hierarchies. This does not mean that they are movements of opposition or dissidence against the regime: the milbloggers are all violently nationalist, and indeed generally express more extremist and brutal positions than the official ones. But precisely because they move from a position of extreme loyalty to Russian imperialism, they often harshly criticize the military or politics arguing that they are not doing enough to militarily crush Ukraine.
First of all there is a small lexical question to clarify: practically none of the Russian “military bloggers” has a blog. Everyone writes and posts content on Telegram. But the term “milblogger,” which originated at the time of the US war in Iraq, is still used almost everywhere to refer to war commentators outside the mainstream media. Added to this is the fact that in Russia people who engage in digital activism, due to a custom that dates back several years ago, are still called “bloggers”, even though the term has now taken on a different meaning from its original one.
The phenomenon of “milbloggers”, which has existed in Russia for many years, became prevalent and widespread after the invasion of Ukraine. Russian milbloggers have very varied personal histories: Vladlen Tatarsky (whose real name was Maxim Fomin) was, for example, a bank robber born in eastern Ukraine who in 2011 escaped from prison and joined the pro-Russian separatist militias to fight in the Donbass. He was pardoned by the separatist and Russian authorities, took Russian citizenship and started a Telegram channel which quickly became very famous after the invasion.
Another famous miblogger, Semyon Pegov of the WarGonzo Telegram channel, is a former war journalist who set up on his own and opened his own editorial project. He covered several wars before Ukraine, but he only really became famous after the invasion: he now has 1.2 million followers on Telegram. Other well-known and highly cited milbloggers are Boris Rozhin of the Colonel Cassad channel (800,000 followers) and Igor Girkin (also known as Igor Strelkov), a former Russian colonel who was defense minister in the pro-Russian separatist government in Donetsk.
Many milbloggers have contacts with the Russian army or with the Wagner group, the company of Russian mercenaries which is fighting in eastern Ukraine together with regular soldiers, and often make videos or post content from the field, in some cases from the front line, as if they were war correspondents. Some of them focus more on the news and on the story of the fighting, others instead analyze the conflict. Even the tones vary a lot: there are the more immediate and artisanal milbloggers and the more accurate ones that create detailed maps and infographics.
The main reason the milbloggers have a huge following, though, is that they seem to demonstrate some independence from the official Russian line on the war. In recent months, as the situation on the ground worsened for the Russian military, the milbloggers became increasingly pessimistic and critical, while the official media continued to maintain a line of optimism and denial of the problems.
For example: When Ukraine bombed a building housing Russian soldiers in Makiivka on January 1, 2023, killing dozens of soldiers, milbloggers were the first to admit that Makiivka was one of Russia’s worst military disasters. since the beginning of the war, while the official media tried for days to downplay the news.
Milbloggers, we said, tend to have very extremist positions: Tatarsky, among other things, supported the Bucha massacre, in which the Russian army killed over 400 Ukrainian civilians. Other milbloggers have labeled Ukrainians as “non-human” and “Satanists” and likened “Ukrainianism” to cancer.
At the same time, milbloggers are the harshest in criticizing the shortcomings and mistakes of the Russian military leadership: many of them over the months have expressed vicious criticisms against the officers of the Russian armed forces or against the defense minister, and have had also important roles in the debate around the progress of the war and the numerous changes that took place in the management of the invasion.
Of course, these criticisms are never directed directly at the Russian regime or at President Vladimir Putin, otherwise they would not be tolerated. Milbloggers walk a fairly narrow line between regime criticism and regime allegiance, and very often participate in political confrontations within the regime itself. For example, many milbloggers have close ties with the Wagner group and with the group’s head Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin has harshly attacked the army hierarchies in recent months, calling them inadequate, and has used the opinions and information of milbloggers to argue his case.
Many milbloggers, however, are directly supported by the regime, have received public awards and attended ceremonies in the Kremlin.
Also due to their political connections, the Telegram channels of many milbloggers are followed with interest (albeit with distance and caution) also by Western analysts: they help to have information on what is happening on the other side of the front, and above all on the progress of the debate , disagreements and discussions within the Russian military community.
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