St. Petersburg bombing stirs fear of new attacks within Russia

Sunday’s attack in a busy café has raised concerns, particularly among the elite, that no one is safe from the war in Ukraine anymore

Vladlen Tatarski homenaje
A man at the impromptu tribute in front of the St. Petersburg café, where pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarski was assassinated on Sunday.OLGA MALTSEVA (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has built his power on a legend that has seeped through Russian society in the last two decades: that he put an end to the violence that ravaged the country in the 1990s. But Sunday’s attack in a Saint Petersburg café and last August’s car bombing that killed the daughter of one of Russia’s leading ultra-nationalists have stirred up memories of those nightmare years, especially among the elite.

While the war is being fought on Ukrainian soil, there is a feeling that no one is safe anymore. “This terrorist attack is one more reason for us to think about our own security hundreds of kilometers from the front. The war can reach anyone, anywhere,” Andrey Gurulyov, a retired member of the Russian military and a deputy of the Duma, posted on Telegram.

Even the Russian opposition has been caught in the firing line. The Kremlin has linked it to Sunday’s terrorist act without any evidence other than that opposition leader Alexei Navalny has expressed similar views to Daria Trepova, the anti-war activist who is the main suspect of the bombing.

Pro-Russian blogger Vladlen Tatarsky was killed on Sunday when an explosion went off in a busy café in St. Petersburg, where he was speaking at a patriotic discussion event. Another 30 people were injured. Russian media said that a woman presented him with a box containing a statuette that apparently exploded. On Monday, Putin posthumously awarded Tatarsky with the Order of Courage.

Hours after the bombing, dozens of people approached the police cordon around the café to pay their respects to the blogger, who had more than half a million followers. One of them, a young woman who wanted to remain anonymous, told EL PAÍS of a message that her friends have been repeating these months: “On February 24, you thought that St. Petersburg was very far [from the front] and [the invasion] would not affect us, but I told you: it will affect us all one way or another.”

For this woman, a red line was crossed with the murder of Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, an ultra-patriot who, to a certain degree, influenced the idea that Russia should wage war with the West. The slogan on Dugin’s website Geopolitika is “Cartharge must be destroyed” — a quote by Cato The Elder, which seeks to compare the West to Carthage.

The murder of Dugina, who was killed in a car bomb in the outskirts of Russia, and the suspects’ successful escape put the Russian elite on edge for the first time — until then, they believed they were safe from their enemies.

“We have seen that the Ukrainian special services and their supervisors can carry out operations [in Russia]. This is demonstrated by the terrorist attacks in which Daria Dugina and Maxim Fomin [Tatarsky’s real name] were killed,” Alexander Kots, a pro-Russian war correspondent, told Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent TV presenter and propagandist. “Ukraine acts aggressively and professionally within the territory of the Russian Federation,” said Kots, adding that critics within Russia also present a threat to the country.

This point was also made by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who controls the state-backed group of mercenaries known as the Wagner Group. In a video posted on Monday, Prigozhin appeared in military gear and a Russian flag, which he said had the words “in good memory of Vladlen Tatarsky.” Since the attack on Sunday, he has been inundated with questions — Prigozhin is also the owner of the café where the bomb went off.

“Yes, it is all similar to the death of Darya Dugina, but I would not blame the Kyiv regime for these actions. I think there is a group of radicals that doesn’t have much to do with their government,” said the businessman, who used to be known as Putin’s chef because of his catering company, in a statement.

Ironically, the Russian TV channel Shot on Monday not only released the first images of the suspect, but also said, that according to its sources, a former member of the National Bolshevik Party — which was co-founded by Dugin and later banned by the Kremlin for its radicalism — could have been involved in the attack. According to the channel, the party’s former Moscow chief, Roman Popkov, may have given Daria Trepova the statuette, lying to her that it was a listening device, not a bomb.

Popkov has denied the allegations. He admits that Daria Trepova started writing to him at the beginning of the war, but that he would never launch such an attack. “Do you think I would do this, with my family in Russia?” he told the newspaper The Insider, adding that there are “enough groups [within Russia] that would carry out attacks like this.”

The Kremlin looks for the enemy within Russia

Trepova, 26, was arrested on Monday in a friend’s apartment in St. Petersburg. The Kremlin has used the fact that she took part in the protests against the war in Ukraine in February 2022 to link Sunday’s attack to Russian opposition parties.

Russia’s National Antiterrorism Committee said that the bombing was perpetrated “by Ukraine’s special services with the participation of people collaborating with the Anti-Corruption Foundation [FBK],” the organization led by Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, which authorities have declared “extremist.”

The Investigative Committee of Russia (SKR) repeated the same message, pointing out that Trepova “holds opposition views and is a supporter of the FBK.”

The Anti-Corruption Foundation has denied the allegations. “The organization involved in political assassinations in Russia is not the FBK, but the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service],” Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, wrote in a message on Twitter.

“Questions remain unanswered,” he added. “In the center of St. Petersburg, in the 24th year of [Putin’s] stability, in broad daylight, a key propagandist is boldly killed. One way or another, this is the responsibility of the supposedly omnipotent special services.”

Political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik analysis center, argues that the accusations against Navalny and his organization are aimed at criminalizing all voices that oppose the invasion of Ukraine. “Now all those who participate in anti-war actions will automatically be seen as potential terrorists in the eyes of not only the security forces, but also the patriotic public. This, of course, will exacerbate the social division,” said Stanovaya.

Another well-known pro-war correspondent, Alexander Sladkov, criticized the fact that the police — not Russia’s secret service FSB — was investigating the St. Peterborough bombing. “I don’t think the quality of police professionals is inferior to that of the Cheka [the Soviet secret police], but it is a very important case of terrorism. Why isn’t the FSB at the center?” Sladkov wrote on a blog. “We are losing ideological fighters,” he continued, adding that the fight against Ukraine was like a chess game “where the white side [Russia] is running out of pawns and bishops.”

Meanwhile, some members of the Kremlin’s inner circle have been clamoring for revenge. “This time there will be no sympathetic juries or juries of any kind. And thank God,” said Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russian-state controlled media organization RT.

Authorities have also used Tatarsky’s murder to rally support for the war in Ukraine. “Russia is confronting the Kyiv regime. It supports terrorism; it is behind the murder of Dugina and may be behind the murder of Fomin. It has been behind the murder of people for years,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS