Was an Antiwar Russian Tricked Into Carrying Out an Assassination Plot?

On the afternoon of April 2, 2023, the Russian propagandist Vladlen Tatarsky delivered a talk to a pro-war discussion group at a café in St. Petersburg called Street Food Bar No. 1. Tatarsky, whose real name was Maxim Fomin, was a former convict and had been a pro-Russian militia fighter in the Donbas. A Ukrainian, he once said, was just “a mentally ill Russian.” On his Telegram channel, which had more than half a million followers, he called for “a full destruction of the Ukrainian state.” During the question-and-answer session at Street Food Bar No. 1, an audience member, a young woman in a black coat, presented Tatarsky with a statuette: a small gilded bust of Tatarsky himself—a vanity present from a would-be admirer. “What a handsome fellow,” Tatarsky said. Moments later, the figurine exploded, spraying a cloud of dust and glass, and leaving the café a blackened shell. Tatarsky was killed; dozens were injured.

A man in the crowd, one of Tatarsky’s supporters, filmed the chaotic scene with his phone—“I think our speaker is fucked,” he said—and captured the moment when the woman who gave Tatarsky the statue walked out into the street, dazed and wobbly. She was quickly identified as Darya Trepova, a twenty-six-year-old former medical student from a suburb of St. Petersburg. Friends described her as an avowed vegan and a connoisseur of vintage fashion. She was an idealist, always eager to help and, by her own admission, a little naïve.

Trepova was arrested at a friend’s apartment early the next morning. Russian investigators released an interrogation video, clearly filmed under duress, in which Trepova looks terrified and exhausted. “I brought him this statuette, which exploded,” she says. When asked who gave her the device, she demurs, saying, “Can I tell you later?” On January 25th, a St. Petersburg military court sentenced Trepova to twenty-seven years in prison for carrying out what prosecutors alleged was an act of terrorism. It was among the longest prison sentences ever given to a woman in modern Russian history. But who was Trepova, exactly, and what did she know about the plot in which she apparently played a decisive role?

During the trial, Trepova revealed more details about the operation. It all began with an exchange over Twitter in the spring of 2022, not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I was very upset when the special military operation was launched,” Trepova said in court, according to transcripts of the hearings published by the independent Russian news site Mediazona. “I didn’t support it and sympathized with Ukrainians.” She wrote a message to a Russian activist and journalist named Roman Popkov, who was based in Kyiv, and said that she wanted to move to Ukraine and volunteer as a medic. Popkov had a long history in radical anti-Kremlin movements and, from Ukraine, had covered the war in Bucha and Bakhmut. That September, Trepova said, he got in touch to help her “see things with your own eyes,” she recalled him saying. “My understanding was that Roman was doing a journalistic investigation.” He told her that he planned to set up a journalism school in Kyiv, where, he implied, Trepova would be welcome to enroll. Trepova was inclined to accept the offer, but, she told friends, she first had to carry out a series of test assignments in Russia.

Before long, Popkov introduced her to a man known by the alias Gestalt, who, through messaging apps, began peppering her with instructions: go here, pick up this package, set up a new phone. Gestalt also instructed Trepova to buy books written by Tatarsky and to attend his public events. He sent her money for the expenses in cryptocurrency. At one point, Gestalt asked Trepova to fly to Omsk, in Siberia, for one of Tatarsky’s lectures, and to introduce herself as Anastasia Kriulina, a name lifted from an actual art student who lived in St. Petersburg. “I am often asked when the war will end,” Tatarsky told the audience in Omsk. “I always answer, ‘Never.’ Because Russia has always waged war and will wage war.”

Last March, Gestalt sent the statuette as a package in the mail to Trepova, and told her to give it to Tatarsky in person. She testified that, at first, she was afraid it might be a bomb. She remembered the case of Darya Dugina, a pro-war propagandist and the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a well-known pseudo-philosopher and intellectual godfather to the Russian militaristic right. Dugina had been killed by a car bomb in Moscow in August, 2022. “I was very scared and asked Gestalt, ‘This won’t be the same as with Darya Dugina?’ ” Trepova said in court. He replied that, no, there was only a wiretap and a tracker.

As Trepova headed to the event in St. Petersburg, Gestalt asked her to grant him access to her phone so he could monitor the scene in real time. She attended in character, as Anastasia, and took a seat in the back row. When she rose to present the statuette, Tatarsky recognized her from their meeting in Omsk. “Come sit here,” he said, pointing to a chair near him. In the first disorienting moments after the explosion, Trepova said, she thought, How strange—someone detonated a bomb on the same day she came with a listening device. Then she understood. She called Gestalt, angry and in a panic. “You can ask questions later,” he told her. She continued to shout at him. Gestalt replied, “When you come to Ukraine and visit us, you can hit me.” Trepova remarked in court, “This made me very angry.”

Last week, at the close of the trial, Trepova had a chance to address the courtroom. “I am very hurt and very ashamed that my gullibility and my naïveté led to such catastrophic consequences,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone. . . . And that’s why I’m especially pained and ashamed that a terrorist attack was carried out with my hands.”

In the days before the verdict, Trepova’s husband, Dmitry Rylov, published an open letter on social media in which he called on Popkov to reveal what he knew about the operation. If Popkov publicly admitted that Trepova had been an unwitting participant, Rylov said, perhaps the court would treat her less harshly, or even recategorize her alleged offense as something lesser than terrorism. “Tell us that you or people connected with you convinced Dasha to take the figurine to Tatarsky, not knowing about its contents,” Rylov wrote. “This is the truth, and it is the truth that I defend, and I would like to hope that you will, too. Do the right thing. . . . Save Dasha’s life and freedom, because her fate is again in your hands.”

When I spoke with Rylov recently, he told me that, though he and Trepova shared a general inclination toward opposition views—“That was obvious, it didn’t need to be discussed,” he said—neither of them were particularly engaged in politics. They were shocked, however, by Russia’s invasion in February, 2022. “I remember that day,” he told me. “There was barely any news. We didn’t understand much. But it was clear such a thing cannot be tolerated.” That evening, they joined hundreds of protesters who marched down Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, and were detained by riot police. Rylov was sentenced to nine days in jail; Trepova, ten. Nonetheless, Rylov said, “Life continued as usual.”

At the time, Rylov and Trepova were just friends, having met at a party in St. Petersburg a couple of years earlier. But, that March, a few weeks after their arrest, he proposed—more a means of facilitating a move abroad than a gesture of true love, he admits. Still, they married and began getting their documents in order. (A friend of Trepova’s told the Russian news site Agentstvo that the marriage was a “joke” and that Trepova did not seem particularly invested in the relationship.) But, Rylov insists, over time their feelings became deeper and more romantic. That September, when Russia announced a military draft, Rylov left the country. He and Trepova fell in and out of touch.

As to what happened next, Rylov told me, “She was rather secretive about everything.” She spoke vaguely of some tasks she had to carry out, such as writing analytical articles on, for example, the difference between attitudes toward the war in Moscow and St. Petersburg. (Those articles were never published. Rylov noted, “Now we know why.”) Other times, she had to go to a particular shop and buy a greeting card or a book. “She said she couldn’t say anything more,” Rylov said. But he heard in her voice a mounting sense of uncertainty and paranoia. “It seemed clear to me she didn’t like what was going on,” he told me. “But she couldn’t bring herself to sit down and put the pieces together.” When Rylov raised objections, Trepova deflected. “She knows how to calm people down, to convince them everything is O.K.,” he said.

Last March, Trepova mentioned the statuette, telling Rylov—as she later testified in court—that she believed it contained a listening device. “Dasha was very worried about this statue,” Rylov said, but not because she considered it a dangerous weapon. She kept it at her apartment. According to Rylov, her main concern was that, when she gave the statuette to her target—she never said who or what that might be—it would come apart or otherwise be revealed as a secret listening device. Still, she pressed ahead. “She said it would be the last task before they facilitated her move,” Rylov told me.

On the morning of April 2nd, Trepova sent Rylov a picture from her breakfast at a café. He knew that she had a plane ticket to leave Russia later that day, purchased by the mysterious friend he knew little about. That evening, he got another message from her: “I’m in trouble. I need to hide somewhere.” Rylov hadn’t seen the news and didn’t understand what was going on. His friend Dmitry Kasintsev, a twenty-seven-year-old math tutor, agreed to let Trepova hide out in his apartment. (Kasintsev was also charged and received a sentence of one year and nine months in prison. Rylov told me, “My friend had nothing to do with any of this and I deeply regret that I got him mixed up in it.”) That night, Trepova sent Rylov another message. “I was set up.” She said the people who had given her the assignment had stopped answering her messages. “She felt in that moment that she was completely abandoned,” Rylov said. The police showed up that morning and found Trepova lying in bed. She told the officers that she knew why they had come. (Trepova sent me a letter from jail but she asked that I not use its contents for publication.)

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