Russia’s social media stars run the gamut from political activists to globe-trotting Web designers. So it’s only a little odd that one of the country’s top new bloggers is a member of an army special forces team in the restive Ingushetia Republic.
Known only as “Hardingush”—that’s short for “Hard Ingushetia,” the anonymous commando-blogger has built a loyal readership with his inside accounts of the Kremlin’s low-boil war in the Caucasus.
Among other topics, he writes about tactical equipment and his exercise regimen and also comments on politics, terrorism and insurgent warfare. Some blog posts include graphic, post-mortem images of suicide bombers accompanied by stories of shootouts with Islamist extremists.
In one post, Hardingush recalled a suicide bomber who detonated an explosive belt, losing his legs but surviving the blast. As the man screamed, the commandos shot him.
The stories are, to say the least, ugly. But despite this—or perhaps because of it—he’s become the 23rd most popular LiveJournal account in the Cyrillic alphabet. While LiveJournal has faded as a social media platform in the United States, it remains hugely popular in Russia.
Hardingush’s entries have received more than 276,000 comments. He rarely grants interviews and did not respond to our emails.
He even has fan art.
In a January post detailing an operation in which an insurgent was killed while detonating a suicide belt (warning: extremely graphic imagery), he was hesitant to show his readers the results of his work.
“I can fill up the entire Internet with blood, guts, dismemberment in different angles.” Yet, he said, “I do not feel schadenfreude.”
Other posts detail the discovery of insurgent arms caches and improvised explosive devices. He describes Ingushetia as drowning in weapons and explosives easily acquired by “bandits,” some living in Soviet-era underground shelters originally constructed by draft resisters.
His popularity and lurid posts has also made him a target for critics of the Kremlin’s war. One popular theory goes that Hardingush is secretly an amalgamation of several people—or agents of the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB—and that his account is a form of domestic propaganda.
Hardingush, of course, disagrees—and includes a tongue-in-cheek description on his blog’s landing page: “PR people from the Kremlin under the name Hardingush.”
His posts are too consistent and personal to give those claims much weight. Though he is blunt and has little sympathy for Islamist insurgents. “In the ‘90s there were bandits, then a wave of sects and sectarians, and now we have sectarian bandits,” he wrote.
Nor does Hardingush explicitly promote government policies; he’s mainly supportive of a hard-ass law and order philosophy. He calls the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi unnecessary. He prefers online video games and dystopian sci-fi movies. “I try to keep quiet about it, actually,” he wrote.
But he doesn't have much sympathy for the Kremlin’s opponents. He admits some sympathy, but he believes opposition activists are being corrupted by the pursuit of political power. It can read as somewhat cynical.
“People should not be indifferent to what is happening in the country,” he blogged, referring to opposition leader—and prominent fellow blogger—Alexei Navalny.
“Now [Navalny] could fix this situation. And then he said: ‘No, no, guys, I want power,’” Hardingush wrote. He directs a similar critique at the Ukrainian protest movement, which has blockaded streets and demanded the resignation of Moscow-aligned Pres. Viktor Yanukovych. “Well, okay, let’s imagine that the government, the president, deputies and ‘Berkut’ officers hung on the lampposts along the road. What’s next?”
In January, Hardingush sparred with Alexey Kungurov, a popular opposition blogger and conspiracy theorist. Kungurov alleged the twin suicide bomb attacks in Volgograd earlier this month were instigated by the security services, in particular the FSB.
“Bullshit,” Hardingush wrote. “It’s not necessary to kill people to rally the nation around a particular policy. … The North Koreans do very well with fictional enemies. Especially, it is impossible to find performers among law enforcement officials, and even if I could—the risks of failure many times outweigh the potential benefits.”
Another allegation by Kungurov focused on the killing of terrorism suspects by the security forces—darkly hinted at as a means to prevent their testimony in court.
“We can take anyone alive,” Hardingush countered. “The only question is whether it makes sense to spend a lot of time and effort to develop the operation, and then have soldiers risk their lives and the fact the offender might escape.”
One recurring theme throughout his posts is a disgust of racism and nationalism—including Russian ethnic chauvinism. “In Ingushetia, the vast majority of members of the MVD (excluding internal forces )—Ingush,” he wrote, referring to the security forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “They first take the brunt. They do not beat their butt to the chest, do not talk about how they protect their country, even though they have every right to.”
Nonetheless, there’s a reason why he’s hesitant to take a side in politics, despite his popularity.
“It would be a dictatorship of the law,” he wrote. “So when I was offered in the comments after retirement to go into power—it was very funny. God forbid that happen. You would not like to live in such a state that I would build.”