Darya Dugina’s death in Moscow car bomb leads to more questions than answers

·Sr. Correspondent
·9 min read

It’s unclear who ordered last weekend’s killing of Darya Dugina, the 29-year-old daughter of Russia’s leading far-right academic Alexander Dugin, in a dramatic car bomb last weekend. But in order to place the blame on Ukraine, the Russian government has deployed an elaborate but evidence-free narrative.

To hear Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) tell it, Ukrainian intelligence dispatched an assassin to kill Dugina, a state television commentator and staunch backer of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The assassin, fashionably dressed and with long blonde hair, spent weeks shadowing her suspect, even moving into Dugina’s apartment building. She finally managed to plant a bomb under the driver’s seat of Dugina’s Toyota Land Cruiser and detonate it in Rublyovka, one of the toniest suburbs of Moscow, as Dugina and her notorious father were returning from a festival.

The alleged assassin then high-tailed it by car to Estonia, making it past Russia’s Border Control (which is run by the FSB, the successor to the KGB) without incident. The getaway vehicle, a silver Mini Cooper, for which the assassin used three different license plates on her mission, is shown on CCTV having the underside of its hood and front-seat cup holder inspected before being sent on its way to NATO territory. The conveyance contained nothing of note beyond the assassin’s 12-year-old daughter and their family cat, both in the back seat and questionable accessories for an international murder plot.

The sole incriminating piece of evidence, the purported killer’s Ukrainian National Guard ID card — another odd choice for an covert assassination — was conveniently left behind in Moscow for law enforcement to discover. Never mind the apparently doctored image, as established by photo forensics: The ID also bears the markings of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Azov Regiment, a frequent bogeyman of Russian propaganda efforts.

This handout photo taken from video released by Investigative Committee of Russia on Sunday, purports to show investigators working on the site littered with debris from the bombed car driven by Daria Dugina outside Moscow.
Investigators work on the site of the explosion of a car driven by Darya Dugina outside Moscow. (Investigative Committee of Russia via AP)

Thus, we are invited to believe that an agent of supposed Ukrainian neo-Nazism is the prime suspect in eliminating the daughter of a Russian nationalist widely denounced as a neo-Nazi himself.

The FSB managed to solve this spectacular whodunit in 48 hours. Its more high-profile cases, such as the brutal slayings of a former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov (who was shot repeatedly in the back within steps of the Kremlin) and the celebrated journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova (both killed in or near their homes) took years to crack.

And few experts really buy the official versions of those stories, either.

“The whole thing looks like a false flag operation by the FSB,” one senior Western intelligence official told Yahoo News of the Dugina car bombing, similar to the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. The official was careful to add that this was just speculation and not a formal intelligence assessment. “They were probably gunning for Dugin, but got his kid instead.”

“The only thing I think we can state with certainty is that the Kremlin is lying,” said John Sipher, the former deputy head of “Russia House” at the CIA. “I have no clue who did it or why, but frankly, that fits most things that happen in Russia. There are so many possible motivations for a murder like this. An attack carried out by Ukraine is at the bottom of the list.”

Philosopher Alexander Dugin attends the final farewell ceremony for his daughter Daria Dugina in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Daria Dugina, a 29-year-old commentator with a nationalist Russian TV channel, died when a remotely controlled explosive device planted in her SUV blew up on Saturday night as she was driving on the outskirts of Moscow, ripping the vehicle apart and killing her on the spot, authorities said. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)
Philosopher Alexander Dugin attends the final farewell ceremony for his daughter Darya Dugina in Moscow. (AP/Dmitry Serebryakov)

The macabre scene of a burned-out chassis on a main thoroughfare has given way to a theater of the absurd. At Dugina’s funeral on Tuesday, Dugin took the occasion to sermonize; his daughter’s first words as a child, he said, were practically “Russia,” “our mighty state,” “our nation,” and “empire.”

Dugin, 60, has been a longtime advocate of an all-out war of conquest in Ukraine, which he doesn’t believe exists as a country but rather as a barrier to the Eurasian imperium he has long advocated. And what is Eurasianism to Dugin? More of a plagiarized chauvinistic posture than anything politically unique, according to the American historian Timothy Snyder: “He simply used the terms ‘Eurasia’ and ‘Eurasianism’ to make Nazi ideas sound more Russian.”

In the Western media, Dugin is often referred to as “Putin’s brain,” depicted as a Rasputin-like whisperer to the Russian president. But he may be more comparable to Vladimir Putin’s id, all primitive impulse but not necessarily moored to a coherent or thought-out plan of action.

For Dugin, the West is terminally diseased, riddled with and wickedness, deceit and cynicism, violence and hypocrisy.” Moscow is a perpetual Rome, a bulwark of glory and expansionism; Washington a perpetual Carthage, ever on the verge of collapse. That certainly tracks with Putin’s latest rants about a depraved and decadent West, and his fixation on “cancel culture” and trans and gay rights.

A man wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z holds flowers at a memorial ceremony for Darya Dugina.
A man wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z, a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, holds flowers during a memorial ceremony for Darya Dugina. (Getty Images)

That Dugin may have helped lay some of the popular groundwork for Russia’s 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea is arguable; as early as 2009 he predicted a looming “battle for Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” However, four years earlier, Putin himself had famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century; any effort to reverse that catastrophe was always going to involve a Russian confrontation with Ukraine in one form or another.

Dugin was a fixture on Russian state television a decade ago, but in 2014 he was fired from Moscow State University as the head of the department of sociology of international relations. “I think we should kill, kill, kill [Ukrainians], there can’t be any other talk,” he’d said at the time.

While it’s true Dugin’s runaway 1997 bestseller “Foundations of Geopolitics” was once required reading at the Russian general staff academy, his links to the Kremlin or military planners are in dispute. Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet based in Latvia, cites “individuals with knowledge of the Putin administration” who say Dugin has never “advised” Putin or “any senior national defense officials, though some sources say he does have contact with high-ranking officials in Russia’s Federal Security Service.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in gilt chair, at a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Kremlin Tuesday. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In recent years, Dugin has been far more quoted and deferred to abroad than he has been at home.

Leaked email documents from March show that both Dugin and Dugina served as liaisons with some of Europe’s leading lights on the reactionary right, including Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League Party, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally and Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria’s Freedom Party.

As the Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman observed, Dugin also travels regularly to Iran, where he celebrates the mullahs’ resistance to “modernity,” and also to China, where he lectures their strategists on how Moscow and Beijing can join forces to inaugurate a “multipolar world order,” i.e., an alternative to Washington.

Dugin’s global appeal indeed seems to be wedded to his extreme anti-Americanism, a bloc that attracts an array of subscribers, from revolutionary Islamists to communists who intern Muslims in concentration camps.

Dugina, on the other hand, was far less recognizable anywhere.

A man collects copper wires from the bombed-out shell of the market.
A man collects copper wires on Aug. 22 from the market that was destroyed after Russian bombardment in Nikopol, Ukraine. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In March, the U.S. sanctioned her for her propagandistic role as editor-in-chief of one of the dubious media companies owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the serially sanctioned oligarch, mercenary financier and disinformation magnate. (Prigozhin was probably the most well-known figure at Dugina’s funeral.)

But apart from the occasional television appearance or lecture delivered on the auspices of her father’s reputation, she was hardly a household name in Russia. She posted most of her commentary under her own (much more anodyne) pseudonym, “Daria Platonova.” In her last appearance on Russian TV on Aug. 18, she sounded more like a professor of comparative literature, accusing the United States of being “nourished” by war and denouncing its “simulacrum” society. Elsewhere, on YouTube, she came across as a Russian version of Alex Jones, accusing Bill Gates of trying to depopulate Africa with vaccines, railing against environmentalists, vegans and conspiracies about homosexuality.

Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya, left, listens as Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, right, holds up a photo of Darya Dugina at a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya, left, listens as Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, right, holds up a photo of Darya Dugina. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Social media is awash with guesses as to what really happened to her. Maybe the bombers were targeting Dugin himself but, in a last-minute car switcheroo, “only” got his daughter.

Then again, what if a Ukrainian or pro-Ukrainian sympathizer really did blow up a cheerleader for Putin’s war?

Was Dugin the mark because he makes Putin look kittenish by comparison and keeps egging on a reluctant president to rain more terror on Ukraine?

What about those ties to the FSB? Did Dugin’s friends turn on him?

Perhaps it was a way to further ignite Dugin’s ultranationalist base?

Or does it furnish a pretext for further escalation against Ukraine?

And the latest, post-funeral conspiracy theory: What if Dugina is actually still alive and the whole thing was a hoax?

In this handout photo taken from video released by the Investigative Committee of Russia on Aug. 21, investigators work on the site of the explosion of a car purportedly driven by Daria Dugina outside Moscow.
Investigators work on the site of the explosion of a car driven by Darya Dugina outside Moscow. (Investigative Committee of Russia via AP)

All this chatter, meanwhile, is set against an ominous mood that has descended once more on liberated Kyiv. Police and officers of the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic security service, stand guard everywhere throughout the city, along with black, unmarked vans. Ukrainian government officials have been instructed to work from home for the next several days, although that could only be related to the threat of an impending attack coinciding with Ukraine’s Independence Day anniversary on Aug. 24. Both Dugin and Putin have argued that Ukraine should have never been granted its independence from Moscow in 1991.

Whatever the culprit and motive behind Dugina’s killing, the true answers behind this bizarre event — like so many other acts of violence in Putin’s Russia — may never come to light. But the Russian government’s attempt to place the blame on a shadowy Ukrainian assassin could hint at something even darker on the horizon.