The FSB, Moscow’s state security service, has killed three men in the Voronezh region of Russia. According to the Kremlin, these men were terrorists. According to friends and their social media profiles, they were airsoft enthusiasts who took inspiration from the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R..
Russian state media and the FSB announced the deaths of the men on November 23 and claimed that they had eliminated a terrorist cell. According to the official FSB account, agents attempted to arrest the men on the outskirts of Voronezh after learning they followed a “nationalist Ukrainian ideology” and planned to sabotage military and energy facilities in the area. According to the FSB, the men resisted arrest and fired on its agents. The FSB then killed all three men. It said that no one else was hurt, killed, or injured in the fight.
In video taken by the FSB and aired on Russian TV, we can see the “compound” of one of the alleged terrorists. He’s got a notebook that said it's an accounting of the “Svobodova Group” and a large flag with a green wolf hanging below a British Union Jack. According to the FSB, the flag and the notebook connect the men to the Ukrainian Volia political party, which it called ultranationalist. But the symbols and the name “Svoboda Group” are both from the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Volia does not use the green wolf as a symbol. It uses a bold yellow impact font on a white background. The green dog with its head turned to the side above the Ukrainian word “freedom” is the symbol of one of the factions in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
First released in 2007, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl became a cult hit. Players explore the radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl, attempt to solve a supernatural mystery, survive, and interact with a number of factions. The game has inspired several sequels and a robust live-action roleplaying community in Russia and Ukraine.
The Moscow Times tracked down the names of the men killed in the FSB raid, found their social media accounts, and spoke with some of their friends and fellow stalkers. One of the men, Vladimir Kotovsky, maintained a VK account as his character Stalker Fosgen. The account includes pictures of him and a friend dressed as stalkers from the video game and exploring the dilapidated regions around Voronezh. The banner on his page is the same green wolf symbol from the raid.
In America, live action role playing typically means gathering with friends in the woods in lovingly designed fantasy costumes and using foam swords. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. LARPs look different. The players dress in tactical military gear, cover their face with gas masks, and wild realistic looking airsoft rifles. At first blush, someone dressed like this moving around abandoned industrial zones could look like a violent militant.
This isn’t the first time the FSB has seemingly confused video games for the real world with dire consequences. In April, it arrested a man and accused him of staging a neo-Nazi assassination attempt against a journalist. In photos of the man’s apartment, three copies of The Sims 3 were prominently displayed next to a T-shirt bearing a swastika. At the time, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins said he believed a stupid FSB officer confused SIM cards with The Sims.
The Moscow Times was able to speak with friends in the LARP community of which the three men were a part. It confirmed that all were airsoft enthusiasts who liked to dress up like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S.