Husband of jailed Russian blogger signs up for Ukraine war to secure her release

<span>Alexey Blinovsky in May 2023 outside court.</span><span>Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy</span>
Alexey Blinovsky in May 2023 outside court.Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy

When his wife, a prominent Russian Instagram influencer, was threatened with years of imprisonment over tax evasion charges, Alexei Blinovsky opted for what seemed the most viable means to secure her freedom in Russia today: he joined Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine.

Months earlier, his wife, Yelena Blinovskaya, a former beauty queen turned famous self-help coach, made a last-ditch attempt to escape the country, but was arrested on the border with Belarus and charged with large-scale tax evasion.

On Tuesday, Blinovsky, who helped run his wife’s self-help business, was captured on film sipping tea alongside fellow soldiers near the frontline with Ukraine, trading his customary designer attire for khaki fatigues.

Blinovsky’s decision to join the war is merely the latest manifestation of a broader trend, wherein joining the fighting in Ukraine serves as a get-out-of-jail card for those deemed to have wronged the Kremlin.

Tens of thousands of convicts, including murderers and sexual offenders, have already been pardoned by the Kremlin after they signed up for the war, in what Putin has lauded as a scheme for former convicts to atone for their crimes “with blood”.

Facing potential time in jail, household celebrities who attended the raunchy “almost naked” celebrity party in Moscow have also made the journey to the frontline and given concerts to the troops to atone for what Putin derided as “jumping around without pants”.

But Blinovsky’s case is the first known instance where a person has volunteered for the war in order to push for the release of a family member behind bars.

The Russian media reported that Blinovsky joined the Bars Kaskad unit, a specially created group led by the lawmaker Dmitry Sablin. The unit is stacked with members of Russia’s political elite and other prominent Russian VIPs.

From early on in the war, the Kremlin signalled that becoming directly involved in the war would be a way for Russian officials to bolster their standing with Putin, who referred to those participating in the conflict as “the true elite” of the country.

Among the more prominent figures to sign up was Nikolai Peskov, the son of Putin’s long-term spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who in the spring of 2023 served a stint in Ukraine as part of the Wagner paramilitary group.

Dozens of mid-level officials looking for a boost in their careers have since joined the Bars Kaskad unit.

“Kaskad is specially created for all kinds of famous people and officials … who are looking to publicly demonstrate that they have gone to war and stood up for their country,” said Ruslan Leviev, a military analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team.

The unit has been mocked for largely shying away from the fighting, instead serving as a PR opportunity for officials.

“You sit somewhere in the rear, drink tea, come back with a medal and titles and go on to build your political career as a participant in the war,” Leviev added.

For Blinovsky, it remains uncertain whether the last-ditch effort to spare his wife from potentially facing years in jail will prove successful. Some fervent supporters of the war have described his enlistment as a little too “on the nose”.

“The special military operation is not a washing machine,” wrote Marina Akhmedova, a supporter of the war and member of the country’s human rights council, referring to Blinovsky’s attempt to clean up his family’s reputation.

“Supporting the special military operation is good, but it does not exempt you from the law.”