Photomontage of Mstitel (Avenger) posted on his online fan page.
 
The Russian Web is abuzz with talk about the country’s first real-life superhero: Mstitel (Avenger in Russian), a masked crime-fighter from the south-western Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Real vigilante, or online hoax?
 
Mstitel is new to the superhero business, and doesn’t yet have many victories to his credit. Nevertheless, he already enjoys a considerable degree of popularity: an online group dedicated to him on Vkontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) counts over 11,000 fans, while a video address posted on YouTube by the avenger has been viewed over 200,000 times and inspired dozens of copycats.
 
Mstitel’s recent moves have been reported in newspapers and are widely discussed on Russian blogs. While some believe he’s just a freak, a prankster or part of a sophisticated viral advertising campaign, others praise him as a hero and wish him luck in a society where crime is rampant and the police are universally distrusted.
 
On March 30, Mstitel’s latest feat was reported on his Vkontakte group: he is said to have stopped several petty thieves from stealing something, although it is not clear what. In a written post on the group’s wall, Mstitel warned people from following his example without “proper training”. He also asked would-be avengers not to hurt criminals – “Evil shouldn’t be answered by evil”, he wrote. He regretted that some people think he's a joke, and vowed that, come what may, he will continue to patrol the streets of Chelyabinsk.
 
Mstitel was first sighted patrolling the streets of Chelyabinsk around mid-March. The person who uploaded this video of a brief encounter with him on March 12 visibly thought he was a prankster. Video posted on YouTube by Mirumir444.
 
Mstitel posted this video message on YouTube on March 20 to explain his intentions. He says he doesn’t want any publicity, but just wants to help rid Chelyabinsk of the “human trash” on the streets. He says he used to not care about the crime rate until an incident affected himself and his family. He claims to have been able to help people twice so far, and wants to use his Vkontakte for people to leave him messages and to alert him of their problems. Although he admits he’s “not a superman”, he says he has “special tools” to help him in his battle.
 

“I’m sure it’s a hoax, but it’s a great way to remind authorities that they should start caring about people’s safety”

Elena Kozhevina, 18, is a student of the University of South-Ural in Chelyabinsk. She wrote on Mstitel’s Vkontakte page that when she goes home from school after dark, the streets are full of dangerous types.
 
I'm sure it’s a hoax, he's just a guy trying to become famous, like other Internet “heroes” before him. He's just chosen an unusual way to get there. There’s a something metallic sticking out from behind him in his videos, and although some people say it’s a sword, it looks more like a clyster [large metallic syringe used by 17th century doctors] to me!
 
But there are some good sides to his actions. Chelyabinsk is a dangerous city [the city and its surroundings has the fourth highest crime rate in Russia, after Moscow, the greater Moscow region and the Ural city of Sverdlovsk]. I’m personally afraid to go out by myself after dark. At times, it's even getting dangerous to bring the garbage out – and at least this man has been noticed. I think his initiative is a great way to remind authorities that they should start caring about peoples' safety.”

“Mstitel is not a clown, he really cares”

Dmitry Churin, 31, lives in Chelyabinsk. He’s the creator of Mstitel's official Vkontakte group. Some members of the group speculate he could be Mstitel himself.
 
There's crime in every city and every country. He [Avenger] just decided to patrol his city. He loves his country and wants to make something good for it. He wants justice.
 
I believe in his success, otherwise I wouldn't be wasting my time supporting him. Probably the [Vkontakte] group is not the best way [to help him], we’ll probably find another way. I'm his friend and I will help him. This man does good deeds.
 
We don't communicate with the press. He's not a clown, the guy really cares, and you journalists just want to make fun of him. That's all that I have to say to you.”
A car following Mstitel around on one of his nightly patrols. Video posted on YouTube on March 16 by Mirumir444.
Post written with freelance journalist Ostap Karmodi.