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Crimea college rampage shocks Russia

Emily Sherwin Moscow
October 18, 2018

Russian media are calling it "Russia's Columbine." After a teenage gunman opened fire at a technical college on the annexed Crimean peninsula, Vladimir Putin is pointing fingers — and Russians are looking for answers.

A candle burns among flowers as a mourning momento
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/V. Ankov

Kerch Polytechnic College has been cordoned off. Since yesterday evening, locals have been bringing flowers, candles and toys to the scene. Twenty people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the suicide shooting rampage, which also included at least one homemade bomb. Russia's investigative committee has said most of the victims were teenagers.

Social media users have expressed their shock and sadness at the attack, posting photos of candles shining in the darkness, and using Russian hashtags that translate as #KerchWeMourn and #KerchWeAreWithYou. Three days of mourning have been declared in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The gunman, 18-year-old Vladislav Roslyakov, had been enrolled at the Kerch college. No motives have yet been established. The Kremlin-appointed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, described Roslyakov as "not a Crimean, not even a person." 

On Wednesday, members of the Russian parliament stood for a minute of silence during their session, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his condolences to the relatives of the victims of the "tragic event." The next day, Russia's National Guard announced that it would be providing additional security at all schools and kindergartens in Kerch.

A woman looks on emotionally after leaving flowers at a Kerch monument for the victims of the school attack
The school attack has sent shockwaves through CrimeaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/V. Sharifulin

'Russia's Columbine'

Several observers in Russia have described the attack in Crimea as "Russia's Columbine", drawing parallels to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in the US, which killed 13. Yet in comparison to the US, Russia has strict gun controls, and unlike the Columbine shooters, the Kerch shooter reportedly legally bought the gun he used.

Read more: 8 facts about gun control in the US

Aleskei Titkov, a sociologist from the Civil Initiatives Committee, argues that the fact that many of the victims were teenagers makes the events in Kerch all the more dramatic for Russians. "This is a huge trauma because Russia, just like Western countries, is a country with a low number of children," the expert from the Russian NGO told DW.

The Kerch attack was the deadliest incident of school violence on Russian territory since the 2004 Beslan attack in southwest Russia, when Chechen separatists occupied a school and took over a thousand hostages. More than 300 people were killed. Many of those victims were also children. 

Ambulances near the building of the Kerch Polytechnic Vocational School after an explosion and shooting
Most of the victims of the attack at this Kerch Polytechnic School were teenagersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Krym 24 TV Channel

Looking for an outside enemy

Speaking at a discussion forum in Sochi, Putin was quick to point the finger of blame outside of Russia.  He said the tragic shooting was a "result of globalization," adding that "everything started with the tragic events in schools in the US." As Russian society grows more and more conservative and committed to what are considered traditional family values, the West is often portrayed as a corrupting influence.

There have also been several reports in the Russian media that the mother of the Kerch gunman may have been a Jehova's Witness, a group that Russia declared last year to be extremist.

A speech by Vladimir Putin in broadcast live on a screen in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol
Russia's Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014Image: picture-alliance /dpa/EPA/A. Pedko

The ugly shadow of war?

Other observers pointed the finger right back at Russia. There has been some discussion about the significance of the attack taking place in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and which has been one of the reasons for the ongoing conflict between the two countries. The city of Kerch is also the location of a controversial bridge that links the peninsula with the Russian mainland — a prestige project for Vladimir Putin.

In a Facebook post, Russian journalist Viktoria Ivleva, who has worked for Kremlin-critical publications, commented: "I can't help but think that there hasn't been one single terrorist attack with victims in Ukraine since 1991. There wasn't one until the war [in Eastern Ukraine] there. Until we came there."

Sociologist Denis Volkov from the Levada Center, an independent pollster, told DW that "the closeness to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which is taking place right nearby" could be a factor in the attack, though it is hard to make a direct connection. Both Volkov and Titkov agree that private factors in the gunman's life are likely to have played a bigger role in driving his rampage.

Survivors in the northern Caucasus city of Beslan light candels to commemorate the victims of the siege at a school which killed more than 330 people
The Kerch attack was the deadliest school attack since the 2004 Beslan hostage dramaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Chirikov

Violence in other schools 

There have been other incidents of school violence in Russia, though none have had the fatal scale of the Kerch shooting. This year alone, there have been several knife attacks, far away from the Ukraine conflict. In January, two pupils in the city of Perm near the Ural mountains attacked a teacher and her fourth-grade class with knives. The same month, a teenager attacked other students with an axe at a school near the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude and then set the classroom on fire.  

There seems to be some disbelief among Russian officials that the Kerch rampage could have been a lone wolf attack and not part of something broader and more directed. Regional leader Aksyonov has questioned whether an accomplice helped the teenage gunman prepare the violent attack.

 A sense of helplessness

After all, as some Russian observers have been arguing, there is much less the government can do when an attack is down to an attacker with his or her own private motives. Radio columnist Dmitry Drize of Kommersant FM argued that measures such as even stricter gun laws or restrictions on social media won't necessarily help.

"We can't turn every school […] into a fortress protected with tanks and special forces," he added.

"The authorities physically aren't able to check every teenager for hidden aggression," Drize said. "First and foremost, it is society itself which has to prevent such acts."

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