World·Analysis

As Crimea buries its dead, Russia and Ukraine trade blame for school massacre

As the Crimean city of Kerch buried many of the teenage victims of this week's deadly school shooting, Russians and Ukrainians were debating the motivations of the attacker, with each side accusing the other of contributing to the massacre.

Russians engage in familiar U.S.-style debate in wake of mass shooting

People attend a memorial service on Friday for the victims of this week's school shooting-and-bomb attack in Kerch, in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea. An 18-year-old gunman killed 20 people and injured dozens more before killing himself at a local technical college where he was a student. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

As the Crimean city of Kerch buried many of the teenage victims of this week's deadly school shooting, Russians and Ukrainians were debating the motivations of the attacker, with each side accusing the other of contributing to the massacre at the local vocational college.

Authorities have said 18-year-old student Vladislav Roslyakov carried out the attack, using a rifle and a homemade bomb to kill 20 others, including 15 teenagers and five adults. Forty others remain in hospital, many with horrific injuries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Western influences for Wednesday's shooting at Kerch Polytechnic College, suggesting "globalization" and "social networks" are creating "false heroes" for young people and leading them to violence.

Ukrainian commentators, meanwhile, point the finger at Russia, saying Putin's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 created a highly militarized, unstable environment that may have influenced the gunman.

Both perspectives may have merit, says Alexandra Lysova, a Russian-born expert on homicides and violence who now teaches criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

"With any crime, there's not one factor or two, but many factors put together," she said.

Authorities haven't yet provided a motive for the shooting.

Rescuers carry an injured victim out of Kerch Polytechnic College after Wednesday's attack. Russian media claimed the mass shooting and explosion is the country's worst-ever example of student-on-student violence. (AFP/Getty Images)

While Crimea is still considered disputed territory by the West, Russian media claimed the attack at Kerch Polytechnic College is the country's worst-ever example of student-on-student violence.

The Kerch attack was the deadliest bout of school violence in Russian-claimed territory since the three-day Beslan school siege in 2004, which left 333 people dead and more than 500 injured.

"What happened [in Kerch] is very unusual," said Lysova. "Mass shootings are predominantly a U.S. [phenomenon]."

Columbine inspiration?

According to Russian media reports, Roslyakov made social media posts suggesting he was inspired by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School outside Denver that killed 13.

Leaked images from a school video camera show Roslyakov dressed in black pants and a white T-shirt, an outfit that resembles the clothing worn by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Online groups that glorify Columbine have become more common in Russia as of late. Many of the groups found on VKontake, a Russian version of Facebook, show photos of the Columbine crime scene and sell clothing similar to what was worn by the two shooters.

In January, the online website Medusa reported that two students responsible for a stabbing rampage at a school in Perm, in northern Russia, were members of such Columbine groups. More than 12 young people were injured in the attack.

In response to such sites, Russian MPs have already been debating a bill in the Duma that would block them.

So Putin may have a point, says Lysova, when he talks of disenfranchised or mentally ill Russian youth being susceptible to outside influences.

"I'm not sure I would it call it globalization, but mass shooters sometimes copy other attacks, and want to do better and kill more people," she said.

Militarization, instability

On the other side, many Ukrainian commentators have been fiercely critical of Russia for creating what they say is a climate of fear and instability in Crimea.

For example, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection group, which says it stands up to Russian human rights abuses in the disputed area of Eastern Ukraine, says Russia's militarization of the region has brought in many more weapons and made them easier to get.

What happened in Kerch is the result of the "total militarization of children's consciousness, which has been inculcated in Crimea in recent years," a posting on the group's website reads.

Russian Emergency Ministry workers carry the coffin of a victim during a funeral service for those killed in this week's attack. (Andrey Petrenko/AFP/Getty Images)

While investigators say it appears the suspect legally obtained a gun, Lysova says the "militarization" accusations shouldn't be dismissed.

"Societies in stress usually have more violence going on," she said. "That's how we explain why there is so much more violence going on in Russia, as opposed to Canada."

Russia's homicide rate, based on police data, is seven homicides for every 100,000 people, though Lysova says her research suggests the actual rate is significantly higher.

Multiple deaths are often listed as a single event in Russia, she says, making the government-reported rate lower than it should be.

By comparison, Canada's homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000 people last year, according to Statistics Canada data.

Blame game

In the immediate aftermath of the Kerch shooting, Russian commentators on Kremlin-controlled state TV were quick to suggest the young shooter may have had political motivations. Investigators initially said they were dealing with an act of terror.

It's a recurring theme of Russian propaganda to imply that some sort of Ukrainian-sponsored terrorism attack is imminent in Crimea.

While the investigation was soon reclassified as a "mass killing," many pro-Kremlin pundits have continued to look for signs that the Ukrainian government had some hand in training Roslyakov or supplying his weapons.

The inside of Kerch Polytechnic College after Wednesday's attack is shown in this image provided by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. (The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation)

Sergei Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed head of Crimea, has insisted it's unlikely so much violence was the work of one man.

"[His] preparatory actions, in my opinion, this villain couldn't carry out alone," he said.

Russian authorities in Crimea continue to look for a possible accomplice.

Speaking on a political panel this week, well-known commentator Ivan Solovyov also suggested that someone with extensive military training helped Roslyakov.

"It is clear that somebody was conducting his actions and most likely the remote explosion in the dining room was not made by him. Someone else pressed the button."

While there has been some public discussion about the need to tighten gun controls in Russia, it has not been especially vigorous.

The country's gun control rules are already fairly strict, requiring medical examinations, mandatory training and expensive licensing.

In the days since the Kerch shooting, Russian websites have been publishing photos from inside the college, including an especially gruesome photo of the suspect lying dead in his own blood after a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.