OPINION: Russians had considered their country immune to the kind of school violence that the US has suffered in incidents such as the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Columbine High School massacre. Now, 15-year-old Sergei Gordeyev has disabused them of that notion, killing a teacher and a cop at his school in northern Moscow.
News of the shooting, which occurred about midday on Monday (local time), immediately prompted comparisons to the United States. "Have we caught the American disease?" user Tanya Morozova wrote on the Russian social network Vkontakte. "It's all about American movies and cartoons," user Nadir Kuramshin tweeted. "Kids ought to be brought up on Soviet or Russian ones so they do not seize schools like they do in America."
Pundits and officials expressed similar sentiments. Television and radio commentator Sergei Dorenko told the website actualcomment.ru that more instruction in Russian literature would be the cure. "We must draw conclusions from the monstrous examples that take place almost daily in the US," parliament security committee chief Irina Yarovaya said, according to the official site of her party, United Russia.
It's true that the United States has more recorded school shootings than any other country. In 2011, 7.4 per cent of US high school students reported having been threatened with a weapon — a gun, a knife or a club — at school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1992 to 2009, there were 14 to 34 homicides a year at US schools. Many other countries, including Finland and China, have also experienced school shootings, but such incidents had been unheard of in Russia.
Gordeyev was reportedly an A student in the 10th grade (equivalent to year 11 in New Zealand, students 15-16 years) at School 263 in northern Moscow. He showed up at the school with his father's hunting carbine and rifle, forced the school guard to let him in, and walked into a biology class. He fired at geography and biology teacher Andrei Kirillov, 29, and, finding him still alive, killed him with another shot to the head. The sensationalist website Life.ru reported, after speaking with Gordeyev's classmates, that the shooter was mad at the teacher for giving him grades that could spoil his perfect A record. Gordeyev's true motives, however, remain unclear. He told the class after shooting Kirillov: "I am very scared of death. I wanted to see it up close."
"We were glad to see him at first - but then he shot the geology teacher," his classmate Ivan Chekanov, 16, said. "He fired the shot, then he got up onto the podium, laid out his rifles and said he had 100 bullets and that he had come to die."
By the time Gordeyev shot the teacher, the guard downstairs had hit his alarm button, and police promptly arrived. The 15- year-old opened fire at them, killing police sergeant Sergei Bushuev and gravely wounding another officer. Later, Gordeyev's father reached him on his mobile phone, persuading him to release the hostages and drop the guns from a window. Because he is a minor, he faces a 10-year prison sentence rather than life imprisonment if he is convicted of murder.
Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned the shooting at a meeting with cultural figures. "We need to educate a new generation of spectators with a good taste in art, an understanding and appreciation of theatre, drama and music," he said. "And if we did this right, maybe there would be no tragedies like the one that occurred in Moscow today."
Ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested that all guns be confiscated from citizens and stored for them at police stations, and that criminals older than 10 be treated the same as adults. He also said that Gordeyev must have seen too many films and TV shows about school shootings in the US.
Yarovaya, for her part, blamed "an aggressive trend in computer games" for the crime and called for "maximum limitations on the spread of firearms and tougher control over their storage".
Russia already has strict gun controls. Obtaining a gun license is an obstacle course that includes medical and criminal background checks. The fact that this did not prevent Gordeyev's crime suggests that a determined shooter will be able to obtain a weapon. Gordeyev appeared to be interested in firearms and in taking revenge on teachers: His page on Vkontakte, of which a cached copy is available, contained a story of a malicious prank played on a physics teacher and a link to a video of "the fastest shooter in the world".
Instead of blaming the US, those in Russia interested in preventing a second school shooting ought to take a look at the Vkontakte page of School 263. Some commentators there called Gordeyev a hero for challenging authority. "Russian schools are run by scum," LiveJournal user Alexander Draf posted in partial justification of Gordeyev's actions. "If you are in some way different from your classmates, they will run you into the ground. ... Most people are talking about what a good guy the dead teacher was, looking for problems with the teenager and his family, not with classmates and teachers."
Because Russians have always perceived deadly school violence as something that happens only in America, they saw no reason to tackle widespread bullying and sadistic behaviour by teachers. Gordeyev's case suggests that Russian teenagers, like kids their age the world over, can react violently to stress. Injections of more Russian culture, bans on US video games or even a total ban on guns will hardly put that right.
Russia should wake up to the enormous body of research in school shootings that exists in the US and start looking for ways to reduce social stress in the school system. In a country without a tradition of school violence, prevention might work better than it does in the US, where, despite growing awareness of the problem, the number of violent deaths at schools has been fairly stable over the last 20 years.
- WP Bloom