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Virginia Tech Through Russian Eyes

As I’m putting finishing touches on a chapter on the legacy of the Russian Civil War in the Komsomol, I couldn’t help pausing for a moment to reflect on the Virginia Tech massacre. The move is in line with my current work since I am looking at the effects of war trauma and violence on Komsomol youth.

Events in Virginia are probably already well known to most, so I won’t bother recounting those. And I’m sure the army of psychologists, law enforcement experts, gun control advocates, social critics, and pundits will do well to peel the layers of this incident in hope to make some sense of it.

In my view, there is something awry in American society. Sure some may dismiss America as a source for the tragedy. After all, they will say, Cho Seung-Hui was a South Korean national, not an American. But his rampage did not happen in South Korea and calculating the metrics of how much he was “assimilated” into American society will not provide many answers. I think that it is enough to state that school massacres seem to be the providence of the United States. As the Economist notes, since 1996 the International Action Network on Small Arms counts 14 school shootings in America, which claimed 110 lives, including those in Virginia. Worldwide, the article reports, the IANSA counts “only 14 school gun killings outside America in the same period. Putting aside the Beslan massacre in Russia—committed by an organized terrorist group—school shootings in all those countries claimed just 59 victims.” And many have quickly pointed to the availability of firearms. Others note Cho’s apparent mental collapse. Both serve as explanations for sure. But they also leave me unsatisfied because they reduce the act to the individual. Something more is at work in America. What that exactly is continues to defy identification.

One way to get a sense is too look at how others are talking about the massacre. People from other societies might see something that we don’t because they have the benefit of critical distance. There is no doubt that American school massacres are a major fascination in other countries. Most can’t even imagine this happening, even despite their own high rates of violence. Since this blog is focused on Russia, let us look at what some Russians are saying about Virginia Tech.

First, however, I should preface Russians’ views by anticipating what others might think of the notion of the Russians judging us. Sure, Russia’s per capita murder rate is fifth in the world with 20 per 100,000 people compared with the United States (which is twenty-fourth) with 4 per 100,000. In terms of murders with firearms per capita, the United States is eighth in the world (per capita figures for murders with firearms are not given for Russia.). But if we look at total crimes per capita, though there is some question whether Russia’s reported crime statistics are accurate, the United States has eight times more crime than the former. In all, according to the stats, both places are pretty violent.

What is the Russian media saying about Virginia Tech? Boris Kaimakov of RIA Novosti wrote that most Russian media outlets are pointing to the “unlimited arms trade in the United States” while more socially savvy commentators are pointing to the “ tremendous psychological pressure in the U.S. – and in all developed countries.” Interestingly, Kaimakov surveys the opinions of Russian bloggers on the issue. The entries he quotes present an interesting picture of America. In regard to one unidentified blogger, Kaimakov writes:

An urge to break the law is present in almost every subconscious mind. Reaction equals action, so the urge is at its strongest and ugliest in America, with its unquestioned supremacy of the law. Though the South Korean student killer’s message has not been completely decoded yet, his sensational “Blame them, not me” shows what he thought of the American public. “America might have proclaimed freedoms, but its rules of the game are overly strict, and one feels it even as a toddler,” is one remark from a Russian blog. Many blogs say innermost human emotions clash with political correctness to cause inevitable rampages – a view born of young anarchism and social protest. “They’ve robbed us of the right to anger,” a Russian blogger quotes an American friend of his.

To others the massacre pointed directly to one of the harsh contradictions of American life. As a blogger named dr_fedor writes:

There is an alarming contradiction in American life. On the one hand, socialization, in its many forms, is a permanent and very aggressive demand. Political correctness is one of such forms. We Russians come down on it, though it is the least of all evils – if an evil at all. On the other hand, there is cutthroat competition. It is encouraged in every group while the community does not feel responsible enough for its individual members. What we have as the result is, first, huge problems bred by giving up coercive socialization and, second, doubtful emotional reward voluntary socialization brings. Some people protest, which is natural – and there is never a shortage of weapons. Then, the extent of one’s madness alone determines the outcome.

Most Russian experts echoed their international counterparts. The root of American violence is proliferation of guns combined with mental illness.

“In my opinion, these repeated cases of completely unprovoked shootings in the United States reflect some sort of a systematic collapse of American legislation, particularly involving the right to own guns,” said Sergei Oznobishchev, the director of the Russian institute for strategic evaluation and analysis. Adding, “American civilization is so ubiquitous and overwhelming that it simply depresses ordinary people,” he said. “When combined with the constitutional right to bear arms conceived by the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution, the results can be disastrous.”

Viktor Kremenyuk, a deputy director of the Institute of U.S. Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences dismissed the notion that firearms were easily acquired in the US, but concurred with Oznobishchev psychological analysis. “Modern society has a lot of stresses and strains, and immature minds and souls often cannot bear up under them, and as a result breakdowns happen, followed by tragedy.”

If the stress of modern society is truly a factor, then violence like this will be with us for a long time to come.

Update: On the way home tonight, I tuned into NPR’s All Things Considered and heard their coverage on Virginia Tech. I found Robert Siegel’s commentary “Weighing Cho’s Heritage and Identity” most interesting. It also provided me with the following correction. As I stated above Cho was indeed a Korean national. What I didn’t know was that he’s was a U.S. resident and has been since he was 8 years old. Siegel found that most news outlets haven’t noted this except for the Washington Post. In Seigel’s view, and mine, that makes Cho’s Koreaness mostly immaterial. As the commentary notes, Cho was as much American as any American, thus making his crime that much more so.

I also suggests readers point their mouse to Lyndon’s contribution to what Russians are saying about the massacre.

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