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‘How were we supposed to know what was in his head?’ Life in Kerch, a day after a school massacre rocked the city

Meduza
Andrey Petrenko / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Shortly before noon on October 17, an eighteen-year-old student at Kerch Polytechnic College in eastern Crimea detonated a homemade bomb in the school’s lunchroom. Vladislav Roslyakov then roamed the building, shooting everyone he could from a legally purchased hunting rifle. Roslyakov murdered 19 people — a list of the victims’ names was made public on October 18 — and injured another 48, before turning the gun on himself. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova traveled to Kerch, to find out how this small Crimean city is weathering the aftermath of the massacre.

Housed inside a big gray building, the Polytechnic College is located in the very center of Kerch, a few blocks from a park on a steep slope that overlooks the sea. Between classes, students (who hail from all across Crimea) run across the street to the “Kerchanka” cafe to grab pastries.

On the morning of October 18, a day after Vladislav Roslyakov’s killing spree, many of these students came to the makeshift memorial erected about 100 yards from campus. People came looking for information about their classmates and teachers; some couldn’t find their friends, and others asked about the injured. Teenagers brought flowers and then retreated to the side, to smoke cigarettes and talk about what had happened, their eyes swollen from crying. One young man named Vladislav (who like most students asked Meduza not to reveal his surname) opened the Vkontakte app on his phone and showed his chat messages with fellow students, flipping through photos of his murdered classmates. He named some people as he went, and then he got to a picture of Roslyakov. “That’s the fucker,” he said.

According to eyewitnesses, on Wednesday, October 17, the bell rang like usual after second period ended. This was at 11:40 a.m., and six minutes later there was an explosion in the school’s lunchroom. “I’d gone down to the lunchroom for some bread, and suddenly there was this extremely loud blast. Everyone was terrified, they ducked down, and people were screaming and crying,” recalls one student. “I burned my back and my arm. Thirty seconds later, I heard something else blow up, and I ran out into the courtyard,” she says.

Anna and Elena, also students at the school, say they remember smoking in the courtyard, when they heard the first pops. They say they thought “someone was playing around,” but then they saw “boys running out, covered in blood.” Without any plan, they ran for the fence, jumped it, and ran as far as their legs would carry them.

Elena Olyushkina, an instructor at the school, was on the first floor, when the bomb went off. When she heard it, she says she first mistook the sound for a firecracker or maybe even a small earthquake, and she immediately ran outside. When she got to the courtyard, Olyushkina saw a young woman lying unconscious on the ground. She says she started giving her CPR, but soon realized that the girl was dead.

Relatives of those killed in the massacre at the city morgue, Kerch, October 18, 2018
Relatives of those killed in the massacre at the city morgue, Kerch, October 18, 2018
Maxim Grigoriev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

At this time, several new “pops” sounded from the building, and glass started raining down. Together with a colleague, Olyushkina managed to carry an injured young man outside. “I asked him what he saw. All he said was: ‘They’re shooting.’ Then I asked him how it all started. He answered, but I can’t say what he said, because it might hurt the investigation,” Olyushkina told Meduza.

Sergey, a student at the college, says he hid from the explosions in a corner of the building on the second floor. When the blasts stopped, he says he spent a few minutes gathering himself. “I exhaled and ran like hell for the stairwell. By this time, there were already bodies all over the floor,” Sergey says. “I ran over somebody’s arm. Then I froze: the guy running right in front of me — literally just a step ahead — was killed. He just collapsed in an instant. My legs almost gave way, and I was literally running down the stairs on my knees.” Sergey thinks he survived only because the killer ran out of ammunition. He says he never saw who was shooting: “I was so terrified that I lost all peripheral vision.”

Olga Galburg, a first-year student, says she didn’t know Roslyakov, but later she recognized him immediately from the surveillance footage. “That morning, when I was entering the building, he was a step away from me, and we brushed against each other,” the young woman told Meduza. “I made a mental note, because his hair was this unnatural white, gray color. He’d dyed it. He probably did it just the day before, because I’d never noticed a guy with hair like that at our college before. That morning, I just thought to myself, ‘Hmm, just some fool, I guess.’”

Students say Roslyakov was in the building killing people for about 30 minutes. “This girl in my class fell on the stairs, and literally a second later a bullet hit the wall right above her head. [Roslyakov] was just roaming the hallway, shooting people in the legs and the gut, and killing some people at point-blank,” says a student named Anastasia. Asked when the police finally arrived, students’ answers diverge. Some say officers got there within five minutes, while others say it took 20 minutes. The nearest police station is just across the street from the college, about 330 yards away.

Eyewitnesses can’t say how police responded, because they ran from the building before they arrived. Nevertheless, rumors have circulated throughout the city that the massacre didn’t happen like it’s been explained in official reports. Elena, who was on campus on Wednesday, says “one person wearing a mask was shooting from the left, another person was firing from the right, and Roslyakov was walking the hallway, shooting.” Some say the shots came from different directions, while others claim there was simultaneous gunfire in different wings of the building. Some people even say the killer had an armed accomplice on the roof of a neighboring building. None of these reports has been verified, however, and they are all apparently untrue.

Students say virtually no one knew anything about Roslyakov. “Sometimes I’d see him on campus, but it’s hard to describe a person like that,” says Marina. “He dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and didn’t talk to anyone. In four years, he didn’t make a single friend. He was always alone.”

“Someone in his cohort said he almost never spoke to him in four years of classes together. But he remembers how, in junior year, Roslyakov once told him that he would gladly gun down everyone at the school,” says Vladimir. “But naturally he didn’t think anything of this. How were we supposed to know what was in his head? He never said a word.” “So his classmates say he used to say, ‘I’d blow up the whole school, if I had my way.’ Well who among us hasn’t said something like that?” says Sergey, one of Vladimir’s classmates.

Until Wednesday, most of the students who spoke to Meduza had never heard of the 1999 high school massacre at Columbine in the U.S., which apparently inspired Roslyakov’s actions.

Mourners gather at the makeshift memorial outside the Kerch Polytechnic College, October 18, 2018
Mourners gather at the makeshift memorial outside the Kerch Polytechnic College, October 18, 2018
Sergey Malgavko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On October 18, police closed down and cordoned off the center of Kerch. All day long, people visited the memorial outside the school, leaving flowers. The church across the street held a service for the victims, and the singing resounded outside the college. Women who came with flowers cried uncontrollably, saying they couldn’t believe something so monstrous was possible “in such a quiet town.”

“My nine-year-old is refusing to go to school tomorrow. I was telling him, ‘Son, you’ve got an exam tomorrow,’ but he was in tears,” a woman in a red coat told her friend near the memorial. “And I couldn’t bring myself to make him go. What if something happens? We’re all completely defenseless.”

Sergey Aksyonov, the head of Crimea’s regional government, announced on October 18 that he is certain Roslyakov could not have organized the school massacre on his own. This theory was apparently popular among the mourners who came to the memorial at the college. “His mother is a nurse at an oncology center, she’s divorced from the father, they live in a rented apartment, and the kid didn’t have a job anywhere. So where did he get the 30-40 thousand rubles [roughly $540] for the gun?” said one student’s mother questioningly. “How did he learn how to use all this stuff? And how did he manage to plan everything so carefully? It’s obvious that somebody helped him with this. Maybe, for example, to destabilize the situation in Russia.”

Story by Irina Kravtsova, reporting from Kerch. Translation by Kevin Rothrock.