A Russian high schooler sold T-shirts to start a conversation about the Columbine shooting. He came home to a conversation with the police.
Nikita Dmitriev already stood out from his high school classmates in Novosibirsk. The young man, whose name was changed for an April 26 story published in Mediazona, has strong ties to Russia’s contemporary art scene and founded his own fashion brand, “Provokatsia” (“Provokation”), a year ago. The brand’s latest collection, however, has not produced the kind of attention the young artist hoped for.
After collaborating with several other artists to produce T-shirts using their designs, the high schooler decided to create his own designs for the first time. On April 20, Provokatsia’s social media accounts announced two highly limited editions: one dark gray shirt with the inscription “GNEV,” or “WRATH,” and a white shirt printed with the words “YESTESTVENNY OTBOR,” or “NATURAL SELECTION.” The shirts were Russian translations of the ones Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 15 people and injured 24 at Columbine High School exactly 20 years earlier, wore on the day they committed the massacre.
Photographs of the shirts were accompanied by a post mourning the “pain [that] remains” two decades after the Columbine shooting and explaining that the purpose of Provokatsia’s T-shirt collection was to start an open conversation about school shootings and their root causes. “In our country, this problem isn’t discussed at all, and no one even tries to find reasons for it beyond ‘computer games’ and ‘the zombification of the West,’” the post argued. It emphasized that the brand felt the Columbine shooting stemmed in large part from bullying the shooters experienced at the hands of classmates and teachers, adding that Russian schools do not provide adequate psychological support for students in similar positions. Other widely discussed factors in the shooting such as weapons access and radical ideologies were not mentioned in the post.
After an artist who had previously collaborated with Dmitriev reposted his new shirts, Provokatsia’s page on the social network VKontakte was blocked. The company’s customer service department sent him messages explaining that VKontakte is “opposed to the creation of societies with themes that are derogatory toward Columbine in one way or another. This is a serious problem that cannot be met with online trolling.” The young man shared the messages with Mediazona.
Soon afterward, Dmitriev came home to find two police officers talking to his grandfather. They began asking him questions about the T-shirts and about his political views. Dmitriev said that the officers accused him of spreading messages supporting the Columbine shooters and that he pushed back, saying he was against the shooting and the officers had no right to question him because he was a minor. When the officers said they were speaking with him on an informal basis, Dmitriev called the human rights project OVD-Info’s hotline, and an activist told him to ask the officers for a warrant.
The young man said one of the officers threatened to call his mother if he did not get off the phone but ultimately filled out a warrant and asked him to come to the local police station that same day. After consulting with another human rights advocate at Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Rus’ Imprisoned”) who told him the warrant had not been formulated correctly and had no legal force, Dmitriev decided not to go to the police.
Although Dmitriev had hidden the identities of the Provokatsia VKontakte page’s administrators well before posting his T-shirt designs, police officers also visited the home of his business partner, who asked to be called Sasha. Both high schoolers said Sasha is responsible only for the financial side of the brand. She said police officers asked her about her relationship with Dmitriev and about Provokatsia. She added that they did not threaten her but did mention that a case might be opened to investigate the brand. When she called the police station later to clarify that risk, she was told there was no forthcoming legal case after all.
Mediazona noted that after the 2018 shooting at Kerch Polytechnic College in the Crimea that left 21 dead and 70 injured, Russian state-owned media leaders reportedly asked their reporters not to compare the shooting with Columbine. Two months after the Kerch shooting, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law enabling the Russian government to block Internet resources extrajudicially if they appeared capable of pushing minors toward similar actions.
Summary by Hilah Kohen