Russians had a tragic opportunity this week to compare the bombing in Boston with a killing spree on their own soil. The juxtaposition was not flattering.
Exactly a week after the Boston marathon bombing, a man walked into a hunting gear store in the southern Russian town of Belgorod and gunned down the three men behind the counter. He killed three more people on the street, including two schoolgirls aged 14 and 16, before escaping in a BMW X5 that he later crashed into another car. Police arrested the suspect -- Sergei Pomazun, a 31-year-old ex-convict -- Tuesday evening after a two-day search.
The shooting, which claimed twice as many lives as the Boston attack, made no headlines outside Russia. Within Russia, it became an occasion for self-examination.
“Why are we like this, taking the Boston tragedy to heart and looking at the Belgorod one as if it is nothing out of the ordinary?” wrote Twitter user Galina Abramova.
Russian police received no applause for their efforts, despite the fact that they apprehended their suspect faster than their U.S. counterparts managed to catch Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, with his brother Tamerlan, is suspected of planning the Boston bombing. Russia’s police force is notoriously corrupt and unpopular. Even the most knowledgeable commentators almost immediately started accusing them, fairly or not, of botching the operation.
Journalist Yulia Kalinina, who has covered terrorism and crime for more than a decade, noted that police could have captured Pomazun right away, given that he was identified immediately: the BMW belonged to his father and the woman whose car he hit recognized him in a photo. In a column headlined “Why Boston Is Not Belgorod” in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, Kalinina marveled that Belgorod residents were allowed to come to the crime scene with flowers and toys and attend packed church services for the victims while the killer was still at large. She pointed out that Belgorod authorities offered a reward of 3 million rubles (about $100,000) for the suspect’s capture, a gesture that was unnecessary in Boston because the police “just did their job.”
“Let those who need the money track killers,” Kalinina wrote sarcastically. “Why should the police worry about it?”
President Vladimir Putin got his share of criticism, too. Radio journalist Vladimir Varfolomeyev wrote in his LiveJournal blog that Putin sent his condolences to the U.S. 12 hours after the Boston attack, but never said a public word about the Belgorod shooting. Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov said only that “the president was informed” about the incident, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
The contrast stirred bitterness among Russians nostalgic for the country’s former superpower status. “It’s understandable: In Boston it was the Chechens who made a mess, so we had to apologize to the mighty Americans lest they misunderstand,” nationalist blogger Yegor Prosvirnin wrote on LiveJournal. “And Russian trash -- who is counting their dead anyway? Now if they had a country of their own with a military and nuclear missiles, they’d be worth taking off one’s hat for.”
Varfolomeyev reasoned that it was hard to blame Putin if ordinary Russians seemed more interested in the Boston drama than in what was going on in their own country. “During this rather dramatic week I posted several large photo reports from Boston and Belgorod,” he wrote. “Today I compared the stats: The Belgorod pictures were ’liked’ and reposted about one-tenth as much as the Boston ones were.”
One constructive consequence was an outburst of impassioned calls for stricter gun control in the media and on social networks. Even those, however, betrayed a sense of despair. Here’s how Galina Panfilova, head of Transparency International’s Moscow office, explained in a Facebook post the dangers of carrying a gun: “In this social system, with its boorishness, aggression, sudden altercations about anything and everything, universal suspicion and mass phobias, I do not even trust myself.”
In a country where people are so good at beating themselves up, who needs terror?
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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