Monday, August 02, 2010

Russian Lessons

Russian Lessons was the only documentary I saw in this year's Film Festival. A couple of years ago during the 2008 Beijing Olympic games Georgia attacked the city of Tskhinvali in the break away region of South Ossetia. The Russians claimed that 2000 civilians and some Russian peacekeepers had been killed in the bombardment, and that they were counter attacking to protect their peacekeepers and the South Ossetians. The Russians quickly took control ofSouth Ossetia and expanded the war into other parts of Georgia. The US, who had military advisors in Georgia, blustered that this was Russian aggression. The French tried to broker a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal. The ceasefire took effect but the Russian withdrawal was much slower than they promised. There was talk of Russia being annoyed by a oil pipeline through Georgia that bypassed Russian controlled pipelines. Out of the mainstream there was sketchy information about the larger scale presence of Israeli military advisors and hardware in Georgia and the Georgian Minister of Defense with Israeli citizenship. The general consensus in the media seemed to be that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (emboldened by Dick Cheney et al) had tried to retake South Ossettia by force, while the world's media attention (and Russia) was focused on the Beijing Olympics and it had backfired.

At the start of this war Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov (documentary film makers based in St Petersburg, and connoisseurs of Georgian wine) decided to document the war. Andrei flew to Georgia to reach the front line from the south while his wife Olga went to North Ossetia (in Russia) to reach the front line from the north. Olga found the interesting information. At the Russian border she found people who saw the Russian army moving into South Ossetia before the war started. In Tskhinvali a city of about 25,000 where 2000 civilian were killed she couldn't find anyone who knows someone who died or were wounded, and only 50 new graves mostly of young men. People she talked to said that they had left the city before the war (about half the population left before the war started). Outside Tskhinvali amoung the Georgian villages she found plenty of people who's houses and businesses had been destroyed and evidence of deaths. Strangely most of the destroyed businesses were brand new, evidence of an ecconomic boom amoung Georgians in South Ossetia in recent years.

In Beslan, North Ossetia she finds witnesses from both inside the school and outside it who claim that the killing and destruction was caused by Russian soldiers and tanks attacking the school, rather than by the 7 gunmen inside the school. Turning the official story of this 2004 terrorist incident on its head. The Russian 58th Army was involved in Beslan, South Ossetia and the Second Chechen War.

In the second half of the film Olga and Andrei supplement their field work with uncovering TV footage played in the West and in Russia of Geogian victims in hospital mis-identified as South Ossetians, of Russian planes attacking Gori mis-identified as Georgian planes attacking Tskhinvali. They also look back at the earlier conflict in 1991 especially at the Russian involvement in atrocities in Abkhazia, with interviews of Georgian victims and corroborated by a Russian soldier.

The conclusions they draw are that the break up of the USSR was at least as brutal as Yugoslavia, that Russia is not to be trusted and its interest in Abkhazia is more about access to the Black Sea than the interests of Abkhazians and that western media is often too trusting or lazy about verifying facts. Even though they blame the entire 2008 war on Russia they don't explain Russia's motives. Though Putin made it clear in 2008 when the US recognised Kosovo that it would lead to Russia recognizing separtists in places like South Ossetia.

In my view the last 20 years has seen a ressurection of The Great Game between the UK and Russia in 19thC, but this time played out between the US and Russia with eastern Europe and the break away parts of the USSR as the chess board. While Russia is very short of pieces and is pinned in a corner, it is trying to play itself back into the game. Not a good time to be one of America's pawns.

Russian Lessons isn't neutral but it is a dramatic demonstration that even with today's technology the media (and through them the rest of us and our political leaders) can still be fooled.

Ian's rating 4/5

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