By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 22, 2008
TSKHINVALI, Georgia, Aug. 22 -- On the steps of the bombed-out Parliament building Thursday, down the street from a neighborhood in ruins, the black-suited maestro prepared to lead a concert he aptly called a requiem, or composition for the dead.
But before launching into Dmitri Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, written at the height of World War II to stir patriotism in the Soviet Union, Valery Gergiev, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, explained to the crowd of several hundred why he had come to South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian territory whose capital is Tskhinvali.
"We are here so that the world will know the truth," Gergiev, an ethnic Ossetian born in Moscow, said as men in camouflage uniforms waved Russian and South Ossetian flags. "We have to remember those who died the tragic death from Georgian aggression."
Long-simmering tensions exploded two weeks ago when Georgian troops first shelled, then stormed South Ossetia, which had for years operated largely autonomously. The Russian army drove them back and now occupies vast swaths of Georgian territory.
The concert, before an audience of families, soldiers and a conspicuous number of journalists, was beamed across the region on Russian television. It was the capstone of a day filled with sometimes powerful, sometimes dubious, always heavy-handed messages, carefully choreographed by a Moscow public relations machine that has struggled to win international support during the current conflict.
The surreal day began in the Georgian village of Karaleti, where a Russian official accused Georgians of having torched their compatriots' homes. It ended with classical music in the South Ossetian capital, which local politicians call "the Stalingrad of the Caucasus," a reference to the Russian city destroyed, but held, during World War II.
The Russian army has drawn heavy criticism in recent days for barring journalists without Kremlin accreditation from occupied Georgian territory, turning away those who attempted to enter at ubiquitous roadway checkpoints. On Wednesday, Moscow responded by loading 30 reporters, photographers and cameramen into the back of an open-top truck and driving them north from the Russian-controlled Georgian city of Gori to South Ossetia.
The stops along the way were selected by the organizers, although reporters were free to speak with anyone, outside the presence of minders.
First came tiny Karaleti, where, in front of a burned-out apartment building, a Kremlin media handler who asked to be referred to only by his first name, Sasha, told reporters that "there are cases of putting on fire houses by the Georgian special command." (Georgian officials have made similarly unsupported assertions.) Told that Georgian villagers had described pillaging by South Ossetian militias as Russian forces moved south, Sasha responded: "That is their word. As you know, Georgians are very good at provocations."
Farther up the road, in a field near the Georgian village of Tkviavi, the group was shown stacks of more than 500 boxes that once held Grad rockets, fired to devastating effect on Tskhinvali and several South Ossetian towns. Prepackaged Georgian army rations were strewn about the area.
"From here they shelled Ossetian civilians," Sasha said. "And there are six more positions just like this."
The convoy rumbled quickly past populated sections of Tkviavi, where residents said that in recent days a dozen people had been killed, some shot dead in their homes by militiamen. It stopped next in a destroyed section of Tskhinvali, once the Jewish neighborhood, where most of the buildings were in ruins and rocket shrapnel lay in the streets.
"The Georgians, or anyone who would do this, are not human," said Inal Kudukhov, 46, sitting on a bench in front of the little that was left of his home. A gaping hole in the front wall revealed a blackened and twisted kitchen stove. At least three people died on his block, he said, including a man whose "guts were torn out" by a blast, and a pregnant woman.
Eteri Kudzieva, 50, said she and her four children waited out the bombing in her cellar for two days. "I only have one favor to ask everyone who comes here," she said. "Do not leave even one Georgian kitten living among us, because the day after it will become a tiger."
Outside town, in the small South Ossetian village of Khetagurova, residents described a similar nightmare of shelling, followed by the arrival of Georgian infantry and troops in armored vehicles who shot up everything in sight. Walls were pockmarked from bullets and shrapnel, windows shattered. At least eight died here, residents said, some newly buried in shallow graves.
"After they blew everything up, they shouted, 'Come out and raise your hands, and we won't hurt you,' " said Indira Bestaeva, 52.
Later, before the concert in Tskhinvali, residents gathered under a pounding sun in the city's Theater Square for speeches by local officials, including the president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, who is not recognized by the Georgian government.
"This is for the heroes killed on their own land by the bloody aggressors," he said, before a moment of silence, as two men held aloft a banner that read, "Ossetia, Yes." "Our battle for independence comes to its logical end. Before, we thought we might have peaceful negotiation with the regime of Georgia. After August 8, it was clear this was impossible."
An Orthodox priest asked the crowd, "Can we live within the borders of Georgia after what has happened?" The response was a resounding, "Nyet," or no.
The concert, which also included a performance of Peter Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" symphony, began after dark. People proceeded through metal detectors and stood around a paved plaza at the base of the Parliament steps. Organizers distributed ribbons marked "Russia" and "Ossetia" in letters colored to match their respective flags. As the orchestra of St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theater settled in, the audience held aloft thin yellow candles. Russian soldiers and South Ossetian militiamen -- distinguishable by their irregular uniforms, such as sneakers, or occasionally their beards -- sat on armored vehicles, some casually clutching rifles.
"The people have to have at least some hope, and that's what this is about," said a 19-year-old woman who gave her name only as Zarina. "The mood, today at least, is optimistic."
Special correspondent Temo Barzimashvili contributed to this report.