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Russian Lessons

By Olga Konskaya & Andrei Nekrasov

When it comes to the tortured relations between Russia and Georgia – an undeclared war that has killed thousands since the breakup of the USSR – the truth did not even stick around to be the first casualty.

One year after the 2008 war in South Ossetia, the Council of the European Union issued a report stating that Georgia started that war with an attack “that was not justified by international law,” meaning by Russia’s precipitate military buildup in the region.

Konskaya and Nekrasov, in this gripping, horrifying documentary, show that reality is never as cut and dried as a committee report might indicate. In August 2008, the couple courageously ventured into the still roiling war zone from opposite sides, providing visual proof that could well refute the CEU’s report, and showing numerous cases of human rights abuses against ethnic Georgians.

More telling still, they present frame-by-frame proof of media deception, delivering a searing indictment of the BBC, Russian and German media outlets, of the Kremlin, and of renowned conductor Valery Gergiyev, for retransmitting falsehoods which could only be designed to inflame the conflict (notably the claim of 2000 civilian deaths in Tskhvinvali, despite the fact that the entire civilian population had been evacuated prior to the Russo-Georgian clash there).

Less convincingly, but no less horrifyingly, the filmmakers then proceed to argue a pattern of Russian imperial aggression and brutality against Georgia that dates back to 1992, when Cossacks and the Russian military came to the aid of Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists.

While one cannot but admire the courage and passion behind this film, and accept that it carries no small measure of Truth, its effect is emotional rather than analytical: it numbs the viewer’s senses without providing a clear analysis.

After two hours, we are more than convinced of the bloody brutality of this forgotten war, but we have little understanding of what the filmmakers think is truly behind all this killing. Nebulous geopolitical goals are stated but not explored, incendiary accusations are hurled but no closing argument ties the disparate threads together.

But this film should not be ignored for that failing. In fact it should be embraced for spurring us to investigate and understand this of our own accord.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2011