Caucasian Lessons

in 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Anjelika Artyukh

Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya’s film Russian Lessons will never be shown on Russian television. Not, at least, until Russia becomes a democratic state with a free mass media. It’s entirely possible that many western channels will refuse to buy it, because the issues that it touches on also concern the western world and the mass media in the West. The future of Russian Lessons lies with festivals, which makes the fact that its very first festival screening was in Rotterdam, a place where such films usually don’t go unnoticed, particularly important.

And so, what were we told in Russian Lessons? If we were to put it briefly, then it’s about the cynicism of the Russian authorities, which have turned the mass media into a form of mass manipulation. Nekrasov and Konskaya’s film is an investigation into the lies surrounding the Georgian-Ossetian war that flared up in 2008 and how that war was billed by the Russian mass media as direct aggression on the part of Georgia against South Ossetia. The film shows on several occasions Vladimir Putin’s notorious announcement that in the bombing of the city of Tskhinvali on August 8, 2,000 civilians had been killed. This announcement became official information accepted as the truth not only by the majority of Russian citizens, but also by the western mass media, even including the BBC. Nekrasov and Konskaya refute this information. They do a simple and very brave thing: they head off through the conflict zone to meet up with one another (Nekrasov travels to Georgia, Konskaya to Southern Ossetia), collecting information about the events of the war and interviewing a multitude of victims and soldiers, as well as meticulously studying the official information sources. Their investigation convincingly demonstrates that prior to August 8 the majority of inhabitants of Tskhinvali were evacuated by Russian soldiers and that the horrifying figure of 2,000 was merely an anti-Georgian propaganda card played by the Russian authorities. And it was a card played not without the support of major cultural figures. Thus, for example, the conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev, as if echoing the conductor of genius Mravinsky during the Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, performed Shostakovich’s renowned symphony in memory of the victims of Tskhinvali.

However, the filmmakers’ journey to the battlefield, crowned by their long-awaited meeting on the border of Ossetia and Georgia, unexpectedly provides another important discovery; once peaceful Georgian-Ossetian villages have become a zone of ethnic conflict not only thanks to the actions of Ossetian separatists and Georgian nationalists, but also thanks to the very significant involvement on the part of Russia, a country that is incapable of freeing itself of its imperialist ambitions and, equally, an historically formed complex which leads it to continue to regard itself as the master in the Caucasus. This “master complex” in the region, which for many years has inspired the hatred of the native populations there, was even written off by Lev Tolstoi in his novel Hadji Murat, lines from which Olga Konskaya aptly reads in the film’s off-screen narration.

The filmmakers didn’t flinch at expanding the context and giving a wider explanation of the nature of the problem in the Caucasus. They remind us of the history of the Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1993, which in many ways became the template for Russia’s aggressive policies in the Caucasus, where Russia didn’t want to lose Abkhazia as a territory within its sphere of interest. They bravely demonstrated how western leaders, in exchange for economic advantages (primarily revolving around Russian gas), were prepared to close their eyes to Russia’s Caucasian policies, to this day not wishing to see the Abkhazian genocide of 1993 as an issue that could be compared with that of Kosovo. The west doesn’t want to get involved in the issue of the Caucasus, and thus leaves it under Russia’s control. However, this only deepens the Caucasian problem, because, as is usually the case with Russia, the human factor is given the very lowest level of importance.

Russian Lessons is perhaps not the most crafted of films in terms of its cinematographic form (although the first half of the filmmakers’ journey to the Caucasus is an achievement). It is, however, very brave and convincing in terms of its content. It poses a very important question, openly and honestly. What’s more, it poses it in a way that none of the other documentary film directors in modern Russia are even attempting anymore. And never mind if in modern Russia the film is regarded as anti-Russian propaganda for doing so.

Edited by Tara Judah