Bearing cigarettes, crackers, and salami, Krig42 returned to Tskhinvali on August 15th in search of the truth. The city, which came under heavy Georgian fire the night of August 7th before the Russians retook the city three days later, had instantly become the center of a propaganda battle between the two countries.
In the first hours of the war, Russian officials announced that 1,600 South Ossetians had been slaughtered by bloodthirsty Georgians; two days later, the count stood at 2,000. Tskhinvali, they said, lay in ruins. Georgia disputed the tally and claimed that Ossetian militias were engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, burning and looting Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali, they countered, was not as badly damaged as Moscow claimed. Russia shot back with claims of genocide; Georgia filed suit with the International Court of Justice. In an attempt to find some measure of objectivity, Human Rights Watch waded into the conflict and found that the death toll seemed to be exaggerated: the head physician at the city’s hospital said they had treated only 273 wounded and received forty-four dead bodies, believed to be the majority of Tskhinvali’s dead.
Krig42 (the blogging alias of Russian journalist Dmitry Steshin) had seen much of this chaos firsthand. On assignment for Komsomolskaya Pravda, he arrived in Tskhinvali hours before the fighting started and had been supplementing his daily reporting with vivid frontline posts on his personal blog. His press pass accorded him journalistic authority while his LiveJournal gave him the room to describe a confusing and maddening war as he saw it, and the blogosphere—apparently hungry for just such unfiltered war stories—responded enthusiastically, making Krig42 one of the most popular bloggers in Russia.
The Russian blogosphere, meanwhile, was abuzz with speculation over the Tskhinvali charges: Had the city really been leveled? How many people had really died? And who, exactly, killed them? Just after midnight on the day Human Rights Watch published its findings, Krig42 finally weighed in:
To all you people blowing hot air about the totally destroyed or barely touched Tskhinvali, I report: I shot thirty rolls of tape and made my own “virtual tour” of Tskhinvali. I rode through it on an armored personnel carrier from north to south and from west to east, filming continuously. I filmed basements where people died. I filmed people exhuming the grave of a woman and two children, buried in the garden. I filmed a car in which two kids burned alive. I filmed the rancid cellars of the city hospital. I think these should make an impression on you.
Steshin even found the elderly doctor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who clarified her version of the casualty story. “Could there possibly be 2,000 dead?” she told him in her broken, heavily accented Russian. “If you’re counting the entire district, then yes.” Though exhausted from traveling, he pledged to stay up and post his virtual tour online by morning. It was, he said, “a personal response to the base claims of Human Rights Watch. These fuckers thought there weren’t enough casualties in Tskhinvali.”
Almost two weeks out, the cement of the war’s narrative is starting to set, and Russian journalists, especially those who were there, are frantically blogging to make sure it sets right. It’s not always clear, though, whom they are fighting. A recent poll found that only 2 percent of Russians sympathize with Georgia. Visitors to Krig42’s blog, ambivalent last week, have been punctuating their comments on the picture of the charred, disembodied leg of a dead Georgian soldier with smiley faces.
By almost all measures, the Kremlin’s media campaign has been successful. But there are still naysayers out there, especially in the West, and, in the face of such chaos and international outcry, Russians are hungry for a unanimous, objective, exonerating verdict. They are also, however, suspicious of what they see as propaganda, both at home and abroad. “Russia,” journalist Michael Idov wrote, “is a society of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the notion that politics is mere theater and policy is determined via backroom collusion is so central to the Russian worldview that “theorist” is perhaps too weak a word. Russia is a society of conspiracy axiomists.”
Combine a culture already suspicious of all things political with the natural, magnifying outlet of the free-for-all blogosphere, and you get Russian bloggers searching desperately for the necessarily elusive key to the riddle of this war. Obviously, the thinking goes, evidence on the ground is being manipulated for political purposes. Obviously, says the rare Georgian sympathizer, we’re only being shown the wrecked streets and not the rest of the city. Or, says the Russian nationalist, the West wants to minimize the death toll in Tskhinvali so that Saakashvili can escape the war crime charges he so desperately deserves.
It is not, however, a question of looking for the skew-factor of media bias, as it would be in the West. In Russia, the question is more essential: What truth are they trying to hide from us? As Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Irina Kuksenkova put it in an interview after her return from the war—which she greeted, incidentally, drinking champagne and watching the firefight from the roof of the Alan Hotel where Mikhail Romanoff was later holed up with the Russian press—“There’s only one truth. There can’t be two truths.”
Evgeny Poddubny, a TV correspondent for TV Center, revived his dusty blog to present his eyewitness account of the war after his nine-day stay in Tskhinvali. “I will tell you what I saw there with my own eyes. At first, I didn’t want to write about it in my LiveJournal,” he wrote, “but after I returned to Moscow and read the stuff being said online, I just couldn’t keep silent.” He then plunges into a self-consciously flat account—“I tried to keep the descriptions as dry as I could”—detailing the war’s progression, paying careful attention to timing and tank formation, as if his precise telling will finally deflate all the conspiracy theories whirling about the blogosphere. Poddubny’s blog isn’t as rhetorically compelling as Steshin’s, but he, too, resorts to graphic imagery to make his points:
An elderly man approached us and, with a gesture, invited us into his house. We walked into the bedroom, he brought us over to the bed – a big double bed – pulled back the cover, and there were his wife and daughter, both burned and headless. Many have said, you guys are only telling us when you could show it.
And so he does.
“Of course, I didn’t include everything,” Poddubny writes at the end of his long, painstakingly detailed account. “I have to gather my thoughts…But!” he adds (and here the paths of journalistic strivings for objectivity and conspiracy theorizing diverge):
But! Georgia made the first military move! Russian forces entered South Ossetia 16 hours after the beginning of Operation ‘Clean Earth’! There was not one Western camera crew in Tskhinvali until the moment that military operations ceased! The Russian air force hit military infrastructure!
Krig42, on the other hand, more gingerly treads the line between skeptical journalist and conspiracy theorist. When Krig42’s videos finally went up on Tuesday, he showed – truly showed – the eerie moonscape of Tskhinvali: A long, rumbling drive down Tskhinvali’s Moscow Street, the early evening sun planing through the trees, falling on rubble. Broken glass still in the panes, black shadows of fires long extinguished climbing up the outer walls. The muzzle of an AK-47 pops briefly into view. An occasional grandmother hobbles along, but otherwise the street is deserted.
There is a clattering reel of a shabby, ill-equipped basement, identifiable as a hospital only because the video titles it as such. A deserted town square. Another video, called “A dead body, briefly,” just one second long, snaps a quick shot of a body in a wide muddy road as trucks detour around it.
Riding along Moscow Street, Steshin offers no commentary. All you hear is the wind and the personnel carrier trundling along. The post is titled, simply, “Watch. Count the ruins, if you want.”