Blogging From The Front

At great personal peril, Russian bloggers report on the Georgian war

At 6:19 p.m. this past Saturday, Russian journalist Mikhail Romanoff added a two-line post to his personal blog from the chaos of Tskhinvali: “They’re shooting like fucking mad over here.” Eighteen hours and a couple posts earlier, he was blogging from the basement of the city’s Alan Hotel, where he was holed up with Russian journalists and peacekeepers. “Interfax is here, REN-TV, Channel Five,” he wrote. Romanoff, a twenty-something native of Yakutia who works for the New Times of Moscow, had come to South Ossetia to track the rising regional tensions two days before the fighting broke out, leaving a prescient post - “I’m off to volunteer for the Georgian War! Ciao!” Now he was stuck. “I had planned to leave tomorrow,” Romanoff blogged from the besieged hotel. “I ordered a car for five a.m. It’s unclear if it’ll come. Hell, nothing is really clear anymore.”

Like most Russians his age, Romanoff is an active user of LiveJournal, a sort of blog-meets-social-networking site that has become a vital outlet for meaningful political discourse in a country where the mass media has been happily gobbled up by the state. Some blog for their friends, others have wider followings with thousands of commenters, putting them at the top of rankings done by Yandex, Russia’s search engine.

Though many Russian journalists at the front reported that access to many Russian websites had been shut off by the Georgians, LiveJournal was still accessible because of its .com suffix, rather than the suddenly problematic .ru suffix. And so, even as a geopolitical nightmare unfolded around him, Romanoff continued to blog. When he wasn’t posting himself, Romanoff would phone his entries in to his friend Ilya Yashin, head of the youth branch of the liberal (and defunct) Yabloko Party, who would then post for him. While young Russians love their LiveJournals like Americans love their Facebook, Romanoff’s dedication to keeping his LiveJournal humming from the trenches is stunning.

He’s not the only one who did so. Take Krig42, the right-leaning, WWII-obsessed LiveJournal alter ego of Dmitry Steshin, a political correspondent for the tabloid-y Komsomolskaya Pravda. Steshin’s LiveJournal dwarfs Romanoff’s brief “I’m alive, I’m scared, don’t believe your TVs” posts, however. Trapped in Gori when the fighting started, Krig42 had been blogging feverishly up until his escape yesterday morning over the Georgian border into Armenia. His terse, vivid entries recall the frontline journalism of Vasily Grossman and Mikhail Koltsov, and have boosted his blog’s Yandex ranking nearly 300 spots in the last day alone. A sample from August 9th, the day he decided it was time to get out:

“I went outside. Everything is deathly silent; there is booming somewhere on the outskirts. Georgian troops are lounging along the walls. Gori’s city square is piled up with the garbage of war: ammo transportation boxes, crates, bandages. Packs of NATO MREs, but with Georgian labels. Fuck, this is someone else’s war. ‘What am I doing here, on this side?’ I ask myself again. All for the sake of fucking objectivity…The soldiers try to strike up a conversation with me. Mutely I slide past them - it’s better than pretending to be a sorry-looking Englishman.”

Later, he meets David, a Georgian his age, who invites him into his home for tea. David has rushed home from his construction job in Thessaloniki to get his elderly parents out of Gori, but they won’t budge:

Men were swarming outside of David’s house. There was a Georgian veterans’ recruitment station nearby. Even invalids on crutches showed up…With his huge hands, David pushed me into the last (or second-to-last) refugee van. Everyone who could had already left last night on ‘more comfortable buses like the Icharus.’

In muted, shocked prose, Steshin describes a ruined country. There is rubble everywhere, buildings turned to funeral pyres. His van waits out a gunfight in someone’s yard before being mobbed by a crowd of refugees. People stream south, roads jammed. Just before midnight on the day he fled for Tbilisi, he posted a picture he took from the hill overlooking Tskhinvali, three hours before the war broke out there. A wooden cross, a sunny valley below: “Tskhinvali,” he wrote, “which no longer exists.”

He describes how his friend, also a journalist, traveling unarmed and unmarked, gets out of a truck to find himself staring into the muzzle of a machine gun. Behind it is a female Georgian soldier. “I’m a journalist!” he yells. She lowers the gun and “folds in half,” shot dead. Another colleague, Sasha Sladkov of Vesti, a state-owned news program, is wounded while hiding in a roadside ditch.

Romanoff posts an ode to Grigol Chikhladze, a soft-spoken Georgian photographer who worked for the Russian language edition of Newsweek. Although Romanoff barely knew him, he is pretty shaken up by Chikhladze’s death. (“I knew Gia only casually,” Romanoff wrote, “but you don’t need much time with him to realize that you’re talking to a solid, intelligent and kind person. He was riding with the Georgians, but fell behind and was gunned down by the Ossetians.”)

Steshin also posts the wartime observations of his colleagues. There’s a triumphant sense of camaraderie here as journalistic competition falls away in the hell they’re all witnessing. Via Steshin’s LiveJournal, in a post that was picked up across the Russian blogosphere, Moskovskiy Komsomolets special correspondent Vladimir Sakirko recounts how his friend, journalist Alexander Kots, was wounded:

Someone yelled ‘Incoming! Incoming!’ Two Georgian jets hit the column of troops with a couple of rounds. We fell to the ground. The battle began. One Georgian plane was hit. We decided to stay close to the center of the formation, started moving and ran into the film crew of ‘Vesti’ - Sasha Sladkov and the guys. We thought that, by lunchtime, we’d get to the city with the troops. But that didn’t last long. The shooting was getting worse and worse.

Crawling through the bushes with a few other officers, they come under fire again.

We fell to the ground. On one side, a battalion was repelling an attack; on the other side, firing soldiers. And we lay right in the middle. I raised my eyes towards Sasha, and he’s suddenly so pale. ‘Is everything okay?’ I ask him. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘D’you get nipped?’ I reached for his hand and saw blood. We had no bandages, nothing. You couldn’t raise your head, bullets spraying from both sides. All we could do was wait.

As the official Russian press trumpets the Kremlin’s line—something to the tune of “March on Tiflis” and “Georgia is America”—the Internet sings a different, more conflicted song. Much has been made of the liberals’ flight to the Web, but it is by no means a liberal haven. Online, one will find as many people cheering for Karadzic as for Obama. What is surprising is that, in the face of the near unanimity of official press coverage, there is a very lively debate going on in the Russian blogosphere. Commenters debate questions that the Kremlin has already answered for them: Who really started this war and what does it mean for Russia’s geopolitical future?

To be sure, there are plenty of people advocating “showing Georgia who’s boss” in a way that resembles sodomy, plenty of people who echo nationalist fears of American meddling, bias, and double standards. But there is also a good number of more introspective commenters who are critical of Russia’s role in the conflict. And for all the bloggers going crazy over Saakashvili’s embarrassing dive on Monday (he was roundly reviled as unmanly on various LiveJournals), mostly everyone is horrified by the images coming out of Georgia and Ossetia, which these young journalists, thrust by fate into war, are readily providing them. Take Steshin’s ghost photograph of Tskhinvali before the war. Though it is a tacit condemnation of the Georgian forces that first attacked Tskhinvali before the Russians arrived to finish the job of leveling it, Steshin is more stunned by the enmity between two cultures that used to adore each other. He arrived in Gori hours before the war because he wanted to hear the Georgian side, and he comes away feeling that they too have lied. “Everyone,” he wrote after his escape, “got what he deserved.” Although his commenters ask, he’s unable or unwilling to assign blame. He’s too caught up in the horror.

“When the shooting died down, the troops began to move forward,” Vladimir Sakirko continued on Steshin’s blog. “Nearby, I saw a severely wounded major and I crawled up to him. I look and I see that there’s a wound the size of an eyeball on his forehead. There’s liquid dribbling out of it and you could see the pulsating of his brain. His arms and legs were battered. I rooted around in his bags and found two packets of gauze. I bandaged Sasha as well as I could…”

Sasha survived, but the commentators, usually ready to debate to the death, were shocked: they all wanted to know what happened to the wounded major. These young Russians, who missed the traumas of Chechnya and grew up in a largely prosperous decade of cell phones and iPods and petrodollars, are suddenly faced with a nationalistic war, and, like the generations before them, they are drawn in by its pathos. It’s as if these images hit a cultural switch: the politics dissolve as the drama of war looms large. For all their country’s recent wealth, it is still actively haunted by World War II. Now the press is filled with first-person “I was in the trenches” press accounts, even close-range video interviews with wounded journalists lying on gurneys—the kind of stuff one rarely sees in the West. This fascination with the warrior-journalist is especially notable in Russia, ranked the world’s third-most dangerous country for reporters (after Iraq and Afghanistan), where journalists aren’t encouraged to go poking around in dangerous places. War, however, is sacred, and the Russian blogosphere is singing mournful hosannas. Krig42’s entries, for example, occasionally verge on the melodramatic but his commenters cheer him on for his “objectivity,” “accuracy,” and, most of all, “heroism.”

For his part Krig42—he never acknowledges that he is, in fact, Dmitry Steshin—keeps a stiff, heroic upper lip. Having slogged across the border to Armenia, he writes: “I’ll just rest a bit and head to Tskhinvali.”

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Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer based in New York City.