|August 2008 - in cinemas from 21st February 2012|
What is true? Who can we trust? What is history? What is going on now? What is right? Who is good?
Every day of our lives we are bombarded with answers to many of these questions. These answers may only be opinions, theories, ideas or constructs, but they are usually presented as hard facts. And we accept them. In Geopolitics these ‘answers’, which form the frameworks by which we live our lives, are called discourses. They are not intrinsically good or bad. They help create a stable society. They give people an identity and a history they can be proud of. They generate national unity.
In Britain, we believe that we have not only a right, but a responsibility to be a world leader. We expect our politicians to maintain our global influence. We don’t often remember that we are a small island where less than 1% of the world’s population lives. We have this responsibility, or ‘duty’, because ‘our’ values - honour, dignity, democracy, freedom - are worth sharing. We dare to claim these as ‘our‘ values because of our history. We twice fought to ‘save‘ Europe in the World Wars and we ‘won’. In WWII, we like to think that we stood alone, conveniently forgetting the Soviet Union’s immense sacrifice (20 million citizens) on the Eastern Front. Every British child knows all about the Blitz, when the Nazis bombed London, but how many Brits know about how we firebombed Dresden, using incendiary bombs so destructive that even the ‘rocks burned’. Many of us take pride in our former empire - through which we tamed ‘barbarians‘ the world over to the extent that they even learned to play cricket! We forget the abhorrent racist views held by most imperialists, and some of the violent things we did to stop the locals doing anything ‘not cricket’. Going further back, we remember Francis Drake as a hero. The rest of the world remembers him as a Pirate, which is exactly what he was.
Anyway, enough about history. The point I’m trying to make is that every nation has a selective memory on which it constructs it’s identity. It then uses this identity to interpret the present - Britain did a pretty good job of running half the world in the 19th century and has always stood up for respectable values. Therefore it ought to have a big say in how the world is run (UN Security council, G8 etc). Countries which agree with us on things like democracy and capitalism and want to join NATO are good. Countries which don’t (and especially their leaders) are bad.
And, at long last, that gets me on to Russia, which, like us, has a comprehensive set of "discourses" to explain its history and place in the world. The newly released August 2008, which I watched today, is an attempt to do that. It's a film about what Russia calls "Georgia’s 2008 invasion of South Ossetia". In the West, our predominant discourse leads us to call it something else: "Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia". The rationale is simple. Russia, with its corrupt, authoritarian, openly-hostile-to-the-West regime must be the aggressor, the invader, the baddy. Georgia, whose people took to the streets in the Rose Revolution to kick out a Russian crony and install pro-Western, anti-Russian (and slightly insane) Mikhail Saakachvili as President is, naturally, cast as the goody. It helps that they were the underdog too (we Brits do love the underdog).
Last year at university I wrote an essay about the conflict which I’m a bit ashamed of now. I remember that, as I wrote it, I dismissed everything from the Russian side as propaganda, while being prepared to accept almost everything the Georgians said at face value. And I ended up with a very unbalanced essay, albeit it one which BBC or Economist correspondents would have largely agreed with judging by their coverage of the conflict (and which an academic with a special interest in the region gave a good grade to).
Tonight’s film showed the other side of the conflict. The film tells the story of a mother trying to find her son who was visiting his father and grandparents in South Ossetia when war broke out. The most poignant moment of the film is probably when a Georgian tank (donated by the USA) arrives at the family home. The boy’s father goes out to meet it. He holds out his helmet. On it are the Russian letters МС - Миротворческий Сыль - Peacekeeper. He smiles. The Georgian tank blows him to pieces from close range. While this is happening, the boy’s mother is in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, which is being blown to pieces by Georgian artillery. Only after all this has happened does President Medvedev give the order to the Russian army to cross the border in order to protect the Peacekeepers and the peaceful population of South Ossetia.
His own side warns him that the West will blame Russia and call it the aggressor. Of course, this is exactly what the West did - it chose to believe the Georgian account - that their troops only entered Ossetia from the South in response to a Russian ‘invasion’ from the North.
The story of the conflict portrayed in the film is as one-sided (and probably as inaccurate) as the one portrayed in the Western media. It is as much an exercise in propaganda as Hollywood blockbusters about heroic American soldiers in the Middle East, and as the Hollywood pro-Georgian film 5 Days in August released last year. And, however historically accurate or inaccurate it might be, its portrayal of Georgian soldiers as killers of weaponless peacekeepers who are willing to sniper a defenseless mother certainly won’t improve Russo-Georgian relations.
So I don’t agree with everything in the film. To use Geopolitics speak, it is a ‘tool’ in the hands of ‘intellectuals of statecraft’, used to construct a framework through which Russians are encouraged to view an important event in their recent history. To use more comprehensible speak, it is a biased, embellished and one-sided version of events designed to manipulate emotions, increase national pride and support for Russia’s leaders two weeks before presidential elections.
But it is also a good film. The plot is gripping and moving. The setting is spectacular and their are numerous memorable moments. There is also one unexpected event which offers hope for a better future. The mother and son are found by a Georgian soldier who, seeing them driving a Georgian jeep (she has stolen it) points his gun at them. We fear the worst. But not only does he not shoot her - in thickly accented Russian he points out that if the Russians see her in a Georgian vehicle they will shoot at her. He takes the wheel and drives her safely to a place where Russian troops will soon pass.
We have to view the world through frameworks or discourses. Without them we’d be lost, confused and directionless. I just wish that these frameworks rested on events like the one above - which show our human capacity for kindness, understanding and love, which disregard our differences, forget about friends and enemies and move us towards a world where there is no “us and them” or “friends and foes” - A world in which everyone works together so that people can enjoy a beautiful place like South Ossetia in peace. A world in which everyone can “live as one”. Maybe it’s naive to think like that. Maybe I’m just a dreamer… but I’m not the only one ;)