The Russian Bear Roars

On a balmy July afternoon in central Moscow, on the outdoor patio of a café around the corner from Okhotny Ryad Metro Station, I meet with retired Russian army colonel and former military journalist Yuri Yuryevich. A youthful 51, Yuryevich sports an Italian suit and a buzz-crop haircut; his wife, Natalya, sits demurely beside him. My own Russian wife translates our conversation. But the heat and my wife’s headache, combined with Yuryevich’s boundless energy and effervescent flow of verbiage, renders our interpreter mute for large periods of time. We make ourselves understood nonetheless.

“The greatest strength of an army, and of a nation,” Yuryevich says, “lies not in tanks or rockets.”

It’s one month before Georgia’s U.S.-trained army will begin its shelling attacks on South Ossetia, the breakaway pro-Russian enclave in Georgia. Attacks that will provoke Russia’s blistering military response in the former Soviet republic over the opening weekend of the Olympics. But on this day, on this Moscow patio, when Yuryevich speaks of tanks and rockets, he’s actually referring to those owned by the United States. He’s talking about our desire to control world events through incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. And when we speak much later by phone on the Monday after the bombing begins in Ossetia, he adds Georgia to the list of nations where the U.S. has been involving itself. His is a view that coincides with that of a number of displaced Ossetian refugees who blame the U.S. for stirring up anti-Russian aggressions, and then failing to support the rebels with military cover. Yuryevich’s view is also supported by Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian,referring to the flare-up in the Caucasus as “what some call the pipeline war.”

(The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, completed in May 2006, runs between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, across a route sponsored largely by the United States and designed to bypass Russia and, thereby, to help “reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region.” Meanwhile, Georgia has been a staunch U.S. ally and supporter of the U.S. presence in Iraq; Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been lobbying for his country’s swift entry into NATO, an idea that infuriates the Kremlin because it could bring Western military bases to Russia’s doorstep.)

“Twenty years ago, there were two players on the world stage,” Yuryevich says in July. “The United States and the Soviet Union. I don’t mean to be impolite, but all the other countries, including Britain, France and Germany, merely sat in the audience.

“Today, the United States is alone on the stage, but we are in the front row of the balcony taking great pleasure in your performance. We [in Russia] are in the privileged position of understanding all the mistakes you are making, because we made exactly the same mistakes just before our empire collapsed.”

Natalya pokes at a shrimp salad, while my wife squeezes the bridge of her nose to help keep her headache at bay. The sun slips behind a high-rise, and the first cool breeze of the day sweeps through a line of birch trees across the street as Yuryevich continues to talk.

“Our mistakes all stemmed from our rigid adherence to ideology rather than finding a balance between principles and practicalities. Our ideology was very different from yours, but you, too, are now wedded to ideology — a privatization/free-market ideology — as an economic template for the entire world. As you are discovering, it may not be a good fit for the entire world. You now look very tired, perhaps from trying to govern the entire world by yourselves, as we once tried to do. And when a nation is tired, it makes more and more foolish mistakes. Rigid ideology is a symptom of such fatigue.”

While in the army, Yuryevich worked as a newspaper correspondent and editor for The Red Star, which used to be the Soviet military newspaper and is now regarded as the official organ of the Russian Ministry of Defense. On the Monday after the Ossetia fighting begins, the Red Star Web site complains about a pro-Georgia bias in the U.S. and British press (the Western European coverage, The Red Star notes, is more impartial), while also covering the Russian government’s efforts to get food and medical supplies into Ossetia. Meanwhile, the English-language, American-expatnewspaper, The Moscow Times, complains that though the human misery caused by the Georgian army raids on Osssetia are being widely broadcast on government-run Russian television, there is scant coverage of the Russian bombings and invasion of Georgia, and their human effects. Correspondent William Dunbar broadcast one report about the bombings by the Russians on the English-languagestate channel Russia Today, and has not been seen on the air since. It is later announced that he has “resigned.”

Yuryevich, however, insists that Russian censorship has largely been an accusation against Russia concocted by the West.

“We have always had one theme and area we couldn’t criticize — the president. Not all Soviet journalists felt persecuted because it was impossible to write that Brezhnev was an idiot. Would it have been worth the cost of sacrificing a career just to say that Brezhnev was an idiot, which everybody already knew?

“I don’t recall once when a guy would show up in a horrible gray suit and say, ‘You can’t write that.’ ”

On the contrary, Yuryevich points out, a number of party bosses lost their jobs because of reports printed by muckraking Soviet journalists.

Yuryevich tells me he left journalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as he observed new freedoms and commercial imperatives result in a wave of tabloid journalism that, Yuryevich says, replaced a tradition of great investigative reporting.

I mention Anna Politkovskaya, the ferociously brave journalist critical of Vladimir Putin’s war in Chechnya, who was shot to death at her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006 — coincidentally Putin’s birthday.

Yuryevich cringes and concedes that the horror of that assassination was undeniable.

“The purpose of journalism is to speak for the people who have no voice, to cleanse the society,” he says. And, in this never-ending era of Putin, he sees signs of that tradition returning, along with some government-funded social programs that were also gutted during the ’90s.

Yuryevich reflects for a moment before making an extraordinary confession: “Maybe I was doing propaganda,” he says. “How free you are depends on how free you feel.”

A sudden, strong breeze stirs a paper cup that had been resting peacefully in a gutter. It dances and rolls for a few seconds before retreating into its bed.

Now, with Russian troops advancing on Gori, in central Georgia, Yuryevich, on a crackly phone line across continents, notes that whatever Georgian President Saakashvili thought he was doing by attacking Ossetia remains a riddle, that Georgia is of little consequence to either Russia or the United States, and that the bloodshed and misery are part of a larger test of wills between the world’s one remaining superpower and the former superpower relegated to the balcony.

LA Weekly