Friday, August 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: A Tale of Two Concerts

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 22 – Two concerts this week focused on Georgia. One in South Ossetia backed Moscow’s version of events and has attracted the attention of the international media; the other in Estonia showed support for Georgia and has been ignored, a pattern that says a great deal both about the media and about the kind of support each side in this conflict can expect.
The concert in Tskhinvali on Wednesday night was organized by the Kremlin and featured the Marynskiy Orchestra from St. Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev, an ethnic Ossetian who is currently principal director of the London Symphony. The music and Gergiev’s comments were designed to praise Russia and blame Georgia for all the problems.
Coverage in “The Times” of London was typical of the kind this concert has attracted throughout the West and in Russia (For article about this event which appeared in “The Times,” see; for comparable and typical Russian reportage, see
“The Times” said that the concert’s theme “amid the ruins of the capital of South Ossetia” was “Russia’s victory over Georgia; the spirit was Second World War defiance; the music was from Leningrad – and the conductor was [a Russian citizen who now works in] London.”
“From the mournful first bars of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 (known as the Leningrad) in the makeshift arena,” the paper continued, “it was clear that the theme of the night was a stirring appeal to patriotism and the memories of Russian suffering during the Second World War.”
The concert, which also featured music by Tchaikovsky, was punctuated by the comments of Gergiev, whom the London paper described as “a close friend of Vladimir Putin,” who said that Tskhinvali “reminded him of pictures of Stalingrad, the city where Soviet troops began to turn back the invading Nazi army” during World War II.
Gergiev added that ““It was a huge act of aggression on the part of the Georgian Army … I think Tskhinvali can be called a hero city, we know how much people suffered here. If it wasn’t for the help of the Russian Army here, there would be thousands and thousands more victims. I am very grateful as an Ossetian to my country, Great Russia, for this help.”
Both soldiers and civilians waved Russian and South Ossetian flags, lit candles “as soon as the music began,” and were given “ribbons merging the tricolours of the two flags” by Russian soldiers. To make sure no one missed the obvious propaganda message, the entire concert, including Gergiev’s remarks, were “broadcast live on television across Russia.”
The other concert took place in Tallinn, celebrating the anniversary of the recovery of Estonian independence in 1991 and reaffirming Estonia’s support for the Republic of Georgia in the face of Russian aggression. Unlike the Tskhinvali event, what happened in the Estonian capital has attracted little attention. It deserves to be better known.
More than 120,000 people assembled in the Song Festival grounds on the outskirts of Tallinn, to listen to Estonian and Georgian music groups, to wave Estonian and Georgian flags, and to listen to and cheer an address by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (, including a link to video of the event).
The Georgian singers expressed their gratitude to the support Estonia has given Tbilisi – Ilves joined the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in travelling to Georgia following the Russian invasion – and the Estonians in the audience cheered the Georgians. But the most important part of the concert in terms of its message was Ilves’ speech.
Until two weeks ago, the Estonian president said, many Estonians viewed “everything around us – our nation, our freedom, and our inviolable rights – as something quite self-evident. But now, after ten days of devastating news and horrifying images from Georgia, we are once again quite aware that freedom IS NOT self-evident (
“Freedom is not just a word or a declaration that can be scoffed at or smirked at,” Ilves continued. “Freedom presumes that we take notice of world events. Freedom presumes that we see ourselves as part of that complicated, changing world” and that we recognize “the importance of friendship [with other countries and] of being able to notice” their needs too.
Forty years ago, the Estonian leader said, “Czechoslovakia stood alone when alien tanks entered Prague.” Now, “we did not let Georgia down, and one day, pressure from the international public is bound to banish the alien tanks from Georgia,” just as it helped to expel them from Czechoslovakia and Estonia as well.
“No country ever stands alone, we can say again, with pride,” Ilves added. But that is true “only if we have the courage to stand by our friends.”
“We want our nation to last, [and] we can make it last” especially if we recognize that “we are strong when we are together.” To that end, Ilves said, Estonians “must always be honest with ourselves,” must “never let ourselves be deceived by hollow promises, and “must not assume that the world we inhabit is a carefree and completely safe place.”
The Estonian president delivered these remarks to his own people, but they contain messages that should be heard by all people of good will in Georgia and around the world for whom democracy and freedom are valued and also and perhaps even more by those who believe that they can ignore the defense of these principles or who think they can violate them with impunity.

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