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.