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Maestro dedicates requiem to South Ossetia

In front of a half-destroyed government building, on a plaza flanked by armored personnel carriers, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a requiem Thursday for South Ossetia's victims of war.
Image: Russian concert
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a performance of Tchaikovsky among the bombed-out buildings of South Ossetia on Thursday to honor those who died in a Georgian assault. Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

In front of a half-destroyed government building, on a plaza flanked by armored personnel carriers, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a requiem Thursday for South Ossetia's victims of war.

The concert, staged for local morale and world opinion, seemed designed both to mourn the breakaway region's dead and make Russia's moral case for war.

After Georgian military forces attacked this separatist capital the evening of Aug. 7-8, Russian troops rolled into South Ossetia, then deeper into Georgia — drawing international condemnation.

For Gergiev, an international cultural icon, the true aggressors were the Georgians.

"It was a huge act of aggression on the part of the Georgian army," Gergiev said in English from the improvised stage in front of Tskhinvali's parliament, a Stalinist-era building reduced to a scorched shell by the conflict.

"This is not yet a known story to the world," he said. "But I am sure that every day, every hour the truth will be coming through."

Russia has stationed peacekeeping forces here since fighting between the South Ossetians and Georgians in the 1990s, supported the region financially, and has given most of its residents Russian passports.

'To you, South Ossetia'
An audience of several thousand people, many holding Russian and South Ossetian flags, stood or sat on folding metal chairs as soldiers watched from atop two APCs.

"To you, the living and the dead. To you, South Ossetia," proclaimed a banner hung across the square columns in front of the bullet-scarred legislature.

The music chosen by Gergiev, and played by St. Petersburg's Kirov-Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, was resolutely Russian, patriotic and somber.

The orchestra first performed Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, which was famously played by the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra as bombs fell during World War II.

Dmitry Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad Symphony," followed. It was dedicated to the Russian city, now called St. Petersburg, besieged by Nazi Germany during World War II.

Gergiev himself compared the destruction in Tskhinvali to the devastation of another city besieged by the Nazis, whose name has become a byword for the horrors of war.

"What I have seen today is Stalingrad — it is complete destruction," Gergiev said.

Tskhivnali residents at the event said they were grateful for the chance to think of something else besides death and suffering.

"Only here, thanks to this music, I feel the fear leaving," said Alina Zhurdova, 34. "I feel that life is returning to Tskhinvali and the music helps me forget the horrors of the bombardment that I went through."

Kremlin-approved performance
While the concert was intended as a memorial to the dead, it also appeared to be part of a carefully public relations campaign on the part of the Kremlin.

Officials in Moscow made special arrangements for foreign journalists to cover the event, flying them to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz and then busing them south to Tskhinvali. The event was broadcast live on the state-owned Rossiya and Kultura channels.

It was not the first time that Gergiev has commemorated a tragic event in the Caucasus. After the Beslan school siege in September 2004, he staged a concert for the victims.

Cameras on booms swept over the bullet-pocked facade of the building as Gergiev took the stage, delivered a short speech and embraced a line of teary-eyed South Ossetian children.

Speaking first in Russian and later in English for the benefit of foreign audiences, he talked of remembrance, hope and defiance. His main goal, he said, was to show the world the truth about what happened in Tskhinvali, which he called a city of heroes.

Russian's case for war
Wearing a black tunic and trousers, the stubble-bearded conductor cited early claims by Russian authorities that 2,000 civilians had died in the fighting — although officials have so far only confirmed 133 deaths.

He thanked Russian soldiers for intervening.

"If not for the help of great Russia, three would have been even more numerous casualties here," said the conductor, who was raised in the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia.

"For the Ossetian people, after the Beslan tragedy, to lose 2,000 more people is a terrible loss, a terrible loss."

One man in the crowd had tears in his eyes. A little girl sat on her mother's lap, holding a candle in a clear glass. A Muslim cleric sat next to an Orthodox priest.

While Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili grants frequent interviews to Western media in near-flawless English, Russian officials have struggled to make their case to European and North American audiences.

Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and director of the Kirov-Mariinsky Theater, is a member of the world's cultural elite.

In addition to his roles in St. Petersburg and London, he is principal guest conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera and has performed around the world.

His support will likely lend moral heft to Russia's case for war.