Museum Boasts Tskhinvali 'War Trophies'

MTVladimir Semchenko, curator of "The Caucasus. Five Days in August," demonstrating on Thursday an anti-tank weapon left behind by the Georgian military.
Vladimir Semchenko unloaded his latest booty on a table Thursday at the Central Armed Forces Museum: a soldier's helmet, canteen and flashlight, as well as a notebook with a Georgian flag on the cover. On the metal helmet someone had scratched "Georgia 10.08.08." in Russian.

"This is fresh, they've just brought it in," Semchenko said.

As a curator at the museum, Semchenko has the Defense Ministry to thank for the influx of riches — war trophies from Tskhinvali, South Ossetia — which have been donated for an exhibit that opened there Wednesday.

The central focus of the exhibit, "The Caucasus. Five Days in August," is on evidence of foreign support received by the Georgian war before the conflict, both in the form of training and equipment.

A prime example is a display case containing the contents of a Georgian officer's rucksack: a photograph of a soldier hugging a black man in a flak jacket, an English-language instruction booklet for a machine gun, and three American English text books. One is dated 1991 and bears the name of an air base in Texas.

The soldier's identity card is also on display, but the exhibit has been put together so quickly that there was not time to translate it into Russian.

Other exhibits include Israeli-made machine guns, radio equipment from New York and NATO-issue rations produced in Turkey.

Just to make sure the point isn't missed, there is a list of countries that supplied Georgia, compiled by Red Star, the Defense Ministry's newspaper. The list includes the United States, Serbia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and France.

"This is another step of Russian propaganda, depicting Georgians as totally under Western influence," said Zura Kachkachishvili, spokesman for Georgia's National Security Council, adding that the training for the soldiers had nothing to do with South Ossetia.

"Some of the troops were trained by American experts, for totally different purposes, to participate in Iraq," Kachkachishvili said. "There's no reason to be surprised. They were all taught English."

Semchenko was enjoying the haul nonetheless. "We only have aluminum, but they have stainless steel," he said, pointing to a NATO-issue mess kit. "It didn't help them."

The items would remain in the special exhibit for a month, Semchenko said, before joining the museum's permanent collection.

He posed for a moment with an infantry anti-tank weapon before adding it to a case titled "Thank You, Soldier!"

"The aim of the exhibition is to tell the story to a simple person, who doesn't watch television or listen to the radio, so that he understands what happened in five days in August," Semchenko said.

"There aren't any explanatory notes. Look for yourself and draw your own conclusions," he said.

The items on display fill a small room in the Soviet-style museum, whose entrance is dominated by a bust of Lenin.

Larger trophies, including tanks, are now on display at another military museum in Kubinka, in the Moscow region, Semchenko said.

One section of the exhibit focuses in Russian soldiers and is entitled "Their Deeds Are Immortal." It includes a shirt and equipment that belonged to Major Denis Vetchinov, who died in an ambush while rescuing troops and journalists. He was posthumously awarded the Hero of Russia medal.

Photographs show Russian soldiers with shrapnel wounds on their chests and arms.

"I keep getting teary-eyed," said a gray-haired museum attendant. "They were just boys."

An Ossetian visitor to the exhibition, Skif Bekoyev, said he had traveled to South Ossetia on Aug. 12 and many of his friends had fought as volunteers.

"It's not a bad exhibition, but all the same it's a bit one-sided," he said. "It says a lot about the heroism of Russian soldiers, but not enough about the heroism of South Ossetians."

Two cases display regimental banners that Semchenko said were abandoned by the Georgian forces. "Clearly, they have the kind of soldiers who didn't bother to protect their regalia."

Documents displayed include pictures of Mikheil Saakashvili ducking in fright and witness accounts of Georgian soldiers committing murder and rape.

Semchenko pointed to a photograph of piles of helmets and uniforms.

"They abandoned everything they were given," he said. "It's not Russian propaganda, it's real."