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Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Sabatical

The New York Times reports:

YURI BAGROV, a 32-year-old with a boyish face, a squished nose and long brown hair that flops around his shoulders, is a relatively new figure at RTVi, a Russian-language cable channel with a small studio on Hudson Street in TriBeCa. For years, Mr. Bagrov covered the separatist conflict in Chechnya, the war-ravaged republic on Russia’s southern border, for various news agencies. But in New York these days, his life is much quieter.

As he entered the studio, Nina Vishneva, the station’s news chief, greeted him at the door. “Privet, Yuri,” she called out, using a Russian word for hello. After giving Mr. Bagrov a cup of tea, she handed him his assignments for the day: narrating a segment on ice-skating rinks in Moscow and another on a butterfly exhibit at the St. Petersburg Zoo. Although it was different from Chechnya, Mr. Bagrov seemed glad to be back in the chaotic rhythm of a newsroom.

Sitting in a recording booth in the studio, he read the first script too fast, and he had to return to the booth for a second take. “When I first arrived,” he said, “all I would want to do was write, but I would sit in front of the computer and nothing would happen. I guess it was my own internal protest.”

Protest against what? Outside the booth, as she waited for Mr. Bagrov to finish, Ms. Vishneva ventured an answer. “He left, but he hasn’t yet arrived,” she said. “He’s somewhere in between.” Miles, she seemed to be suggesting, are just one measure of the distance an immigrant like Mr. Bagrov must travel as he struggles to create a new life for himself.

Mr. Bagrov began working as a reporter in 1999, just after the outbreak of the second Chechen war. He was living in Vladikavkaz, not far from the fighting, and he filed dispatches for The Associated Press and Radio Liberty, among them first-person accounts on the mounting death toll of Russian servicemen and the spread of atrocities to neighboring republics.

For one report, about a battle in the foothills near Grozny, he bought a uniform from a young Russian soldier and sneaked onto a military transport helicopter, Mr. Bagrov said.

His work quickly made him a target of government harassment. A court ruling kept him from attending news conferences, he said, and local officials frequently trailed his car and raided his apartment and his office. At night, anonymous men telephoned his home, and when his wife answered, they asked to speak “with Mr. Bagrov’s widow.”

Finally, in 2005, Russian state security services stripped him of his citizenship and took away his passport. “After a while,” he said the other day, “the message became pretty clear.”

For a while he lived in legal limbo in Moscow. Then, after the United States granted him refugee status, he came to New York a year ago. With the help of the Committee to Protect Journalists, he settled into a three-room cottage at an estate in Rockland County that is financed by a foundation begun by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra; the estate has served as a sanctuary for Russia’s political undesirables since the 1940s.

But these days, Mr. Bagrov prefers to live in New York, where he boards with an older Russian woman who has a couple of spare rooms at her apartment on West 141st Street in Hamilton Heights.

His days are lonely and quiet; he speaks almost no English, and except for a few journalistic contacts, he has few friends here.

Most nights, he fills his time reading the Russian classics — the stories of Varlam Shalamov, a survivor of the Soviet labor camps, are a current favorite — or looking through photographs from his reporting days, when he used his charm and long list of local contacts to talk his way past military roadblocks, the price of passage sometimes no more than a couple of cans of beer.

“Of course, the one thing really lacking here is dialogue,” Mr. Bagrov said, lamenting his isolation.

IT was past midnight, and he was sprawled on the couch, his eyes fixed on his laptop. On the screen was a grainy, profanity-laced documentary called “The 60 Hours of the Maikopskaya Brigade,” about a doomed battalion of Russian soldiers left for dead after they captured a train station in downtown Grozny.

Mr. Bagrov has learned that there isn’t very much work for a Russian-speaking journalist with extensive but specific knowledge of the remote mountains of the North Caucasus. True, some days there is a freelance assignment or two at RTVi. And a few nights a week, he drives his car deep into the Russian enclaves of South Brooklyn and works as an unlicensed taxi driver. “I don’t know what I’d do without G.P.S.,” he said about navigating the unfamiliar streets.

One recent night, he sat at the kitchen table at his apartment, drinking tea with his landlady and talking politics. When she went off to bed, he walked down the hall to smoke a cigarette.

In New York, he said, he feels alone, wholly unbothered and uninteresting to just about everybody. The anonymity is both depressing and liberating.

“For a while,” he said, “I was used to it, the people who follow you in a car all day, visiting the places you visit, talking to the people you talk to.”

He leaned against the faded yellow wall and pulled the last few drags of his cigarette. “But here it’s just normal,” Mr. Bagrov said. “And that’s what’s not normal.”

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