Ex-Kremlin spokesman now wants to speak for natives 22 November 2009
By Astrid Wendlandt
Sergei Yastrzhembsky spent years as the Kremlin spokesman explaining an erratic Boris Yeltsin and then the war in Chechnya under Vladimir Putin to the outside world, but now wants to tell a very different story.
Since he left politics more than a year ago, Yastrzhembsky has made several documentary films on tribes in Africa with sponsorship from Metalloinvest, the Russian iron and steel firm founded by tycoon Alisher Usmanov.
Hehas published several aerial photography books, inItaly titled «Feeling Elements," in Russia called Aeroimpressionism." He has also set up a luxury safari company in Botswana with South African ex-banker Louis Beukes. Accustomed to high doses ofadrenaline from more than adecade ofhigh stakes public relations, his adventures in Africa provide new kicks, he says. And 55 is a good age for a radical life change.
Yastrzhembsky now aims toemulate the success ofFrench photographer YannArthus- Bertrand, author ofthe bestselling photography book «The Earth from Above» and environmental film «Home».
«Like Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who is trying to get the world’s attention on the preservation of the planet, I would like to get the same attention on the preservation of native cultures," Yastrzhembsky told Reuters in an interview this month.
He will be presenting a film on Berber nomads in Morocco at an international documentary film festival in Agadir in November and is finishing a two-partdocumentary film on the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. Yastrzhembsky said he wanted his work tohelp immortalise native cultures which hedescribed asunique examples ofharmony between men and nature.
«Itwould besuch ashame ifthe Bushmen lost their trances, ifall the Berber became sedentary," Yastrzhembsky said. «These people cultivate values which we have lost a long, long time ago, such as community life and solidarity," he said. Yastrzhembsky is preparing films on other tribes such as the Himba of Namibia, the Surma in Ethiopia and Maasai of east Africa.
He held an exhibition of his aerial landscape photography in Moscow in February and March, part of which will travel to a street exhibition in Milan in September.
NOBODY IS PERFECT
A career diplomat, Yastrzhembsky acknowledged his contacts have opened doors for him in Africa. «I don’t have to tell my whole life story to get access to people," he said.
Yastrzhembsky, who was Yeltsin’s spokesman between 1996 and 1998, is remembered by many in Russia for having repeatedly justified the former president’s prolonged absences by saying that he was «working on documents».
«Of course my job (as Kremlin spokesman) involved a lot of stress. Yeltsin was an audacious man... but nobody is perfect," he said.
Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president, saw his final years in office marred by increasingly erratic behaviour and plummeting popularity as the economy suffered.
Yastrzhembsky had to explain to journalists in Stockholm in December 1997 why Yeltsin unexpectedly said Russia would cut its nuclear warheads by one third and seek a total ban on atomic weapons. Yelstin also called Japan a nuclear power. «I just told them (journalists): sorry, the Russian president is very tired," Yastrzhembsky recalled.
After Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000, Yastrzhembsky was put in charge of communication about the war in Chechnya and other crises. In 2004, he became the president’s special envoy to Brussels, responsible for developingRussia-EU relations.
He said he was offered the EU job again when President Dmitry Medvedev took over from Putin last year, but wanted to prove to himself he could do something else.
«It was a very, very difficult decision to leave politics and this world I knew so well," he said. «I was giving up a certain social status and lifestyle but the change was healthy.»