Tuesday 21 June 2011

One Soldier's War in Chechnya : Review

Among the things in my past that will remain a blot on my escutcheon is, along with my initial enthusiasm for an Indian nuclear bomb, my initial support for the Chechen insurgency in the Caucasus. Said support lasted from approximately 1995 through 1997, and petered out quickly thereafter, and the very last vestiges of sympathy died out in the ruins of the school in Beslan. (Incidentally, in 2002, at the beginning of the Moscow Theatre Siege, I predicted quite accurately that the way it would be brought to an end would involve sedative gases; a prediction met with derision when I made it.)

Part of the support was due to my disgust with the Yeltsin regime in Russia; a regime which turned a great nation into a pathetic ruin in an incredibly quick time, a process from which it has not yet recovered and probably never shall. Part was due to my revulsion at the smashing of Grozny by Russian artillery, which killed many thousands of civilians, and did hardly anything to hurt the Chechen defenders. And part was due to my till today quite undiluted support for the Kashmir freedom movement, which I felt at the time had strong parallels with the Chechens. 

Yes, I admit I cheered (mentally) when the Chechens, in the Second Battle of Grozny, threw out the Russian army in a matter of five days in 1996. I thought that, if nothing else, would make the Russian people rise up against Yeltsin and reach for the greatness they were capable of. I was wrong.

But, by then, I’d already begun getting disillusioned.

Part of the disillusionment set in with the pretty open support the Chechens were getting from the West at the time, with Time Magazine and the like making openly pro-Chechen comments (one I recall was “Most authorities consider this a national liberation, not a terrorist, movement”. Which authorities? Where?). Part was the involvement of foreign militias, which the Kashmiris can tell you is the kiss of death to any national liberation struggle. And part was due to the criminalisation of the movement, which began early and led to large numbers of Chechens to defect to the Russian side.

(And, if I think back now, I can see more reasons to be disillusioned; the West, which condemned the Russian ultimatum to the besieged city of Grozny during the Second Chechen War, had no problems with the US uttering a similar ultimatum to the people of Fallujah five years later, for example; and the bandit regime of Hashim Thaci in Kosovo, which trades human organs for profit, is a perfect example of what an independent Chechnya would have been like; the Chechens had an open slave market in Grozny, for instance.)

The Chechen liberation war, such as it was, is of course long over. The last vestiges of it ended  on 31 October 2007, when pro-separatist websites published the announcement of Doku Umarov that the Ichkerian Republic had been dissolved and replaced by the Caucasus Emirate. It’s now just another battle for the cloud-cuckoo land of the Caliphate, and as doomed in the long run. 

But I never lost my fascination with them.

When I was in Russia in 2005, I saw some of the veterans of the two Chechen wars; former conscripts still in their mottled green uniforms, hobbling on crutches, and often begging for money for medicines. The husband of a friend, a former officer, apparently still wakes screaming at night from what he underwent during that war. And I was racially profiled in the airport on my way back because I apparently look like a Chechen.


Recently, while researching various things online, I came across reviews of a book, One Soldier’s War in Chechnya, by Arkady Babchenko, a former law student who fought the first Chechen war as a conscript and the second as a volunteer on contract. It’s even a book that comes with a recommendation by one of the greatest anti-war novelists of today, the former US Marine Philip Caputo. 

I wanted to read this book.  I wanted to read it very badly. And, eventually, I got hold of a copy, and I did.

I was - quite frankly - acutely disappointed.

For starters, let me say that I've always had a keen nose for the smell of bullshit, and my nostrils began twitching almost at once.

Where do I begin? It would probably be best to give a brief account of the book before going to particulars. It’s divided into three, very unequal parts, each divided into – again very unequal – chapters. There is also a preface in which the author gives a rough overview of his military service, and mentions that he has changed around some dates and names (more on that anon).

The first part of the book, and the shortest, is a completely random collection of “episodes” of the war; so random, in fact, as to be completely incomprehensible as a narrative. It’s like finding seven photographs and trying to construct a life out of it. I read this section several times and I frankly can’t understand why it was written in the first place.

The second part is much, much longer, and talks about Babchenko’s experiences as a conscript in the first Chechen war, and part of his experiences as a regular soldier (“kontraktnik”) in the second. This is the part that reeks so much of bullshit that I can’t really get the odour out of my nostrils.

As I said, I do know something about the Russian army, and the brutal treatment of conscripts by their seniors, called dedovschina, is nothing unknown to me. So, I have no problem with believing that some pretty brutal practices went on. But Babchenko’s account of his own experiences, which seem to have included daily beatings that ought to have killed any normal human, allied with starvation (apparently nobody fed his unit) reminded me of a book I read a long time ago...Papillon.

I assume most people who’re reading this are familiar with Henri Charriére’s Papillon, the alleged autobiographical account of a French convict’s prison years in the penal colonies of French Guyana. The book’s impressive, a rattling good read, a great testament to the human spirit...and a total, complete and absolute fake.

Charriére was a prisoner, true, though far from the heroic figure he painted in his book. He was a trusty who pumped other prisoners for their accounts of their exploits, dramatised them, stitched them together, and, on his (entirely official) release, made a bestselling book (and a sequel named Banco) out of them.  The fact is simply that the experiences he related were so dramatic it’s impossible for a modern reader to believe one man could have lived through them all. And, of course, he didn’t.

Such is the case here. Babchenko’s account reminds me so overwhelmingly of Papillon because it’s so obviously a compendium of many individual’s experiences, put together and made his own (and of a few friends, not one of whom is identified fully and completely). It’s impossible to believe that one man could withstand all that hurt without any long term effects – and that day after day, week after week, without medical help or even food. And, also, the soldiers themselves apparently spent all their spare time stealing things from their base to sell to the Chechens across the wire, in return for food and money and booze, all of which was to be handed over to their seniors. I have no problem believing this happened once in a while, but the way he describes it, nothing would have been left.

Babchenko then goes into a brief, very brief account of his service in Chechnya in the first war. It occupies scarcely one chapter, and segues into his service with a penal battalion in Moscow after he was arrested for overstaying his leave (granted on the death of his father) due to illness. And the next we hear of him, he’s back in Chechnya, and it’s 1999, and the Second Chechen War is in full swing.

And that’s what the rest of the book’s about: the Second Chechen War.

Right away, my bullshit detectors began howling. Babchenko’s account, superficially highly plausible, just doesn’t hold up when you think about it in detail. There are holes; chronological holes, logic holes, contradictions, and all without any particular reason why they should exist.

The chronological problem is great in itself. Babchenko writes in page xi of the Preface, “A few of the stories have been complied from several real episodes that have been compressed into a single period and shifted in time.” (Emphasis mine.) Why shifted? Who knows? Babchenko doesn’t say.

A great part of the book is devoted to the Battle of Alkhan Yurt, where Babchenko played an observer’s role, if one is to believe him, calling in strikes, helping carry out reconnaissance, and the like. All this begins most dramatically on New Year’s Eve, 2000, with our hero, in the ice and mud of Chechnya, thinking of home and so on (there’s also an unexplained misdating of the Russian Orthodox Christmas thrown in for good measure). Then he talks in detail about how they got into their vehicles and moved out and their travails over the next days as the battle of Alkhan Yurt developed around them.

Well, here’s what: the battle of Alkhan Yurt ended on the first of December 1999, a full month before Babchenko claims it even started, and involved claims of a massacre by Russian forces of Chechen civilians – a massacre Babchenko, an alleged witness of everything that happened, completely fails to mention, even to deny that it happened.

Then there are the logical inconsistencies. 

Babchenko talks (Page 193) about a captain named Sitnikov, and says right away that he was one of those officers who get decorations but get all their men killed. Dangerous people, as Babchenko says. We follow Sitnikov and Babchenko around for several tens of pages, in and out of battle. In all this time, do we see the captain’s hunger for glory, which Babchenko has told us about at the outset, successfully poisoning our attitudes towards the man? No, we see a man who seems to be a careful, professional officer. Are there two different captains called Sitnikov, and Babchenko has forgotten which one he’s talking about?

Then there is the unnamed mortar battery commander, a man who (page 255) never doubted the correctness of his actions and was prepared to kill readily, and even happily. This man is described as a superb professional, who has total command over his troops, and obeys orders rigidly. So, when his unit is ready to fire on a certain sector of the battlefield, and orders come on the radio from headquarters to cancel the bombardment and withdraw, what does our by-the-book commander do? Does he withdraw? No, he waxes furious, orders his men to load their bombs, and to get ready to launch the bombardment anyway, as though he was some kind of warlord independent of the main command. And yet when another infantry officer informs him that the Russians are now in the target sector, he accepts that and cancels the bombardment – the exact orders he had just refused to obey when conveyed directly from headquarters. Is this professionalism?  (Of course, since the bombardment was never launched, and the officer never named, there’s no way to check on whether Babchenko is telling the truth about this episode.)

The third part of the book continues about Chechnya, in the tense peace that followed the formal end of fighting. The same Babchenko who joined the second war of his own free will suddenly can’t wait to go home; but even though he claims that a kontraktnik can demand to be sent home in the middle of the fighting, he apparently makes no attempt to ask to be sent home; the circumstances of his discharge from the army in April 2000 are never explained.

During this period, Babchenko slips back into observer mode; lambasting the corrupt Russian officer corps, where according to him, generals beat colonels, colonels beat majors, majors beat captains, and so on, all the way down the line, and nobody cares about anything but themselves. In true Babchenko fashion, he then describes (page 365) a Captain Vladimir Shabalin, a compassionate, courageous officer, who brings flowers to the grave of a soldier who saved his life in an ambush. Babchenko doesn’t even seem to notice his own self-contradictions.

All in all, a book that probably has some basis in facts, but is so full of demonstrable holes that the entirety doesn’t hold water.

I’ve heard this book compared to Catch-22 or to All Quiet on the Western Front. Catch-22 it certainly isn’t; it has none of the satire and dry humour of Joseph Heller’s masterpiece. As for All Quiet, I didn’t notice any similarities to Remarque's book (except a virtually copy-paste rendition of the description of Paul Bäumer's fellow-soldiers in the first chapter), and I should have, for it's a personal favourite of mine. I however did notice similarities to a much less well known account of a German soldier’s wartime experiences: Hans Peter Richter’s Second World War memoir, The Time Of The Young Soldiers. In its episodic style and its narrative structure, its recounting of similar experiences, and its refusal to give names and correct dates, it’s so similar that I find it difficult to believe that Babchenko hadn’t read Richter’s book at some point.

Well, so far, I’ll admit, my suspicions about Babchenko’s account were all subjective. So I decided to do a little checking on Babchenko himself, and there it was; the proof.

In an interview, Babchenko (who wrote on that conflict as well) openly claims that Russia was responsible for the 2008 war between itself and Georgia, which led to the latter’s defeat; even though the US, Georgia’s military and propaganda backer, itself admitted (in the person of Condoleezza Rice, no less) that Georgia had started  the war.

In other words, he’s a professional anti-Russian propagandist, the kind who always gets a ready audience in the West, because those of us who keep our eyes open know that anti-Russian propaganda is alive and well among the neo-imperialists in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels.

To get back to the book, then. Its production values are fair, though the disjointed and episodic nature is intensely irritating, as is the disproportionate emphasis on the Second Chechen War (so disproportionate that I wonder if that is all the author experienced). The translation (by Nick Allen) is relatively good (but for consistently using lay for lie) and for once is into British English (and not American English, which always sets my teeth on edge). But it has its own pitfalls in that British idiom sits ill on Russian tongues, and Allen even fails to use the pejorative word Russians use for Chechens, and for Caucasians in general (churka). Can one imagine an American Vietnam War memoir without the word gook?

Yes, there are some good quotes. Sample:

We were herded into this war and killed by the hundred. We didn’t even know how to shoot; we couldn’t kill anyone, we didn’t know how. All that we were capable of was crying and dying. And die we did. We called the rebels ‘uncle’, and when our boys’ throats were cut at the block posts, they’d beg the rebels, ‘Please, uncle, don’t kill me, what did I ever do to you?’ We so wanted to live. Get that into your heads, you fat, smug generals who sent us off to this slaughter. We hadn’t yet seen life or even tasted its scent, but we had already seen death. We knew the smell of congealed blood on the floor of a helicopter in a forty-degree heat, knew that the flesh of a torn-off leg turns black and that a person can burn up entirely in lit petrol, leaving just the bones.”

But good quotes don’t make a book. Do they?

Update (July 2012): I've just reread this book, and I found it even more inconsistent and contradictory than at first read.

For instance, in the second part of the book (the section discussing the First Chechen War), the author claims to have been in Mozdok, which is not in Chechnya, unloading corpses and watching necropsies (performed with a bread knife, no less) after the Second Battle of Grozny. And after that, he claims to have been sent off to fight in Chechnya and witnessed at first hand the destruction of Grozny. This is absolutely not possible for a simple reason: the Second Battle of Grozny, as a peek at Wikipedia will inform you, led to the signing of the Khasav Yurt accord and the withdrawal of all Russian units from Chechnya. Babchenko could have been either in Chechnya or in Mozdok; he could not have been in both places at once. Translation: He is either making the whole thing up or passing off someone else's experiences as his own.

Then there's the episode in the part of the book set in Mozdok where a senior conscript called Timokha demands Babchenko find 600,000 rubles for him. Babchenko tries to find something to steal and sell to the Chechens for money, but can't - the only items he does find are cannon shells he fails to sell, though he was offered a million rubles for a rocket launcher. Yet, after a couple of pages, he reports that he was (on alternate days) in charge of the armoury, from which this same Timokha and others could freely steal weaponry and sell for cash, and it was simplicity itself to fudge the accounts. It passeth understanding why Babchenko didn't steal the weapons himself.

I could go on and on and on...


  1. Dude fuk you, you werent there bitch, you fukin dont know wut went on in that war, throwing around your little date numbers and quotes as if they man anything (Bunch of western bullshit that they are), you fukin bold terrorist loving fuk, rot in hell bitch for the disrespect you payed to hundreds of 17 year olds that fought and died in chechnya

    1. Thanks for your anonymous input. I wonder if you even read the post, but I doubt that you did.

  2. Hi Bill, sorry to see the only reply to your quite extensive cover of the book is from illiterate Anonymous. I'll try to up the level here a bit.

    I think, that you look at this book and expect something you could set in a grid you perceive as true. Problem is, that this book just isn't about facts and if they can be verified. It's a twisted output of mind broken by war and you'd be naive to think that its anything more. As I read through it I also found some things difficult to believe but then I remembered the stories my dad told me about serving in Czech army in 1980's. It was chaotic mess where nobody cared for nothing but themselves. We even have our own version of Dedovschina called Šikana (read: shikana) and it happened a lot and those were soldiers who never witnessed a war. That was peace-time and it was nowhere near the state of things in Soviet army back then. Let's just say that I can imagine 99% of things Babchenko describes happening.

    Here are things that I thought about:
    NO CIVILIAN MASSACRES - not even stories about them. That is a bit strange but ok, if he didn't witness any maybe it wasn't important to him. It's just this doesn't fit in your scheme where he is anti-russian agitator because why wouldn't he throw in stories about civilian killing and torture.
    HOW THE HELL DID MOZDOK EVEN WORK?? - it seems almost unbelievable that Mozdok base could keep functioning in that state of things. No food, no guards, sentries, it feels that it was almost empty. Just didn't feel right.
    BEATING to me is also described as something that would require month in hospital after first day there. I imagine that after beating he describes, he would die from ruptured kidney, head trauma (srsly its not hard to kill someone even by accident of you hit the temple hard) or something. He would have no teeth left and many fractures would appear requiring medical attention. It just seems too much but maybe thats the way he lived it and felt it IDK..

    I dont think this is work of passionate anti-russian activist and I would be very careful about implying that he actually wasn't even there. It would be much better thought-up not leaving so many potholes that are in my IMO caused by him combining the stories, changing the names and dates and mostly, because this: The book is not very editted and is comprised of stories that he wrote during several years. It was therapy to him and I don't think he aimed on giving you precise data to verify as much as his own experience through his own words.

    I wouldn't compare it to All Quiet nor Catch-22. It is completely different book and it only borders art. It's value lies in how it shows war for what it is.. a fucking mess.

    I could go on about how it is perfectly natural for a soldier to have contradicting emotions (I wanna kill/I wanna go home/I hate the government/I dont care about nothing etc etc) and other stuff but I don't want to rattle too much.

    Anyway you have some good points and I'll definitely look at this book less forgiving eye from now on.

    Blog on ;)

  3. I very much agree with José's comments. This book is less about facts and more about experience and vision. To people who don't know much about Chechen wars and Russian army conditions it's an absolutely fantastic insight into these matters. It's a best seller for a reason: Babchenko is an excellent prose writer and he provides details of a horrible peace of history which is SO important that it cannot be dismissed as you, Bill, so easily does.
    Great literature and documentary at the same time.

    1. I'd agree with Jose and you, but for one vital fact: that Babchenko passed off his book as fact.

      To explain what I mean, let's just look at All Quiet On The Western Front, which I mentioned in the course of this article. Now nobody doubts that Erich Maria Remarque's book is a novel, and he never pretended it was anything but. At the same time, nobody doubts that he was talking about things which actually happened.

      Now let's assume Remarque had passed off his book as a personal memoir. Had he done so, he would have been exposed as a fraud who had only been on the frontline for a few weeks and could never have had a fraction of the experiences his narrator had. Immediately, and quite justifiably, his personal integrity, and his motives for writing the book, would have been called into question.

      It's a question of intellectual honesty and integrity, and Babchenko falls flat.

  4. Thanks Bill, whatever my views of the contents of your piece, this was a great read on a very important topic.

  5. Even if the book isn't all fact, I still believe the Chechen wars were the most brutal and barbaric conflicts of the last 20 years. I found the book disturbing but I had to read it. Thank you for writing this review.


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