A soldier's tale
From The Economist print edition
WAR stories are necessarily gruesome, but by any standards Arkady Babchenko's first-hand account of Russia's wars in the breakaway province of Chechnya makes harrowing reading. Within the first few pages the reader is introduced to such horrors as the taste of water tainted with rotting human flesh, the merciless beating of new recruits and the killing of a pet dog for food.
A conscript in the first Chechen war (1994-96), Mr Babchenko volunteered to fight in the second (which started in 1999) for reasons he leaves unclear. In between he gained a law degree. Unlike the provincial cannon-fodder who make up most of the Russian army, he is able to describe what he saw in lean but vivid prose. He spares nobody, least of all himself. The officers are venal, violent and incompetent, systematically pilfering the soldiers' rations. Everyone sells army munitions to the rebels at any opportunity. The soldiers are ill trained and chiefly preoccupied with finding food and shelter. The Chechen insurgents appear only as shadowy, vicious figures, slitting their captives' throats or trading them as slaves. Both sides treat civilians atrociously.
Mr Babchenko dispassionately describes the resulting humiliation and brutalisation, not only his own but also of the million soldiers and support staff who have passed through the Chechen meatgrinder since 1994. Only the fierce loyalty of close pals provides a redeeming feature.
Like the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the author—who now works for Novaya Gazeta, in which she had a column—sees the war as a microcosm of his motherland's ills: corruption, brutality, hypocrisy and pointlessness. Like Ms Politkovskaya, he is stronger on telling bleak, startling stories than stringing them together in a structured narrative. The reader has to infer the chronology from what mostly reads like random and sometimes repetitive pages from a diary kept in the field. The lengthy snippets of soldierly conversation, salty and despairing, sound just right, though they necessarily can be only reconstructions of the real thing.
Mr Babchenko may be weak on analysis. But Russian politicians too have signally failed to answer the deep questions about their country and its people that underlie such tales of brutality.