HISTORY | RUSSIA
ONE SOLDIER'S WAR
By Arkady Babchenko
Translated from the Russian by Nick Allen
Grove. 395 pp. $25
All wars pervert language and our sense of reality, but Russia's war in Chechnya was especially grotesque.
In 1994, in the most opportunistic fashion, President Boris Yeltsin sent the Russian army to crush a secessionist government in the southern province of Chechnya. Ostensibly, the army's task was to "restore constitutional order" and "disarm bandits." But to correspondents covering the conflict, it was obvious that Yeltsin's decision would be a catastrophe, for one reason above all others: The Russian armed forces were a frightening rabble of unruly men.
Far from restoring constitutional order, the soldiers abused every article of Russia's young constitution, looting, raping and killing in what was supposed to be part of their own country. One day in 1995, I met a young Chechen businessman who explained how the armed forces were fulfilling the second part of Yeltsin's orders, the "disarming" of the populace. He rummaged through a wardrobe in his house and pulled out a wad of $100 bills -- $5,000 in all -- that he said he had agreed to pay two soldiers for a consignment of Russian army snipers' rifles, grenade-launchers and ammunition (which would, of course, pass quickly into the hands of Chechen insurgents).
In One Soldier's War, his memoir of Russian army life, Arkady Babchenko confirms that this kind of sale was rife. He describes how two new recruits were beaten, tortured and expelled from his unit for selling ammunition through the fence of their base to buy vodka. But their real mistake was not that they traded with the enemy. It was that they were new:
"We don't watch the beating. We have been beaten ourselves and it has long ceased to be of any interest. Nor do we feel particularly sorry for the gunners. They shouldn't have gotten caught. . . . They have seen too little of the war to sell bullets -- only we are entitled to do that. We know death, we've heard it whistling over our heads and seen how it mangles bodies, and we have the right to bring it upon others. And these two haven't. What's more, the new recruits are strangers in our battalion, not yet soldiers, not one of us. But most of all we are upset that we can no longer use the gap in the fence."
At moments like this, One Soldier's War evokes Catch-22 or, closer to the source, the savage ironies of Isaac Babel's tales of the 1919-21 Russian-Polish war, Red Cavalry.
Babchenko went to war having learned Morse code but not how to use a gun. He and his fellow conscripts were systematically hazed and humiliated by senior soldiers; they sold their boots for cabbage pies and treated a stray dog as a lucky feast; they were filled with hatred and nihilism:
"We stopped caring for ourselves, no longer washed, shaved or brushed our teeth. After a week without soap and water our hands cracked and bled continually, blighted by eczema in the cold. We hadn't warmed ourselves by a fire for a whole week because the damp reeds wouldn't burn and there was nowhere to gather firewood in the steppe. We began to turn wild as the cold and wet and filth drove from us all feelings apart from hatred, and we hated everything on earth, including ourselves."
The memoir, by turns horrific, sad and funny, fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier. As one tale of savagery follows another, however, the story becomes increasingly frustrating to the reader who knows the Russian political context. The end of one war, a two-year interlude and the start of a second war are barely registered as the narrative becomes war-without-end, totally enclosed within a soldier's helmet and a company of men.
We never learn why Babchenko, a conscript in the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, volunteered to fight again in 1999. And there are even more troubling omissions. One is President Vladimir Putin, who -- in contrast to his predecessor, the bumbling Boris Yeltsin -- never is mentioned by name. The other is the civilian population of Chechnya. The soldiers routinely used the word "Chechens" to mean rebel fighters, the enemy. Babchenko suffered mental torment when it became clear he ordered artillery fire that killed an 8-year-old girl and her grandfather, but usually he sounds strangely uninterested in the suffering of the Chechen civilians, the main victims of Yeltsin's and Putin's wars.
War is not just an existential experience for young men. It is the ultimate test for a society, forcing its citizens to ask if they can trust their government to dispense death in their name. That is a question Babchenko never addresses in this harrowing but rather self-absorbed memoir. *
Thomas de Waal is co-author with Carlotta Gall of "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus."