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16 November 2018


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One Soldier's War in Chechnya

by Arkady Babchenko

You can understand the general causes and course of the war in Chechnya in a few paragraphs lined with cold facts and padded with the names of guilty parties: Dudayev, Basayev, Grachyov and Yeltsin. But if you want to understand the impact the war has had on the lives of a generation of young Russians, on the society that is in denial about its actions in the Caucasus, if you want to understand the true personal and physical costs of modern warfare, read this book.

Babchenko is an unflinching storyteller, whose autobiographical account of his time in the first and second Chechen wars is as chilling as it is engrossing. Written as journalism (Babchenko now works for Novaya Gazeta, one of the last bastions of independent Russian journalism), this account reads like fine literature – Chekhovian in its concise poignancy, Tolstoyan (Sevastopol Stories comes to mind) in its richness of characterization and truth-telling. Ably translated by Nick Allen (who has written for Russian Life), One Soldier’s War is riveting and powerful – it should be required reading in high school social study classes the world over:

We don’t know what we are fighting for. We have no goal, no morals or internal justification for what we do. We are sent off to kill and to meet our deaths but why we don’t know. We just drew the short straw, happened to be born eighteen years ago and grow up just in time for this war. And there our blame ends.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2008