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16 November 2018

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Book Review

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By Nicolai Lilin (W.W. Norton, $24.95)
Translated by Jamie Richards

Lilin’s first book of memoir/fiction, Siberian Education, told the gritty, captivating tale of his upbringing in the criminal world. His new novel (part autobiographical, part based on a composite of the stories and lives of those Lilin lived and served with) is a powerful, first-person look inside Russian military service, and behind the lines of the brutal second war in Chechnya (1999-2000).

The narrator, Nicolai, is unwittingly drafted into the service at 18, offered a cushy, elite placement, but busted to the “Saboteurs” – an elite group of special forces and sniper troops, for having the temerity to suggest that he was not interested in being a soldier. Thus is the anti-soldier forced to become a soldier’s soldier.

There are few rules in the world of Lilin’s regiment of Saboteurs, other than complete and utter loyalty to one’s officers and one’s Saboteur brothers. Retreat is forbidden, as is leaving a fallen comrade behind, and death is preferred over surrender. No surprise that this unit is given the most dangerous missions in the war.

As Lilin shows, the brutality and chaos of the war in the mountains and decimated cities of Chechnya are frightening and violent. Yet also somehow compelling and certainly true. These are not young men striving to be heroes, just to survive.

Indeed, this is not the Caucasian war we hear about on the evening news (then again, when was the last time we heard about Chechnya on the evening news?). This is the harrowing, dehumanizing up-close and terrifying combat of modern warfare that we prefer not to think about. And this is really the point of Lilin’s novel, to make us think about his protagonists’ struggle, despite the odds, to maintain their humanity in inhumane circumstances, to return to the world of the living and make the rest of us understand the effects of war on those who are sent to fight them.

A difficult tale powerfully told.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2012