Arkady Babchenko is the only Russian writer to successfully depict the Chechen war in literature. In 2001, his book of short stories, Ten Stories about the War, won the Debut Prize “For Courage in Literature.” His novella, Alkhan-Yurt, was published in the February 2002 issue of Russia’s most prestigious literary journal, Novy Mir.
Novy Mir critic Sergei Kostyrko said Alkhan-Yurt (which depicts one day in the life of a Russian soldier in Chechnya) was reminiscent, by virtue of its strength and impact, of Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol’s Stories. “I was struck by the strength of this text,” Kostyrko said. “When you read it, you have the feeling of a very strong, physiological essay on war. You can tell the man actually was there and he has written about it in a very talented way. I read this breathtaking text and saw what this war was in reality—not like when it is being used by TV-journalists or ideologists on one side or other of the trenches to achieve their own goals ... [Babchenko asks] who is a man at war? To be able to kill, a soldier must become a fearsome beast. So who is the man at war? Superman or sub-human? Unlike his contemporaries, Babchenko is not scared to raise these issues... That a 24-year old wrote this startles me ... It is one of the most significant works of contemporary Russian literature.”
Before he went to war, Babchenko said, he was like many other young Russians of his age. He liked rock music, but said that now he can barely listen to his former rock idols. “Prior to going to the war, they were idols for me; they were like gods ... I listened to them as if hearing some supreme truth. Then I saw that it is not quite the way they sang about things. I looked death in the eyes. What idol can you have after you know the color of a man’s liver?! At that point, it is hard for anyone to teach you anything.”
In 1995, Babchenko was training to be a lawyer when he opted against a draft deferment, feeling it was “better to serve first, and then complete my education.” So, in 1996, he served in the Chechen town of Mozdok, in a communications unit which was part of a division under the command of General Vladimir Shamanov. He participated in the first storming of Grozny, interrupted for him by a telegram telling him his father had died of a stroke.
After his service, Babchenko returned to Moscow and finished his education just as Wahhabite forces invaded Dagestan, triggering the second Chechen war. Babchenko volunteered to serve in Chechnya under contract (as a kontrash) from December 1999 to April 2000, fighting in the infantry, “as a true soldier,” he said.
What motivated him—one who saw the atrocities of the first war—to return? “Not the money,” he quips, though he admits the money was good by Russian standards (R850 per day). In lieu of an answer, he offers that, “I am not ashamed to look in people’s eyes when a discussion about the war in Chechnya begins. I can say, ‘I stormed Grozny ... I was not sitting on the sidelines’ ... And no one can reproach me for anything. It is more than patriotism; it is something rather personal. I did it for myself.”
What led him to writing is more clear: “Back in Moscow, in April 2000, I was so moved by the mess I saw, plus I was struggling for three months to be fully paid under my contract, then there is all this hazing I saw in the army, the lawlessness towards the soldier-kontratniks by officers ... I wanted to tell about it.” He wrote an article for the daily paper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, enjoyed journalistic success, and has been working at the paper ever since.
Babchenko realized there was a vacuum in Russian literature on Chechnya. “Because,” he said, “if you shoot films on war by hearsay or write by hearsay, you will just make crap. And, well, there were virtually no educated people serving in Chechnya. Ninety-percent came from the countryside and the provinces, because whoever had the opportunity to avoid Chechnya did so.”
Babchenko’s future writing will likely be tuned to a more peaceful note. Not dazzled by his first success, he realizes the danger in getting “stuck” on the war theme. Recovering from the mental scars left by the war, he said he is thinking of quitting journalism and working as a night gypsy cab driver, so that he can get beyond journalistic cliches. “Now I just need to sit in front of a computer and keep on writing,” he said. “The war theme is really deep, but, in the end, it will exhaust itself. I want to take up literature seriously. I will continue writing about the war for awhile, but I have already drawn some sketches on peaceful life as well.”
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