“One Soldier’s War” by Arkady Babchenko

“It’s very frightening,” Babchenko tells us, “that the war is in color.” Not black-and-white, like the heroic WWII movies he and his fellow soldiers had grown up on, but in the brilliant colors of the beautiful Caucasus mountains, where not one but two appallingly brutal wars have been fought in the past two decades. In “One Soldier’s War,” Babchenko, writing in the tradition of war and camp writers such as Tolstoy, Babel, Solzhenitsyn, and Shalamov, transforms his own and his friends’ horrifying experiences serving in the First and Second Chechen Wars into a book that is in turns amusing and heartwrenching, and always powerful.

I first encountered Babchenko when he came and gave a reading at my university, shortly before the release of this book. It was immediately apparent that before us was 1) a person who was extremely disturbed, and 2) a work that deserved our full attention. I read an excerpt of the book in Russian (the horrifying “Argun”), and then assigned the entire thing to my class when it came out in English. Since then I have assigned it to my students several times with considerable success: at first they are appalled and ask me why we are reading this, and then afterwards they often list “One Soldier’s War” as the most impactful reading of the course. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to teach about the conflicts in Chechnya, with the caveat that your students will need to be prepared for the experience. Although all the content warnings in the world may not be enough to brace them for the tales of hazing, corruption, and violence they will encounter.

After being conscripted in the first war (1994-96) and volunteering as a contract soldier for the second war (1999-approximately 2009), Babchenko returned to Chechnya yet again as a journalist, a job he still holds (he recently spent time reporting on the conflict in Ukraine). The book bears the stamp of his journalistic proclivities: it is not a single coherent story but a series of fragments and vignettes, presented in more-or-less chronological order. The “story” as such is not a rigorously exact accounting of Babchenko’s service (and he says in the foreword that in some cases events and people were compressed in order to make them fit the narrative better), but a chronicle of the transformation of a naive recruit into a terrified newbie soldier, then a hardened killer, and finally a traumatized veteran who is addicted to war and can’t re-assimilate into civilian life. Although Babchenko does not self-consciously reference his influences, and claimed at the reading I witnessed that “I am not a writer,” his structure, as I mentioned above, places him firmly in the genre created by Tolstoy, Babel, and the Soviet camp writers, who used biographical information to create historical accounts, not so much of external events, but of internal transformations under immense pressure. Readers of “One Soldier’s War” will get only a bare-bones, and often fragmentary, sketch of what “happened” during the Chechen wars, but they will come away with an in-depth understanding of what it felt like to be caught up in the conflict, and the difficulties of leaving the war behind. Not a light read, although the language is generally clear and easy to follow, but essential reading for anyone interested in the Chechen wars, or anyone wanting to understand contemporary Russian society and the trauma that so many of its citizens carry around with them.

You can get your own copy here.

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