As crazy fate would have it, today was the day that the article I co-wrote with WFU student Logan Stinson, “One Soldier’s War and the New Literary War Hero,” about the memoir by war correspondent and journalist Arkady Babchenko, was scheduled to come out.
Crazy fate because yesterday afternoon a notification popped up on my screen that Babchenko himself had been murdered. Since Russian journalists get killed on a regular basis, and he himself had fled the country last year following a campaign of harassment and death threats, I was distressed but not surprised to read that he had been shot and killed Tuesday afternoon in Kiev. I spent Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning talking to disbelieving students who had read his work, which I routinely assign in my classes, and crafting a statement for the article that was about to come out.
But wait! Just as the issue was about to be published, another notification popped up on my computer screen. Babchenko was alive! It was all a sting operation!
To be honest, I am still processing that wild twist. I’m thrilled that Babchenko was not in fact gunned down in the street. I’m less thrilled that the police, and he, engaged in an elaborate lie that triggered worldwide outrage and mourning. Maybe he really was being targeted by an assassination plot–he would hardly be the first–but it’s a little hard to know what to take at face value from the Ukrainian security forces now. Certainly some of their assertions are a little far-fetched–this was the first in a series of 30 planned murders? Really?
What I do know is true is that this is classic Babchenko, writ large. He’s always been a loudmouthed, abrasive trickster with a slippery sense of reality, even as he has dedicated his life to shouting out the truth as he sees it as loudly as possible. No one can doubt he has the courage of his convictions–but, despite his blunt-spoken exterior, the truths he tells are largely subjective and emotional. Both facets are much in evidence in his memoir “One Soldier’s War,” which is a classic of contemporary war writing. Read it, and you will come away with a visceral sense of how it felt to be a Russian soldier in Chechnya–and a very poor sense of what happened when and where. Which is not to say the book isn’t worth reading–it is–but it is not the factual reporting of Anna Politkovskaya, who, tragically, was gunned down outside of her apartment in truth.
However, Politkovskaya and Babchenko serve two very different roles, despite their surface similarities as war correspondents dedicated to exposing the outrages of the Russian government and Russian military. Politkovskaya, elegant, erudite, and feminine, was a straight-up martyr, carrying the cross she felt she was destined to carry to the bitter end. Babchenko, who fulfills everyone’s idea of the crass, bear-like Russian male, is more of a court jester/holy fool, routinely blurting out things that are “irritating, even provocative,” not to mention provoking “shock or outrage by his deliberate unruliness,” and even “occasionally being disruptive and challenging to the point of seeming immoral,” as the Wikipedia page puts it.
Russian (and other) society used to believe that having a few holy fools around was necessary to challenge people’s beliefs and speak truth to power in a way no one else could. Pushkin’s Boris Godunov left the holy fool who accused him of murder to live, because one does not kill holy fools, no matter how irritating they become.
Russian society, and not just Russian society, would do well to remember that. Every group needs the occasional holy fool to make the rest of us examine our actions and beliefs. Just not too many. And please, Arkady, don’t do it again.