“Whatever I say is a half-truth”: Arkady #Babchenko and the Hybrid Truth of War Writing #BabchenkoAlive

As I posted yesterday, I’ve been caught up in the crazy, crazy, crazy story surrounding Russian writer Arkady Babchenko’s alleged murder and subsequent “resurrection,” , with the dramatic revelation at a press conference that the whole thing had been a sting operation and that Babchenko was still very much alive.

Although I had not guessed in my wildest dreams that such a bizarre situation would unfold, I sensed there was something a little hinky about the situation right from the start.  According to the story released by the Ukrainian police, Babchenko was shot outside of his apartment on Tuesday when he stepped out to buy bread.  He was hit several times in the back but dragged himself back inside his apartment and alerted his wife, who called an ambulance, but he died on the way to the hospital.  The official position of the Ukrainian authorities was that he had been the victim of a Russia-ordered hit because of his vocal criticism of Kremlin policy.

Huh, I thought.  That’s awfully sloppy for a Russian hit.  Not that I doubted that the terminally loudmouthed Babchenko was a target of one or more murder plots, but normally when the powers that be want Russian troublemakers dead, they get very, very dead.  Either they mysteriously fall from high places, as happened to Maxim Borodin last month, or, if a particularly strong message needs to be sent, as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the shooters hit not just the body but perform a final kill shot to the head, and leave the weapon lying next to the body as a sign that it was a contract killing.  And then, in Arkady’s case, the police were circulating Identikit image of the alleged shooter within a few hours of the hit.  Considering how many years it took to bring Politkovskaya’s killers to justice, that seemed pretty dang amateur.

The weirdness didn’t stop there.  Although Babchenko supposedly died en route to the hospital, police released a picture of him lying on what appeared to be an apartment floor with multiple bullet holes in his back:

Babchenko fake bullet holes

Photo credit: CEN/kyivoperativ.info

So had he really died in his apartment?  Or had everyone decided to stop and snap some photos while he bled out before their eyes?

But it only gets stranger!  The next day, at a press conference about the investigation, Babchenko stepped out to gasps and applause and declared himself to not be dead:

And it just got weirder.  Arkady apologized to his own wife at the press conference, suggesting that she hadn’t known about the plot–but how is that even possible?  Surely she would have noticed that the bullet holes were only shirt-deep?  I’m pretty sure that if my husband collapsed in front of me, apparently riddled with bullets, my first action would be to apply pressure to the wounds in order to stop the bleeding.

And so now it appears that in fact she probably was in on the ruse–you can read about how the deception was created here–adding another layer of drama, theatricality, and just plain bizarreness to the event.  A number of journalists have criticized Babchenko and the Ukrainian security forces for subverting the truth in this way, and I have to say I agree with much of their criticism.  However necessary they may have felt it to be in order to unmask the killer–and again, it seems all too tragically plausible that a hit really had been put out on Babchenko–deliberately faking evidence and knowingly releasing false statements will put the police in a real bind when it comes time for them to release allegedly *real* evidence of the allegedly *real* killer/killers.  And aside from everything else, as with so much else they do, the Ukrainian authorities have played right into the hands of the Russian propaganda machine, who will no doubt make hay out of this blatantly false accusation against them for a long, long time.

But that’s other people’s problem.  My business is literature, and to literature I shall return.  In yesterday’s post I talked about how I considered Babchenko to be the Holy Fool of contemporary Russian writing, and everything about this little stunt certainly smacks of foolishness, whether holy or otherwise.  In the aftermath Babchenko has taken the opportunity, as he so often does, to release some stinging jabs on social media against those who were offended by the deception or those who thought it was a time-wasting, self-serving act.  His responses are defensive–but they’re also part of a broader trend in his social media persona to call out the hypocrisy of the society around him, and to remind people to stop wasting so much time agonizing over personal affronts or interests, and direct their attention and outrage at Russian military aggression abroad (the US’s military aggression gets a pass from him, which is something that could be explored at length elsewhere).

In short, this ridiculously theatric stunt, which the Ukrainian authorities justified by referring to Sherlock Holmes,

Gerashchenko Post on Sherlock Holmes

Part of the post from Anton Gerashchenko, People’s Deputy in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, announcing the ruse and justifying it with a reference to Sherlock Holmes, who “used the method of staging his own death for the effective investigation of complex and convoluted crimes.  No matter how painful it was for his loved ones and Doctor Watson.”  Someone should really tell them that Doyle wrote outrageous speculative fiction, not hard-hitting investigative journalism.

was rather questionable journalism.  But for all he’s being named a journalist in the world press, Babchenko at heart is not a journalist.  He’s a storyteller who tells emotional and mythical truths.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in his collection of stories about his service in the Chechen wars, “One Soldier’s War.”

Funnily enough, my article on OSW came out yesterday, at the height of the madness.  You can access it here.

“One Soldier’s War” is a collection of stories that Babchenko began writing shortly after his return from his second deployment in Chechnya. He originally wrote them as a form of therapy, he says in the preface to the English-language version of the book, with no intention of putting them out in book form.  But when “Ten Episodes About War” were published in 2002, they garnered considerable attention, as well as a Debut Prize for Courage in Literature.  This was followed by “Alkhan-Yurt,” and eventually by the entire collection, which came out in English in 2007.

OSW cover

The cover of the US edition of “One Soldier’s War.”  The photograph is not of Babchenko but of a group of Russian conscript soldiers who were captured by the Chechens during the First Storming of Grozny.

“One Soldier’s War” is a powerful testament to the Russian experience in Chechnya, and deserves to be read as such.  It is also “true,” but for a given value of “true.”  As Babchenko says in the Preface:

“This book is largely an autobiography–everything in it is true.  A few stories have been compiled from several real episodes that have been compressed into a single period and shifted in time.  Some events I did not witness personally but I can vouch for their veracity.”

And indeed, although the experiences of the protagonist of most of the stories, a young Russian soldier called “Arkady Arkadyevich Babchenko,” mostly line up with the experiences of the “real” Arkady Arkadyevich Babchenko, a close reading will highlight occasional inconsistencies and contradictions.  The timeline doesn’t quite work, and, for example, in the story “The Apartment” the protagonist describes killing two people, while the real Arkady Babchenko has recently taken to insisting that he’s 95% sure he never killed anyone (at least not anyone human–dogs fare rather poorly in this as in other “Chechen” books).  And as another example, “Alkhan-Yurt” was originally published in the third person about a hero named “Artyom,” while here in the book it’s narrated in the first person by someone who never gives his name, just two different call-signs.

This struggle with the “truth” is not, I would argue, a mistake, but fundamental to the book’s very concept, and is part of the struggle with “truth” that one sees in all sorts of contemporary war writing, Western as well as Russian.  Like many veterans, Babchenko positions those who have experienced combat, especially infantry combat, as possessors of a special type of truth, one that only combat veterans can know; at one point in the book he says that civilians can’t know what war is like in the same way that men can never know what it’s like to give birth: they simply lack the necessary sensory organs.  At the same time, he describes war as being like an emery board, filing away everything extraneous and revealing the true person underneath.  Combat veterans, he claims, are gifted by the ordeals they have been through with extra perceptions and a particularly “true” form of knowledge, something that sets them apart from the civilian world and unites them with each other.

But the end of the book challenges all that.  The final essays are written by Babchenko as a journalist, when he started interviewing other veterans.  Instead of finding the mutual understanding and brotherhood he had expected, though, he–or rather, his narrative persona–is treated with the same contempt by other soldiers with which he once treated civilians and journalists himself.  This means that he himself is unable to tell the truth that he so desperately wants to tell.  The book closes with the lines “For him I am also ‘one of them.’ Which means whatever I say is a half-truth.”

Babchenko’s complicated relationship with truth is, I argue, part and parcel of this whole faked-death escapade, and probably a good part of why he thought it was a good idea.  If everything, especially in the civilian world, is a half-truth, what’s wrong with a good story?  Especially if it serves a larger purpose.

At the same time, Babchenko’s “half-truths” in his book are part of a growing group of semi-autobiographical war writing.  The founder of the genre could probably be considered Tolstoy, but it was Isaak Babel, with his “Red Cavalry,” who brought the genre to new heights and who, whether they know it or not, acted as the forefather to the current crop of war writers around the world, who, like Babel and Babchenko, write fiction-esque stories based very closely on their own war experiences–prominent recent Western examples include Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” and Will Mackin’s “Bring Out the Dog.”

What is it about war that seems to produce this hybrid form of truth-telling more than other subjects?  Why don’t authors just write either straight-up fiction, or flat-out autobiography?  Is it because of what David Buchanan has termed “combat gnosticism,” so jealously guarded by a certain set of combat veterans?  This belief that, as Babchenko claims, combat is a special kind of experience that only those who have experienced it can understand?  And not coincidentally, an experience almost entirely limited, at least officially, to young men (of course, Russian women have a long and glorious history of combat service, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter)?  There’s a strong “no girls allowed” sense to some of this, signifying a special sort of “boys club” that only the privileged are allowed to enter–and write about.  Only those with direct knowledge of (preferably infantry) combat are allowed to write about it, even as fiction, which excludes the vast majority of women, old people, the disabled, and all those other losers.

But then why don’t people just write their autobiographies and be done with it?  Why these semi-fictionalized memoirs, or these fictional stories about people with life experiences almost identical to those of the authors?  Is it because most of war is actually really boring?  This is the dirty truth that many veterans bring home: most of the time you’re not heroically engaging the enemy, but instead engaged in menial janitorial or clerical tasks.

Or is it because when it’s not boring, it’s too searingly painful to write about “truthfully”?  A particularly overt example of this is Mikail Eldin’s memoir “The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter,” in which he switches to the second person when narrating his capture and torture by Russian forces.  One has to assume that something similar is going on in Zakhar Prilepin’s “Pathologies,” about a special forces squad leader in Grozny in 1996, just like Prilepin himself.  Prilepin’s fictional Yegor participates in activities that are all too plausible for an OMON officer to have participated in, but that many soldiers would not want to confess to, such as the execution of unarmed prisoners.

Whatever the reason, Babchenko’s recent stunt, in which the “truth,” meaning that which can be ascertained through external, objective verification, was subverted in order to serve a supposedly higher purpose, and incidentally to create a really good story (why did the whole thing have to be so dramatic?  One can’t help but suspect it was in order to fulfill the participants’ love of a good tale, one that they themselves could live through as “real life”), is, against the backdrop of his life and his writing, not a perversion of journalistic ethics but in line with his overall strategy of using his strong storytelling skills to reveal the often very real perfidies taking place in the Kremlin.  It’s also obliquely related to this trend in modern war writing of eyewitness-truth-that-is-told-through-fiction that Babchenko is such a prominent part of.

What the fallout of all this will be is still anyone’s guess, but in the meantime, my article on “One Soldiers’ War and the New Literary War Hero” is available here.

2 thoughts on ““Whatever I say is a half-truth”: Arkady #Babchenko and the Hybrid Truth of War Writing #BabchenkoAlive

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