Boston Globe Interview with 2006 Open World Cultural Leaders Program Alum and War Correspondent Arkady Babchenko
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
Posted on February 24, 2008
By Anna Mundow
A soldier who picked up his pen
Arkady Babchenko was drafted into the Russian Army in 1995 to fight in the First Chechen War. He was 18. During training, in accordance with tradition, he and his fellow recruits were beaten and tortured by their superiors. Some died. At the front, Babchenko witnessed unimaginable brutality and occasional acts of courage, even humanity. In 1999, he volunteered to fight in the Second Chechen War. "One Soldier's War" (Grove, $25), a terrifyingly evocative, beautifully written memoir, ranks alongside the great literature of any conflict. (It is estimated that up to 80,000 people were killed, mostly civilians, in the Russian campaign in Chechnya.)
Babchenko, now a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, spoke, through a translator, from his home in Moscow.
Q. Why and how did you write this memoir?
A. I couldn't carry the war in my system any longer. I started writing compulsively; on the metro, right in the street when memories overwhelmed me. For instance, "Ten Tales of War" wrote itself in two hours when I was on a journalistic assignment, interviewing a lad who'd been a prisoner of war in Chechnya. I also wanted people to see the war through our eyes.
Q. Did you read other war memoirs or novels? What do you think, for example, of Tolstoy's "The Cossacks"?
A. I read Tolstoy in my childhood, but my favorite writer is [Erich Maria] Remarque; no one described war better. I saw and felt the same way as his soldiers in the First World War. Different times, but wars are all the same. Killing is killing.
Q. What reaction has your book had in Russia?
A. The book sank into oblivion. In the nationwide media the subject of Chechnya is simply banned. There were some reviews, mostly in literary journals, and the reaction of Internet readers is divided 50-50. One half says: "That's great, you've described it as it really was." The other half says: "Babchenko is scum, he's never been there, he sold himself to the West and wants to slander the glorious Russian Army."
Q. Why did you volunteer to return to Chechnya?
A. It's hard to explain. War is a powerful narcotic; it gives you an exceptionally acute perception of life. Everything is simple there. It's a kind of freedom. It's also a kind of madness. Remarque described this condition very well. I never expected to come back alive from the first Chechnya war. If my father hadn't died, I would have been dispatched to Grozny and killed there; I know it for sure. So I felt I had to go back . . . . Also I didn't like the world around me then. In fact I don't like it now either. If there is a third war in Chechnya I'll go again, but I won't pick up arms. Today I have a different means of influencing the situation: journalism.
Q. Were you a good soldier?
A. A good soldier is one who fights well, that is, kills without thinking, accepts each assignment as the only unquestionable goal, and carries out orders without sparing lives, including his own. A good soldier is a form of madness. When you get to the war the first time you have just one feeling: This is not happening to me. Then war becomes the only reality and peaceful life appears as a kind of cartoon that you cannot understand. To become a good soldier means to lose the normal world. And then there is no way back. I was a good soldier only once, for three days. After that I started losing my mind, but right then the war ended for our company. As for the rest of my army service, I fought well, I even commanded a platoon for a few days. I wasn't a coward. I was a reliable friend.
Q. What do you mean when you write: "The brightest and best thing in my life was the war"?
A. I go on to say that war was also the bleakest and worst thing in my life. I regard this purely materialistic world as a pale copy of the real world. And the war turned out to be such a real world in my life. I met people who were prepared to die for me and I was prepared to die for my comrades. Is that possible in this world of half-values?
Q. Were you more brutalized by your own army than by the Chechens?
A. That was the war. But it's one thing when the enemy shoots at you - you don't expect anything else from them - but it's a different matter when your own people burn a star on your skin. They wouldn't chop your head off, that was done only to prisoners, but you could easily be killed by your own people.
Q. Has any of this faded in your mind? What remains?
A. I'm a war correspondent. I'm also publishing a magazine of reminiscences by veterans of all wars, including Vietnam, Iraq, Korea. We are planning to start an English version [seehttp://www.artofwar.ru/e/english]. The war is still my world, but I've changed as a person. I'm not a war addict. I have a wife and daughter, and my work.
Q. Is the conflict now forgotten in Russia?
A. There is not a single monument to the soldiers killed in Chechnya. Officially there was no such war. A friend, an ex-soldier and history teacher who lectures on Chechnya, tells me when he mentions [Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev] children laugh, the name sounds funny to them, they've never heard it before.
Q. What do you want American readers to understand or picture about the Chechen wars?
A. One simple thought, not just about Chechnya, but about war in general. No one has the right to kill. People should not be killed, not even in the name of the noblest cause.
[Reprinted with Permission]