Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Soldier's War by Arkady Babchenko

Arkady Babchenko's book about his participation in the wars in Chechnya was a rare find for me. I've been greatly interested in these modern and current wars but the literature on them is quit limited and usually comes with a bias/agenda. Accounts from the soldiers themselves are rare, as rare as those of the Soviet-Afghan war. Such an account will more than likely come with a bias of its own, but there is a distinct difference between a primary source (an eyewitness account in this case) and a secondary source with an agenda. Since the author is regularly critical of both the government and military high command, the majority of this book simply deals with what it takes for a soldier to survive such a war.

For those interested in this account, you should be warned it is not an easy read. War is never glamorous, and the type of war Russian soldiers found themselves in during the Chechen conflict regularly involved atrocities, torture, wanton destruction and murder. The book is separated into three parts. The first part consists of mini-chapters, 1-3 pages each, with no real linear narrative to connect them to each other. Just quick "sound bytes" of what war was like. These quick glimpses into the war are probably what stayed with the author long after he had returned from the war. Arkady was drafted and participated in the first Chechen war, then volunteers for the second. He claims that while his body may have left the war his soul had stayed. The overall translation is good, but not great, as there are a few mistakes and omissions which tend to take away from the narrative. But this can be overlooked at some of the events recalled here are simply too powerful to forget, more than once I had to reread entire paragraphs just to make sure I understood what the author was saying.

The period of time spent in Mozdok is eye opening. Hard as it might be to believe, soldiers do go through a hazing process when they first arrive in the army. It was the same during the Soviet Union and it seems to have lasted after the fall of the USSR. Most of the men in my family served in the Soviet Army and quite a few had something to say about the hazing process. Granted, I have never heard of the extremely barbaric experiences described here, but that might be because when my family members served the Soviet Union was not at war. But it isn't hard to believe that such beatings, torture, and humiliation took place on a regular basis if you have been keeping up with news coming out of Russia. Suicides by soldiers have been quite high and many take place because boys of 18, 19, or 20 simply cannot take being beaten on a regular basis for months on end. The authors explains how he learned to deal with it or try to avoid it, some of his friends went AWOL, while another spent time in a hospital after suffering a broken finger during his latest beating. The chaotic situation the regiment he belonged to is also telling of the time. The mid 1990s were hard on Russia and her citizens, corruption was widespread and few cared about anyone but themselves. Soldiers sold weapons and ammunition to the same Chechens that used said weapons and ammunition to then kill Russian soldiers in Chechnya, everyone was looking out for himself.

I won't go into details about the many other stories you'll find within the pages of this book but suffice it to say, it's worth your time if you have an interest in what someone serving in the current Russian Army might go through. While each story is relative to the author and should not be generalized, the fact that such events can occur only speak to the severity of the situation young Russian boys might have found themselves in during the first and second Chechen Wars.


-Dirk said...

This is an very useful review. I ordered this book as we speak on amazon!

T. Kunikov said...

I'm glad it was helpful, I hope you find the book interesting.

ZZZ... said...

Can you recommend me a book containing the full story of Eastern Front from 1941-1945 please? Including detailed Maps and statistical analysis will be best.

Thanks a lot

T. Kunikov said...

I'm not sure such a volume currently exists, specifically in terms of maps. I would recommend you look into either "Thunder in the East" by Mawdsley or "When Titan's Clashed" by Glantz. If you're truly interested in maps, I would recommend Glantz's various "atlas" series, which feature both German and Soviet maps throughout various periods of the war and/or operational/strategic battles.

ZZZ... said...

Thanks a lot:)