All wars are hell, but some hells are worse than others. If Arkady Babchenko is to be believed, Russian conscripts fighting their country’s long, shambolic war in Chechnya suffered more at the hands of their own people than those of the enemy. Almost daily, young soldiers were sadistically beaten by veterans. Everything not screwed down, including arms and ammunition, was sold in the marketplace, often to the Chechen separatists the army was supposed to be fighting. Officers were at best bunglers, at worst monsters. Almost everyone was drunk, nearly all the time.
“The first time I really got beaten up was on May 9. Victory Day,” recounts the author, a law-school graduate who went to Chechnya in 1996, aged 18. “The reconnaissance boys kicked us out of our beds and beat us the whole night. Towards morning they got tired of that and ordered us to do squats on the floor. We sat down, pressed up tightly against each other, and our mingled sweat ran down our legs, dripped onto the bare floorboards and soon formed a pool beneath us. Andy also dripped pus and blood into the mix as his sores opened up again.”
We know much less about the modern Russian army at war than we do about the Americans in Vietnam, or the British in Iraq. But what we do know suggests that Babchenko’s story is true. Russia today has suddenly become a rich country, on the back of its huge oil and gas reserves. But almost nothing in Putin’s universe works. His country cannot build a car or toaster that any westerner would accept as a free gift. The birth rate is plummeting, gangsterism is endemic, alcoholism a national disease. A deep anger pervades Russian society, as the people strive to understand why the West has so much, while they seem to have so little. “We have a saying,” a girl tourist guide in St Petersburg said to me sadly a couple of years ago, “that one has to be very unlucky to be born in Russia.”
It is entirely credible, therefore, that the Russian army is a brutish, demoralised, drunken rabble, whose conduct in Chechnya has been worse than in Afghanistan, and even less effective. Babchenko describes how a tragic herd of Russian mothers descended on a base in the Caucasus, searching for their sons missing in action. “Before setting off on foot to Chechnya with their photos, they have to look through a mountain of corpses in the refrigerators at the station and in the tents. Constant shrieks and moans can be heard from there and the mothers have aged 10 years when they are led out.”
Soldiers refer to badly burnt corpses as “smoked goods” and the morgues as “canning factories”. The author says: “We heal ourselves with cynicism, preserve our sanity this way so as not to go completely out of our minds.” Some new recruits lacked boots, and were obliged to shovel snow in army-issue slippers. The soldiers were often sick and always hungry, for their rations were grossly inadequate as well as inedible. Desertion was commonplace. Drink and drugs were the only palliatives.
The fate of those who fell into Chechen hands was unspeakable. Yakoviev, one of the author’s comrades, disappeared during the storming of Grozny. He was later found in a cottage cellar by the military police: “The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intestines and used them to strangle him while he was still alive. On the neatly whitewashed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words ‘Allah akbar’ – God is great.”
One critic has compared Babchenko’s book to Catch-22 and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. This seems fanciful, for it is repetitive, often incoherent and riddled with clichés. So was the war he is trying to describe, the author might say. But the best narratives of conflict convey its chaos and misery much more reflectively. Despair is the pervasive theme. Here was a teenager thrust into a predicament that carried him to the edge of madness even before he entered the combat zone. He was borne down by the anarchy prevailing in his own army. Each rank exercised a right to assault the one below: colonels punched majors, captains kicked lieutenants, NCOs reduced the faces of privates to bloody pulp.
Yet Babchenko never explains a notable mystery about his experience: after surviving as a conscript, he returned to Chechnya in 2000 as a volunteer, a “contract soldier”. It was then his turn to beat young soldiers. He bears witness to the savagery of Russian military operations, and indeed describes his own descent into casual violence and killing civilians.
About 1m Russians have served in Chechnya over the past decade. Babchenko says that they returned from the ordeal consumed with hatred for authority, indeed for the world. He describes the cripples, their bodies wrecked in the war, who haunt the Moscow subway, singing as they beg: “They sing terribly, but that doesn’t bother them. They hate the people they are singing for. They see the world from below, and not just because they only have half of their bodies left, but because half of their souls are gone, too.”
Babchenko’s narrative is weakened by its bitterness. It is written in the voice of a man who discovered no hint of redemptive quality in his experience. The book makes no attempt to analyse the war in which he played his part. It merely recounts the thoughts and deeds of a humble footsoldier caught in a military maelstrom. If this is how today’s Russian army seems to those at the sharp end, then Putin’s soldiers are more deserving of pity than of the fear that their president’s sabre-rattling is designed to inspire in the rest of us.Buy it here.