Babchenko, Arkady 1977-
Babchenko, Arkady 1977-
Born 1977, in Moscow, Russia; married; children: one son. Education: Moscow University, law degree.
Writer, journalist. Novaya Gazeta, Moscow, Russia, journalist. Iskusstvo Voyny magazine, Moscow, cofounder, 2006. Military service: Served in the Russian Army in Chechnya, 1995-96, 1999-2000.
Debut Prize, Russia, 2006.
Alkhan-Yurt, Iauza (Moscow, Russia), 2006, translation by Nick Allen published as One Soldier's War, Grove/Atlantic (New York, NY), 2008.
"This book is not an easy read," observed a Vulpes Libris reviewer of Russian author Arkady Babchenko's debut novel, One Soldier's War. The reviewer did not intend negative criticism by the statement. Rather, it was meant as a cautionary note, for Babchenko's series of highly autobiographical and interrelated short stories details the horrors of the wars in the breakaway province of Chechnya in 1995-96, and again in 1999-2000. According to the same reviewer in Vulpes Libris, the novel provides "a harrowing account of war in awful conditions." Winner of Russia's Debut Prize when it was published as Alkhan-Yurt in 2006, the book quickly found an international audience, escalating Babchenko from a war veteran and journalist to international prominence. Its descriptions of the Chechen conflict are as unsparing in criticism of the Russian military as it was of the enemy.
Babchenko would appear an unlikely candidate to take the crown of war writing from such masters of the genre as Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy, but many reviewers have compared him to these authors. However, Babchenko never had dreams of becoming such a writer. As Meg Clothier noted in a Guardian profile, "Babchenko's background is Muscovite ‘working intelligentsia’: only child, mother a teacher, father an engineer." As a teenager, "his favourite [reading] subject was war and his favourite book was [Erich Maria Remarque's] All Quiet on the Western Front," which is a scathing indictment of war and personal account of life in the trenches during World War I. Babchenko graduated from secondary school and in 1995 and was an eighteen-year-old student of law at Moscow University when he made a momentous decision to join the army. As a student, he had a deferment, but, as he told Clothier, "I didn't want to defer …. I can't remember why … youthful romantika maybe. Or maybe I'd read too much [Remarque]."
Babchenko entered Chechnya in 1996 after six months of insufficient training. He quickly learned that his Russian officers were at times—because of the tradition of brutal hazing—as big a threat to his well-being as were the Chechen rebels he had been sent to fight. He survived his tour of duty and returned to his law studies after the 1996 accord. Then, with the outbreak of the Second Chechen War, he decided to join up again. Babchenko explained his actions to Clothier: "The way it drew me back was unbearable. Only my body had come back from the first war. My mind stayed there." War had, in fact, become something of an adrenaline addiction for Babchenko: "There's nothing like the density of life in wartime. In an hour you go through so many events, so many life-important events."
Again he survived, but when he returned to Moscow he knew he had to somehow "purify himself," as he explained to Cafebabel contributor Agnès Baritou. Babchenko further remarked to Baritou: "The writing process is cathartic. I just couldn't bear it all. My readers are my psychotherapists. When you read what I've written, you feel worse but I feel better!" Babchenko spares no one in his book. As his narrator says: "We were herded into this war and killed by the hundred. We didn't even know how to shoot; we couldn't kill anyone, we didn't know how. All that we were capable of was crying and dying. And die we did…. We hadn't yet seen life or even tasted its scent, but we had already seen death."
Baritou described the resulting book as "a Molotov cocktail at the borders of Europe." She concluded, Babchenko's tales "throw you into horror and fascination, into a truth so raw that it comes off the paper, made of blood, blows, madness, humiliation; made of everything that's incomprehensible." Other reviewers concurred in this assessment. New Humanist reviewer Michael Binyon thought One Soldier's War was "as damning as it is harrowing." Binyon went on to note: "It tells all those stories that were never allowed to appear in the press at the time: the bullying, the brutality, the incompetence of the military leaders and the appalling conditions in which young Russians conscripted from the villages fought and died." For Binyon, Babchenko's "account is vivid, stark and horrifying…. Babchenko's honesty is unblinking, his prose at times unbearable…. It is a tour de force. A grim testament to the worst of wars." London Independent critic Virginia Rounding wrote, "Almost entirely autobiographical, these are extraordinary stories and make for grim, compulsive reading." Rounding added, "This is an exceptional book, and an important one. Babchenko has transcended reportage, and succeeded in turning his terrible war experiences into art." Likewise, the Vulpes Libris reviewer commented: "Babchencko's prose is clear, unblinking and yet often poetic. He spares his readers nothing, describing the mutilations, diseases, deprivations they all suffered." Paul E. Richardson, writing for Russian Life, observed that "if you want to understand the true personal and physical costs of modern warfare, read this book." Booklist contributor Jay Freeman termed One Soldier's War "a difficult, painful read, but … a superb chronicle of modern warfare," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "The book burns with the need to tell of [Babchenko's] personal ordeal and that of his fellows."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2008, Jay Freeman, review of One Soldier's War, p. 37.
Economist, November 17, 2007, "A Soldier's Tale: Chechnya," review of One Soldier's War, p. 101.
Houston Chronicle, May 2, 2008, Steve Weinberg, review of One Soldier's War.
Independent (London, England), November 9, 2007, Virginia Rounding, review of One Soldier's War.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2008, review of One Soldier's War.
New Humanist, November-December, 2007, Michael Binyon, review of One Soldier's War.
New Statesman, October 29, 2007, Hugh Barnes, "The War the West Forgot," review of One Soldier's War, p. 54.
Publishers Weekly, November 19, 2007, review of One Soldier's War, p. 47.
Russian Life, January-February, 2008, Paul E. Richardson, "One Soldier's War in Chechnya," review of One Soldier's War, p. 61.
Times (London, England), November 16, 2007, Richard Beeston, review of One Soldier's War.
Times Literary Supplement, May 9, 2008, "Hard Knocks," review of One Soldier's War, p. 1.
Cafebabel.com,http://www.cafebabel.com/ (February 28, 2008), Agnès Baritou, "Arkady Babchenko: ‘Russia Is the Germany of 1934,’" review of One Soldier's War.
Guardian Online,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (November 21, 2007), Meg Clothier, "No Quiet on the Chechen Front," review of One Soldier's War.
MPT Magazine,http://www.mptmagazine.com/ (June 30, 2008), "Arkady Babchenko."
Vulpes Libris,http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/ (January 22, 2008), review of One Soldier's War.