Your Weekend Read: One Soldier’s War

| May 6, 2017
Categories: Assorted Ramblings

“No one was paying attention to the village now. The battle had finished, the Chechen recon we’d run into had gone; they’d either pulled out or holed up somewhere. So we relaxed. We lay on the wet ground in front of the trenches, without digging in or camouflaging ourselves, and we just sat around in a group. Which you do not do in war, under any circumstances

The Chechens immediately punished us for this carelessness.”

Although fighting in Chechnya has going on intermittently for decades, the formal military operations later labeled the First Chechen War (initiated to oust the Dudayev regime) were launched approximately 20 years ago, in late 1994. The attack immediately resulted in large numbers of casualties among the poorly coordinated, marginally trained Russian troops. Conservative estimates put Russian casualties at over 5,000 officers and men during just the month of January 1995.

In November of that year, a teenage law student named Arkady Babchenko was drafted and sent to Urals for training. This is — allegedly — his story.

In 1996, after just a few months training, he was deployed to the Chechnyan border with hundreds of other conscripts. There he spent several months subject to the medieval brutality of NCOs and older soldiers. Eventually, after almost daily beatings and long periods of near starvation, he was sent into Chechnya proper to fight the Chechen separatists and their Wahabi Arab, Turkish, and other allies. By that time the majority of the conscripts he’d arrived with were either dead or had deserted. He survived the fighting, was falsely accused of deserting (he wound up in the hospital with dysentery while on leave to attend his father’s funeral), spent 3 months in a penal battalion, and eventually returned home to school.

Around this time Chechnya achieved a tenuous “independence” after the Khasavyurt Accords, though its government was a government name only. Power was concentrated largely in the hands of military commanders and warlords such as Ruslan Gelayev, Shamil Basayev, Arbi Barayev, and the the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab (many of them would later come to the attention of the United States as Islamists). The country was essentially lawless; vast numbers of people were executed or disappeared, and Grozny was described as the focus of a flourishing slave trade.

Babchencko demobilized, finished his degree, and for reasons he was by admission unable to explain volunteered to go back to for the second Chechen campaign, which began in 1999.

As he puts it,

“The second war was quite different from the first. For Chechnya the first had been a war of liberation, a war for independence when the people were united and inspired; in the second it was not the Chechens we fought, but the rebel bands. By then the Chechens were tired of lawlessness and dislocation. The second war was even more incomprehensible and dirty than the first.” 

Though trite and tired, the term cannon fodder is a completely apt description for how the Russian Federation troops were used by their superiors. Babchenko’s autobiography (and we must remember to read and filter it through that lens) seems more like a composite of letters home from the Crimean War and excerpts from Catch-22 than a historical account of modern war conducted by an allegedly professional army.

Combine that with the savagery of the Chechens they fought, it’s no wonder the desertion and suicide rate of their soldiers was so high — although we must also keep in mind the accusation of numerous war crimes and the brutalization of the civilian populace on the part of the Russians.

“Yakovlev vanished toward evening…No one looked [for him]. The storming of Grozny was under way, the 2nd battalion tried in vain for the third day to take the cross-shaped hospital, suffering high casualties, and were bogged down for the third day at the first row of houses in the private district. The storming operation was faltering, and we didn’t have time for Yakovlev. They listed him as a deserter, wrote toff his rifle as lost in combat and closed the case.

Again it was the OMON [Otryad Mobilny Osobogo Naznacheniya, a paramilitary Russian Federal police agency] who turned up our missing man during the night, whle they were moppoing up the firstline. In once cottage cellar they found a multiated body. 


The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intenstines and used them to strangle him whil ehe was still alive. On the neatly white-washed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words Allahu akbar – God is great. “

The confusion, nonsensical contradictions, and brutality conveyed by Babchenko’s book will seem unbelievable to most and might be set aside as contradictions if not confirmed by so many other accounts.

“We understood long ago that any beating is better than a hole in the head. There have been too many deaths for us to care much about trivia like ruptured kidneys or a broken jaw.” 

This was a war where Russian soldiers sold weapons, ammunition, and even vehicles to the “bearded savages” they were fighting so they could buy food from other Russian soldiers — alongside whom they would go fight Chechens the next day, and some of whom would be killed or maimed by those same weapons and ammunition.

The evolution of the war in Chechnya as Babchenko describes it is an interesting, albeit somber and depressing, thing to read. His explanation of Russian counter-insurgency efforts after open warfare had ended will be familiar with many thousands of Breach-Bang-Clear readers who’ve served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or similar places.

“The army is incapable of fighting crime. Imagine if in Moscow they got tired of all the robbery and banditry in the back streets and stationed a regiment on Red Square to keep order with tanks, antiaircraft guns and snipers. By day the military line the Kremlin grounds with even, sandy roads and hanged portraits of the president on all corners. And at night they shut themselves into the camp, fire at the slightest sound and never venture beyond the gatehouse. Is that supposed to stop the trouble in the suburbs of Tushino? And what if Tushino’s  neighborhood police officer and the prefect are in cahoots with the local tough guy, Shamil the Chechen, and fought on his side in the last firefight with the police?”

One Soldier’s War is a miserable, depressing, sometimes inconsistent but excellent read. Although sequentially discordant and occasionally redundant, it’s a good book. It’d just be better if it was fiction, and there’s the rub…some people believe it is fiction, r at least a partially fabricated amalgam of several different soldier’s experiences. One such person’s review can be found right here. Check it out if you’d like a different opinion on things.

Just remember, most dispute is not with the veracity of the accounting, just that it all happened directly to the author.

Meantime, one last excerpt from the book.

“Tracer rounds flew out of the house every four or five seconds in the direction of Alkhan-Yurt, the red dashes etched against the woods in the evening light. The streams of fire crossed the road about fifty yards ahead of them and flew in a mass beyond the river, vanishing among the house roofs and the plumes from the explosions.

I suddenly realized that we were right in the thick of the fighting. That patch we had occupied in the marsh was only the frilly edge of the pie, while this place was right in the middle, with all the berries.

A Chechen sniper was firing from the farmer’s house without trying to conceal himself. Interior troops [probably MVD] were moving about in packs here, while somewhere else the Chechens were doing the same. They were being buffeted by the explosions, but our guys were over there too. You couldn’t see them from where we were, but the Chechen sniper in the house could, and he was firing at them. And the torops here could see the sniper but no one bothered with him. They had been lying in the ditch for so long, with so much fire pouring overhead, that no one gave a damn about a lone sniper. Nor did I, or Sergei, or the psychologist [a useless officer in the author’s regiment]. We weren’t supposed to be fighting here; we’d only come to pick up our water tanker, which had apparently been shot up from that very house where the sniper was now. The Chechen could see us too, but he wasn’t firing at us, evidently concentrating on a more attractive target. His tracer fire disappeared over the river toward a spot visible only to him. And in that spot our guys saw only the sniper, who had become the most important and fearful thing on earth for them, and they desperately wanted someone here to kill him. But no one touched him, because to kill him or dig him out of the house would be difficult – all they could do is keep him pinned down for a while, bu tthere there would be a firefight when he started shooting back, and he’d kill someone for sure. An no one wanted that. But he wasn’t shooting at us yet yet, so there was no need to bother him unnecessarily.

Meanwhile the war was raging all around and as usual nothing made sense. Everyone was doing his thing – the sniper was popping off rounds, the interior troops were fighting across the village, shells were exploding, bullets were flying, the psychologist and I were towing a wreck, and the wounded driver and the other guy were walking home somewhere, like schoolboys after lessons. Everyone was stewing in this war, and now that there was a brief lull no one wanted to shatter it. Everything just ticked along like normal; it was humdrum even.”


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1 Comment

  1. Tierlieb

    It’s a very Western thing to expect this to be either true or false. That does not mesh with the Eastern way of writing. Compare “Siberian Education” by Nicolai Lilin and its reception.


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