One Soldier’s War is a visceral and unflinching memoir of a young Russian soldier’s experience in the Chechen wars that brilliantly captures the fear, drudgery, chaos, and brutality of modern combat. An excerpt of the book was hailed by Tibor Fisher in the Guardian as “right up there with Catch-22 and Michael Herr’s Dispatches,” and the book won Russia’s inaugural Debut Prize, which recognizes authors who write “despite, not because of, their life circumstances.” In 1995, Arkady Babchenko was an eighteen-year-old law student in Moscow when he was drafted into the Russian army and sent to Chechnya. It was the beginning of a torturous journey from naïve conscript to hardened soldier that took Babchenko from the front lines of the first Chechen War in 1995 to the second in 1999. He fought in major cities and tiny hamlets, from the bombed-out streets of Grozny to anonymous mountain villages. Babchenko takes the raw and mundane realities of warthe constant cold, hunger, exhaustion, filth, and terrorand twists it into compelling, haunting, and eerily elegant prose. Acclaimed by reviewers around the world, this is a devastating first-person account of war by an extraordinary storyteller.
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Only those who have spent time in the mountains can imagine what they're like. The mountains are as bad as it gets. Everything you need to live, you carry with you. You need food, so you discard all the things you can do without and stuff dry rations for five days into your knapsack. You need ammunition, so you load an ammo box of bullets and half a box of grenades into your pockets, backpack and cartridge pouches and hang them on your belt. They get in the way when you walk, rasping on your groin and hips, and their weight pulls on your neck. You chuck your AGS automatic grenade launcher over your right shoulder and the launcher of your wounded pal Andrei Volozhanin over your left shoulder. You string two belts of grenades in a cross over your chest, like the sailors in the old revolution movies, and if you have a spare hand you also grab a snail box of ammo belts.
Then there's your tent, pegs, hatchet, saw, shovel and whatever else the platoon needs to survive. And the things you need for yourself — your rifle, jacket, blanket, sleeping bag, mess tins, thirty packs of smokes, a change of underwear, spare puttees, and so on — about 150 pounds in total. Then when you take your first step uphill you realize there's no way you'll make it to the top, even if they put a gun to your head. But then you take the second and third steps and start to clamber and scramble up, slide, fall, and start back up again, clinging tooth and nail to the bushes and branches. Stupefied, you sweat and sweat, thinking about nothing except the next step, just one more step ...
The antitank platoon is scrambling alongside. They are even worse off: my grenade launcher weighs forty pounds, while their PTURs — guided antitank missiles — weigh ninety pounds. And Fat Andy whines: 'Commander, how about we dump one rocket, how about it?' And the commander, an enlisted lieutenant who also has tears of exertion in his eyes, asks: 'Come on, Andy, fat ass, what's the sense in us being up there without rockets? Our infantry are dying up there ...'
Yes, our infantry are dying up there — we crawl and croak our way up, but we keep going.
Later we relieve the guys from the Buinaksk mountain assault brigade who have been living there in a daubed clay shepherd's hut.
After the luxurious apartments of Grozny, with their leather sofas and mirrored ceilings, this crummy barn seemed pitiful. Clay walls, a dirt floor and a small window that barely lets in any light. But this was their first real accommodation after months spent sleeping in rat holes and ditches. For seven months they trekked around the mountains, day in, day out, clearing the Chechens from the heights, sleeping where they dropped at night, too tired to get up, and when they awoke they'd go back up again. They became like Chechens themselves, bearded, unwashed, in soiled tank corps jackets, half crazed, full of hatred for everyone and everything. They looked at us with malice in their eyes — our arrival meant the end of their brief respite, that they had to leave their 'palace' and head back into the mountains yet again. Ahead of them lay a nine-hour march and then the storming of some strategically important hill. They talked about it lightly — nine hours isn't so long, usually the march lasts a whole day or even two. We realized that our torment had been a cakewalk compared with what they had to go through. We watched as they left and each one of us felt scared, because soon we would have to follow them. Our heights were already waiting for us.CHAPTER 2
The River Argun
On 1 March they threw our platoon over to Shatoi. Our task was to hold the bridge across the River Argun. We had no water with us and so we took it from the river. It stank of rotten eggs and had the color of cement but we drank it anyway, telling ourselves that hydrogen sulphide was good for the kidneys. The river was to us what a desert spring is to the Bedouin. We washed and drank there and took its water to cook with. There were no rebels in this region and our lives assumed a calm, quiet rhythm.
In the mornings we would head down to the river like tourists, stripped to the waist, with flowery plundered towels thrown over our shoulders. We washed and splashed about like kids and then sat around on the rocks and sunbathed, our white bellies turned to the bright winter sunshine.
Then the first corpses floated down the Argun toward us. Farther upstream, two Niva jeeps carrying retreating rebels had fallen into the ravine. The bodies got washed out of the vehicles and swept downstream. But the first to float into sight was a captured Russian paratrooper, his black and white camouflaged smock contrasting against the murky water. We fished him out, then some officers came to collect him and drove off with him on the back of their truck.
But the water couldn't wash them all away, and a few Chechens were stuck in the twisted jeeps. The weather was warm and they would soon start to decompose. We wanted to get them out because they were ruining our water, but the ravine was too deep and steep so we stopped trying.
When I woke the next morning I went to the water barrel they brought to the kitchen each day. Usually it got emptied quickly, but this time it was full. Ladling out a mug I took the first sip, then realized the water had a tang of dead flesh to it — that's why no one was drinking it. I spat it out and put the mug down. Arkasha the sniper looked at me, took the mug, filled it with water, drank and gave it me.
'Come on, what's wrong with you? Drink!'
So we kept drinking it, this dead, sulphuric water, but no longer said it was good for our kidneys.CHAPTER 3
When we got back to the lookout post, Shishigin nudged me:
'Second floor, first window from the right, see?'
'Yes. You saw it too?'
'Yep.' He looked at me, biding his time. 'Chechens.'
We spotted them by the greenish tinge in the window from their night-vision sight.
Our respective lookout posts were in neighboring houses, located about 150 feet apart, ours on the third floor, theirs on the second. They were watching us through the night sight and we pinpointed them from the crunch of glass under their feet.
Neither side fired. By that time we had gotten to know their tactics pretty well, and sure enough they kept us under observation until daybreak, after which they fired a couple of rifle grenades and then pulled out. We couldn't scare them off, because of the comfortable apartment with its huge bed, down pillows and warm blankets that we had picked for our night quarters. Spitting on the war and ignoring security regulations as we hankered after comfort, we had chosen a mousetrap that afforded us no escape route. If it came to a shootout, one grenade through the small ventilation window would be enough to take care of us. So we had no choice but to wait and see if they opened fire. And if they did, then which way? Into the room where four of us were sleeping, or at the balcony, where one of us was always on lookout?
Russian roulette, with the Chechen sniper as the croupier, with odds of four to one on a quick end.
But they didn't shoot. Shishigin, who was standing on lookout at dawn, said he heard two short whistles and then the Chechens came down and left.
The next morning, as day finally broke, curiosity drew Shishigin and me over there. There in the thick layer of dust that covered the apartment were the imprints of army boots and sneakers. The booted one, the sniper, sat at the window all the time and surveyed our apartment while the other gave cover.
They didn't shoot because their Fly rocket launcher jammed. It happens. The Chechens had brought it in, aimed it and pulled the trigger, but it didn't work. It still lay there on the kitchen floor where they had discarded it. Another great Russian production flaw — the shoddy work of some metalworker who assembled the launcher had saved our lives.
Apart from the Fly launcher, there was a small stove in the kitchen. We didn't have one, so we decided to take this little trophy with us. As we were leaving the apartment building a flare rose from the Chechen side. They caught two inquisitive Russian idiots, and it looked like they were going to take us right there in the building's entrance. We skittered back to our house like mountain goats, covering the fifty yards in two steps, but we didn't dump the stove. Running into our house we began to laugh like mad, and couldn't stop roaring for almost half an hour. At that moment there was no one closer or dearer to me on earth than Shishigin.CHAPTER 4
I have hardly taken off my boots when a shot rings out. I leap up, grab my rifle and run in my socks to the door, praying that they won't nail me through it. My heart is pounding like mad and my ears are thumping. I get to the doorway and slam into the wall, back first. I don't open the door, and wait. Silence. Suddenly I hear Shishigin's muffled voice:
'Come on you guys, get up one of you!'
With great difficulty, hopping on one foot, I try to put my boots on, but they resist, crumple up and won't slide on.
'Hold on, Vanya, I'm coming.'
What was probably only three seconds seemed to pass like an eternity, and then at last I somehow pull on the boots. Before opening the door I take a few deep breaths, as if preparing to dive into icy water, then I kick the door wide open with my foot and burst into the next room.
'Vanya, where are you?'
'Here, here!' Pale as a sheet, Shishigin tumbles out of the toilet, buttoning up his pants as he comes, breathing out hoarsely and gasping: 'Chechens, below us, the same ones — I was on the can when I heard them whistle.'
'Shit! You might have thrown a fucking hand grenade at them!' I am annoyed at him because now we'll have to go downstairs, where the Chechens are, and a cold fear contorts my stomach.
'I was on the can!' Shishigin says again and gives me the hunted look of a beaten dog.
Slowly, as quietly as possible so the glass doesn't scrunch underfoot, we go out into the corridor. Each step lasts forever, and in the time it takes to move down the ten-foot-long eternity of the hall it seems a thousand generations have been born and died on earth and the sun burned out and was born anew. At last we reach the staircase and I crouch down and poke my head around the corner, then whip it back. There doesn't seem to be anyone on the stairs. I take a longer look around the corner. No one. The trip wire I set yesterday between the third and fourth steps is undisturbed, which means they didn't come up. We have to go.
I motion to Shishigin to go to the opposite side of the stairwell and watch over the lower flight of stairs. He runs across, unslings his rifle and hisses:
'Arkasha, stay there!'
Moving carefully, my rifle trained on the staircase, I go over to the stairs, a single thought going through my head: 'Arkasha, don't go, don't go ...' I'm trying to convince myself, but then I take the first step down. 'Don't go!' I go down a few more steps and reach the corner. I am panting and my temples are pounding — this is scary stuff. 'Don't go, don't go, don't ...' I burst into the apartment, boot open the door to the bedroom — empty. Then the kitchen, no one, and I go back, realizing that I have wasted time and now have none to spare. I lob a hand grenade into the gaping entrance of the apartment opposite, throw myself to the ground and wait for cries, moans, point-blank firing ...
The blast thunders and then it's silent. There's no one there, they are gone.
I squat down and pull a pack of Prima cigarettes from my pocket, roll one in my fingers, light it and toss the empty pack. I'm incredibly tired.
A bead of sweat rolls from under my hat down the bridge of my nose, hangs for a moment from the tip and falls on the cigarette, extinguishing it. I stare dumbly, my hands trembling. It was stupid to go in there on my own, I know. I throw the cigarette away and stand up.
'Shishigin, give me a smoke. They've gone.'CHAPTER 5
Yakovlev vanished toward evening. He wasn't the first to go missing. A couple of weeks earlier two soldiers from the 8th company had taken a machine gun and tried to go home. No one would have looked for them but the disappearance of a machine gun in the battalion is a serious matter and the battalion commander, or Kombat, spent days scouring the fields for these two. The OMON paramilitary police found them when they showed up at a checkpoint to ask for food.
No one looked for Yakovlev. 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 we 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 off his rifle as lost in combat and closed the case.
Again it was the OMON who turned up our missing man during the night, while they were mopping up in the first line. In one cottage cellar they found a mutilated body. Yakovlev. 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 Allahu akbar — God is great.CHAPTER 6
We inherited the cow from the Buinaksk brigade when we relieved them in the mountains. Painfully emaciated, it looked like an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp and was about to kick the bucket. She lay for a day, staring blankly at a point on the horizon, unable even to lick the wound on her shoulder left by a PTUR shell fragment.
On the first evening we put out a big pile of hay for the animal. Her nostrils twitched and her long tongue started to lick at the offering, looking up at us with one eye, unable to believe her luck. Then she began to crunch at the hay and she gorged on it for two days without stopping, not even sleeping. Before us, the paratroopers hadn't fed her at all. At first she ate lying down, then she stood up.
Three days later, when she was already walking, Murky managed to squeeze a mug of milk from her udders. It was thin and didn't taste too good, and it didn't have a drop of fat, but we drank it like God's nectar. We drank in turns, a mouthful for each, and were happy to have our cow.
The next day her nose started to bleed. She was dying, and without looking the cow in the eye we led her to the ravine to finish her off. She was barely able to walk on her weak, buckling legs, and we cursed her for dragging out her own execution like this.
Odegov led the cow on a rope to the edge of the ravine and turned around and fired at her somewhat hastily, sending the bullet passing through her nose. I heard bone break with a dull thump and crunch, like a side of raw meat being hit with the flat of a shovel. The cow staggered, looked at us, realized that we were killing her and lowered her head submissively.
Dark, clotted blood gushed from her nose. Odegov took aim a second time and suddenly lowered his rifle, turned around and started striding back up the hill. I caught up with him, took his rifle and came back and shot the cow pointblank between the ears. Her eyes jerked upward, as if following the bullet that killed her, then rolled in their sockets, and she slid down the gully.
We stood at the edge for a long time looking at the dead cow. The blood congealed on her nose and flies crawled up her nostrils and came out of the hole in the back of her head. Then I pulled Odegov's sleeve.
'It's only a cow.'
It had been raining for a week. The low gray sky was constantly covered with black clouds and the rain didn't let up for even a minute, only altered its intensity.
Our kit hadn't been dry for ages, everything from our sleeping bags to our puttees was soaked. And we were shivering from cold. The advent of the rain had replaced the 100-degree heat with a vile, muddy gunk, and the temperature fell to 60 degrees.
Our dugout flooded continually. We didn't have bunk beds and when we came back from sentry duty we would just lie in the cold, squelching mush and sleep all night in the same position: on our backs, trying to keep our noses and mouths above the water.
In the morning we crawled from the dugout as if from the bowels of a sunken ship. Making no attempt to shelter from the rain, we stomped through the puddles in our sodden boots, which were instantly caked with great clods of clay.
We stopped caring for ourselves, no longer washed, shaved or brushed our teeth. After a week without soap and water our hands cracked and bled continually, blighted by eczema in the cold. We hadn't warmed ourselves by a fire for a whole week because the damp reeds wouldn't burn and there was nowhere to gather firewood in the steppe. We began to turn wild as the cold and wet and filth drove from us all feelings apart from hatred, and we hated everything on earth, including ourselves. Squabbles flared over nothing and instantly escalated beyond control.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "One Soldier's War"
Copyright © 2006 Arkady Babchenko.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Mountain Brigade,
2. The River Argun,
6. The Cow,
7. To Mozdok,
8. The Ninth Neighborhood,
10. The Apartment,
11. The Runway,
13. The Summer of 1996,
14. Special Cargo,
15. New Year's Eve,
17. The Storming Operation,
19. A Soldier's Dream,
20. Field Deception,
21. The Obelisk,
23. Hello Sister,
25. Chechen Penal Battalion,
26. Operation 'Life' Continues,
27. I Am a Reminder,