The war the west forgot

<strong>One Soldier's War in Chechnya</strong>

Arkady Babchenko <em>Portobello Books, 405pp, £16.

Now in its second decade, Russia's brutal hammering of Chechnya, a tiny republic of a several hundred square miles, slightly smaller than Wales and with a population of only a million, continues out of sight and largely out of mind. One of the reasons for this lack of information is the danger facing journalists who operate in the mountains of the North Caucasus. In the absence of eyewitness reports, western opinion has to choose between tales of an almost mythological wildness and Kremlin-sponsored obfuscations about the "war on terror".

The long-running conflict in Chechnya is best seen as two very different wars. The first, dubbed "Yeltsin's Vietnam", forced Russia the nuclear superpower into a humiliating withdrawal in 1996 in the face of sustained guerrilla attacks. Timely explosions in several Russian cities three years later, and rebel skirmishes in neighbouring Dagestan, led Vladimir Putin to declare an all-out second war on Chechnya. But where Boris Yeltsin's blundering was at least motivated by a wish to avert Chechen independence, Putin's strategy was to manipulate the fears and prejudices of ordinary Russians.

Unusually, Arkady Babchenko witnessed both wars, but not as an onlooker. Like Tolstoy, he was a Russian soldier in the Caucasus before he was a writer, and his remarkable stories, translated into English by Nick Allen, cast a frequently shocking light on the barbaric conduct of the occupying forces. In November 1995, as a second-year law student, he was drafted into the army and soon transported to the town of Mozdok on the border with Chechnya, and then into Chechnya itself.

Key chapters in One Soldier's War in Chechnya bear the names of rebel targets or strongholds, evoking the alienation and sheer terror felt by young conscripts in this hostile country: "Mozdok-7", "Argun", "Alkhan-Yurt", and even "Grozny" (meaning "terrible" or "awe-inspiring"), which was founded by General Alexei Yermolov in 1818 as a garrison town from which to conduct a steady pacification of the mountain tribes of the North Caucasus.

The early stories, dating from the first Chechen war, describe the inevitable loss of morale and even humanity among the Russian troops as they are exposed to the violence and pointlessness of the conflict. "The soldiers wander around the steppe like stray dogs," Bab chenko writes. "No one counts them or guards them. You can be absent from the barracks for weeks and no one will be after you. You may get murdered, or abducted and sold into slavery and no one will know."

Yet nothing can prepare the reader for Bab chenko's unlikely sequel to his military career. After demobilisation, he graduates as a law student in Moscow, only to return to Chechnya as a volunteer in the Russian army once the second war is declared. "I have no answer to why I went there again. I don't know. I just couldn't help it. I was irresistibly drawn back," he says. In much the same way, the Russian army itself was drawn back to the killing fields by its burning desire to reverse the humiliations of the previous war.

Since 2000, Babchenko has written on Chechnya for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where he worked alongside the journalist Anna Politkovskaya until she was murdered a year ago. His book is unquestionably a principled and unflinching exposé of Russia's conduct in the war, and as such it owes a great deal to the crusading example of his late colleague.

But unlike Politkovskaya's journalism, One Soldier's War is a work of both autobiography and the imagination, in the tradition of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 or Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, instead of just reportage. News journalists talk about their "stories" without implying that what they write is untrue, but One Soldier's War is a more artfully contrived narrative deploying fictional techniques as well as autobiography. "I did not mean to write a book," Babchenko admits in a preface. "I did not even think about what I was writing - stories, memoirs or just some kind of text."

Some of these stories appeared in Russian as Ten Stories of War, a title different from and more intriguing than the one for this English translation. In "Alkhan-Yurt", the hero of the Russian original, a soldier called Artem, becomes a first-person narrator whom the reader cannot help but identify as the memoirist. The shift in emphasis - away from "story" and back to reality - may be unimportant, but it does detract from the achievement of Babchenko the writer.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan