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The rigors of a Russian at war

A young conscript vividly describes how combat made him a hardened veteran.

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There is certainly no more commanding a subject for a book than the trials of war – particularly when these events are experienced by young idealists. Libraries and bookstores alike hold shelves of such memoirs, each one of them trying to encapsulate the horrors of armed conflict.

As a member of the Vietnam War generation, I have read my fair share of them. But few have ever hit me with the force and power of Arkady Babchenko’s new memoir of the conflicts in Chechnya, One Soldier’s War.

The emphasis on sociopolitical issues might incline some readers unfamiliar with the region to avoid this particular work. And that would be a shame. At the outset, Babchenko provides us with a terse and precise history of this conflict, stretching in real time from l994 to 2000. It is enough to make the journey through this book a little clearer, if not any easier.

Yet Babchenko delivers something much more than just another ghostly depiction of hell on earth. This moving narrative has the effect of transformation on a reader: You begin a young, naive, and frightened conscript and finish a hardened veteran.

In 1995, Babchenko, now a journalist, was drafted into the Russian Army at the age of 18 and sent to Chechnya. He later began writing about his 18 months of war for various Moscow newspapers. “I did not mean to write a book,” he confides early on. “I just couldn’t carry war within myself any longer. I needed to speak my mind, to squeeze the war out of my system.” The result is a set of evocative images so vibrant and at times brutal that they will stay with you, as they did with me, for days and weeks.

One of the briefest of the 27 vignettes that make up this work – the two-page tale of a dog named Sharik – is one of the most haunting.

Babchenko begins with these words: “He came to us when we had only two days of food supplies left. A handsome, smart face, fluffy coat, and a tail that curled in a circle.”

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