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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 17Book Reviews - General (4)Arkady Babchenko, Voina / Tlom [War]

Book Reviews - General (4)

Arkady Babchenko, Voina / Tlom [War]

Alpina Non Fiction, Moscow, 2015, 351 pages
Hélène Mélat
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Arkady Babchenko, Voina / Tlom, Alpina Non Fiction, Moscow, 2015, 351 pages

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Chechnya, Russia

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1War is not an exhausted topic in contemporary Russian literature. World War II, Afghan War and, of course, the Chechen Wars have continued to inspire young and less young writers in post-Soviet Russia. Whether in longer fiction, as in the novels of Andrey Gelasimov—Thirst, recounting the difficult return from Chechnya of a badly disfigured soldier, and The Gods of the Steppe, focusing on the friendship between a Japanese prisoner and a Russian boy during World War II; or narratives close to documentary as in Svetlana Alexievich’s “novels in voices”, based on interviews; or stories close to autobiography such as Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Pathology and German Sadulaev’s I am a Chechen.

2It is this last category that covers Arkady Babchenko’s War (Alpina Non Fiction, Moscow, 2015). On the shelves of Moscow’s bookshops, Babchenko’s hardback stands out for its severe sobriety against the often overloaded, colored covers Russian publishers seem to prefer. The totally black front cover bears two words in white: война and тIом—“war” in Russian and Chechen. This sets the tone for these narratives about the two Chechen Wars, which the author lived through, as he explains in his preface. Arkady Babchenko, born in 1977, whose law studies were interrupted by the First Chechen War and completed before the Second, became a journalist on his return from Chechnya, and specifically a war correspondent, a new career encouraged by his desire to bear witness and pass on what happens in conflict zones, a desire that is clearly reflected in his prose.

3The book is a collection of eighteen chapters/stories written in the 2000s, most of which have already been published separately in magazines or books: eleven of them appeared in Russia in 2005 in a collection entitled Alkhan-Yurt, published by Gallimard in French in 2009 as La Couleur de la guerre. So these texts are not new, but what is new is the structure of the collection, in which the stories are presented in almost chronological order of the events described. The reader follows the narrator’s itinerary, a short description of the pre-war period, conscription and his attempts to evade it, military training and waiting to be sent to the front, daily life in Chechnya before fighting, fighting itself, and a few lines on the post-war period. For this edition, significantly, the author has added a preface and a few more explanatory, journalistic texts, placing his war experience within a slightly broader context, reinforcing the autobiographical nature and documentary, eyewitness importance of the whole.

4Most of the pieces are written in the first person, by a narrator who has the same name as the author (“90% of these texts are autobiographical,” he tells us), and a few are in the third person, describing another hero, but constantly echoing the other stories, with a frequent use of free indirect speech that brings them close to first-person narrative. It is, then, a vision from the inside, always from the same point of view, that the author wishes to give the reader, as close as possible to the reality of war as he experienced it.

5War literature is a literature of upheaval, of limits, of thresholds—always on the edge of death, moral transgression or annihilation. All the stories are suffused with an atmosphere of tragedy, without the epic inspiration of ancient drama: death foretold, awaiting each soldier, shuts off his horizon of life and traps him in the present, the quagmire of war ruled by fear, injustice and horror. Everything is extreme: extremely hot, extremely cold, and fear is the rule before the total anesthesia of sense and moral stupor that characterize these young soldiers old before their time within a few days or weeks.

6The great hero of these stories is the human body, an obsessive omnipresence. Both for the characters, who can at no point forget the sufferings of their own bodies and of those who are dying in agony or have already passed over the demarcation line into death. And also for the reader, because the topic of the body recurs invasively and exhaustively, as bodies are described in close physiological detail. Nothing is spared the reader—the bitter cold, hunger, festering wounds, body fluids of all types. For Babchenko, the debility of body and mind of these barely 18-year-old conscripts is a horribly concrete metaphor for the decay of a Russia that is rotting from the head down—the country’s presidents are cursed and held responsible for every evil. These evils were, and still are, alcoholism, poverty, corruption and, in Russia’s far-flung barracks, hunger and violence.

7The brutalities of the enemy, the chekh, are, of course, described: emasculation, throat slitting, slavery, bomb attacks, in crude, neutral terms that make them all the more unbearable. But these descriptions are few and far between, compared with the violence against Russian soldiers from . . . Russian soldiers. This is a central theme in these stories, where Babchenko shows what he sees as the total moral dereliction of the Russian army in Chechnya. The soldiers are violently beaten, kicked, humiliated, and the litany of this bullying takes center stage in the narrative. The threshold of what is human and bearable is constantly overstepped. This is no longer a war in black and white, friend and foe, but a barbarity in which everything merges into one. This observation is a bleak one, as in Shamalov, whom the author quotes: there is no brotherhood, no kindness, just a few fleeting sensations of closeness as among animals.

8The book contains no poetic moments as in Isaac Babel’s magnificent Red Cavalry or in Oleg Ermakov’s more recent Afghan Tales, nor any intellectual reflections; this is the raw material of the lives of ordinary guys, who have nothing heroic about them and are not fighting for an idea. The description of the characters’ daily lives is utterly down-to-earth. What sets these texts apart is the total absence of any ideological discourse or distanced view of war or any metaphysical considerations. Here we are down in the trenches, the sleeping huts, the tanks, the latrines together with the young recruits; the outside world practically doesn’t exist, except for the fleeting shadow of a wife, mother or girl, who remain abstract and distant. This war has no sense for either the narrator or the other characters: they were sent here by the chance of conscription, and returned to the Second War for reasons of greed or because they could not live in peacetime. For war, Babchenko tells us, never leaves the soldier, who is no longer capable of living “normally,” and that is another side to the tragedy. As he says in his conclusion: war is a trap, a mission creep; it never ends, not only in the field, where terrorist attacks continue to kill even after the peace agreements, but also in minds and souls.

9The author admits it: writing is therapy, rehab, but not even that can bring you back to real life, which was burned out of you somewhere in the plains of Chechnya. These stories make up a devastating indictment by Babchenko, a figure of youth sacrificed on the altar of a meaningless, absurd war, a dirty war, yet another. But nothing to say it will be the last.

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Electronic reference

Hélène Mélat, Arkady Babchenko, Voina / Tlom [War]The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 08 November 2015, connection on 28 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Hélène Mélat

French-Russian Research Center, Moscow

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