stories

A man made by war Why we’ll remember journalist and writer Arkady Babchenko

Meduza
00:26, 30 may 2018

Arkady Babchenko in Stockholm, where he was awarded the Swedish PEN-Club Award, November 12, 2015

Marcus Ericsson / TT / Scanpix / LETA

On May 29, a still unidentified man shot Arkady Babchenko three times in the back as he walked into his apartment building in Kiev. The prominent Russian journalist and writer died before paramedics could get him to the hospital. Meduza looks back at Babchenko’s life and career, which were linked inextricably with war.

Update: Arkady Babchenko is alive.

The soldier

Arkady Babchenko was drafted into the army at the age of nineteen in 1995. Before long, he was assigned to a communications unit and deployed to a closed city near the Chechen town of Mozdok. This was the height of the First Chechen War, and Babchenko would fight in it.

In his autobiography published on the website Snob, Babchenko remembered this period of his life as follows: “I took part in ‘the restoration of the constitutional order’ in Chechnya. I served in the signal corps. I did what they said. I went where they ordered. I carried what they handed me. I rode where they sat me. I shot where they pointed. But none of it did any good. I came back without any injuries or medals.”

After his military discharge in 1997, Arkady Babchenko studied law at Moscow’s Modern University for the Humanities. In 1999, when the Second Chechen War started, he returned to the army as a contract soldier. Babchenko said this about his second tour of Chechnya: “I served as a field radio operator. Then I said screw it and joined the riflemen, who sold me for two cans of stew to a grenadier unit, where I became the head of an AGS-17 grenade launcher team.” In 2000, Babchenko was discharged again, this time with the rank of staff sergeant guard.

“There are two Russias: one that’s been to war and another where the people live in parallel worlds,” Babchenko told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 2005. “And accordingly there are two kinds of people: those who fought in a war where peace was just a train ride away, and those for whom war is an exotic place in books, newspapers, and TV newscasts.”

The writer

In 2000, after the army, Babchenko took up journalism, working as a war correspondent for the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets and the television program “Zabytyi Polk” (The Forgotten Regiment), which aired on NTV. Later, he worked with TV-6 and TVS, as well as the shows “Armeiskii Magazin” (Army Store), which aired on Pervyi Kanal, and “Postscript.”

Babchenko didn’t hold down any one position for very long. “The nice places didn’t take me, and I left the lousy places on my own,” he later recalled. By his own admission, Babchenko said his work for RTR was “tabloid, lowbrow documentary stuff in the style of oorah-patriotism,” much like what he did for NTV, where he said he “edited the truth” about Russia’s October 1993 constitutional crisis.

Babchenko spent some time working as a taxi driver, before finding a job at Novaya Gazeta, where he also burned out pretty quickly (he was fired for “sloppiness”). At the same time, he also started converting his military experience into a literary career. In 2002, the literary magazine Novyi Mir published a series of stories by Babchenko, titled “Ten Episodes About the War,” and a short story called “Alkhan-Yurt” (named after the village in Chechnya). Babchenko subsequently released a collection of stories under the same title, which was later translated into several languages and awarded multiple literary honors. Babchenko was called a pioneer of a new Russian military prose.

“Babchenko is the first writer to work meaningfully with this sensitive issue [the wars in Chechnya],” wrote the literary critic Maria Remizova in 2002. “Babchenko’s war is completely different — it’s intimate and prosaic. There are no generals making crucial decisions and there are no political declarations. Babchenko experiences it from within, watching from a muddy trench, lying in the smashed earth under an endless drizzle. He drinks this war from a mug filled with putrid swamp water, and he eats it with dog meat and frozen Kalina berries — because hunger, it turns out, is the main thing you feel in this war, and fear is only second.”

“From Babchenko’s pen, [the war] seems almost mundane, such that the reader starts to grow accustomed to it,” wrote columnist Andrey Rudalev in 2006. “[Zakhar] Prilepin, Babchenko, and [Alexander] Karasev are bringing the Chechen War into the literary sphere. Their work isn’t always equal and they go about it in different ways, but it’s thanks to them that we can also see how there are two Russias: one where they kill, and another where they give flowers.”

Journalists Without Middlemen

From 2006 to 2010, Babchenko produced a magazine called Iskusstvo Voiny (The Art of War), publishing stories from veterans of wars in the post-Soviet space.

In 2008, Babchenko told the BBC that he had a bad feeling about Chechnya's new ruler: “Everything is coming back to the next spiral, and what Mr. [Ramzan] Kadyrov is doing now in Chechnya could lead to the next big problems.” In the interview, Babchenko said he would never again take up arms. A few months later, he dove back into war reporting in South Ossetia. From then onward, he was on the ground for most of the emergency news that rocked the former Soviet Union, such as flooding in Krymsk, unrest in Kyrgyzstan, and protests in Moscow. He also reported from Istanbul during political demonstrations.

“For all 19 years of my adult life — and even earlier, since 1993 — I’ve been with my country through all the shit,” Babchenko wrote in a column for The New Times in April 2014. “I was always wherever it was bad for my country. If if was at the Parliament, then I was at the Parliament. If it was in Chechnya, then I was in Chechnya. If it was in South Ossetia, then I was in South Ossetia. If it was in Krymsk, then I was in Krymsk.”

Beginning in mid-2010, Babchenko embraced Facebook in a big way, using it as his main platform to publish reports and opinion pieces about the burning issues of the day. Calling this genre of reporting “Journalism Without Middlemen,” Babchenko would comment on a large chunk of the day’s headline news, often finishing his posts with information about how readers could send him money to fund his work. He reposted these texts on his LiveJournal blog.

In the spring of 2012, when Moscow’s protest movement suddenly flickered with life, the authorities brought criminal charges against Babchenko, saying he tried to incite a riot with a Facebook post where he urged demonstrators to fight back the police and set up a tent encampment.

Babchenko actively supported Ukraine’s Euromaidan protesters, spending three months in Kiev, reporting on the revolution. He also covered the war in eastern Ukraine — from the Ukrainian side of the front. By this time, Babchenko had become an outspoken critic of the Russian authorities and more. For example, in December 2016, when 92 people died in a military plane crash en route for Russia’s airbase in Syria, Babchenko wrote on Facebook that he didn’t mourn the dead, and even “rationalized” the loss of nine state journalists as a weakening of the Russian propaganda’s “zombifying life force.” Six journalists from the Defense Ministry’s television channel, Zvezda, tried to sue Babchenko for these remarks, but a court refused to punish him.

On February 21, 2017, Babchenko left Russia and moved to Prague, fearing persecution and possibly violence. He says he was warned that it would be wise to “spend some time away” from his “blessed homeland.” In August 2017, he said he would “return to Moscow in a NATO tank.”

After a stint in Israel, Babchenko finally resettled in Kiev, where he hosted “Prime: Babchenko,” a show on the Crimean-Tatar TV network ATR.

On Facebook, Babchenko’s posts often challenged the bounds of good taste, politicizing tragedy. Responding to news about ISIS executing a Russian man, he wrote: “(1) The Motherland will abandon you, sonny. Always. (2) The ladies will just birth some more. (3) And fuck that guy, anyway.” About a deadly fire in Kemerovo, Babchenko wrote: “Run from that place. Get out of that country and take your future with you.” About the death of the beloved actor and stage director Oleg Tabakov, he wrote: “With his enormous public resources, he could have spoken up. But he went along with things. He went along with war. With murders. With repression. With torture.” Babchenko’s brutal comments regularly provoked waves of criticism, both online and more broadly in public.

In March 2018, Babchenko wrote that he feared for his life after posting a photograph of a Russian soldier allegedly responsible for supervising the seizure of military facilities in Crimea. Babchenko sent his family to a secure location and didn’t leave his home. At night, he says he jumped at the sound of the elevator and tiptoed to his door’s peephole. In his last Facebook post, shared on May 29, Babchenko recalled how, four years earlier, he was kept off a helicopter that then promptly crashed. He said he considered that day his “second birthday.”

A year ago, Babchenko was asked if he feared death. “Dying is always scary,” he answered. “It was scary 20 years ago, it’s scary now, and I suspect it will scare me even 100 years from now. I want to live more than I want to die.”

Story by Konstantin Benyumov and Daniil Turovsky, translation by Kevin Rothrock