Update: Arkady Babchenko is alive.
He was a man made by war. He saw war, and he understood a lot about it.
Three years ago, the publication Colta.ru arranged a screening of several short, just-released documentary films about combatants in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation.” In the discussion afterwards, Arkady Babchenko said the films were of course interesting, but he added that they lacked a certain meaning and couldn’t have an ending. “For the first month or two, there’s still a chance to stop it. Once everything’s gone off the rails, until the war has burned itself out, there’s no stopping it. What scares me isn’t what we just watched, but the time all this could take, and what it might spill into. I’m afraid for us, too.”
Babchenko fought in both Chechen wars and he reported from South Ossetia as a war correspondent. His experience became the basis for his novel Alkhan-Yurt, which was published in the literary magazine Novyi Mir. Babchenko said of his book Voina, “This is rehabilitation, not literature.” Like many others, he wrote that it was almost impossible to come home from war and erase it from oneself entirely. Years after he laid down his arms, Babchenko still looked like a soldier: both relaxed and stiff, as if he were ready at any moment to rush into an attack or dive for cover. Even his nickname on LiveJournal, “Starshina Zapasa” (Reserve Staff Sergeant), looked less like a puzzle or a pretentious pseudonym than a line in his military record.
A soldier sees the world differently from a civilian, and Babchenko's pathos boiled down to a single phrase: How are you blind to the obvious? Starting with his infamous LiveJournal post about the snowplow (Babchenko wrote that Moscow’s Winter 2012 protesters should have stolen it and used it to break through the police barrier at the Federal Security Service’s headquarters — for which he was almost immediately charged with a felony), it was like he was talking to a bunch of dim-witted kids: How can you not realize that a permitted protest isn’t a protest at all? That a Crimea reclaimed by force isn’t Russia? That what is happening in eastern Ukraine is a war and a disgrace? And that it’s not some abstract “we” who’s to blame, but you specifically? You who obediently voted and who didn’t resist. You civilians who are blind to the obvious.
From Babchenko’s perspective, even his allies in Moscow were weak conformists always looking for compromises. “They stood around with their white balloons, staying where they were told, and then they dispersed.” His unconditional moral righteousness scared off a lot of people. His belief in collective responsibility — that blame for the blood spilled in recent years lies not only with those who “raised their hands,” but also with anyone who didn’t actively resist, which is to say with nearly everyone living in Russia — was so uncomfortable that sometimes you wanted to write it off as a side effect of Babchenko’s shattered nerves or his difficult life circumstances. But he was always ready to defend his ideas to the logical extreme, and this extreme was always death.
Babchenko made himself notorious online by defiantly refusing to mourn the deaths of his compatriots — whether it was famous actors or a plane full of musicians — when they’d actively supported or silently accepted Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. For the “grief police” that has formed on television and Facebook in recent years, attacking anyone who speaks ill of the dead, Babchenko was a main target. It was admittedly hard to stay subscribed to his posts, and when he left Russia after receiving numerous threats, it didn’t exactly trigger major protests or an outpouring of sympathy. Babchenko’s personal war became his guerrilla raid on the furthest moral-ethical boundaries, where few people were ready to go. Sometimes it seemed like he was on autopilot, working out some crowd-pleasing high-wire act, drawing waves of hatred and “likes,” all at once. Buried here somewhere, however, there was always rage and there was always anguish. There were always the feelings of a man who rushes into the attack, not thinking about the consequences. War is war.
Infamous for his harsh remarks about the most sensitive subjects, Babchenko was a surprisingly kind man. He was constantly on the move, whether it was to Krymsk or the Far East. He helped flood victims, raised money, delivered food, and got his hands dirty. He adopted six troubled children: his mother claimed custody, but the whole family looked after them. Even his recurring mantra — “Well, why didn’t you listen to me?” — was tired regret, not arrogance: If you’d listened to me in 2011 or later, then thousands in eastern Ukraine would still be alive, and the passengers on flight MH17, and Boris Nemtsov, and Pavel Sheremet, and many others. According to his logic, Babchenko himself would still be alive, if only we’d listened to him. It’s hard to dispute this today, and there’s no one left to argue with, anyway.
His stubbornness, intransigence, and sense of his own righteousness were like something out of a bygone era. It’s easy to imagine him in an Old Believer monastery or in some Peasants’ War during the Reformation, fighting on either side.
It’s obvious how Babchenko’s murder investigation will play out from here. The different sides of this conflict will blame each other endlessly, breaking down who benefits more: “Putin” or the global “Anti-Putin”? That’s life in the post-truth era, where truth is nonexistent and unattainable. But truth definitely existed for Arkady Babchenko, who was prepared to die for it. He was a man made by war who later decided to fight against war itself. For that, war had its revenge in the end.
Rest in peace, soldier.