‘Babchenko–here. Your father died…’ [the postman] said breathlessly, handing me a telegram. And right at that moment they gave us the signal to board and the battalion started loading its gear. The other soldiers went past me, clapping me on the back and saying: ‘You’re lucky.’ Instead of going to Grozny I went to Moscow to my dad’s funeral.
My father gave me life twice. If he had died twenty minutes later I would have missed the telegram, boarded the helicopter and died half an hour after that. The helicopter was shot to pieces as it landed in Khankala. The battalion returned a month later. Only forty-two men remained of the ninety-six. That’s how the war was then.
One Soldier’s War
I’ve been reflecting lately on why many of my interests are so macabre. It’s a bit difficult to get to know new normal people and share interests when you spend your free time leafing through The Great Big Book of Horrible Things; when you will happily chat about any time in history where people were suffering and dying (which is, to be fair, all times in history); when your backup topics include infectious disease and radiation poisoning. I suppose I will also happily yammer on about personal development, business, psychology, travel, religion, general history and classical literature, but I have always favored the darker and drearier topics. History is the only real way to learn anything, after all, and the insane complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Third Reich; the Soviet Union take forever to fully absorb. They’re rabbit holes from which you may never reemerge.
I suppose I am overly interested in the “how” and “why” of everything, and the mechanisms by which (bad) ideas (and infectious diseases, for that matter) spread. Communism has always been particularly interesting to me, as I can’t think of a wider-spread worse set of ideas than Communism… and, arguably, some of those belonging to the Catholic church. I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by how Communism works and how it changes people individually, morally, ethically, politically, financially. Communism is so alien, so irrational, so gruesome, it’s a crime scene I’ve been rubbernecking my whole life.
I also have always wondered how people live, and what it feels like to be someone else–to have someone else’s life. I wonder about the way the world is filtered through different people’s eyes. I am pretty interested in horror and gore films as well, and much of it can be explained by the fact that when I think another person may be afraid or grossed out, I am mostly curious. I had a colleague ask me why many horror moves are so frightening to some people and not others, and I told him I believe it’s because religion has such power, even when as adults people don’t believe in God. Satanic movies seem to freak people out the most, because people are raised with a fear of evil. I don’t seem to harbor those kinds of subconscious preconceptions, and have really enjoyed some films, being able to see beyond the superficial style: Martyrs, Antichrist and A Serbian Film come to mind. I’ve met some others over the years who seem to have stripped those preconceptions from their personalities, and they tend to be more interesting to be around, not to mention more curious about the world.
This roundup is a brief return to the Eastern bloc, and the Caucasus.
Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe. I’ve loved all of Anne Applebaum’s books, and I have one left to read before I’ve read them all. I began with Gulag, which was a pretty meticulous history of the gulag system. Her history of the Holodomor in Ukraine, Red Famine, was also amazing. Between East and West seemed to hearken a bit to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in its structure, and ever since I read that complete freakin’ masterpiece I’ve loved stumbling upon other books written in the same style. Between East and West winds through Kaliningrad, into Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. The Carpathians. I was pretty enamored by this map, which shows Galicia and Ruthenia: both no longer exist as demarcated regions:
This book is a more leisurely and less meticulously detailed read as it details brief stays in each locale; she meets a series of characters who weave their own experiences into her story. The time frame of this trip is 1991-92, which was chock full of changes in this part of the world, and the people are filled with the uncertainty of their time as well. It paints a pretty dull portrait of a series of pretty dull places, with some interesting historical anecdotes woven in; it was worth reading, but not nearly as illuminating or full of information as her other books. Review which largely speaks this here.
War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command. This book was mentioned in The Economist, and it piqued my interest enough to read it. The book itself is not good at all; the ideas and the urgency of the message are pertinent regardless. Not sure I would ever recommend this book to anyone, but Europe’s utter unpreparedness to counter a larger threat from Russia is a massive blind spot in modern foreign policy. Review in FT here.
One Soldier’s War. I’ve had this book on my Kindle since 2017, and I finally started and finished it. This was a surprisingly incredible book; I loved so many excerpts I’d rather put them in here than say much more. An article/short bio of the author from The Guardian here.
‘You won’t find any smart, handsome boys in these tents. They were gotten out of the war by their rich daddies, leaving it to us ordinary folk to die in Grozny, the ones who didn’t have the money to pay our way out. Heaped in these tents are the sons of laborers, teachers, peasants and blue-collar workers, basically all those who were made penniless by the government’s thieving reforms and then left to waste away. These tents contain the ones who didn’t know how to give a bribe to the right person, or who thought that army service was the duty of every man.
Truth and nobility of heart are no longer virtues in our world–those who believe in them are the first to die.’
‘I always used to think that war was black and white. But it’s in color.
It’s not true what the song says, that birds don’t sing and trees don’t grow in war. In fact, people get killed in the midst of such vivid color, among the green foliage of trees, under the clear blue sky. And life hums on all around. The birds brim with song, the grass blooms with brightly colored flowers. Dead people lie in the grass, and they are not a bit scary in appearance as part of this multicolored world. You can laugh and chat alongside them–humanity doesn’t freeze and go crazy at the sight of a body. It’s only frightening when people shoot at you.
And it’s very frightening that the war is in color.’
‘Authors of lousy war books say that it’s better to be dead than a legless cripple, but that’s bullshit, of course. We know that the main thing is to live, and we are willing to live in whatever form that may be, even as a bluish trunk with no arms or legs on a beggar’s trolley. We just want to live. To live, not die. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Sickness starts later, when you get home. Your fear leaves you in screams and insomnia at night, and the tension ebbs. Then war crawls out of you in the form of boils, constant colds, depression and temporary impotence, and you spend six months coughing up the recon’s diesel soot.’
‘Oh dear God, just make it so that I’m no longer in this hell-hole Chechnya, whisk me home so the next shell finds only an empty space. I swear I’ll beg forgiveness from all those I’ve wronged or failed in this life, that I’ll love the whole world from now on and donate all my army wages to Chechen orphans, whatever it takes, just get me out of here. And dear God, do it now, because here comes another.’
‘Two cans of condensed milk, a bag of biscuits, a dozen caramel candies and a bottle of lemonade. That’s our total reward for the mountains, for Grozny, for four months of war and sixty-eight of our guys killed. And it didn’t even come from the state but from mothers like our own, who scrimp and save the kopeks from their miserable village pensions that the state still whittles away at to raise funds for the war.’
‘Before we were sent to Chechnya, the regiment would file out of the barracks twice a week and, company by company, drop its pants after placing a piece of paper on the ground. While a pretty young woman medic walked through the ranks they made us defecate and hand her our excrement to be analyzed for dysentery. The cattle must go to slaughter in good health, and our shame at this act bothered nobody.’
‘War is not just attacks, trenches, firefights and grenades. It’s also blood and feces running down your rotting legs. It’s starvation, lice and drunken madness. It’s swearing and human debasement. IT’s an inhuman stench and clouds of flies circling over our battalion. Some of the guys try to heal themselves with herbal folk remedies that end up making many of them even sicker.’