Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

One Soldier’s War

by Arkady Babchenko Translated from Russian by Nick Allen

“By turns horrific, sad, and funny, [One Soldier’s War] fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier. . . . Evokes Catch-22 or, closer to the source, the savage ironies of Isaac Babel’s tales of the 1919-21 Russian-Polish war, Red Cavalry.” —The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date February 17, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4403-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $22.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date February 19, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1860-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

Published to extraordinary acclaim around the world, One Soldier’s War is a visceral and unflinching memoir of a young Russian soldier’s experience in the Chechen wars that brilliantly captures the fear, drudgery, chaos, and brutality of modern combat. Reviewers have hailed it as “remarkable . . . a work of both autobiography and the imagination in the tradition of . . . Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms” (Hugh Barnes, The New Statesman), “a modern equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front” (Zurich’s Sonntagszeitung), and “right up there with Catch-22 and Michael Herr’s Dispatches” (Tibor Fischer, The Guardian). Babchenko chronicles his torturous journey from naïve conscript to hardened soldier with such power, precision, and insight that it transcends his own experience and captures the universal experience of warfare. One Soldier’s War is a devastating book by an extraordinary storyteller that “should be required reading for anyone who still harbors the illusion that war has some redemptive qualities” (Philip Caputo).


“Arkady Babchenko has written a hypnotic and terrifying account of his enforced participation in the Chechen wars, one that is entirely free of the self-absorbed razzle-dazzle that too often passes for ‘literary’ writing these days. The book’s power is in its clarity and detail. ‘It turns out that there is nothing out of the ordinary about war,’ he writes. ‘It’s just ordinary life, only taking place in very tough conditions with the constant knowledge that people are trying to kill you.’ Babchenko’s honesty has the force of a blunt object. He is surrounded by killing and by death, eager for a wound that will not kill him but take him out of hell. The killing he does shatters him to his core: ‘The main thing for me was to survive and to think about nothing. . . . A different soldier had been born in my place, a good one—empty, devoid of thought, with a coldness inside me and a hatred for the whole world.’ It is simply a great book.” —Mark Bowden

“A gripping narrative and a sobering one . . . In their eye-popping detail and near-perfect dramatic arcs, some of Mr. Babchenko’s stories read more like fiction than journalism.” —Daniel Ford, The Wall Street Journal

“By turns horrific, sad, and funny, [One Soldier’s War] fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier. . . . Evokes Catch-22 or, closer to the source, the savage ironies of Isaac Babel’s tales of the 1919-21 Russian-Polish war, Red Cavalry.” —The Washington Post

One Soldier’s War should be required reading—not just for war buffs or historians, but for all Americans so that they might see not only the horrors that mankind can bring upon itself, but the dark side that every 18-year-old soldier discovers—a dark side that transcends borders and backgrounds, from the jungles of Vietnam to the slums of Baghdad and, in this case, to the frigid cold of Chechnya. Babchenko takes the reader along through the torture, starvation, and the absolute terror, and he does so in a lilting prose that leaves frost on your breath and a chill in your bones. . . . One Soldier’s War is like nothing I’ve ever read and in one fell swoop has become a favorite book of mine—a testament to not only the torturous despair of his experience, and of the experience of millions of young men, but to his voice, which speaks for countless veterans from every war.” —John Crawford, author of The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq

“I have not read a book about war and soldiering like it since All Quiet on the Western Front. Babchenko’s prose, like Remarque’s, is stark but evocative, eloquent in its simplicity, and absolutely unflinching in its honesty. He presents the face of war with all cosmetics off, an utterly brutal and brutalizing experience that does nothing but kill and maim people spiritually as well as physically. His book should be required reading for anyone who still harbors the illusion that war has some redemptive qualities.” —Phil Caputo, author of A Rumor of War

“His accounts truly belong to the harsh, realist portrayal of the trenches by the authors traumatised at the front in the World Wars. . . . The human and collateral damage, compressed by the daily news to a bare statistic, is given a real physical presence thanks to the measured pace of the narrative.” —Die Tageszeitung

“Literature per se cannot achieve a political end, but it can and should help to influence politics. This is why books like this need to reach the wide audience whose support the decision-makers need when they want to send people to war. . . . Babchenko writes courageously about what he has seen—this is why his book is so graphic. This is why it is not only important as literature, but also politically.” —Hamburger Abendblatt

“A book has come out which takes one’s breath away with its rational and precise style.” —Welt am Sonntag

“Dying comes before the first sexual experience—at least for the young Russians who are sent to the slaughter in Chechnya. This literary account from the front is a modern equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front: harrowingly good.” —SonntagsZeitung (Zurich)

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya is not just a soldier’s story, but bears comparison with the great literary accounts of any war, especially because it does not glorify war.” —Leipziger Volkszeitung

“With simple elegance, Babchenko pours forth the experience and its after effects—All Quiet on the Eastern Front.” —Rhein-Neckar Zeitung

“The brutal reality about the war is often unbearable for men. Remarque knew what he was doing when he wrote of love and comradeship in his work too. Literature exists according to its own rules, but there is no romance in war. Pleasant feelings are out of place because to survive is the essence. A soldier is no human being—he is a different species.” —Die Zeit

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya is a report from hell.” —3sat.online

“A book like a cry for help from the depths of mental anguish. . . . The book is a must for every politically interested person.” —Frizz (Vordertaunus)

“In his book, Babchenko wrote down the story of his experiences in both wars in Chechnya in spite of the meaningless of the task: ‘To tell somebody about war who hasn’t experienced one, is not possible. Not because they are too stupid or unable to understand, but just because they do not have the necessary senses to comprehend war. . . .’ His clear, vivid, factual language, and his mercilessly detailed descriptions of sensual experiences, absorbs the reader and torpedo any reflex to suppress emotion. Pictures stay with the reader, which are impossible to forget.” —Berliner Zeitung

“Damn you, fucking war… The great books about war were always political books too. . . . Literature cannot replace politics, but it can contribute to a political conscience which will help to prevent wars. Arkady Babchenko manages this with his authentic account. He writes courageously, vividly and engagingly about the things he witnessed. This is why his book feels so graphic and this is why it is not only literarily valuable, but also politically important.” —Frankfurter Neue Presse

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya easily bears comparison with the great literary accounts of other wars, such as Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This is not to say that Babchenko is a second Isaac Babel, as there can be only one Red Cavalry, but like Babel, his work possesses a breathlessly visual strength. . . . One has rarely read about a military culture, in which the line between war and peace is so blurred.” —Sueddeutsche Zeitung


A Globe and Mail (Toronto) Best Book of the Year 2008


1 / Mountain Brigade

Only those who have spent time in the mountains can imagine what they’re like. The mountains are as bad as it gets. Everything you need to live, you carry with you. You need food, so you discard all the things you can do without and stuff dry rations for five days into your knapsack. You need ammunition, so you load an ammo box of bullets and half a box of grenades into your pockets, backpack and cartridge pouches and hang them on your belt. They get in the way when you walk, rasping on your groin and hips, and their weight pulls on your neck. You chuck your AGS automatic grenade launcher over your right shoulder and the launcher of your wounded pal Andrei Volozhanin over your left shoulder. You string two belts of grenades in a cross over your chest, like the sailors in the old revolution movies, and if you have a spare hand you also grab a snail box of ammo belts.

Then there’s your tent, pegs, hatchet, saw, shovel and whatever else the platoon needs to survive.

And the things you need for yourself—your rifle, jacket, blanket, sleeping bag, mess tins, thirty packs of smokes, a change of underwear, spare puttees, and so on—about 150 pounds in total.

Then when you take your first step uphill you realize there’s no way you’ll make it to the top, even if they put a gun to your head. But then you take the second and third steps and start to clamber and scramble up, slide, fall, and start back up again, clinging tooth and nail to the bushes and branches. Stupefied, you sweat and sweat, thinking about nothing except the next step, just one more step . . .

The antitank platoon is scrambling alongside. They are even worse off: my grenade launcher weighs forty pounds, while their PTURs—guided antitank missiles—weigh ninety pounds. And Fat Andy whines: “Commander, how about we dump one rocket, how about it?” And the commander, an enlisted lieutenant who also has tears of exertion in his eyes, asks: “Come on, Andy, fat ass, what’s the sense in us being up there without rockets? Our infantry are dying up there . . .”

Yes, our infantry are dying up there—we crawl and croak our way up, but we keep going.

Later we relieve the guys from the Buinaksk mountain assault brigade who have been living there in a daubed clay shepherd’s hut.

After the luxurious apartments of Grozny, with their leather sofas and mirrored ceilings, this crummy barn seemed pitiful. Clay walls, a dirt floor and a small window that barely lets in any light. But this was their first real accommodation after months spent sleeping in rat holes and ditches. For seven months they trekked around the mountains, day in, day out, clearing the Chechens from the heights, sleeping where they dropped at night, too tired to get up, and when they awoke they’d go back up again. They became like Chechens themselves, bearded, unwashed, in soiled tank corps jackets, half crazed, full of hatred for everyone and everything. They looked at us with malice in their eyes—our arrival meant the end of their brief respite, that they had to leave their “palace” and head back into the mountains yet again. Ahead of them lay a nine-hour march and then the storming of some strategically important hill. They talked about it lightly—nine hours isn’t so long, usually the march lasts a whole day or even two. We realized that our torment had been a cakewalk compared with what they had to go through. We watched as they left and each one of us felt scared, because soon we would have to follow them. Our heights were already waiting for us.

2 / The River Argun

On 1 March they threw our platoon over to Shatoi. Our task was to hold the bridge across the River Argun. We had no water with us and so we took it from the river. It stank of rotten eggs and had the color of cement but we drank it anyway, telling ourselves that hydrogen sulphide was good for the kidneys. The river was to us what a desert spring is to the Bedouin. We washed and drank there and took its water to cook with. There were no rebels in this region and our lives assumed a calm, quiet rhythm.

In the mornings we would head down to the river like tourists, stripped to the waist, with flowery plundered towels thrown over our shoulders. We washed and splashed about like kids and then sat around on the rocks and sunbathed, our white bellies turned to the bright winter sunshine.

Then the first corpses floated down the Argun toward us. Farther upstream, two Niva jeeps carrying retreating rebels had fallen into the ravine. The bodies got washed out of the vehicles and swept downstream. But the first to float into sight was a captured Russian paratrooper, his black and white camouflaged smock contrasting against the murky water. We fished him out, then some officers came to collect him and drove off with him on the back of their truck.

But the water couldn’t wash them all away, and a few Chechens were stuck in the twisted jeeps. The weather was warm and they would soon start to decompose. We wanted to get them out because they were ruining our water, but the ravine was too deep and steep so we stopped trying.

When I woke the next morning I went to the water barrel they brought to the kitchen each day. Usually it got emptied quickly, but this time it was full. Ladling out a mug I took the first sip, then realized the water had a tang of dead flesh to it—that’s why no one was drinking it. I spat it out and put the mug down. Arkasha the sniper looked at me, took the mug, filled it with water, drank and gave it me.

“Come on, what’s wrong with you? Drink!”

So we kept drinking it, this dead, sulphuric water, but no longer said it was good for our kidneys.