This interview was originally published on August 3, 2017.
He calls Russian President Vladimir Putin a usurper, says that Russia is occupying an entire people in Ukraine, and wonders what mistake led him “to go from one hellhole to another” instead of leading a normal life – together with his family, without war, not as a refugee.
In recent years, the Russian blogger, journalist and writer Arkady Babchenko has become well known as one of the fiercest online critics of the Putin government and of Russia in general. During the wave of demonstrations that swept Russia at the end of 2011, following parliamentary elections, and which continued the following spring, after Putin’s election as president, Babchenko called on members of the opposition to hold demonstrations without authorization and to launch a civil revolt. Something, as he put it, along the lines of Taksim Square in Istanbul, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev. That call drew no response.
Babchenko, who turned 40 last March, publishes his posts on at least five different platforms. On the “profile” page of one of them, LiveJournal, he introduces himself to readers with the words, “I’m an old, balding whippersnapper with a big nose, two meters [six feet two inches] tall. Weight – 100 kilos. I’ve never had hair and I have no idea what shampoo is. I wash my pate with laundry soap mixed with pesticide. My back, with a cheese grater. I brush my teeth with a ramrod for a 9 mm rifle. Smear synthetic diesel oil on it. Pluck my eyebrows with pliers I stand out for my intellect and resourcefulness. That’s why I served in the army twice. That’s why I served in the army twice.”
The posts evoke the image of a man’s man, a battle-hardened former soldier and military journalist whose life experience allows him to hurl the truth in people’s faces, but who is also able to laugh at himself and does not make do with just a dry preoccupation with politics or war – he lives his life. In person, however, Babchenko is very different from his internet persona. In an interview a few weeks ago, conducted in an apartment he was renting in central Tel Aviv (he had come to Israel for medical treatment), he came off as cold, closed, distant, choosing his words carefully – or, more accurately, tending to repeat with amazing precision texts he’s already used in previous interviews or on the web.
He says that he’s careful and calculated. At the same time, in recent years he’s found himself at the heart of the struggle against the Putin regime, sometimes expressing himself in an especially provocative manner. Half a year ago, he left Russia and went into exile.
That move was occasioned by a post he published last December. It was written the day after the crash of a Russian military plane that was en route to Syria with 92 passengers, including dozens of members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, more popularly known as the Red Army choir, and teams of reporters. All of those on board died.
Babchenko wrote that he felt no compassion for those killed, and enumerated the reasons. One was that the members of the choir were employees of the defense ministry of a “wannabe empire” who were on the way to dance for pilots “so they’ll do their bombing better.” As for the staff members of state-sponsored TV Channel 1 and the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel, Babchenko wrote they worked for the leading propaganda agencies, and he attributed a host of crimes to them. Among them: lying about what they call the Ukrainian “junta” and the alleged crucifixion of children by the Ukrainian army forces, recruiting soldiers for the war in Ukraine (whose existence is so vehemently denied by the government that mothers of soldiers killed in Ukraine do not get official confirmation about their death) and in Syria, and covering up the torture inflicted on opposition activist Ildar Dadin, who was imprisoned for offenses relating to the rules for organizing demonstrations.
“I was called and warned a few times,” Babchenko tells me. Opposition activists and acquaintances were arrested. “The first time, they warned me that there would be persecution in the wake of my post – and everything went as scheduled: Over the weekend, a campaign was launched against me and against [the journalist and blogger] Bozhena Rynska, with suggestions ‘to shoot us like mad dogs.’ The second time, I was warned that provocations were liable to occur on February 7, and that this time the use of force was also a possibility. Again everything played out on schedule. That day, searches were conducted at five places. They broke into the apartment of [activist] Mark Gelperin; he jumped out the window, but they caught him and took him to Lubyanka [prison], just as one would have expected. They didn’t come to me that day.”
Babchenko began making plans to leave the country immediately, but delayed his departure from Moscow following yet another apparent assassination attempt against the opposition journalist and political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza: He was hospitalized for the second time in two years with symptoms of serious poisoning.
“I felt inner resistance: I won’t go, and that’s that,” Babchenko recalls. “Two days earlier, I would have gone, two days later I would go, but now I would not go.” However, he then received a third call in which he was told, he says, that at that very moment the decision was being made whether to open criminal proceedings against him or drop the case.
Babchenko: “This time I no longer waited to see what would happen. I collected my things and went to Prague [thinking]: If you decide not to do anything, I will be in Prague, have a beer and return; if you decide to open a case [against me], all the better – I’ll stay there.”
Since then, Babchenko, who has been dubbed a “political migrant” in the opposition press, has lived in Prague, visited Israel and traveled to Ukraine, all on tourist visas and in the hope of arranging permanent residency in the Czech Republic. In the meantime, one of the TV channels whose reporters were killed in the plane crash filed a libel suit against Babchenko; it was recently rejected by the court. For the meantime, however, he doesn’t intend to return to Russia, where he has a wife and daughter, whom he would like to have join him.
Arkady Babchenko first gained fame in literary circles in Russia in 2001, about a year after he returned from service as a contract soldier in the second Chechen war. His novella “One Soldier’s War” (as the book, published by Grove Press, is titled in the English-language translation by Nick Allen), won him a special Debut Prize in Russia for “courage in literature.”
One of the ultra-short chapters of which the novella is composed is about Sharik, a dog that joined a group of Russian soldiers in Chechnya who were on the brink of starvation. When the food ran out, he writes, Andy, the cook, “led Sharik off to the river and put a bullet behind his ear. It killed him outright, not even a whimper, and his skinned body was soon strung from a tree branch.” He was boiled and then stewed in leftover ketchup. The result “tasted pretty good. Next morning,” the chapter concludes, "they brought us supplies of oats.”
Babchenko began to work as a military correspondent for newspapers, magazines and television stations. In recent years, he worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and also launched an independent online project under the rubric “Journalism without Mediators,” which operates according to the principle, “I write what I see, you pay me as much as you see fit.”
His reportage from Chechnya at the beginning of the 2000s, from the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 and from the assaults on the Uzbeks in the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, are a direct continuation of his stories – indeed, in some of them, he integrated memories of the wars in which he fought as a soldier. Since leaving Russia and ceasing to work as a military correspondent, Babchenko describes his occupation as “writer of feuilletons.”
His books contain descriptions of battles, but a central motif is the helplessness, humiliation, uncertainty, hunger, fear and general suffering of soldiers in the Russian Army even when no immediate danger confronts them. Thus, in one of the stories from the collection “War,” his fourth and most recent book (published in 2015), he describes a runway in the city of Mozdok, which was a center for the transit of Russian forces to Chechnya. Eighteen-year-old soldiers, who arrived famished, frozen and battered from beatings meted out by their commanding officers during basic training in the Urals during the winter, are lying on the grass under the sun of the republic of North Ossetia and awaiting their fate. They watch as helicopters bring in silver-colored sacks containing bodies and then take off again – this time carrying young soldiers – and hoping that their turn will arrive as late as possible.
“Another five silver-colored sacks are placed in a row on the runway, one after the other,” Babchenko writes. “The glowing bags burn dazzlingly in the sun, like candies. They are so shiny that it’s hard to believe that within this festive packaging are shredded human remnants.”
In reality, as in the story just cited, when Babchenko entered the army, in 1995, he was lucky: He and 10 other soldiers, out of a transport of 1,500, remained at the Mozdok transit site while the others shipped out to Chechnya. He was only flown there on an alternating basis, three weeks in and three weeks out. His father died in 1996, so he got a furlough (fortunate timing for the son, as one of the protagonists in the stories says), after which he did not return to Chechnya. At first he fell ill, afterward he missed his return date, and was court-martialed and jailed. He tried to be exempted on mental grounds (unsuccessfully, despite the bribe his grandfather paid to the physicians in the psychiatric hospital – in a box of chocolates – where he was sent for examination), following which his mother and his grandmother went to the office of the military commander in Moscow and declared that they would not allow Arkady to return to Chechnya.
“We will not let him go, we will move in here and handcuff ourselves to him and to the radiators,” he quotes them as saying, adding, “Hats off to them. That’s how you do things.”
After his discharge, in 1997, he completed his law studies, which had been interrupted by his mobilization. However, he says, on the day his studies ended, he came home, turned on the television, saw that a second Chechen war had erupted, and immediately went to enlist as a contract soldier. Asked why, he replies simply that he was suffering from post-trauma.
“There is no rehabilitation in Russia,” he says. “Every soldier should undergo rehab after taking part in combat. Even if it seems as though it didn’t do anything to you, in practice your head is totally haywire. But they have nothing. You’re on your own. You’re back, but your brain is still there [at war]. You measure things by war criteria. If you survived, you start missing war. You feel that war was the best period of your life. Everything is simple there, clear, relations between people are normal. The world is black and white, and there’s a goal. War is a very potent drug, very alluring.”
According to Babchenko, “There were thousands of people [in the second Chechen war] who served in the first war as conscript soldiers and came back as contract soldiers.”
The second tour of duty, he says, freed him from his attraction to war, like a charm. Back in Moscow, he turned on the television again, saw that no channel was telling the truth about the war – whether from a perspective critical of the government or otherwise – and decided to write the truth himself.
“We all hated the state there,” he relates, “because it was impossible to go on like that. They threw 18-year-olds into a meat grinder. It wasn’t an army, it was a mass of young kids with assault rifles. They weren’t ready, there was no food, no clothing, nothing even to shoot with. And the way they wiped out the civilian population, the methods they used in combat. You come back with square eyes [that is, in total shock] and say: It can’t be like this, it simply can’t be.”
When you got there the first time, you didn’t know how to fire a gun?
“I’d fired twice on a shooting range, 12 rounds each time, and that was it. But I knew Morse Code very well. I was a radio man, and we learned the code properly, I could recite it. But when we got there, it turned out that no one needed it – they’d switched to different equipment.”
You’ve said that what helped your rehabilitation the second time was writing. Is that correct?
“Yes, it helped very much. I think writing is the best rehabilitation. Like alcohol.”
The Kalachnikov advantage
Babchenko espouses a clear antiwar stance and believes that Russia should have granted Chechnya independence and not been dragged into a war – either the first time or the second. The two Chechen wars bore a colonialist character, he suggests, and even more so the war in Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. That said, he is an enthusiastic advocate of the individual’s right to bear arms.
Babchenko says he has known periods when he felt physically insecure. As he noted in one post, there were times when he didn’t go home until he had called someone to ensure that it was safe.
“It was in about 2012,” he relates. “I was actively participating in the opposition movement. Back then we tried to organize a ‘Maidan’ in the full sense of the word – with tents, bonfires, we really prepared it. And yes, there were periods when [Eduard] Liminov [writer, head of the National Bolshevik Party and until recently a leading opposition figure] provided me with security. I wore a flak jacket. It wasn’t pleasant. They [government agents] patrolled below my windows, I would run into them at the entrance to my house. One time I went out into the stairwell, and ran face to face into two huge thugs who were trying to do something to the lock on my door. Neither they nor I expected an encounter.”
What did you do?
“I looked at them. They went down one floor. I looked at them a little more, and they left. I took a video camera and filmed them looking at my house from one side, then from another side. When they saw me filming them, they went. I couldn’t tell whether they were criminals or from the FSB [Federal Security Service].”
Babchenko is convinced that in 2011 the opposition missed the opportunity to foment a “forcible nonviolent” revolution, as he puts it. If the public, which had taken to the streets to demand fair elections in the wake of evidence of widespread forgeries in the parliamentary vote, had refused to leave the streets until their demands were met – as happened in Independence Square in Kiev at the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, and again in late 2013-early 2014 – the government would have had to capitulate. Today, he says, there is no opposition in Russia; its splinters are scattered “from Tel Aviv to New York.” But back then, the situation was different, he says.
In what way?
“Economically. At that time, no special attention was paid either to the army or to the police, and their salaries were minimal. The members of those forces may not have been grindingly poor, but they were poor. Now, after the reform of the army and the police, so much money is being thrown at them that the Moscow traffic police have stopped taking bribes. Can you imagine? So, both the police and the army, and also the National Guard of Russia, are loyal to the Putin government. If an order is given to reprise Tiananmen, they’ll do it without giving it a second thought.”
Babchenko, a devotee of capitalist thought, believes that the economy – or to be precise, oil and gas prices – are what will eventually bring down the Putin regime. “A price of $50 a barrel will allow the regime to exist for dozens of years. But life will be normal only in the big cities. The rest of Russia will die,” he says, adding: “For Russia, the most likely scenario is like Iraq’s, where everything died over a period of 20 years, and which eventually was reduced to the ‘oil for food’ program. Children were starving to death while Saddam Hussein continued to build himself palaces of gold. In the end, it all blew up. I think that in Russia too, there will be 15-30 years of slow death, until there’s an explosion.”
Suffer the little children
Along with the realization that the police and army are stronger, and have increasing readiness to shoot demonstrators, Babchenko continues to be critical of those who have been demonstrating in Russia in recent months. He speaks about the “remoteness from the people” of opponents of the regime, scolding them for possessing the “pure childish idiocy” of people who never grow up, even when they are 60 years old. In a blog post he published in response to an interview with a mother who was trying to find out where and how her soldier son died, he wrote, “these mother hens raise cannon fodder and don’t even understand how their children are killed and taken prisoner. That’s Russia.”
One trigger of the protests was the exposure of the corrupt practices of prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev by the political and financial activist Alexei Navalny. Another was the plan by the Moscow municipality to demolish and reconstruct thousands of homes in historic neighborhoods, but without the current residents being guaranteed that they will get housing in the new structures.
“I speak no ill of those who are protesting the renovation, we are undoubtedly on the same side of the barrier,” Babchenko says. “But I say that sending up balloons [white balloons and ribbons have been symbols of the protest movement since 2011] gets you nowhere. A protest cannot be authorized. If you want to protest, it can only be unauthorized. The government doesn’t give a damn about all your quiet protests, your petitions, all the requests and importuning. That’s been proven more than once, twice and a hundred times in the past seven years. So, if you just want to stage another demonstration against the demolition of your homes, but without politics – then guys, I promise you, your homes will be demolished and you’ll be put into trailers and taken where you belong.”
But that means you’re calling for violence.
“I am not calling for violence, I am calling for forcible resistance, but not violent.”
“It’s like in the Kiev square. There was forcible but not violent resistance there, too. There were no weapons but there was force. When the police tried to enter the square, people locked arms and didn’t let them in, with force.”
And if the police start shooting?
“When the police started shooting, people started shooting back [referring to the street battles that erupted in Ukraine between security forces and demonstrators in February 2014]. But the police started. I am not calling for shooting. I am calling only for actions of response. I am calling for resistance, for defense. If you’re walking on the street and are attacked by five thugs, I also recommend that you fight the thugs. And if you have a weapon or an iron rod within reach, I call for hitting them. And in extreme cases, also to kill. If you’re attacked.”
The problem is that you can indirectly become responsible for the death of the people whom you are calling on to protest.
“I am not calling on anyone. I issued only a few such calls in my life, and then I went out myself,” Babchenko says, recalling his unsuccessful attempt to organize an unauthorized protest in May 2012. “I am not a politician. I don’t need people following me. That‘s of no interest to me. I am a journalist. I don’t need voters. I say: ‘People, I am going out there, and if you want, you can stand by my side, with me, shoulder to shoulder. Don’t follow me, let’s go out together, we are all the same.’ That’s one thing. Second thing: I’ve thought about it and reached the conclusion that this is the best strategy for achieving the goal. Any other strategy will not achieve the goal. If there is no other strategy than throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tires, then no strategy exists. Of course, you can go out there with sneakers and ducks [symbols of Medvedev’s corruption, referring to his opulent summer house and its fancy sanctuary for ducks, and to his fondness for designer sneakers], but I doubt that this will lead to the desired goal.”
Are you an adventurer?
“Far from it. My dream is to write texts for the children’s TV program ‘Good Night, Little Ones!’ The whole country is interfering with my attempt to realize my dream, and I am simply removing obstacles on the way to its realization.”