How ex-soldier Arkady Babchenko became an enemy of the Kremlin

Journalist’s criticism of wars in Georgia and Ukraine made him an obvious target

Even before his dramatic staged death on Tuesday, Arkady Babchenko was a celebrated enemy of the Kremlin.

In 1995, as a second-year law student, he was drafted into the army. He was sent to Chechnya a year after Boris Yeltsin had begun a war there against Chechen rebels. After six months of training in the Urals, Babchenko was sent to the frontline with 15,000 other conscripts.

His experiences there – witnessing death, danger and what he saw as complete indifference by the Russian army to the fate of its young recruits – affected him profoundly. Babchenko survived, went back to law school and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

In 1999, when Vladimir Putin embarked on a second Chechen campaign, Babchenko volunteered to take part in the new war. “I have no answer why I went there again. I don’t know. I just couldn’t help it. I was irresistibly drawn back there,” he wrote later.

Babchenko fought for six months. When he returned to Moscow, he wrote an article about his experiences, which led to a job with a Moscow daily. He became a contributor to Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s foremost opposition paper and home to the intrepid correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

Babchenko penned an acclaimed account of the conflict, One Soldier’s War in Chechnya. It was, in essence, a memoir and included numerous first-hand vignettes of shelling – by his own side – hunger, and bodybags piled by the side of a military runway.

Of his book, he wrote: “I just couldn’t carry war within myself any longer. I need to speak my mind, to squeeze war out of my system. I wrote compulsively – on my way to work in the metro, during my journalistic assignments, at home at night – and some of the stories almost wrote themselves.”

Babchenko’s criticism of the Kremlin and its wars in Georgia and Ukraine made him an obvious target. He rejected Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a position that put him at odds with most ordinary Russians and state television, which portrayed it as a patriotic triumph.

Babchenko became increasingly worried for his safety. He received numerous threats. He spoke of his fear of arrest and the possibility that thugs sent by his enemies might beat him up outside his Moscow apartment.

Babchenko left Russia in February 2017 after admitting indifference to the crash of a Russian military plane taking an orchestra to Syria. Babchenko wrote for the Guardian about the campaign of official hate his Facebook post had aroused.

Deputies from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party had called for him to be stripped of his Russian citizenship, and his home address had been posted online. Babchenko moved his family – he has a wife and daughter – to Kiev and started working for a Crimean TV channel. There, he believed, he would be safer.

This appears not to have been the case. Babchenko’s decision to fake his own death, on the advice of Ukraine’s special services, is likely to earn him further opprobrium at home, as well as some criticism from his friends and supporters.


Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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