Arkadiy Babchenko is a member of nearly extinct species – a Russian journalist trying to make sense of situation in Eastern Ukraine without giving fan service to official position of Russian government. He is not afraid of asking honest questions and of being beaten up for it. Sticking to ethical principles made him a pariah of russian journalism. His work is published in his blog and is supported by donations from the readers. Many used his blog for reference; many others branded him a “national traitor” because of it. Arkadiy kept us informed on Second Chechen War, war in Georgia, revolution in Kyrgyzstan and protests in Türkiye. He also was at Maidan in 2013 and 2014.
(Interview via Anastasiya Ryngis)
Q: What is the difference between the situation in Sloviansk and the conflicts you have worked on before?
A: All wars are the same. Nobody notices how and when exactly they start. Nobody is taking it seriously and everyone is saying that the “shootings” will end very soon and the war will not really happen. And then the conflict spins out of control and a full-scale war is on our hands. The only thing that stands out in Sloviansk is the real effort Ukrainian Army puts into avoiding the civilian casualties. I saw this with my own eyes and it is really out of ordinary.
Q: Is it even realistic in present conditions?
A: The civilian casualties are inevitable during the war. There already had been several in Sloviansk and there will be much more. In any war both sides of the conflict become battle-hardened, cruel urges surfacing, psychological barriers broken. This war is not different, and local variety lieutenant Kelly (an officer who ordered a massacre of the whole village of civilians during Vietnam War) is a possibility. Kidnappings and executions are possible as well. These things arrive on the heels of the war. But so far Ukrainian army is showing clear understanding of these risks and tries its best to reduce the chance of them happening.
Q: How is the morale of Ukrainian troops?
A: The morale is fine, there are is no evident defeatism or desertion attempts. I went around Sloviansk blockposts, and it seems that the National Guard members have enough tactical supplies, armour and special clothing. Apparently, the aid that people collect for them in Ukraine reaches them just fine.
Q: What do your colleagues in Russia say about your efforts in Sloviansk, with official russian TV channels doctoring the the information about the war and all?
A: Official Russian channels are not the source of information, but a source of propaganda. Propaganda and journalism are two different areas of human efforts. That is why we are not “colleagues”. I could care less what the official Russian propagandists think of me. Let them call me a national traitor, I am fine with that.
Q: Are you not afraid? Lately a new wave of arrests in “Bolotnaya Square” case happened. They arrested the activist because he “obstructed the police work by placing toilet cabins on their patrol route”.
A: It is not really the fear that I feel. I understand perfectly that I may be arrested at any moment now. For instance, they can stop me at the airport now and nothing will prevent them from taking me away. But I choose not to think in these terms. I know – there is a chance of arrest happening. But there is nothing to be done about it at the moment. Such is our life here.
I do not call anyone “terrorist” and I avoid strong statements. I would like to write about the conflict in Sloviansk from both opposing points of view. But it is not possible for technical reasons, since my “wanted” portraits adorn the administration’s buildings and blockposts of DNR and in Sloviansk and Donetsk. Thus I can write only about activities of one side. DNR-controlled areas were off limits for me, but would like to visit them.
Q: How often is it usually possible to describe the viewpoints of both sides of conflict?
A: Usually? Well, usually it is plain impossible to collect information from both sides. You stay put on the side you ended up with first.
Q: What events of the last two weeks in Ukrainian east left the strongest impression?
A: When I arrived, the skirmishes happened only after nightfall. Today they continue during day as well. When I was staying overnight on Karachun mountain an artillery duel happened. The DNR’s militants were shooting over Karachun, the army responded. The army were trying to avoid the residential areas, shooting mostly at city’s perimeter, where the industrial buildings are located.
Q: How do you manage to avoid the post-traumatic stress?
A: It is difficult to avoid. Today it is much easier for me, since I have been in many wars. First time was very difficult. First time I went to war as an army conscript and I was just 18 then. After I returning home I went to finish my studies in the university. These two years were empty and colorless for me. I felt as if I did not understand the world around me anymore.
When the war in Chechnya began anew, I went there as a contract soldier. I was lucky to return to life after my return from that war. I have a family, a daughter. I live in the capital. And I started writing. If not for my family and my writing I would have in all probability became an alcoholic. In Russia, only a very small percentage of war veterans managed to build themselves a life after Chechnya. Why? Because the first Chechen war was lost. Defeat in war leads to defeat in times of peace. It is much easier to build a life for a soldier who returns as a victor.
Q: What problems will emerge in ukrainian society after the war in the East? You saw the soldiers there, what do you think?
A: The only thing I can say for sure is that the soldiers who are at war now will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The people who come back from war bring war into peaceful life, with its aggressive attitude, acceptance of killing and murder. The value of life in times of war is nil. Your own life is worth nothing, not speaking of someone else’s. To prevent this Vietnam syndrome, it is necessary to start now, to organize the psychological rehabilitation of the soldiers.
Q: Is there such rehabilitation in Russia? Did you undergo something like it after the Second Chechen War?
A: In Russia there is no rehabilitation program. There never was, in fact. Perhaps this fact accounts for the base level of aggression in Russian society.
Q: In your opinion, what must effective rehabilitation program consist of?
A: It should include a number of opportunities for the soldiers to help them blend into the normal life – psychological counselling, social benefits and study programs. The society must understand that war reality and peace reality do not intersect in any way, they are effectively two parallel worlds. The soldier needs help to leave war reality and to return to the peaceful frame of mind.
Older soldiers, who had families and stable jobs before the war, are in better position here then youngsters, as social ties anchor them in peaceful reality. That’s why there should be a systematic effort to help soldiers. I like the rehabilitation program that exists in Israel’s Tsahal. This should be the place to go for experience.
Q: How long do you think this conflict will go on? Months, years perhaps?
A: I doubt it will be years. Most likely it will be several months from the beginning of hostilities. It will not be possible though to avoid storming Sloviansk. If I were the Ukrainian government, I would start building temporary housing for refugees and evacuate as many civilians as possible from there. I do not think that we will see the repeat of Grozny, but there will be intense bloody fights for several weeks or months. Then, a police operation will be needed, which can take a couple of years.
Q: Can you explain why, despite all this, the Putin’s popular support continues to grow? Don’t the Russians understand, that these events in Ukraine are instigated by Kremlin?
A: You see, ten years of non-stop brainwashing will, well, take your brain away. Russians are busy looking for enemies – first, these were Chechens, then Georgians, then Tajik migrants. Not it is Ukrainians’ turn. All the head in the TV-box has to do is to point a finger at the next enemy. The propaganda over TV turned out to be extremely effective in terms of brainwashing. A small percentage of people, perhaps 15-20%, are still capable of thought, others forgot what it is like to be able to think.
Q: What will happen to Russia in this case?
A: I hope that the situation in Russia will remedy itself. But deep down I fear that it is going to come to civil war, to one more episode of Pugachevshhina (popular rebellions). The tension is felt everywhere you look, and everybody is an enemy. Where will it explode and what will be the last straw? I do not know.
Arkadiy Babchenko, Anastasiya Ryngis
(translated by Anna Palagina)