Conscripted into the Russian army, a rebellious 18-year-old bent on fleeing military service has his attitude adjusted when he is forcibly detained, subjected to dehumanizing training tactics and sent off to fight in Chechnya.
In Siberian Education (2011), Lilin wrote of growing up among criminals in the small Soviet republic of Transnistria. Here, as "Nicolai," he presents a fictionalized first-person account of his horrific experiences in the Chechen War. His cockiness cooled by a few days in a hellish prison, the young draftee quickly rises in the ranks thanks to his hunting and target-shooting experience and frightening proficiency with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. After acclimating to his new existence collecting dead body parts from a bloodstained landscape, he becomes a member of the "saboteurs," an elite group whose primary function is to shoot opposing forces in the head from a safe distance. The enemy is mainly small Islamic units wreaking havoc on the Russians. The book documents the conflict, scene by brutal scene, in straightforward fashion, reaching maximum grisliness when Nicolai's gonzo superior matter-of-factly cuts the skin off a captured soldier with a knife. The narrative is full of memorable images: "heads shattered like ceramic vases," deaths "poor in movement" because of the speed and suddenness of the sniper's bullet. "The rhythmic sound of the bullets...made me feel the calm and comfort you feel when you climb into a bed with clean, warm sheets after a day of being tired and cold," Nicolai says. As powerfully observed as this book is, its straightforward approach is a bit of a letdown following an opening that promises a more cutting, offbeat, Catch-22–style antiwar commentary. Happy to transcend grunt status, Nicolai buys into the camaraderie among soldiers and derives satisfaction from doing his job well. His descriptions of a sniper's existence sometimes take on the casual tone reminiscent of the voiced-over spy tips on the TV show Burn Notice.
This firsthand account of the Chechen War is light on politics but heavy on the grim reality of mindless killing.