Arkadi Babchenko feels like a Remarque character

Writer and journalist Arkadi Babchenko. PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

Writer and journalist Arkadi Babchenko, who become world-famous in late May 2018 when it was announced that the fierce Putin critic had been killed in Kiev, has been in Estonia since late summer. Some time later, the Ukrainian security service said it had been a special operation to unmask a chain of assassins connived from Russia. In addition to the special operation, we also talked about fascism, freedom, propaganda and a great many other things.

You were first seen attending the president’s August 20 reception in the Kadriorg Rose Garden, and I’m glad to report you have moved to Estonia.

No, I live in Saint Kitts and Nevis (a country of 261 square kilometers in the Lesser Antilles). I flew over because the president invited me. (Smiles) I signed a document promising not to reveal where and how I live. I’m still not allowed.

By whom?

Well, I was strongly urged not to give out that information.

Before I switched on my recorder, you said you were a fan of Remarque but…

I used to be. Not so much these days. I read Remarque when I was 14 or 15 and was mesmerized by war romanticism: “Arch of Triumph,” “Shadows in Paradise,” “The Night in Lisbon.” It is fantastic how he writes about it – the calvados and what have you. But I liked reading those books not living them! Today, I am in them, running from country to country like Dr. Ravic without his papers. History has come full circle and by now arrived back in the moment where a new Reich was born in Europe, one preparing for war and complete with an unhinged Fuhrer, with yours truly running around in the middle of it.

I suppose we might say yours is a characteristically Russian tale as it is becoming clearer by the day that it is impossible to live in Russia these days – it is very dangerous even?

Not even by the day – there is no longer any need to prove anything to anyone. One might have been told, “Prove it! What precisely is so wrong?” just a few years ago. But everyone gets the picture today. What happened in Belarus did away with illusions. It’s the same story every century. Nothing ever changes in Russia. The regime and rulers make no difference – the Golden Horde, czar, communists, democrats or Putinists – they all arrive at the same thing eventually: conquering new lands and killing their neighbors. There have been some bright flashes; for example, a few years after 1991 or between February and October 1917. But the rest of it is the same Russian empire where nothing changes for centuries.

Dr. Ravic made do in pre-war Paris in the “Arch of Triumph” by practicing illegally. How do you make do in different countries?

Luckily, it’s the 21st century and I’m indebted to technological progress. My location has no bearing on my work. I have the internet and Facebook – I have access to news and can inhabit the information sphere of my choosing. I keep an eye on it and work from there. I’m a freelancer and it is the perfect time to be one. Officially, I’m prohibited from working as I do not have the necessary permit, while no one can stop me from keeping an eye on the situation and information.

Propaganda is a natural part of war and “propaganda” does not necessarily equal “lies”?

I agree in that there is alcohol propaganda and healthy living propaganda. Both are forms of propaganda, while the results differ – as do words used. I even have my own theory on it.

Any time a dictatorship is born, propaganda and fooling the masses are its most important tools. And it works perfectly. I was in Moscow during the occupation of Crimea in March of 2014 and witnessed the people collectively going mad. The entire nation went nuts!

I have no more questions in terms of how Germany became what it became in 1939. I have seen it with my own eyes. It’s like everyone suddenly develops glaucoma and puts on the expression of a mating dog: “Crimea is ours!” And it was undoubtedly the work of propaganda.

Propaganda can be used to turn society into a herd of animals, induce hysteria. However, this hysteria cannot be maintained for very long. Six months at the most. Because hysteria is a very energy-intensive state. The temperature of propaganda needs to constantly rise until it reaches absolute delirium. You start to believe that the Banderians crucified a Russian boy in his underwear on an advertising poster. People still believed that, while they no longer believed rumors of Russians being boiled alive. That is where propaganda exhausts itself.

While you can try and fight propaganda with counterpropaganda, it is not effective because it requires you to produce the same kind of nonsense. You would have to write in your newspapers that Russians are boiling Estonians alive and eating them. Estonians, living in a normal world, would not believe it, even though Russians do. Therefore, fighting propaganda with propaganda does not work. The only way to effectively counter propaganda is through objective and accurate information.

My editor called me on May 29, 2018 and asked me to write an emotional obituary in connection with your murder in Kiev. Luckily, I was too slow to open my computer before I learned you had risen from the dead. What followed baffled me, how people who had only recently lamented your death turned against you, saying, “how could you?” and such.

I also had no idea I was so loved. I read about it later as I did not have the chance during the first three days. I didn’t eat, go to the toilet in the first three days – I was killed, completely empty.

When I started reading what people had written a few weeks later… “I never even had the chance to speak to Arkasha…” But when I called them to talk, they told me to take a hike. It was a bewildering experience. I’m sorry, guys, for not dying!

What has living in different countries taught you?

I never even considered living somewhere else. I had my own place, a house built by my grandfather where I used to spend my summers. It is what people call little homeland and roots. It is something deep inside of me and I never considered detaching myself from those things. When I returned from the war, came to my grandfather’s house, I started fixing the fence and I found a donkey. There were these yellow donkeys that started to walk when you placed them on a flat surface in the Soviet Union. I found the donkey, remembered it and started crying right there on my knees – it was just so very mine.

I would never have left Russia on my own. I would not have been capable. Now, I would say that I’m thankful for all the persecution, all these FSB agents and threats to shoot me. I’m thankful Russia drove me away. Because I saw the world, looked at it from a different perspective. Firstly, I got a broader worldview. Living in Russia is still living in Russia – no matter how oppositional or anti-Putin you are, you’re still in that bubble.

Secondly, I’m grateful my daughter does not live there. She lives in the free world. It will not affect her brain because she will grow up to be a free person in an open world. I have no idea who she will become – she can volunteer in Africa if she wants, she can learn Korean to attend the University of Seoul or become a barmaid in Paris if she wants. My main reward is having dragged by daughter out of there, that she is free in the free world. My daughter loves Ukraine – of all the countries, she is in love with Ukraine. She asked her mother and I whether she could dye her hair in the colors of the Ukrainian flag if she gets straight As. I told her she can dye them if she only gets Fs. She got straight As and dyed her hair. That’s it! I have raised a normal daughter who loves Ukraine and not all this. Zombies carrying portraits on sticks that read: “Grandfathers fought” – that’s not for us.