When does a soldier's 'memoir' count as fact, and when as fiction?

Oliver Bullough investigates the curious case of Nicolai Lilin

Publishing has been plagued by fabricated memoirs in recent years. Famous cases include that of a Belgian woman describing how she had been kept alive by wolves, and a man who said he was saved in a Nazi concentration camp by a girl throwing food over the fence. But Nicolai Lilin's Free Fall: a Sniper's Story from Chechnya may be unique. Lilin, who wrote a brutal first-person account of fighting in the Russian army in the Chechen war, praised by its publisher as "a unique and remarkable memoir", has admitted that he did not experience much of what he described and deliberately embellished it to help sales.

Previously, the authors have at least initially insisted on the truthfulness of their tales. Lilin, however, immediately told The Independent that much of his book had not actually happened to him, including the opening passage, in which he is conscripted forcibly into the Russian army.

"That is not my story. That is the story of one of my comrades who fought with me," said Lilin, who now lives in Italy but grew up in Transnistria, when queried over inconsistencies in the tale - such as why he was conscripted into the Russian army when he did not live in Russia. "I wrote the story of a comrade who was sadly killed in the war. He told me that that was how it happened and it interested me. He was from a poor family, a village boy, and I liked his story very much."

Lilin himself joined the army voluntarily, he said, which means that the first 30 pages of the memoir, a first-person description of violence, brutality, anger and defiance, are invented. Lilin admitted this meant his book did not qualify as factual. "When I wrote the book I did not want it to be considered as historical. First because I could not write a memoir, because I am not important or something. If I was Mozart or Queen Elizabeth, they could write a memoir, but I am no one," he said. "I do not know what to call it. It is not a memoir. It is a novel based on real events."

Canongate, the book's Edinburgh-based publishers, announced the book as a "remarkable stand-alone memoir", before going on to claim that "Lilin writes with honesty and extreme cynicism, and with a sharp eye for the banality of evil". Canongate's Nick Davies said that fact-checking was down to the Italian publisher, Einaudi, who issued the book first. "If we had been the originating publisher then we would have fact-checked," he said.

Einaudi, however, describes the book as a novel, and in fact it contains tales so unlikely that most editors would surely have spotted them as false, such as when Lilin finds a Chechen with a rifle loaded with hyper-accurate bullets filled with liquid mercury. Such an idea is nonsense since the liquid would shift in flight and render them useless.

Lilin, surprisingly, agreed. The bullets were really made of depleted uranium, he said, blaming a translation error for the slip. And what about the actual battles he describes? The foreword states that names, dates and places have been changed "to protect those involved" but gives no clue that the book is not a truthful account of someone's experiences. Almost a quarter of the book, pages 99-188, is an ultra-violent account of fighting in a built-up area – presumably Grozny – in which Lilin and his group rescued a cut off Russian unit, but not before it had lost 13 lieutenant-colonels.

Is it true? In a word, no. "All the events in towns, well, I personally fought very little in towns, to be honest. From my own experience, I was very little in towns. I was in Grozny when it was taken back but they sent us out again very quickly," said Lilin. "I used a lot of stories to create a few facts in my book, a few tales of war in the city. Maybe in some of these stories I wrote I coloured them up a bit, maybe I exaggerated, but this was specially to show the horror of urban war. Honestly as far as the fact about 13 colonels, I do not remember," he said.

So how much of the book actually is true? "It is hard to say. The most important stories, particularly when I write about how a person feels in war, that is my experience. Then there are a lot of stories from soldiers that could be, I don't know, true or otherwise because in a war, you don't check what your comrade tells you," he said.

Lilin said that he had embellished his life story in order to sell more books, saying that otherwise Free Fall would have shared the obscurity of Arkady Babchenko's One Soldier's War in Chechnya. "Here in Italy, Arkady's book sadly was bought only by a few people because it is very big and he has a lot of information, and sadly people who only read romances or detective novels, they will not read it so they will not know the truth about the war. So as to sensitise them somehow you need an intermediate way, a novel that tells the horror of war," Lilin said.

Free Fall is the sequel to A Siberian Education, which is being made into a film starring John Malkovich. That described Lilin's upbringing in a society of outlaws from Siberia, and attracted notice all around the world. A number of reviewers questioned its veracity, however, including Donald Rayfield, a professor at London University, who concluded it was a "fantasist's ravings".

He considered it to be fake memoir, such as Misha Defonseca's claim to have survived the Holocaust thanks to a pack of wolves, published in 1997, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Frey's book purported to describe a struggle with addiction and was so successful that he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show. In 2006, when it emerged that much of the book was invented, Oprah invited Frey back to confront him and his publisher with the allegations, causing a media storm. Despite the uproar, false memoirs continued to emerge. In late 2008, Berkley Books cancelled publication of Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence, after Holocaust scholars showed it was impossible for his future wife to have thrown food into the Schlieben concentration camp.

Other reviewers supported Lilin's first book, despite the doubts. The Wall Street Journal said it was better understood as a "work of semi-fictional anthropology". The trouble is that Lilin is not competing with works of semi-fictional anthropology, but with memoirs such as Babchenko's. If Free Fall were a novel, it would be just a plot-free Russian version of Andy McNab. But, marketed as a memoir, Canongate can say that it "offers a unique perspective on one of the most controversial wars in living memory".

When challenged with Lilin's admission that much of the book had not in fact happened to him, Canongate's Davies said he would have to talk to the Italian publishers. "We acquired and published Nicolai's book, as a memoir, on good faith from his Italian publisher and in close discussion with Nicolai. The categorisation of the book as memoir comes with a clear and strongly worded Author's Note at the start on the book," he said.

That note says "the events narrated here actually took place".

Oliver Bullough is the author of 'Let our Fame be Great: journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus' (Penguin)

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