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)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links