Thursday, November 6, 2014

Afghantsy: The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

When the Red Army invaded Afghanistan to ensure that a pro-Soviet socialist regime remained in power in 1979, observers in the West assumed that it would follow the pattern provided by interventions in Eastern Europe during the 1960’s.  After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev decreed that no socialist state allied with the Soviet Union would be allowed to either change its form of government, or change its alliances.  This led to Soviet-backed interventions in Ethiopia, Aden, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia to support Marxist regimes.  This doctrine combined with Afghanistan’s shared border with the Soviet Union set the stage for armed intervention in favor of the government led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.  What the Soviet Union and the world did not anticipate was a decade-long struggle between the Red Army and insurgents, resulting in heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The geo-political consequences of the war in Afghanistan are well documented, as are changes in Soviet combat tactics, the muhahedin resistance, and the United States’ role in supply arms and supplies to resistance groups fighting against the Soviet Union.  Less understood, particularly in the West, is the experience of Soviet soldiers and civilian personnel who served in Afghanistan due to conscription or as volunteers.  Soldiers and civilians alike experienced privation and horror for their nation.  Unlike the heroes of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, they returned home garner the scorn and disdain of fellow Soviets, and a lack of medical care and veterans’ assistance.  Not only did the Afghantsy not win their war on behalf of the Motherland, but the fact they were even fighting was hidden from the public until 1983, four years after the war began.  As Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, took hold and the Soviet public learned more about the war, the rationale for fighting became a subject of debate.  Ultimately, the Afghantsy found themselves outcasts among their own people.


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 came after a period of lengthy turmoil following a coup by Prince Muhammad Daoud and leftist members of the military in July 1973.  Daoud established a republic based on political parties, electoral politics, and the rule of law.[i]  Radical socialist and Islamist parties dominated the party politics of the Afghan republic, preventing moderates parties, or those without powerful patrons from playing a significant role.  Hassan M. Kakar argues that the lack of an influential moderate voice in Afghan politics led to the increased political violence and the involvement of foreign powers in Afghanistan over the course of the following decades.

Since Daoud relied on his Communist allies in the PDPA for support during the coup, he was unable to find support from either liberal democrats or conservative Islamists.  Eventual arrests and executions of members of opposition parties led to demonstrations by members of the Islamic Association in 1975.  After the demonstrators were suppressed, Daoud expelled the PDPA from his government, and embarked on constitutional reform.  The new constitution, ratified in 1977, created a single-party system run by bureaucrats, and allowed Daoud to enact legislation banning political activities and granting immense power to a security bureaucracy.  The acts officially eliminated the political reforms of earlier years and fostered a climate of fear and unrest.[ii]

The years 1977 and 1978 bore witness to increased anti-government terrorist activity by both leftist and Islamist factions.  The death of a leading member of the PDPA in a terrorist attack in April 1978 led to a funeral procession and street demonstration in Kabul.  When PDPA leaders spoke against the government during the procession, the Daoud government arrested the leaders for violation of the criminal code banning political activity.  However, delays in his arrest, allowed Hafizullah Amin to set in motion a coup by members of the Khalq faction of the PDPA in motion.  Despite his arrest on 26 April 1978, other military officers staged the coup on 27 April, killing Daoud.[iii]

After the coup, a heavily factionalized PDPA took power, with the government headed by Noor Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal.  The PDPA instituted a Soviet-inspired socialists regime that pushed through land reform and other social legislation, alienating itself from Afghanistan’s populace.[iv]  Two factions within the PDPA strove for power, the Amin-dominated Khalq, and the Karmal-led Parcham.  Amin and Karmal held differing views on the inclusion of other parties in a unity government, with Amin arguing for a Stalinist domination of the state by a single party.  He was able to out-maneuver Karmal’s Parchami wing of the party and have them excluded from decision making in the Politburo, although they were left in many government posts at the request of the Soviet Union.[v]  Amin and the Khalqi exiled several of the Parchami leaders, sending them to foreign countries as ambassadors.  When a coup plot was discovered involving high ranking Parchami’s remaining in Afghanistan, particularly Defense Minister Qader, they were arrested, and the exiles ordered back to Afghanistan.  The ambassadors failed to return, with some, like Babrak Karmal going into hiding with his Soviet sponsors.[vi]

Despite Soviet advice, Amin aggressively pursued socialist reforms in Afghanistan, which further alienated the populace.  Land reform, changes in marriage laws, a literacy program for women, and the condescending attitude of Khalqi officials led to violent protest by local and religious leaders.  The PDPA’s repressive response further inflamed the situation when the 17th Division was ordered to suppress a riot against the literacy campaign in Heart.  Led by two officers, the 10,000 men of the division defected to anti-government rebels carrying all of their equipment and ammunition with them.  The PDPA government reacted by bombing the city at the cost of an estimated 5,000 civilian casualties.[vii]  These events further weakened the PDPA’s hold on Afghanistan, and significantly strengthened the armed resistance movement forming against it.

Amin used the Heart uprising to bolster his own position against Taraki, eventually leading to open conflict over the role of Minister of Defense.  Taraki lost th context of wills and assassination attempts, resigning his post as Secretary General in September 1979, and hiding in the Presidential Palace in Kabul.  He was found dead there on 8 October 1979, a victim of either suffocation or hanging, and Amin assumed power in a tottering government to the dismay of the Soviet Union, which had supported Taraki.[viii]

The Soviet Invasion

That the Brezhnev regime did not want to send Soviet troops into Afghanistan is clear at the outset.  Since the PDPA based its control over Afghanistan on its military power after taking over in a coup rather than a revolution, It desperately need military aid to sustain itself.[ix]  Taraki repeatedly requested aid from the Soviet, and received arms transfers in the form of 100 T-62 tanks, 6 Mig-21 fighter planes, 12 Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and Su-20 fighter-bombers.  To support these new deliveries, the Soviet Union provided pilots and technicians to train crews and maintain the aircraft.[x]

The Soviet Politburo met from 17-19 March 1979 to discuss the possibility of intervening in Afghanistan, but while agreeing with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s assessment that Afghanistan must not be lost, chose not to send troops.  KGB head Yuri Andropov appears to have made the strongest case against armed intervention, arguing that, “It’s completely clear to us that Afghanistan is not ready at this time to resolve all of the issues it faces through socialism,” due to its lack of development.[xi] Instead, Premier Leonid Brezhnev authorized deployment of two divisions on the Afghan border, sending an additional 500 military and civilian advisors, and a gift of 100,000 metric tons of wheat.[xii]  Soviet Prime minister wrote Taraki personally to tell him that since the situation in Afghanistan was an internal civil war, the Soviet Union would render any and all aid with the exception of actual troops.

Soviet officers in Afghanistan offered conflicting advice.  Before Amin’s seizure of power, KGB Lieutenant General Ivanov and Soviet Ambassador Puzanov argued for intervention due to their close relations with Taraki.  However, the Chief Military Advisor, Lieutenant General Gorelov, advised against the introduction of Soviet combat troops in Afghanistan.  General Pavlovskii, commander of Soviet Ground forces, echoed Gorelov’s caution after he visited Afghanistan in August 1979.[xiii]

Selig S. Harrison argues that the key factor in the Soviet Union’s ultimate decision to invade Afghanistan to install a friendly regime was the October 1979 murder of Nur Muhammad Tarki shortly after he returned to Afghanistan from consultations with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow.  Brezhnev took Taraki’s murder as a personal affront, and worried that Amin might turn toward the United States for assistance, leaving the Soviet Union with a vulnerable southern border.[xiv]  Scott R. McMichael agrees with this assessment, indicating that Amin’s earlier connections to the United States make this interpretation logical.[xv]  Taraki’s assassination had an even more significant impact on Yuri Andropov’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.  Andropov believed that Amin was a dangerous influence on the Soviet Union’s border, and personally supported Banrak Karmal’s Parcham faction.  Andropov argued that the Soviet Union should look for an opportunity to topple Amin, and replace his regime with a more moderate one headed by Karmal.[xvi] 

Once the Soviet leadership decided to invade Afghanistan, events proceeded quickly, with Soviet forces deploying and planning through October, November, and December.  The invasion plan included troops stationed in Soviet Central Asia and Soviet advisors in Kabul.  Afghan forces guarding the radio station were told that the shortage of diesel fuel required that their existing tanks be drained so the fuel could be out in the new vehicles when they arrived.  Similarly, the Afghan 7th and 8th Mechanized divisions were tricked into removing the batteries from their armored vehicles as part of winterization procedures.  Other Afghan forces were duped into switching their live ammunition for training rounds that would not be effective in combat.[xvii]

The actual invasion began the night of 24 December 1979, when Soviet troops began to land at airports and airbases throughout Afghanistan, particularly the Kabul and Bagram airports and Heart, Kandahar, and Jalalabad airbases.  Soviet ground forces moved from their airheads to occupy Radio Kabul two days later, destroy telephone exchanges, seize the Ministry of the Interior.  Paratroops from the 105th Guards Airborne Division also secured ammunition depots and the post office.  By midmorning on the 27th, the Soviets transmitted a message to Afghan listeners of Radio Kabul that Babrak Karmal has seized control with the assistance of Soviet forces.[xviii]

The death of Hafizullah Amin during the storming of the Darulaman palace seems the only sub-par performance of the invasion.  M. Hassan Kakar claims that Soviet forces used chemical weapons in the form of a grey gas hat caused dizziness, nausea and paralysis, and resorted to the use of incendiary weapons to root out stubborn defenders.[xix]  Amin himself was killed during the fighting, but accounts of how or why are muddled.  Kakar argues that Amin’s cook, a KGB plant, drugged him, and then killed in his incapacitated state.[xx] Scott McMichael contends that the most likely scenario is that Amin died in the fighting, despite Soviet desires to take him alive for a later show trial.[xxi]  McMichael’s assessment is validated by Mark Urban, who also notes that General Lieutenant V.S. Paputin, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, and a confidant of Brezhnev also died in the fighting at the palace, possibly while trying to keep Amin alive for his trial.[xxii]

While the paratroops secured Kabul and Afghanistan’s airbases, Soviet Motor Rifle Divisions crossed the Oxus River, which formed the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, and moved to occupy key cities throughout Afghanistan.  The armored columns preceded support units, who were in turn followed by a battalion of engineers laying a fuel pipeline from the Soviet Union to Kabul.  Like the airborne assault, the ground invasion was a textbook operation by Soviet forces, and serves as a stark contrast to the waking nightmare the [xxiii]Soviet soldiers of the 40th Army would experience for the next decade.  Although the Soviets anticipated a lightning quick operation to stabilize Afghanistan’s government and train new Afghan army troops, neither the insurgents or the factions of the PDPA cooperated in fulfilling this overly idealistic vision, forcing the Soviet 40th Army to remain in Afghanistan.[xxiv]


The Soviet’s misguided expectation that troops of the 40th Army would be primarily used for garrison duties after completing the tasks of securing cities and airfields, and installing Karmal as President had a negative impact on the selection of the forces used for the invasion.  They cobbled the ground forces making up the 40th Army primarily from under-strength Motor Rifle Divisions located in Soviet Central Asia.  To fill out the skeleton formation, the Soviet command called up local reservists.  Not only did this result in an invasion force composed primarily of Central Asians, but left the units short of the skilled technicians required for combat.[xxv]
The decision to use Central Asian soldiers, particularly Muslims, in the initial invasion of Afghanistan represented a significant shift in Soviet policy, which previously refrained from sending non-Slavs into combat beyond the Soviet borders.[xxvi]  Their use in this time and location was indicative of both the way Soviet leaders perceived the 40th Army’s mission in Afghanistan, and their desires to reduce negative public opinion in Afghanistan and other Muslim states.[xxvii]    The decision to deploy Soviet Muslim troops in Afghanistan alters longstanding Soviet practice of sending only ethnically Russian soldiers abroad.  The Soviet Union rejected Egyptian requests for Soviet Muslim pilots to serve there in the 1960’s when their presence might have encouraged rapport between the pilots of the two nations.[xxviii]  Wimbush and Alexiev further argue that this policy dates to at least the creation of Nazi Germany’s East Legions, composed of 250,000 Central Asian and Caucasian troops.

Once it became Soviet forces became engaged in regular combat duties, not the garrison and training activities originally envisioned, the predominance of Central Asian soldiers in the 40th Army created problems.  Not only did Soviet forces experience problems due to fraternization between Central Asian Muslim soldiers[xxix], but with the exception of Central Asians assigned to the MVD as internal security forces, almost all Central Asian soldiers in the Red Army were primarily used as labor in construction battalions, as cooks, or in logistics functions.[xxx]  As a result, these soldiers had limited combat training and outdated equipment, and were unable to fight effectively against insurgents.[xxxi]  This ultimately led to an overrepresentation of ethnic Slavs in the combat units sent to Afghanistan.

Negative attitudes toward military service hampered Soviet recruitment efforts throughout the 1980’s.  Despite exceptions, Soviet youth strove both to avoid Afghanistan and military service.  Natalie Gross argues that a significant contributing factor was perceptions of “deviant” behavior in the armed forces.  The practice of dedvoschina, in which veteran soldiers established a caste structure in which new recruits were bullied, beaten, and stolen from played a major part in service avoidance, recruit suicide, and later violence against “senior” soldiers.[xxxii]  A related phenomenon, gruppovschina, appeared during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when Soviet ethnic minorities bonded together within the military to either harass Slavic soldiers or as an act of self-defense.[xxxiii]
The appearance of widespread violent and other criminal acts within the ranks of Soviet forces that became public thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in the middle part of the decade also negatively impacted young Soviet’s desire to serve.  The increasing use of drugs in Soviet society starting in the 1960’s contributed to criminal behavior in both civilian society and the military.  Gross asserts that for the 1989 conscription cycle, civilian authorities detained 25% of inductees on suspicion of criminal acts, while 6.5% were previously convicted of a crime.[xxxiv]  Built on this base, thefts, drug sales, and illegal sale of weapons plagued the Soviet armed forces through the 1980’s.
When combined with Spartan living conditions and squalor, many young Soviets viewed their military services as a punishment akin to exile to a labor camp.  Afghanistan veteran Vadislav Tamarov wrote that some young men broke their own legs or paid bribes to avoid service.  He chose to enter a university, but was drafted anyway.[xxxv] Conscription avoidance and seeing military service as punishment were hardly universal among Soviet soldiers or civilians in Afghanistan.  Svetlana Alexievich interviewed a surgeon who volunteered for service because he was admired the skills and experience of surgeons who served there.[xxxvi]  In another interview, an infantry sergeant claimed that he quit his university studies during his second year, and volunteered for Afghanistan because he wanted to prove his abilities as a man.[xxxvii]
After the invasions in December 1979, local military draft boards decided which conscripts would serve in Afghanistan at the time they selected the season’s new recruits.  These soldiers were not generally notified of their posting to Afghanistan until after they were already on the airplane for their deployments.[xxxviii]    Even After designation for duty in Afghanistan, soldiers’ duty assignments were not set.  Vladislov Tamarov describes the a process akin to children picking classmates for sports teams.

When I was drafted into the Army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old boy.  The club where they took us was a distribution center.  Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted.  My fate was decided in one minute.  A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?”  Of course I agreed.  Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan, where our training base was located.[xxxix]
In selecting recruits for Afghanistan, draft boards implemented a policy designed to reduce the public’s awareness of the war by focusing on soldiers in secondary and tertiary cities and rural areas.  Residents of large cities like Moscow and Leningrad were less likely to serve than youth from less prominent locations.  Moscow, a city with 10 million inhabitants, was home to only 7,000 Afghantsy.[xl] 
The Red Army also faced challenges in recruiting qualified and motivated officer candidates during the 1970’s and 1980’s, exclusive of any influences of the war in Afghanistan.  In contrast with Western analysts assumptions that military officers had a privileged status when compared to civilian workers with the same qualifications and responsibilities, Natalie Gross believes that the opposite is the case.  Her analysis indicates a severe shortage of housing for officers, with as many as 100,000 being officially homeless.  Those officers lucky enough to have housing at all, were 30% less likely that civilians to have basic modern conveniences in their dwellings.[xli]  Since Soviet officers worked longer hours than civilians, and engaged in administrative and training functions that Western armies assign to non-commissioned officers, and the professional standing of junior officers seems even less desirable.[xlii]          

Soldiers’ Experiences

Particularly in the first four years of the war, Soviet soldiers believed government propaganda that they were going to Afghanistan to help the people live in peace at the request of the Afghan government.  While regular Afghan peasants were peaceful farmers, they argued that the mujahadeen were illiterates deceived by religion into fighting against the socialist government of Afghanistan.  In one interview with soldiers going to Afghanistan, they expressed the belief that the insurgents were drug addicts, who fought for money while stoned at the behest of foreign powers.[xliii]  Reality in Afghanistan turned out far different.

Living conditions for Soviet soldiers were spartan even within the confines of the Soviet Union.  In Afghanistan, particularly at the beginning of the war, they lived in tents or makeshift structures, even while performing garrison duties.  Although this improved of the course of the war, Soviet soldiers faced overcrowding and inadequate protection from weather.  Limitations on water forced many Afghantsy to go a month between showers.[xliv]  Substandard living conditions still prevailed in 1994, long after the official end of the war, as Russian soldiers serving in mountain outposts on the Tadjik-Afghan border as a defense against Taliban incursion endured long durations of exposure to the elements, poor quality food, bad housing, and tattered uniforms.[xlv]
Soviet soldiers faced a type of combat for which they were woefully unprepared.  Instead of the high-speed mechanized combat the Red Army trained for, the war in Afghanistan focused on small patrols, ambushes, snipers, and land mines.  High casualty rates due to the large numbers of mines deployed against Soviet troops forced all foot patrols and vehicles that left Soviet bases to take sappers and minesweepers with them.  In order to increase the effectiveness of mines, insurgents might add anti-tampering devices or additional explosives.  Three minesweepers from Tamarov’s platoon were killed in a single blast by a single modified land mine.  The danger from mines was so great, that small units valued their minesweepers very highly.[xlvi]
Lester Grau supports Tamarov’s first-hand account, showing that the 40th army lost 800 soldiers and 300 vehicles to mines alone in 1981.  The high casualty figures forced Soviet forces to develop countermeasures such as reinforcing vehicle floors, issuing flak jackets, and riding on top of vehicles.[xlvii]  In 1985 alone, Soviet forces captured or cleared 80,000 mines.  Despite this success rate, the number of soldiers wounded by land mines increased 25-30% over the course of the war, while troop levels remained the same.[xlviii]
Unable to face Soviet mechanized forces, Afghan insurgents frequently fought from ambush, frequently using the irrigation tunnels and trenches Afghan villages utilized for irrigation as shelter and firing positions.  It was so well known among Soviet forces that the Afghans did not dig traditional foxholes that the insurgents were able to use them to confuse Soviet patrols on at least one occasion.

They saw the foxholes simultaneously, but assumed them to be ‘ours”.  Even though Intelligence didn’t make any mention of their own people being in the vicinity.  Still it couldn’t be spooks – they don’t dig in.  They had their “kirizes,” which took a heavy toll on men and technology.  Retaliation had little effect; it was just carried out to make reports to headquarters look good. Artillery fire was useless.[xlix]

This unlucky platoon drove straight into an ambush armed with rocket propelled grenades, and lost three armored personnel carriers and had at least seven men killed.  Air support killed their immediate antagonists, but did not reduce their fear or anger. 

The stressful nature of counterinsurgency combat combined with the inability to meet the enemy face to face resulted in disturbing incidents.  An incident in April 1980 illustrates the problem.  While a squad of soldiers investigated the village of Deva in the Alishang Valley, an insurgent hiding among the villagers show three of them.  The Soviet response was to shell the village, returning the next day with a force of helicopter gunships and tanks.  After surrounding the village, soldiers entered it on foot, killing all of the adult men present.[l]  In a February 1985 incident, insurgents ambushed and massacred an entire Soviet border platoon, and tortured the wounded, border forces conducted a campaign aimed at getting revenge on the local inhabitants that lasted the remainder of the war.[li] 

Some observers argue that these occurrences were not solely motivated by a desire for revenge, but represented Soviet policy.  In order to deprive insurgents of their source of support in the Afghan population, Kakar argues that Soviet soldiers deliberately targeted noncombatants, civilian structures, and crops.[lii]  In this interpretation Soviet soldiers engaged in a deliberate campaign of genocide against Afghan civilians, killing people, destroying crops and irrigation systems, and airdropping mines.  Retaliation against villages for individual incidents was, thus, merely a part of this overall plan.[liii]

The incidence of atrocities, but not the systematic implementation of them, is borne out by the testimony of Nasratullah, a former Soviet soldier who deserted after witnessing the massacre of 70 villagers at Kaligai.  After villagers sheltered him, Nasratullah worked with insurgents repairing equipment, and eventually converted to Islam.[liv]  While Nasratullah claims that he was not forced to convert, another former Soviet soldier, Gennady Tseuma, says that when the mujahadeen captured him, he was told that if he had to become a Muslim and remain with the insurgents if he wanted to live.[lv]
In addition to the risks of combat, Soviet soldiers faced a plethora of environmental and epidemiological threats to their health in Afghanistan.  Heat stroke, dehydration, altitude sickness, and frostbite were consistent problems.  More dramatic and less insidious problems in the form of infectious disease plagued Soviet forces through their entire deployment in Afghanistan.  Intestinal disorders, typhus, hepatitis, malaria, tuberculosis, and skin diseases posed a constant challenge for Soviet soldiers.  Poor sanitation, personal hygiene, and massive concentrations of forces exacerbated the problem.  In 1986, when the first Soviet forces began to leave Afghanistan, their temporary encampment became the scene of an epidemic of viral hepatitis.[lvi]
Since 25% of units in many areas of Afghanistan did not have access to bathing or laundry facilities, it is no surprise that 20% suffered from skin infections, or that 50% of all soldiers in Afghanistan contracted dysentery during their 18 month deployments.  Water shortage contributed significantly to the spread of disease, as soldiers ate from plates that were scrubbed, but not washed.  Soldiers were only able to change undergarments every few weeks, resulting in rashes and lice infestations.[lvii]  In light of this evidence, it is little surprise that the 40th Army suffered more casualties from disease than from enemy action.[lviii]

Women’s Experiences

Significant numbers of Soviet women worked in the war zone, drawn there to find work, husbands, as field wives, as nurses, or in other nurturing roles.  Journalist Gennady Bocharov wrote that few of the women, including nurses who were intimately involved with caring for wounded soldiers, who ventured to Afghanistan to find husbands, found them there.[lix]  Nurses came into contact with a particularly disturbing juxtaposition of Soviet propaganda, supply problems, and human suffering while in Afghanistan.  One nurse who arrived early in 1980 said that twice each week they attended political indoctrination classes, where they were repeatedly told to inform on everything they saw in order to keep the army safe, and that it was their duty to secure the Soviet Union’s southern border.  She testified that the army hospital had a single syringe, and that they disinfected wounds with gasoline after the surgeons drank their supplies of alcohol.  The hospital was also missing basic supplies as hospital gowns.[lx]
Nurses may have come close to understanding the inner turmoil many soldiers experienced after months fighting insurgents when Afghan women came to the hospital for treatment, but would not meet their eyes, or fought to focus on their healing mission while dealing with severe burns and mutilated soldiers.  The same nurse that reported the lack of basic medical equipment also reported the confusion called when entire villages were massacred in revenge for the death of a single Soviet soldier, and expecting that Afghans would be grateful for Soviet medical assistance.[lxi]
Women working as civilians in Afghanistan report having to fight to maintain their independence in the face of Army officers who wanted to make them into field wives[lxii], even going to the Kabul airport to select them as they arrived from the Soviet Union.  She indicated that this was part of a schizophrenic relationship between Soviet men and women in the war zone, in which at one moment men would try to purchase their services as prostitutes, but in others beg just for a glimpse of their hair because they hadn’t seen a woman in a year, or shield them with their own bodies from a bombardment. The highest compliment regular soldiers paid her was, “You can come with us on recce patrol!” after killing an ambusher while on an excursion in the country.[lxiii]
As with women who served honorably in Soviet forces during World War II, Soviet society labeled many of the women who served in Afghanistan as a prostitute, preventing most of them from wearing their hard-earned decorations.  This perception was enhanced by the fact that officers kept mistresses, or that some women in Afghanistan were, indeed, prostitutes.  However, Mark Galeotti contends that labeling women who performed “their internationalist duty” in this way is more a reflection of Soviet society’s extreme patriarchy and Soviet Communism’s puritanical character.[lxiv]


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had many costs.  The most obvious of those are the large numbers of Soviets and Afghanis killed over the course of the conflict.  Although the official figures claim that approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives, the actual figures of Soviet dead are closer to 26,000 men.[lxv]  An additional 400,000 Soviets suffered from disease or non-combat injuries, including infectious hepatitis, malaria, and typhus.[lxvi]  1.3 million Afghans also died during the course of the war due to illness, bombardment, or at the hands of Soviet troops or mujahadeen.[lxvii]
In addition to the obvious effect of death and destruction, the war in Afghanistan had far-reaching consequences for the Soviet Union.  Not only did the war lead to increased drug use by veterans and others in Soviet society, created the image of a lost generation of Soviet youth, led to new openness about Soviet policies and history, and radically altered Soviet’s ideas regarding the Soviet Union’s proper foreign policy.[lxviii]  One significant aspect of this is the early 1990’s Soviet refusal to intervene against Romania’s dictatorship at the request of the first Bush administration, or to join coalition forces in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.  The most important immediate national or international result of the war for the Soviet Union was for Soviet citizens to question the legitimacy of Soviet foreign policy and the Communist regime.[lxix]
However, this interpretation ignores the importance of the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan for individual citizens and soldiers.  When they returned from Afghanistan, the Afghantsy found it difficult to reintegrate into society, mothers found it difficult to deal with the loss of their children, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder became recognized in the Soviet Union for the first time.  Some soldiers remained in Afghanistan or defected to the West to escape the trauma of service, or after capture by insurgents.

Between 1979 and 1983 Afghantsy were not eligible for benefits as veterans because the Brezhnev did not acknowledge it publicly as a war.  Instead, Soviet forces were defending Afghanistan from bandits or mercenaries.  Unless they were disabled, official policy defined Afghantsy from this period merely as “ex-service” personnel”.  Only after 1983, were Afghantsy recognized as veterans.  However, local bureaucrats frequently refused to honor the benefits this status inferred.[lxx]
As early as 1987, veterans of the war formed a national organization to insist on proper monuments and benefits.  The Afghantsy complained that they did not receive the benefits extended to veterans of previous Soviet wars, like easier admission to universities, access to telephones, access to privileged stores, and priority for vacation requests.[lxxi]  Soviet veterans also called for an end to discrimination against disabled soldiers.  Other veterans groups also struggled to gain access to psychiatric care and proper prosthetic devices for those who lost limbs during their service.[lxxii]
Mourning the loss of children is always difficult for mothers, but it Soviet women whose children died in Afghanistan found it particularly difficult.  Soviet authorities would not allow families to view their children’s remains, sealing their zinc coffins.  One mother mourned this particularly, saying that:
They brought in the coffin.  I collapsed over it.  I wanted to lay him out but they wouldn’t allow us to open the coffin to see him, touch him…  Did they find a uniform to fit him? ‘Mt little sunshine, my little sunshine.’  Now I just want to be in the coffin with him.  I go to the cemetery, throw myself on the gravestone and cuddle him.  My little sunshine…[lxxiii]
Others were glad that the coffins remained closed, preserving the memories of their living sons.[lxxiv]  Other mothers grew angry with the military officers escorting remains home, yelling at them that she did not “need their military honors” and that she would “bury him my own way”.[lxxv] 
Svetlana Pavlukova harnessed the pain of losing one of her sons in action, by establishing a local chapter of the Committee of the Soldiers’ Mothers in Altai, Siberia.  This organization not only sought information about the war, but also engaged in memorial activities to help manage members’ grief.  The Committee engages in varied activities, including working for the release of Prisoners of War, defending deserters from prosecution, and antiwar activism.[lxxvi]  In the case of the Altai organization, the emphasis was not on policy, but memory – in addition to monuments, it published memory books and coordinated funerals of soldiers killed in Chechnya.[lxxvii]  Despite these efforts, many mothers had no option but to visit small memorials like the small Moscow museum devoted to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.[lxxviii]
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which entered consciousness in the United States after the Vietnam War ended in 1973, slowly entered the Soviet parlance after the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Recognition and treatment of PTSD in the Soviet Union was slow enough that Soviet veteran Vladislav Tamarov, author of Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam, remarked upon the quality of American care when he visited American Vietnam veterans in Manhattan in 1989.  Tamarov and other Afghantsy hoped to learn more about PTSD, but also to prevent a future generation of scarred warriors.[lxxix]  Conferences between veterans of Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans provided former Soviet soldiers with their first opportunities to receive treatment for their PTSD.[lxxx]

The Afghantsy faced unique problems in dealing with their understanding of the war in Afghanistan due to the propaganda campaign that distorted the nature of their mission from the beginning – they went to war believing that they would be facing bandits or building schools and hospitals, not engaging in a decade of combat against dedicated insurgents.[lxxxi]  A study of Lithuanian veterans found that up to 86% of those who faced combat had a difficult time readjusting to civilian life, with 16% of them still experiencing the symptoms of PTSD 15 years after the end of their service.[lxxxii]

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan was as complex as it was varied.  As in all wars, the Afghantsy experienced extremes of boredom and terror, injuries and disease.  They engaged in acts of extreme charity and brutality toward each other and Afghans with startlingly rapid changes in demeanor and behavior.  While the vast majority of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were conscripts, their ranks were leavened with volunteers.  Despite Soviet propaganda showing the world the ethnic integration of Soviet forces, almost all of the combatants were Russians or other Slavs, while Central Asian minorities performed manual labor.
Soviet soldiers quickly found that the vast majority of Afghans did not view them as saviors or guardians, but as armed intruders, resulting in tragedy for both sides.  Fear, anger, and confusion led to extraordinary atrocities on Afghan civilians by Soviet soldiers, who did not understand either Afghanistan’s culture, or the war they were fighting.  The fact that they were misled about their mission in Afghanistan simply exacerbated the problem.
The result was horrific for both Soviets and Afghans.  While 26,000 Soviet soldiers died in combat, and another 400,000 were victims of disease, as many as 1.3 million Afghans perished during the conflict.  Soviet survivors continue to carry the emotional and physical scars of their time in Afghanistan, just as Afghanistan continues to suffer the consequences of the Soviet invasion almost thirty years ago.

End Notes

[i] Hassan M. Kakar. Afghanistan: the Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 12.
[ii] Kakar, 13.
[iii] Angelo Rasanayagam. Afghanistan: A Modern History (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co., 2003), 67.
[iv] Kakar, 15.
[v] Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison. Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 30.
[vi] Cordovez and Harrison, 31.
[vii] Mark Urban, War in Afghanistan (London: The MacMillan Press, 1988), 30.
[viii] Rasanayagam, 81.
[ix] Mark Galeotti. Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1995), 7.
[x] Urban, 32.
[xi] Rasanayagam, 85.
[xii] Rasanayagam, 86.
[xiii] Galeotti, 9.
[xiv] Cordovez and Harrison, 42.
[xv] Scott R. McMichael. Stumbling Bear: Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan (London: Brassey’s, 1991), 4.
[xvi] Galeotti, 9.
[xvii] McMichael, 5.
[xviii] McMicael, 6.
[xix] Kakar, 26.
[xx] Kakar, 27.
[xxi] McMichael, 6.
[xxii] Urban, 46.
[xxiii] McMichael, 8.
[xxiv] Galeotti, 15.
[xxv] McMichael, 4.
[xxvi] S, Enders Wimbush & Alex Alexiev. Soviet Central Asian Soldiers in Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1981), 7.
[xxvii] Wimbush and Alexiev, vi.
[xxviii] Wimbush and Alexiev, 7.
[xxix] Galeotti, 26.
[xxx] McMichael, 11.
[xxxi] Alexiev, 42.
[xxxii] Natalie Gross. “Youth and the Army in the USSR in the 1980s,” Soviet Studies 42, no. 3 (1990):481.
[xxxiii] Alexander Alexiev. Inside the Soviet Army in Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988), 43.
[xxxiv] Gross, 482.
[xxxv] Vadislav Tamarov. Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992), 16.
[xxxvi] Svetlana Alexievich. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War (London:  Chatto & Windus, Ltd, 1992), 58.
[xxxvii] Alexievich, 70.
[xxxviii] Alexiev, 6.
[xxxix] Tamarov, 1.
[xl] Alexiev, 7.
[xli] Gross, 483.
[xlii] McMichael, 123.
[xliii] The Black Tulip, dir. Pancho Lane, DVD, CreateSpace, 1988.
[xliv] Galeotti, 35.
[xlv] Spiritual Voices, dir. Alexander Sokurov, DVD, Ideale Audience, 1995.
[xlvi] Tamarov, 74.
[xlvii] Lester Grau. “Mine Warfare and Counterinsurgency: The Russian View,” Engineer March 1999, 17 March 2008
[xlviii] Grau, “Mine Warfare”.
[xlix] Gennady Bocharov. Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 35.
[l] Kakar, 133.
[li] Sergei Alexandrov, Andrei Blinushov, and Vladimir Grigoriev. Afghanistan’s Unknown War: Memoirs of the Russian Writers-War Veterans of Special Forces, Army and Air Forces of the Soviet Afghan War (Toronto: Megapolis Publishing, 1998), 13.
[lii] Kakar, 129.
[liii] Kakar, 215.
[liv] Tom Coghlan, “Red Army’s ‘ghosts’ of Afghanistan,” BBC News 24 Aug. 2005, 17 Mar. 2008
[lv] Ivan Watson, “A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans,” NPR 17 March 2008, 17 March 2008
[lvi] The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, trans. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 296.
[lvii] Alexiev, 46.
[lviii] Alexiev, 44.
[lix] Bocharov, 93.
[lx] Alexievich, 22.
[lxi] Alexievich, 23.
[lxii] The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, trans. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 294.
[lxiii] Alexievich, 41.
[lxiv] Galeotti, 42.
[lxv] The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, trans. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002), xix.
[lxvi] Natalia Danilova, “The Social and Political Role of War Veterans,” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies: An Electronic Journal of Social Sciences 2007, 7 April 2008
[lxvii] Tom Coghlan, “Red Army’s ‘ghosts’ of Afghanistan,” BBC News 24 Aug. 2005, 17 Mar. 2008
[lxviii] Galeotti, 146.
[lxix] Galeotti, 167.
[lxx] Danilova, “The Social and Political Role of War Veterans”.
[lxxi] Bill Keller, “Soviet Afghanistan Veterans Call for End of Neglect and for Honor,” The New York Times 22 Nov. 1987, 7 April 2008
[lxxii] Jonathan Steele, “Ivan, We Hardly Knew You,” Guardian Century 13 February 1989, 7 April 2008,,110278,00.html.
[lxxiii] Alexievich, 53.
[lxxiv] Alexievich, 123.
[lxxv] Alexievich, 109.
[lxxvi] Serguei Alex. Oushakine. “The Politics of Pity: Domesticating Loss in a Russian Province,” American Anthropologist 108, no. 2 (2006): 299.
[lxxvii] Oushakine, 301.
[lxxviii] “Remembering the Soviet Vietnam.” Al Jazeera English, 31 March 2008, 7 April 2008
[lxxix] Richard Severo, “U.S. and Soviet Veterans Share Pain of War,” The New York Times 10 June 1989, 7 April 2008
[lxxx] Catherine Merridale. “The Collective Mind: Trauma and Shell-Shock in Twentieth-Century Russia,” Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 1 (2000): 53.
[lxxxi] Vejune Domanskaite-Gota, Danute Gailiene, and Jurate Girdziusaite. “The Trauma of War: Research on Lithuanian Veterans of the Afghanistan War after Seventeen Years,” Union of Afghanistan War Veterans of Vilnius 2006, 7 April 2008
[lxxxii] Vejune Domanskaite-Gota, Danute Gailiene, and Jurate Girdziusaite. “The Trauma of War: Research on Lithuanian Veterans of the Afghanistan War after Seventeen Years”.


Alexandrov, Sergei, Andrei Blinushov, and Vladimir Grigoriev. Afghanistan’s Unknown War: Memoirs of the Russian Writers-War Veterans of Special Forces, Army and Air Forces of the Soviet Afghan War. Toronto: Megapolis Publishing, 1998.

Alexiev, Alexander. Inside the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988.

Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War. London:  Chatto & Windus, Ltd, 1992.

The Black Tulip, dir. Pancho Lane, DVD, CreateSpace, 1988.

Bocharov, Gennady. Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990.

Cordovez, Diego and Selig S. Harrison. Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Coghlan, Tom. “Red Army’s ‘ghosts’ of Afghanistan.” BBC News. 24 Aug. 2005. 17 Mar. 2008

Danilova, Natalia. “The Social and Political Role of War Veterans.” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies: An Electronic Journal of Social Sciences. 7 April 2008.

Domanskaite-Gota, Vejute, Danute Gailiene, and Jurate Girdziusaite. “The Trauma of War: Research on Lithuanian Veterans of the Afghanistan War after Seventeen Years.” Union of Afghanistan War Veterans of Vilnius. 7 April 2008.

Galeotti, Mark. Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War. London: Frank Cass & Co., 1995.

Grau, Lester W. and Michael A. Gress, trans. The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002.

Grau, Lester. “Mine Warfare and Counterinsurgency: The Russian View.” March 1999 Engineer. 17 March 2008

Gross, Natalie. “Youth and the Army in the USSR in the 1980s,” Soviet Studies 42 no. 3 (1990): 481-498.

Kakar, Hassan M. Afghanistan: the Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Keller, Bill. “Soviet Afghanistan Veterans Call for End of Neglect and for Honor.” The New York Times. 22 Nov. 1987. 7 April 2008

McMichael, Scott R. Stumbling Bear: Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan. London: Brassey’s, 1991.

Merridale, Catherine “The Collective Mind: Trauma and Shell-Shock in Twentieth-Century Russia.” Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 1 (2000): 39-55.

Oushakine. Serguei Alex. “The Politics of Pity: Domesticating Loss in a Russian Province.” American Anthropologist 108, no. 2 (2006): 297-311.

Rasanayagam, Angelo. Afghanistan: A Modern History. New York: I.B. Taurus & Co., 2003.

“Remembering the Soviet Vietnam.” Al Jazeera English. 31 March 2008. 7 April 2008

Severo, Richard. “U.S. and Soviet Veterans Share Pain of War.” The New York Times. 10 June 1989. 7 April 2008.

Spiritual Voices, dir. Alexander Sokurov, DVD, Ideale Audience, 1995.

Steele, Jonathan. “Ivan, We Hardly Knew You.” Guardian Century. 13 February 1989. 7 April 2008,,110278,00.html.

Tamarov, Vladislov. Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992.

Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. London: The MacMillan Press, 1988

Watson, Ivan. “A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans.” NPR. 17 March 2008. 17 March 2008

Wimbush, Enders S. & Alex Alexiev. Soviet Central Asian Soldiers in Afghanistan. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1981.

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