The Russians in Afghanistan
The Russian experience in Afghanistan is not a simple story. Far from being the imperialist expansion it is sometimes caricatured to be, the Russians stumbled into Afghanistan reluctantly, beset by ideological neuroses, incomplete intelligence, conflicting advice and the pressure of events.
Author: oDR is pleased to present the first part of exclusive extracts from Rodric Braithwaite’s “Afgantsy”
The explosion of violence which erupted in Herat in March 1979 was beyond anything that had happened since the bloody Communist coup a year earlier. Resistance to the Communists was already spreading throughout the country. But this was a full-scale revolt in a provincial capital, one of Afghanistan’s most important cities, an ancient centre of islamic learning, music, art, and poetry. Power fell entirely into the hand of the insurgents, and it was a week before Afghan government forces finally regained control after the spilling of much blood.
The Communists had promised much: ‘Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society ... our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would ... [our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being ... our programme was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay ... For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education ... we told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets.’
But the Communists knew that such ideas would not be welcome to the pious and conservative people of Afghanistan, and they were not prepared to wait. They had expected resistance and acted ruthlessly to put it down: ‘[I]t was not the time to put on kid gloves. First and foremost we had to hold on to power. The alternative was to be liquidated and for Afghanistan to revert to darkness.’ So they started a massive reign of terror: landowners, mullahs, dissident officers, professional people, even members of the Communist Party itself, were arrested, tortured, and shot in large numbers. When their friends in Moscow protested, they replied that what had worked for Stalin would work for them too.
There are various accounts of what triggered off the violence in Herat. Sher Ahmad Maladani was there at the time and later commanded a local band of mujahedin , Muslim fighters against the Communists and the Russians. He said that the peasants in an outlying village, incensed by a decision of the local Communists to force their daughters to school, rose up, killed the Communists, killed the girls for good measure, and marched on the city. Others said that the rising took place on orders from émigrés in Pakistan, who had planned for a countrywide rebellion. Some said that the rising was led by mutinous soldiers from the 17th division, the local Afghan army garrison. Still others said it was stirred up by agents from Iran.
Whatever the basis for these stories, the peasants of the neighbouring villages gathered at their mosques on the morning of Thursday, 15 March, and moved towards the city carrying religious slogans and brandishing ancient rifles, knives, and other improvised weapons, destroying the symbols of Communism and the state as they marched. They were rapidly joined by the people of Herat itself. The mob flooded down the pine-tree avenues that led to the city, past the great citadel and the four ancient minarets in the north-western corner, through the Maliki Gate, and into the new suburbs to the north and east where the provincial governor’s office was situated. They stormed the prison, sacked and torched banks, post offices, newspaper offices, and government buildings, and looted the bazaars. They tore down the red flags and the portraits of the Communist leaders. They beat people not wearing traditional Muslim clothes. Party officials, including the governor himself, were hunted down and killed. So were some of the Soviet advisers who were working in the city and were unable to make their escape. By noon most of the city was in rebel hands. That evening there was dancing in the bazaars.
In the months and years that followed, the story of what happened in Herat on those March days grew mightily in the telling, fanned by the reports of courageous but uncritical western journalists who had no way of checking what they were told. The mutilated bodies of a hundred Soviet advisers, their wives and children, were said to have been paraded through the streets. It was confidently asserted that Soviet long-range bombers had pounded the city for two days. Up to twenty thousand people were said to have died in the rebellion and its aftermath.
As so often during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, facts were hard to establish, and hard to distinguish from myth-making. Most of the figures about the Herat rising have been much exaggerated. But whatever the truth of the matter, the immediate reaction of the Communist government in Kabul was to panic, and to ask Moscow to send military forces to put the rising down. The Soviet Politburo debated the question for four whole days and then came to a very sensible conclusion. They would not send troops, though they would supply the Afghan government with additional military and economic aid. As the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin (1904–80), told the Afghan President, Nur Mohamed Taraki (1913–79), ‘If we sent in our troops, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a part of your own people. And people do not forgive that kind of thing.’
In the event, the Afghan government was able to put down the Herat rising on its own. But a slow-burning fuse had been lit. Unrest and armed resistance continued to spread throughout the country. infighting within the Communist Party grew increasingly bloody, until it culminated in September with Taraki’s murder by the Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin (1929–79).
For the Russians this was the last straw. Driven step by step, mostly against their will, they tried to get a grip. Their decisions were bedevilled by ignorance, ideological prejudice, muddled thinking, inadequate intelligence, divided counsel, and the sheer pressure of events. Needless to say, the experts who actually knew about Afghanistan , and there were many of them in the Soviet Union in those days , were neither consulted nor informed.
In December 1979 Soviet troops poured into Afghanistan. Soviet special forces seized key objectives in Kabul, stormed Amin’s palace, and killed him. The intentions of the Soviet government were modest: they aimed to secure the main towns and the roads, stabilise the government, train up the Afghan army and police, and withdraw within six months or a year. Instead they found themselves in a bloody war from which it took them nine years and fifty-two days to extricate themselves.
The Afgantsy, the soldiers who did the actual fighting, came from all parts of the Soviet Union: from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic states. Despite the great differences between them, most thought of themselves as Soviet citizens. That changed towards the end, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, and men who had been comrades in arms found themselves living in different and sometimes hostile countries. Many took years to find their feet again in civilian life. some never did. None shook free of the memories of their common war.[ ... ]
The Soviet Leaders Devise a Policy
The shocking news of the Herat rising on 15 March 1979 reached the embassy in Kabul and the Soviet leadership in Moscow in a fragmentary form, and was further confused by the self-interested accounts they were fed by the Afghan authorities. Valeri Ivanov, a senior Soviet economic advisor in Kabul, spent most of that day trying to get through to the Soviet experts in Herat. He managed to speak to the boss of the twenty-five Soviet construction workers there, a Georgian whose name was something like Magradze. The telephone kept on breaking down, but Ivanov could get a clear enough idea of what was happening. The mob was on the rampage, armed with pikes, staves, and knives. They were out for blood and, as they got closer, Magradze kept repeating, ‘help us!’
There was little enough that Ivanov could do. But the men and their families were rescued by the senior Soviet military adviser in Kabul, Stanislav Katichev, and Shah Navaz Tanai, an Afghan officer who later became Minister of Defence. They sent an Afghan special forces unit with an old T-34 tank, a lorry, and a bus to evacuate the specialists and their families. The tank broke down on the way to the airport. By then, however, the crowd had been left behind and the refugees were flown to Kabul, wearing only what they stood up in. They were housed in the embassy school until they could be sent home. Ivanov’s wife, Galina, helped collect clothes for them.
Not everyone was so lucky. A Soviet wool buyer called Yuri Bogdanov lived with his pregnant wife, Alevtina, in a villa. when the crowd attacked, Bogdanov threw his wife over the wall to his Afghan neighbours. She broke her leg, but was hidden by the Afghans and survived. Bogdanov was butchered. A military adviser with the 17th Afghan division, Major Nikolai Bizyukov, was also torn to pieces when part of the division mutinied. A Soviet oil expert was killed by a stray bullet when he went out into the street to see what was going on. Although the Western press and some Western historians continued to maintain that up to a hundred Soviet citizens were massacred, the total number of Soviet casualties in Herat seems to have been no more than three. They appear to have had no influence on the decisions which the Soviet government then took.
On hearing the news of the rising Andrei Gromyko (1909–89), the elderly Soviet Foreign Minister (he was seventy and had been in the job since 1957), telephoned Amin to find out what was going on. Amin claimed that the situation in Afghanistan was normal, that the army was in control, and that all the governors were loyal. Soviet help would be useful, he said, but the regime was in no danger. Gromyko found his ‘olympian calm’ irritating. A mere three hours later, the chargé d’affaires in Kabul and the chief Soviet Military adviser, General Gorelov, rang through with a quite different and much less optimistic picture. The government forces in Herat, they said, had evidently collapsed or gone over to the rebels, who were now said to be backed by thousands of Muslim fanatics, and by saboteurs and terrorists trained and armed by the Pakistanis, the Iranians, the Chinese, and the Americans.
The Politburo met on 17 March. Neither the Soviet Union nor its elderly leadership were in a good shape to cope with the crisis that was now thrust upon them. By the 1970s the Soviet Union was already decaying from within. Its institutions were essentially the same as those which Stalin had forged, but they were ill-adapted to an increasingly complex world. Perceptive observers, even inside the Soviet government, could see the extent of the decline only too clearly. But few people drew any far-reaching conclusions. in 1979 the Soviet Union looked to the west as though it would remain a serious military and ideological threat for a long time to come.
The leaders were gloomy, cautious, and hampered by the fact that they had little idea what was actually happening. The main opinions were voiced by Gromyko, by the Prime Minister, Aleksei Kosygin, by the Defence Minister, Dmitri Ustinov (1908–84), and by the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov (1914–84). These were all able men. But they were of Gromyko’s generation, they too had begun their careers under Stalin, and their thinking was still locked in the orthodox Marxist-Leninist stereotypes of the day. They were not to be looked to for innovative solutions.
Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, did not join in the initial discussions, although several of the participants consulted him individually. He had been in power for fifteen years and more. his health was already failing, and towards the end he became a figure of fun, in private of course, to the wits of the Moscow intelligentsia. But whatever the state of his health in the last year or two of his life, at this stage he still retained his authority and his word was in the end decisive.
For four long days the leaders worried away at some almost intractable problems. What was the real Soviet interest in Afghanistan? What could the Russians do about the deviousness, brutality, and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul? How should they react to Kabul’s increasingly desperate pleas for Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency?
And all the time they had in their minds the Cold War background which in so many ways underlay and distorted the policymaking process in Moscow, just as it did in the capitals of the west. Brezhnev had hoped that détente, the relaxation of tension with the West, would figure as one of the great achievements in his historical legacy. Things had started well enough. The Helsinki treaty of 1975 seemed to offer a way of reducing tension and regulating the East–West relationship in Europe. The SALT II negotiations for further limitations on US and Soviet stocks of intercontinental ballistic missiles were moving towards completion. But then things had started to go wrong. The likelihood that the Senate would ratify SALT II was receding. The row over the deployment by the Russians of SS-20 medium-range missiles in Europe was growing, as the Americans sought with increasing success to persuade their European allies to allow the matching deployment of their Pershing II missiles.
More pertinently, the Americans would surely not take lying down their humiliation in Iran, where their close ally the Shah had been ousted. Might they not see Afghanistan as some kind of substitute for Iran as a base from which to threaten the Soviet Union? Might they not move into Afghanistan if the Soviets moved out? They had sent a carrier battle group into the Western Indian ocean, ostensibly in case of more trouble in Iran; but might the ships not be equally useful to further American intentions in Afghanistan as well? The Russians did not of course know that the Americans had been considering how to support the Afghan rebellion against the Communists even before the Herat rising. But the logic of the Cold War meant they were in any case bound to react to American moves on their sensitive southern border, just as the Americans had been bound to react when the Russians put offensive missiles in Cuba. The Russians could no more abandon Afghanistan than the Americans had felt able to abandon Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. These painful parallels did not make it any easier for the Russian leaders to reach decisions in a situation which risked ending badly whatever they did.
The men in the Politburo were in no doubt that the Soviet Union would have to stick with Afghanistan come what may. The two countries had been close for sixty years and it would be a major blow to Soviet policy if Afghanistan was now lost. The trouble was that, as they started their discussions on that March day, they still had little idea what was happening on the ground. The Afghan leaders were not being frank about the true state of affairs, complained Kosygin. He demanded that Ambassador Puzanov should be sacked, and suggested that Ustinov or General Ogarkov, the Chief of Staff, should go to Kabul immediately to discover exactly what was happening.
Ustinov sidestepped the proposal. Amin, he said, had abandoned his earlier optimism and was now demanding that the Soviet Union should save the regime. But why had it come to that? Most of the soldiers in the Afghan army were devout Muslims and that was why they were deserting to the rebels. Why had the Afghan government not taken sufficient account of the religious factor earlier?
Andropov added a devastatingly bleak analysis. The main problem was the weakness of the Afghan leadership. They were still busy shooting their opponents and then had the cheek to argue that in Lenin’s day the Soviets had also shot people. They had no idea what forces they could rely on. They had failed to explain their position either to the army or to the people at large. It was perfectly clear that Afghanistan was not ripe for socialism: religion was a tremendous force, the peasants were almost completely illiterate, the economy was backward. Lenin had set out the necessary elements of a revolutionary situation. None were present in Afghanistan. Tanks could not solve what was essentially a political problem. If the revolution in Afghanistan could only be sustained with Soviet bayonets, that was a route down which the Soviet Union should not go.
Gromyko was beginning to boil over. The lack of seriousness with which the Afghan leaders treated complicated matters was like something out of a detective story. The mood of the Afghan army was still unclear. Suppose the Afghan army came out against the legitimate government and against any forces the Soviet Union might send in? Then, as he delicately put it, ‘the situation would become extremely complex’. Even if the Afghan army remained neutral, the Soviet forces would have to occupy the country. The impact on Soviet foreign policy would be disastrous. everything the Soviet Union had done in recent years to reduce international tension and promote arms control would be undermined. It would be a splendid present for the Chinese. all the non-aligned countries would come out against the Soviet Union. The hoped-for meeting between Brezhnev and President Carter (1924–) and the forthcoming visit of the French President, Giscard D’Estaing, would be put in question. And all the Soviet Union would get in exchange was Afghanistan, with its inadequate and unpopular government, its backward economy, and its insignificant weight in international affairs.
Moreover, Gromyko confessed, the legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. what was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.
Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. two divisions were being formed in the turkestan Military district and another in the Central Asian Military district. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th airborne division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.
As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.
And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.[...]
The Storming of the Palace
The time for the assault was altered several times during the day. But at about 6 p.m. General Magometov ordered Colonel Kolesnik to begin the operation as soon as possible, without waiting for the explosion that was to destroy the communications centre. Twenty minutes later an assault group under Captain Satarov quietly moved out to neutralise the three entrenched Afghan tanks commanding the approaches to the palace. The men covered the last part of the approach on foot through snow up to their waists. The Afghan sentries were rapidly killed by snipers. The tank crews were in their barracks, too far away to get to their vehicles, and the tanks were soon secured.
Now two red rockets were fired to signal the beginning of the assault. it was by then about 7.15 p.m. The palace was fully illuminated inside and out, and the Afghans were sweeping the surroundings with their searchlights. The Soviet Shilka anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The palace walls were so solid that most of the shells simply bounced off, scattering splinters of granite but causing little serious damage.
The 1st company of the Muslim Battalion then moved forward in their armoured fighting vehicles. The KGB special forces groups under the command of Colonel Boyarinov travelled with them. They had orders to take no prisoners, and not to stop to aid wounded comrades: their task was to secure the building whatever the odds.
Almost as soon as they started, one of the BMPs [infantry fighting vehicles] from the Muslim Battalion stopped. The driver had lost his nerve, jumped out of the vehicle, and fled. He returned almost immediately: things were even more frightening outside the vehicle. The vehicles crashed through the first barrier, crushing the Afghan sentry. They continued under heavy fire, and for the first time the crews heard the unfamiliar, almost unreal, sound of bullets rattling against the armour of their vehicles. They fired back with everything they had and soon the gun smoke inside the vehicles made it almost impossible for the crews to breathe. The safety glass in the vehicles was shot out. A vehicle was hit and caught fire; some of the crew were wounded when they bailed out. One man slipped as he jumped and his legs were crushed under the vehicle. Another vehicle fell off the bridge which the Russians had constructed across the irrigation ditch and the crew were trapped inside. Their commander called for help by radio, and in doing so managed to block the radio link, paralysing the communications of the whole battalion.
The assault force drove as near as they could to the palace walls, disembarked, and threw themselves at the doors and windows of the ground floor. They burst into the palace in ones and twos. Boyarinov was among them. The entrance hall was brightly lit, and the defenders were shooting and lobbing grenades from the first-floor gallery. The Russians shot out all the light bulbs they could, but some remained burning. They fought their way up the staircase and began to clear the rooms on the first floor with automatic fire and grenades. They heard the crying of women and children. One woman was calling out for Amin. A grenade cut the power supply and the remaining lights went out. Many Russians had already been wounded, including Boyarinov.
The Russians’ distinctive white armbands were by now barely visible under a layer of grime and soot. To make matters worse, Amin’s personal guards were also wearing white armbands. But in the excitement, the Russians were swearing horribly, using the choicest works in the Russian lexicon; and it was this that enabled them to identify one another in the darkness. It also meant that the defenders, many of whom had trained in the Soviet airborne school in Ryazan, now realised for the first time that they were fighting Soviet troops, not Afghan mutineers as they had thought. They began to surrender, and despite the order not to take prisoners, most of them were spared.
‘Suddenly the shooting stopped,’ one Zenit officer remembered. ‘I reported to General Drozdov by radio that the palace had been taken, that there were many dead and wounded, and that the main thing was ended.’
Amin still not realise what was happening. He told his adjutant to telephone the Soviet military advisers: ‘The Soviets will help.’ The adjutant said that it was the Soviets who were doing the firing. Amin threw an ashtray at him in a fury and accused him of lying. But after he himself had tried and failed to get through to the chief of the Afghan General Staff he quietly muttered, ‘I guessed it. It’s all true.’
There are various accounts of how he died. Possibly he was killed deliberately, possibly he was caught by a random burst of fire. One story is that he was killed by Gulabzoi, who had been given that specific task. When the gun smoke cleared, his body was lying by the bar. His small son had been fatally wounded in the chest. His daughter was wounded in the leg. Watanjar and Gulabzoi certified that he was dead. The men from Grom left, their boots squelching as they walked across the blood-soaked carpets. Later that night Amin’s body was rolled up in a carpet and taken out to be buried in a secret grave.
The battle had lasted forty-three minutes from start to finish, apart from some brutal skirmishes with elements of the Presidential Guard stationed nearby, who were rapidly dealt with. Five members of the Muslim Battalion and the 9th company of paratroopers were killed and some thirty-five suffered serious wounds. The KGB special forces groups also lost five dead. Among them was Colonel Boyarinov, who was killed by friendly fire right at the end of the battle. He seems to have been cut down by Soviet soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone who emerged from the palace before it was properly secured.
The victorious Soviets took a hundred and fifty prisoners from Amin’s personal guard. They did not count the dead. Perhaps two hundred and fifty of the Afghans guarding the palace had been killed by their erstwhile Soviet comrades in arms.
The Soviet soldiers who had been wounded during the storming of the palace were taken to the polyclinic at the nearby Soviet embassy. Galina Ivanov, the wife of the Soviet economic adviser Valeri Ivanov, had of course known nothing of what was happening until a terrible sound of shooting broke out down the road and vehicles started bringing in the dead and wounded. One of the vehicles was shot up by the embassy guards, who also had no idea what was going on.
All the embassy doctors lived in one of the microrayons, the Soviet-built suburbs on the other side of town, and were unable to get to the embassy. Galina had taken courses in nursing while she was at university and she was called in to help. She worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Apart from Galina, the only other helpers available were the embassy dentist, a woman who had been a nurse in the Second World War, and a couple of other women. There was another medically qualified person around: the wife of one of the orientalist advisers. She was a neurosurgeon, but when she saw what was going on she spun on her heels and walked off.
First the little team sorted out the living from the dead. Then the dentist had to use his barely relevant skills to operate as best he could, while Galina and the others bound up the wounds. Galina found it an absolutely horrible experience. When she went back to Moscow soon afterwards she could not understand how people could walk around the streets as if nothing had happened.
Meanwhile the Russians, triggered by the explosion at the communications centre, had moved with brutal speed and carefully focused violence to take over their other objectives in the city.
The most important and difficult target was the General Staff building. Fourteen special forces troops, accompanied by Abdul Wakil, a future foreign minister of Afghanistan, were assigned to deal with it. A deception plan was devised to ease the odds. That evening General Kostenko, the Soviet adviser to Colonel Yakub, the chief of Staff, took a number of Soviet officers to pay a formal call, including General Ryabchenko, the commander of the newly arrived 103rd Guards Air Assault Division. They discussed questions of mutual interest with the unsuspecting Yakub, a powerful man who had trained in the Ryazan airborne School and spoke good Russian. Ryabchenko had no difficulty in behaving naturally, since he knew nothing of what was about to take place. Meanwhile other Soviet special forces officers were spreading through the building, handing out cigarettes and chatting to the Afghan officers working there. when the explosion went off, they burst into Yakub’s office. Yakub fled to another room after a scuffle in which his assistant was killed, but then surrendered and was tied up and placed under guard. Ryabchenko, taken wholly by surprise, sat immobile throughout. Kostenko was nearly killed by the Soviet troops.
The fighting lasted an hour. as it died away, Abdul Wakil appeared in Yakub’s office. he talked in Pushtu to the general for a long time, and then shot him. Twenty Afghans were killed. A hundred were taken prisoner, and as they so heavily outnumbered the attackers, they were herded into a large room and tied up with electric cable.
There was an unpleasant moment when a company of Soviet para-troopers, who had arrived forty minutes late, advanced on the General Staff building in armoured personnel carriers and opened up a heavy fire, forcing the Zenit troops inside to take cover as tracer bullets flew across the room glowing like red fireflies. Order was restored and the paratroopers helped to secure the building.
The Russians needed the radio and television centre to broadcast Karmal’s appeal to the people at the earliest moment. They reconnoitred it very carefully throughout 27 December, some of them posing as automation experts to get inside the building. In the assault seven Afghans were killed, twenty-nine wounded, and over a hundred taken prisoner. One Soviet soldier received a minor wound.
No one was killed on either side in the telegraph building, and the defenders in the Central Army Headquarters and the Military Counter-Intelligence building surrendered without a fight. There was no serious resistance at the Interior Ministry building either, though one Russian soldier was wounded and subsequently died. The attackers had orders to arrest the Interior Minister, S. Payman, but he had fled in his underwear and sought refuge with his Soviet advisers.
By the morning the firing had more or less died down. But not quite. As they drove into town in their Mercedes, the senior officers who had directed the attack on the palace were fired on by a nervous and trigger-happy young paratrooper. The bullets hit the car but not the occupants. A colonel jumped out and gave the soldier a sharp clip round the ear. General Drozdov asked the young lieutenant in charge, ‘Was that your soldier? Thank you for not teaching him to shoot straight.’ once the fighting in the Taj Bek Palace had stopped, Colonel Kolesnik set up his command post there. The victorious Soviet soldiers were dropping with fatigue. Since it was possible that Afghan troops in the area might try to retake the palace, they set up a perimeter defence, their nerves still at full stretch. When they heard rustling in the lift shaft, they assumed that Amin’s people were launching a counter-attack through the passages which led into the palace from outside. They sprang to arms, fired their automatic weapons, and hurled grenades.
It was the palace cat.
In the second part of exclusive extracts from "Afgantsy", Rodric Braithwaite focuses on the soldiers who served in Afghanistan: their music, the dead, the wounded and the ambiguous reaction of their compatriots on their return. Most soldiers found adapting to life back home immensely difficult; some would later nostalgically reflect on their Afghan years as the best of their life.
Guitar and Kalashnikov
The soldiers took their guitars to Afghanistan, and they wrote and improvised a great deal of music and poetry, some of permanent value. These songs and poems reflect the history of the war: from a confident belief in the rightness of the cause, through the sounds of battle and the loss of comrades, to the disillusion and bitterness of failure.
Some popular songs were written by established artists who visited the bigger bases from time to time. Alexander Rozenbaum ↑ ’s song ‘The Black Tulip’, about the planes which flew the coffins of dead soldiers back to the Soviet Union, and ‘We Will Return’, about Soviet prisoners of war, remained popular long after the war was over. Enterprising Afghan traders imported from the West recordings of songs that were frowned upon in the Soviet Union: the music of the Beatles and ABBA, and the songs of the immensely popular Soviet singer Bulat Okudzhava ↑ (1924–97), whose pieces hovered just this side of dissent and were not much appreciated by the authorities.
But the soldiers’ attitude towards the professional singers was ambivalent. However eloquently these people sang, they had not seen battle themselves. Their music was artificial, constructed for effect, and over it, some thought, hung an atmosphere of commercial exploitation. For the real thing the soldiers made their own music on the guitars they had taken with them to the war. Or they listened to the songs of the soldier-bards, the people who had shared their trials, songs which became very popular, to the consternation of the authorities. The songs were banned by the political censorship, and the customs officers on the frontier cracked down heavily on attempts to bring taped versions into the Soviet Union. None of this stopped the songs from circulating throughout the 40th army.
The Afgantsy were acutely aware that their fathers and grandfathers had fought gloriously in the war against Hitler and there are self-conscious overtones almost of rivalry between the generations in the earlier songs. They were influenced by the songs of Vladimir Vysotski ↑ (1938–80), who had not fought in that war but had caught its spirit in many songs. They fastened on the poems of Kipling and his picture of Afghanistan, its people, and the fighting there. The authorities were less enthusiastic because Kipling was, they considered, an apologist for British imperialism in Afghanistan. Around the middle of the war a new theme emerged: nostalgia and sympathy for the White Guards, the soldiers who fought on the losing side of the civil war after the revolution in 1917 and who had upheld the heroism and discipline of Russian arms even as their country fell apart around them. The bards picked up the romances of those days about love and war and honour even in defeat. ‘[W]hy in the years of my youth did nobody publicly speak of the self-sacrifice of the White Generals?’ wondered Alexander Karpenko, a bard and military interpreter. ‘And at this point my thoughts about the White Army’s role in the fate of Russia came to mingle with what was happening in Afghanistan. The prohibitions and silence which surrounded the white idea also stimulated the creative energies of the Afgantsy, including my own.’ Towards the end, the mood of the songs began to change. Nostalgia was replaced by bitter songs about the sense of futility and defeat which settled on the 40th army as the country in whose name it had been fighting began to fall apart.
Most of the soldier-bards were officers, many from the special forces. Sergei Klimov wrote one of the first songs, about the explosion in the Afghan Government Communication Centre which triggered off the attacks in Kabul in december 1979. But Yuri Kirsanov is often regarded as the dean of the bards. He served with a special forces group called Karpaty, an offshoot of the elite Kaskad group. He joined the KGB in 1976 and when he was posted to Afghanistan in 1980 he took his guitar with him. He was stationed in Shindand. He found – bizarrely – that travelling on operations in a BTR [armoured personnel carrier] stimulated his creative ingenuity. He and a colleague systematically recorded the sounds of Afghanistan on a small tape recorder – the call of the muezzin, the rattle of armoured vehicles, the noise of battle and the cry of the jackal – and he used them as the introduction to his own songs. These he recorded in ‘studio’ conditions – in the regimental bathhouse, where he worked at night, when the electric current was more or less stable and the noise of war had died away. he composed to express the emotions of war and the soldiers’ hopes for a safe return. ‘Kirsanov’s songs succeeded in doing what the professional artists were unable to do,’ remarked one journalist. ‘They preserved the real and genuine truth of the Afghan war.’
Igor Morozov studied in the prestigious Bauman technical University ↑ and then worked for a while as an engineer in the defence industry, where he helped to develop the improved model of the infantry warhorse, the BMP-2 ↑ infantry fighting vehicle. But then his father, who had been in military intelligence during the Second World War, persuaded him to go into the First Directorate of the KGB, the foreign intelligence department, which he joined in August 1977. He was sent to Afghanistan in 1981 after two months’ special training, served for a while in Kunduz ↑ , and was then posted to command the detachment of Kaskad in Faisabad ↑ in 1982. The team consisted of three officers and a handful of soldiers. They lived in a villa on the edge of the town guarded by Khad. They had three BTRs, of which only one worked, three GAZ jeeps, two machine guns, two mortars, and three tons of ammunition. Neither the team commander nor his deputy spoke the local languages, and for three months they were without an interpreter. No one knew what the situation was in the province. The soldiers were members of the KGB’s frontier force (pogranichniki), and they were on the books of the 40th army for pay and rations. But the three officers depended on headquarters in Moscow, who simply forgot about them. Their pay was six months in arrears and they had to scrounge their rations from the soldiers. They had to get their experience from the soldiers as well: the soldiers had been in Afghanistan for six months, they could speak a few words of the language, and had some idea of the situation.
By then Morozov was already a committed songwriter: ironically, ‘Batalionnaya Razvedka’ (Battalion Reconnaissance), which he wrote in honour of his father in 1975, later became one of his most popular ‘Afghan’ songs. He had quickly concluded that ‘the patriotic songs and music recommended by the authorities were not understood or accepted by the soldiers, because they absolutely failed to reflect either the spirit or the character of the war. The first signs of moral and spiritual decay were already beginning to appear in the Limited contingent.’ He believed that ‘a country’s songs tell you what is ailing it.’ He began by playing Kirsanov’s songs to his soldiers, but soon began to compose for himself. When the fierce sandstorms whipped up by the wind which the soldiers called the ‘Afganets’ blew for days at a time, operations would be called off and Morozov would use the break to write. Soon his songs, too, were circulating throughout the 40th army: ‘The Return’ and ‘We’re Leaving’, about the final departure of the 40th army; ‘The convoy from Tulukan to Faisabad’, ‘Rain in the Mountains of Afghanistan’, ‘The Song of the Bullet’, about the fighting; ‘Guitar and Kalashnikov’, about the relationship between art and war; songs from an earlier age such as the 1930s hit ‘The Blue Balloon’.
Morozov finally left Afghanistan over the Salang Pass with the parachutists of the Vitebsk division in 1989. Valeri Vostrotin’s 345th Guards Independent Parachute Assault Regiment, which was guarding the pass, is said to have started every day with Morozov’s bitter song ‘We’re Leaving’. Morozov and his friends, by now elderly Colonels in retirement, were still performing their songs two decades after the war was over.
Most of the soldiers of the 40th army were, of course, only too anxious to get away from the monotony and the fighting, to return home as soon as they could, to resume the lives which had been disrupted when they were issued with their call-up papers. Some – Lieutenant Kartsev and Sergeant Sergei Morozov – were to remember the years in Afghanistan as the best of their lives. More than one felt a pang as they left for the Soviet Union. ‘Suddenly they understood with blinding clarity that over there, in the future, there was nothing. All was dark, impenetrable, a vacuum. if you shouted, there would be no echo; if you hurled a stone, you would not hear it land. Life was carrying them into that emptiness, unmapped, unstoppable. From now on, everything lay in the past.’
The majority of those who served in Afghanistan returned home, safe, sick, wounded, or disabled. But many of them did not. The return of the dead was an altogether grimmer affair.
The ultimate symbol of the war for many Russians was the Black Tulip, the big AN-12 four-engined cargo plane – the equivalent of the American Hercules – that brought the bodies of the fallen back from Afghanistan. For decades after the war Alexander Rozenbaum’s song ‘The Black Tulip’ could still bring a Russian audience to its feet in silent homage to the dead. There were several stories about how the planes got their romantic name, none of them authenticated.
The nightmare started back in Afghanistan, where the bodies were prepared in the regimental or divisional morgues for their journey home. The morgues were usually in tents or small huts, sometimes with a few more tents attached, on the edge of the garrison territory, under the command of a lieutenant. Inside the morgue there would be a metal table, where the corpse was be cleaned, repaired as far as possible, and dressed in its uniform. it was then placed in a zinc coffin and the lid soldered down. Marked ‘Not to be opened’, the coffin was placed in a crude wooden box, on which the name of the deceased was stencilled. The box was now ready to be loaded on to the Black Tulip.
The temperature, the humidity, and the stench inside the morgue made the work unbearable for the young conscripts sweltering in their rubber aprons and gloves, although it had the advantage that you did not have to risk your life out on an operation. The men were perpetually drunk and lived in a world of their own. It was bad luck to cross their path if you were going out on a mission and the other soldiers avoided them. They ate at their own separate table in the canteen, glad not to get on friendly terms with men whose torn bodies they might later find themselves piecing together in the morgue.
Indeed it was often difficult to identify the bodies, or to be sure that the right coffin had been given the right name. On his arrival in Afghanistan, Sergei Nikiforov was put in charge of a little medical unit on the strength of a half-completed medical training before the war. He was taken by the doctor, a major, to see the regimental morgue. It was a small hut surrounded by tents. The smell hit him even before he entered. Inside, two soldiers, completely drunk, were picking through a pile of body parts. Another soldier wheeled in a trolley on which there was a long tin box. The two soldiers filled the box with a collection of human bits and pieces which seemed to bear some resemblance to one another, then the box was sent off for the lid to be welded on.
‘How many so far?’ the major asked. ‘That was the twentieth. Five more to go.’ Once outside, the major poured so much alcohol into Nikiforov that his eyes nearly popped out. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the major. ‘You’ll see worse than that before you’re finished. Try not to drink yourself to death, though you’ll find it difficult. what you’ve just seen doesn’t happen all that often. A reconnaissance patrol was ambushed, the mujahedin chopped them to pieces, put them in sacks, commandeered a lorry, and sent them back to us as a present.’
For the journey back to the Soviet Union, the boxes were given the neutral code name ‘Cargo 200’. Andrei Blinushov, a soldier from Ryazan in central Russia, who in later life became a writer and human rights activist, was called up in the spring of 1983 and sent off to serve in the headquarters platoon of the garrison in Izhevsk in the Urals. Late one night, some of the “grandfathers” [senior soldiers] were called out to pick up a ‘Cargo 200’. They barely looked up from their television sets, but delegated the task immediately to their juniors. and that was how Blinushov first came across the Black Tulip.
He and his comrades were taken by the political officer of the HQ platoon, an apparently self-confident lieutenant, straight to the local airport and right up to a large cargo plane standing in the darkness. The hold of the Black Tulip was packed with large boxes, crudely knocked together in wood, piled three high, each with a name scribbled on it. Inside was a praporshchik [warrant officer], blind drunk, who ordered them to load the boxes on to their truck and take them to the city morgue.
It was a small building and it was already full of corpses. So the boxes – by now Blinushov had gathered that they contained the bodies of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan – were piled in the corridor. No proper death certificates had been filled out before the bodies had been sealed in their zinc coffins and then cased in wood. So – without any means of checking whether the contents of the coffins matched the names on the boxes – the morgue officials solemnly wrote out the documentation without which the coffins could not be delivered for burial to the relatives of the dead.
Even in 1983 the government was still trying to maintain the fiction that the Soviet troops were not engaged in combat, but merely fulfilling their ‘international duty’ to help the Afghan people. So the coffins were delivered to the families at dead of night. It was a futile precaution. On almost every occasion the word got out in advance, and the relatives, neighbours, and friends were already waiting when the lorry drove up, the wooden box was broken open, and the zinc coffin delivered to the family.
That first night, Blinushov and his comrades carried the coffin – it contained the body of a helicopter pilot – up seven flights of stairs to the apartment where the man’s wife lived, white-faced, unable to cry, clutching her new baby. A neighbour came in to help find somewhere for the coffin to rest. And then the young woman started to scream.
The soldiers somehow slid away, hurtled down the stairs, and rejoined their officer. He had been unable to face the scene and had remained in the lorry. As time passed, commanders in Afghanistan would sometimes allow an officer or a praporshchik to escort the body: usually it was the body of a soldier who been awarded a posthumous medal for gallantry. Cross-examining the escort was, among other things, a good way for the people back home to find out what was going on in Afghanistan. One young captain, a helicopter pilot, came to deliver the body of a comrade from the same squadron. He showed Blinushov photos – taken illegally, of course – of life in the field: soldiers dressed in an odd mixture of uniform and civilian clothes, and Afghan villages reduced to ruins. The young officer said that the helicopters sometimes had to attack villages when they were operating against the mujahedin. of course women and children got killed too: He tried unconvincingly to maintain that they had been killed by the mujahedin. He was so nervous about how he would be received by his comrades’ family that he asked Blinushov – a private soldier – how he should behave.
He was right to be worried. When he arrived at the house of the dead man with his escort – several soldiers and a praporshchik , they found an angry crowd round the house. Someone punched the praporshchik in the jaw, his lip was split, and his cap fell into a puddle. The women screamed, ‘Murderers! who’ve you brought with you! what have you done with our boy?’ The men started to attack the soldiers as well, until the women shouted, ‘Leave them alone. They’re just as unhappy as we are. it’s not their fault!’
The soldiers unpacked the wooden box and slowly took the coffin up into the apartment. it was crowded with relatives and neighbours, the mirrors were veiled in black, the women were wailing and the men were drunk. The captain stood awkwardly in the entrance, kneading his cap in his hands. when Blinushov told one of the women that the man had come all the way from Afghanistan to accompany his comrade, she rushed forward, saying, ‘Please, forgive us: he was our only son.’ Nervous at the prospect of being left alone, the captain tried to persuade Blinushov , they were by now on first-name terms, despite the difference in rank , to stay behind while everyone drank tea. But it was time to return to base and the soldiers left.
It was not only men, of course, who returned to their homes in the zinc coffins. Alla Smolina’s friend Vera Chechetova was making the short fifteen-minute flight by helicopter from her outlying base into Jalalabad when her helicopter was shot down on 14 January 1987. She had refused to wear a parachute because it wouldn’t fit and because it would have spoiled her dress. it was only by the fragments of the dress that they were able to identify her body. At least, observed Smolina, that meant that her family got the right body when the coffin was delivered to them , something that by no means always happened.
The Mood Settles Down
Attempts after 1989 by journalists and liberal politicians to get at the truth of the Afghan war produced a furious reaction not only from the veterans, but from their families as well. When Svetlana Aleksievich published her book in 1990 about the men and women who served in Afghanistan, she was overwhelmed with criticism. ‘you wanted to demonstrate the futility and wickedness of war, but you don’t realise that in doing so you insult those who took part in it, including a lot of innocent boys.’ ‘How could you? How dare you cover our boys’ graves with such dirt? ... They were heroes, heroes, heroes!’ ‘My only son was killed there. The only comfort I had was that I’d raised a hero, but according to you he wasn’t a hero at all, but a murderer and aggressor.’ ‘How much longer are you going to go on describing us as mentally ill, or rapists, or junkies?’
The veterans were particularly infuriated to be told that the war had been a ‘mistake’. ‘why all this talk of mistakes? And do you really think that all these exposés and revelations in the press are a help? You’re depriving our youth of their heroic heritage.’ ‘i don’t want to hear about any political mistakes ... Give me my legs back if it was all a mistake.’ ‘We were sent to Afghanistan by a nation which sanctioned the war,’ one woman said, ‘and returned to find that same nation had rejected it. What offends me is the way we’ve simply been erased from the public mind. what was only recently described as one’s “international duty” is now considered stupidity.’ ‘They put the blame on a few men who were already dead [Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko]. And everyone else was innocent , apart from us! Yes, we used our weapons to kill. That’s what they handed them out for. Did you expect us to come home angels?’ and more calmly: ‘Of course there were criminals, addicts and thugs. Where aren’t there? Those who fought in Afghanistan must, absolutely, be seen as victims who need psychological rehabilitation.’
What the veterans had found almost the hardest of all to bear was the contrast between the way they had been treated and the reception , at least as it was preserved in popular memory , which their fathers and grandfathers had received when they returned as heroes from their victory over Hitler. That too began to change. President Putin moved to restore a sense of pride in Russia’s history of the twentieth century, the history of the Soviet Union. There was a new emphasis on patriotism and on the glories of Russia’s military past. The war in Afghanistan began to be reinvented as a heroic episode in which the soldiers had done their military duty and defended the interests of the Motherland. On Putin’s instructions, a memorial was erected to the warrior-internationalists in 2004, in an alleyway of the grandiose war memorial complex commissioned by Brezhnev to stand on the Poklonnaya Gora, the shallow hill on the outskirts of Moscow where Napoleon waited in vain for the city fathers to bring him the keys of the city. An infantry fighting vehicle, painted in desert camouflage, was placed beside it as a modest addition to the military hardware from the Great Patriotic War which was spread across the rest of the site.
The mood started to settle as the controversy over its causes and conduct began to die down. Russian commentators moved on from the endless argument about who was guilty for the Soviet debacle. A whole new dimension entered the discussion with the American invasion of Afghanistan ↑ at the end of 2001. The veterans saw the Americans mirroring their own experience and their own mistakes. There was sympathy for the soldiers fighting over the same difficult ground. There was some inevitable Schadenfreude as the Nato campaign increasingly bogged down, much tempered by the thought that it was certainly not in the Russian interest to see Nato fail and leave an unstable Afghanistan to their vulnerable south.
Four or five years into the new century, another important thing happened. The veterans discovered the internet, which was beginning to penetrate deeply into Russian society and giving a voice to people who had previously been unable to make themselves heard. The internet enabled the veterans to bypass the official organisations and make direct contact with one another, to seek out their former comrades. They posted their memoirs, their poems, their short stories, their novels on their own site, art of war. The quality of many of the literary contributions was high and often remarkably objective: there was comparatively little macho boasting. And the messages did not come only from the intellectuals and the educated. Many came from simple people, whose grasp of spelling and syntax was not always entirely secure. Through the internet, the veterans began to put together lists of those they had served with, to write a first version of their regimental histories, and to organise their own reunions. Among the most active were the men from the 860th Independent Motor-rifle Regiment and the 345th Guards independent Parachute assault Regiment. In the summer of 2009 the veterans of the 860th Independent Motor-rifle Regiment, who by now had tracked down over two thousand of their former comrades, held their third national reunion in a sanatorium outside Moscow. it was attended by men of all ranks, some of whom had been looking for one another for two decades and more. Many brought their wives and children. Colonel Antonenko, who had once commanded the regiment, was there. So were Private Kostya Sneyerov and his commander Yuri Vygovski, who had named his son Konstantin after his former subordinate. They drank the ‘Third toast’ in memory of those who had not returned. And they vowed to continue their meetings in future years.
The Twentieth Anniversary
The twentieth anniversary of the withdrawal was celebrated all over Russia in February 2009. in Moscow the celebrations began with a vast ceremony organised in the Olympic Stadium by the Moscow branch of the Boevoe Bratstvo. Some five thousand people attended, veterans, wives and girlfriends, many teenagers, and a huge paratrooper, well over six feet tall and chunky to match. There were interminable patriotic speeches, endless noisy sentimental songs, and a dozen cars were given away as prizes to selected veterans , an ostentatious and very expensive display. Some thought the money might have been better spent on the many veterans still living in poverty.
Sunday, 15 February , the day of the anniversary itself , was cold, with wet sleet and snow falling thickly. The official wreath was laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin, to the accompaniment of some fine marching and a spirited rendering of the old Soviet national anthem. Three or four hundred veterans, including Alexander Gergel and his comrades from the 860th Independent Motor-rifle Regiment, then carried the red banners of the 40th army from the Kremlin through the snow and slush to the monument to the warrior-internationalist, the Afganets, on the Poklonnaya Gora. There they were addressed by their generals: Ruslan Aushev, who had fought his way up the Pandsher Valley, and become a hero of the Soviet Union and Governor of his homeland, the North caucasian republic of Ingushetia; and Valeri Vostrotin, another hero of the Soviet Union, who had stormed Amin’s palace and led the 354th Guards independent Parachute assault Regiment during operation Magistral. The speeches were sober and mercifully short: Aushev joked that if the politicians had been to staff college and planned the thing properly, the withdrawal would have taken place at a more clement season, and the veterans would not now be standing in the snow. The soldiers, the speakers said, had defended the interests of their country and done what the Motherland had asked of them. They had gone to help the Afghans; and when the Afghans had wanted them no longer, they had left. Frants Klintsevich, the former political officer who was now the chairman of the Russian Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, said that it had been a bad peace; but a bad peace was better than a good war. The mother of a fallen soldier made a restrained and dignified speech: the Afghan war should be the last war in which Russian boys died. She had forgotten Chechnya.
That evening a grand ceremony was held in the Kremlin. The veterans could feel that after two decades their service and their sufferings in Afghanistan were at last receiving some kind of recognition , even if the state for which they had fought no longer existed.
Russians and Americans drew the illuminating comparison with the American war in Vietnam both during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and afterwards. The Cold War conditioned the decisions of both governments. Both went to war, on a dubious interpretation of international law, in the belief that they were defending their country’s vital interests. Their immediate aims were similar: to protect a client and to deny a strategic territory to the other. Both had more grandiose aims: to build in a distant country a political, social, and economic system similar to their own. Neither understood what they were getting into. Both thought that they would be able to shore up their local ally , the PDPA government in Kabul and the South Vietnamese Government in Saigon , so that they could hand over responsibility for the security of the country and then leave. Both believed that their modern military machine should prevail without too much difficulty over the ragtag guerrilla force which faced them.
And indeed the failures were not military. Neither the Soviet army in Afghanistan nor the American army in Vietnam was defeated: they held the ground and eventually withdrew in good order. The failures in both cases were failures of intelligence, of judgement, and of assessment. Both the Americans and the Russians set themselves unattainable strategic goals. Neither were able to achieve their main political objective: a friendly, stable regime which would share their ideological and political goals. Their protégés were overthrown and the peoples of Vietnam and Afghanistan rejected the political models they were offered. Some among the military in both Russia and America believed that the failure to prevail was the result of the spinelessness of the public and the press, and the weakness, even the treachery, of the politicians. But the entry of the mujahedin into Kabul, like the entry of the North Vietnamese into Saigon, marked a decisive outcome to both wars of a kind which Clausewitz, for one, would have recognised instantly.