Over the past few months, English Russia has published three separate albums with black-and-white photographs from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
In my time working in this country, a couple of my own misconceptions have been overturned:
- I joke and offend and call this place Trashcanistan. Someone recently reminded me that ‘Trashcanistan’ was a catch-all term used by Stephen Kotkin over a decade ago in an article about the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and not Afghanistan. Whether to group them together is a separate conversation.
- I have been surprised that in the North of the country, older folks are quick and happy to speak Russian. While there are many for whom Russian evokes a strong negative reaction, to many up North, Russian is the language of their education and (pre-invasion) economic stability. [Contrast this with Kazakhstan, where de-Russification continues. (See here)]
Thinking of the invasion itself, one sees that the Soviets certainly contributed to the fractionalization of the country, as the relatively peaceful North, where people speak Russian with a smile, is vastly different from less stable, linguistically diverse regions elsewhere in the country.
The point is that unlike at home, where totalitarianism led to an atomized society, in Afghanistan Soviet involvement enhanced regional fractures. This could be because the Soviets did not operate in a vacuum, and that these effects are directly tied to tropes like the ‘Great Game’. However, Soviet accounts of the 1980s remain largely unknown to me. Ahmed Rashid recommends two books:
- Both Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War, by Svetlana Alexievich
- The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Artyom Borovik
both by authors who became dissidents; as Rashid points out
The Soviets also embedded journalists with their army, and the rules were clear: they were expected to follow the Party line…For Soviet journalists to report on war and become dissidents was part of a tradition that went back to World War II when young Soviet journalists like Vasily Grossman reported the heroic fighting of front-line troops, only to later become critics of Stalin.
Finally, a personal anecdote offers a unique perspective:
Years ago, I was touring the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC with a Russian friend who had limited knowledge of US history. She asked if the memorial was to commemorate the Vietnamese invasion of the US. I told her no, in fact the US had sent troops into Vietnam, and not vice versa. She replied
“How very strange! In Russia we do not have any memorials glorifying our 1979 invasion of Afghanistan!”