Disinformation

Russian Afghan Vets Try To Preserve Tragic Lessons of War

In 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the nation was at the height of its power. A decade later it was on its knees. Now, the Duma wants to change this perception.

051262 22: (NO NEWSWEEK – NO USNEWS) A Soviet soldier is handed a flag as Soviet troops withdraw May 15, 1988 from Kabul, Afghanistan. In May 1988 Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States signed agreements providing for an end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and the USSR began withdrawing its forces. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In the eastern outskirts of Moscow, young cadets in uniform wander through a two-room hall crammed full of painful memories. A large map of Afghanistan, a row of youthful faces eager for an adventure and then a video showing zinc coffins bringing those one-time Soviet army recruits home.

The emotions sparked by this intimate exhibit grow more intense as the viewer stands in front of a handwritten quote stenciled on one of the green walls, repeating the text that thousands of Soviet mothers and wives received years ago:

”With great sorrow and grief we inform you about the death of your son.”

On the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, reminders of that brutal war are largely confined to out-of-the-way places like the Afghan Exhibit Hall in Petrovo, opened and staffed by a group of Afghan war veterans who don’t want their sacrifice and patriotism to be forgotten.

In today’s Russia, where the Kremlin is flexing its geopolitical muscles, lawmakers are campaigning for a reinterpretation of the Afghan conflict, recasting it not as a tragedy of human and political proportions but part of a valiant and glorious past.

In today’s Russia, where the Kremlin is flexing its geopolitical muscles in foreign lands, lawmakers are campaigning for a reinterpretation of the Afghan conflict, recasting it not as a tragedy of human and political proportions but as part of a valiant and glorious past.

In 1979 when the Soviet Union ordered scores of armored divisions across the farcically named Friendship Bridge linking Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, the nation was at the height of its power. Over the next decade, the war killed an estimated 1 million civilians, 90,000 Afghan fighters and more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers.

In 1979 the Soviet Union ordered scores of armored divisions across the farcically named Friendship Bridge linking Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. Over the next decade, the war killed an estimated 1 million civilians, 90,000 Afghan fighters and more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers.

When the final Soviet soldiers retreated across the same bridge in February 1989, the nation was on its knees, economically and emotionally. The vast majority of Soviet leaders and citizens criticized the war as a disaster, marking a turning point in Soviet history. Mikhail Gorbachev, as chairman of the Supreme Soviet, signed a resolution of “moral and political condemnation” of the invasion, a position backed by the Congress of People’s Deputies.

Thirty years later, the mood in Moscow has changed significantly.

Duma deputies are planning to call a vote Friday, the anniversary of the withdrawal, to overturn this resolution and redefine the Afghan war “on the basis of political impartiality and historical truth,” according to a draft law approved in November by a majority of lawmakers from the ruling United Russia parties and the Communists.

Col. General Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Duma’s defense committee, says this new law is necessary to preserve the honor of those who served in the war.

“Thirty years have passed, but all of us still ache in some way from those events not only because we did not expect such an end to [the military operation] but also because of the assessments that were made too fast.” Shamanov said in astatement. “Neither the leadership of the state nor servicemen and civilians deserve such assessments.”

Revising this painful chapter comes at a time when Moscow is again seeking influence in the war-torn country. Last week, the Kremlin hosted peace talks between leading Afghan political figures and the Taliban, men who were among the anti-Soviet resistance fighters that helped push the Red Army out of their country decades ago. Some in the delegation have been linked to terrorism and war crimes as well.

For people like Igor Erin, a retired sergeant who served in Kunduz, Afghanistan, who is now the director of the Afghan exhibit hall in Petrovo, the Duma move smacks of cynicism.

Igor Erin, a veteran who runs a small Afghan war museum, says nobody actually wanted to fight. Even so, he says he owes it to his fallen comrades to prevent the tragedy of war from being forgotten.

He and his former comrades at arms have struggled for years to keep open their small memorial. Created by volunteers in 1993, it now receives funding from the state, while most other museums of the Soviet-Afghan war are private.

Most of the 7,000 visitors each year are Moscow children, who are taught at school that the war was part of a benign foreign policy. Erin says his fellow citizens are not taught about the human cost of the war to the Afghan people and the Soviet veterans like himself who have lived with trauma and disability, largely without support from the government.

Some political analysts see the Duma initiative to reshape the legacy of Afghanistan as part of a larger campaign to burnish their Soviet past, and they doubt such a move has any popular backing. It is unclear if the Kremlin will approve the new resolution or not.

”The political establishment do not perceive the invasion as a success. So why are they pretending? Their views about the Afghan war are almost eye to eye with the majority of the population,” said Alexei Malashenko, a leading Moscow-based Middle East expert, the chief Research Director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.

In Petrov, Erin and his volunteers on Friday will be holding their own commemoration of the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal.

He says Afghanistan was a war that nobody actually wanted to fight. Even so, he says he owes it to his fallen comrades to prevent their deaths and the tragedy of war from being forgotten.

”We want a bigger museum. We need more money but the government has other priorities,” Erin said.

Maria Georgieva

Maria Georgieva is an investigative journalist and documentary maker based in Moscow since 2016. Born in Bulgaria, raised in Sweden, Maria is also Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet's correspondent in Russia. She previously worked for Swedish public radio and television. @mariageorgieva

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