Èñòîðèÿ (Î-ß) /
The impact of the Afghan War on soviet soldiers.
Defense of the Socialist Motherland is the sacred duty of every citizen of the USSR.
Article 62, Soviet 1977 Constitution
Soviet invasion in Afghanistan started in December 1979, when the first military troops crossed the Afghan border. Only at the time of ‘perestroyka’, in the year 1988, Gorbachov, the leader of Politburo - start the process of withdrawing military troops from the territory of Afghanistan. Between 1979 and 1988, about 15,000 soldiers were killed, and many others were wounded. Gorbachov wanted to stop that war. He stopped it as a historical fact. But did he stop that war inside the hearts of thousands of veterans who came back to their homes? Did he prevent the negative impact of that war on soldiers’ lives? The answer is simple - no. My essay will give evidence in support of this opinion.
The Afghan War changed many people’s lives in the USSR. Still, in present-day Russia, the consequences of that war are appeared. The greatest impact of the Afghan War can be seen on the people who were there - soldiers who had to serve in Afghanistan and fulfill their ‘international duty’. The war for which there was no need, had destroyed many soldiers’ lives. Fifteen thousand of them had been killed, and many others had been injured, some having become invalids, unneeded to the government who had sent them to that war, and to the people who were not in the war. Every single young man who went to Afghanistan continued his life differently from the people who had never been there. The effect was due not merely to a war, but to the whole system of the ex-USSR. In my essay I will try to describe both of these effects on soldiers’ lives.
The new life for the eighteen year old boys began when they graduated from high school. Some of them became recruits during the spring draft, others during the fall draft. Recruits bound for Afghanistan would receive 8-10 weeks’ training before being sent to their units. From that moment they became subject to the subordination of officers through the formal channels of authority, and the informal of dedovshina (discrimination by the older soldiers). Newcomers were kept in line, while being beaten. This continued until the new soldiers agreed to acquiesce. That was just the beginning of soldiers’ lives, being sent to the war they all experienced in very different ways. The impact of fighting and the experience of killing, dedovshina, an alien military institution, and an alien land changed the characters and lives of the soldiers before they returned home. ‘We were in an alien land. And why were we there? To this day, for some, it doesn’t matter.’
War in Afghanistan was not exclusively a male war. Many of the women who volunteered to served in Afghanistan were nurses, others filled a variety of support or nurture roles (as cooks, for example). The rest were involved in paperwork or communication. For these in Afghanistan women the main problem became men. They attracted soldiers in Afghanistan not only as sex objects but also as mother figures. Often women were raped by soldiers who had been sent to Afghanistan instead of going to prison. Thus in the Soviet patriarchal society the belief that women who served in Afghanistan were whores or prostitutes took root. Here, a woman who had served in Afghanistan describes her feelings:
‘You fulfilled your international duty in a bed’... My mother proudly announced to her friends: ‘My daughter was in Afghanistan.’ My naive mother! I want to write to her: ‘Mother, be quiet or you’ll hear people say your daughter is a prostitute.’
After coming home, soldiers organized the form of a community that they had been accustomed to in Afghanistan, with their own customs and jargon. Coming back to normal life was enormously difficult for them, because of the reasons that I will explain in next paragraph. Thus, from the beginning they separated themselves from the surrounding society. Many veterans became members of Mafia groups. The lives of the returning soldiers differed from each other, but on one point it was the same for every veteran: they could not live normal lives in society, as they would have without having experienced the war. In the words of a veteran who had served in Afghanistan: ‘You never really come home.’
One of the main reason for veterans holding back from society was that civilians met soldiers coming back to homes without honor. Forty-six percent of civilians said that the Afghan war was a Russian national shame, and only 6% of them said that they were proud of their soldiers who had fulfilled their international duty in Afghanistan. Veterans felt that their efforts and endurance had not been wholly in vain. Often veterans became the object of criticism by media and public opinion. People thought that the war had made warriors of the men, and, in fear, kept away from veterans. The media blamed them - not the government - for taking part in the war and partly for losing it. Thus, after coming back, soldiers started to look with new eyes upon the society that had sent them to their death. While they had been in Afghanistan, the public and media had expressed contempt for the soldiers; after they returned, this sentiment only increased.
Disrespect to the people and to the governmental system became common among soldiers who were experiencing discrimination after having fulfilled their duty. This situation galvanized potential men, unhappy with their political system into striking. During the putsch of 1991, many veterans supported Mayor Sobchak, who supported the putsch against the new democratic government in Leningrad.
The long-term impact, and one of the most terrible consequences of the Afghan War, was the addiction of soldiers to alcohol and drugs. Death, drinking, and drugs became part of the veterans’ lives forever. Drugs were essential to the survival of the soldiers. Drugs helped them to carry 40 kilos of ammunition up and down the mountains, to overcome depression after their friends’ deaths, to prevail over the fear of death. Drugs and alcohol became the usual procedure of self-medication when other options were denied. The abuse of drugs created a generation of drug and alcohol addicts. According to the official reports of the Russian Department of Health Services, 40 millions medically certified alcoholics in 1985 were registered. Consumption of alcohol had increased 20,4% from its consumption in 1950-79. If these were official reports then it is possible that they were only a part of truth, and another part is like the bottom part of an iceberg - it cannot be predicted.
There wasn’t a single person among us who did not try drugs in Afghanistan. You needed relaxation there, or you went out of your mind.
Veteran of Afghan War
Coming back home, veterans found employment in many different fields, from driving buses to banking. But most of them started to work on the field which was closest to what they had done in Afghanistan. Emergency services such as the firemen, militia and rescue departments had a shortage of workers at that time and many of the Afghan veterans continued to work there. Finding a job was one of the privileges which the government gave to the veterans. This was maybe the only privilege which was really fulfilled. But this was a strategic maneuver for the Soviet government: to prevent veterans from assuming employment in the Union of Afghan War Veterans Society. The government was afraid of this Union because it united the most dangerous and prepared warriors in Russia.
Another major impact of the Afghan war on soldiers lives’ was injuries and mental disorders. ‘Most of us came home. Only we all came home differently. Some of us on crutches, some of us with gray hair, many in zinc coffins.’ Although a medical service was established on a modern and highly effective level ( 93% of the troops received initial medical aid within 30 minutes and the attention of a specialized doctor within six hours), many soldiers became invalids during the war. Fifty thousand soldiers were wounded in action, of whom 11,371 became invalids and were unable to return to work, while 1,479 veterans received the most serious category of disability. These veterans were unable to continue working and leading normal lives. These circumstances forced them to live on the earnings of their family members and on the governments’ invalid benefit. But even these benefits were paid inconstantly and were extremely low. One of the privileges which Afghanistan veterans received was a flat in a newly built house. In the Soviet Russian system, which recognized no private ownership of property, every single citizen had to wait in a line of thousands of people before getting a flat. Afghanistan veterans were put at the beginning of that line, but corruption in the Russian bureaucracy had widened the process of granting new flats to the invalids and veterans. Thus when the free market economy was established in Russia and all the lines for the flats were canceled, people had to buy them with their own money, and many veterans and invalids of the Afghan War remained without their flats. Thus the bureaucratic system in Russia had left most of the veterans without their privileges and benefits.
One mother wrote in the letter to Politburo ‘Why did you ruin my son, why did you spoil his mind and his soul?’. While physical disability was relatively easy to prove and to cure, the psychological damage was far more complicated to diagnosis and to treat. Modern counter-insurgency wars involve a particularly high incidence of psychological damage; generally Post-Traumatic stress disorders, symptoms which include flashbacks,