Review: Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite
Afgantsy is the plural of the Russian Afganets, meaning an inhabitant of Afghanistan, a hot sand-laden southwest wind or a veteran of the Soviet war. It is the third meaning which provides the theme for this book.
Angles of attack
Like any good book, this one which deals with the decade-long war the Soviets fought in Afghanistan can be read on a number of different levels or from different perspectives. It can be read as a straightforward, informative account of the war – how it began, what it involved in terms of aims, strategy and tactics, and how it came to an end.
It can also be read as a work about war in general – about “the complex and confused way in which decisions are taken by most governments”, particularly when it comes to war matters, about the shifting sands of international diplomacy and about how war aims are always hopeful and positive, despite past experience.
When a Soviet deputy foreign minister visited the British Foreign Office in early 1980 and was given a historical account of British failures in Afghanistan, his response was: “This time it will be different.” Rodric Braithwaite adds that that’s the usual argument advanced by people “when they set out to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors”. You can’t help reading an unspoken message into that regarding the current involvement with Afghanistan on the part of the US and its allies, including Britain.
A third level on which to read this book can be to take it as a commentary on the Soviet system with its “mixture of inefficiency, brutality and creative flexibility”. As a former British ambassador to Moscow and someone knowledgeable about Russia, its language, history and culture, Braithwaite is well placed to understand and convey in a balanced manner a picture of Soviet Russia.
Deal-making on the ground
However, perhaps the most interesting, compelling and indeed moving theme of this book involves the sympathetic insight it offers into the lives and fate of the ordinary Soviet soldiers sent by the Kremlin to do its bidding in a vast and for them initially unknown country. We learn not only about the fighting between the Soviets and the mujahedin, which was often confused and sometimes extremely brutal, but also about how the two sides – in the manner of the famous 1914 Christmas truce across the trenches in World War I – could sometimes come to an accommodation or working arrangement which diffused the conflict and reduced the frequency of violent exchanges.
“Quite junior commanders worked out their own deals with the local villages and mujahedin commanders… The relationship was a complex one. Fighting alternated with cooperation and compromise: an informal ceasefire, a willingness to turn a blind eye to smuggling provided weapons were not involved.” Small Soviet detachments posted to the countryside “had little choice but to get on with the local villagers: they could not otherwise have survived”. Thus they were supplied with goods such as canned food, cigarettes and soap for purposes of barter and bribe. As the Americans learnt in Vietnam, the enemy often included some of those villagers.
Sorry plight of soldiers
The life of the soldiers when not fighting is also portrayed – the tedious tasks producing boredom, the comradeship and the tensions, the desire to go home and until then just to survive. An intriguing cultural aspect is brought to life in the accounts of how singer-songwriters among the troops used music to record their often bitter experiences of the war. They were experiences which could not be shared with those back home in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and elsewhere across the sprawling Soviet Union.
Most bitter of all was the experience of the soldiers when they did eventually return home, due to injury or because their period of military service or the war itself had ended. Far from being treated with respect, let alone as heroic veterans, they were neglected – abandoned might be a better word – both by the authorities and by wider society. The Afgantsy struggled to re-integrate, to find jobs and accommodation, to obtain benefits, even those they were formally entitled to, and, most of all, to receive some recognition and acknowledgement of what they had gone through. In their desperate situation, many turned to alcohol, others to crime and not a few ended as suicide cases.
“The soldiers who do the actual fighting come home having seen and done terrible things which return to haunt them. The stories of heroism and comradeship help them to manage their memories and give meaning to what they have been through. Some claim that the war years were the best of their lives. Many more say nothing, and go to their graves without telling even their nearest and dearest what it was really like.
“So it is after all wars,” concludes Braithwaite. “So it was after the Soviet war in Afghanistan.”
Buy the book
Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89
By Rodric Braithwaite
Hardback, illustrated, 417 pages
Profile Books, 2011, GBP 25