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.
Soviet troops on combat mission in Afghanistan.
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.
Yuri Kirsanov was an elite special forces officerin Russia. At night, he recorded war songs in his‘studio’ – the regimental bathhouse.
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.’
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.
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’.
Igor Morozov's ‘Batalionnaya Razvedka’ (Battalion Reconnaissance). Despite being written in honour of his father in 1975, 'Batalionnaya Razvedka' was popularized as an ‘Afghan’ song.
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 big AN-12 four-engined cargo plane was used to bringthe bodies of the fallen back from Afghanistan.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
For the journey back to the Soviet Union, coffins were codenamed ‘Cargo 200’.
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.’
Memorial “to the warrior-internationalists” in Moscow, which was unveiled in 2004. In contrast to the veneration of World War II veterans, many Afghan veterans were greeted with indifference and hostility on their return; the war had become very unpopular back home. That began to change when Putin took over.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 21st anniversary of the withdrawal was celebrated with a special event on Moscow's Poklonnaya gora hillside.
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.
Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, by Rodric Braithwaite (Profile, £25).