The Impact of the Afghan War on soviet soldiers

The Impact of the Afghan War on soviet soldiers

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 peoples 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.[i] 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.[ii] 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 doesnt


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.[iv] 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 youll hear

people say your daughter is a prostitute.[v]

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.[vi]

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.[vii] 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


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.[viii] 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 wasnt a single person among us who did not try drugs in

Afghanistan. You needed relaxation there, or you went out of your


Veteran of Afghan War[ix]

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.[x] 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.[xi] 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?.[xii] 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,

emotional numbness, withdrawal, jumpy hyperalertness or over-compensatory

extroversion. This was caused partly because of the critical stresses of

combat and injury. In most cases mental disorders were caused by unclear

front-line zones. Soldiers had experienced mostly road war without clear

front-line meant that no place was safe. Soldiers were always ready for the

battle alarm; there was no time to rest. Knowing their terrain well, the

resistance fighters can move with ease at night and night vision equipment

would enable them to train accurately their weapons on enemy

targets...[xiii] And how could soldiers relax, knowing that an unguided

rocket could penetrate almost all security perimeters, that even a ten year

old boy could carry and use a pistol or a grenade? One veteran recalled:

...the leading vehicle broke down. The driver got out and lifted

the bonnet - and the boy, about ten years old, rushed out and stabbed

him in the back... We turned the boy into a sieve.

Veteran of Afghan War[xiv]

Another historical testament to that violence was found in a

different source:

...in early May 1981 they killed a number of children in the

village of Kalakan, the stronghold of SAMA. The Russian soldiers were

stated to have said, When the children grow up they take up arms

against us...[xv]

How can people who killed a ten year old boy live normally after

coming back to the motherland? Without safe place, restless - these

circumstances may cause a healthy adult to become mentally imbalanced. What

can it do to nineteen year old boys, who had been drafted just after

finishing their school and who had not seen life yet? They can easily lose

their minds. But psychological disorders became classified adequately to

the status of invalid only later. Yet, no category of invalidity was given

to that disability. Thus, mentally sick veterans had to live almost

entirely on support from friends and family. In this way the government

ignored the impact of the war, which was started by its decree, on

soldiers lives.

In a normal society the killing of another man is not permitted;

killers receive the death penalty. During the war this situation had been

changed and in Afghanistan soldiers had received a license to kill their

enemies, who were also human beings. With a machine-gun soldiers received

the power of life and death and the feeling of authority to do what they

wished became common among Russian soldiers in Afghanistan. Problems ensued

when soldiers were unable to overcome that feeling once they has left their

guns behind. Some soldiers, unable to square the demands of war with the

demands of their conscience, were stamped with amorality. Others became

compulsively violent. ...they killed thirty-one villages, slaying them

inside mosques, in lanes, or inside their homes.[xvi] These

circumstances created another impact of the Afghan War. By the end of 1989,

about 3,000 veterans were in prisons for criminal offenses, while another

2,540 soldiers were imprisoned for crimes committed while serving in

Afghanistan.[xvii] Thus the Afghan War created criminals who were trained

to kill. Among the crimes committed by soldiers in Afghanistan, the most

common were hooliganism 12,6%, rape 11,8%, theft of personal property

12,4%, robbery 11,9% and murder 8,4% (these percentages were taken from the

total number of 2,540 soldiers convicted of crime).[xviii]

Thus the war had affected all of the soldiers who experienced it.

Some became criminals, others became invalids without any actual support

from the government. The rest had to face the psychological impact of the

war, which was called as afghan syndrome by the media. Most of these

people decided to dedicate their lives to helping the victims of the Afghan

War. In Leningrad, several organizations were created with the aim to aid

physical and psychological victims of the war. LAVVA (Leningrad Association

of Veterans of the War in Afghanistan), K sovesti Leningrad Information-

Publication Organization, Modul Cultural-Leisure Center for Veterans of

the Foreign War Association - these are just a few of many organizations

created throughout the USSR.[xix] Left and unsupported by the government,

these organizations aimed to provide extra facilities for the treatment of

injured veterans, to compensate veterans fully or partly for the expenses

of necessary treatment, to develop sports for invalid and to force the

government to support the invalids rights.

Thus the experience of the Afghan War had a twofold impact on

soldiers lives: first, the impact of the war itself and second, the impact

of returning to a peaceful life after the war. In the words of one veteran:

What did the war give to us? Thousands of mothers who lost sons,

thousands of cripples, thousands of torn-up lives.[xx]

While in Afghanistan, soldiers experienced discrimination by the older

soldiers and by the officers. The foreign land, the experience of fighting,

the death of friends, the highly difficult conditions of living, and the

absence of a stimulus to fighting made most of the soldiers addicted to

drugs and alcohol. Drugs became an easy source of relaxation because

Afghanistan is one of the biggest suppliers of marijuana on the black


The term lost generation can be applied towards the veterans of the

Afghan War. This war had created a generation of alcoholics and drug

addicts. It also made many young people invalids unable to work and to earn

money on their own. The other creation of the war in Afghanistan was the

increased rate of violence and immoral behavior among soldiers and veterans

of the war. These circumstances had made criminals out of 19 year old boys.

Discrimination by the public opinion and media, and the unwillingness of

the government to help victims of the war even increased the number of

criminals, alcoholics and drug addicts among the veterans of the Afghan




[i] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam (San Francisco: Mercury

House, 1992), p.156.

[ii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War (London:

Bookcraft (Bath) Ltd., Midsomer Norton, 1995), p.35.

[iii] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam , p.64.

[iv] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.41.

[v] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.41.

[vi] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.45.

[vii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.47.

[viii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.51.

[ix] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.52.

[x] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam , p.164.

[xi] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.68.

[xii] Diego Cordovez, Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, Inc., 1995), p.247.

[xiii] Nasir Shansab, Soviet Expansion in the Third World (Maryland: Silver

Spring, 1986), p.171.

[xiv] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.69.

[xv] M. Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan (Los Angeles: University of California

Press, 1995), p.241.

[xvi] M. Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan , p.241.

[xvii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.71.

[xviii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.72.

[xix] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War , p.81.

[xx] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam , p.164.

Evaluation of the historical sources:

The book Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War by Mark Galeotti

were used a number of materials written both in English and in Russian.

Mostly the references I have used were taken by the author from articles

from newspapers with the interviewees of veterans. I count this source of

information as reliable because the author showed the point of view on the

Afghan War of both veterans of Soviet military forces and from the United

States, which supported Afghanistan during that war.

Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam was written by a Soviet veteran who served

in Afghanistan for two years. Of course he supported the Soviets military

forces, so I used this source only to show the general mood of soldiers

during the Afghan War. The authors personal opinion was taken for this.

Afghanistan, by Hassan Hakar, showed the Afghan War from the Afghan

side. This source was predisposed against the Soviets, so I used it to show

the other side of soldiers characters - the violence and murders of the

civilian population of Afghanistan. This source would be not reliable if

the facts were not proven by the other sources I used.

Out of Afghanistan, by Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, was

interesting because it supported both sides of the Afghan War with

historical facts and documents. The books facts were based on official

documents of both the Soviet and the Afghan governments. This source gave

me a whole, truthful picture of what happened in Afghanistan. According to

this information I built my opinion of what was the real impact of the

Afghan War on the personal lives of soldiers while they were serving in


Soviet Expansion in the Third World by Nasir Shansab, whose

nationality is afghan, was useful because showed the tragedy of afghan

people without insulting the Soviet military forces. It also showed the

Afghan armys dangerous force of resistance.

All these books after critical analysis gave me the information needed

for my essay.


1. Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam (San Francisco: Mercury

House, 1992)

2. Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Unions Last War (London:

Bookcraft (Bath) Ltd., Midsomer Norton, 1995)

3. M. Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan (Los Angeles: University of California

Press, 1995)

4. Nasir Shansab, Soviet Expansion in the Third World (Maryland: Silver

Spring, 1986)

5. Diego Cordovez, Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, Inc., 1995)