. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bomb Opens Nation's Wounds of Afghan War

When a bomb exploded in a crowded memorial gathering in Kotlyakovskoye cemetery on Sunday, 14 people received fatal injuries and Moscow shuddered at the bloodiest incident in a wave of mafia-related violence. As so often, that collective shudder was linked with the memory of Afghanistan.


This particularly brutal bombing occurred in the midst of a gathering of about 130 people commemorating the murder two years ago -- also in a bomb blast -- of the leader of an Afghan War veterans' association. Investigators say it was the outcome of a long and bloody feud between two rival branches of the Afghan War Veterans' Fund, a charity established to help disabled veterans.


While the crime itself was horrible enough, for Russians the Afghan connection adds an extra frisson of horror. It was merely the latest reminder that for Russia that nothing good has come out of Afghanistan.


For the rest of the world, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the decade-long occupation that followed is all but forgotten, a page from history. But in Moscow, oddly perhaps, that Cold War memory surfaces again and again. It is extraordinary how deeply that small, poor, remote and mountainous land has scarred the Russian soul.


The Russian media, not noted for paying much attention to the world outside the former Soviet republics, gives full coverage to Afghanistan, apparently feeling that Russia is still somehow linked with that country's fate.


Those who served in Afghanistan command special attention. For both former security adviser Alexander Lebed and former vice president Alexander Rutskoi, their service there is seen as a trial of strength, in the same way that service in the Great Patriotic War still serves as a badge of honor. Boris Gromov, who commanded Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the final years and led their withdrawal in 1989, can command attention on the national stage purely on that basis.


Afghan veterans, too, count their time in Afghanistan as service to their country. For many, their identification of themselves as Afgantsy -- Afghans -- perhaps reveals something of the identity crisis which Russia itself is going through after the death of Soviet ideology. Many veterans still have to come to terms with the fact that the country and ideology they served have both vanished. For disabled veterans the ignoble end of the Soviet Afghan adventure is particularly bitter. The ideals for which they were sacrificed no longer exist.


Veterans' associations founded to help them get on in the difficult world of post-Soviet Russia were granted tax breaks in recognition of their services to the vanished Soviet state. But in the lawless world of post-Soviet Russia, these privileges inevitably attracted the mafia connections that riddle all Russian business.


The degradation of the Afghan veterans' associations merely emphasizes the fact that the bleeding wound of Afghanistan has not yet healed.


When civil war broke out in Tajikistan in 1992, after the collapse of Soviet power, Moscow still saw it as its duty to intervene to stem the supposed tide of militant Islam seeping across the border from Afghanistan. Pictures of Russian troops on the war-torn frontier flickered nightly across Moscow's television screens well into 1993 -- even after much of the frontier had gone quiet. Tajikistan was christened the "Second Afghanistan," with Russian boys laying down their lives in defense of a vaguely defined post-Soviet international duty.


Few doubted that Russia was doing the right thing in Tajikistan. Few Russians questioned whether Moscow should have backed the forces of the former Soviet establishment who eventually took over in Dushanbe, despite their often brutal methods and unwillingness to allow even reasonable members of the opposition any role in governing the country.


Then came Chechnya. Once again, Moscow's war was seen by many people as a struggle in defense of national unity in the face of banditism and Islamic disorder. Afghan analogies resurfaced again, though this time they were more ambiguous. The Chechen war was closer to home and, as in Afghanistan, ordinary Russians felt its bite when their sons were sent off to die in the Chechen maelstrom, badly led and almost without training.


Chechnya revived the painful memories of Afghanistan not only because Russia was again seen to be defending itself against the old enemy -- Islamic barbarians gnawing at the heart of Mother Russia -- but also because, for those opposed to the war, Chechnya revived the national shame of the Afghan war. It was a brutal conflict, with the might of a former superpower deployed against a little people defending their homes and their free spirit. And the people were proving every bit as invincible as the Afghans had been. For Russia's mothers, the war revived memories of the unlabelled zinc coffins sent back from the Afghan front where their sons had been sent to die in obscurity.


The Afghan war was merely the most recent and most traumatic chapter in Russia's long flirtation with the East. For reasons of geography and history Russia has long seen its fate as inextricably entwined with Asia. Though Muscovites and St. Petersburgers may see themselves as fundamentally European -- though even they are often uncertain -- Russia has been a Eurasian power for at least the past five centuries, since traders and fur trappers crossed the Urals and began pushing the bounds of Russia ever deeper into Asia.


The military in particular has been most aware of the nation's Eurasian character. A long-standing worry, since the tsarist empire conquered Central Asia last century, has been how to defend this soft underbelly of the Eurasian empire. The need to guard against the nightmare scenario of a war on two fronts, with the motherland under attack in both Europe and Asia, has made the obsession with defense particularly acute.


Put simply, it was this obsession which led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Russia's historic drive to the East, the stremleniye na vostok, merely served to convince the Soviet leaders of the day that they had the right to do it.


At another level, the fact remains that most Russians have never really come to terms with their defeat in Afghanistan, with the fact that a backward Asiatic land they intended to civilize stopped their Soviet superpower in its tracks. The sense of shame and outrage is similar to that felt in 1905 when tsarist Russia was defeated by Japan, the first time in modern history that Europeans had been defeated by an Asian power.


A few years ago, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, Afghans used to remark that it was they who had destroyed the superpower. There is something in this claim since the Afghan war was one of the blows that fatally weakened the Soviet state, feeding the processes which eventually destroyed it.


Few Russians would like to say that the Afghans had destroyed their superpower. But the fear of the turbulent East endures.