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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: War Memories Grant Somber Crisis Release




The Russians in my circle, all artists and semi-dissidents and longhaired layabouts, did everything they could to dodge fighting in Afghanistan, even slitting their wrists and feigning mental illness. Ironically, it was I who did my "international duty" as a journalist covering the Soviet pullout in 1988. Thus, I have something in common with many Russian men in their 40s, from the invalids who beg at crossroads, to General Alexander Lebed.


Old veterans' reminiscences are boring to those who did not share the experience. But I enjoyed a chat with Colonel Oleg Kulakov. It was not that either of us dwells on the war. We have both moved on since then. It was just that talking about operations in the Panshir Valley made a change from discussing the economic crisis. The colonel's red setter Richard agreed. Every time he heard the word "crisis," he covered his ears with his paws.


We sat in the single room of the kommunalka (communal flat) that Oleg calls home, poring over maps and watching on his laptop computer the classic Soviet film about Central Asia, "Beloe Solntse v Pustine" (White Sun in the Desert).


A romantic attraction to the East led Oleg to Afghanistan. In 1979, he was studying Dari at the Military Institute for Foreign Languages and then war broke out. From 1980-82, and again from 1986 to the pullout, he served in Afghanistan as a military translator. Now he is Professor of Geopolitics at Moscow's Military University. He is not getting paid regularly, but that is nothing to a man who was injured three times in combat.


His wounds were all classified as "light," although one nearly cost him his sight. A bullet went through his eyebrow, missing his eye by millimeters. He was lucky. Some of his comrades were not. He still finds it painful to talk about friends who died.


For Oleg, as for me, however, the experience was not one of total horror. We both remember Afghanistan as a country of stunning beauty and life will never be as intense and interesting as it was for us there.


I remember riding in a convoy of retreating tanks after having argued with a general to take women on the trip. It later turned out he was not sexist, just worried about how the women would relieve themselves from atop the moving tanks!


This was all mildly dangerous fun, of course, compared with what Oleg went through, translating during battles. He knew Pavel Grachev, the former Defense Minister, during the war and was a close friend of Ruslan Aushev, now President of Ingushetia.


When Oleg came home, nobody wanted to hear his stories.


There is even less interest now, since Chechnya is fresher in the public memory. "It was hurtful," he said, "but it was easier for me as an officer than for the ordinary soldiers. I knew I should expect indifference."


Today he talks to his students about the Taliban and the prospect of war with Iran. Russia is observing now, not preparing to fight.


He believes knowledge of Dari and of Afghanistan will always be useful. "It is important to understand the region. One day peace will prevail there."