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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Last Soviet War




Once a year, Boris Zhdanov visits the grave of his friend Nikolai who died two months before Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan. "At least his gravestone says where he died," Zhdanov said, sprinkling another glass of vodka over the grave in a traditional Russian gesture. "Relatives of soldiers who had been killed earlier were not allowed to mention that for fear of 'demoralizing the population.'"


Zhdanov was among the last of the Soviet soldiers to leave Afghanistan in February 1989. Like many veterans, he is as bitter as ever about the nine-year war. "The best present the government could get for the 10th anniversary of the withdrawal would be if we all disappeared," he said, knocking back a generous shot of vodka.


In December 1979, the Soviet Union sent 80,000 troops into Afghanistan to support the leaders it had installed there. The operation was planned as a "little victorious war" meant to thwart Western-backed Islamic rebels and subdue growing discontent over economic and social problems at home. But the full-scale war proved too expensive for the creaking Soviet economy and the flow of zinc coffins with the bodies of dead soldiers, most of which were delivered in secrecy, only compounded the unpopularity of the aging Soviet leadership.


The glasnost policy of more public openness encouraged by Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev after he came to power in 1985 exposed the truth about the Soviet role in Afghanistan and the atrocities of the war, fueling public rage and making withdrawal inevitable.


On Feb. 15, 1989, the last Soviet commander in Afghanistan, General Boris Gromov, crossed a border bridge to complete the pullout. Behind him lay 1 million dead Afghans and the memory of 15,000 comrades in arms who perished. "Perhaps glasnost was good, but when we came back home people treated us as criminals, as if we started the war," Zhdanov said. "'We did not send you there' was the mildest answer one could get turning for official assistance."


The all-pervading distaste for the Afghan war waned in the years to follow - a period that included the collapse of communism, a series of regional wars and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in former Soviet republics in Asia and some southern Russian regions.


Russian troops are stationed even now in Tajikistan helping the government to stop Afghan Islamic guerrillas spreading their influence in the poverty-stricken Central Asian state. Between 1994 and 1996 tens of thousands of people died in Chechnya, where Moscow waged an ill-fated war against separatist rebels in an operation often likened to the Afghan invasion.


Many public and political leaders say that to keep the Islamic threat at bay in Afghanistan was perhaps more reasonable than to resist it now in Tajikistan or Chechnya. "I am not sorry for what happened in Afghanistan," said Yury Drozdov, who retired from the Soviet KGB security service in 1991 as a major-general and played an important role in the covert operation to install a client administration in Kabul. "I am very sorry that the leadership failed to assess fully the situation that arose at that time and, as a result of ill-conceived actions, complicated the situation that we are witnessing now," he said, echoing a widespread opinion.


The change of tide in cash-squeezed Russia did little to help up to 800,000 Afghan war veterans. They are effectively left on their own. "If it were not for veterans' organizations, society would certainly try to forget about us," said Alexander Kovalyov, the head of the Moscow regional association of Afghan veterans, which has 14,000 people including 420 invalids on its books. "The authorities don't like us because we remind them of the hundreds of thousands people they sent to war," he said.


Apart from psychological problems suffered by most servicemen after Afghanistan, many veterans endure difficulties with wounds and tropical diseases. Only a few can afford proper medical care. "I retired as a major and with all benefits, including for serving in Afghanistan. I get 800 rubles as a monthly pension, less than $40," Kovalyov said. "The smallest surgical operation costs at least $1,000, so you can work it out for yourself."


The state has launched several programs to help the veterans, but few have been carried out because of lack of cash.The only notable help - tax and import duty exemptions granted for veterans' organizations - proved more of a headache than assistance.


The exemptions, allowing cheap imports of highly profitable goods such as spirits, tobacco and cars, made the veterans' organizations attractive for criminals. Many turned into fronts for illegal businesses and some of their members into highly qualified hitmen. Several of their leaders have been killed in criminal feuds.


"There is a public presumption that nearly all Afghan war veterans are gangsters," Kovalyov said. "But our estimates show that only 1 percent of veterans are involved in criminal businesses, less than in many other social groups." But he agreed the criminal factor existed. "Well, first of all it was stupid to grant benefits and give no access to credits to use them. One has to borrow money somewhere to use these benefits." Kovalyov said the problem with veterans' businesses was likely to be solved automatically now that the government was planning to scrap most benefits.


He could not say the same about the veterans' needs. "If these benefits go and no replacement is offered, I think the veterans' movement will disappear together with the help it offered," he said.


Despite their woes, most veterans' organizations try to keep their members away from politics. And Kovalyov believes the task is not a difficult one. "We have many politicians waltzing around us, especially before the withdrawal anniversary, which coincides with the start of the parliamentary election campaign," he said, referring to December's vote for the State Duma, or lower house. "But we were taught well not to believe them, not to believe the state. We don't want to be sent to yet another adventure and told later it was a wrong one.