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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sketching Afghanistan's Human Face

MTDobrov, 64, showing his portrait of murdered Afghan opposition leader Massood.
With his tangled gray beard and baleful eyes, Gennady Dobrov could easily pass for one of the Afghan mujahedin that he has spent much of the past 12 years sketching.

But the 64-year-old, Moscow-based artist insists that his graphic portrayals of war and its victims in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe are intended to promote peace rather than glorify fighting.

"I view my pictures as anti-war," Dobrov said. "I want people to be exasperated by them so people will strive toward something beautiful instead."

In March, Dobrov went to Afghanistan to sketch the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massood. It turned out to be the last portrait of the legendary guerrilla fighter, known to followers as the "Lion of Panjshir."

A few months later, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Massood was fatally wounded in a suicide-bomb attack by two men posing as Arab journalists.

Several weeks ago, Dobrov returned to Afghanistan. He visited Massood's grave and drew the temporary mausoleum being erected around it.

Dobrov has put a poster of Massood, whom he described as friendly and courageous, in his living room.

Dobrov first visited Afghanistan in 1989. "I wanted to see whether Afghanis were the beasts they were described to be by everyone," he said. "What I saw surprised me."

Dobrov developed an affection for the Afghan people. "I think they are better than Russians," he said. "They are kind and cleaner both in body and soul."

In the two years following his first trip, Dobrov visited Afghanistan again and continued to draw portraits of ordinary Afghans -- refugees, people in hospitals and dying children.

One of his most powerful pictures shows a mother massaging her child's burned body in a hospital ward. She would do this for hours, Dobrov recalled, peeling off dead skin until eventually there were no scars left.

Other drawings depict psychiatric patients: a young girl who lost her fiance and a mujahedin fighter who would repeat one word over and over again.

Dobrov also portrayed the devastation wrought by the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

One sketch, called "Cursed Weapons," portrays a landscape blighted by used Soviet rockets and ammunition and wrecked armored vehicles. In the background is an old man hitting one of the rockets with a sledgehammer and an old woman sweeping the ground.

Dobrov's interest in human suffering -- and psychiatric patients in particular -- can be traced back to his childhood in Omsk, where his house adjoined two psychiatric hospitals, one for men and one for women. On his way to fetch water every day, Dobrov passed by the institutions and witnessed the lives of the patients. This left a profound impression, he said. "Maybe I draw tormented people because I myself have something sickly inside me from my childhood memories," Dobrov said. "By drawing them I try to teach compassion toward other people's suffering."

Dobrov's first exhibition was mounted when he was just 17. Sixty-two exhibitions have followed.

Despite his many exhibitions, publications and media appearances, however, Dobrov's work remains controversial. Some colleagues condemn his graphics as depressing and unpatriotic.

His first series of drawings, "Autographs of War," depicts veterans of World War II. Although the pencil sketches show veterans' medals and decorations, they are essentially portraits of people scarred by war. One veteran is missing legs and arms, another is blind and another has only part of his torso.

The art establishment later asked Dobrov to diversify his drawings by including landscapes and still lives. Dobrov went along with this to an extent. He traveled to Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to draw the requested pictures, but ended up visiting several Nazi concentration camps and came back with drawings of bones, gas chambers and burial sites. Some of these drawings are on display at the War Museum on Poklonnaya Gora.

Dobrov has no plans to add to his Afghan sketches, however, saying that he will not return to the country now that it is being restored.

"My purpose was to draw suffering Afghanistan," Dobrov said. "Let someone else draw victorious Afghanistan."