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 people’s 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 doesn’t
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 you’ll 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 wasn’t 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
‘...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
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
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 Union’s 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 Union’s Last War , p.41.
[v] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.41.
[vi] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.45.
[vii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.47.
[viii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.51.
[ix] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.52.
[x] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam , p.164.
[xi] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s 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 Union’s 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 Union’s Last War , p.71.
[xviii] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.72.
[xix] Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War , p.81.
[xx] Vladislav Tamarov, Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam , p.164.
Evaluation of the historical sources:
The book Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s 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 Soviet’s military
forces, so I used this source only to show the general mood of soldiers
during the Afghan War. The author’s 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 book’s 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 army’s 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
2. Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War (London:
Bookcraft (Bath) Ltd., Midsomer Norton, 1995)
3. M. Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan (Los Angeles: University of California
4. Nasir Shansab, Soviet Expansion in the Third World (Maryland: Silver
5. Diego Cordovez, Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, Inc., 1995)