© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Soviet Veterans, Who Spent Time In Afghanistan, Comment On The U.S. Exit Strategy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires for a reason. The Soviet Union spent years trying to impose its political and cultural model on Afghans, so did the British Empire. All of these failed efforts, and now the U.S. joins that list. NPR's Charles Maynes talked with Soviet veterans about the parallels they see to the American experience in Afghanistan.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: First, the differences. It's February 15, 1989, the final day of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Camera crews are calmly filming as the last troops prepare to pull out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: A band entertains troops. Soldiers dust their boots. And then this scene - the last tanks and trucks cross a bridge into neighboring Soviet Uzbekistan followed by a lone figure on foot, Soviet General Boris Gromov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS GROMOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I can say not one soldier remains behind me," Gromov tells a reporter. The general is then joined by his young son. And the two walk arm in arm back into Soviet territory.

(CROSSTALK)

MAYNES: But it was a telegenic and appropriate ending to a decade of war, says veteran Sergei Opalev.

SERGEI OPALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: The main thing is that it was organized. From our perspective, the evacuation was done just right, says Opalev, who, as a captain in division headquarters, was among the last troops evacuated. We left infrastructure but took every tank and machine gun with us, he adds. For reasons he can't understand, the Americans didn't.

(Non-English language spoken)

I met Opalev at the office of the Union of Veterans of Afghanistan in Moscow, where he showed me the uniform he wears for ceremonies and occasional talks at schools about the Soviet effort to prop up a communist government in Kabul and what it meant to serve.

OPALEV: (Through interpreter) In Moscow, there are people involved in politics who have always understood why we were there and why it was in the interest of the country. But then there's another generation that thinks it didn't matter at all.

MAYNES: Opalev calls his nearly two years in Afghanistan the best of his life, serving in a mountain patrol unit before an injury earned him a desk job. He said he felt like it was the first time he was doing something that really mattered.

OPALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: But Opalev was just one of more than half a million Soviet soldiers who cycled through Afghanistan over a decade of fighting. Other people's stories are messier and less happy.

RUSTAM KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Twenty-three hundred miles away in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, now an independent country but back then part of the Soviet Union, I reach Rustam Khodzhayev. He'd just turned 18 years old in December 1979, when he was conscripted into the Soviet army. This was the beginning of the Afghan war.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Rustam says Tajiks and other Central Asians were chosen for special Muslim battalions in theory so they could at least have some kind of communication with Afghans. But when he arrived, Rustam felt like he'd landed on another planet, a terrifying one. He served in a special ops unit that fought more experienced mujahideen fighters.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: We were just kids. And I watched friends die - three or four at a time - in province after province, says Rustam. He says each one muttered the same word at the end.

R KHODZHAYEV: Mama. Mama.

MUKHRU KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: His wife, Mukhru Khodzhayeva, says Rustam, now 59, still has nightmares from those days. He calls out for dead friends in his sleep, telling them to turn back, to run. Meanwhile, she has her own memories from Afghanistan to confront.

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Mukhru served as a translator for Soviet forces in 1987, where she says kind words were her weapon. Mukhru worked with Afghan women at first in Kabul and then other parts of the country

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: They weren't as conservative as they are now, she says. They would wear hijabs. But when they gathered with us, they dressed openly. Still, she'd find herself omitting phrases or selectively interpreting if comrades said something that might offend the locals.

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: I was raised in the east. And there, you learn to tread lightly, she says. But that didn't save her from the war's violence. After viewing soldiers' bodies sheared open from battle wounds, she says she nearly lost her mind.

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: I'd grown up being taught that good always won over evil, she says. Only, it turns out evil was always there beside us, we just hadn't noticed

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: For that reason, Mukhru also views the Soviet withdrawal, that day on the bridge, as a happy time. Finally, it meant an end to all the death, no more mothers crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAR MACHINES)

MAYNES: By the time the Soviet army withdrew, the war was seen by most Soviet citizens as a mistake. Fifteen thousand soldiers had been killed, thousands more wounded. And an estimated million Afghans had died in the fighting. After a decade of war, many Soviets couldn't understand what the USSR was even doing there. But the withdrawal soon became part of a larger story, the end of the Soviet Union itself. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Rustam says respect for Afghan war veterans went with it.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: We were 18 when they sent us there. But now the USSR is gone. And no one wants to help. They say, why should we? We didn't send you there.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: But some good things also came out of the war. Rustam and Mukhru met at a reunion for Afghan vets, married now for 32 years with children and grandchildren.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: Rustam has even taking to singing to them about the war and what it means to make it home. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Opalev, the Russian captain, says the Soviet mission may have been misguided. But the sacrifice and selflessness of the soldiers remains.

OPALEV: (Through interpreter) If someone thought we came to build socialism, well, yes, that was the political goal at the time - and probably not the right one. Just like the Americans thought, we'll build a democracy in five, 10 or 20 years, it didn't work.

(Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Opalev says he's noticed some Russian politicians rejoicing over the American defeat in Afghanistan. But as a veteran, Opalev says he just feels for the U.S. troops who served there.

OPALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Help one another, he says. Reach out to those who've been injured and to the families of the dead.

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Mukhru says she worries about Afghan women and girls under the Taliban. What do the Taliban think they can accomplish without women? They fight better than the men.

M KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And her husband, Rustam, still living with his nightmares, he says for those touched by war, it's only the beginning of the beginning of their struggle.

R KHODZHAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: He fears the worst for them and Afghanistan.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "BRANCHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.