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Authors: Svetlana Alexievich

Zinky Boys

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Zinky Boys

Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War


Translated by Julia and Robin Whitby

With Introduction by Larry Heinemann

W.W. Norton & Company
New York • London


Note: The introduction has been omitted due to rights issues.


Translators' Preface

Short Glossary

Notes from my Diary

The First Day

The Second Day

The Third Day

Postscript: Notes from my Diary

Translators' Preface

The voices in this book speak against two different backgrounds: the ten-year war in Afghanistan, and a great turbulence at the heart of Soviet society.

The roots of the war go back at least 150 years, to the struggle between Russia and Britain for influence in Central Asia. In the nineteenth century, after two wars with Britain, Afghanistan became a buffer state between British India and Russia. A third war led to independence in 1921. A monarchy, established in 1926, was overthrown in 1973 by Mohammed Daud, who was assassinated in 1978. The new government was headed by Nur Mohammed Taraki and his Marxist People's Democratic Party. The following year, after two further coups, Babrak Karmal came to power with Soviet backing. This event effectively marked the outbreak of war between the rebels (mujahedin) on one side and the Soviet and Afghan government forces on the other. Mohammed Najibullah, who became President in 1987, has to date survived the complete evacuation of Soviet forces in 1989 and the continuing determination of the rebels to establish an Islamic state. Soviet economic and military aid continues to succour the Najibullah regime on a massive scale.

It has been estimated that the conflict has cost approximately one million Afghan lives.

The men and women who express their thoughts and experiences in the following pages need no introduction – they must speak for themselves. The confusion and contradictions displayed by some are as revealing as the honesty and insight of others. As
we listen to them, however, we need to bear in mind certain aspects of Soviet life with no immediate parallel in the West.

To begin with, we may find it difficult to envisage the almost complete ignorance in which the Soviet public was kept about the war, at least until the advent of some measure of media freedom (the celebrated
) in the mid-1980s. The information available to ordinary people amounted to a few pat phrases about the ‘limited contingent' of Soviet troops and the ‘fulfilling of international obligations', together with much anti-American propaganda. True public debate and political opposition of the sort which, at the very least, provides some counterweight to the government version of events in more open societies, simply did not exist.

Another factor, related to this ignorance, was the ruthless secrecy with which news of casualties was treated. This applied not only to the press, but to society in general. To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields.

Soviet army sources recently stated that the war claimed the lives of some 15,000 military personnel, with more than double that number seriously wounded. In a country of 280 million, and over a ten-year period, this might seem ‘acceptable' in the dreadful calculus of modern conflict. Three factors in particular, however, give the lie to any such complacency. First, this was, in the main, a war fought not by professional soldiers but by conscripts aged between 18 and 20, and it was they who suffered the brunt of the casualties (and the dreadful institutionalised bullying inseparable from Soviet army life). Second, the total lack of government accountability meant that there was hardly any informed public discussion of, let alone support for, the war. Third, for obvious reasons of political and military reliability, Soviet forces in Afghanistan were disproportionately – some would say almost entirely – drawn from the non-Islamic republics of the USSR, i.e. Russia, Belorussia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and the Baltic states. (Many of those who speak to us in the following pages are
Belorussian, as is Svetlana Alexievich herself.) An additional cause of resentment was the rumoured ability of certain privileged members and sections of society to buy their sons out of danger.

Finally, readers without first-hand experience of the Soviet Union may be struck by the almost obsessive interest in imported goods and clothes revealed by a few of the speakers. This simply reflects the fact that in an economy where almost any item used in daily life may be impossible to find, or appallingly shoddy, or just plain drab, such scarce articles can command enormously high prices and confer prestige on their owners.

The men and women who make up this book are very diverse; perhaps all they have in common is that they were affected by the war in Afghanistan. It is no exaggeration to say that they offer us a unique insight into the Soviet condition at a turning-point in the country's history; but they also have something to tell us about our common humanity – and inhumanity.

Short Glossary

): units of local currency.

Soviet veterans of the war.

APC: armoured personnel carrier.

foreign currency vouchers paid to Soviet personnel abroad as part of, or in addition to, their salaries.

(from Russian
dembel, demobilisatsiya
): conscript nearing the end of his two years' service.

(abb. of
): member of the mujahedin.

‘grandad' (Russian
): conscript with some considerable part of his two years' service behind him.

‘vets': war veterans.

Asterisked footnotes, and explanatory notes between square brackets, have been added by the translators. The verse renderings of Russian songs and poems are also our own.


Zinky Boys

Notes from my Diary

14 June 1986

I never want to write another word about the war, I told myself. Long after I'd finished
War is not a Woman,
a book about World War II, I could still be upset by the sight of a child with a nosebleed. Out in the country I couldn't bear to watch the fishermen cheerfully throwing their catch on to the sandy river-bank. Those fish, dragged up from the depths of God knows where, with their glassy, bulging eyes, made me want to vomit. I dare say we all have our pain threshold — physical as well as psychological. Well, I'd reached mine. The screech of a cat run over by a car, even the sight of a squashed worm, could make me feel I was going mad. I felt that animals, birds, fish, every living thing had a right to a life of its own.

And then all of a sudden, if you can call it sudden for the war had been going on for seven years …

One day we gave a lift to a young girl. She'd been to Minsk to do some food shopping for her mother. She had a big bag with chicken heads sticking out, I remember, and a shopping-net full of bread, which we put in the boot.

Her mother was waiting for her in the village. Or rather, standing at her garden gate, wailing.

‘Mama!' The little girl ran up to her.

Oh, my baby. We've had a letter. Our Andrei in Afghanistan. Ohhh … They're sending him home, like they did Ivan Fedorinov. A little child needs a little grave, isn't that what they say? But my Andrei was as big as an oak and over six foot. “Be proud
of me Mum, I'm in the Paras now,” he wrote to us. Oh, why? Why? Can anyone tell me? Why?'

‘Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows.'
(Richard II)

Then, last year, something else happened.

I was in the half-empty waiting-room of a bus station. An officer was sitting there with a suitcase, and next to him there was a skinny boy who you could tell from his shaved head was a soldier. The young soldier was digging in a plant pot (a dry old ficus, I remember it was) with an ordinary kitchen fork. A couple of simple country women went and sat next to them and, out of sheer curiosity, asked where they were going, and why, who were they? It turned out the officer was escorting the soldier home. He'd gone mad: ‘He's been digging ever since we left Kabul. Whatever he can get hold of he starts digging with. Spade, fork, stick, pen … you name it he'll dig with it.' The boy looked up, muttering: ‘Got to hide … I'll dig a trench … won't take me long … brotherly graves we called them … I'll dig a nice big trench for you all … '

It was the first time I'd seen pupils as big as the eyes themselves.

What are people talking about at this moment, seven years into the war? What are they writing about in the press? About our trade deficit and such geopolitical issues as our imperial interests and our southern borders. We do hear whispered rumours about those letters being sent to jerry-built flats in towns and to picturesque peasant cottages in the villages … followed, a little later, by the zinc coffins themselves, too big to fit into those rabbithutches they built in the 1960s. (
, they call them.) Mothers, prostrate with grief over the cold metal coffins, are expected to pull themselves together and give speeches in their collectives, even in schools, exhorting other boys to ‘do their patriotic duty'. Newspaper reports with any mention of our casualties are ruthlessly censored. They want us to believe that ‘a limited contingent of Soviet forces is helping a fraternal people build the way forward', that they are doing good work in the
(the local word for villages), that our army doctors are helping the Afghan women to have their babies. Many people
believe it. Soldiers on leave take their guitars to the schools and sing of things they should be weeping about.

I had a long talk with one of them. I was trying to get him to admit the awfulness of the choice: to shoot or not to shoot. But we didn't get anywhere: the problem didn't really seem to exist for him. What's good? What's bad? Is it good to ‘kill in the name of socialism'? For such young men the limits of morality are defined by the military commands they receive.

Yur Karyakin once wrote: ‘We should not judge a man's life by his perception of himself. Such a perception may be tragically inadequate.' And I read something in Kafka to the effect that man was irretrievably lost within himself.

But I don't want to write about war again …

5–25 September 1986

Tashkent Airport. An overpowering smell of melons. More like a melon-field than an airport. Two o'clock in the morning. The thermometer says 30 degrees Celsius. Fat, half-wild cats, Afghans they're called, dive fearlessly under the wheels of taxis. Young soldiers, no more than boys, hop about on crutches amidst the suntanned holiday crowds, the piles of suitcases and crates of fruit. Nobody seems to notice them — they're a familiar sight here, apparendy, sleeping and eating on old newspapers and magazines, trying for weeks on end to get a ticket for Saratov, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Voroshilovograd, Kiev, Minsk … How were they crippled? What were they supposed to be defending? Nobody cares. Except one little boy, who can't take his huge eyes off them, and a drunken beggar-woman who goes up to a soldier. ‘Come here, love … I'll look after you … ' He waves her away with his crutch, but she doesn't seem to mind, just murmurs something sad and womanly.

Some officers are sitting by me, talking about the poor quality of our Soviet-made artificial limbs. And about typhus, cholera and malaria. About how, early on in the war, there were no wells, no field-kitchens, no baths, nothing to wash up with. And about who's taking what home: who's got a video-recorder, and whether it's a Sharp or a Sony. There's a saying, ‘War is a stepmother to
some and a real mother to others.' I can't forget the way those officers eyed the pretty girls in their low-cut blouses, relaxed and happy after their holidays …

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