Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistanby Artyom Borovik, Artem Borovik
Until his death in 2000, Artyom Borovik was considered one of the preeminent journalists in Russia. With The Hidden War he provided the world its first glimpse inside the Soviet military machine, capturing the soldiers' terror, helplessness, and despair at waging war in a foreign land against an unseen enemy for unclear purposes. When first published,/i>… See more details below
Until his death in 2000, Artyom Borovik was considered one of the preeminent journalists in Russia. With The Hidden War he provided the world its first glimpse inside the Soviet military machine, capturing the soldiers' terror, helplessness, and despair at waging war in a foreign land against an unseen enemy for unclear purposes. When first published, Borovik's groundbreaking revelations exposed the weaknesses beneath the Soviet Union's aura of military might, creating an enormous controversy both in Russia and around the world. A vital and fascinating portrait of the Soviet empire at the twilight of its power, this is a book that still resonates today. "An honest and graphic account of individual and general disillusionment during the very worst kind of war." -Christopher Hitchens, New York Newsday; "Alternately fascinating and horrific.... A fascinating look at the life and death of Soviet soldiers." -- Bill Wallace, San Francisco Chronicle; "I have read no other account of the war in Afghanistan equal to this ... this is literature." -- Graham Greene
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The Hidden WarA Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan
By Artyom Borovik
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 1990 Artyom Borovik
All right reserved.
IntroductionAfghanistan isn't a country. And half a year has gone by since it's been a war. For those who were there, Afghanistan is more like a prayer.
Not only a prayer to God, but to oneself.
Whisper this prayer before you go to sleep-once for every person who died there. Spit out the word faster than machine-gun fire. If you are lucky, when you get to fifteen thousand you may perceive its hidden meaning.
Afghanistan became part of each person who fought there. And each of the half million soldiers who went through this war became part of Afghanistan-part of the land that could never absorb all the blood spilled on it.
Foolish men called Afghanistan "a school of courage." And were wise enough not to send their sons there. They spoke of "international duty," of "the battle against the hirelings of imperialism at the southern borders of our Motherland," of "the resolute rebuff of aggression from the reactionaries of the region." And on and on. They were trying to convince themselves, and the rest of the country, that Afghanistan "makes immature youths into staunch fighters for our communist faith."
But if Afghanistan served to inspire people to faith, it was a faith far differentfrom the one promoted by our propaganda.
In April 1987, I met a sniper who'd inscribed a passage from the Ninety-first Psalm on the underside of his dirty collar: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, 'My refuge, and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.'"
Once I happened upon a huge sergeant of the Special Forces who was kneeling in the middle of a raving, passionate prayer. I could have sooner believed in a miracle-that the Soviet Union would win the war, for instance-than in what I saw with my own eyes. The sergeant embodied the indestructible power of the Special Forces; he was our hope of hopes, the larger- than-life idol of the Supreme General Headquarters.
What was he asking for?
The war gave ample reason to be either a cynic or a mystic. Month after month-and, in combat, day after day-it tormented you with the age-old questions: "Why him, Lord, and not me?" and "When will it be my turn-in five minutes or in fifty years?"
One day the soldier was offering prayers to God, the same God who he cursed the very next day.
Four years ago, I think it was in Kandahar, a young soldier fresh out of boot camp was whispering quickly, as the bullets whizzed overhead, "Mommy, take me back inside of you.... Mommy, take me back inside of you." Another soldier, after losing his arms and his sight, wrote his father from the hospital to ask, "You old ass, what the hell did you have to do it for nineteen years ago?"
In one of our monasteries I talked with a sickly looking man who, at the end of our conversation, asked me, "You were in Afghanistan? When? Hmm. I was there, too." What a story he told me. He'd gone into the bushes to take a leak when his unit suddenly came under heavy enemy fire. He swore that if his life were somehow spared he'd join a monastery. At that very moment a mortar shell exploded nearby, killing all the other soldiers in his unit.
After finishing his story the man didn't utter another word. From force of habit I continued to throw questions at him. He clenched his teeth and abruptly turned away from me, army style. In a few moments, he was gone.
When the soldiers first went to war, Evil was a dushman. Then it became "the insurgents." A little later on "the rebels." Finally, it was known as "the armed resistance." But Evil also appeared in the guise of their own company commander or an ensign or a "grandfather" [an army old-timer] who had only two months to go before demobilization.
Their death on foreign soil was necessary to protect the Good. But where was the Good hiding? No one knew.
In June 1986, near Bagram, I spent twenty-four hours with Sasha Borodin, the political assistant to the commander of the company.
I was startled to see the stamp of death on his face. When you encounter something like that, it sends chills up and down your spine. That day there was a feeling of impending disaster in the air.
A little more than a week later, on June 24, Borodin's seventeen-year-old fiancee, who lived on the other side of the border in the village of Shelkino, was getting ready for prom night at her high school. She hadn't been able to find any white fabric in the local stores, so she'd made herself a black dress to wear to the prom. When Tamara Petrovna, Borodin's mother, found out about it, she gasped in horror, her legs giving out from under her. "Why black?" she screamed into the telephone at her son's fiancee. "Take the black off! For Christ's sake, take the black off!"
But it was too late. It was as if somebody-but who?-wanted this girl to become an unwed widow at seventeen.
Later that evening, just after his fiancee had arrived at her high-school prom, Borodin was gravely wounded. He passed away at ten-thirty the following morning. A Black Tulip [a military plane that transports casualties] flew his corpse to the Crimea in a cold zinc coffin.
Was this merely a bizarre coincidence? I don't know. But I do know that in Afghanistan people were often all too ready to grab on to exorbitant superstition, even though they might have denied it. People needed to see at least some measure of logic in the chaos of war.
To say that this war was a mistake is to say nothing at all. It's a lot easier to find a mistake than to find the truth.
"Franz Ferdinand is alive! World War I was a mistake."
"Leonid Brezhnev was wrong! The war in Afghanistan was a mistake."
The two phrases deserve one another.
But people, straining to explain something to themselves or to others, are often content with mere illusion or a meaningless phrase which, although comfortable, explains nothing.
Even if all the secret documents connected with the Soviet Union's decision to invade Afghanistan were made public tomorrow, I doubt that they would shed much light on the truth; quite possibly they might just add to the confusion.
It would be interesting to look through the secret telegrams that have been sent from Kabul to Moscow in 1979 by the functionaries of the MID, KGB, Minoborony, Puzanov, Ivanov, and Gorelov.
What did General Aleksei Yepishev, the chief of GLAVPUR [central political office of the Soviet armed forces], tell Moscow about his visit to Afghanistan after the rebellion in Herat, where he'd met with both Nur Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin? What impressions of Kabul were brought back by General Ivan Pavlovskiy, the commander in chief of the Soviet land forces? Why did Shelkov's assistant, General Poputin, having just returned from Afghanistan, shoot himself at the end of December 1979, shortly before the invasion? What sort of negotiations were held between Babrak Karmal and the Soviet leaders in the summer and fall of 1979? What gifts did Soviet leaders receive from Afghans who were offered high-ranking posts in their government immediately after the arrival of the Fortieth Army? And who ordered the assassination of Hafizullah Amin?
These questions are fairly easy to answer. There are some that are more difficult. The real issue, I believe, lies in the kind of socialism that we had been building for many decades.
There are all kinds of theories as to what actually triggered the fateful events of December 27, 1979.
Some researchers believe that Brezhnev, Ustinov, Andropov, and Gromyko were trying to kill two birds with one stone by sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan: to get rid of Amin and to crush the armed resistance as a means of bringing to power a coalition headed by Babrak Karmal. The international division of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, along with MID and KGB, hoped to bring about the reunification of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which had splintered into two factions-the Khalq and the Parcham. The Soviet Union would then offer to withdraw its troops in exchange for the termination of foreign military and financial aid to the rebels.
Others believed that Brezhnev himself was the chief cause of the war. Brezhnev, the theory goes, made the decision to invade Afghanistan because he was infuriated by blatant insolence on the part of Amin. During Taraki's brief stay in Moscow (on his way from Havana to Kabul), Brezhnev had hugged and kissed him. Only a few days later, Amin ousted Taraki from the post of president and ordered his assassination.
A. A. Gromyko, the former minister of foreign affairs of the USSR, recalled, "The assassination of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the PDPA Taraki, whose government was asking us for help, brought the situation to a critical point. This brutal act was a terrible blow to the Soviet leaders. L. I. Brezhnev was especially shaken by his death."
The punishment was not long in coming. According to Amin's widow, a crack team of Soviet commandos stormed the palace and killed Amin after his cook, a Soviet agent, had tried unsuccessfully to poison him.
Babrak Karmal, who arrived in Kabul in a Soviet armored car after Amin's death, immediately declared himself the new ruler of Afghanistan and accused Amin of having been an agent of the CIA. He went so far as to demand that the U.S. government hand over secret documents that would confirm this. The Soviet press actively supported this version.
There is little question that KGB higher-ups were genuinely worried by Amin's activities. They were concerned about his extremist internal security policy, including the terrorization of clergy, intelligentsia, and party workers, as well as his increasing contact with representatives of the United States and Pakistan. Several times Amin had offered to meet with Brezhnev at any time and in any place, but Moscow remained silent. Indeed, it may have been the Soviet Union's failure to respond that led Amin to court alternately the United States and Pakistan. Moscow suspected Amin all the more because he had once studied at Columbia University in New York City.
I interviewed Karmal, who now lives in Moscow, in April 1989. "Did you really believe that Amin was a CIA agent?" I asked him.
"I could only judge him on the basis of his actions," Karmal replied. "Even if the Americans had spent a hundred billion dollars on the destabilization of Afghanistan, they couldn't have harmed it as much as Amin did."
"But if you follow that logic," I said, "Brezhnev, who really made a mess out of the USSR, must've been an agent of every Western intelligence agency at once."
As he had before, Karmal responded with a quotation from Lenin. "Tell me," he then asked with a cunning smile, "has it yet been made illegal to mention Lenin's name in the USSR?"
His own loud laughter was the answer.
To explain a nine-year-long tragedy as the consequence of Brezhnev's grudge against the obstinate Amin, however, is to explain nothing at all.
The academician Georgiy Arbatov, who knew Brezhnev well and frequently saw him even in his final days, once told me that toward the end of the 1970s Brezhnev was incapable of making any political decisions on his own and couldn't even sustain an intelligent conversation for more than twenty or thirty minutes; his attention span and intellectual capacities were fading by the moment.
"As they were making the decision, they didn't consult either the experts or their foreign policy advisers," Arbatov said. "I learned about it from the Voice of America. I immediately told Dobrynin. We were both in the hospital at that time."
"As far as I know, the Politburo, which was in session on December 13th, never even voted on it," another close associate of Brezhnev's told me. "As soon as Brezhnev announced the decision, [Defense Minister] Ustinov immediately turned to the military aspects of the situation."
Andrei Gromyko, on the other hand, maintained that the "Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union reached a unanimous decision to send troops into Afghanistan."
"The decision to send troops into Afghanistan was being made by several top government leaders behind closed doors," said E. A. Shevardnadze, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, in an interview to Izvestia. "At that time I was a candidate to the Politburo of the Central Committee and was simply informed of the fact, as were many of my comrades and colleagues."
Gromyko has a different recollection of that day.
"After the Politburo made this decision," he writes, "I stopped by Brezhnev's office and said, 'Shouldn't this decision be made official at the state level?'"
Brezhnev did not answer right away, Gromyko recalls. He picked up the telephone and said, "Mikhail Andreevich [Suslov], could you stop by here, please? I need your advice about something."
Suslov came. Brezhnev told him about the conversation with Gromyko. "It would appear that the current situation demands an immediate decision: we can either ignore Afghanistan's plea for help or save the people's government and act in accordance with the Soviet-Afghan treaty."
Suslov said, "We have a treaty with Afghanistan, and we must act at once to fulfill our obligations, if this is the decision that we've made. We'll discuss it at the Central Committee meeting later on."
According to Gromyko, the Assembly of the Central Committee, which met in June of 1980, unanimously approved the decision of the Politburo.
Although it's popular to fault the Soviet leaders for never discussing their decision to send troops into Afghanistan, I believe that this wouldn't have made much difference. Under the circumstances, and considering who its members were at that time, the Supreme Soviet would have surely voted unanimously in favor of the Politburo's decision.
As had happened so many other times in Russian history, a conspiracy of silence bound our country. And only one man dared raise his voice against the war. The society of "progressive socialism" scorned and violated one of the first laws of nature: sacrifice your own life, but save your offspring. It watched obediently as an entire generation of eighteen-year-olds perished in the Afghan bloodbath, together with the Afghans themselves.
Nevertheless, many people blamed Brezhnev. Some asserted that he wanted to be remembered as a leader who extended the zone of Soviet influence in the East. Others argued that he got carried away by Peter the Great's drive to reach the warm seas.
One of our high-ranking MID functionaries argued that the military was to blame for everything. The military, he said, had instilled fear in Brezhnev by warning of the imminent landing of American troops in "our southern underbelly."
"Why else would they have brought in the antiaircraft units?" he asked.
Excerpted from The Hidden War by Artyom Borovik Copyright © 1990 by Artyom Borovik . Excerpted by permission.
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