Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Zinky Boys 2Not long after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan various versions of the following joke circulated in Moscow:

An American and a Soviet were comparing notes about their respective modes of travel. The Soviet asked the American how he got the work. The American answered: I drive my green car to the office. Then the Soviet asked the American how he got to the theater. The American answered: I drive my yellow car to the theater. Finally, the Soviet asked the American his mode of travel when he went abroad. The American responded: I drive my red car when I go abroad.

The American then asked the Soviet the same three questions: the Soviet responded, I take the metro to get to the office. I take the metro when I go to the theater. And I drive my tank when I go abroad.

By March, the not-so-well-kept secret of the Soviet invasion hastily embarked upon to prop up a flailing, incompetent and vicious Communist dictator in Kabul had begun to show results – just not the ones the Kremlin had planned.

Instead, Soviet soldiers were being sent home in coffins sometimes arriving at the dead of night and buried secretly in graves with no indication that the soldier had been killed in war – simply that he had died fulfilling his international duty.

The first evidence we at the US Embassy in Moscow had of the effects of the invasion was a report from Kiev by an American couple who had come across a number of strangely marked fresh graves of young men in a local cemetery when they had been searching for Baba Yaar but had been sent in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, I remember Russians living in Moscow of every economic class desperately trying to find places in institutes or universities for their sons so they would receive student deferments and thereby avoid or at least delay being sent to the killing fields.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghan War, a collection of heart-wrenching stories from the survivors of that war and of families whose children or spouses died fighting in it. The term “Zinky boys” refers to the zinc coffins the deceased’ bodies were transported in before they were loaded into planes and often unceremoniously delivered to their loved ones at home for burial.

Alexievich, an investigative journalist from Belarus, collected these stories through copious interviews. She first published the collection in 1991 in Russian. It was translated into English by Julia and Robin Whitby in 1992. The book was controversial in Russia from the beginning – meeting with a decidedly mixed response. Alexievich concludes it with some of the negative comments she received.

Alexievich only won the Nobel Prize for literature this past fall, a prize awarded a writer – not just for one book but for demonstrating a consistent record of exemplary writing over many years.

On January 17, I heard Shostakovich’s “Fifth Symphony” performed by the Santa Fe Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Brian McAdams. The performance was excellent;  the piece – by its nature – disturbing.   It is a powerful, troubled and mostly discordant piece in the key of D minor. Shostakovich wrote the symphony in 1937 just as his country was enduring Stalin’s purges and Hitler was on the march in Europe.

As the symphony nears its conclusion, the timpanist emits – not the familiar drum roll – but a desperately loud and throbbing solo of one solitary note after another pounding into the listener like the sound of a death-knell or a chorus of jack-boots smashing down in unison on hard cobblestone pavement.  Perhaps a harbinger for the years to come.  This is the same emotional pounding I experienced reading Zinky Boys – one tragic story after another proceeding in rapid-fire succession until the book finally ends in exhausted relief.

It was clear from these stories that the Soviet Army had been far from prepared to fight a guerrilla war abroad and certainly not one in the high and rugged mountains to its south. Alexievich’s interviewees describe from day one the lack of adequate clothing, food, medicine, ammunition and equipment, the inability to communicate with the local population and the rampant corruption and drug use that enveloped the Soviet military bases there. These weaknesses were there from the invasion’s beginning well before the US started to equip the mujahedeen. They were never overcome.

Instead of preparing adequately for a war of choice fought in the name of international Communism, the Kremlin had invested in heavy tanks designed for warfare against NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe just as NATO was acquiring new technologies and better weapons to make those tanks obsolete.

The lack of Soviet preparedness to fight the war in Afghanistan is reminiscent of the Finnish Winter War of 1939 when Stalin’s troops invaded its neighbor for no good reason during the coldest and snowiest part of winter in clothing ill-equipped for the harsh climate and easily visible to Finnish forces – themselves clothed in camouflage white. The Soviet troops fought under weak leadership. Its ranks had been politicized and decimated by the purges just a year or two before whereas the outnumbered Finns – fighting alone – had superior military leadership.

Whether the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 caused the downfall of the Soviet Union just a decade later is still disputed but in the end its effects on Soviet society were traumatic and the ill-fated decision made by an aging and poorly educated Politburo was certainly a contributing factor.

Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, New York & London: WW Norton and Company, 1992.