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30 Years Later, Russia Aims To Rewrite The Soviet War In Afghanistan

Afghan children play on Soviet-era wreckage on the outskirts of Jalalabad.
Afghan children play on Soviet-era wreckage on the outskirts of Jalalabad.

When a legislative body formed in the reformist Gorbachev era gathered in Moscow in December 1989 to reflect on the U.S.S.R.'s failed war in Afghanistan, its assessment of the military effort that had left 15,000 Soviet troops and millions of Afghans dead was unequivocal.

"The Congress of People's Deputies of the U.S.S.R. holds that the decision deserves moral and political denunciation," read the statement condemning the December 1979 invasion that commenced a near-decade-long campaign and hastened the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991.

But on the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the public mood in Russia is much changed, and Russian legislators have stepped out in support of an initiative to overturn the 1989 resolution and pronounce the invasion as a just and necessary move.

Yet despite widespread expectations that the State Duma would approve a defiant draft resolution reversing that earlier judgement, the timing was apparently not right.

While reports indicated that the measure had support from on high, the vote on the measure appears to have been delayed. On February 15, the Kommersant daily reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was among the officials who urged the resolution be postponed.

Soviets Succumbed To Afghan Quagmire 30 Years Ago
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Analysts believe that a resolution justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would jeopardize Russia’s role as a peace broker in the region, amid ongoing talks in Moscow between the Taliban and the Afghan opposition.

“I think they decided to temporarily mute this topic, at least until these talks with Afghanistan are over,” Vyacheslav Polovinko, a political analyst for the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, told RFE/RL. “They’ll likely find another excuse, another moment to pass it.”

But it is clear that efforts to rewrite the experience of the Afghan war -- along with other aspects of Soviet history brought into the open during the cathartic 1990s -- are not going away. The trend of public opinion, at least, seems to be on the legislators’ side.

In a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, timed to coincide with the Soviet withdrawal anniversary, 42 percent of respondents said the Soviet Union should not have sent troops into Afghanistan, while 31 percent supported the move.

Only five years ago, another poll by the independent Levada Center found that 68 percent condemned the decision to invade, and only 9 percent backed it. In 1991, a Levada survey showed a gap of 88 percent against to 3 percent in favor.

Russian officials have seized on the changing mood.

Participants, including veterans of the military campaign, march during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in Moscow on February 15.
Participants, including veterans of the military campaign, march during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in Moscow on February 15.

On November 21, veteran Duma deputy Nikolai Kharitonov stood up to address fellow lawmakers at a special session of the Russian parliament devoted to the anniversary. For years, he told them, the Duma had been too soft on the question of Afghanistan -- the time had come to change the narrative.

Dismissing the December 1989 resolution as "inconsistent with the principles of historical justice," he challenged his colleagues.

"Is there anyone in this auditorium who agrees?" he asked, referring to the 1989 resolution condemning the war. "I expect that the deputies of the Duma's seventh convocation, who regularly adopt polar opposite stances depending on their political views, will be united on this question."

His proposal resulted in the draft resolution, approved during the November session by representatives of all parties in the Duma, that was expected to be passed on February 15.

Critics call the effort to restore the original Soviet arguments for invading Afghanistan a brazen attempt to justify other wars the Kremlin is involved in today, amid falling public approval ratings for the Russian government.

In Syria, Moscow is propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in eastern Ukraine it has provided military and personnel assistance to pro-Russia separatists fighting Ukrainian forces. Both campaigns have dragged on for years.

"The Afghan war was one of the greatest mistakes made by the communist regime. Justification of that war is justification of the war in Syria," Andrei Zubov, a historian critical of the Russian government, told RFE/RL as the Duma mulled the draft resolution. "Society's support for Putin and his foreign policy is dropping, and what's happening in Syria and Ukraine is provoking an increasingly negative reaction. In this situation, the parliament is trying to compensate for that."

A man reacts at the monument commemorating the Soviet victims of the war in Afghanistan, in St. Petersburg in 2016.
A man reacts at the monument commemorating the Soviet victims of the war in Afghanistan, in St. Petersburg in 2016.

In an interview with state news agency RIA Novosti , Gorbachev, now in his late 80s, condemned the effort to discredit the original resolution his government passed in 1989.

"I consider the proposal totally unacceptable and irresponsible. What facts, what arguments do its authors cite? How can you deny that the decision was made by a close circle of people, skirting the constitution and going against the opinions of the experts and military leadership? Or that it led to huge loss of life? Or that thousands of families lost their sons, fathers, and brothers?" he said. "This immoral initiative should be decisively rejected. I believe the country's leadership should make its views clear."

When queried about the draft resolution on February 15, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied, "I'll leave that without comment," according to TASS. "Our main task is to remember the heroes who discharged their duty."

Included in the draft resolution is a pledge to continue subsidies for those who fought in Afghanistan.

Back then, "Afghan syndrome" became a popular diagnosis for crippled soldiers struggling to adapt after the war; today, many of them feel historical justice is gradually beginning to triumph.

"We returned and they didn't notice us at all. It wasn't a figure of speech when they said, ‘We didn't send you there.' They said it to us openly, directly in the eyes," Andrei Kuznetsov told RFE/RL.

Kuznetsov was an 18-year-old conscript with six months of military training when he was dispatched in May 1987 to Bagram, Afghanistan, as part of the 345th airborne division of the Soviet Army. A year and eight months later, he returned to "a totally different country."

Today, he works as a groundskeeper at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow and subsists on a meager salary. He rejects the parallels some make between the Afghan war and today's campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, and supports the Duma's resolution. He only wishes it had come sooner.

"It's high time they reassessed that war. They should have done it a long time ago," he said.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.