How Afghanistan changed the Soviet superpower
The parallels are now known: A global superpower sends troops to Afghanistan, appoints a new leader and wants to leave within months. Instead, it gets caught up in a year-long struggle against a highly motivated insurrection, and the conflict only ends as a result of the shameful withdrawal of its armed forces.
Today the tale applies to the United States, but decades ago that was the story of the Soviet Union. The comparison – as well as references to the Great Game and Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires – is omnipresent in the coverage of the American intervention. The lesson, if there is one, is that great powers have tried again and again to change Afghanistan to their liking and it has failed.
However, comparatively little attention is paid to the opposite direction: How the invasion of Afghanistan changed these countries in their homeland. In the Soviet case, it led the citizens of a superpower to reassess both the ends and the means of the empire.
When Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan in December 1979, the plan was to install a new leadership, strengthen important bases, and leave. By the final withdrawal of the Soviets in February 1989, more than 13,000 of their soldiers had died in action (and 40,000 more were wounded), while between 800,000 and 1.2 million Afghans died.
The Soviet war, like the American war, was a protracted affair waged by a limited number of troops that was out of sight and out of mind for the majority of citizens. Similar to the US, coverage in the domestic media was limited (although in the Soviet case this was due to press censorship rather than lack of media interest or resources) and the bodies were returned to relatives under cover of night – just like them were in the Bush administration for a while.
Of course, the differences are significant. The opposition within the Soviet Union was severely restricted and initially only appeared in dissident publications. The nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, was sent into internal exile after an open letter calling for an end to the invasion and an international boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. However, when the soldiers returned home, the extent of the conflict became difficult to hide. In Tashkent, the capital of the Republic of Uzbekistan and a hub for withdrawing and returning troops, the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich observed how “young soldiers, no longer than boys, hop on crutches”. The Communist Party Central Committee received letters from veterans, their families and the general public about the soldiers’ difficulty adjusting to home life and the seeming futility of their mission.
The war had a major impact within the party as its leaders tried to reconcile a desire to remain a world power with an unwillingness to bear the cost of foreign intervention. As historian Artemy M. Kalinovsky writes in A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Brexit talks have been overshadowed by confidence in the Soviet Union’s ability to stabilize the country for fear of losing its status as the leading patron of the global South undermine, and fear of losing face to the United States. At the same time, the situation in Afghanistan contributed to the growing reluctance of the Soviet leadership to use force elsewhere. When the question arose in 1980 whether troops should be sent to Poland to crush the solidarity movement, KGB chief Yuri Andropov said: “The contingent of foreign deployments has been exhausted.”
Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985 determined to end the war and called it a “bleeding wound” the following year. Although previous rulers had attempted to portray the invasion as a noble humanitarian mission, Gorbachev’s relaxation of censorship allowed the press to expose the dirty sides of the conflict and freed a multitude of people to express their long-suppressed anger at the aftermath. Popular ambivalence turned to revulsion as the public learned of war crimes, drug abuse, and the neglect of returning veterans. In the bitter hymn “Soldiers Aren’t Born”, the punk rock band Civil Defense mourned the victims of the common people for hollow ideals (“The coffin was wrapped in a red rag, the hero’s march drowned out with angry grief”). Veterans, meanwhile, were outraged by what they saw as an unfair denigration of their service. “We’re Going,” a song by a KGB special forces officer that the Soviet troops repeatedly played during their withdrawal, urged “armchair-bound critics who stayed at home” not to judge what they couldn’t understand.
This public discussion of the war became part of the broader reassessment of the Soviet Union’s own identity. Images of sick soldiers returning from Afghanistan – along with coverage of Stalinist crimes, official corruption and inadequate health care – fueled a growing sense that Soviet society was “sick” and in need of radical therapy. The withdrawal offered a chance for some citizens to reassess the history of the country’s foreign interventions and create a more democratic state that cared for its people: Sakharov, now exiled, said ending the war was a prerequisite for other reforms , including arms reduction, freedom of expression and the end of one-party rule. For others, the fragmentation of Soviet society into factions over whether Gorbachev’s changes had gone too far (or not far enough) and the country’s deteriorating self-image was disorienting and undesirable. When Alexievich published Zinky Boys, a report on the brutal absurdity of the war based on conversations with veterans, she received angry calls and letters. “Who needs your terrible truth?” Complained one reader. “I do not want to know!”
Until recently, the Soviet leadership argued about keeping troops in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze emphasized that the USSR was still responsible for protecting the Afghan government: “We are leaving the country in a wretched state. The cities and villages are devastated. The economy is paralyzed. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. ”But public opinion and political calculation had turned too much against staying. After the final withdrawal, the Congress of People’s Deputies (from 1989 to 1991 the highest body in the Soviet Union) launched an investigation into the causes and results of the war. In October 1989, she condemned the invasion on “moral and political” grounds. A doctrine written under Gorbachev defined war as “completely out of date, unacceptable and impermissible as a means of achieving political ends”.
These social shifts were significant but short-lived. Pacifist sentiments vied for attention with other issues, including the Chernobyl nuclear fallout, food shortages and inter-ethnic violence in the republics. Elite regiments who had served in Afghanistan were dispatched to quell demonstrations for independence in Baku, Tbilisi, Riga and Vilnius, killing hundreds of protesters. Amid the chaos of the late 1980s, efforts to reinvent the Soviet Union failed and the country imploded.
However, the effects of the war were far from over. In post-Soviet Russia, some Afghan veterans engaged in private security and organized crime who had close links with business and politics. After Vladimir Putin’s 1990s veterans saw themselves as victims of official neglect, they took on new roles as allies of the state and its growing militaristic-patriotic ideology. In 1999, the leadership of the Russian Alliance of Veterans of Afghanistan helped found the organization that became United Russia, Putin’s party. Some people who had served in Afghanistan and Chechnya have joined OMON, a special unit that serves as riot police during protests. Afghanistan veterans (referred to as “heroes with baseball bats” in the Russian media) played a key role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
As Putin seeks to reaffirm Russia’s role on the global stage today, nationalists have sought to redefine the war, once widely vilified, as a just cause. In 2019 director Pavel Lungin released Brotherhood, his film about the last months of the war and the Soviet withdrawal. Although sympathetic to Soviet troops – her moral touchstone is a sensitive KGB officer – Brotherhood also shows them killing civilians, doing corrupt business, and drinking desperately as they prepare to return to a country that will soon cease to exist exist. After the audience condemned it as unpatriotic at a screening, the film was only shown in a limited edition. As public remembrance of the war adapts to the state’s goals, approval of the conflict has risen: In a 1991 survey, 88 percent of those questioned believed the invasion of Afghanistan to be unnecessary; In 2019, that number dropped to 55 percent. (Revisionism has its limits: a 2018 initiative by the Russian Communist Party to lift the war conviction by the Soviet government was tacitly dropped.)
Russian media viewed the American withdrawal with a mixture of glee, pity and concern about its possible destabilizing effect in the region. In the US, the idea that the Soviet mission in Afghanistan caused the collapse of the USSR (voiced by Donald Trump in 2019) has fueled fears of the end of the US’s own empire.
But the war was a symptom of Soviet decline, not its cause. The questioning of the assumptions that drove the invasion opened the prospect of a different future, if only fleeting.