Svetlana Alexievich, “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War” (1991) (translated from the Russian by Julia and Robin Whitby) – This is a real damn bummer, even for someone like me used both to bummer reads in general and bummers about grinding occupation wars specifically. Nobel-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich compiled a short, brutal selection of accounts of the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan from soldiers, civilian workers, and most crushing of all, mothers of soldiers. Alexievich won acclaim for positing war as a social phenomenon, and particularly by putting forward the experiences of women in the Soviet Union’s wars. This produces a much richer perspective on war than one usually gets. “Zinky Boys” (so named for the cheap zinc coffin so many Soviets came back from Afghanistan in) forms a sort of phenomenological experiment in understanding the Soviet experience of this war.
Almost the entirety of the book is first-hand accounts, with brief paragraphs of framing from Alexievich’s perspective in a handful of places. I’m used to reading accounts from Vietnam, the war most often compared to the Soviet-Afghan war. There are similarities: the terror and confusion of guerrilla war where you can’t separate friend from foe; the guilt, or defiance of guilt, or sometimes both in the same person, over a failed war fought under false pretenses but which inevitably becomes a meaning-freighted experience for the people who went over; the naive patriotism and desire to live up to memories of WWII exploited and betrayed; the breakdown in morale among the troops, corruption, drug abuse, hazing, the general feeling of a lawless nether zone. The soldiers are caught between their own feelings of guilt and betrayal and their determination to be treated as people, not as victims or criminals or symbols- also familiar to Americans from Vietnam and after.
But there were some salient differences, and perhaps this is just me being determinist, but a lot of them seem to boil down to the difference between a power at the height of its strength undertaking a wasteful guerrilla war and one doing the same as it’s in terminal decline, as the Soviet Union was. The American effort In Vietnam was confused and wasteful, but with nothing like the complete failures in supply and logistics the Soviets experienced- if anything, the Americans were oversupplied. This made major differences for Soviet troops, many of whose accounts involve scrounging or bartering for necessary supplies, or running afoul of veteran gangs who monopolized food or ammunition. There was significantly more feeling of being overwhelmed by the enemy in “Zinky Boys” than you get in Vietnam accounts, where it was always understood the Americans were stronger, just unable to bring its strength to bear.
The weakness of the Soviet state going into Afghanistan can also be viewed ideologically. Most of the soldiers going in to the war report they believed what they were told about it, but when they came back, they ceased to believe in pretty much anything but, perhaps, the validity of their own experience. You saw some of this in the US as well, but the post-Vietnam state was strong enough — and the conservative movement opportunistic enough — to turn feelings of post-Vietnam angst into a bolster for the American security state, where once it threatened to undermine it. The closest the Soviets came to a similar trick was the police turning to gangs of “Afgantsi” to beat up troublemakers, but that was more of a sign of decline than anything else. Maybe part of it was it was harder in the USSR to pretend that the soldiers had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian protest, which wasn’t much of a factor. Alexievich got plenty of criticism from Soviet patriots, but most of it of the “stop making us look bad” variety.
More than anything, this is an important document because Alexievich got people to speak very frankly, and then stood aside and let them speak for themselves. There’s a lot of raw honesty here; painfully raw especially from the mothers, who are open about their grief in a way I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere else. I know I just wrote a bunch of analysis — force of habit — but really, this is more of a book to be experienced. *****