On 15 February 1989, a column of BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers crossed the Hairatan bridge into Uzbekistan, marking the complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.
An operation that was planned as a quick, glorious intervention, had instead ended in strategic failure and international embarrassment. Less than a year and a half later, the Soviet Union’s own parliament condemned the decision to start the war – using stark “moral and political” terms.
In retrospect, the 10-year Afghan operation was a war the Soviet Union could barely afford, and was a major factor in its eventual collapse. At least 13,700 Soviet servicemen died – an exact figure is impossible since deaths were initially classified – another 40,000-50,000 were left wounded, and hundreds of thousands suffered psychological and other serious illnesses. Perhaps a million civilians died.
But 30 years on, a concerted effort is being made to rehabilitate the Afghan war in Russians’ minds.
The Russian president has been at the centre of these efforts. In April last year, Vladimir Putin used a choreographed exchange to order his officials to bring about new “memorials and evaluations” in relation to the war. Sure enough, within a few months, legislation appeared in Russia’s parliament, seeking to reverse the 1989 condemnation. Notionally, the bill came in response to pressure from Afghan veterans. But it was clear it had the support of vast sections of the Russian elite, presidential administration, security services and army.
“Politics were in a different place when our troops left, and the war became subject to a wave of conjecture and political ambition,” the bill’s leading author, Duma committee member Frants Klintsevich, told The Independent.
“Thank God ... our president is trying to change that.”
On 21 November, the text of Klintsevich’s bill was read out to wild applause in parliament, and the bill seemed set for a quick passage into law.
What was less plain was how popular it would prove among the population as a whole.
Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre, an independent polling group, contends, on the contrary, that Russians continue to have an “extremely negative” opinion of the war.
“It is a national trauma that is still felt very keenly,” he says. “The youngest generations are somewhat detached, but those with a living memory of the war still view it as a shameful, unnecessary and disgraceful episode.”
Gudkov’s Levada Centre is Russia’s last remaining independent political pollster, and has been the target of increasing pressure from Russia’s security services. In September 2016, it fell the wrong side of controversial “foreign agent” laws. Since then, the group has been deprived of funds and unable to sustain previous levels of polling activity.
As a result, the last Levada polls on the Afghan war were conducted only in 2015, and framed in relation to Russia’s operations in Syria. But those polls show a clear enough snapshot of public opinion, with more than 50 per cent expressing a fear the new war could become Russia’s “second Afghanistan.”
Polling organisations connected to the Kremlin emphasise a different picture.
According to a February poll conducted by the state-controlled VTsIOM, 42 per cent of Russians now believe that the Soviet withdrawal was a mistake, with only 31 per cent expressing the opposite view. It is, of course, difficult to assess the accuracy of these figures.
Gudkov himself accuses Russia’s security bloc of a campaign to “whitewash” the blacker parts of Soviet history. The bill to revisit the Soviet parliament’s Afghan condemnation had not arrived overnight, he said. Instead, it was part of a “secret” effort to rehabilitate the Afghan war in the national consciousness.
“The security service and army bosses want to remove the shame associated with the Afghan war,” he says. “So you see the gradual conflation of the memory of Afghanistan with the far more glorious Second World War, with joint memorials and so on.”
Artemy Kalinovsky, a prominent scholar of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, agreed that the attempt to revisit the historical condemnation of the war seemed to be aimed at “moving public opinion” to where the Kremlin “needed it to be today”. The Kremlin “needs to justify its presence in Syria first and foremost”, he says.
But beyond the attempt to revisit history was a more subtle “contradiction” – and one that had undermined governments ever since Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalinism in his secret speech of 1957.
“Putin has come to a conclusion that you can’t make a break with the Soviet past without undermining the Russian state,” he says. “So if you can’t do that, it follows that you need to smooth out the narrative and re-evaluate certain aspects of the past.”
In the event, Russian parliamentarians’ efforts to facilitate such a re-evaluation would not be without a twist in the tale.
Most anticipated the Duma’s Afghan bill would re-appear for final consideration earlier this week, signed by Mr Putin in time for today’s anniversary. Unexpectedly, however, the bill disappeared from view at the last minute, with insiders citing a lack of agreement of a final draft.
On Friday, Frants Klintsevich confirmed to The Independent that his initiative had failed to receive “necessary backing”. He says drafting problems were to blame, and that the bill had been sent back for amendments. It “might, or might not” be resurrected, he added: “We will continue to fight for it. I don’t know if we will be successful.”
But another parliamentary source suggested that the bill had instead fallen victim to the demands of Russia’s current Afghanistan reality – which, if the United States is to be believed, includes arming former adversaries in the Taliban.
“Clearly if you want to make nice with the Taliban today, you can’t also be justifying the history of intervention and war,” suggests Kalinovsky.
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