Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes
By Gennady Bocharov
Translated from the Russian Alyonia Kojevnikov
HarperCollins/Bessie Books. 187 pp. $18.95
WHEN Gennady Bocharov, a writer for the Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, arrived in Afghanistan in 1980, shortly after the Soviet invasion, he found himself fulfilling a role dictated by the Kremlin's ideology department. Soviet journalists were to help "provide a sound ideological framework" for the Soviet Union's effort to remake Afghanistan in its image.
But what Bocharov found most compelling was distinctly unsound as propaganda: the anguish of boys from Slavic villages and cities being maimed, twisted and killed in a war and a land they did not understand. Still, the censor had a quota for such inconvenient reporting: "In the next six months," he barked at Bocharov, "four mentions of wounded. And nothing at all about anyone being killed. Got that?"
Now, in the age of glasnost, Bocharov has collected the stories he could not tell in his newspaper in a short, interesting account that underscores the oft-made comparison between the Soviets' Afghanistan and America's Vietnam.
Russian Roulette is very nearly what its subtitle declares: a view of the Afghan war (but not of Afghanistan) through Slavic (not simply Russian) eyes. It communicates the heroism, determination, terror, frustration and anguish of young men from the U.S.S.R.'s Slavic republics -- Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians -- trapped in the conflict.
At least in translation, the book does not live up to its publisher's promise of a literary jewel that "could be by Hemingway or Hersey or Herr." But it is important reporting. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, most of the limited news reached the outside world from the other side, where Western journalists traveled with the mujaheddin guerrillas. These journalists (myself included) saw and wrote of Soviet troops most often as victimizers -- seldom as victims.
But in Bocharov's book, we learn that the Russian soldiers called the mujaheddin "spooks" -- a more evocative term than the Vietnam-era's "charlie" to describe a demonic guerrilla enemy whom you couldn't see or hit but who seemed always there and ready to kill you.
We meet Nikolai Ivanov, a young lad from Zagorsk, sent to fight for something he never finds himself able to believe in. He fights and runs for his life until one day the spooks make him a hero, ambushing his column, shooting down the rescuing helicopter and leaving him the sole, partially paralyzed survivor. Pravda publishes his picture and the party secretary tells the crowd at his homecoming what great fortune it was for him to survive.
" 'It would be even greater fortune not to have had to go through it,' Nikolai wanted to retort, but he held his tongue. When it came his turn to say something, he was brief:
" 'I serve the Soviet Union,' just the way it was said on special occasions on the parade ground in Afghanistan."
We hear the tale of Igor Makey, a village boy from Byelorussia who kills himself and a bunch of spooks with a grenade to save his buddies. There is a Soviet My Lai, in which soldiers accidentally shoot up a carload of Afghan civilians and, in fear, follow their lieutenant's command to kill the survivors and bury them and the car. At the trial, someone points out that Soviet military regulations do not permit a soldier to refuse an illegal order.
The writing -- or translation -- sometimes distracts from the action with awkward idioms and cliche's. One ambush by the spooks, the book says lamely, "was small beer for the more experienced, but it was hell for the new boys." A land mine "would have been curtains for everyone."
In the Soviet Union and abroad, the Soviet Afghantsi, or Afghan veterans, have been stereotyped, often as beasts or criminals -- a fate with which many American Vietnam vets can empathize. It would have been kinder for them and for Afghanistan had Bocharov's reporting been available a decade ago -- but it remains important to have it now.
James Rupert, an assistant foreign editor of The Washington Post, traveled in Afghanistan during the war, covering it from both sides.