The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Defying history, Moscow moves to defend Soviet war in Afghanistan

Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in April 1988. (Estate of Alexander Sekretarev/AP)

It has been said that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past, as every new government tries to rewrite the historical narrative for its political advantage. In this, President Vladimir Putin’s regime has been particularly active, launching a wholesale rehabilitation of the Soviet period early on. (One of Putin’s first acts in office was restoring the Stalin-era national anthem.)

Last month, Russian lawmakers took another big step in the same direction by approving a draft resolution that seeks to justify the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The formal vote on the measure — proposed jointly by lawmakers from the United Russia and Communist parties — will be held before the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops on Feb. 15. Hailing the decision, Communist lawmaker Nikolai Kharitonov called it a victory for “historical truth.”

The real historical truth — without quotation marks — was made public with the partial declassification of Soviet archives after 1991. The decision to invade Afghanistan was taken by the Politburo in December 1979; the measure was euphemistically titled “On the situation in ‘A.’ ” The first contingent of the USSR’s 40th Army crossed the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan on Dec. 25. Two days later, the Afghan dictator Hafizullah Amin – whose request for assistance served as the pretext for the invasion — was murdered by Soviet special forces in Tajbeg Palace.

The war lasted for nearly a decade. Among its consequences were 1 million civilian casualties; the rise of Islamist fundamentalist groups (backed by the West as a counterweight to the Soviets); and the collapse of the Soviet economy, which precipitated the end of the Soviet Union, which is now so lamented by both Putin and the Communists. The estimated cost in human lives for the Soviet armed forces was 15,000 dead and 54,000 injured.

Military casualties in Afghanistan were long a forbidden topic in the Soviet Union. At a meeting in July 1981, the Politburo expressly prohibited any commemorations for the Soviet war dead. Funerals for fallen servicemen were held in secret; relatives were forbidden to mark the place of death on the gravestones. (If they disobeyed, local officials removed the inscriptions.) Russian journalist Yevgeni Kiselev, who himself served in Afghanistan as a language instructor, recalls that the war was taboo on Soviet television as late as 1988. As a child going to kindergarten in Moscow during the mid-1980s I remember teachers whispering about the father of one of my classmates serving in Afghanistan.

The state-imposed silence was broken by Russian dissidents, that unique community of people who were prepared to speak the truth even at an immense personal cost. Among them was Andrei Sakharov, the world-renowned nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who condemned the invasion in the strongest terms. It was, in large measure, for that condemnation that he was confined to the closed city of Gorky between January 1980 and December 1986.

“I am proud of that exile in Gorky, it was an award for me,” Sakharov said at the session of the Congress of People’s Deputies — the Soviet Union’s first semi-freely elected parliament — in June 1989. “The war in Afghanistan was a criminal gamble.” In December of that year, the Congress of People’s Deputies passed a resolution of “moral and political condemnation” of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was signed by Mikhail Gorbachev, in his capacity as chairman of the Supreme Soviet, on December 24.

It is that statement that Russia’s legislature, the Duma, is now preparing to declare null and void. The draft resolution holds that the 1989 condemnation went against “historical justice,” and that Soviet military action in Afghanistan was conducted “in full accordance with the norms of international law.”

If the Kremlin is serious about “nullifying” the basic facts of 20th-century history, it has great scope for legislative action. The other decisions it may want to revisit include the condemnation of Stalinism at the 1956 Communist Party congress; the condemnation of the World War II-era Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by the same Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989; the recognition of the 1940 Soviet takeover of the Baltic States as an annexation, made in the 1991 Russia-Lithuania treaty signed by President Boris Yeltsin and ratified by the Russian parliament; Yeltsin’s condemnation of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; and many others.

Such actions will not mean much, though — and not only because the legitimacy of those elected in between 1989 and 1991 was infinitely higher than that of the current rubber-stamp Duma. In December 2000, liberal lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky was preparing to speak at the Duma session that approved the Soviet national anthem (like other opponents of the decision, he was prevented from taking the floor.) “Russian history will remember those who abolished the symbols of the totalitarian state,” he planned to say. “Not those who temporarily restored them.”

Perhaps Yavlinsky was wrong, after all. The latter will also be remembered by history — but with nothing more than derision and contempt.

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