KABUL — The Kremlin has opened a flashy new cultural hub in the Afghan capital. Again.
When Moscow built its first one, the House of Science and Culture in the 1980s, Red Army troops were waging war in the country against U.S.-backed mujahideen fighters.
Now, as the American war in Afghanistan winds down, Russia has resurrected the building on the same site as its Soviet predecessor, which was bulldozed six years ago. The new center stands as a vivid illustration of Russia’s renewed influence in Afghanistan.
Yet Moscow also keeps some ingrained caution about all things Afghan. The Russian complex opened quietly, without ceremony and with no advertising apart from its unassuming Russian-language website. Many in Kabul believe the large, reflective-windowed structure is still under construction.
Russian officials say activities began in 2017, but are only picking up now.
The center has hosted films, concerts, fashion shows and a stream of visiting Russian lawmakers and Muslim Russian leaders. Young Afghans gather once a week to play indoor soccer before nipping into the on-site “banya” for a quick steam, Russian-style.
“For some Afghans, the Soviet war is not viewed favorably. But for most, those years were bright,” said Vyacheslav Nekrasov, director of the new Russian Center of Science and Culture in Kabul — part of a network of similar Moscow-funded sites around the world, Russia’s counterpart to France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut.
In Kabul, the Russian Embassy is on the other side of Darulaman Street, a wide thoroughfare some distance from the congested, fume-choked center of Kabul.
American culture has seeped into Afghanistan in the form of movies and music and many young people speaking varying degrees of English. But the United States is literally half a world away. Giant Russia looms to the north and its pull is more tangible.
At any one time, 6,500 Afghans are studying Russian across Afghanistan, and the center helps manage their hopes for a free-ride scholarship to a Russian university. Veterans from Moscow’s decade-long war in Afghanistan are also frequent guests, occasionally facing their erstwhile opponents on the center’s soccer pitch.
Now, after sitting on the sidelines of the U.S.-led war for the past 18 years, Russia is reasserting itself ahead of Washington’s planned drawdown of its 14,000 troops, which President Trump says will come after progress in any possible peace settlement.
Moscow has built up a military presence along Afghanistan’s northern edge and is playing an active role in peace talks, bringing together the Taliban and Afghan power brokers in major meetings in the Russian capital that run parallel to the ongoing talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban.
U.S. officials have accused the Kremlin of providing small arms to the Taliban, part of its attempt to cultivate ties with the militant group. Russia has denied the accusations.
Slinging quips and sporting a bushy mustache and a black suit, Nekrasov cuts a figure of a man who knows his Afghan audience well. He served in the Red Army in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984, and returned 17 years ago to live in Kabul. Like many other Russian Embassy staff members, he slips easily into Dari, a variation of Farsi that is one of Afghanistan’s main languages.
Architecturally, the new center is a whisper of its former Soviet self. The former brutalist hulk stuck out like a sore thumb in the Kabul vista, becoming for many Afghans a stark symbol of stymied imperial ambition long after the Red Army’s 1989 withdrawal.
After that, the building’s pink marble exterior was blasted by rockets as Afghanistan tumbled into civil war. The Soviet-era auditoriums became shelters for the city’s myriad drug addicts, who gathered inside to smoke opium and shoot heroin beside Socialist murals of men and women promising a better Afghan future.
At the new center — with its chandelier-lit main hall and bulletproof windows — Nekrasov stands before a recent acquisition: a large painting by an Afghan artist showing Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with a MAGA cap-wearing Trump. And Trump, contrary to real life, appears shorter than the Russian leader.
“These are the two main presidents of the world,” Nekrasov said. “Only they can bring peace to Afghanistan.”
His rose-tinted view is one shared by some war-weary Afghans, eager to seize on the past as a way of criticizing the current role of the United States.
“The Soviets built schools and hospitals. The Americans have given us only talk,” said Zubair Malyar, 26, an Afghan teacher of Russian whose parents lived through the Soviet war.
That 1980s war claimed the lives of at least 1 million Afghans and 15,000 Red Army soldiers, drained Moscow’s coffers and hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Shortly afterward, the Afghan Communist government was overthrown and the country became engulfed in a brutal civil war, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban.
Critics of the Kremlin say Russia is intentionally trying to isolate the United States from its NATO allies in Afghanistan. But Moscow has denied this, instead describing its interest in Afghanistan as being one of security.
Russia says it wants to protect its southern flank from the spread of Islamist extremism in Central Asia, a large area that Moscow very much still considers its backyard.
“Russia is like a brother to Afghanistan,” said Ekhlas Tamim, chairman of the Afghan Youth Development Association, an organization that facilitates Russian-language learning. “The West does not understand our country. It’s more like a cousin.”