MOSCOW — The Red Army veterans took to the stage and belted out songs from the Afghan battlefield: clashes with the enemy and a wartime thirst for Russian vodka. A crowd of the war elite finger-tapped along to the familiar beat.
The rock concert was something like theme music for the Kremlin’s attempt at rewriting history, turning the defeat in Afghanistan into a patriotic victory for Mother Russia.
“Do you, comrade, remember Afghanistan? Glows of fires, Muslim cries?” sang the band Cascade — comprising camouflage- and medal-wearing veterans, including a percussionist with an Afghan drum and a keyboard player who lost a leg in combat.
It was just one of the ways Russia is marking 30 years since the Soviet military’s humiliating exit from Afghanistan after a decade of war that strained the Soviet armed forces and left a gaping hole in the country’s finances.
The withdrawal in February 1989 also had a deeper sting for the Kremlin.
The Red Army was pushed out of Afghanistan by U.S.-backed mujahideen, ending a key proxy battle of the Cold War. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe were gaining steam and becoming less fearful of a Soviet-ordered crackdown.
The Kremlin in 1989 called the Afghan war “a political mistake.” Now Russian lawmakers, urged on by President Vladimir Putin, are trying to make a 180-degree turn on that assessment.
On Friday, the date the last Red Army unit withdrew from Afghanistan 30 years ago, the Russian parliament plans to pass a resolution declaring that the war was justified. Putin then is expected to lead a lavish commemoration ceremony at the Kremlin.
“These courageous men were serving their homeland, they were fulfilling their duty,” nationalist politician and Afghanistan veteran Sergey Baburin said last week at the opening in Moscow of a photography exhibit whose stated intention was to show the more palatable side of the war.
Makeovers of history are not uncommon in many countries. Other uncomfortable truths — such as how the anti-Soviet mujahideen helped create al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which have both opposed the West — cannot be glossed over.
But Russia’s remaking of the Afghan war narrative is among the most comprehensive and systematic of such historical revisions.
It is part of Moscow’s wider attempt to mold a historical narrative that fits the current ideology under Putin, whose leadership has projected the image of a strong Russia with an unblemished past.
The parliamentary resolution denounces the 1989 condemnation of the war, saying it was “at odds with the principles of historical justice,” and maintains that Moscow sent troops to Afghanistan in December 1979 at the behest of the Kremlin-backed communist government in Kabul. (In fact, the Soviet invasion forces overthrew that government, assassinated its leader and installed a rival communist faction completely beholden to Moscow.)
The rehabilitation of the war also comes amid Moscow’s renewed influence in Afghanistan. In recent months, Russia has hosted two major meetings between the Taliban and Afghan power brokers aimed at finding a way to end the current war involving the United States.
Today’s government in Kabul is unlikely to warm to the idea of Moscow’s defense of that earlier war, especially given the Afghan government’s recent rebuke of President Trump’s revisionist praise of the Soviet invasion.
Unlike other initiatives — such as Putin’s restoration of the Stalin-era national anthem at the start of his rule or the recasting of Ivan the Terrible from bloody to heroic — the rehabilitative work on Afghanistan was something of a surprise.
As recently as November, Russia’s Channel 1 TV station, a state-run heavyweight, has been airing the fictional series “Stormy Weather,” depicting veterans of the Afghanistan war as the dregs of society in the chaotic 1990s. The show received rave reviews.
For some of the conflict’s veterans, the government’s flip-flop only compounds long-held feelings of despair.
“Such a resolution is really awful,” said Valery Shiryaev, who was a decorated military translator in Afghanistan and is now deputy director of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“My friends, who are other veterans, do not think the Afghan war was a good thing. It was a terrible mistake,” he said.
About 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in the conflict, along with at least 1 million Afghans. Initially, the war was kept hidden from the Soviet public’s view, and draftees were sometimes unaware of their final destination until they arrived in Afghanistan. Once soldiers’ bodies started returning home, a wave of hysteria gripped young men and their mothers across the country.
The “Afgantsy” — as the veterans are known in Russian — returned to find a crumbling Soviet Union indifferent to the ordeals they had suffered for the supposed benefit of the motherland.
Afgantsy formed tightknit groups across the country. They regularly meet to reminisce and hold concerts, singing deeply moving songs whose lyrics are sprinkled with phrases in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s main languages. But this is only for one another.
At the small Museum for the Afghanistan War, tucked away on the outskirts of Moscow, school groups have been visiting with increasing frequency. “Interest in the war is growing, especially with the 30-year anniversary coming up,” said the museum’s director, Igor Yerin.
An Afghanistan war veteran himself, Yerin has spent decades collecting war memorabilia for the museum, where Soviet rockets and canned beef rations compete for space with the ragged clothing of the mujahideen.
But even for Yerin, the war conjures up conflicting feelings.
“The reevaluation by the government is not about rehabilitation, but about remembering,” he said. “We Russians switch on the soul first, then the brain.”