Zinky Boys, by Svetlana Alexievich

Zinky Boys

Zinky Boys is an oral history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, by a Soviet author with all Soviet interviewees. The interviewees are soldiers and support personnel that served in Afghanistan, and their family members. There are no government officials or others to provide other perspectives. This is the story of the soldiers. (The title is a nickname for the war dead, which comes from the zinc coffins they were shipped home in.) I’ll note a few things that stood out to me.

Many readers will recognize parallels between the experiences of the Soviet “grunts” in Afghanistan and those of the Americans in Vietnam. They’re far from exact analogues, but there’s plenty of overlap.

The propaganda that the war in Vietnam was a matter of Americans coming to support a sovereign nation (South Vietnam) fighting off unwanted external and internal enemies was a pretty ludicrous one all along. A more accurate description would be somewhere between that the Americans intervened in favor of one side in a Vietnamese civil war, and that the Americans simply invaded and attempted to subdue Vietnam.

I would have thought that roughly the same was true of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, that there were multiple entities jockeying for control of Afghanistan and that the Soviets threw their military weight behind the one they favored. If anything, I would have expected the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan would be slightly less unpopular than the American soldiers in Vietnam (based on my impression that as pro-Soviet dictatorships go, Afghanistan was not as bad as some, and actually was progressive in some respects such as regarding the status of women, and my finding it difficult to believe that creepy Taliban and Bin Laden-types could ever be favored by more than a very limited percentage of the population of even a Muslim country).

But if the interviewees in this book are to be believed, just the opposite was true. Whereas there was always some non-trivial number of Vietnamese who supported the American intervention in their country and hated the communists, the impression one gets from the stories the interviewees tell in Zinky Boys is that the Afghan support for the rebels against the Soviet-backed government and the Soviet troops was close to a hundred percent. I mean, this really does read like the Soviets brutally invaded a neighboring country to prop up a puppet dictator of theirs, and the people rose up virtually unanimously in opposition. It was not a civil war of Afghans versus Afghans with the Soviets taking a side; it was Afghans versus Soviets.

Of course, that’s not the way the Soviet government presented it to their people. In their telling, not only were the Soviet forces not fighting a largely unified Afghani population, there wasn’t much of a war going on there at all. The Soviets were there to build roads and schools and help the Afghans construct a more humane, modern, socialist society, and only to a minor degree to chip in with security assistance against the handful of religious nuts and Western-backed mercenaries that caused occasional trouble.

It sounds like most of the Soviets who ended up in Afghanistan believed that too. The women interviewees especially seem to have had surprisingly idealistic expectations.

Then they got to Afghanistan and realized that the official line wasn’t just spin but out-and-out lies. They were in an unambiguous war zone where everyone hated them and was trying to kill them.

The Soviet government did everything they could to keep their population in the dark as to the extent of the casualties. Those aforementioned zinc coffins were shipped home sealed, and the families were forbidden to open them prior to their being buried discreetly in the dead of night. In some places it was forbidden to mention the cause or location of death on the gravestones. There was a limit to how much you could even manifest that you were in mourning when you lost a loved one.

Leaving aside combat itself, which is obviously horrific regardless, life in the Soviet military in Afghanistan was evidently even worse than life in the American military. Conventional American military life strikes me as torture, with its conformity, machismo, lack of personal freedom, regimentation, etc. But it pales in comparison to the degree of violence, corruption, privation, hazing, and so on that the interviewees describe the Soviet soldiers enduring (and perpetrating). A lot of it sounds closer to life in a nightmarish American prison with particularly vicious inmates.

There was a culture of hazing, with new arrivals especially being abused to an extreme. I’m not saying things like that didn’t happen in Vietnam amongst the Americans, or elsewhere in the American military, but there’s a major difference in degree.

There was rampant corruption, with theft, bribery, smuggling of contraband out of the country, etc. Not that the Americans or any other army is squeaky clean in this regard, but again there’s a major difference in degree.

Soviet women in Afghanistan were especially mistreated. They were routinely insulted, harassed, pressured into prostitution, and coerced or semi-coerced into sex. They were cynically regarded as having come to Afghanistan to benefit by exchanging their sexual favors for various things of value. The scuttlebutt was that while the Soviet men were risking their lives in combat day after day, the women dropped in for a few months or a year to cavort with some officers and go home laden with money and consumer goods that they never would have had the means to obtain back home.

Actually, some of the women interviewees themselves resentfully attribute such motives and behavior to Soviet women who came to Afghanistan. But of course it’s always other women. The interviewees insist that they came to Afghanistan for noble reasons, and found that they were subject to certain insulting expectations in part because plenty of the women who had preceded them really were cynical exploitative sluts looking to benefit.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a 180 degree turn in the conventional take on the Afghanistan war. No longer were the people being fed constant propaganda downplaying the war and painting it as a noble cause, which many or most of them seemed to partly or completely buy into. Now they were being told that the war had been a cynical crime perpetrated by a communist dictatorship, and that the young Soviets who had been killed and maimed in it had been used and discarded for no legitimate purpose. The fact that the country’s leadership had so duped and damaged the population and especially the soldiers was held out as one of its most unforgivable sins.

It’s interesting how many of the interviewees—soldiers who survived and came home, often disabled, and family members of soldiers who didn’t make it home—vehemently reject this interpretation of the war. Interesting, because their fury is typically incoherent.

They themselves go on and on about how they were lied to and how the war was nonstop hell. But when other parties make basically the same points, they indignantly denounce such talk.

It’s like what they’re really bitter about—understandably so—is that they were sent off to die in an unjust war that their government lied about, but since there’s not much they can do about that after the fact, they unleash their fury on those in the present who remind them that they were ill-treated. They themselves are—almost all of them anyway—under no illusions that they were heroes fighting a noble cause, but they can’t stand it when others don’t treat them as such.

Zinky Boys is not a long book—just under 200 pages. But there is plenty of meat here. As an oral history, it has the vividness of hearing about horrific events and practices directly from those who experienced them. I don’t know how much we need yet another book to tell us that “war is hell,” but evidently we do need some more since that message seems not to have gotten through to plenty of people.

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