OK, “internationalist-soldiers” is less awkward. “Internationalist” was the CPSU’s way of describing Soviet advisors and troops abroad assisting or fighting on behalf of various regimes during the Cold War.
Tuesday’s Moskovskaya pravda had a very interesting news-essay by Natalya Pokrovskaya on the 22nd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s entitled “The Newest History. The Soldier Doesn’t Pick the War.”
The completion of the Afghan withdrawal on February 15, 1989 has the same resonance for Russians as April 30, 1975 for Americans: it represents the collapse of a crusade conducted in the context of a global ideological and military confrontation called the Cold War. And as Pokrovskaya implies, whether sent by Leonid Brezhnev or Lyndon Johnson, Soviet and American soldiers didn’t choose the conflicts they fought in.
Pokrovskaya reports that, though long celebrated, Tuesday marked the first time Russia officially celebrated the Day of Memory of Internationalist-Soldiers:
“For too long, the Fatherland didn’t want to recognize those who defended its interests in far-away countries, fulfilling their internationalist duty.”
She notes, in 2002, the federal law on veterans was changed and participants in local wars and conflicts received the status of combat veterans. And then late last year the law on military memorial dates was amended, and 15 February is now the Day of Memory of Russian Citizens Who Fulfilled Their Service Duty Beyond the Boundaries of the Fatherland.
Pokrovskaya says Russians typically associate “internationalist-soldier” only with those who fought in Afghanistan, but, in fact, after 1945, Soviet officers and soldiers shed their blood in the interests of their Homeland in 18 wars in 14 countries. She includes:
- Algeria (1962-1964).
- Egypt (October 1962-March 1963, June 1967, 1968, March 1969-July 1972, October 1973-February 1975).
- Yemen (October 1962-March 1963, November 1967-December 1969).
- Vietnam (1961-1974).
- Syria (June 1967, March-July 1970, September-November 1972, October 1973).
- Angola (November 1975-November 1979).
- Mozambique (1967-1969, November 1975-November 1979, March 1984-April 1987).
- Ethiopia (December 1977-November 1979).
- Afghanistan (April 1978-February 1989).
- Cambodia (April-December 1970).
- Bangladesh (1972-1973).
- Laos (January 1960-December 1963, August 1964-November 1968, November 1969-December 1970).
- Syria and Lebanon (June 1982).
Soviet participation in these wars was generally a closely guarded secret, but the Afghan war was too burdensome to keep secret. More than half a million Soviet troops passed through Afghanistan, and more than 14,000 died in nine years of fighting.
Pokrovskaya describes the end – the withdrawal of the 40th Army over the Friendship Bridge from Hairaton to Termez, five Border Guard groups providing security for the departing column, the weary-faced General-Lieutenant Boris Gromov.
She recalls bloodletting after the Soviet withdrawal [again, not unlike Vietnam], a soldier’s memories of his first time in battle, and the life of Soviet Army convoy drivers.
But Pokrovskaya saves her best for the end:
“But back Home there was sketchy news of voyenkomaty and burials which, with a few exceptions, all regions of a huge country got – a little less, others – more. But the information vacuum didn’t allow a chance for drawing a conclusion, for citizens of a big country to realize the essence of what was happening with their sons beyond the bounds of the Fatherland. The total ban on the truth worked impeccably during practically all ‘foreign’ campaigns.”
She thinks people began to learn about the war about four years after it began, mainly via veterans, from “Afgantsy.” About them today, she says:
“Each of them who, in peacetime, endured the hardships and privations of war for the sake of their native state’s interests, also lives every day with the memories and pain of his combat past. They say that the war ends on the day when the last soldier who returned from it dies.”
Pokrovskaya says the Soviet internationalists, who are now generally between 40 and 50 with families and kids, understand how thin the border between war and peace, between senseless cruelty and a peacekeeping mission is.
One hero from the Afghan war tells Pokrovskaya a story about last Victory Day when he gathered with close buddies and sang some Afghan songs with them. He said suddenly a bunch of skinheads jumped from the bushes. They said, “Old men we respect you! Let’s drink, you are heroes, you killed the ‘black ones’!”
The reader can substitute whatever racist term he or she chooses for чёрные – n*****, wog, kaffir, etc. Again not different from the unfortunate American experience in dehumanizing enemies as slopes or gooks.
Pokrovskaya’s war hero goes on to say he was knocked unconscious in battle in 1986:
“Guys, a Tajik and an Uzbek, dragged me more than ten kilometers to a chopper. I owe them my life! And these ones who’ve never seen a battle, but after hearing every idea about racial supremacy, try to cozy up to me?! We weren’t restrained to put it mildly . . . . We conked them on their heads and sent them home to mama and papa . . . to learn their lessons. History, for example. They don’t even know how many Heroes of the Soviet Union we have who aren’t Slavs. Georgians, Chechens, Tatars, Uzbeks . . . .”
Ms. Pokrovskaya sums it all up:
“Can it be that the state was silent for nothing, didn’t remember for so long those who honorably fulfilled their duty to the Homeland for nothing? And is today’s gift of memory which we are giving the present-day children of the internationalist-soldiers really to teach the most recent history of a country now split by the contradictions of inter-ethnic discord?”
Yes, a grunt’s a grunt. And the grunts and their loved ones often ask what they’re fighting for. Or did they die for nothing.