This is not what you are supposed to be reading. All remembrances of the “Soviet Era” in Afghanistan has been boxed and then labeled as “negative”, even “toxic”. No discussion on the topic is allowed in ‘polite circles’, at least in the West and in Afghanistan itself.
Afghanistan is where the Soviet Union was tricked into, and Afghanistan is where the Communist superpower received its final blow. ‘The victory of capitalism over communism’, the official Western narrative shouted. A ‘temporary destruction of all progressive alternatives for our humanity’, replied others, but mostly under their breath.
After the horrific, brutal and humiliating period of Gorbachev/Yeltsin, Russia shrunk both geographically and demographically, while going through indescribable agony. It hemorrhaged; it was bathing in its own excrement, while the West celebrated its temporary victory, dancing in front of the world map, envisioning the re-conquest of its former colonies.
But in the end Russia survived, regained its bearings and dignity, and once again became one of the most important countries on Earth, directly antagonistic to the global Western imperialist designs.
Afghanistan has never recovered. After the last Soviet combat troops left the country in 1989, it bled terribly for years, consumed by a brutal civil war. Its progressive government had to face the monstrous terror of the Western and Saudi backed Mujahedeen, with individuals like Osama bin Laden in command of the jihadi genocide.
Socialists, Communists, secularists as well as almost all of those who were educated in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Block countries, were killed, exiled, or muzzled for decades.
Most of those who settled in the West simply betrayed; went along with the official Western narrative and dogma.
Even those individuals who still claimed to be part of the left, repeated like parrots, their preapproved fib:
“Perhaps the Soviet Union was not as bad as the Mujahedeen, Taliban, or even the West, but it was really bad enough.”
I heard these lines in London and elsewhere, coming from several mouths of corrupt Afghan ‘elites’ and their children. From the beginning I was doubtful. And then my work, my journeys to and through Afghanistan began. I spoke to dozens of people all over the country, doing exactly what I was discouraged to do: driving everywhere without an escort or protection, stopping in the middle of godforsaken villages, entering fatal city slums infested with narcotics, approaching prominent intellectuals in Kabul, Jalalabad and elsewhere.
“Where are you from?” I was asked on many occasions.
“Russia,” I’d reply. It was a gross simplification. I was born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, but an incredible mixture of Chinese, Russian, Czech and Austrian blood circles through my veins. Still, the name “Russia” came naturally to me, in the middle of Afghan deserts and deep gorges, especially in those places where I knew that my life was hanging on a thin thread. If I were to be allowed to utter one last word in this life, “Russia” was what I wanted it to be.
But after my declaration, the faces of the Afghan people would soften, unexpectedly and suddenly. “Welcome!” I’d hear again and again. An invitation to enter humble homes would follow: an offer to rest, to eat, or to just drink a glass of water.
‘Why?’ I often wondered. “Why?” I finally asked my driver and interpreter, Mr. Arif, who became my dear friend.
“It’s because in this country, Afghans love Russian people,” he replied simply and without any hesitation.
“Afghans love Russians?” I wondered. “Do you?”
“Yes,” he replied, smiling. “I do. Most of our people here do.”
Two days later I was sitting inside an armored UNESCO Land Cruiser, talking to a former Soviet-trained engineer, now a simple driver, Mr. Wahed Tooryalai. He allowed me to use his name; he had no fear, just accumulated anger, which he obviously wanted to get out of his system:
“When I sleep, I still sometimes see the former Soviet Union in my dreams. After that, I wake up and feel happy for one entire month. I remember everything I saw there, until now…”
I wanted to know what really made him so happy ‘there’?
Mr. Wahed did not hesitate:
“People! They are so kind. They are welcoming… Russians, Ukrainians… I felt so much at home there. Their culture is exactly like ours. Those who say that Russians ‘occupied’ Afghanistan have simply sold out. The Russians did so much for Afghanistan: they built entire housing communities like ‘Makroyan’, they built factories, even bakeries. In places such as Kandahar, people are still eating Russian bread…”
I recalled the Soviet-era water pipes that I photographed all over most of the humble Afghan countryside, as well as the elaborate water canals in and around cities like Jalalabad.
“There is so much propaganda against the Soviet Union,” I said.
“Only the Mujahedeen and the West hate Russians,” Mr. Wahed explained. “And those who are serving them.”
Then he continued:
“Almost all poor Afghan people would never say anything bad about Russians. But the government people are with the West, as well as those Afghan elites who are now living abroad: those who are buying real estate in London and Dubai, while selling their own country…those who are paid to ‘create public opinion.”
His words flowed effortlessly; he knew precisely what he wanted to say, and they were bitter, but it was clearly what he felt:
“Before and during the Soviet era, there were Soviet doctors here, and also Soviet teachers. Now show me one doctor or teacher from the USA or UK based in the Afghan countryside! Russians were everywhere, and I still even remember some names: Lyudmila Nikolayevna… Show me one Western doctor or nurse based here now. Before, Russian doctors and nurses were working all over the country, and their salaries were so low… They spent half on their own living expenses, and the other half they distributed amongst our poor… Now look what the Americans and Europeans are doing: they all came here to make money!”
I recall my recent encounter with a Georgian combatant, serving under the US command at the Bagram base. Desperate, he recalled his experience to me:
“Before Bagram I served at the Leatherneck US Base, in Helmand Province. When the Americans were leaving, they even used to pull out concrete from the ground. They joked: “When we came here, there was nothing, and there will be nothing after we leave…” They prohibited us from giving food to local children. What we couldn’t consume, we had to destroy, but never give to local people. I still don’t understand, why? Those who come from the US or Western Europe are showing so much spite for the Afghan people!”
What a contrast!
Mr. Wahed recalled how the Soviet legacy was abruptly uprooted:
“After the Taliban era, we were all poor. There was hunger; we had nothing. Then the West came and began throwing money all around the place. Karzai and the elites kept grabbing all that they could, while repeating like parrots: “The US is good!” Diplomats serving Karzai’s government, the elites, they were building their houses in the US and UK, while people educated in the Soviet Union couldn’t get any decent jobs. We were all blacklisted. All education had to be dictated by the West. If you were educated in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, East Germany or Bulgaria, they’d just tell you straight to your face: Out with you, Communist! At least now we are allowed to at least get some jobs… We are still pure, clean, never corrupt!”
“Do people still remember?” I wonder.
“Of course they do! Go to the streets, or to a village market. Just tell them: “How are you my dear?” in Russian. They’d immediately invite you to their homes, feed you, embrace you…”
I tried a few days later, in the middle of the market… and it worked. I tried in a provincial town, and it worked again. I finally tried in a Taliban-infiltrated village some 60 kilometers from Kabul, and there it didn’t. But I still managed to get away.
I met Mr. Shakar Karimi in Pole Charkhi Village. A local patriarch, he used to be a district chief in Nangarhar Province.
I asked him, what the best system ever implemented in modern Afghanistan was?
First he spoke about the Khan dynasty, but then referred to a left-wing Afghan leader, who was brutally tortured and murdered by Taliban after they entered Kabul in 1996:
“If they’d let Dr. Najib govern in peace, that would have been the best for Afghanistan!”
I asked him about the Soviet invasion in 1979.
“They came because they were given wrong information. The first mistake was to enter Afghanistan. The second, fatal mistake was to leave.”
“What was the main difference between the Russians and Westerners during their engagement in Afghanistan?”
“The Russian people came predominately to serve, to help Afghanistan. The relationship between Russians and Afghans was always great. There was real friendship and people were interacting, even having parties together, visiting each other.”
I didn’t push him further; didn’t ask what was happening now. It was just too obvious. “Enormous walls and high voltage wires,” would be the answer. Drone zeppelins, weapons everywhere and an absolute lack of trust… and the shameless division between the few super rich and the great majority of the desperately poor… the most depressed country on the Asian continent.
Later I asked my comrade Arif, whether all this was really true?
“Of course!” He shouted, passionately. “100% true. The Russians built roads, they built homes for our people, and they treated Afghans so well, like their brothers. The Americans never did anything for Afghanistan, almost nothing. They only care about their own benefits.”
“If there would be a referendum right now, on a simple question: ‘do you want Afghanistan to be with Russia or with the United States, the great majority would vote for Russia, never for the US or Europe. And you know why? I’m Afghan: when my country is good, then I’m happy. If my country is doing bad, then I suffer! Most people here, unless they are brainwashed or corrupted by the Westerners, know perfectly well what Russia did for this country. And they know how the West injured our land.”
Of course this is not what every single Afghan person thinks, but most of them definitely do. Just go and drive to each and every corner of the country, and ask. You are not supposed to, of course. You are told to be scared to come here, to roam through this “lawless” land. And you are not supposed to go directly to the people. Instead you are expected to recycle the writings of toothless, cowardly academics, as well as servile mass media reports. If you are liberal, you are at least expected to say: “there is no hope, no solution, no future.”
At Goga Manda village, the fighting between the Taliban and government troops is still raging. All around the area, the remnants of rusty Soviet military hardware can be found, as well as old destroyed houses from the “Soviet era” battles.
The Taliban is positioned right behind the hills. Its fighters attack the armed forces of Afghanistan at least once a month.
Almost 16 years after the NATO invasion and consequent occupation of the country, this village, as thousands of other villages in Afghanistan, has no access to electricity, and to drinking water. There is no school within walking distance, and even a small and badly equipped medical post is far from here, some 5 kilometers away. Here, an average family of 6 has to survive on US$130 dollars per month, and that’s only if some members are actually working in the city.
I ask Mr. Rahmat Gul, who used to be a teacher in a nearby town, whether the “Russian times” were better.
He hesitated for almost one minute, and then replied vaguely:
“When the Russians were here, there was lots of shooting… It was real war… People used to die. During the jihad period, the Mujahedeen were positioned over there… they were shooting from those hills, while Soviet tanks were stationed near the river. Many civilians were caught in the crossfire.”
As I got ready to ask him more questions, my interpreter began to panic:
“Let’s go! Taliban is coming.”
He’s always calm. When he gets nervous, I know it is really time to run. We ran; just stepping on the accelerator and driving at breakneck speed towards the main road.
Before we parted, Mr. Wahed Tooryalai grabbed my hand. I knew he wanted to say something essential. I waited for him to formulate it. Then it came, in rusty but still excellent Russian:
“Sometimes I feel so hurt, so angry. Why did Gorbachev abandon us? Why? We were doing just fine. Why did he leave us? If he hadn’t betrayed us, life in Afghanistan would be great. I wouldn’t have to be a UN driver… I used to be the deputy director of an enormous bread factory, with 300 people working there: we were building our beloved country, feeding it. I hope Putin will not leave us.”
Then he looked at me, straight into my eyes, and suddenly I got goose bumps as he spoke, and my glasses got foggy:
“Please tell Mr. Putin: do hold our hand, as I’m now holding yours. Tell him what you saw in my country; tell him that we Afghans, or at least many of us, are still straight, strong and honest people. All this will end, and we will send the Americans and Europeans packing. It will happen very soon. Then please come and stand by us, by true Afghan patriots! We are here, ready and waiting. Come back, please.”