Soviet authorities themselves condemned the USSR’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan, but 30 years later some in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are coming to see the operation in a more positive light.
After a decade of military intervention to bolster Kabul’s embattled Communist government against Islamist fighters, the USSR finally pulled out its last units on February 15, 1989.
The withdrawal, ordered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was a humiliating defeat for the Union and helped lead to its collapse.
Mikhail Kozhukhov, who covered the conflict as a correspondent for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, remembered how the final Russian troops left without joy or bitterness.
“The soldiers were dreaming only of one thing: getting home safe and sound,” Kozhukhov, now 62, told AFP.
The reporter remembered crossing the “Friendship Bridge” across the Amu Darya river separating Afghanistan from then-Soviet Uzbekistan in the second-last armoured vehicle of the last Soviet convoy, flying red flags.
One of the armoured vehicles carried the body of 20-year-old Igor Lyakhovich, who was killed a day earlier and is officially the last of more than 14,000 Soviet war dead in a conflict that killed more than one million Afghans.
“Along the route you could see the ‘ghosts’ who had come down from the mountains to watch our retreat from a distance,” said Kozhukhov, using a Russian term for elusive Afghan partisans.
“The eyes of the inhabitants of the snowy village were full of hate or spite because they were being left to the mercy of fate,” Kozhukhov said.
The journalist, who briefly served as Putin’s press secretary in 1999 and 2000, says that “the intervention in Afghanistan was always a tragic and senseless escapade.”
‘Reviving Soviet past’
The intervention was extremely unpopular with the Soviet public and was officially condemned in 1989 at the height of Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost”, or transparency.
But this judgement is now being reassessed, under pressure from veterans.
Putin in 2015 appeared to back the intervention, saying that the Soviet leadership was trying to confront “real threats” even though he acknowledged “there were many mistakes.”
In late January, Russia’s parliamentary defence committee backed a draft resolution saying that “the moral and political condemnation of the decision to send in Soviet troops” was “against the principles of historical justice.”
The Soviet troops helped the Afghan authorities fight “terrorist and extremist groups” and curbed the growing security threat facing the USSR, the draft resolution says.
The draft resolution, however, has yet to be voted on in full session, reflecting the authorities’ reluctance formally to revisit this traumatic episode.
Historian Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial rights group says that amid heightened tensions with Western powers in recent years, “Russia is reviving its Soviet past to justify its new opposition to the West.”
For political analyst Pyotr Akopov from pro-Kremlin site Vzglyad, “the ex-combatants and the whole of Russian society need vindication for this war.”
“We have nothing to apologise for, we didn’t use napalm… and we even managed to leave Afghanistan with our supporters replacing us, which the Americans have never managed to do.”
Alexander Kovalyov, president of the association of ex-combatants for the CIS region including most ex-Soviet countries, insists the invasion of Afghanistan was justified and says Gorbachev “betrayed all the dead” by condemning it.
“Without our troops, the Americans would have installed their missiles to target Moscow,” he said.
“Gorbachev was right to finish this war but we should have kept on supporting Kabul with the necessary arms for it to resist,” said Kovalyov, who served as a deputy commander in charge of political indoctrination of an army regiment sent in to secure the withdrawal.
Konstantin Volkov went to Afghanistan in late 1981 as a conscript at the age of 17, full of enthusiasm after following Soviet media reports.
He was responsible for radio communications, taking part in 70 missions and was decorated for intercepting correspondence between the Mujahideen.
Demobilised in 1983 in good physical health, he says the war haunted his dreams for 15 years.
He was ordained as a Russian Orthodox priest and is now Father Konstantin. At his church in a village outside Moscow, around 30 of his fellow “Afghans” (Soviet veterans) gather every February 15.
“I suggest to my former comrades that they express penitence and don’t think any more about what happened in that war,” he told AFP.