An interview with a former Soviet army veteran and a member of the Soviet News Agency's Afghan news desk about the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Covers some disturbing subjects, CW: discussion of suicide.
In late December 1979, the world held its breath as thousands of Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan. Moscow said the troops would be there six months, to help bring peace to the country. In fact the Soviet army stayed almost ten years, and Afghanistan came to be seen as the Soviet Union's Vietnam. Louise Hidalgo has been talking to journalist Andrei Ostalski and former soldier Vyacheslav Ismailov about that time.
Service with me Louise Hidalgo, and today I’m taking you back to late December
1979, when the world held its breath as the Soviet Union sent its army into Afghanistan
to prop up the Communist led government. Moscow said the troops would stay six
months, in the end they stayed nearly ten years. And Afghanistan will become
the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
and journalist Andrei Ostalski have been
remembering that time.
was used heavily during the war to transport men and materials.
when I was summoned by the Task Director General Mr. Sergei Losev.
in the Moscow headquarters of TASS the official Soviet News Agency when his
boss got a call from the Kremlin.
the Soviet troops would enter Afghanistan and then big military operation in
support of the Kabul government would start.
he? You couldn’t tell anyone, you had to collate all the reaction that was
coming in from abroad. But you were really quite junior at the time weren’t you
to have access to news like that?
memoirs of the Chief analyst of the KGB Foreign Intelligence Service that even
he was taken totally by surprise.
26th thousands of Soviet troops entered Afghanistan.
large Antonov 22 and the smaller Antonov 12 literally poured into Kabul.
heard the short official announcement. His name was Vyacheslav Ismailov.
there was so little information. I just remember we were told we were helping
these people, the Afghans, and our soldiers would be defending them against
bandits – that’s what we called them. And they were going to rebuild schools
and hospitals, and roads. There was no mention of military operations.
temporarily put in charge of the Afghan news desk as the agency scrambled to
find experts who spoke the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto.
There was the uncensored news that wasn’t for public consumption of course but
you’d send it to the Politburo and other senior officials. And one day they
asked you to go and brief these local party officials, didn’t they?
Afghanistan’s President who was murdered by the Soviet commanders, and then the
Soviet Union started supporting the minority faction inside this minority. Led by
an alcoholic KGB agent called Babrak Karmal, so the USSR was relying on this minority
in one of the most troublesome countries in the world.
wasn’t quite what you expected was it?
everything they were reading in the Soviet newspapers. So, they started jeering
and heckling and I had to cut my talk short, and I was scared. I ran, I physically
ran back to TASS to ask to see my bosses and said I am afraid they will
denounce me and you will sack me or maybe I will be arrested, well I was
totally panicking. But they said ok we’ll try to do what we can and they did.
didn’t want to know it. That was a learning curve I must say.
then four. Afghanistan had become a Cold War battleground with Moscow and
America fighting through their proxies, flooding the country with weaponry. By 1985
the Soviet Union had a new leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was beginning to
realise it was a lost cause. And it was getting harder to hide the body bags
bringing home dead Soviet soldiers.
years earlier was sent to Afghanistan.
to Shindad Air base in the west where we were based. When we arrived we were
given a lecture by one of the senior officers and afterwards when we were
having a smoke he said `You know, the way we’re fighting, this war is going to
be going on when our children, our grandchildren are old enough to fight.`
it was so different from everything we’ve been told.
when they passed an Afghan driving a truck loaded with watermelons.
and started throwing all the watermelons out to our soldiers, ten, twenty, thirty.
And the Afghan was sitting there shaking saying `Please, please, this is my
livelihood, that’s enough`.
place we’re occupiers, this is how occupiers behave.
supplies from the airbase at Shindad down through the mountains and the desert 400
Kilometres to Afghanistan’s second city Kandahar. Tell me about that Journey.
night although sometimes we had too. The hardest was the third day going into
Kandahar, that was the most treacherous part, they were waiting for us. There was
a grain store and once you got past that the gunfire started, it was like a
hit, then we’d have a day’s rest and we’d set off again.
was in charge of four hundred men; young 18, 19-year olds you have to feed
them, you have to look after them when they’re wounded, make sure their weapons
are working properly. You’re just thinking about them all the time.
being bombed, civilians killed, you know fields and valleys were being mined.
Afghans, it was like when the Americans hit the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.
You know, we did the same, our planes dropped bombs on hospitals, on villages
it was collateral damage. Some days they wouldn’t let us out of Kandahar for
two or three days and all the roads were closed because the planes were
bombing. But what can you do? It’s a war, we started it we had to see it through.
four of the Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan weren’t killed by enemy fire,
the were killed by their own side. Or they took their own life.
out drunk and crashing their planes or colliding with another plane. Our leaders
were always talking about our achievements and our heroism but really, we were
our own worst enemy.
of your men take their own life?
our way to Kandahar and a young lad was with us and he went AWOL. We found his
weapon, he’d left it behind but he’d taken a few grenades, and the following
morning we found his body, ripped apart. And a note, I still remember every
word, and it’s more than 30 years ago.
my mother that I died a hero.”
He was 18.
1989. 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 1 Million Afghans had died. Two years later
the Soviet Union dissolved. Vyacheslav Ismailov is today a military analyst for
the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Andrei Ostalski went on to work for the
newspaper Izvestia and then the BBC, to day he lives in the south of England.