Sunday, July 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Afgantsy Want Moscow to Celebrate Their War Too

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 6 – Russian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan have appealed to the Kremlin to quash the negative assessment of that conflict the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies returned in December 1989 and to include February 15, when they commemorate Soviet action there, on the list of Russian Days of Military Glory.
On Friday, the Russian Union of Veterans of Afghanistan appealed to the country’s leadership to formally repeal the condemnation of that conflict, which many see as having led to the end of the Soviet Union, and to officially declare that the conflict in Afghanistan should be recalled alongside other Soviet and Russian victories (
The Union, which claims to speak on behalf of the more than 650,000 surviving Russian veterans of that war, attracted the backing of Frants Klintsevich, a Union leader who also serves as the first deputy chairman of the Duma committee on veterans’ affairs, who called on both federal officials and regional bodies to support the Union’s call.
The Amur oblast legislature has added its voice to their appeal, urging both Duma deputies and members of the Federation Council to come up with alternative language that does not insult those soldiers living and dead who honorably fulfilled their “international duty” as part of the limited contingent of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
In addition to its call for overturning the assessment of the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies, the Union also asked that the Russian government finally take steps to provide “social and legal defense” of the veterans of the Afghan conflict, something Moscow promised in 1989 and again in 1995 but has not yet done.
And the Union urged that the Kremlin as part of this process create a ministry for veterans affairs, a structure like those which “have existed for a long time already in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, China, Japan and other countries” and which Russian leaders in the 1990s said they favored setting up.
Three aspects of this appeal are interesting. First, it represents the emergence of a potentially powerful group that not only deserves to be included in any discussion of civil society in Russia but also is likely to be especially influential, as veterans groups in other countries are, because of its ties with the military and the defense ministry.
Second, this action suggests that the Afgantsy, long viewed by many Russians as criminalized marginals, now hope to play a more prominent role in Russian political life, either because they see others, clearly more marginal than themselves, doing so or because they calculate that the new Russian patriotism offers them the best chance ever for a place in the sun.
And third, this call to equate the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with Russian and Soviet military “victories” more generally highlights a disturbing trend in Russian life: an inclination to reject any objective assessment of what Moscow has done and to view events like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan through an increasingly selective nostalgia.
On the one hand, of course, the Union’s appeal is little more than an overreaction to the tendency at the end of Soviet times to view just about everything in the Russian and Soviet past as a mistake. And on the other, transforming the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan into some kind of victory is fully consistent with the bombastic patriotism increasingly widespread in Russia today.

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