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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Review of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys | John Lloyd

Saturday 23 March 2024



ZINKY BOYS: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation

by Svetlana Alexievich

translated by Julia Whitby and Robin Whitby.

Chatto, 192 pp.,
January 1992
0 7011 3838 6

Among the many thoughts which this sad, sometimes unreadably sad book suggests is this: did the Afghan war mark the beginning of the most dramatic military event of our time, the dissolution of the Soviet Armed Forces? Did the crumbling of belief and will which Zinky Boys documents erode the imperial reflexes of a militarised state to the extent that no strategy – whether sticking to the forms of orthodoxy or Communist reformism – could pull it out of the crisis?

In form, Zinky Boys – the name given to those shipped home dead from the war in Afghanistan because they were always shipped in zinc coffins – is familiar enough in the West, but less so in the former Soviet Union. It consists of a series of interviews presented as short narratives, without interpolations from the author. People speak for themselves, in other words, which was neither a Soviet nor a pre-Soviet literary practice. Svetlana Alexievich, a young Belorussian journalist, has managed to escape from the leaden disciplines of Soviet journalism in which she must have been trained, to discover this mode of presenting her material, and has used it well, if at times repetitiously.

With very few and very partial exceptions, the evidence is of veterans of the war who are deeply scarred, irredeemably cynical, full of tension and of hatreds that can’t be assuaged. These people, officers, enlisted men, medical personnel, civilian employees (mainly women), even political instructors, all speak of a struggle which changed them utterly, and always for the worst. Not only has war lost any ‘nobility’ but, because of the reception the veterans got when they returned home, it has lost the power to produce, in time, its own antidotes. All that the Afgantsi have is their comradeship with each other; many of them find it almost intolerable to speak to anyone other than their own kind.

There is an obvious comparison here with the Vietnam War: a comparison which has suggested itself to others before now, and which was sealed by the visit of Vietnam veterans to their Afgantsi counterparts two years ago. In both cases, the young citizens of a superpower were sucked into a war against guerrilla forces who fought with a ferocity and cruelty with which they were unable to cope and to which they could only ‘successfully’ respond with their own higher-tech brutality. Startlingly, the fable with which the Colonel Kurtz character in the film Apocalypse Now justifies his sadism – his witnessing of Vietcong chopping off the arms of Vietnamese children who had received US medical injections – is reproduced here exactly, causing the Soviet narrator to come to the same conclusion: namely, that the Soviets could not match the dedicated indifference to suffering which their enemies demonstrated.

At first, the Soviet soldiers, no less than the Americans, were at a loss to understand why the people they were told they were helping were so ‘ungrateful’, and why they responded with hatred to tenderness and aggression alike. And in both cases, those who returned, wounded or unwounded, found it impossible to forgive those who had never served in the war – especially if they said that their service had been in vain, or even malign. ‘We believed we were there to defend the motherland and our way of life,’ one soldier said to Alexievich:

yet back home, what do I find? A friend can’t lend me a fiver because his wife wouldn’t like it. What kind of friend is that? I soon realised we were surplus to requirements ... Life here is just one big swamp where all people care about is their dachas, their cars and where to find a bit of smoked sausage ... If there weren’t so many of us, 100,000 in fact, they’d have shut us all up ... Out there we all hated the enemy together. But now I need someone to hate, so that I can find some friends again. But who?

A major in the propaganda section of an artillery regiment testifies to the extraordinary moral authority which Andrei Sakharov exercised: ‘When I hear people accusing us of killing people over there I could smash their faces in. If you weren’t there and didn’t live through it you have no right to judge us. The only exception was Sakharov. I would have listened to him.’

Yet the differences between the experiences of the two societies are larger than the resemblances. The opposition to the Vietnam War, especially in the late Sixties and early Seventies, produced its own antidote. Now, the disillusion and frustration felt by the Vets has persuaded mainstream opinion that anyone who wishes to criticise America’s involvement in the war but who did not take part in it had better at least be sensitive about the way in which he expresses his opposition. (One has only to think of the trouble Vice-President Quayle and Governor Clinton have had from being seen as privileged draft dodgers.) In the former Soviet Union, there has been no public catharsis even of a partial kind, no popular expression of embittered patriotism of the sort voiced in the film Deer Hunter – not least because the motherland for which the Afgantsi fought, and whose southern flank they were told they were preserving, began to dissolve quite soon after the war ended and the southern flank shifted much closer to Moscow than they could ever have imagined it would.

In the republics of the former Soviet Union, the Afgantsi – the whole ones still struggling to cope with their experiences, the wounded creaking about on their dreadful Soviet prostheses – remain a caste apart: some of them still acting out their aggression on the social ‘undesirables’ like the Heavy Metal fans or the hippies; more of them retreating into a futile and at times demented loneliness, the more acutely painful the more thoughtful they are. The American vet can console himself with the knowledge that the system which he opposed has collapsed: the Soviet vet is having to live through the collapse of the system he pledged himself to defend. For a people used to justifying their actions with reference to a code of ideals, this must be terribly hard.

Zinky Boys, with its relentless concentration on the bleakest aspects of the war, stands as a valuable record of the decade during which the Soviet Army was engaged in Afghanistan. These were poor young men who went down there and through their service they had access to a world market of commodities for the first time in their lives, spending their leisure trading the coupons which made up part of their pay for Japanese electronics, Italian sunglasses and American canned food. For many of the new recruits, their time in the barracks was as hideous as their time in the field, the torture they underwent at the hands of the ‘Grandads’ (those who had served two years) taking such extreme form that some died. One recruit was buried up to his neck in earth all night and pissed on: when he was released in the morning, he shot two of his tormentors dead. Others simply bowed to the sadism, which was of a degree few other armies can match. Here is the evidence of one new recruit:

I was the only new boy in our unit: the other ten – nearing the end of their tour of duty – were known as ‘Grandads’. I was forced to do all their washing, chop all the wood, and clean the whole camp – I never got more than three hours sleep a night. One of the things I had to do was to fetch the water from the stream. One morning I had a strong instinct not to go – I felt that the mujaheddin had been about that night, planting mines, but I was so scared I’d be beaten again, and there was no water for washing. So off I went, and duly stepped on a mine. It was only a signal mine, thank God, so a rocket went up and illuminated the whole area. I fell, crawled on, ‘must get at least a bucket of water for them to clean their teeth with. They won’t care what happened, they’ll just beat me up again’ ... The authorities were powerless against the unwritten rules of army life, which were literally life and death to us. If you tried to fight against them you always lost in the end. Near the end of my two years I even tried to beat someone up myself. I didn’t manage it though. The ‘rule of the Grandads’ doesn’t depend on individuals – it’s a product of the herd instinct. First you get beaten up, then you beat up others.

A few women who were civilian employees are represented: for most of them, the war which began with the ideal of serving and succouring quickly became a nightmare of trying, on the one hand, to find accommodation and, on the other, to elude the relentless sexual demands. ‘I got to my unit,’ said one:

the temperature was 60 degrees Celsius and there were enough flies in the toilet to lift you from the ground with their wings. No showers. I was the only woman. Two weeks later I was summoned by the battalion commander. ‘You’re going to live with me, sweetheart,’ he informed me. I had to fight him off for two months. Once I almost threw a grenade at him: another time I grabbed a knife and threatened him with it. ‘You’re just after bigger fish. You know which side your bread’s buttered on,’ was his usual comment. Then one day he just said, ‘Fuck off,’ and that was the end of it.

Bureaucratic indifference was the same in death as in life. One widow tells of searching for days for her husband’s coffin, which was finally discovered in the corner of a provincial airport, among others similarly abandoned.

A few still tried to believe, even afterwards. A major says:

I used to point out to my men how useless foreign machinery was. ‘What good is this foreign car? It’ll fall to bits on our roads.’ It’s only now – and I’m in my fifties – that I’m beginning to realise that Japan might make a better-quality machine tool, the French might be better at producing nylon stockings, and Taiwan has the prettiest girls ... I couldn’t stand in front of my lads now and tell them we’re the finest and fairest in the world. But I still maintain that’s what we were aiming at. We failed. But why?

All of this testimony shows how undermining the experience was and, though the system, intact up to the late Eighties, tried to quarantine it – even to the extent of stopping mothers from grieving in public – the infection spread until it became pervasive. Back home, there was no terror to whip public opinion back into line, and even the official propaganda was faltering.

Yet Afghanistan was not the blow which shattered the Red Army: rather, a premonition that the society of which the Army was such an important part could no longer provide the context in which it operated, which both gave it an honoured place and ensured that it remained a brutalised mass. The idealism had gone: and idealism, when it is used as a tool of military and social discipline as it was in the Soviet system, is inseparable from coercion: indeed, it explicitly legitimises coercion, and licenses those who coerce to act in its name. It inspires devotion and fear at the same time. Free and uncoerced idealists exist, but today less in poor societies than in rich ones, where the liberalism that wealth makes possible is transmuted into social responsibility, or the guilty drive which can power it. Even under Brezhnev, official idealism could and did work: the evidence is here in this book, when soldiers talk of going to the Afghan front to do their patriotic duty, and civilian employees talk of their write-up in Pravda under the heading ‘Madonnas of Kabul’, inspiring hundreds of other young women like them to volunteer.

The idealism has gone, and the military struggles in the ruins of its collapse. The Soviet Armed Forces are in desperate straits: they have troops in Central Europe and in the Baltics which they cannot house: indeed, they cannot house the officers whom they have already brought back to Russia. There is hardly any effective draft left outside of Russia and the Central Asian states – and even in Russia, evasion is common. It cannot buy new equipment, or even ammunition. It has lost, not just its southern flank, but its vital western defences and its Baltic approaches: its effective area of operation has shrunk to Russia, and it has no new defence doctrine to cope with the new situation. And while other budding nation states, such as Ukraine, form their own armies, Russia still tries to patch together a ‘commonwealth’ force without the imperialist order to give it coherence.

The logic of the dissolution will be the appearance of separate armies: and these armies may not just be separate, but warring. Already, Armenia and Azerbaijan are essentially at war, and neighbouring Turkey has protested about the creation of two national armies out of local units of the former Soviet Army. Conflict is now likely throughout the Caucasus, as the Red Army is withdrawn and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the ousted president of Georgia, sits in the Russian Caucasian Republic of Chechen Ingushetia (now under military rule) planning with that state’s ruler a return to his state. The Baltics could face trouble from within, as their Russian minorities grow more resentful and fearful, and the Red Army responds to their restiveness. In Moldova, the Russians and the Moldovans are already in conflict with each other. Within Russia itself, it isn’t only Chechen Ingushetia that seeks independent status: other republics, too, are daring a so far ineffective central government to strip them of the powers they claim for themselves. It is useless to speculate as to whether or not the still intact General Staff, or some other echelon of the Armed Forces, will stage another putsch to prevent a final dissolution: no one can tell, not even those who, like Eduard Shevardnadze, issue twice-weekly warnings of such an event. A decision to stage a coup could be taken – or shirked – at any time. My own view is that the putative putschists are deterred by the thought of what to do on Day Two, though it may be that those who act will do so in the name, simply, of action itself – on s’engage, puis on voit. The only solution now is to let the new nations come into being, and to seek to ensure that, in their inevitably stormy creation, they rub as little against each other as possible. Afghanistan, the last foreign adventure of the Soviet Union, is a terrible but fitting epitaph to it: its passing cannot be regretted, even as its legacy fills us with fear.

(The above is reproduced here from the London Review of Books, Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992 for educational and non-commercial use)

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