The Afghan War (1979-1989) in the cultural memory of the Russians.

Author:Kadykalo, Anna
 
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Although it has been over twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the events of this period still affect the historical consciousness of Russians, and constitute one of the most important traits of their national identity. Apart from the victory in the Second World War (in the Russian tradition called the Great Patriotic War), which was recognized by the Russians themselves as crucial in building national consciousness and pride, the Afghan war (1979-1989) should also be mentioned. It is much more controversial and still shrouded in many mysteries (Levinson; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 2005). (2) In this text, the process of constructing Russian cultural memory will be traced on the basis of imaging the events associated with the Soviet-Afghan conflict. How the reception of this war evolved, both in the Soviet/Russian society and among its veterans, researchers, historians and politicians will be shown. In addition, it will discuss how a young generation of Russians today looks at these past events, and how the memory of the Afghan war appears in a variety of memory carriers, particularly those falling within popular culture and thus affecting the contemporary Russian society.

The main theoretical concept in this article is the assumption that memory of the Afghan war occupies an important place in the collective memory of the Russians. The cultural memory of the Soviet-Afghan conflict consists of a number of memory carriers: literary works, memoirs, films, serials, songs, monuments, and demotivators (demotivational posters), among others. The multiplicity and diversity of memory carriers allows one to believe that the Afghan war is a factor constituting the collective identity of the Russians that is also affected by the changing position of Russian authorities to the Afghan conflict. One of the applicable methods in the article will be a systematic analysis of exemplary representatives of various memory carriers, aimed at presenting a multi-faceted process of perception the Afghan war by various layers of Russian society. A reconstruction of perceiving and judging by Russian society a series of events on the Soviet-Afghan conflict (based on public opinion polls) will be presented. A critical analysis of the literature and an analysis of the socio-cultural phenomena, to varying degrees related to the Afghan war will be carried out, too. The chosen methodological approach provides an opportunity for a multi-faceted presentation of the reception of the Afghan war in Russian society due to the analysis of memory carriers created by its different groups. However, the Afghan war was a war of limited impact, which, in contrast to World War II, had not marked each family; the way it is perceived is different depending on the involvement of members of each Soviet family. In this context it is worth mentioning the limitation of my selected methods, concerning varying degrees of influence of the Soviet-Afghan conflict on Russian society, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the overall picture of the Afghan war in the cultural memory of the Russians.

Memory carriers are the tools for shaping the identity of a group, strengthening its integrity and sense of value. The war in Afghanistan in a relatively short period of time, a quarter century, became the subject for many fields of art--such as literature, cinema, music, graphics--that transmitted memory about it. These specific tangible monuments are the memory of things; they encode certain messages. Marcin Kula has pointed out that the creation of memory carriers for contemporary events and people is sometimes a controversial process. The carrier will play its role and remain active when it is noticed (Kula 2002, 43-45). Memory carriers do not have to accurately reflect the events they symbolize. Nevertheless, the image they transmit is fixed in the minds of recipients (Kula 2002, 155).

Therefore, the artefacts include social memory, which, as Barbara Szacka states, constitutes a set of images about the past of the group, as well as all the characters and events from this past that are commemorated in various ways (Szacka 2000, 52). This form of memory in shaping the individual and collective identity is significant, because, as Marian Golka writes, with its participation the scattered events of the past, usually waking pride, are merged in a more or less coherent form. In addition, this form of memory recalls the values important to the group, which helps to distinguish those who are "other" and "foreign" (Golka 2009, 53). However, the most important source of social memory carriers is the collectivity which this memory concerns (Golka 2009, 67).

In the case of the reception of the Afghan war, it is justifiable to speak of memory of the witnesses--participants and observers, as well as about official and private memory. It is also reasonable to distinguish the phenomenon of transmitted memory--conveyed indirectly in historical or fictional descriptions, as well as in memories that are created, managed, inspired and directed by the authorities, and spontaneous memory (Golka 2009, 26-31). The article will consider memory carriers characterizing subjective memory (individual memory shaped and enriched during the life time under the influence of feelings and experiences), intersubjective (present in a community, and which constitutes the record of the events in the consciousness of the community accumulated during the social evolution of the community and the lives of its individuals), and objective memory (consisting of the records of evolutionary changes and changes made as a result of interaction with the environment preserved in material objects) (Sztumski 2002, 8). Sources on the presented conflict are extremely rich; there are hundreds of memoirs, literary works, songs, dozens of films, and demotivators. The aim of the author was to present only a small segment of them, to show thematic and semantic variety of memory carriers from different spheres of society in order to prove the thesis that cultural memory of the Afghan war occupies an important place in the collective consciousness of the Russians.

The Afghan War and Official Justifications

Afghanistan lies on the border of South, Central and South-West Asia, and at the same time on the southern borders of the Soviet Union. This geopolitical location resulted in the Soviet Union's keen interest in controlling Afghanistan's internal situation. In December 1978, the Afghan government signed an agreement with the Soviet Union on mutual cooperation and friendship. It provided, inter alia, granting military assistance in case of the threat of territorial integrity of any of the parties signing the agreement. It is this point that was used by the Soviet Union a year later as a justification for intervention in Afghanistan. It started in the night of 24 December, 1979 with airborne landings at airports in Bagram and Kabul (Kowalczyk 1994, 5-7).

Artemy Kalinovksy states, "The goal of the invasion was to secure infrastructure, free up the Afghan army to conduct raids and operations, and enable the new government to function. Soviet leaders did not envision their army being directly involved in battle after initial invasion--they were their just to prop up the military of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan" (Kalinovsky 2011, 25). The arguments put forward in 1979 justifying the participation of the USSR in the armed conflict seem unreasonable today. The Soviet Defence Minister at that time, Dmitrii Ustinov, believed that the importance of even the largest army can be evaluated only through its combat experience. In turn, the KGB chief, Iurii Andropov, wanted to repeat the rapid intervention of 1968 in Czechoslovakia (Pikhoia, Kondrashov, Osipov; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Moreover, supporters of the decision to invade proceeded from the assumption that the "loss" of Afghanistan would be a blow to Soviet prestige (Kalinovsky 2011, 24). It is worth mentioning that the Soviet military was wary of an intervention in Afghanistan. Soviet officers presumed that this involvement would differ from other interventions where they were fulfilling their "internationalist duty" by advising and training local forces. In Afghanistan their assignment would be to command Soviet troops that could end up fighting Afghan insurgents (Kalinovsky 2011, 22). According to Alexander Lyakhovsky, multi-profile analysis of the situation leads us to believe that the Soviet leaders were drawn into the war by a well-conducted disinformation strategy, which was aimed at the ultimate elimination of the socialist camp and the collapse of the USSR (Liakhovskii 1995, Ot avtora; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

The Afghan conflict generated, through military confrontation, the interaction between two fundamentally different cultures. The war was conducted by the Soviet Union on a foreign territory by a limited contingent of Soviet troops. It started in the last years of "stagnation" of the Brezhnev era and lasted until the final phase of perestroika. Despite ten years of armed conflict it was not possible to defeat the armed mujahideen opposition (the Soviet soldiers called the partisans dushmans). What is more, the pro-Soviet government was overthrown by 1992. Troops began leaving Afghanistan on 15 May 1988 pursuant to the Geneva agreements concluded in April that year (Kowalczyk 1994, 43-44). The process of leading out the military forces lasted until 15 February 1989.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was the bloodiest conflict in the history of the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War. According to Russian statistics, the total number of casualties on the Soviet side was almost 14,500 people. The financial costs of intervention should also be mentioned: to support the government in Kabul, the Soviet Union spent approximately $800 million, while or the maintenance of the 40th Army and the...

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