''The insane made decisions in the USSR. And Afghanistan became a symbol of it''
Aleksey Malashenko about prospects for reconsidering Russia’s position on the last Soviet war
A number of State Duma deputies are intending to change the state position about the participation of the USSR in the Afghanistan war in 1979-1989. The parliamentarians want to recognise the resolution of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1989 null and void, which morally and politically judged the decision to send in the troops to this country. A new resolution might be adopted on 15 February 2019, on the eve of the 30 th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, famous expert in Eastern studies Aleksey Malashenko tells what's behind this idea and whether Russia's position on this events could be reconsidered.
''The Kremlin hasn't made a final decision''
Mr Malashenko, what could be behind this idea of the deputies?
The idea fits the track of the modern official ideology and political practice: according to it, as an heir of the Soviet Union, Russia is always right, which means the USSR was always right, and it's tactless, incorrect to condemn what was done in the USSR, and one shouldn't do it. It's better going back to those good times when the country whose heir we are was right, and the invasion wasn't intervention but a campaign ran in the country's interests. In general, current power is happy with such an approach for the Afghan war, of course, because they are in a very tough situation now – they need to constantly justify they are right about everything – both in Crimea and Donbass, which resembles the strict Soviet approach.
What is more, this idea works among veterans to a certain extent – there were Afghanistan, Chechnya veterans, Syria veterans are appearing now. Remember that Korean War veterans in the 50s were forgotten in the USSR, while the Russians fought there hard. Moreover, the USSR also fought in the Near East – in the Suez Canal, in Syria. This was just hidden, this was a secret under lock and key.
Then let's see who promotes this idea: Communists do it. As it's known, their rulers are responsible for the stupid thing they did in 1979. And for some reason, the Communists don't remember that the Afghan war was one of the main reasons for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It's similar to what WWI did to the Russian Empire. Though the scale was different from that of WWI, it was a push towards the dissolution of the USSR! But for some reason, the Communists don't admit this and don't want to. It seems they protect themselves because the decision was obviously stupid, and old, not always smart people made it. In addition, the Communists forgot that their respected Yury Andropov admitted later it was a mistake (when making a decision, he hesitated but supported the occupation in the end). They can't understand that over 14,000 soldiers of our army died in this war, tens of thousands of people were injured. But they don't discuss it! Of course, it was a mistake and a crime. But now it seems they want to justify it.
Of course, I wonder what other Duma deputies think of this idea – despite the inability of our parliament, it anyway has many people who understand what Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union. But they will act in any case, ''in accordance with the instructions'' from the Kremlin, from Putin, so to speak. As I understand, the Kremlin hasn't made a final decision on it. Could they admit today the aggression in 1979 must be justified? I don't think today's authorities would do it, this will do them no good.
''I wonder what other Duma deputies think of this idea – despite the inability of our parliament, it anyway has many people who understand what Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union. But they will act in any case, 'in accordance with the instructions' from the Kremlin, from Putin, so to speak.'' Photo: duma.gov.ru
And the Communists should show off now – people see they try to do something just by elections. And they should show they are deputies, not pawns used by someone. If we look, we see initiatives from deputies, but there is plenty of stupid initiatives among them! Yes, there are good initiatives too, but a decision on them was made a long time ago – like the decision on the pension reform.
I think we shouldn't look for some political logic here – it's emotions of some people, it's a desire to show off hoping that somebody in the Kremlin will understand the idea. Of course, if the Duma deputies are asked: ''What did we fight for?'', they will start talking about the US imperialism and so on. But if not the intervention, there wouldn't have been these Mujahideen in Afghanistan, there wouldn't have been bin Laden, there wouldn't have been today's Taliban. But who stirred up trouble? The Soviet Union! And if this idiotic revolution hadn't happened in 1973, Afghanistan would have had a king, and it would have been a ''Muslim Finland''. This is why when it's said about external manipulation, it's time to talk about only the personal stupidity of the Soviet Union.
''It was a no-win situation to send in the troops''
Was the resolution of the congress condemning the decision to send in the Soviet troops really well thought out and weighed up?
Everything led to such a decision – the war expensive, it cost thousands of victims and, most importantly, it was senseless. History teaches that Afghanistan can't be conquered! I remember when I was very young, almost all experts in Eastern studies said at meetings in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1979: ''You shouldn't enter Afghanistan, you will get stuck there! Afghanistan has a big international experience!'' But they didn't listen, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union called its decision in 1979 a solution, but it was a defeat. It didn't achieve goals and couldn't achieve, as international opposition to the Soviet invasion began immediately, not mention that Afghanistan was turned into a camp for terrorists and many others! Who did it? These ''chaps'' – Brezhnev, Ustinov & Co.
How was the invasion of troops justified?
This intervention has some logic. King Zahir Shah was mistakenly taken over in Afghanistan in 1973, and a socialistically oriented country started to be created like it was in some Arab and African countries. And the USSR thought the construction of socialism would go like the cooperation began. But the Afghans' things went wrong – a disorder began in the Socialists' ruling circles, the first Socialist President Daoud and then Taraki were dethroned. But the USSR needed to justify the socialistic politics somehow and went to extremes, like ''we will impose you socialism anyway''.
What can we say to those who justify the invasion by Iran's factor where Islamists took over power who were able to aim at Afghanistan too in their aspirations or the factor of China's interests, which began getting closer with the USA?
Afghanistan had always been considered a zone of Soviet influence – since the 20s. And attempts of social changes were repeatedly made, quasi-revolutions took place, but socialist ideas failed in any case. It was a no-win situation to send in the troops, but our dear Soviet leaders were famous for stupidity.
What does China have to do here? China didn't care about Afghanistan at all – economic reforms had just started there! Shias lived in Iran, while Afghanistan wasn't Shia, except a number of the Hazaras whose quantity was small. But, of course, it's always easy to justify the invasion by some external intervention.
''The Communists forgot that their respected Yury Andropov admitted later it was a mistake (when making a decision, he hesitated but supported the occupation in the end). They can't understand that over 14,000 soldiers of our army died in this war, tens of thousands of people were injured.'' Photo: Maksim Platonov
In scientific literature, many people tend to conclude that USSR Defence Minister Dmitry Ustinov allegedly expected threats. And it was he who insisted on sending in the troops. Was it true? Why did almost everyone in the Political Bureau – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gromyko – agree with him?
Ustinov wanted the invasion! He was a very influential person, the first person to influence Brezhnev. Why did Ustinov want the invasion? In his early years, he was a very smart person, an amazing administrator, an awesome manager. But it became worse for him when he became a politician. You know, we often look for politicians' rationality. Do we often find it? No.
In addition, people get older. Getting older, they get stupid. Why did Andropov support Ustinov in the end? It seems he didn't understand something, he didn't know something. Though he was said it was preferable not to send in the troops, he crossed out these thoughts. It seems he already had double consciousness. Our diplomats, including Gromyko, were called ''post boxes'', that's to say, their function was to transmit an official position, no more. Gromyko was more than a smart person. But he couldn't be a decisive mechanism in foreign affairs in 1979 – he had the wrong character. His character changed as he got older, and the opposite thing began. It's enough to remember it was Gromyko to oppose when people wanted to appoint Grishin as a secretary general after Chernenko's death: ''Have you gone mad? Do you want another funeral next year?'' And Gorbachyov became the secretary general.
Insane politics was a factor to make a decision. And Afghanistan was a symbol of this politics! I can understand the reaction of Soviet leaders to Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Suez crisis in the 50s, the Caribbean Crisis in 1962, the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 – the logic there was ugly, but it was logic! There wasn't any logic in the case of Afghanistan!
I'm ready to agree there was a lack of logic because it was the year when a thaw in relations with the West began in 1979…
If the thaw had been important, they could have used their head to think about the Olympic Games, which were to be in Moscow in 1980, while they used their ass to think, and many countries didn't come. The Political Bureau could have predicted the reaction – there was intelligence, counterintelligence. But they insisted and turned out isolated.
''We were honest enemies and respected each other''
As I understand, Brezhnev had already forgotten his own words he didn't want blood to run for his country?
It doesn't matter what was said! You want to have a logical picture, but there wasn't any picture. If the Soviet leaders had been rational and logical, we'd have had another economy. But remember Kosygin's attempts to reform our economy – he wasn't allowed.
Does it mean that ideological dogmas won?
Absolutely correct, dogmas. And Afghanistan is the same dogma. ''We certainly need socialism there!'' our leaders said about Afghanistan because ''everybody will come to socialism''. As they already had experience in creating post-Soviet regimes in Muslim countries, socialism was meant to be built in Afghanistan too. Moreover, this country was close, moreover, Uzbeks, Tajiks lived there. We freed our Uzbeks and Tajiks from the Basmachi movement in the 20s, we will free the country somehow.
This is why now we have an ideological post-Soviet Union – only in the modern version.
''Insane politics was a factor to make a decision. And Afghanistan was a symbol of this politics! I can understand the reaction of Soviet leaders to Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Suez crisis in the 50s, the Caribbean Crisis in 1962, the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 – the logic there was ugly, but it was logic! There wasn't any logic in case of Afghanistan!'' Photo from the archive (withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 1989).
It's said in the scientific literature that Andropov quickly understood this mistake. Why didn't he start withdrawing the troops having come to power?
If power had admitted its major mistake – Afghanistan – it would have been obliged to admit the rest – from the Korean Boeing to the hunger in the country. But it was impossible. Have we ever admitted our mistakes? Even Stalin's crimes, it's nothing serious, a get-together.
Did dogmas prevail again?
Precisely dogmas. And whatever person Mikhail Gorbachyov was, he destroyed these dogmas and made people think. If you think, you will come to the conclusion that it's necessary to admit the invasion was wrong.
Can we say we will have myths about the war in Afghanistan? Yes, the decision to cancel the resolution of the congress can be not adopted at the top level. But they can start shooting films somehow justifying this war.
Perhaps. Don't we have myths about 1917? We do. Don't we have myths about the Great Patriotic War? We've had myths all our life – we built either a world revolution or built Communism. We created these myths and considered them as a reality. New versions of utopias have appeared now. But it's a different conversation.
Won't the decision of the Duma become some unfriendly step in the current relations of Russia with Afghanistan?
I've recently been to Afghanistan and talked with different guys. I saw their respect for the shuravi: they compare us with Americans and understand during those years we were honest enemies and respected each other, while the Americans, as the Afghans say, look down on us. The Afghans don't feel anger. This is why they won't notice this possible Duma decision – who in Afghanistan cares about this Russian Duma? Nobody. If Putin says, yes, it will be serious. But I think he won't do it. In this respect, he's an educated person anyway.