Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam

Some years ago I bought a book called Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam by Vladislav Tamarov, a soldier from Leningrad who fought in Afghanistan in 1984-1985. Like many a soldier before him his experience turned him against the War, war and his own government’s lies and pretty platitudes about the glory and importance of the ‘Mission’.  After his discharge he returned home and published his book and became a voice of dissent.  With the current American and Australian governments up their eyeballs in history’s most famous military graveyard it is perhaps a good time to look at these pictures and read Vladislav’s comments and remember this is closer to reality than the Prime Minister’s news conference.

July 1985 Panjsher, Afghanistan

We didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. And we tried to forget what had happened yesterday.

We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on.  But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever.  At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water.  We didn’t yet know anything…

We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.


1984-1985  My Notebook

This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number.  If Id’ been in the mountains, I circled the number.  Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there.  Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.

Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.

September 1985  Charikar, Afghanistan

These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp.  Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over.  But it wasn’t always like this…

He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger.  The second kick was to his face.  It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me.  Another bullet whistled by right next to me.  Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me.  I saw how his hands were trembling.  I noticed the horror in his eyes.  “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.

Autumn 1985  Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan

These two soldiers are from my platoon: Aleksei Godovnikov (left) and Oleshka Zaitsev (right). A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you.  We didn’t invent this law.

But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them.  You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you–you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.

These boys will return home alive. They will return home with war medals and concussions. They will think that Afghanistan has become part of their past.

By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died  in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.


October 1984  Macedonian Column, Afghanistan

The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, “One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.”  This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.


August 1985  Deha-Sabs, Afghanistan

When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College, where I’d enrolled upon returning.  This picture–me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier–was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.

My pictures won first prize, and when they gave me this ‘honestly earned’ award, I began to ask myself was I was doing and why.

A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.


3 thoughts on “Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam

  1. Just got this book from the library. It brought tears to my eyes. I’ve seen a few young men from Leningrad who went through Afghanistan, and I’ve seen a few young men from Leningrad (by then renamed back into St. Petersburg) who were forced to go to Chechnya… What a waste of lives…. War does not determine who is right – only who is left. Glad that Vladislav ‘was left’ to tell his story.

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