The Bleeding Wound
The Soviet War in Afghanistan and the Collapse of the Soviet System
Yaacov Ro'i



In the words of one of the most redoubtable Western analysts of the Cold War, the Soviet-Afghan War became a “death-knell” for the Soviet Union, “signaling its international isolation, its leadership’s inconsistency and fragmentation, and its public’s growing disbelief in the purpose and direction of Soviet rule.”1 It is therefore not surprising that the various aspects of the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted almost a decade—from December 1979 to February 1989—have engendered a fair amount of analysis. The events of the war have received considerable attention; so too have the war’s implications in the international arena—Soviet-U.S. relations, the Cold War, Soviet relations with other communist regimes and with the Third World—and for the history of Afghanistan itself, notably in light of subsequent developments in that conflict-ridden land.

This book surveys and analyzes the significance of the war for the evolution of Soviet politics, society, and the military in the last decade or so of the Soviet Union’s existence and—albeit indirectly—in the evolution of its successor states. It studies the verdict of the first Soviet journalist to publish extensively and concurrently with the Soviet-Afghan War. “With a mere wave of Brezhnev’s elderly hand,” he writes, the Soviet people who worked and fought in Afghanistan “were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores. These diseases can be far more infectious and dangerous than hepatitis, particularly when they reach epidemic proportions.” Even more far-reaching than the loss of life and the war’s economic cost were “our moral losses. It often seems to me that war and violence had crossed the border into our country. In Afghanistan we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well. With the war came the reevaluation of our moral and ethical values. In Afghanistan the policies of the government became utterly incompatible with the inherent morality of our nation. Things could not continue in the same vein. It is hardly coincidental that the ideas of perestroika took hold in 1985—the year the war reached its peak.” Nor was the war itself “the only thing that chipped away at our morality. The official lies about the war, in newspapers and on television, also took a heavy toll. . . . Even when one of us tried to report the truth the military censors masterfully made it into a lie.”2

In other words, the Soviet-Afghan War affected not just the large number of Soviet citizens who served in Afghanistan during its course, as either soldiers sent to uphold the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) Marxist regime that had taken power in Kabul in April 1978 or advisers and civilian specialists dispatched to Afghanistan to modernize the country on the Soviet model and bring it closer to the Soviet Union. The war had a major impact on the evolution of Soviet politics and society in the crucial final years of the Soviet Union’s existence, almost certainly precipitating processes that tore the country asunder in 1991, highlighting, undercutting, and reflecting the weaknesses of its regime.

This book addresses the crucial issue of the flaws of a political system that enabled a small group of men to embroil their country in a civil war beyond its borders. Two other spheres that our story necessarily reflects are trends within Soviet society in the 1970s and 1980s and ethnic relations within the Soviet empire.

By 1979, Soviet society had suffered a loss of direction for some years. As he administered and navigated destalinization, Nikita Khrushchev’s large-scale reforms undercut the ideological base of the party-state that had engendered Stalin’s misdeeds, all duly embedded in “Marxism-Leninism.” The party continued to rule—with the ongoing support of the security forces, whose mandate, however, no longer included mass terror—but the harm done to the ideology on which its authority rested inevitably weakened that authority. The de-ideologization, for it was no less, that accompanied Khrushchev’s promises to improve living standards led to a growing consumerism, disenchantment, widespread misbelief and cynicism, and a devaluation of the “values” that had characterized the earlier generations of Soviet rule, such as patriotism and collectivism. The partial breakdown of the Iron Curtain enabled a certain opening to the West. Western fashions and music became increasingly popular and the “Voices,” as people called the Western broadcasts, gained ground. The maladies of society that pervaded in the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s also included low production, a result not only of the economic centralism of the command system, but also of absenteeism, alcohol, and lack of incentive. A sophisticated discussion of the inherent paradoxes of late or “binary” socialism must analyze the Soviet Union’s demise against the background of the anomalies intrinsic to its fundamental perceptions, which could not withstand the onslaught of glasnost.3

In addition, ethnic unrest was beginning to surface, particularly in the union republics that were traditionally troublesome: Ukraine, Georgia, and the three Baltic republics. (The raison d’être of all fifteen republics of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics—the USSR—was the overlap of nationality and territory.) The Russians’ role as Elder Brother in the Soviet family of nations and their “Great Russian” nationalism had not been conducive to druzhba narodov (the friendship of nations) that was to support that family. Indeed, Soviet nationalities policy had been one of the regime’s anomalies and inherent contradictions from the start. As French scholar Hélène Carrère d’Encausse wrote in the late 1970s in her Decline of an Empire, “The obliteration of national differences and their fusion in a new and superior historical community—the Soviet People—has not succeeded.”4 “The fiction of a united sovetskii narod (‘Soviet people’),” Ron Suny tells us, “was belied by powerful identification with nationality. . . . As the Soviet economy ground down after the mid-1970s, one nationality after another began to express a profound anxiety about the threat to their culture, language, demographic, economic, and ecological future.”5 Our survey of both afgantsy (the Soviet soldiers who participated in the war) and regular citizens does not indicate that either group believed the war exacerbated national tensions in the Soviet Union. However, considerable anecdotal evidence attests to the prevalence of ethnic identity and mutual animosity on the basis of ethnic differences in the Fortieth Army—the “Limited Contingent” of Soviet troops that fought in Afghanistan. Moreover, in the context of the mounting ethnic unrest in the national republics during the 1980s, both samizdat and public protest addressed issues connected to the Afghan War as they contended against the Kremlin.

Any study of the Soviet role in the Soviet-Afghan War and the war’s impact on the Soviet domestic scene must bear in mind the political, social, and economic backdrop against which the war was fought and which shaped the mentalité of all those who played their part in its unfolding—the political and military leadership, the officer corps, and the troops.

This book, then, looks at the decision to introduce Soviet troops into Afghanistan. Most specifically, it analyzes the background of that decision and its significance for later developments within the Soviet leadership. It looks at the Fortieth Army, formed for the purpose of upholding the Marxist regime in Kabul, deployed in late December 1979 and kept there until mid-February 1989. It bears out some of the statements of the participants in a 1995 symposium on the war (held under the auspices of the Oslo-based Nobel Institute) who played a role in the Soviet (and U.S.) policymaking process in the late 1970s. After discussing the decision to introduce troops, they provided insights into the interaction between the ailing Brezhnev and his entourage (described as “manipulative courtesans”) and the importance of built-in political structures and stereotyped thinking that precluded creative thinking or initiative. They also spoke about the ignorance, prejudices, and misconceptions of the inner group of decision makers who did not read the relevant reports and so were unaware of their content and, in particular, their exaggeration of the capabilities of the rival superpower.6

The book examines the lessons of the war for the Soviet military, public morale, the Soviet population’s image of the world’s Communist superpower and, in particular, Soviet Central Asia. Above all, the book studies the meaning of the war and the way the Soviet media reported it as an indication of and stimulus to the evolution of Soviet public opinion, as Gorbachev’s glasnost took root in the latter 1980s. I discuss one specific aspect of this special attention—the lot of the Soviet soldiers who participated in the war, the so-called afgantsy, both in Afghanistan and after their return home. Since this is the main thrust of the book, I touch only briefly on the war itself—merely to provide the context for the questions it discusses—and address neither the Afghan domestic scene nor the war’s international implications and significance.

Two other books have addressed similar questions—Mark Galeotti’s Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War (written in 1992 and published in 1995) and Manfred Sapper’s Die Auswirkung des Afghanistan-Krieges auf die Sowjetgesellschaft (1994). In his introduction, Galeotti writes, “Certainly the war was important in its effect on the people of the old USSR and, indeed, its successor states.” Yet “it did not destroy the Soviet Union. For this was a relatively minor . . . military adventure. . . . Its real importance is two-fold: as a myth and as a window. In the context of the collapse of the Soviet system, the war became used [sic] as a symbol for a variety of issues, from the cost of supporting such a huge and seemingly useless army to the arrogant foolishness of the old regime. Scattered, politically marginalized, ostracized, disempowered, the veterans and the other victims of the war could not make their views heard, and thus the mythological picture of the war, conjured from the prejudices, perceptions and political needs of . . . journalists, politicians, academics and propagandists, came to dominate.” The war influenced a wide range of issues, from the spread of informal political movements, through the shift away from conscription, to the rise of Russian vice president (and afganets), Aleksandr Rutskoi. It also led to widespread calls for leadership accountability.7

Sapper’s work—published in a series of Studies in Conflict and Cooperation in the East—focused on the military’s loss of legitimacy under perestroika, although it too covers much of the same ground as my study. The main difference is in the source material, for Sapper made no use of the press (as distinct from journal articles) and did not conduct interviews.

As a historian, my approach and emphases differ from those of Galeotti, and I use source material that neither Galeotti nor Sapper touched. I find myself in agreement with the verdict of a Russian political-scientist-cum-social psychologist who served in a civilian capacity in Afghanistan from 1985 to 1987: “The truth about Afghanistan emerges [only] in a polyphony of varying points of view [all] grounded in authentic knowledge and interpretations of what people saw and experienced.”8 It is for this reason that I have permitted myself to examine many of the same issues as did Galeotti and Sapper.

Other works in the Western literature on the war—Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979—1989 (2011); Artemy M. Kalinovsky’s A Long Goodbye (2011); and Markus B. Göransson’s PhD thesis, “At the Service of the State; Soviet-Afghan War Veterans in Tajikistan, 1979–1992” (2015)—focus on rather narrower fields. Afgantsy tells a compelling story based on a wealth of mostly Russian-language material that the author collected over the years. (Braithwaite served in the British embassy in Moscow in the 1960s and as the British ambassador from 1988 to 1992.) The book does not purport to be an academic study, and so of the Western works that I consulted frequently, it stands in a category of its own. A Long Goodbye spotlights Soviet decision making and policy and aims specifically to analyze and explain the seemingly inexplicable dragging out of the conflict; it deals with other aspects of the Soviet domestic arena only as they relate to this central theme. The work that most resembles mine in approach and methodology is that of Göransson, which, however, is a study on the afgantsy in a single Soviet union republic and one of the smallest ones at that, although probably the one that the war affected most directly.

Another book that I use extensively is Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, which she wrote to highlight the horrors of the Soviet-Afghan War. True, she had an agenda, but the voices she recorded tell a broad gamut of authentic stories.

My most important source material is the extensive survey that I conducted in 1992 and 1993, with the assistance of a small team of interviewers, in eleven of the Soviet Union’s successor states (all except the Baltic states and Georgia, which together contributed less than 5 percent of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan). We based the survey on fixed questionnaires that enabled the preparation of tables and figures, which provide a picture of the broad spectrum of views and attitudes among both the war’s veterans and civilians. We designed the veterans’ questionnaire to recapture the experiences of the Soviet soldiers who served in Afghanistan and the atmosphere within the Limited Contingent. The intention in interviewing civilians was to gauge public opinion regarding the war and its implications and consequences. We aimed to do so before it became too distant and too hazy a memory in the whirl of changes that overcame the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but after waiting sufficient time for public opinion to ripen—given that until approximately 1989, the year the Soviet troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan—the overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens were not only extremely wary of expressing opinions but also hesitant about forming them.

In all, we ran three surveys, each based on a separate questionnaire. The first consisted of 221 afgantsy; it was based on snowball sampling methods, starting with afgantsy clubs around the former Soviet Union. The second used a (nonrepresentative) quota sampling of 229 former Soviet citizens resident in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The third survey relied on convenience sampling in Israel of 266 immigrants from all over the FSU who resided in the Soviet Union at the time of the war, a few of whom were also afgantsy. The respondents lived in a wide range of cities and towns, with a disproportionately small sample in the countryside (as Jews were the most urbanized ethnic group in the Soviet Union, the countryside was hardly represented in the third survey). The second and third surveys contained different questions, and I refer to these separately in the text.

The aim of the questionnaires was to embrace the spectrum of topics that the book covers: attitudes toward the decision to intervene, the conduct of the war, the behavior of the soldiers in Afghanistan, and the decision to withdraw; the war’s influence on the Soviet Union’s international prestige, the media, and the political developments within the Soviet Union, specifically in the context of glasnost and perestroika, ethnic relations in the Soviet empire, and ultimately its demise; and the soldiers’ reception on returning home, the challenges they encountered, and their impact on the society around them.

I have supplemented the data from the surveys with a number of in-depth interviews from the same time period and a few more interviews from 2012 to 2017. These are the interviews in which I name the respondent.

I made extensive use of contemporary media, particularly the press, which, at least as of 1984, showed growing interest in the war; some newspapers sent correspondents to Afghanistan to cover it. I have also examined art forms—movies, songs, and literature—which frequently conveyed criticism that was otherwise impossible to express. And of course I have read a broad gamut of studies of the war and reminiscences in both Russian and English (many of them published since Galeotti and Sapper completed their works). In so doing, I have borne in mind the backdrop to the various testimonies and the unquestionable fact that not a few of their authors had an axe to grind and a need to justify their own actions—for example, the last commander of the Fortieth Army, Lieutenant General Boris Gromov.

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project has preserved and declassified some official Soviet documentation. This material includes Politburo discussions that provide insight into the positions of the top Kremlin leaders. However, knowledgeable sources have stated that the Ministry of Defense, the KGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the MVD) transmitted many of their instructions only orally.9 (For one crucial oral directive, that of Minister of Defense Dmitrii Ustinov, see Chapter 1.) I have not been able to ascertain whether this was because these instructions testified to Moscow’s crossing permitted bounds of intervention in Third World confrontations (to use Academician Oleg Bogomolov’s description of the activity). Be that as it may, historians of the way governments act have to be wary of relying unduly on documentation, because it cannot reflect such all-important aspects of decision making as personal characteristics, conduct, and interrelationships. Documents tend to show what Marshall Shulman described as “a pattern of coordination and rationality” that “misses the messiness and the disorder of decision-making and that overlooks the informal communications” that carry great weight. They tend, too, to focus on specific moments in time and to disregard processes, although every development has to be seen in the context of its time, such as what Bill Odom called the Soviet system’s “bureaucratic degeneration.”10

My primary goals were to get the broadest possible spectrum of views regarding the war, collect a broad sample of evidence, and analyze and quantify the testimonies that the surveys provided.

I do not believe that this book will unequivocally answer the leading question: How meaningful was the war’s role in precipitating the Soviet Union’s disintegration? I hope that it will, however, provide a comprehensive picture, convincing readers that the war served as a catalyst for the developments that led to the collapse of the Soviet state and both highlighted and exacerbated its fallibility and many of its intrinsic shortcomings.


1. Westad, “Concerning the Situation in ‘A,’” 131.

2. Borovik, The Hidden War, 13–14. I refrain from discussing Borovik’s hypothesis regarding the “inherent morality” of the Soviet nation or its system and ideology.

3. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.

4. Carrère d’Encausse, Decline of an Empire, 265.

5. Suny, The Revenge of the Past, 139.

6. The discussion at this three-day symposium appeared in print: “The Intervention in Afghanistan and the Fall of Détente,” Nobel Symposium, September 17–20, 1995. See especially 202–227.

7. Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War, 2–3, 166.

8. Ol’shanskii, “‘Afganskii sindrom’” (The Afghan syndrome), 10.

9. One inside source testified that there is no KGB documentation of the decision to introduce troops and replace DRA president Hazifullah Amin with Babrak Karmal. Andropov ordered his few handwritten notes destroyed—Shebarshin, Ruka Moskvy: razvedka ot rastsveta do raspada, 125.

10. “The Intervention in Afghanistan,” 203. Shulman was special assistant to the secretary of state, 1977–1981; General William Odom was former director of Soviet affairs at the National Security Council.