In a Moscow library, I met with Vladimir Vyatkin, a state photographer sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Following the perceived Russian surrender, dubbed The Great Russian Climbdown, I was interested in the Russian perspective.

Vladimir Vyatkin “This is the reality from one hand. I was obliged to shoot this material. Where we with our Afghan brothers, we came with a humanitarian mission. To build hospitals, schools, to teach, to educate but 20 km from that place Soviet paratroopers were shooting Afghans.”

Vladimir Vyatkin on the the great russian climbdown
Vladimir Vyatkin

When he began to take photographs and ask questions about the war. He was sent home and banned from further travel. How much was he able to see of Kabul?

The Great Russian Climbdown

Vladimir Vyatkin “We were allowed to take pictures in the University, the hospital, the bookstore. But behind our backs, there was a war going on. When I flew then I saw the ranks of coffins. I asked this sentry, ‘Were those boxes of arms?’ And he answered ‘That is meat that no one needs anymore. Material that has run its course.’.”

Russian Memories
Russian Memories

As the Soviets tried to maintain the illusion that Afghanistan was a largely peaceful mission, dead bodies were returned to Russia, sealed in unopenable zinc coffins and delivered to their families at night.

Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev, who became General Secretary in 1985, made the decision to withdraw. It was the right decision and the courageous one. But he had many interests to manage, not least the military, who are demanding more time and more resources. So the deadline was set three years out for 1988.

The parallels between Gorbachev and Obama are really striking. In both cases the common, they accept that it’s not going well. In both cases they do a mini-surge. They say to the military, ‘We’re going to give you a little more time and more troops. We’re going to try harder.’ And Gorbachev, the amount of expenditure on Afghanistan in fact goes up. But at the same time they are setting a deadline, and the deadline that completely erodes their authority. So between these two impossibilities, the impossibility of winning and the impossibility of acknowledging that you can’t win, on the tragedy of Obama and Gorbachev emerges.

Ruslan Aushev

Ruslan Aushev on the the great russian climbdown
Ruslan Aushev

According to Ruslan Aushev “Well you know this history. We didn’t read books properly, your coalition forces forgot past experience. Afghans don’t like people who come with arms, they don’t like Armed Forces who come and say ‘You need to live this way’. You’re directly following in our footsteps. We did the same thing, we went there and we could clear any area without any problem. Then roughly a week or month after we left the Mujahideen would come back and the whole thing would fall apart. Because more forces were needed, your coalition would need to send half a million more men, and how much would that cost?”

If you were going to pass a message to the American and British troops today, what would you say to them?

Ruslan Aushev “take the quickest route home!”. The Great Russian Climbdown was, in fact, a strategic withdrawal.

But the route out of Afghanistan is never quick or straight. Although it was now clear that Russia was withdrawing, it was still years before the final soldier left. And whilst the bloodletting continued, no one really believed in the project anymore. Half as many soldiers died again following the decision to withdraw.

Route out of Afghanistan after the Great Russian Climbdown

By the time they leave, there’s nobody there to greet them. Nobody from the Department of Defence, nobody from the Politburo, nobody from the party. They’ve sacrificed 25,000 lives for the ideal of the Soviet Union and not a single person pays them the courtesy of meeting them at the border.

Great Monument
Great Monument

The Afghan war may not have brought down the Soviet Empire, but the war had dealt it a major blow, both financially and to its prestige. And the Politburo was embarrassed, even now, with the sacrifice of its soldiers.

This is a great monument to the Soviet soldiers of the Second World War. for generations now, Soviet soldiers have come to this flame to remember their sacrifice and their victory. But the Afghans, the Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan, returned to a different world. He came from almost shameful, secret war, and the millions who returned many of them psychologically damaged returned to the Soviet Union that was itself collapsing.

Now, 12 years later, veterans of Afghanistan still meet in places like this, Moscow’s Kombat Bar and consider the Great Russian climbdown.

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