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Words from Russian Soldiers

In five days, on February 15, there will be no celebration in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There is no longer a U.S.S.R., and if there was, it is not a day that country would choose to remember. On 15 February 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, leaving behind a war that lasted over nine years. Left behind also were the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 108,000 Afghan fighters, along with the graves of 500,000 to 1,000,000 civilian men, women, and children.

In early 1989 we were in the Soviet Union filming our second episode of The Homeland Project, a documentary television series filmed in both countries by a joint team of Soviets and Americans. Our theme was to seek some understanding between the United States and the Russian colossus, with a focus on the role of the individual citizen in realizing a less unstable future. One of our final sessions for this episode took place in a tiny apartment in Moscow, where our mixed crew interviewed eight young Russians who had fought and been injured in the Afghan war. Some bore their wounds visibly, yet each had been deeply hurt. They spoke openly of the war, and what it had done to them. They left home in the defence of their motherland, told by their officers that they were defending their neighbors from the United States—that if they lost, the U.S. would establish bases in Afghanistan. They returned with ideas of their own. Given all we are witnessing today, perhaps recalling these words of 35 years ago is worthwhile.

I told the men we were interested in whatever they had to say, and the room remained silent. Then one man, looking into the carpet, slowly and quietly began, “When we returned, nobody asked us where we went, or why.”

Another veteran, “Our tragedy is not only that everything is so bad here, but that any official is afraid to make a decision, even the smallest official, any decision, no matter if it’s legal or illegal. That’s why we wounded veterans are so inconvenient for them.”

A plaque of a ship with signatures on it

A small man with glasses, “I’ll teach my son that a man must be able to defend his motherland without being an aggressor. I’ll tell him to love other people in other countries. This will be my main task. If everyone would teach this to their child, we would have a good beginning.”

One man with short dark hair and clear blue eyes took up his guitar and began a slow, heavy tune. The words did not matter, for the music spoke clearly of all they had lost and the weight of what they had learned. They presented me with a plaque that had been signed by each of them. I have it still. When I stop to read these names and think of the cyclic horror of the wars of today, I am reminded of the work yet to be done.

Afterwords: These men believed, and served, just as their American brothers-in-arms did in Vietnam. As a soldier serves his country, so must a government serve its people. If we are to hold our leaders accountable for their decisions, we must first look to ourselves, for it is we who have allowed them to lead.

Stanley Odle

10 February 2024

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