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Un mécontentement social, économique et culturel à l’origine des mobilisations politiques

Tajikistan and the Ambiguous Impact of the Soviet-Afghan War

The Political Mobilisation of Former Participants of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1989
Le Tadjikistan et l’impact ambigu de la guerre soviétique d’Afghanistan. La mobilisation politique d’anciens participants à la guerre soviétique d’Afghanistan en 1989
Таджикистан и противоречивые следствия советско-афганской войны. Политическая мобилизация бывших участников советско-афганской войны в 1989 году
Markus Göransson
p. 113-142


Former participants of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) played a significant role in political developments in Tajikistan in the perestroika period yet they did so in markedly different ways. While some aligned themselves with established power, supporting propaganda drives and presenting themselves as loyal soldiers of the Soviet regime, others became active participants in the movement for cultural and linguistic revival, even to the point of founding and joining opposition groups. The paper argues that far from dealing a shock to the political system in Tajikistan, the Afghan War had both conservative and subversive effects on political discussions in this period.

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  • 1 The author is indebted to numerous individuals who supported him in his research. He would like to (...)
  • 2 As will be argued below, this was especially true for sections of the Dushanbe secular intelligents (...)

1The Afghan War left an ambiguous legacy in Tajikistan. In some quarters, it fed religious and nationalist sentiment, acting as a vehicle of wider criticisms of Russian-led rule. This was particularly true for underground religious circles, where the war was sometimes cast as anti-Islamic (Ro’i, 2002, pp. 346, 704; Reuveny & Prakash, 1999, p. 704.), but it was also the case in certain intellectual groups that increasingly espoused nationalist rhetoric in the late Soviet era.2 In other ways, however, the war appears to have reinforced Communist power in Tajikistan. With the 1979 invasion, the small fringe republic suddenly acquired central strategic importance and was in consequence showered with political attention and material support from Moscow. Sharing a 1,300 kilometre border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan became an advance base for the Soviet intervention and was also used to showcase the Soviet model to delegations of visiting Afghans (Roy, 1997, p. 197).

  • 3 As will be discussed in greater detail below, one of the chief dissident afgancy was Mahmadali Hait (...)

2An even more direct impact of the war was felt by the roughly fifteen thousand Tajik citizens who went to Afghanistan to help sustain the intervention. Striking about these soldiers, officers, interpreters and civilian specialists is the extent to which their experiences reflected wider trends in Tajikistan. While some of them came to join calls for greater cultural and political autonomy for the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, others returned from Afghanistan with a stronger attachment to their Soviet identity and a deeper sense of belonging to the state that had sent them to shed blood in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, promising them glory and material reward in return. An important dividing line ran between individuals who had taken part in the intervention in an advisory capacity and those who went to Afghanistan to fulfil a military function, as soldiers and officers – although there were numerous exceptions.3

3The year 1989 offers an interesting snapshot of the different tendencies that played out among the former participants. A pivotal year in many ways, it featured both the end of the Afghan intervention and the passing of the Law on Language, which proclaimed Tajik (a variant of Persian) as the only state language in the republic (Landau & Kellner-Heinkele, 2007, pp. 76-77; Grenoble, 2004, pp. 153-154). Russian was demoted to a language of administration and political contention increased in intensity, fanned by economic decline, political stasis and the turbulence that swept other parts of the USSR, including the Baltics and the Caucasus.

  • 4 Both the republican and the central presses reported on the afgancy who mobilised on the side of th (...)

4During 1989, some ex-participants of the intervention supported moves towards linguistic reform, while others mobilised to defend their reputations and privileges at a time when they were increasingly falling out of official favour. Developments in 1989, furthermore, set the scene for the disturbances that swept the Tajik capital Dushanbe in February 1990, an event that dealt a profound shock to the republic’s political establishment. Issues of national revival, religion and Soviet identity came to the fore in this crisis that caused deep ruptures in Tajik society and began a period of contention that paved the way for the outbreak of a civil war in Tajikistan in 1992. The ex-participants found themselves on both sides of the barricades during the February disturbances, although a large number of former conscripts in Dushanbe came out in support of the established political order.4

5This paper explores some of the different positions of former participants of the Afghan War in Tajikistan in the context of the political changes that took place in the republic in the late 1980s. It draws on interviews with eighty former participants of the Afghan War, both soldiers and civilians, as well as extensive documentary research. Collected over the course of seven months in Tajikistan in 2013 and 2014, the interviews offer windows into the personal histories of the ex-participants, including their involvement in politics in the late Soviet period. It is the first large-scale investigation into the lives of former Tajik participants in the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan and provides new insights into the role that the war played in their political formation.

6The interviews were conducted in the cities and towns of Dushanbe, Qurghonteppa, Khorugh and Kulob, as well as in small localities in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in Eastern Tajikistan. Fifty-two of the respondents had served in the Afghan War as conscripts; eighteen had been military interpreters, either with the Soviet Army or with Interior Ministry (MVD) forces; seven had worked in Afghanistan in a civilian capacity, while, lastly, three had first served as military interpreters before going back “across the river” to work as civilian advisers or interpreters. The respondents were found through contacts, veterans’ organisations and even unexpectedly on streets, in shops and (in a surprisingly large number of cases) behind the steering wheels of taxis.

  • 5 One interview was conducted in English. Notes were taken when interviews could not be recorded.

7The interviews threw up a number of methodological issues, centred on bias, selectivity and flawed memory. Attempt was made to limit the impact of these issues through the use of a large number of interviews, source triangulation, and also a proactive interview style where seemingly implausible or overly simplistic claims were interrogated more carefully. Many respondents wished to be anonymous while others were happy to speak on record. All but one of the interviews were conducted in Russian. Most of them were recorded.5 No interpreter was used.

8The paper argues that the war had both subversive and conservative influences on political discussions in the late Soviet period. While service and work in Afghanistan introduced a significant number of Tajik intellectuals to a Persianate culture that carried none of the Russian influences that had reshaped Tajik culture during more than a century of Russian and Soviet domination – a fact that played a significant role in the movement for language reform – it also entrenched pro-Soviet sentiment among many Tajik servicemen who had killed and suffered on behalf of the Soviet Union. Other processes of socialisation certainly also played a part – including the mass patriotic propaganda that pervaded the lives of Soviet citizens in the 1970s and the 1980s and the intellectual sub-debates that primed the minds of Tajik scholars, journalists and cultural figures to issues of national identity and cultural revival. Yet, as will be argued below, the Afghan War was a formative experience for thousands of soldiers, officers and advisers who, on the other side of the Amu Darya, encountered a society that was both intriguingly similar to, and remarkably different from, their own.

The Impact of the Afghan War

  • 6 The war does seem to have influenced religious discussions in underground Islamic groups (Khalid, 2 (...)
  • 7 Olivier Roy offers an insightful (if also rather sweeping) discussion of Central Asia in the contex (...)

9There has been a curious silence in academic research about the impact of the Soviet-Afghan War on Central Asia, despite the close cultural and geographical links between Afghanistan and the region. Most of those texts that do address the topic either tend to focus on issues of religious radicalisation (Bennigsen, 1989; Johnson, 2007, pp. 65, 112; Hiro, 2009, pp. 315-318), a matter whose importance has been overblown,6 or else give only scant references to the political changes that occurred in the war’s wake. Few publications tackle the topic more comprehensively, one notable exception being Artemy Kalinovsky’s discussion about the regional effects of the war (Kalinovsky, 2013b).7

  • 8 Olivier Roy makes this observation (Roy, 1997, p. 197).
  • 9 Ashkhabad was another important centre. Both Ashkhabad and Termez were part of the Turkestan Milita (...)

10It is only through the work of a handful of researchers that we have begun to explore the war’s impact in broader terms (Roy, 1997; Tasar, 2011; Kalinovsky, 2013b). One oft-forgotten fact is that the Soviet intervention, in many ways, represented a boon for the governments of the Central Asian republics, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose territories were converted into important bases for the occupation.8 The two Southern republics became awash with military aid and financing and received increased political attention from Moscow. Termez, an Uzbek town that had had only modest importance prior to the 1979 invasion, for example, was made a key organising hub of the military campaign.9 Meanwhile, bridges were built across the Amu Darya, connecting Central Asia with Afghanistan and permitting the transport of troops and supplies to the war zone, thereby turning the once peripheral Muslim republics from backwaters into launching pads for the Soviet occupation.

  • 10 One who does dwell on the importance of Central Asia for PR purposes is Eren Tasar in his explorati (...)
  • 11 A steady stream of Afghan delegations visited Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics on diplo (...)
  • 12 Central Asia had long played the part of Soviet showpiece. As Artemy Kalinovsky (2013a) has pointed (...)

11Similarly, scant attention has been paid to the roles that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan played as showcases of Soviet achievement.10 Delegations of Afghan officials, professionals and students crossed the Amu Darya during the war to study the economic, social and political advances that the Central Asian Muslims had made under the Soviet flag.11 Mindful of the close ties between Central Asia and Afghanistan, Soviet leaders hoped, it seems, that the visits would offer opportunities for the Afghans to draw inspiration from the successes of their Sovietised religious and ethnic kin.12 During the visits, Soviet officials routinely pointed out that Central Asia, too, had suffered from wretched poverty before the advent of Communist power and that it was thanks to Soviet government that the region had got up on its feet. This kind of rhetoric is exemplified by the following statement by Tajik First Party Secretary R.N. Nabiev, delivered at a meeting with Afghan officials in 1983:

The successes that we have attained [...] are the result of the wise Leninist national policies of the cpsu, the friendship of all the nationalities and peoples of the great Country of the Soviets and the advantages of the Soviet social structure (Anonymous, 1983).

12There is a thinly veiled subtext in Nabiev’s words that the Afghans could reproduce those same successes if they proceeded down the same Leninist path as Tajikistan.

13A topic that has received more attention is the Central Asians who took part in the Soviet intervention. These young men (the vast majority were men) were well-represented in the Soviet force, particularly in the early years when they seem to have made up a large part of the military contingent (Zhou, 2012, p. 323). For this reason, they have attracted significant interest from Western observers. Yet, as we shall see, also here numerous questions have been left unanswered.

The Central Asian Participants

  • 13 The RAND Corporation is a U.S. think tank with close ties to the U.S. defence sector. It is based i (...)

14Western observers began to take an interest in the Soviet Muslim soldiers already at the start of the Afghan campaign. A series of articles published by the RAND Corporation13 in the 1980s were especially influential in setting the terms of the discussion. These articles, which drew on commonplace assumptions about the Central Asians as less fully Sovietised than Slavs, painted the Central Asians as the weak link in the intervention force and made claims such as:

It is clear from eyewitness reports [...] [that] the Soviet Central Asian soldiers fraternized with the Afghan population, and that this fraternization was wide-ranging enough to make Soviet authorities uncomfortable lest Soviet Central Asians become infected with pro-Afghan, Islamic, nationalist or anti-Russian sympathies (Wimbush & Alexiev, 1981, p. 16).

  • 14 See also p. 230, where Girardet states that “According to various estimates, as many as 300 Soviet (...)

15Other observers followed suit. Edward Girardet, a Swiss-American journalist who began reporting on Afghanistan even before the invasion, relayed reports that “An unconfirmed number [...] of Soviet Muslim troops from the Central Asian Republic” changed sides during a Soviet offensive against the rebel commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (Girardet, 1985, p. 84).14 The military historian Leo J. Daugherty III, too, spoke of Central Asian disloyalty and disaffection, although he did so using more bombastic language:

  • 15 Other sources expressing scepticism about the loyalty and competence of the Central Asian soldiers (...)

Soviet Muslims, forced to serve in a Russian-dominated military, alienated, often the subject of racism, chauvinism, and interethnic violence, rediscovered once again in Afghanistan the sense of nationalism that had been ‘snuffed out’ by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 1930s (Daugherty III, 1995, p. 90).15

16Other researchers have contested these claims, insisting that they find little basis in the evidence. Christian Bleuer, in his study of Muslim soldiers in a number of non-Muslim majority armies, cites a document published by the Russian Union of Afghanistan Veterans that lists only seventeen or eighteen Soviet Muslims as having defected to the Mujahaddin (Bleuer, 2012, p. 5). Rodric Braithwaite, in turn, notes that out of the 333 Soviet servicemen who were unaccounted for at the end of the war, only 44, including both Slavs and non-Slavs, were known to have joined the rebels (Braithwaite, 2011, p. 257). Another striking fact is that Central Asian soldiers died in similar numbers as other Soviet nationalities in Afghanistan, which, as Mark Galeotti has observed, is hardly evidence of a general Central Asian disengagement from the war (Galeotti, 1995, p. 28). Today, Tajik Afghan War veterans are adamant that they performed their service steadfastly. As Sattor Džalilov, chairman of the Dushanbe section of the Committee on Soldier-Internationalist Affairs, commented in an interview with the author in 2013:

[The Tajik soldiers] served proudly with their heads raised [...]. Among the Tajiks from Tajikistan, who served in Afghanistan, there were no deserters or traitors who went over to the Mujahaddin [...]. On the contrary, they all fulfilled their duty heroically (Džalilov, 2013, interview).

17But even though recent research has rebuffed the claims of the RAND Corporation, Daugherty III and others, it has left two important points unaddressed. Firstly, it has said little about the lives of the Central Asians after their demobilisation. This is a significant lacuna, for if we are interested in the political and cultural impact of the war, we must surely also consider the experiences of the Tajik soldiers after their return from the war.

18Secondly, little interest has been forthcoming, even in the halls of the RAND Corporation, for the non-military participants in the war, that is the civilian advisers, interpreters and technical specialists who took part in the conflict at some distance from the firing lines. These individuals were spared the rigid discipline and authoritarianism of the 40th Army and enjoyed for the most part well-remunerated positions with little exposure to violence. As such they experienced the conflict in a markedly different way from the soldiers and officers. A number of the interpreters and advisers (although by no means all) returned from the war with new perspectives on their national identity and the political imperatives that lay before their republic.

19The following sections discuss the political involvement of both military and civilian ex-participants in Tajikistan in the late 1980s. Focusing on the year 1989, it shows that the trajectories of these two groups diverged in important ways not only during the war but also after their return to Tajikistan. While many former conscripts and officers became closely wedded to the structures of political authority, others joined the movement for cultural and linguistic revival of the republic, a number of them as members of opposition organisations such as “Rastokhez.”

Conscripts and Officers


  • 16 Afgancy is a common Soviet shorthand for veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. It is still widely used (...)

20Students of late Soviet politics may find surprising the claim that Afghan War veterans in Tajikistan became closely linked to structures of political authority. In other places, former ‘soldier-internationalists’ were vociferous in their criticism of the powers-that-be, driven by a sense that they had been cheated of the rewards which they had been promised on their deployment to Afghanistan. As Rafael Reuveny and Aseem Prakash have argued (1999, p. 703): “The Afgantsy felt betrayed. Many of them organized into vigilante groups determined to fight the money grubbers and ‘scroungers’ who had sent them to war and were ignoring their existence. By the late 1980s, some Afgantsy had begun organising themselves politically.”16

  • 17 The newspaper also ran columns where veterans reminisced about their service, giving both highly cr (...)

21In Tajikistan, too, Afghan War veterans were not shy to criticise the authorities, particularly after the perestroika reforms relaxed official controls on public discussions in the second half of the 1980s. An important platform for disgruntled afgancy was Paëmi Dušanbe [Voice of Dushanbe], a liberal-minded newspaper founded in January 1990 that became a channel of unorthodox views in late-Soviet Tajikistan. In the early 1990s, it ran numerous articles by former fighters, who spoke out on a variety of issues including the poor provision of veteran benefits and the stepmotherly treatment of veterans by lackadaisical bureaucrats. Two of the most prolific scribes during this time were Šavkat Mirzoev and Valī Sajërabek (he later changed his name to Sajërabekov), both former officer-interpreters who achieved prominence in the veterans movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of their articles, “We do not hold anything from you,” (1990, p. 1) described the dire conditions in which many afgancy lived and accused the authorities of neglecting the fate of the individuals whom they had promised to help: “Senior-ranked individuals make promises but do nothing.”17 Another article addressed the housing shortage in Dushanbe, which was perhaps the most vexing issue for the ex-fighters, who had been promised priority housing as part of the package of benefits to which they were entitled, but had received very little of this kind (Sajërabek, 1990, p. 2).

22Mirroring similar trends elsewhere in the USSR, the Tajik afgancy began at this time to organise themselves outside of the confines of official bodies. Ibragim Yatimov, one veteran activist in Dushanbe, reported that district-level veterans councils appeared across Tajikistan in the years 1985-1987 (Yatimov, 2014, interview). If this is correct, they were the first instances of the autonomous veterans movement. They eventually coalesced into larger units, such as the city-wide organisation of Afghan War veterans in Dushanbe, established in 1989, and the Union of Veterans of the Afghan War (SVAV under the Russian acronym), set up in 1992 with the aspiration to represent all veterans in Tajikistan (Meždunarodnyj soûz “Boevoe bratstvo,” n.d.). Valī Sajërabekov, who was one of the founding members of the Dushanbe city organisation in 1989, explained to the author that he and other Dushanbe-based veteran activists had decided to establish the organisation after realising that the law regulating the affairs of the veterans was not being enforced by the authorities (Sajërabekov, 2014, interview).

23Thus, there was a growing separation between the veterans and the authorities in Tajikistan in the late 1980s, a trend that mimicked developments elsewhere in the Soviet Union. This accelerated after Soviet forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan between May 1988 and February 1989. Having been celebrated as heroes in some quarters in the mid-1980s, the veterans now saw public concern for them fade as Soviet society moved to forget the war and to confront other, more pressing challenges. The situation was compounded by a growing economic crisis and declining state authority. Afghan War veterans who had long been frustrated with the poor provision of benefits became ever more outspoken in the lean and chaotic final years of the Soviet Union, taking advantage of the new freedoms provided by perestroika. It was no coincidence that the first city-wide organisation of afgancy in Dushanbe was created in 1989 and that it apparently had as one of its main tasks to lobby the city authorities on behalf of the veterans (Yatimov, 2014, interview; Sajërabekov, 2014, interview).

  • 18 These portraits were fairly regular features in the Komsomol broadsheet in 1986 and 1987. Describin (...)

24The diminishing public interest in the veterans was reflected in the declining press coverage afforded to them in the republic. Having once been lauded as model Soviet citizens, the veterans quickly disappeared from public view after the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was brought to a close. If the youth-oriented newspaper Komsomolec Tadžikistana had given extensive attention to the soldier-internationalists in earlier years, it now slowed its reporting on them to a trickle. In the ten months that followed the withdrawal, only a handful of pieces about the veterans were printed in this publication that just a few years earlier had peppered its pages with portraits of the ‘patriotic’ and ‘steadfast’ soldier-internationalists, role models for the Tajik youth.18 The usefulness of the veterans seemed indeed to have run its course.

Outspoken Partners

25Yet, despite the many bones of contention between the veterans and the state authorities, one should not exaggerate the conflict between them. Most of all, the afgancy played the part of an aggravated interest group that was determined to hold the authorities to account for their failures to uphold the rights of the veterans. They made few moves that might have challenged the authority and legitimacy of the governing bodies in the republic.

  • 19 There is an abundance of press reports on afgancy participating in events of this kind. A few examp (...)

26Indeed, for all their disenchantment with the state bureaucracy, the soldier-internationalists continued to work closely with the authorities. They attended government meetings, marched in official parades and helped to conduct so-called ‘military and patriotic education’ among the republican youth.19 Conversely, the authorities were present at many of the meetings of the veterans. At a conference of soldier-internationalists in Lenin district in February 1989, for example, the delegates included representatives of the district voenkomaty (military commissariats), the district Komsomol (Communist Youth League) and the Interior Ministry (Tret’âkova, 1989, p. 1). Ibragim Yatimov reported that the Komsomol even assisted in the creation of the Dushanbe city-organisation in 1989 (Yatimov, 2014, interview).

  • 20 In correspondence with the author, Ibragim Yatimov reported that a number of afgancy who owned coop (...)

27The veterans knew fully well that they remained dependent on the authorities in numerous ways. Not only did the government administer the provision of veteran benefits but it was also the main source of legal, political and moral recognition for the former fighters. It was with Komsomol assistance, for instance, that a monument to fallen soldier-internationalists was built in Dushanbe’s Mironenko Park (Anonymous, 1990, p. 4). It was, similarly, by decree from the local executive committee of Ordžonikidzeabad that one of the streets in the town was renamed after Rustam Sangov, a private who had been killed in Afghanistan and posthumously awarded the Red Star (Anonymous, 1989, p. 1). Official approval was naturally required also for the interment of fallen soldier-internationalists in “The Avenue of Glory” (Alleâ slavy), a section of one of the Dushanbe cemeteries where soldiers of the Second World War also lay buried. Although the veterans developed some independent sources of financing over time, especially through the establishment of autonomous co-operatives in the late 1980s,20 they remained very much dependent on the authorities for the public celebration of their memory.

28Compounding these close links were personal ties between Afghan War veterans and official bodies. Šavkat Mirzoev was not only a deputy leader of the Dushanbe city organisation but also a member of the Communist Party, having petitioned to join it during his service in Afghanistan (Podivilova, 1987, p. 1). He was also employed in the Dushanbe city bureaucracy, where he was charged with monitoring local prices (Mirzoev, 2013, interview).

  • 21 This appears to have been a common career path for many afgancy, particularly for those who had had (...)

29This was in the early 1990s, in other words, around the very time when he was penning critical articles about bureaucrats in Paëmi Dušanbe. Another prominent afgancy leader was Surobšo Alimov, the founding chairman of the SVAV. Before his election as chairman, he made his name as an activist in the Komsomol, in whose Dushanbe branch he had risen to the position of first secretary by the early 1990s (Meždunarodnij soûz “Boevoe bratstvo,” n.d.). Other veterans interviewed for this research also reported having found work in security bodies after their service, including the police, the military and the KGB.21 All of this paints a picture of a veterans movement invested in state structures not only through organisational and personal ties but also through a desire for state support and recognition. Nevertheless, these were not the only reasons for the close affinity between the state and the veterans. As we will see, there were also deeper causes.

State and Soldier

  • 22 For a discussion of military-patriotic rhetoric in the Brezhnev period see: Holloway, 1980; Simes, (...)

30The vast majority of the future soldiers of the Afghan War were born in the 1960s, which meant that they came of age in the Brezhnev period, a time when the Soviet state stepped up its campaign of military and patriotic rhetoric. This was especially noticeable in the late 1960s, when militarist and patriotic propaganda began to sweep over the USSR. Articles, films, books and public events pushing patriotic themes began to occupy a larger part of the public discourse.22 A string of outsize memorial complexes honouring the victory in the Second World War (baptised the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet lexicon) were erected in cities and towns across the Soviet Union, and Victory Day (9 May) was in 1965 made a public holiday for the first time again since 1947 (Tumarkin, 2003, p. 597). The celebrations were based on earlier forms of commemoration but their large scale and high-pitched rhetoric marked a break with the past. Increasingly, militarist tropes and imagery were being used to socialise the Soviet population.

31The main targets of the new drive were male adolescents and post-adolescents, especially those of pre-draft age soon to pass through the tortuous halls of Soviet military service. Young Soviets were increasingly exposed to what was shorthanded as “military-patriotic education”. This was an organised campaign to promote state-approved values of discipline, patriotism and self-sacrifice. State institutions that had traditionally been tasked with ideological and mobilising functions were enlisted in the campaign. One of these, the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet (abbreviated as DOSAAF in Russian), had a long history of preparing future conscripts. Now it came to play a key role in military-patriotic education, boasting a membership of approximately 65 million in 1978 (Simes, 1981-1982, p. 140). The Komsomol, too, saw a dramatic expansion of its membership: from 23 million in 1966 to 34 million in 1975 – a 48% increase (Hahn, 1969, p. 220; Brezhnev, 1975), which can be compared to a 26% increase in the Soviet population between the 1959 and 1979 censuses (Eason, 1959, p. 598; Blum and Chesnais, 1986, p. 1044).

32Given its amplitude, the military-patriotic discourse was an unavoidable touchstone in the lives of the young Tajiks. Through newspapers, books, monuments, public events, meetings with WWii veterans, instruction at school, speeches at Komsomol gatherings, training sessions with the DOSAAF and many other channels, the young Tajiks were exposed to a message that glorified patriotism and militarism and stressed the need for Soviet males always to be ready to defend their country. Even though the propaganda was often crude, and may well have elicited cynicism and indifference as well as earnest belief, it was an overpowering message. Intense and salient in the Brezhnev years, it was a key reference point for the new generation of Tajiks.

  • 23 While most respondents denied having felt remorse about participating in the war, some did admit th (...)
  • 24 One exception was Mahmadalī Hait, a former GRU intelligence operative who took part in secret negot (...)

33Importantly, the rhetoric seems to have helped to frame the experiences of many Tajik soldiers in Afghanistan. For reasons that have been explored in more detail elsewhere, the war did not, by and large, challenge the basic assumptions of the ideology that had been absorbed by the soldiers in their adolescent years (Göransson, 2017). On the contrary, service in Afghanistan provided them with an opportunity to satisfy some of the exhortations implicit in that discourse. After all, through their actions, the soldier-internationalists were able to prove that they were ready to go to war on behalf of the Motherland, thereby meeting that injunction that had been a staple of the military-patriotic education since their childhoods. Although the Tajiks were not immune to doubts and a sense of ruefulness about their part in the war,23 these doubts did not, in all but a few cases, translate into a wholesale rejection of the Soviet war effort.24

  • 25 The Tajik press reported very little on the war in its early years and was particularly frugal with (...)
  • 26 This shift was particularly noticeable in Komsomolec Tadžikistana, which in the early 1980s devoted (...)
  • 27 Šavkat Mirzoev’s and Vali Sajërabek’s articles in Paëmi Dušanbe (Mirzoev & Sajërabek, 1990, p. 1; S (...)

34Any lingering regret was also quickly muted when the veterans returned home, first by an almost complete media silence on the topic of the war,25 then, beginning in the mid-1980s, by an onslaught of celebratory propaganda that praised the soldiers who had taken part in the conflict.26 This situation left little room for veterans to articulate any abiding misgivings about the nine-year conflict. Nor was there much incentive to do so. The official veneration of the soldier-internationalists and the benefits which they received were justified on the basis of the service they had performed for their country. Playing along with the rhetoric made it easier for them to make a claim for more favourable treatment. Indeed, more than one veteran found it expedient to turn the rhetoric around and use it to criticise authorities who failed to provide support to the people who had made sacrifices for their Motherland.27

35Many seem to have embraced elements of the discourse in earnest. One was Murodšo Navruzšoev, a former scout from Khorugh, who pursued a military career in the army after his demobilisation from the war in Afghanistan. His father, himself a retired military officer with experience in Afghanistan, explained to the author that his son, who sadly passed away in 2008, had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. Indeed, after being wounded in the war, Murodšo turned down an offer to be reposted to the Soviet Union. Instead, he returned to his unit near Mazar-i-Sharif and completed his service in Afghanistan (Navruzšoev, 2013, interview). A photo album that Murodšo put together after his demobilisation speaks of the tragedy of the war but also of his own sense of pride in being a Soviet soldier: black-and-white hand sketches of scenes from the war mingle with photographs of himself in uniform, decorations covering his chest.

36Many veterans also remained in a close relationship with state structures through their links to an array of bodies responsible for managing veterans affairs. Before the Afghan War, an institutional framework had grown up to cater for the veterans of the Great Patriotic War, who were celebrated as paragons of honour and patriotism. That same framework was now used to engage with the Afghan War veterans, who, like their WWii predecessors, were held up as role models for young citizens. The military conscription offices and the local executive committees maintained registries, organised events, issued certificates, administered benefits, etc. The Komsomol, too, became closely involved with the afgancy, particularly after the cpsu and the Council of Ministers granted the former fighters legal status as participants of military action in 1983. Through meetings and publications in its mouthpiece, Komsomolec Tadžikistana, the youth organisation depicted the Afghan War veterans as exemplars of patriotism and selflessness. This bore important parallels with the way in which WWii veterans had previously been paraded to the Soviet public. Indeed, the afgancy were often invited to participate in events that were strikingly similar to the public displays in which the veterans of the Great Patriotic War had once taken part, including meetings with school pupils and participation in military-patriotic education and public parades.

37Hence, there were a multitude of forces that conspired to maintain the discourse of patriotism into which the afgancy had been socialised as children and adolescents. A public campaign got underway in the republican press in the mid-1980s extolling the patriotic virtues of the young men who had taken part in the war across the river. On their return, the veterans, moreover, entered into a close relationship with a number of institutions that were tasked with managing veterans affairs. These institutions had both pastoral and ideological objectives, charged both with addressing the economic, social and housing needs of the veterans and with efforts to draw the former fighters into a campaign of military and patriotic propaganda. Many Afghan War veterans appear to have readily embraced this discourse of patriotism and honour. Not only was it key to the public recognition to which they aspired but it was also a central component of their relationship with the public institutions on which their benefits depended. In order to understand the enduring ties between the veterans and the state in the late 1980s – which was a time of growing political contention – it is necessary to appreciate the strength of this discourse that placed patriotism at the very heart of what it meant to be a veteran of war in the Soviet Union.

Advisers and Interpreters

The Other War

  • 28 Estimates vary (Galeotti, 1992, p. 36; Rubin, 2002, p. 125). Rubin notes that in addition to the tr (...)

38While Western literature has given significant attention to the military dimension of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, the war had other faces, too. Accompanying the roughly 100,000-120,000 troops in Afghanistan28 was a formidable state-building machinery, set in place to further the political, economic and social transformation of the war-torn country while ensuring widened Soviet control. Artemy Kalinovsky has written about the “thousands of technical specialists and political advisers” who were dispatched to “help stabilize the government and broaden its base of support” (Kalinovsky, 2011, p. 32). He has also noted that a prominent role in this effort was played by Central Asians (ibid., p. 33). Commanding languages almost identical to tongues spoken in Afghanistan and arguably possessing a greater understanding of Afghan society and culture, Central Asians were sent in large numbers to help shore up the Kabul regime. Their tasks ranged from advising Afghan officials and translating in state and other official institutions to providing technical advice on agricultural and industrial development projects.

39Occasionally, the advisers changed their hats, transitioning from a military role into a civilian one. Nadžmiddin Šoinbodov, who today is a journalist in Dushanbe, first served multiple tours as a military officer in Afghanistan before returning there on a civilian contract, this time to work as an adviser and interpreter with the Komsomol (Šoinbodov, 2013, interview). Another former participant, who today works as a Persian scholar in the Tajik capital, was in Afghanistan for the first time between 1975 and 1979, fulfilling what he termed a “semi-civilian and semi-military role” at the Ministry of Social Work in Mazar-i-Sharif. He came back to Afghanistan again in 1981 to work as a civilian translator with the Ministry of Justice in Kabul, a position he held until 1985 (Anonymous1, 2013, interview).

40Sometimes military and civilian roles overlapped. Sardor Rahdor, a celebrated poet from Rušan in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, recalled in an interview in March 2014 working as an interpreter for the Komsomol in the province of Samangan when he was approached by a local Mujahaddin commander. The Mujahad, believing that his wife was not able to have children, asked the Soviets to give her medical treatment. In return, he promised to arrange a three-month unilateral ceasefire around the city of Samangan. A Soviet colonel gave the go-ahead and Mr Rahdor was sent together with an Uzbek doctor from Tashkent to pick up the commander’s wife, driving her to Mazar-i-Sharif where she underwent surgery at the hands of a Soviet surgical team.

  • 29 One former translator said in an interview that he had once entertained a group of Afghan friends a (...)

41Most of the time, however, the advisers and translators found themselves at some distance from the battle lines. Communist power in Afghanistan was concentrated in the urban areas, which is where most of the Soviet support personnel worked. Posted in ministries, educational establishments, party offices, hospitals and other state domains, they were spared most of the violence that was a fact of life in many rural parts of Afghanistan as well as the rigid discipline and regimentation that bounded the lives of the Soviet conscripts in the 40th Army. Of course, the advisers, too, were beholden to rules that limited their freedom of movement and interaction with Afghans,29 but they nevertheless enjoyed a relative freedom. Several respondents spoke of the opportunities that had existed for socialising with Afghans, even where official Soviet policy prohibited such interaction. Significantly, the physical appearance and language proficiency of Tajiks sometimes made it possible for them to blend with Afghans and thereby escape the surveillance of the Soviet authorities. The Persian scholar who worked as a translator at the Afghan Ministry of Justice, for example, used his time in Kabul to research classical Persian texts available in various holdings in the capital. In fact, so successful was he in blending with the local population that he was once apprehended by Afghan military authorities who believed him to be a draft-dodger (Anonymous1, 2013, interview).

Return to Tajikistan

42Of course, one should not exaggerate the role that former advisers and interpreters played in the political life of Tajikistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. Although no firm numbers have been found, it is clear that Tajiks were well-represented among Soviet non-military personnel. Yet, only a small number of them became involved in organised politics on their return to their home republic. Individuals like Tohrir Abdudžabbor, Ahmadšo Komilov and Mirbobo Mirrahim, who took up leading roles in the growing opposition movement in the late 1980s, were part of a minority of former participants of the Afghan intervention who became active in opposition politics. Many others took a more muted position in public life.

43However, even the less vocal individuals seem to have had an impact on discussions that were gathering force in the 1980s. One oft-made point in the interviews concerned the high regard that many former advisers and translators had for the quality of the Persian spoken and written in Afghanistan. As will be discussed further below, several respondents reported that their time in Afghanistan had made them more conscious of the impoverishment of their own tongue. A number said they discovered in Afghanistan a more vigorous and developed Persian culture, unblemished by the legacy of Russian and Soviet rule. Their time in Afghanistan also provided opportunities to visit sites that held a special place in Tajik history and culture. As one translator remarked about a visit he paid to Herat:

Herat [...] is one of the centres of scholarship and literature – Persian-Tajik scholarship and literature. Abd ar-Rahman Jami, a great poet, lived there. A Persian-Tajik poet. His pupil was Mir Ali-Shir Navai, the founder of Uzbek literature [...]. We wanted to see the mausoleum where the two poets were buried. But they didn’t let us, because they were firing from both sides, with machine guns, rifles, etc. So this was Herat. It was in summer [...]. There were cherries, grapes. It was like a second paradise. It was one of the great cities. A centre of the scholarship and culture of the Persian and Tajik peoples. (Anonymous2, 2013, interview).

44Little comprehensive information has been unearthed about the educational backgrounds of the Soviet civilians in Afghanistan. Evidence from interviews and newspapers, however, suggests that many of them had completed degrees in oriental languages, including Persian and Pashto, prior to their postings, either in Tajikistan or elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Indeed, a number had been employed as academic staff, researching Persian language and literature in institutes of higher education. But even those who already had a strong command of Persian before their departure often found opportunities to develop their proficiency in Afghanistan.

45A number of things set Tajik and Dari (the Afghan variant of Persian) apart. One was the difference in specialised terminologies. Several respondents reported having been introduced in Afghanistan to vocabularies not in common usage in the Soviet Union. This seems to have been particularly true for technical terminologies, which in Soviet Tajik had been replaced with Russicisms in many cases. The aforementioned translator who had worked at the Ministry of Justice recalled the difficulties he had experienced when translating legal documents in his early months. He remembered struggling with words that were derived from Arabic, French and English, rather than Russian, although he eventually mastered them (Anonymous1, 2013, interview).

46For many translators, the Afghan War was a time of language immersion. Many of them returned to Tajikistan with a firmer command of words and grammatical forms that had largely disappeared from their own tongue. It seems that at least a number of them resumed previous jobs at institutes of higher education – or else took up new positions in academia, media and the arts. The translator at the Ministry of Transport in Kabul, for example, returned to his old position at the Tajik State University, while the translator who had been posted to the Ministry of Justice found a new job at the Pedagogical Institute in Dushanbe. The former Komsomol interpreter, Nadžmiddin Šoinbodov, in turn, began to make a name for himself as a journalist and political satirist. Other ex-interpreters, too – both civilian and military ones – also found work in media. These included Mahmadalī Hait, who began to work as a journalist attached to the television and radio committee (Hait, 2013, interview) and a former interpreter from Khorugh who resumed his work with the local Khorugh TV station after a six-month tour in Afghanistan (Anonymous5, 2013, Interview).

47There seems to have been a pattern of former interpreters and advisers establishing themselves in media, culture and academia after their time in Afghanistan. Thereby, they gained a platform from which they were able to join discussions that were taking shape in the republic at this time, particularly on the topic of language and cultural revival. It seems that a number of the former interpreters and advisers became convinced that Dari represented a more authentic form of Persian and began deliberately to deploy in their writings words and structures used in Afghanistan. As said one former interpreter who today works at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Dushanbe:

The new terms and the new words that were in Russian here were replaced. They were replaced with Afghan ones. For instance, the word komanda (team) [...] is not a Tajik word. It should be dasta. So there were [efforts] particularly in the press, in newspapers, on radio and TV. There, there were definitely large changes. When the lads arrived they realised that Afghan pronunciation and words are more admissible in the Tajik language than, say, Russian words (Anonymous4, 2013, interview).

48While such altering of Tajik was not necessarily part of a broader political programme, many of the former interpreters and advisers do appear to have been motivated by a belief that their national tongue had been unduly influenced by Russian. As the ex-interpreter at the Academy of Sciences said:

[The former interpreters and advisors] wanted to simplify the Tajik language, so that it would become purer than before. So that there would be fewer Russian words, fewer foreign words. So that there would be more Tajik words, or in some rare cases Arabic words (Anonymous4, 2013, interview).

49The move to revitalise the Tajik language can be seen as part of a growing resistance to Russian cultural domination. It is also noteworthy that the efforts took place in a context where Tajikistan was increasingly opening up to influences from other parts of the Persianate world. The move towards language reform reflected Moscow’s declining cultural sway over the Southern republic.

50Other former participants of the Afghan War took a more vigorous leap into politics. Mirbobo Mirrahim and Tohrir Abdudžabbor, both former advisers, played instrumental roles in the formation of the nationalist Rastokhez movement, which counted within its ranks numerous other Dushanbe intellectuals (Nourzhanov & Bleuer, 2013, p. 196). Ahmadšo Komilov, later the director of the Tajik television studio during the short-lived coalition government in 1992, also played a prominent role in this period as an advocate of cultural and political reform (Sajfullaev, 2013; Hait, 2013, interview).

  • 30 The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the pro-Soviet ruling party of Afghanistan between 19 (...)

51Another notable figure in the movement for language revival was Hamza Kamol, a researcher at the Institute of Culture and Languages at the Academy of Sciences, who worked as a senior adviser in Kabul between 1984 and 1989. By his own account, he advised two Afghan PDPA30 general secretaries, Babrak Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah, as well as numerous other senior officials. In an interview in February 2014, he remembered having been impressed by what he saw as the political sophistication of his interlocutors in Afghanistan and the flourishing of Persian language and culture. In his own words, his time in Afghanistan hade led him to realise that:

It is possible to govern a state with the Persian language. Then we thought, why is our republic called the Republic of Tajikistan? Because mainly Tajiks live there. But back then more than 50% of Dushanbe were Russian-speakers. If there were 500,000, then around 250,000 were Russian-speakers [...]. So when we went to Afghanistan and saw that Tajiks can govern, Tajiks can be at the top. There were these questions. Then they accused us of being nationalists. What do they mean nationalists? We’re for the people! We want more to be written in Tajik. We want all meetings, for example the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, to be held in Tajik. Then they labelled us as ‘nationalists’ (Kamol, 2014, interview).

52Mahmadalī Hait was another prominent oppositionist in this period. He was a graduate of Leningrad State University and served in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer and interpreter with the GRU. After his return to Tajikistan, he joined Rastokhez, soon becoming its general secretary and deputy leader. He remained in the organisation for a few years but eventually left it in 1992, when he instead joined the Islamic Party of Renaissance, where he stayed until its closure by the Tajik government in 2015. During the civil war (1992-1997), he was a senior official of the United Tajik Opposition, the umbrella body that represented the Tajik opposition in its negotiations with the Tajik government. Although Hait links his own activism to violence he saw perpetrated against Afghans and the torture he suffered after being accused of double dealings by the KGB, he noted in an interview that many of the others who pushed for cultural, linguistic and religious revival in Tajikistan had worked as advisers and interpreters in Afghanistan:

Some of those who worked in state institutions, and particularly in the humanities, in the Republic of Afghanistan – in different academies, institutes and universities in Afghanistan, or also as interpreters – they later became nationalists in Tajikistan. They supported the revival of the Tajik language, the revival of Tajik culture and the revival of the Islamic religion in Tajikistan. For example, Tohrir Abdudžabbor, Mirbobo Mirrahim and many others supported this. Ahmadšo Komilov. Many others played a leading role in the passing of the Law on Language and in the movement for the independence of our republic. We fought for the independence of our state, and for our language (Hait, 2013, interview).

53What then emerges is a picture of former translators and advisers contributing to the movement for linguistic and cultural revival in Tajikistan in a number of different ways. While some took leading roles in the opposition movement, gravitating towards organisations such as Ru Ba Ru and Rastokhez, others helped to push for the revitalisation of the Tajik language in more subtle ways, using their positions as scholars, journalists and writers to gradually introduce into public usage Tajik words, phrases and grammatical structures drawn from Dari. In both cases, the experiences lived in Afghanistan were at the heart of the new types of political engagement in Tajikistan.


54Some Western observers have viewed the Afghan War as an anvil of nationalist and religious fervour in Tajikistan. Yet the effects of the war on the Central Asian republic were far more complex. While a number of former participants did adopt a more critical view of Russian cultural and political domination in Tajikistan, others seem to have become more deeply invested in the established order, even to the point of rallying to its defences during the disturbances of the early 1990s.

55One explanation for the divergence can be found in the contrasting experiences of those individuals who went to Afghanistan in a military capacity and those who travelled there to fulfil a predominantly military function. While soldiers and officers were in general more exposed to violence and were also subjected to the tough discipline and authoritarianism of the Soviet military, civilian translators and advisers tended to experience the war at some distance from the battlelines and were at greater liberty to socialise with Afghans. Importantly, many translators and interpreters came back from the conflict with a firmer command of Dari, having mastered its specificities in their line of work. This was to become significant in their later efforts to reform the Tajik variant of Persian.

56Yet it is important also to look at developments after the return of the participants to the Soviet Union. Importantly, many of the civilian workers came to take up positions in media, academia and the arts, acquiring a platform from which they could join in growing discussions on culture and language. While the movement for national revival, which gathered force in the late 1980s, drew inspiration from similar efforts in other parts of the Soviet Union (not least in the Baltic republics), an important impulse seems to have come from the former interpreters and advisers who had worked and served in Afghanistan. Some of them, like Mirbobo Mirrahim and Tohrir Abdudžabbor, took openly political stances, advocating for broader political change. Others, however, contributed to the movement for culture change through more subtle efforts to alter the public usage of Tajik.

  • 31 As the legitimacy and authority of the state came increasingly under attack in the early 1990s this (...)

57For their part, the former conscripts were quickly coopted into institutions that had a history of organising World War II veterans and which saw in the new generation of fighters another asset for the military and patriotic education of the Soviet youth. Offering the veterans material and moral support, they also demanded that the former fighters take part in efforts to promote an ideological programme. The rhetoric of patriotism became the language through which the relationship between the veterans and the authorities was mediated. Even some disgruntled veterans came to accept that language as the surest means for winning the ear of the authorities while helping to boost the prestige of Afghan War veterans in the eyes of the public. Thus a symbiotic relationship between the veterans movement and the state authorities emerged, predicated both on the ability of the authorities to grant the afgancy support and on the veterans’ identification with the state on whose behalf they had shed blood in Afghanistan.31

58So, the Afghan War did factor into some of the political discussions that were gathering force in Tajikistan in the late 1980s. Yet, it did so in ways that were multifaceted and even contradictory. As has been shown, both the defenders and the challengers of the political status quo were able to draw on their experiences in Afghanistan, contributing to trends that were both conservative and subversive. Far from being a moment of political or religious awakening, the war, therefore, had a more complex set of effects on the Central Asian republic, feeding into and amplifying trends that were already underway in these closing years of Soviet power.

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ANONYMOUS1 5 April 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

ANONYMOUS2, 24 April 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

ANONYMOUS3, 6 June 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

ANONYMOUS4, 16 July 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

ANONYMOUS5, 21 August 2013, Khorugh, Tajikistan.

ANONYMOUS6, 15 February 2014, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

DŽALILOV Sattor, 24 April 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

HAIT Mahmadalī, 16 July 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

KAMOL Hamza, 20 February 2014, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

MIRZOEV Šavkat, 25 April 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

NAVRUZŠOEV Imatšo, 21 August 2013, Khorugh, Tajikistan.

RAHDOR Sardor, 17 February 2014, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

SAJËRABEKOV Valī, 16 February 2014, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

SOINBODOV Nadžmiddin, 17 August 2013, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

YATIMOV Ibragim, 2014, correspondence with author.

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1 The author is indebted to numerous individuals who supported him in his research. He would like to give special thanks to his supervisors Jenny Mathers and Ayla Göl at Aberystwyth University, Sunatullo Jonboboev at the University of Central Asia in Dushanbe, Bohdan Krawchenko at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Sakina Karimova at the Academy of Sciences in Tajikistan, Dilovar Butabekov at the University of Central Asia in Khorugh, and Paul Marchant and Nizora Hasanova at Sworde-Teppa in Qurghonteppa, Tajikistan. He also wants to express his profound gratitude to the many Afghan War veterans, too numerous for individual mention, who shared their time and their stories generously with him during his research.

2 As will be argued below, this was especially true for sections of the Dushanbe secular intelligentsia.

3 As will be discussed in greater detail below, one of the chief dissident afgancy was Mahmadali Hait, an erstwhile military interpreter with the GRU, the Soviet Armed Forces intelligence agency, who became a leading member of the Tajik opposition.

4 Both the republican and the central presses reported on the afgancy who mobilised on the side of the law-enforcement bodies during the disturbances (Karpov, 1990, p. 2; Sautin, 1990, p. 6; Ponomarev, 1990, p. 2).

5 One interview was conducted in English. Notes were taken when interviews could not be recorded.

6 The war does seem to have influenced religious discussions in underground Islamic groups (Khalid, 2007, pp. 145-147; Nourzhanov & Bleuer, 2013, pp. 244-51). Yet, those discussions, it seems, did not spread beyond that narrow and secretive space. As Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer point out, the official Islamic clergy in Tajikistan remained vocal in its support of the Soviet intervention (ibid., p. 249).

7 Olivier Roy offers an insightful (if also rather sweeping) discussion of Central Asia in the context of the Afghan War (Roy, 1997, pp. 170, 180, 191, 192, 197, 233, 234), touching on the strategic importance of Central Asia during the conflict, the role of Central Asian soldiers in the occupation, the importance of academic exchange between Central Asia and Afghanistan and the alleged impact that the war had on the restructuring of the Tajik security apparatus in the 1980s. Other sources that address the topic are Dudoignon, 1998; and Spolnikov, 2004.

8 Olivier Roy makes this observation (Roy, 1997, p. 197).

9 Ashkhabad was another important centre. Both Ashkhabad and Termez were part of the Turkestan Military District, which as Mark Urban has noted increased in strategic importance after 1982, when training facilities there were expanded for the benefit of troops destined for the Afghan campaign (Urban, 1988, p. 130).

10 One who does dwell on the importance of Central Asia for PR purposes is Eren Tasar in his exploration of the Central Asian Islamic clerical establishment and its role in promoting a state-led religious structure in Afghanistan (Tasar, 2011).

11 A steady stream of Afghan delegations visited Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics on diplomatic and study visits. The Tajik press reported effusively on these events (Anonymous, 1980a, 1980b, 1980c, 1983, 1985).

12 Central Asia had long played the part of Soviet showpiece. As Artemy Kalinovsky (2013a) has pointed out, the Muslim republics had helped to showcase Soviet advances in the Third World since the Khrushchev era, when Moscow stepped up efforts to woo over newly decolonised countries to its model of development.

13 The RAND Corporation is a U.S. think tank with close ties to the U.S. defence sector. It is based in Santa Monica, California, and provides research and analysis to the U.S. armed forces and other public and private organisations.

14 See also p. 230, where Girardet states that “According to various estimates, as many as 300 Soviet POWs were being held alive by different guerrilla organisations in 1984. This did not include a small, but undetermined, number of Soviet deserters, many of Central Asian origin, known to be actively operating with the resistance or living in relative freedom among the Afghans.”

15 Other sources expressing scepticism about the loyalty and competence of the Central Asian soldiers include Broxup, 1983; Broxup, 1983b; Bennigsen, 1984; Alexiev, 1988; Szayna, 1991; Daugherty III, 1994; Daugherty III, 1995; Clayton, 1999; Mathers, 2003.

16 Afgancy is a common Soviet shorthand for veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. It is still widely used today, including in Tajikistan, and will be employed in this article, too.

17 The newspaper also ran columns where veterans reminisced about their service, giving both highly critical and more positive appraisals of their service (Hait, Šodiev & Sajërabek, 1990, p. 2).

18 These portraits were fairly regular features in the Komsomol broadsheet in 1986 and 1987. Describing the young soldiers’ lives, they turned on themes of tragedy and honour, discussing instances of both lamentable death and heroic action (Romanok, 1986, p. 3; Salimina, 1986, p. 3; Casûk, 1985, p. 3).

19 There is an abundance of press reports on afgancy participating in events of this kind. A few examples are: Asimov, 1986, p. 2; Saidov, 1986, p. 4; Svidčenko, 1987, p. 4.

20 In correspondence with the author, Ibragim Yatimov reported that a number of afgancy who owned cooperatives provided financial aid to the Dushanbe city organisation. Meanwhile, Mark Galeotti in his 1992 PhD dissertation mentions a haberdashery in Dushanbe apparently run by Afghan War veterans (Galeotti, 1992, p. 138).

21 This appears to have been a common career path for many afgancy, particularly for those who had had little or no higher education prior to their service in Afghanistan. Two of the current top three officials of the Qurghonteppa Union of Soldier-Internationalists, for example, are retired policemen, as is the head of the Kulob organisation of Afghan War veterans. Several top ranking officials of the district organisations of the Committee on Soldier-Internationalist Affairs in Dushanbe also have a history of security work, as do a large number of rank-and-file members with whom the author spoke.

22 For a discussion of military-patriotic rhetoric in the Brezhnev period see: Holloway, 1980; Simes, 1981-1982; Jones & Grupp, 1982; Cooper, 1989; Weiner, 1996.

23 While most respondents denied having felt remorse about participating in the war, some did admit that doubts had entered their minds. In all these cases, they were adamant that such thoughts had not prevented them from fulfilling their duty. As one former rifleman said, doubts “did arise. They did arise. We didn’t choose to go [to Afghanistan] ourselves. They told us to come and serve, and we were brought there [...]. It was difficult. Sometimes it was difficult. There is no war that does not affect [ordinary people]” (Anonymous3, 2013, interview). Similarly, another veteran, who was attending the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan together with some friends in Dushanbe, said that none of them were wearing their medals because it was embarrassing: “They’re our compatriots (zemlâki), they are also Muslims. Who were we fighting? It’s embarrassing for us to wear our medals” (Anonymous6, 2014, interview).

24 One exception was Mahmadalī Hait, a former GRU intelligence operative who took part in secret negotiations with Ahmad Shah Massoud. More will be said about him below.

25 The Tajik press reported very little on the war in its early years and was particularly frugal with reports on the participation of Soviet soldiers in the conflict. The first article about an Afghan War veteran in the Dushanbe newspaper Večernij Dušanbe was published on 3 April 1987, that is more than six years into the war. It was about Šavkat Mirzoev, a model soldier, who not only had received multiple prestigious decorations (including two Orders of the Red Star) but was also a candidate member of the Communist Party about to attain full membership (Podivilova, 1987, p. 1).

26 This shift was particularly noticeable in Komsomolec Tadžikistana, which in the early 1980s devoted little attention to the Afghan War and its Soviet soldiers but in the second half of the decade began to run a well-orchestrated campaign lauding the soldier-internationalists. During this later period, it regularly published short biographies of selected soldiers, complete with photographs and requisite praise of their patriotism and military ardour. See for example E. Dudukina, 1987, p. 2; I. Dudukina, 1987, p. 1; Kholmova, 1987, p. 1.

27 Šavkat Mirzoev’s and Vali Sajërabek’s articles in Paëmi Dušanbe (Mirzoev & Sajërabek, 1990, p. 1; Sajërabek, 1990, p. 2) are good examples of this.

28 Estimates vary (Galeotti, 1992, p. 36; Rubin, 2002, p. 125). Rubin notes that in addition to the troops stationed in Afghanistan, an estimated 20,000 soldiers conducted sporadic operations across the border from bases within the USSR.

29 One former translator said in an interview that he had once entertained a group of Afghan friends at his home in Kabul. The very next morning he received a phone call from the KGB, who admonished him for socialising with Afghans, prohibited by the occupation authorities (Anonymous1, 2013, interview).

30 The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the pro-Soviet ruling party of Afghanistan between 1978 and 1992.

31 As the legitimacy and authority of the state came increasingly under attack in the early 1990s this relationship would come under strain, eventually collapsing in the ravages of the Tajik civil war.

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Bibliographical reference

Markus Göransson, « Tajikistan and the Ambiguous Impact of the Soviet-Afghan War », Cahiers d’Asie centrale, 26 | 2016, 113-142.

Electronic reference

Markus Göransson, « Tajikistan and the Ambiguous Impact of the Soviet-Afghan War », Cahiers d’Asie centrale [Online], 26 | 2016, Online since 01 November 2017, connection on 21 November 2017. URL :

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About the author

Markus Göransson

Markus Göransson received his PhD from the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, in 2016, for a thesis about the political mobilisation of Soviet-Afghan War veterans in Tajikistan between 1979 and 1992. In 2013 and 2014, he conducted archival and oral research in Tajikistan. He holds an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University and a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford. Contact:

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