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30 Years After Departure, Russian Veterans Remember Afghan War


Russia marked the 30th anniversary of the Soviet army's withdrawal from Afghanistan yesterday. That nine-year war drained the Soviet Union and foreshadowed the collapse of its communist system just two years after the pullout. NPR's Lucian Kim reports on how Russian veterans remember the war.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Moscow's Afghan war museum is located on the ground floor of an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. When I close the metal door behind me, Igor Yerin, the director, comes out to meet me. The museum is just a couple of halls filled with artifacts from the war that started with the Soviet invasion in 1979.

IGOR YERIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He points to maps, photographs, medals, a pair of combat boots, a boombox and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Yerin worked in a Moscow car plant before he was drafted at age 20. In Afghanistan, he served two years as an infantry platoon sergeant.

YERIN: (Through interpreter) First of all, we were following orders. And secondly, the motherland sent us. We wouldn't have gone on our own. We were young, but we understood that we were fighting for our country.

KIM: Yerin turns on his phone to show me a slideshow of black and white photos accompanied by a song about Kunduz, the Afghan city where he was based.


KIM: Paghid (ph), Yerin says, he died as photos of fallen comrades flashed by on the tiny screen. The war was fought against U.S.-backed fighters known as the mujahideen, cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians and for years was considered a fatal mistake by the Soviet leadership.

At a neighborhood park known as Afghan Square (ph), veterans gathered on Thursday to mark the 30th anniversary of the war's end.


KIM: Veterans and members of the community marched holding portraits of young men who never came back.

MARINA TUSHNIKOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Marina Tushnikova (ph) said the war touched everyone and that the photographs on display showed only a fraction of those from her district who were killed. Veterans laid flowers at the base of a stark war memorial depicting three grieving mothers with bowed heads.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Then on a snow covered field nearby, a Russian Orthodox priest blessed the cornerstone of a new church dedicated to the veterans of the Afghan War followed by a rifle salute. Back in his museum, Igor Yerin says he has no regrets.

YERIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He feels proud of himself and the country he fought for even if it doesn't exist anymore. Yerin says he and his comrades never considered themselves conquerors and that the Soviets did more for Afghanistan in the nine years they were there U.S. has done in a war that has lasted almost twice as long.

YERIN: (Through interpreter) We train teachers and doctors and soldiers. Of course, there was a political element to it, but we even sent an Afghan into space in 1988.

KIM: Like many veterans, Yerin is bitter about the role the United States played during the war, supplying the mujahideen with weapons and money.

YERIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Yerin says there wouldn't even have been a war without the American aid.


KIM: Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.