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30 Years Later, Russia Aims To Rewrite The Soviet War In Afghanistan

When a legislative body formed in the reformist Gorbachev era gathered in Moscow in December 1989 to reflect on the U.S.S.R.'s failed war in Afghanistan, its assessment of the military effort that had left 15,000 Soviet troops and millions of Afghans dead was unequivocal.

"The Congress of People's Deputies of the U.S.S.R. holds that the decision deserves moral and political denunciation," read the statement condemning the December 1979 invasion that commenced a near-decade-long campaign and hastened the Soviet Union's demise in 1991.

But on the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the public mood in Russia is much changed, and Russian legislators have stepped out in support of an initiative to overturn the 1989 resolution and pronounce the invasion as a just and necessary move.

Yet despite widespread expectations that the State Duma would approve a defiant draft resolution reversing that earlier judgement, the timing was apparently not right.

While reports indicated that the measure had support from on high, the vote on the measure appears to have been delayed. On February 15, the Kommersant daily reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was among the officials who urged the resolution be postponed.

Analysts believe that a resolution justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would jeopardize Russia's role as a peace broker in the region, amid ongoing talks in Moscow between the Taliban and the Afghan opposition.

I think they decided to temporarily mute this topic, at least until these talks with Afghanistan are over, Vyacheslav Polovinko, a political analyst for the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, told RFE/RL. They'll likely find another excuse, another moment to pass it.

But it is clear that efforts to rewrite the experience of the Afghan war -- along with other aspects of Soviet history brought into the open during the cathartic 1990s -- are not going away. The trend of public opinion, at least, seems to be on the legislators' side.

In a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, timed to coincide with the Soviet withdrawal anniversary, 42 percent of respondents said the Soviet Union should not have sent troops into Afghanistan, while 31 percent supported the move.

Only five years ago, another poll by the independent Levada Center found that 68 percent condemned the decision to invade, and only 9 percent backed it. In 1991, a Levada survey showed a gap of 88 percent against to 3 percent in favor.

Russian officials have seized on the changing mood.

Analysts believe that a resolution justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would jeopardize Russia's role as a peace broker in the region, amid ongoing talks in Moscow between the Taliban and the Afghan opposition.

I think they decided to temporarily mute this topic, at least until these talks with Afghanistan are over, Vyacheslav Polovinko, a political analyst for the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, told RFE/RL. They'll likely find another excuse, another moment to pass it.

But it is clear that efforts to rewrite the experience of the Afghan war -- along with other aspects of Soviet history brought into the open during the cathartic 1990s -- are not going away. The trend of public opinion, at least, seems to be on the legislators' side.

In a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, timed to coincide with the Soviet withdrawal anniversary, 42 percent of respondents said the Soviet Union should not have sent troops into Afghanistan, while 31 percent supported the move.

Only five years ago, another poll by the independent Levada Center found that 68 percent condemned the decision to invade, and only 9 percent backed it. In 1991, a Levada survey showed a gap of 88 percent against to 3 percent in favor.

Russian officials have seized on the changing mood.

In an interview with state news agency RIA Novosti , Gorbachev, now in his late 80s, condemned the effort to discredit the original resolution his government passed in 1989.

"I consider the proposal totally unacceptable and irresponsible. What facts, what arguments do its authors cite? How can you deny that the decision was made by a close circle of people, skirting the constitution and going against the opinions of the experts and military leadership? Or that it led to huge loss of life? Or that thousands of families lost their sons, fathers, and brothers?" he said. "This immoral initiative should be decisively rejected. I believe the country's leadership should make its views clear."

When queried about the draft resolution on February 15, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied, "I'll leave that without comment," according to TASS. "Our main task is to remember the heroes who discharged their duty."

Included in the draft resolution is a pledge to continue subsidies for those who fought in Afghanistan.

Back then, "Afghan syndrome" became a popular diagnosis for crippled soldiers struggling to adapt after the war; today, many of them feel historical justice is gradually beginning to triumph.

"We returned and they didn't notice us at all. It wasn't a figure of speech when they said, 'We didn't send you there.' They said it to us openly, directly in the eyes," Andrei Kuznetsov told RFE/RL.

Kuznetsov was an 18-year-old conscript with six months of military training when he was dispatched in May 1987 to Bagram, Afghanistan, as part of the 345th airborne division of the Soviet Army. A year and eight months later, he returned to "a totally different country."

Today, he works as a groundskeeper at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow and subsists on a meager salary. He rejects the parallels some make between the Afghan war and today's campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, and supports the Duma's resolution. He only wishes it had come sooner.

"It's high time they reassessed that war. They should have done it a long time ago," he said.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.