Lost Legacies in the “Graveyard of Empires”

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The Soviet Union found out first hand the difficulties in attempting to occupy and stabilize the nation of Afghanistan. The comparisons to the American conflict in Vietnam, and now our own endeavors in Afghanistan certainly hold a good deal of merit. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan has always held a personal interest for me, having been deployed to the country myself as a Marine. I was only 20 years old when I first arrived there 6 years ago, and I often found myself wondering what might have been going through the mind of a young Soviet soldier decades earlier. After watching the clip from the 1988 film Soviet Patriot, I can see that our thoughts regarding our relationship with the Afghan people are much the same.  It was an uneasy relationship between vastly different cultures.

The Soviet Union lost some 14,000 troops in 9 years of operations within Afghanistan, with roughly 50,000 others being wounded.  The mujahedeen they were fighting received more external support than any rebel group in history. This obviously had a massive impact on Soviet military efforts, but the biggest problem is the same one we faced, a clash of ideologies. The people of Afghanistan are very proud and deeply set in their long standing culture. Naturally, the idea of adopting a Soviet induced system of socialism did not sit well with them. In the words of former Soviet Colonel Vladimir Savitsky, insurgency in Afghanistan “cannot be defeated with weapons alone” (Surkov). “We were losing on the ideological front. People there were very religious. We should not have tried to build socialism there at all,” Savitsky said. His words struck me as all too familiar. Just like the Soviets found out, the Afghan people were always grateful to receive humanitarian aid and building projects, but any measures they viewed as efforts to fundamentally change their way of life were always met with suspicion at best, and open hostility at worst.

The implications of the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation have had long lasting impacts. Some elements of the Soviet “legacy” in Afghanistan still remain, mostly in the capitol of Kabul, where some past Soviet building projects continue to receive use. There are of course other, more nefarious, elements of their presence that remain. Landmines and other unexploded ordnance remain buried and scattered throughout the country. Mohammad Omar, the late founder and commander of the Taliban, gained his initial prominence among the Afghan people due to his reputation as a mujahedeen hero from his days fighting the Soviets. It is in such ways that the Soviet and American involvements in Afghanistan overlap, two separate powers experiencing similar challenges.

Afghan rebel fighters break for lunch near a Soviet helicopter shot down in an earlier engagement.
Afghan rebel fighters break for lunch near a Soviet helicopter shot down in an earlier engagement.

Today, with our official combat operations having ended in the country, I can only wonder how the “American legacy” will compare to its Soviet predecessor years from now. Like the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, many American veterans wonder what, if any, lasting impacts were made in the country. After the Soviets withdrew, Afghanistan plunged into a dark period of civil war and its people suffered greatly. Now, the situation seems increasingly perilous once more, and I can only hope that peace and stability will one day be found. Today, my sentiments on Afghanistan align with the thoughts of a Soviet veteran, Sergei Goncharov. “Twenty-five years have passed and it is hard to judge those events, whether they were good or bad. At least we thought that we were fighting for justice and we had no doubts” (Surkov).

A picture of Afghan children I took while on a convoy in Afghanistan, 2011. Much of the rural country remains largely unchanged from the time the Soviets patrolled these same areas. The question now is what the future holds for these children and Afghanistan as a whole.
A picture of Afghan children I took while on a convoy in Afghanistan, 2011. Much of the rural country remains largely unchanged from the time the Soviets patrolled these same areas. The question now is what the future holds for these children and Afghanistan as a whole, the same question in place following the Soviet withdrawal.

 

 

References:

Surkov, Nikolay. “Soviet Veterans Remember the Afghan War”. Russia Beyond the Headlines.

http://rbth.com/international/2014/02/18/soviet_veterans_remember_the_afghan_war_34305.html

17 Moments in Soviet History. “The Afghans”. Soviet History 1985.

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/the-afghans/

17 Moments Soviet History. Soviet Patriot (1988). Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/the-afghans/the-afghans-video/soviet-patriot-1988/

 

A Movie for the People

 

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In the decade following the end of World War II, Soviet cinema pertaining to the conflict did little to address the personal damages and emotions felt by the common citizen. While some films simply portrayed a world where the conflict seemingly never happened, there were of course notable films covering the Soviet Union’s victory in the struggle of “The Great Patriotic War”. Aside from being relatively rare occurrences, these films tended to focus on the role of the Soviet leadership during the war rather than the harsh reality faced by the common people who fought and endured throughout the darkest days of WWII.

This trend continued until 1955, with the release of the film The Soldier Ivan Brovkin. The movie depicts a story all too familiar to many people of the Soviet Union, a young man of simple rural upbringing who is drafted into service for the Red Army. While the values portrayed in the movie were certainly relatable to many, the film was set in peacetime and showed no actual images of warfare. It wasn’t until 1957 that Soviet audiences would witness a film that would revisit the emotions felt during the turbulent early periods of the war, immortalized on the big screen in director Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.

The Cranes Are Flying took a different direction than all the Soviet war films that preceded it, focusing not on the Soviet leadership and the glory of the victory over the Germans, bur rather the cruelties and suffering of the war faced by millions. The movie also has a female main star, representing the hardships of Soviet women during the period. The plot follows the story of Veronika, a woman whose boyfriend, Boris, has answered the patriotic call to war as the Germans begin Operation Barbarossa and invade the Soviet Union.

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A particularly powerful scene depicts the moment where Boris is preparing to be marched off to the front, anxiously waiting for Veronika to find him. She arrives as the crowds flock around the departing column of new troops. She manages to spot him while desperately searching down the formation, repeatedly calling to him. In the chaotic, deafening crowd, Boris doesn’t hear her, and they fail to see each other for what would have been a final goodbye. While retreating back to Moscow in the face of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, Boris is killed saving a fellow soldier. It is a truly heartbreaking moment; Boris is mistakenly listed as MIA, leaving Veronika clinging to hope as she endures even more tragedies. Her parents are presumably killed, and then a scene alludes to her being raped by a man named Mark, the nephew of Boris’s father who has long pursued her. In shame, she marries him. Eventually she is freed from the marriage, only to find out once and for all that Boris has indeed been killed. The movie closes having depicted the horrible realities faced by so many Soviet women, as well as the sacrifice made by almost 9 million Red Army soldiers who lost their lives.

The film went on to win the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival, the only Soviet film to win the award. The powerful emotions in The Cranes Are Flying remain timeless as they are felt in every war; the horrible feeling of being separated from a loved one while they march off into combat, and the terrible news of learning that they have fallen in battle. Should you be interested in viewing this great piece of Soviet post-war cinema, it can be found posted below.

 

Sources: James von Geldern. War Films – 17 Moments in Soviet History. Soviethistory.msu.edu.

 

The Cranes Are Flying, parts I and II:

 

Kursk: Turning Point of the Eastern Front

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When picking a turning point on the Eastern Front of World World II, many think of the bloody Battle of Stalingrad. Stalingrad was of course a major upset for the Germans, and the continued Soviet offensive at one point threatened to destroy all of Army Group South. However, the Germans counterattacked and broke the Soviet offensive, and it appeared that they still maintained an advantage in operational strength. There was now a large Soviet salient located at Kursk, and the Nazis planned an attack to attempt to pinch off and trap the Red Army forces there.

Hitler was nervous about attacking the salient, but under the pressure from his top generals he eventually agreed. He delayed the attack by a few months in order to allow new tanks to reach the front, but this only gave the Soviets even more time to dig themselves in. German intelligence suggested that at this point, the Red Army forces in the area were growing exhausted, low on supplies, and increasingly desperate. Unfortunately for the Germans, their intelligence on the Soviet position at Kursk had been compromised by an elaborate Soviet misinformation and counter-intelligence plan. The Germans knew it had been heavily mined and reinforced, but the extent to which the Soviet’s had fortified Kursk was lost on them. Kursk was now home to more anti-tank firepower than had ever been emplaced in a single location.

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Kursk ended in a decisive Soviet victory. German efforts in the north were halted almost immediately as the attack began. The offensive in the south fared slightly better in the beginning, but eventually the massive amount of Soviet defensive preparations bogged down the advance. Kursk became the largest tank battle in history, a grinding engagement of attrition that the Germans could ill afford. In the skies, the German Luftwaffe found itself outnumbered and increasingly overwhelmed. A week into fighting, on July 12th, Hitler scrapped the operation. Allied forces led by the Americans had invaded Sicily, and the entire Italian peninsula was now in jeopardy, pulling Hitler’s attention back to the west.

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The repercussions of Kursk were massive. Unlike the Germans, the Soviets were rolling out massive numbers of tanks from their factories, especially the now proven T-34. Their armored divisions quickly replaced their losses. Operational initiative on the Eastern Front now lay securely with the Soviets. It is difficult to determine what role Hitler’s delay on the operation had on its outcome, as well as the impact of the Soviet deceptions regarding intelligence during the planning process. What remains certain is that Kursk was a pivotal turning point in the war. Even though the Hitler withdrew partly due to the situation in Sicily, by that time his forces in Kursk were already caught in the jaws of defeat. From this point forward, the Red Army opened the flood gates, rapidly advancing towards the German heartland.

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Enforcers of Red Terror: Cheka and Beyond

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From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power in October of 1917, the new Soviet government faced immediate threats, both externally and internally. As is typical with any successful revolution, counter-revolutionary elements seek to resist and disrupt from within. The October Revolution was no different, and the Soviet government moved swiftly to suppress any internal enemies. To do this, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage was formed in December 7th 1917. More commonly known as Cheka after the first letters of its abbreviation, it became the Soviet’s basis for a force of secret police.

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Cheka was meant to be a temporary institution, to be abolished once Soviet power had been firmly consolidated. As such, it originally was dedicated to only investigating and suppressing counter-revolutionary activity. However, the reach of Cheka grew at a rapid pace, acquiring the powers of summary justice. Paired with a reputation for swift and brutal reprisals, Cheka became the most feared Soviet institution in the civil war years following the revolution. Unknown thousands of suspects were imprisoned, tortured, or executed as Cheka committees were established all across the country. By 1921 the armed branch of the Cheka numbered over 200,000 troops, tasked with everything from running the Gulag system, suppressing riots, and hunting down fleeing soldiers from the desertion ridden Red Army. It was nasty, dark business, but through its brutality the Cheka proved to be extremely effective.

When the civil war ended in 1922, Cheka was not fully disbanded, but rather reformed and restructured into a new institution, the GPU. The necessity of a formidable secret police was clear at this point, and the Soviets would continue to evolve the service. As the 20th century continued, the secret police of the Soviet Union would continue to harden their bloody reputation, taking a leading role in Stalin’s purges. Eventually, what started as Cheka would become the infamous KGB, one of the most notorious and secretive institutions in history. The names changed, yet for the better part of a century the job of Soviet secret police remained much the same.

 

References:

State Security: 17 Moments in Soviet History – http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/state-security/

History of the Cheka. Systema Spetsnaz – http://www.systemaspetsnaz.com/history-of-the-cheka-ogpu-nkvd-mgb-kgb-fsb

Communist Secret Police: Cheka. Spartacus Educational – http://spartacus-educational.com/RUScheka.htm

Lenin & Guerrilla Warfare: Lessons Learned from 1905

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While guerrilla warfare has existed since the dawn of civilization, the modern principles of guerrilla strategy emerged during the early 20th century, with prime examples being found in the Russian Revolution of 1905. While Karl Marx closely studied military history, his focus was primarily upon conventional military doctrine rather than the use of guerrilla tactics. However, Vladimir Lenin not only recognized the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare, he also recognized the relationship such strategy shares with the revolution of the working class. After analyzing the Revolution of 1905, Lenin wrote his classic piece on the subject, simply titled Guerrilla Warfare.

Lenin begins by explaining that revolution and guerrilla warfare do not necessarily go hand in hand. In order for a guerrilla campaign to be successful in aiding a revolution, it must be closely linked to the struggle of the masses. Should individual groups act separately to the masses, it will simply demoralize and disorganize the revolutionary movement. Still, he is careful to point out that it is not the guerrilla action itself that poses these risks, but rather a weakness in the controlling parties of a movement who fail to keep such actions under their control. This is his counterargument to claims that guerrilla actions run counterproductive to the movement, and Lenin points out that with any new form of struggle, new dangers and sacrifices will be found in the absence of a proper and prepared leadership.

Lenin recounts the events of the 1905 revolution; how it gradually grew from economic protests, to demonstrations and strikes, until it finally reached the point of armed insurrection. It is at this stage of the revolutionary process where Lenin argues that guerrilla warfare is both essential and inevitable, and where the important relationship between the two must be strong. Lenin states “Guerrilla warfare is an inevitable form of struggle at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising and when fairly large intervals occur between the ‘big engagements’ in the civil war”.

After 1905, Lenin states that proud, smug Social-Democrats viewed guerrilla movements as being beneath them. To this notion he replies that guerrilla warfare paired with social uprising is the most revolutionary doctrine in the world, and that the seemingly distasteful aspects must be looked past. This statement returns to his initial argument that guerrilla warfare and revolution of the masses are inextricably linked, and an individual must not analyze and judge one component without the other.

Lenin’s study of the Revolution of 1905 and his work on Guerrilla Warfare would go on to inspire future Marxist leaders and intellectuals. Successful revolutionary leader Mao Zedong wrote his own work on Guerrilla Warfare and the political issues associated it with 31 years later. His work closely aligned with Lenin’s , even including direct quotes. Perhaps the most famous guerrilla fighter of the 20th century, Che Guevara ran a doctrine contradictory to Lenin’s lessons gleaned from 1905. Attempting to run guerrilla campaigns in Africa and Bolivia without first establishing mass uprising, Guevara would ultimately be captured and killed as both efforts quickly collapsed. While much has changed in the world since 1905, guerrilla warfare still remains, and Lenin’s work still provides relevant insight on the matter.

 

References

Vladimir Lenin, Guerrilla Warfare.  Marxist Internet Archive – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/gw/index.htm#i

Dagestan’s Turbulent History

Tipy Dagestana

Dagestan is a region located in Russia’s North Caucuses, with the Caspian Sea to the east. In the Turkic languages, the name fittingly translates to “land of the mountains”. The rugged, mountainous terrain in Dagestan is impressive, with some of the peaks reaching elevations as high as 14,000 feet or more. Dagestan is quite diverse both ethnically and linguistically, home to dozens of different peoples and languages. Some of the major ethnic groups include the Avars, Lezgi, Noghay, Kumuck, and Tabasarans. Islam is the dominant religion in Dagestan, essentially having erased all others around the 15th century.

Pictured in the photograph from the early 20th century is a Sunni Muslim Dagestani man of unknown nationality. He is wearing the traditional garb and head gear typical of Dagestani men of the time period. His sheathed dagger provides a symbol of Dagestan’s warrior culture and traditions. Throughout much of the 19th century, Dagestan and nearby Chechnya fiercely resisted the expansion of the Russian Empire, presenting the Russians with a significant challenge in exerting control over the area. Eventually in the early 20th century, Dagestan successfully declared its independence from the Russian Empire, though this was short lived. In the early 1920s, Bolshevik invasion and occupation resulted in Dagestan becoming an autonomous Soviet republic.

As the 20th century continued, Dagestan was largely left behind during Stalin’s efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union. The economy was stagnant and near collapse, a trend that would endure throughout the century as Dagestan became rampant with poverty and corruption. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Dagestan remained loyal to Russia, though its economic problems and lawlessness continued to climb to infamous levels. Today, Dagestan is still riddled with poverty, organized crime, and radical Islamic militant groups, a sad transition from the proud culture of centuries past.

 

 

References:

Dagestan: New World Encyclopedia – http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dagestan

Dagestan Profile Overview:  BBC News – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20593383