Afghanistan, The Graveyard of Empires


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a small, but significant, part of the greater Cold War between the east and west. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979 with about 30,000 troops. The Soviet invasion was originally meant to be short term assistance in order support a puppet government but would drag on for 10 years. I chose this picture because it shows how a superpower invaded a tiny, backward nation for the sake of promoting Communism.

Leonid Brezhnev was the ideal leader of the Soviet Union, he was a true believer in Communist ideology. He prided the many medals he was awarded as well as the titles that came with them including; Hero of the Soviet Union and marshal of the Soviet Union. (Freeze, pg. 439) Soviet foreign policy under Brezhnev can be summed up in the Brezhnev Doctrine. This was the idea that if conflict threatened one of the socialist sattelite states then it would be met with the full power and might of the Soviet Union. A frail Comminust government in Afghanistan was a prime example for Brezhnev to intervene.

In 1978 Afghanistan was divided between the Communist government and anticommunist Islamic guerrillas. The Soviet Union at this time began to send in small groups of special forces troops to advise government troops. (The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978-1980) In March, 1980 Brezhnev told a crowd of supporters “… the Central Committee can assure the Soviet people that we have everything necessary to repel any military provocation.” (Brezhnev, Current Digest of the Russian Press) Furthermore, Brezhnev prided his foreign policy on the victories of Vietnamese Communism over the U.S. and China proclaiming more victory in the future. (Brezhnev, Current Digest of the Russian Press) Brezhnev saw socialist societies as being free from “colonial oppression” and referred to the west several times as being “imperialists” because they were capitalist. I believe Brezhnev saw the Soviet Union as the leader of a revolution under the banner of socialism in the fight against capitalism. This ideology helped shape his foreign policy.

Afghan government forces proved to be unreliable and undisciplined leading the Soviets to deploy more troops to the country. They also began to take greater control of the fight against the Islamist opposition, the Mujahideen. The Soviets were a brutal force that killed innocent civilians they believed to be helping the Mujahideen. The brutal tactics by the Soviets only strengthened the resolve of the Afghan people and enforced international criticism against the USSR. The US began arming and training the Mujahideen to fight back against the Soviets. Although the Soviets eventually had 100,000 troops in the country they failed to maintain control of the countryside and mountains where the Mujahideen were free to operate. (Britannica) The Soviet failure to win a quick victory over rebel forces led to a stalemate which drained resources from an already stagnated economy. (Freeze, pg. 446)

Mujahideen Waiting for Soviet Army | Afghan-Soviet war 1979-… | Flickr

This Post earned a “hammer and keyboard” by the editorial team.


“SPEECH BY COMRADE L. I. BREZHNEV” Current Digest of the Russian Press, The , 26 Mar. 1980,

“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Dec. 2019,

Battle of Kursk, 1943

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 they were severely outnumbered but were better trained and equipped. Hitler and the German High Command predicted it would take four months to defeat the Red Army. The initial phase of the invasion was very successful. The Blitzkrieg worked as designed and drove deep into Soviet territory, encircling enemy troops and capturing many prisoners. By October 1941 the Germans made it to within sixty miles of Moscow. (Freeze, pg. 376)

In June 1941 the Red Army was far from prepared to take on a German invasion. Stalin purged many of his generals and junior officers. This made a Soviet response to the invasion poorly coordinated. At the same time the number of political commissars rose as did their authority in the ranks. What made the German invasion so successful and Soviet response so poor was, in part, the difference in morale and purpose. German soldiers believed in the fight against Bolshevism and the need to purge it while their Soviet counterparts’ loyalty was driven by fear. The German army was also much more technologically advanced. Freeze explains how of the Soviets’ 20,000 tanks, less than 2,000 were modern. (Freeze, pg. 376) Poor equipment, morale and leadership lead to the German army driving deep into Soviet territory in a short time.

Fast forward to February 1943 and everything has changed. The Germans were dealt a devastating blow at the Battle of Stalingrad and had began their long retreat west. By July 1943 the Germans were making their last major offensive in the on the Eastern front, Operation Citadel. (Freeze, pg. 381)  Kursk was the largest tank battle in history. The battle involved over 2 million troops and 6,000 tanks. In less than two months the Germans suffered 200,000 casualties and hundreds of tanks while the Soviets suffered over 850,000 casualties and thousands of tanks. (Britannica, Battle) The picture above shows Hitler weeping over the loss of men and equipment during the Battle of Kursk. After the battle Hitler told his generals “Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over.” The Battle of Kursk was where superior German technology met Soviet production capabilities. Advanced German tanks were outnumbered and over powered by the T-34, which were much easier to produce. The Soviets also proved their manpower could be easily replaced where the Germans could not. The battle proved quality does not always win over quantity as it did in 1941-42. The Germans would never launch another major offensive in the east. Instead the Red Army would push the Germans all the way back to Berlin.

When WWII ended Soviet society still had many challenges ahead. Defeating the Germans was only one of these challenges. The Soviet Union needed to rebuild its cities, economy and relationship between the government and people. Now that the war was over the Soviet Union had to rebuild its supply lines of food throughout the country, which meant reviving farms destroyed by both the Germans and the Red Army between 1941 and 1944. The Soviet economy after the war was centered around the military. (Harrison, pg. 4) Post WWII Soviet Union became more militarized than it did before the war and Stalin became more powerful. His power and influence now extended into eastern Europe. The Soviet Union prepared for a possible war with the west. The end of WWII would mark the beginning of the Cold War, a largely ideological war with the west.



Harrison, M. “The Soviet Union after 1945: Economic Recovery and Political Repression.” Past & Present, vol. 210, no. Supplement 6, 2011, pp. 103–120., doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq042.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Battle of Kursk.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 June 2019,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Soviets Push West

On September 17th 1939 Soviet troops invaded the eastern half of Poland. The given reason for invading Poland was to come to the aid of the Byelorussians and Ukrainians after the Poles illegally seized some of their territory. (Siegelbaum) The above picture shows a Soviet and German officer meeting somewhere in the center where Poland was divided by the two countries. Several weeks prior the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to split Poland in half. This pact allowed the Soviets to have a free hand in the Baltics and on June 16th 1940 the Soviets invaded. (Freeze, pg. 371) Stalin likely felt like he was responsible for restoring power and respect to the Soviet Union after taking back much of the territory that was lost after WWI.

As occupiers The Soviets were quick to turn their half of Poland into just another part of the Soviet Union. They replaced Polish currency with the Soviet ruble and began issuing propaganda newspapers to the local population. (Knighton, 2018) Following the invasion of Poland Soviet troops committed mass killings against non-Russians. Tens of thousands of Polish POWs were taken and executed then buried in the woods. This was the same for political prisoners as well. Karol Karski explains how Russian propaganda pushed for local Russians and Ukrainians to kill “Polish Lords”, who were simply Polish people living in newly occupied territory. (Karski, 2013) You can read the full journal article here  

See the source image

The Soviets feared an invasion through Finland and the eventual capture of Leningrad. (Britannica)After a refusal to cede land over to the Soviets the Fins prepared for war. In November 1939 the Soviets invaded Finland and started the Winter War. If the Winter War proved anything it was that the Red Army, although numerically superior, was far from a reliable fighting force. The short war inflicted over 120,000 Soviet casualties. It also pointed out the consequences of Stalin’s purges a few years earlier. At the end of the short war the Soviets gained territory which provided a small buffer zone around Leningrad.

Soviet annexation of Western Europe in in 1939 showed that although the USSR had made progress with the economy the Red Army was far from perfect. They proved Soviet power comes in the form of quantity rather than quality, at least in 1939.

Works Cited

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Soviet Territorial Annexations.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History”, 31 Aug. 2015,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Knighton, A. (2018, September 11). The Soviet Invasion of Poland, 1939. Retrieved from

Karol Karski,The Crime of Genocide Committed against the Poles by the USSR before and during World War II: An International Legal Study, 45Case W. Res. J. Int’l L.703 (2013)

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, November 28). Russo-Finnish   War. Retrieved from

Imperial Russia’s Westward Expansion

     At the turn of the 20th century the Russian empire was undergoing an economic transformation. One of prominent industries was the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Construction on the nearly 5,800 mile long railway began in 1891. Tsar Alexander III believed the railroad system was a cornerstone in imperial ambitions and wanted to connect European Russia with the far east. This picture, taken by Prokudin-Gorskii was taken around 1910 at Zlatoust Station, Chrysostom in what is todays Chelyabinsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains. By this point there were no railroads linking European Russia with the east. Chrysostom was the start point of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This picture shows the major pivot Russia was taking in its efforts to industrialize. This photo also brings to life Tsar Alexanders ambitions of a far east empire. The Ural Mountains in the background give a little insight on the geographical obstacles engineers and workers would face while building the railroad. When the construction started, Alexander sent his son Nicholas to lay the first brick in Vladivostok in the far east, where the railroad was suppose to end.

The men responsible for building the railroad came from all over Russia as well as workers from China and Europe. Many Russians were eager to leave their farms and villages to work on the railroad. Workers were at the mercy of bitter heat as well as the unbearable Russian winter. Siberia was mostly uninhabitable and likely felt like they were in a wintery hell. Parts of the railroad went underground while other parts went under mountains.

By 1905 revolution had gripped many parts of the empire after government troops fired into an open crowd of workers protesting the Tsar. Social unrest lead to riots, workers unions and mutiny within the ranks of the military. Many workers as well as soldiers working on the railroad joined in the strikes against the government. By the end of 1905 Russia had also suffered a humiliating loss to the Japanese in the far east, a war that started over each nations territorial ambitions. This defeat only furthered the divide between the Tsar and the people.

This picture shows in detail the forced labor of the railroad in the far east that would eventually link with the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Russian army was tasked with building a new city to connect Russia to the Pacific Ocean. The connection between east and west by the railroad was referred to as the “Russian Steel Belt”.  The city of Vladivostok, the final destination on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, was almost like a frontier outpost like many Americans thought of when the United States started its westward expansion into unfamiliar territory.


Beskhlebnaya, Natasha. Russian Life. Nov/Dec2011, Vol. 54 Issue 6, p52-57. 6p. 3 Color Photographs, 4 Black and White Photographs.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Trans-Siberian Railroad.”   Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2019,

Lonely Planet. “History in Trans-Siberian Railway.” Lonely Planet,