Book Review: Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich

Ms. Alexievich explained her goal as writer to animate the “feelings of war.” (Page 8) She achieved this by presenting Zinky Boys through personal interviews. She told the story of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan from the late 1970s through 1989. The resulting book illuminated an emotional portrayal of anger, sorrow and disillusionment. As the author published it in 1990, those interviewed presented fresh recollections of their involvement.

Many have compared the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan with the American war in Vietnam. I can understand the parallels. Many Afghansti—the nickname for the Soviet soldiers–expressed great anger and resentment towards their government. Those in power had multiple explanations as to the need for military intervention. The Afghan government required help with the socialist revolution there. The Soviets’ southern border needed protection. While there, the troops came to doubt these rationales. A private who fought in the conflict said, “We were given medals we don’t wear and will probably return, medals honestly earned in a dishonest war.” (Page 18)

Numerous combatants commented on the lack of empathy they received upon returning home. (While Americans in Vietnam served a one year term, the Soviet government required a two year tour of duty in Afghanistan.) The best quote in the book came from a construction engineer. He spoke with the author about earlier excerpts that he’d read from her work-in-progress.

These boys were heroes! They weren’t fighting for any so-called “mistaken policy”. They fought because they put their faith in us (the Russian people). We should kneel before every one of them. If we truly faced-up to the comparison of what we did here (at home) with what befell them there we might go mad. (Page 186)

That’s a very intelligent and incisive observation of what society owes its men and women in uniform. It should also remind policy makers of von Clausewitz’s dictum about mobilizing all of society for war.

The Afghanistan endeavor never had popular support. Most civilians living in the USSR expressed either apathy or contempt towards returning personnel. This led a Major from the propaganda section of an artillery regiment to remark, “Don’t confuse the ones who sent us with those who were sent.” (Page 89)

Alexievich aimed to connect with readers emotionally. Here’s a devastating passage from a former Private.

When it was our time to go home we expected a warm welcome and open arms—then we discovered people couldn’t care less whether we’d survived or not. In the courtyard of our block of flats I met up with the kids I’d known before. “Oh, you’re back—that’s good,” they say, and went off to school. My teachers didn’t ask about anything, either. This was the sum total of our conversation:

I, solemnly, “We should perpetuate the memory of our school fellows who died doing their international duty.”

They: “They were dunces and hooligans. How can we put up a memorial plaque to them in the school?”

People back home had their own view of the war. “So you think you were heroes, were you? You lost a war, and anyhow, who needed it apart from Brezhnev and a few warmongering generals?”

Apparently, my friends died for nothing, and I might have died for nothing, too. (Page 77)

As a young man I recall reading descriptions of Vietnam as a “conflict”. The Soviet Union never declared war in Afghanistan, either. The government referred to those lost as “Died in the execution of his international duty.” That’s an awfully glib way to refer to someone who gave his/her life in the service of his/her country.

Since Moscow never declared war, they didn’t issue soldiers with ID tags, or dog tags as Americans call them. The government didn’t provide them out of a fear they would fall into enemy hands. (Page 170)

The people interviewed commented on the troops’ poor training. One solider practiced with live ammunition only once before going to Afghanistan. This lack of training may have led to their despicable treatment of civilians. Units engaged in “revenge actions” by burning fields and killing livestock. A soldier shot up a melon stand when he thought a vendor charged too much money. In her diary the author commented on, “The limits of morality defined by the commands they receive.” (Page 3) I’m not sure the instances I cited had anything to do with superiors’ orders, though.

The esoteric choice of title is my only criticism of the book. At one point a deranged woman told a mother that her son would return from Afghanistan a “zinky” boy. It took me a while to understand the reference. The military buried those killed in action in zinc lined coffins. To be fair to the author, when I did understand the title, it added much more impact to the overall narrative.

I abhor Communism. It’s one of the few things in this world I truly hate. But still, I have great respect for the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Like anyone they had hopes and dreams, loved their families and believed they went to war for the betterment of the “Motherland.” Like the tragedy inherent in Shakespeare’s Brutus, they acted nobly but made a wrong choice. An anonymous person explained to the author: “We must distinguish the war from those who took part in it. The war was criminal and has been condemned, as such, but the boys must be defended and protected.” (Page 193) Perhaps the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has more in common with another American military endeavor.