Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
W. W. Norton and Company, 2015, 224 pages
Book Review published on: March 10, 2017
Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, is a collection of testimonials by soldiers, noncommissioned officers, officers, and civilians serving in Afghanistan during the Soviet intervention (1979-1989). When originally published in 1990, the wounds were still fresh in the minds of the veterans, or Afgantsi, who contributed to the book, and the growing public discourse in Russia opened new wounds for the veterans. While many Russians initially decried the book as treasonous, and the West compared its accounts to the American experiences in Vietnam, today’s reader can glean applicable lessons from the human experiences in a war on the same ground as the American fight a quarter century later.
The intent of the book is to “describe feelings about the war, rather than the war itself.” Through the book, Afgantsi voices speak about their impressions of the war from a uniquely Soviet (and Russian) perspective. The accounts from widows and mothers are filled with death and sadness, while those of the survivors and civilians juxtapose with joy, humor, boredom, and bile. In Russian fashion, the book is filled with literary references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Alexandre Dumas, and others but in spite of these literary flourishes, applicable human experiences shine through. Stories of “good men get[ting] better and the bad get[ing] even worse,” wounded warriors’ struggles, traumatic brain injury, military discipline, drug use, depression, and family reintegration fill the pages of the book with human feelings. The book captures emotions of the Afgantsi while many were still dealing with the physical and psychological effects of their war. The postcombat care and conditions veterans face are different today, but the window into the emotions of these near-universal experiences is where current security professionals can apply Zinky Boys today.
In 2015, the Swedish Academy awarded Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize in literature for Zinky Boys, and as such, rightly deemed it of literary value. Her previous work of capturing the voices of historical conflict, as well as the Nobel, presents the reader with an authoritative account of the personal experiences of Afgantsi. Due to the testimonial nature of the book, it is a quick-read with some accounts covering only a few pages. While this feature helps the readability, it detracts from the continuity of the book. Although the testimonials deal with the human and emotional sides of war, the order of the accounts make the reader run from a veteran describing his joie de vivre upon his return home, immediately to a dour widow’s account. Both capture the emotion, but their placement and sequencing do little to reinforce specific points throughout the book. For these reasons, a security professional today should read this work with the purpose of better understanding the human side of war based on individuals’ similar experiences in Afghanistan, rather than anything specific about security situation in the country.
Book Review written by: Maj. Andrew J. Raymond Jr., U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir, Virginia