A powerful documentary narrative with lessons for the US and UK in the aftermath of the most recent foreign wars.
The book takes the form of a series of interviews with individuals from across Soviet society during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the hostilities between the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen. The most explicit testimony comes from those on the front-line, known as the ‘afghanis’: the soldiers, doctors, nurses, and other civilian personnel. Alexievich limits her interviews to soviet participants, however they often reveal the dreadful Afghan experience, and the sympathy and regret of many of the soldiers for the atrocities they witnessed, or indeed carried out.
There are descriptions of violence here that won’t shift from your memory easily. But some of the most harrowing interviews come from the mothers and wives back in the ‘homeland’, left mourning sons and daughters returned in sealed zinc coffins (hence the title). Often they were even unsure if their loved ones were buried in the graves at which they grieved.
A recurring thought throughout reading this was the parallels with the experience of the British and American soldiers in the more recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The parallels extend beyond the identical geographic location of the former. These were both botched campaigns with dubious and unclear strategic aims. Both promised to bring the fruits of their respective ideologies to ‘backward’ countries. Both promised speedy campaigns that ended up stretching for many years (The ongoing campaign in Afghanistan is currently the longest war in US history). Some fighters in both campaigns were accused of atrocities and crimes that led to harsh criticism and denunciation back home, and their marginalisation on return. And all three campaigns led to questions in the aftermath over their purpose and achievements, questions that were hard to accept for those who were directly injured or lost friends and family.
But in particular, these wars all led to a collapse in public trust of the institutions that instigated and prolonged the wars. In the soviet case this is widely considered to have been a principal cause of the fall of the soviet union. It could be argued that much of the current popular distrust in politics began as a result of the more recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Afghanistan is known as the “Graveyard of Empires”, but the more recent experience suggests a graveyard of ideologies - soviet internationalism and interventionism in these cases.
The last 20% of the book is made of up excerpts and interviews from a series of trials that Alexievich went through after publication in her newly independent home country, Belarus. These were instigated ostensibly from interviewees who, many years after publication, decided that they had been misrepresented, and their ‘honour and integrity’ have been tarnished, apparently a legitimate accusation in post-soviet Belarus. It is clear from the result of the trials that these mothers and soldiers have been encouraged by persistent soviet ideologists, and it is a sad conclusion to a very (very) sad book that the truth that Alexievich has so beautifully communicated ends up being attacked and questioned by those to whom it belongs.
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