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Last Updated: Friday, 17 December 2004, 13:25 GMT
Moscow's Afghan war: The interpreter's story
Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on 24 December 1979, launching a war which lasted a decade. The BBC has spoken to people on both sides about a conflict which marked their lives.

V Grigoryev
Soviet interpreter:

Karl Paks
Soviet sapper:

N Akhadova
Soviet mother:

S Tursunova
Soviet nurse:

Jason Elliot
British mujahid:


Gelalei Habib
Afghan teacher:

Somaya
Afghan refugee:

Omar Nessar
Afghan editor:

Vladimir Grigoryev

Soviet forces brought with them their own interpreters. Former 2nd Lt Vladimir Grigoryev, a student of Farsi at Leningrad State University, served in Afghanistan for two years.

Returning home to Russia, he long tried to forget the experience but ended up creating a website for modern war literature - artofwar.ru - which he describes as "almost medical" in its cathartic role for veterans.

(from right) Vladimir Grigoryev, Corp V Novikov and Maj A Zhinkin in Vardak, Afghanistan, 1985 (photo: V Grigoryev)
Grigoryev (right) is seen here with comrades both killed soon after

I came back in August 1987 after serving exactly two years and I virtually erased the word Afghanistan from my life and memory for 10 years. Not deliberately, by the way - it was just some internal defence mechanism kicking in. I had practically no contact with "Afghans" [Soviet veterans] in St Petersburg.

The popular image of the Afghan veteran has changed greatly over the years - from a kind of Rambo figure fighting for justice to a modern Russian gangster. With this recent drive to inspire military patriotism, "Afghans" have become positive role models again.

You could say I was a volunteer. I had feelings of romance and patriotism - however absurd that may sound now, unfortunately - which had been fostered in me since childhood.

When I was joining the army the newspapers would write things like: "Our soldiers suddenly ran into a gang of bandits during field manoeuvres" but when I came back everyone knew it was a real war and "Afghans" were treated as heroes.

Vladimir Grigoryev in Panjsher Valley, Afghanistan, 1986 (photo courtesy of same)
It was our duty to our comrades and to our families to get home alive

Afghanistan is a fabulously beautiful country and that could not fail to reflect on its people.

For the first six months, I had close contact with Afghans as a member of a propaganda unit, driving around mountain villages to hand out food and fuel and show films. We got on well and whenever we were coming up to a village with mujahideen in it, they would start to shoot over our heads and we would turn around and head off.

For the next year and a half, I saw practically no Afghan civilians. Our regiment's units were fighting nearly all the time in the mountains and we could never really relax during the quiet periods.

Few believed in the fairy tale about "international duty". We were defending ourselves and our comrades - it was our duty to them and to our families to get home alive. Not everybody made it.

I would say to any Afghan: forgive us, brother, but we were obeying orders. Soldiers everywhere know what the military oath means. We were on duty.

After 9/11, I wrote booklets on how to behave in Afghanistan at the request of parents of American soldiers of Russian extraction. I don't mean to sound like a prophet of gloom but Soviet soldiers saw their worst fighting five years after the invasion. Draw your own conclusions.

The artofwar website is one for the authors rather than the readers, strange to say. They need to express themselves and then discuss their writings with fellow veterans. You might call it a medical site except that, well, the authors are not sick and their works are also available in print.

Vladimir Grigoryev died a few weeks after giving this interview to the BBC News website.

Interviewed by Patrick Jackson, BBC News.


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