30 November 2015

South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 258-286:
The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.

By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. Von Haxthausen wrote, “In Tiflis, Europe and Asia may be said to meet, and the town has a divided aspect; but Erivan is a purely Asiatic city: everything is Oriental, except a few newly-built Russian houses, and occasionally Russian uniforms in the streets.” More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.

Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. A consolidation of national identity created a demographic pull such that Armenians moved to Armenia and Azerbaijanis to Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi became a strongly Georgian city for perhaps the first time in its history. The biggest losers were the smaller minority peoples of the Transcaucasus, who feared assimilation, even though their rights were nominally protected by Soviet law.

Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi. Officially, they number eighty thousand, but the Talysh themselves give much higher figures. Neither of these ethnic groups plays a political role in the country, although there are occasionally glimmers of discontent about their cultural rights.

29 November 2015

South Caucasus: European or Asian?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 186-210:
Is the South Caucasus in Europe or Asia? By one definition, proposed by the eighteenth-century German-Swedish geographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, the region is in Asia, and the border with Europe runs along the Kuma-Manych Depression, north of the Greater Caucasus range. Other geographers, a bit more tidily, have made the mountains of the Caucasus themselves the border between Europe and Asia. Nowadays, the consensus is to place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Europe and make the Turkish border and the river Araxes the Europe-Asia frontier. The strange result of this is that “Europe” in Armenia and Azerbaijan is directly due east of the “Asian” Turkish towns of Kars and Trabzon.

No definition is satisfactory because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well. Politically the three countries, and Georgia in particular, tend to look to Europe. They are members of the two European institutions, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—but then so is Turkey. The Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania famously told the Council of Europe in 1999, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” But Armenians maintain links with their diaspora communities in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and Azerbaijanis have affinities with the Turkic nations of Central Asia. In the end, it comes down to a matter of self-identification. At the beginning of Kurban Said’s classic 1937 novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, set in Baku before and during the First World War, a Russian teacher informs his pupils that the Russian Empire has resolved the ancient geographical dispute over the Caucasus in favor of Europe. The teacher says, “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”—at which point Mehmed Haidar, sitting in the back row, raises his hand and says, “Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia.”

The Caucasus also has its own identity. Anthropologists identify its customs and traditions fairly easily, and they get more marked the closer to the mountains one gets. The Caucasian nationalities share similar wedding and funeral ceremonies, and all mark the fortieth day after the death of a loved one with strikingly similar rituals. The same elaborate rituals of hospitality and toasting are found across the region, even among Muslim Azerbaijanis. Foreign mediators between “warring” Armenians and Azerbaijanis or Georgians and Abkhaz have frequently seen how once the two sides sit down to dinner together, political differences are forgotten and convivial rituals of eating and drinking precisely observed. Ethnic and religious differences were always there but are much more accentuated by modern politics. A century ago, attitudes toward religion could be deeply pragmatic. In her memoir of early twentieth-century Abkhazia, Adile Abas-oglu writes, “Arriving in Mokva for the Muslim festivals I always laughed when I observed how people drink wine and vodka at them and some families cooked holiday dishes from pork.”

Persian Culture in the South Caucasus

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 418-459:
Persian culture can be traced in the South Caucasus from the sixth century BC, and Persians colonized large parts of the region for roughly a thousand years, far longer than the Russians did. The cultural residue of this is surprisingly faint but is there if one looks for it. The Armenian language is so full of Persian loan-words that it was long thought to be an Iranian, not an Indo-European language. The historian Nina Garsoïan argues that the Armenian sociopolitical system, with its tradition of hereditary aristocrats and semidivine monarchy, derived from an Iranian tradition. Medieval Georgia’s “Golden Age” was also heavily Persianized. Shota Rustaveli, author of the famous twelfth-century epic The Knight in the Panther Skin called his poem “a Persian work now done into Georgian.” Georgian princes served the Safavid dynasty for three centuries.

The Persian-Iranian influence is strongest in Azerbaijan. The river Araxes only became a noticeable border in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the lands to the north and south were generally part of the same kingdoms. The Azerbaijani city of Ganzak (Ganja) was the location of one of the four great fires of the Zoroastrian religion. The twelfth-century poet Nizami of Ganja is revered as a great Azerbaijani cultural icon, even though he wrote in the Persian language. In the sixteenth century, the Safavid Empire could lay claim to being a sort of proto-Azerbaijani state. The founder of the empire, Shah Ismail I (ruled 1501–24), came from Ardebil in what is present-day northern Iran, not far from Azerbaijan. Of mixed ethnic descent, he spoke both Persian and Azeri (or at least a form of Turkish that evolved into what is now Azeri) and wrote poems in Azeri under the name Khatai. In Safavid times, an estimated twelve hundred Azeri words, mainly dealing with administrative and military issues, entered the Persian language.


Iranian political dominance of the Caucasus began to fade with the end of the Safavids in 1722. A succession of military defeats on all fronts led to a slow retreat from the Caucasus that culminated in full capitulation to the Russians in 1828. This marked what some Azerbaijanis call “the parting of the ways” between northern and southern Azerbaijan. The Caucasus lived on in the assumptions of some Iranian statesmen, even as it turned into a Russian zone of influence. At the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War, the Iranian delegation caused consternation when it handed the conference a memorandum laying claim to all of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan and parts of Dagestan. The document explained, “these provinces must be returned to Persia, for they had already formed part of Persia.”

Currently, Iran is closer to Armenia than to either Azerbaijan or Georgia. One of Armenia’s two open borders is with Iran, and an Iranian-Armenian gas pipeline, opened in 2007 gave the Armenians a new source of natural gas. For Azerbaijan and Iran, the big sleeping issue is Iran’s large population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the north of the country, who may number as many as twenty-five million—or three times the number of Azerbaijanis in the Republic of Azerbaijan. So far, there has been no mass movement there for closer political ties to the north. Fred Halliday writes that after 1979, “in an upheaval in which many dogs barked, Azerbaijani nationalism is the one dog that did not, at least during the first 15 years after the Islamic revolution.” Iran would undoubtedly like to play a bigger part in the South Caucasus, but the biggest deterrent to it doing so is Western pressure. If there is a thaw between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue, then Tehran can be expected to claim a role in the region again.

26 November 2015

Soviet Veterans and PTSD

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 5393-5420:
Though there was no nationwide study, individual regions, local veterans’ organisations, and local newspapers began to set up their own websites about their young men who had served in Afghanistan. The newspaper Voronezhskaya Gazeta reported there were 5,200 Afghan veterans in Voronezh. By the summer of 1996 seventy-five had died, half as a result of accidents, one-third had been struck down by illness, and one in seven had committed suicide. Twelve years later, more than five hundred had died – one-tenth of all those who had returned from the war. The paper claimed that the young men died not so much because of what they had been through in Afghanistan, but because no provision had been made for their psychological rehabilitation, because they had been unable to afford proper medical treatment, because many of them had been unable to find work or a decent place to live.

But the amount of psychological rehabilitation available for the soldiers was limited partly by the lack of resources and partly because the concept of trauma was alien. If the soldiers who fought against Hitler could survive without going to the shrink, why should the Afgantsy be different? ‘Trauma’ was an alien, perhaps an American idea.

Nevertheless, a thin but native Russian tradition did exist. The first work on soldiers suffering from psychological trauma was done in Russia after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–5 by psychiatrists in the Academy of Military Medicine. The results were largely ignored in the Soviet period and the 40th Army took no psychiatrists with them when they went into Afghanistan. The first specialists went there in the mid-1980s. The symptoms they found among the Afgantsy were much the same as the Americans had identified after Vietnam: a sense of guilt at what they had done, a horror at what they had seen, the same self-reproach that they had survived while their comrades had died. Some specialists reckoned that as many as one in two Afghan veterans needed some sort of help. At first the symptoms were psychological: irritability, aggressiveness, insomnia, nightmares, thoughts of suicide. After five years many would be suffering from physical as well as psychological consequences: heart disease, ulcers, bronchial asthma, neurodermatitis.

The trouble was that, compared with the United States, there were nothing like the facilities available in Russia to treat the traumatised veterans. There were only six specialised rehabilitation centres for the whole of Russia, and these had to deal with people traumatised not only by Afghanistan, but by their experiences of dealing with the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, and by the fighting in Chechnya, and other places of violent conflict.

One of those who tried to explain the phenomenon scientifically was Professor Mikhail Reshetnikov, the Rector of the East European Institute for Psychoanalysis in St Petersburg. He had himself been a professional military medical officer from 1972 and was posted to Afghanistan in 1986. He sent a paper to the General Staff, based on interviews with two thousand soldiers, which set out the problems from which the 40th Army was suffering: from the inadequacy of the army’s supply system to the moral and psychological training of the soldiers. The report had no effect, and he was asked by his superiors why he had deliberately set out to gather facts which brought shame on the Soviet Army. From 1988 to 1993 he directed several programmes for the Ministry of Defence on the behaviour of people affected by local wars, and man-made and natural catastrophes. After retiring from the military he became a member of the Association of Afghan Veterans.

21 November 2015

The Last Soviet Soldiers Leave Afghanistan, 1989

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4897-4916:
At nine o’clock Gromov called in his adjutant to check that his uniform was in order and at nine thirty he gave the order to move. The battalion’s armoured personnel carriers passed before him on to the bridge. Some of the soldiers were weeping. At nine forty-five Gromov followed them in his command vehicle, carrying the banner of the 40th Army. It was the last vehicle across. The withdrawal was complete.

The other side of the river was crowded with local Party and government officials, hundreds of Soviet and foreign journalists, and the relatives of soldiers who had not returned, hoping against hope to get news that they had perhaps been found safe and well at the last minute. Among the crowd was Alexander Rozenbaum, a young journalist from Severny Komsomolets, the Archangel youth newspaper. Fifty-nine boys from Archangel had been killed in Afghanistan and Rozenbaum’s moving report of the ceremony at the bridge ended with the questions which everyone was now asking: Why did we go in? Who are the guilty men?

People embraced the soldiers, kissed them, threw flowers under the tracks of their vehicles. Gromov’s son Maksim was there, and ran to embrace him. Then there were speeches, a meal in a nearby café for the officers. Gromov phoned Yazov, who congratulated him unenthusiastically. And then, apart for the administrative chores, it was all over.

Even now the official press was still peddling the old myths. In those very last days Pravda wrote, ‘An orchestra played as the Nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations. For 10 years Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt, and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 blocks of flats and 35 mosques. They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 km of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.’

But there was no one from Moscow to greet the soldiers at the bridge – no one from the Party, no one from the government, no one from the Ministry of Defence, no one from the Kremlin. Years later their excuse was that it had been a dirty war, that to have made the journey to Termez would have been in effect to endorse a crime. It was an extraordinary omission – very bad politics, as well as very bad behaviour. The soldiers never forgot or forgave the insult.

20 November 2015

Kubary: From Naturalist to Land-Grabber in the German Pacific

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 324-329:
The administration of the Kompanie on the Maclay Coast was put in the hands of a certain Herr Kubary, a Polish national of Hungarian origin with a British passport which he had acquired while on a brief visit to Sydney. He had spent many years in Micronesia as an ornithologist and naturalist collecting for German museums. He had been collecting very successfully in the Caroline Islands for the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin when in September, 1885, his contract with the museum was suddenly terminated for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving him stranded on the island of Yap. It is difficult to believe that this sudden loss of his livelihood was accidental. It seems more probably that this was manipulated by the German foreign office. The dismissal notice had come with the visit to Yap of a German warship, the Albatross, which was in the Pacific for the specific purpose of planting the German flag on the various islands of the Carolines. Kubary was offered employment as interpreter and guide on the Albatross, and for this he was ideally suited as there was no one with a more intimate knowledge of this area of the Pacific. Stranded in Yap as he was, he had little choice but to accept.

After the islands had been formally annexed by Germany, Kubary and his family, consisting of a half-caste wife and two children, were landed at Matupit [Rabaul] in New Britain, where he was put in charge of a plantation. After a time, he was transferred to take charge of the Neu Guinea Kompanie possessions in Astrolabe Bay [now in Madang Province] and he established himself in Bongu. Later he was transferred a few miles up the coast to Bogatim when the administration headquarters was transferred from Finschhafen. The latter had been abandoned, more or less in panic, as a result of the fearful mortality from tropical diseases among the Kompanie officials there.


Herr Kubary, who boasted that he was "the Lord God of Astrolabe Bay," proceeded ruthlessly with the acquisition of land in pursuance of the policy of the Neu Guinea Kompanie for the expansion of plantations. The Kompanie was quite unscrupulous in its methods of acquiring land. The officials superficially inspected large areas which appeared suitable, sometimes merely climbing a tree and inspecting with binoculars, and then displaying a quantity of European goods — axes, knives, beads, cloth, etc. — they offered to purchase the land. The natives, not understanding what was really involved, appeared to agree, and a document was drawn up only vaguely defining the area and magnanimously excluding the village and an undefined piece of land for native cultivation. Each adult male member of the village or villages was required to touch the pen before his name was appended to the document. By such methods the Kompanie became the "legal" owners of vast areas of land, although it was many years before any actual survey was made. In a similar way Kubary acquired large areas around Bogadjim for a few axes and some tobacco. The level fertile land behind Gorendu and Gumbu was soon taken from the natives right up to the Gabenau River, leaving the natives of those villages without land for cultivation. Bongu was somewhat more fortunate in that the land was not so level but had a series of rather steep ridges running down in the direction of the sea and was therefore not so acceptable for Kompanie plantations. The Gorendu and Gumbu people, face with lack of garden land, had to turn to Bongu land and ultimately were compelled to be aggregated with Bongu village, where their descendants live to the present day, still retaining their Gorendu and Gumbu identity.


The concept of individual ownership and free disposal of land was quite an alien one to the natives, and, in any case, they themselves did not own this land. They had been granted the right to use it for cultivation purposes and to dig for clay for pottery-making for which they were famous.


Kubary was discharged from the Kompanie in 1895 and went back to Ponape in the Caroline Islands. It seems to be in the nature of poetic justice that the right to his own plantation on Ponape was disputed, and while on a visit to the Spanish authorities in Manila to appeal for his rights, the plantation was completely devastated in a native uprising against the Spaniards.

In Astrolabe Bay, Kubary left a legacy that was the cause of unending trouble for the German authorities. The natives had been warned by Maclay that white men might come who would not be like him and were not to be trusted, but he also warned that to resist them by force would be hopeless and would only invite disaster. Now, faced with white men whose behaviour at best was unpredictable and often baleful, the only alternative seemed to be to offer as little cooperation as possible without displaying any open hostility.

19 November 2015

From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:
Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

Russian–Papuan First Encounter, 1871

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 17-20:
As I was approaching the hut I heard a rustle and, on glancing round in the direction from which it came, some paces away I saw a man standing as if rooted to the ground. He glanced for a second in my direction and then dashed into the bushes. I went after him, almost at a run, waving a piece of red cloth which I found in my pocket. Looking back, seeing that I was alone and completely unarmed, and that I was making signs to him to approach, he stopped. I slowly approached the savage, silently offering him the red cloth, which he took with obvious pleasure and bound round his head.

He was a Papuan of medium size, of a dark chocolate colour with dull black somewhat curly hair, short like a negro's, with a broad flat nose, and eyes looking out from under overhanging brow ridges, and a large mouth, almost, however, covered by a bristling moustache and beard. His entire costume consisted of a rag about 8 inches wide, tied firstly in a kind of girdle and drawn down between the legs and attached to the girdle from behind. Two lightly-bound bands of plaited dry grass were placed above the elbows. On one of these bands or bracelets was stuck a green leaf of Piper betel, in the other on the left side was a kind of knife, made of a smooth sharpened piece of bone (a cassowary bone, as I afterwards found out). The savage was well-built, and with a well-built musculature. The facial expression of this, the first of my new acquaintances, seemed quite engaging. I somehow thought that he would obey me, and I took him by the hand, and not without some resistance led him back to the village. At the open space I found my servants Ohlsen and Boy, who were looking for me, and were at a loss as to where I had gone. Ohlsen presented my Papuan with a piece of tobacco—which, however, be did not know what to do with—and silently taking it he thrust it behind the bracelet on his right arm, beside the betel leaf.

Whilst we were standing in the middle of the village, from amongst the trees and bushes, savages began to appear, uncertain whether to approach, and ready at any minute to turn in flight. They were silent and stationary, remaining at a respectful distance but closely watching our movements. Since they would not move, I had to take each one separately by the hand and, in the full sense of the word, drag them into our circle. Finally, having gathered them all in one place, tired out, I sat down among them on a stone, and proceeded to distribute various trifles—beads, nails, fish hooks, and strips of red cloth. They obviously did not know the significance of the nails and hooks, but not one of them refused to accept them.

Around me were gathered eight Papuans. They were of varying sire and showed some, although very insignificant, differences. The colour of the skin did not vary much. The sharpest contrast with the type of my first acquaintance was a man, rather taller than the average size, lean, with a hook-shaped prominent nose and a very narrow forehead pressed in on the sides. His beard and moustache were shaved, and on his head towered a sort of hat of reddish-brown hair, from under which, hanging down on the neck, were twisted plaits of hair, exactly like the tube-shaped curls of the inhabitants of New Ireland. These curls hung behind the ears, down onto the shoulders. Two bamboo combs were sticking out of the hair, one of which, thrust into the back of his head, was decorated with some black and white feathers (cassowary and cockatoo) in the shape of a fan. Some large tortoise shell rings were inserted in his ears, and in the nasal partition a bamboo rod was inserted; the thickness of a very large pencil, it had a pattern carved on it. On his neck, in addition to the necklace of the teeth of dogs and other animals and shells, hung a small bag. On the left shoulder hung another bag reaching down to the waist and filled with various articles.

The upper part of the arm of this native, as of all those present, was tightly bound with plaited bracelets in which were thrust various objects, some of bone, others were leaves or flowers. Some of them had a stone axe slung on their shoulder, some were holding a bow in their hands of considerable size (almost the length of a man) and an arrow more than a metre long. Their hair styles were also different with different colours of the hair, some completely black, others decorated with red clay, some had the hair worn like a hat on the head, and others had it cropped short, while still others had the previously described ringlets hanging round their neck—but all were curly like a negro's. The hair on the chin was wound in small spirals. There were minor differences in the skin colour. The younger were lighter than the old.

Of these eight Papuans of my first meeting, four appeared sick. Two had legs disfigured by elephantiasis, and one was an interesting case of psoriasis, which had spread over his entire body. The back and neck of the fourth was studded with boils, which formed large, hard protuberances and on his face were several scars, probably of previous such boils.

As the sun was already setting I decided, in spite of the interest of my first observations, to return to the corvette. The whole crowd accompanied me to the beach carrying presents; coconuts, bananas and two very wild piglets, whose legs were tightly bound and who squealed untiringly, all were placed in the boat. In the hope of more firmly strengthening the good relations with the natives and also with the idea of showing my new acquaintances to the officers of the corvette, I suggested to those surrounding me to accompany me to the corvette in their pirogues. After prolonged discussion five men got into two pirogues, the others remained and even, it seemed, strenuously tried to dissuade the courageous ones from their bold and risky undertaking. One of the pirogues I took in tow and we made towards the Vityaz. Halfway, however, the bolder ones had thought it over, and by signs indicated that they did not wish to go further and tried to release the tow rope. At the same time the other pirogue quickly turned back to the shore. One of the men sitting in the pirogue which we were towing behind us even tried to cut through the tow-line with his stone axe. It was only with extreme difficulty that we succeeded in dragging them on deck. Ohlsen and Boy took them up the ship's ladder practically by force. On deck I took the "prisoners" by the arm and led them down to the quarter-deck. Their whole bodies trembled with fear, and it was only with my support that I could keep them on their legs, supposing, probably, that I was going to murder them. Meanwhile it had grown quite dark and lamps were brought and gradually the savages grew calm. They even brightened up when the officers brought them various objects and treated them to tea, which they drank up straight away. In spite of such a friendly reception they were obviously pleased to go, and went down the ladder with great haste to their pirogue, and quickly rowed back to the village.

On the corvette they told me that, in my absence, natives again appeared and brought with them two dogs, which they killed and whose carcasses they left as a kind of gift on the beach.

13 November 2015

Initial Soviet Goals in Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1386-1394, 2000-2025:
In 1968 the Soviet Union had deployed eighteen divisions, backed by eight Warsaw Pact divisions – some five hundred thousand men – to invade Czechoslovakia, a country with a much more forgiving terrain and no tradition of armed resistance to foreigners; a country moreover where, unlike Afghanistan, there was not already a civil war in progress. The government and the KGB initially believed that the job could be done with some 35–40,000 soldiers. The generals naturally wanted more. During the planning phase, under pressure from General Magometov in Kabul and others, the number was increased, and the force which crossed the frontier at the end of December consisted of some eighty thousand soldiers. Even this was nothing like the number that the soldiers believed would be necessary: Russian military experts later calculated that they would have needed between thirty and thirty-five divisions to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, close the frontiers, secure the cities, road networks, and passes, and eliminate the possibility of armed resistance.


The task before the 40th Army and its commanders as they swept into Afghanistan may have seemed simple, clear, and limited. The Russians had intervened to put an end to the vicious feuding within the PDPA, and to force a radical change in the extreme and brutally counterproductive policies of the Communist government. The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.

This may have looked like a strategy, but it turned out to be little more than an impractical aspiration. The Russians understood well enough that the problems of Afghanistan could only be solved by political means: Andropov had after all argued right at the beginning that the regime could not be sustained with Soviet bayonets. But they also hoped that the Afghan people would in the end welcome the benefits they promised to bring: stable government, law and order, health, agricultural reform, development, education for women as well as men.

They discovered instead that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels. The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue. The vicious civil war which greeted them had started well before they arrived and continued for seven years after they left, until it ended with the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It was a war in which loyalties were fluid and divided. Individuals and whole groups switched sides in both directions, or negotiated with one another for a ceasefire or a trade deal when the opportunity arose. Fighting and bloodshed erupted within each of the Afghan parties to the war as leaders and groupings struggled for advantage. The Russians found themselves fighting the worst kind of war, a war against an insurgency which they had not expected and for which they were not equipped or trained. All sides behaved with great brutality. There were executions, torture, and the indiscriminate destruction of civilians, their villages, and their livelihood on all sides. Like others who had entered Afghanistan before and since, the Russians were appalled at the violence and effectiveness of the opposition which faced them almost immediately and which made a mockery of their hopes.

One day, both the Russians and the Afghans knew, the Soviets would go home. The Afghans would have to go on living in the country and with one another, long after the last Russian had left. Even those Afghans who supported the Kabul government and acquiesced in the Soviet presence, or perhaps even welcomed it, had always to calculate where they would find themselves once the Soviets had departed.

And there was another fundamental weakness in the strategic thinking of the Soviet government. They had underestimated – maybe they had not even considered – the eventual unwillingness of their own people to sustain a long and apparently pointless war in a far-off country. They were never of course faced by the massive popular movement in America which opposed the war in Vietnam. But a growing disillusion inside and outside government sapped the will of the leadership to continue a war that was brutal, costly, and pointless.

These two misjudgements were sufficient to nullify the military successes of the 40th Army.

Soviet Reluctance to Invade Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 793-810, 980-992:
Moreover, Gromyko confessed, the legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN Charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. What was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.

Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. Two divisions were being formed in the Turkestan Military District and another in the Central Asian Military District. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th Airborne Division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.

As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.

And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.


The KGB had long experience of dealing with Afghanistan, many covert contacts there, and its own ideas of how things should be handled: it was in many ways the lead department. It had invested much of its capital in the Parcham faction, and tended to reflect their views, even though these were a comparatively small proportion of the membership of the PDPA – fifteen hundred out of fifteen thousand.

The rest of the membership was from Khalq. That was also the faction to which most of the Communist officers in the army belonged, men whom Amin had made a special effort to cultivate. The result was a growing contradiction between the views of the KGB, who came to favour intervention and the replacement of Amin by their man, the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, and the views of the Soviet military, who were prepared to live with Amin because they believed that the main thing was to retain the support of the Khalq officers in the army, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union and had good professional relations with their Soviet military colleagues. These disagreements were exacerbated by poor personal relations between senior KGB and army officers, and by rivalries between the KGB and the army’s own intelligence organisation, the GRU.

All this had an increasingly negative effect on the formulation and execution of policy, including the decision to invade Afghanistan in the first place, and the management of policy in the nine years after the invasion took place. Afghan government leaders naturally took advantage of these differences to play one faction off against the other.

12 November 2015

Fatal Mistake of the Afghan Communists, 1978

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 680-715:
On 9 May the new government issued a radical programme of social, political, and economic reform. ‘The Main Outlines of the Revolutionary Tasks’ proclaimed the eradication of illiteracy; equality for women; an end to ethnic discrimination; a larger role for the state in the national economy; and the abolition of ‘feudal and pre-feudal relationships’ – code for the power of landowners, traditional leaders, and mullahs, especially in the countryside. As for Islam, when Kryuchkov visited Kabul on a fact-finding mission in July 1978, the new President, Taraki, told him to come back in a year, by which time the mosques would be empty. It was all a measure of how far out of touch the new regime was with the realities of their own country.

A woman was appointed to a top political position for the first time in modern Afghan history. Anakhita Ratebzad (1930–), a doctor by training, was one of four women members of the Afghan parliament in 1965, a founding member of the PDPA, and a member of Parcham. Her first husband had been Zahir Shah’s personal physician. Now she was the partner of Babrak Karmal. In the Kabul Times on 28 May, immediately after the coup, she stated firmly, ‘Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country … Educating and enlightening women are now the subject of close government attention.’ A striking person in her own right, she succeeded in charming some of the most senior Soviet officials in Kabul, and they took care to remain on good terms with her as long as Karmal was in power.

The Soviet authorities were distinctly uneasy about what had happened. The Soviet Ambassador, Alexander Puzanov, attempted at the end of May to draw the threads together in a letter to Moscow. He argued that the failed politics of the Daud regime had led to ‘an abrupt sharpening of the contradictions between the Daud regime and its class supporters and the fundamental interests of the working masses, the voice of which is the PDPA’. The actions of the PDPA had been ‘met with approval by the popular masses’. This crude piece of Marxist analysis was characteristic of much of Moscow’s thinking about a country where it was almost totally inapplicable, a cast of thought which underlay some of the Russians’ later policy mistakes.

Puzanov nevertheless conceded that the continuing friction between Khalq and Parcham was already undermining the effectiveness of the new regime. This was a crucial weakness, and he and his specialist party advisers had told the new leadership that they must eliminate their differences. This, he admitted, had not yet happened. Nevertheless, he optimistically concluded that the overall situation was stabilising as the government took measures against the domestic reaction.

His optimism was misplaced. The new government’s programme was a mixture of typical Communist nostrums and some admirable aspirations. The new men had little or no practical experience in government. Whatever attractions the programme might have had in theory, it was not thought through and the people, especially in the villages, where most Afghans lived, were almost entirely unprepared for it. The promotion of women’s liberation and education for girls, laudable as it was in principle, came up against the same fiercely conservative prejudices which had plagued Afghanistan’s reforming kings. Revolts against the new regime began straight away, in both the towns and the villages. The countryside began to slip out of control.

The new government was nothing if not determined, however, and when persuasion failed it used ruthless measures of repression. It targeted not only known members of the opposition but also local leaders and mullahs who had committed no crime. Several generals, two former prime ministers, and others who had been close to Daud – up to forty in all – were executed immediately. Nine months after the coup, ninety-seven men from the influential Mojadedi clan were executed. The Islamists who had been imprisoned by Daud in the Pul-i Charkhi prison in Kabul were executed in June 1979.

In their fanaticism, and in their belief that a deeply conservative and proudly independent country could be forced into modernity at the point of a gun, the Afghan Communists resembled the Pol Pot regime. Unlike in Cambodia, however, in Afghanistan the people were not prepared to be treated in this way by their government. Previous rulers, such as Abdur Rahman, had imposed their authority throughout the country – more or less – by the most brutal methods. But they could make a plausible claim to be good Muslims, after a fashion. The Afghan Communists made the fatal mistake of underestimating the power of Islam and its hold on the people.

11 November 2015

Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 535-559:
By the 1970s Afghanistan had many of the rudiments of a modern state. It was reasonably secure, and you could travel and picnic and see the sights with comparatively little risk. Foreigners who lived in Kabul in the last days before the Communists took over – diplomats, scholars, businessmen, engineers, teachers, aid workers, hippies – later looked back on that time as a golden age. So did many of the very thin crust of the Afghan middle class who lived in Kabul and some of the big cities.

In the 1970s much of old Kabul still stood, a rabbit warren of streets, bazaars, and mosques, still dominated by the great fortress of Bala Hissar, a place, the Emperor Babur said more than four hundred years earlier, with ‘the most pleasing climate in the world … within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where the snow never falls. But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.’

In the centre of the city was the imposing Arg, the fortified palace build by Abdur Rahman, the scene of one violent turn in Afghan politics after another. Amanullah, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, commissioned European architects to build him a monumental new capital, a vast palace, the Dar-ul Aman, on the south-western edge of the city; and a summer resort in Paghman, a village in the nearby hills, complete with Swiss chalets, a theatre, an Arc de Triomphe, a golf course, and a racecourse for elephants. Across the road from the Dar-ul Aman palace stood the Kabul museum, which was opened in 1924 and contained one of the richest collections of Central Asia art and artefacts in the world: flint tools forty thousand years old from Badakhshan, a massive gold hoard from Bagram, glass from Alexandria, Graeco-Roman statuary, ivory panels from India, Islamic and pre-Islamic artefacts from Afghanistan itself, one of the largest coin collections in the world, and more than two thousand rare books. A grandiose British Embassy, built in the 1920s as a symbol of British power, lay on the northern edge of the city. An equally large Soviet Embassy lay in the south-west on the road to the Dar-ul Aman.

‘Kabul’, said a guidebook sponsored by the Afghan Tourist Bureau, ‘is a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues filled with brilliant flowing turbans, gayly [sic] striped chapans, mini-skirted school girls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.’

Those were the days when Kabul was on the Hippie Trail and thousands of romantic, adventurous, and often improvident young people poured along the road from Iran through Herat and Kabul to India, driving battered vehicles which regularly broke down and had to be repaired by ingenious local mechanics, seeking enlightenment, drugs, and sex, living on nothing and sometimes dying on the way.

But behind that fragile façade lay the real Afghanistan, a land of devout and simple Muslims, where disputes between individuals, or families, or clans and tribes, were still settled in the old violent way, where women were still subject to the absolute authority of their menfolk, where the writ of the government in Kabul barely ran, and where the idea of national rather than family or local loyalty was barely formed.

Afghanistan's Early Attempts to Modernize

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 220-258:
Abdur Rahman’s successors attempted to push Afghanistan further along the path of modernisation. His son Habibullah (1872–1919) was assassinated in 1919 and succeeded by Amanullah (1892–1960), who took advantage of British weakness at the end of the Great War to invade India. The British bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and drove the invaders back. Neither side had much stomach for the war, and it fizzled out after a month. The British ceased both their subsidies and their control of Afghan foreign policy. Amanullah promptly opened a fruitful relationship with the new Bolshevik government in Moscow – the first foreign government to do so.

He then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform in imitation of the secularising reforms of Atatürk in Turkey. He established a Council of Ministers, promulgated a constitution, decreed a series of administrative, economic and social reforms, and unveiled his queen. His plans for the emancipation of women, a minimum age for marriage, and compulsory education for all angered religious conservatives and provoked a brief rebellion. Tribesmen burned down the royal palace in Jalalabad and marched on Kabul. In 1929 Amanullah fled into exile in Italy.

Nadir Shah (1883–1933), a distant cousin of Amanullah, seized the throne, reimposed order, but allowed his troops to sack Kabul because he had no money to pay them. He built the first road from Kabul over the Salang Pass to the north and continued a cautious programme of reform until he was assassinated in 1933.

His son Zahir Shah (1914–2007) reigned from 1933 to 1973. This was the longest period of stability in Afghanistan’s recent history, and people now look back on it as a golden age. Reform continued. A parliament was elected in 1949, and a more independent press began to attack the ruling oligarchy and the conservative religious leaders.

In 1953 Zahir Shah appointed his cousin Daud (1909–78) as prime minister. Daud was a political conservative but an economic and social reformer. For the next ten years he exercised a commanding influence on the King. He built factories, irrigation systems, aerodromes and roads with assistance from the USSR, the USA, and the German Federal Republic. He modernised the Afghan army with Soviet weapons, equipment, and training.

In 1963 Zahir Shah got rid of Daud to appease conservatives infuriated by his flirtations with the left and the Soviets. But the King continued with the policy of reform. He introduced a form of constitutional monarchy with freedom of speech, allowed political parties, gave women the vote, and guaranteed primary education for girls and boys. Women were allowed to attend the university and foreign women taught there. Ariana Airlines employed unveiled women as hostesses and receptionists, there were women announcers on Kabul Radio, and a woman was sent as a delegate to the United Nations.

During all these years, the educational system was systematically developed, at least in the capital city. Habibia College, a high school modelled on an elite Muslim school in British India, was set up in Kabul in 1904. Amanullah sent many of its students to study in France and elsewhere in Europe. A School of Medicine was inaugurated in 1932, followed by faculties of Law, Science, Agriculture, Education, and Engineering, which were combined into a university in 1947. Most of the textbooks and much of the teaching were in English, French, or German. A faculty of Theology was founded in 1951 linked to the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo. In 1967 the Soviet Union helped establish a Polytechnic Institute staffed largely by Russians. Under Zahir Shah’s tolerant regime student organisations were set up in Kabul and Kandahar.

Daud rapidly expanded the state school system. Between 1950 and 1978 numbers increased by ten times at primary schools, twenty-one times at secondary schools, and forty-five times at universities. But the economy was not developing fast enough to provide employment for the growing numbers of graduates. Many could find jobs only in the rapidly expanding government bureaucracy. Salaries, already miserable, lost half their real value in the 1960s and 1970s. The good news – though not for conservatives – was that about 10 per cent of this expanded bureaucracy were women.

The American scholar Louis Dupree called Kabul University ‘a perfect breeding ground for political discontent’. It was in the universities that Afghanistan’s first political movements were created. A Communist Party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was set up in 1965 by Nur Mohamed Taraki, Babrak Karmal (1929–96), and Hafizullah Amin, all of whom were to play a major role in the run-up to the Soviet invasion. A number of students who were later to become prominent in the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet struggle also fledged their political wings there: Rabbani (1940–), Hekmatyar (1947–), Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (1946–), and Ahmad Shah Masud (1953–2001) all studied together in Kabul University. Students rioted in 1968 against conservative attempts to limit the education of women. In 1969 there were further riots, and some deaths, when high school students protested against the school management. The university was briefly closed.

The Richest People in Arctic Potalovo

From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2385-2397:
The richest people in Potalovo are the children. They drive tractors and bulldozers, own houses, sail ships. The fact that all these possessions are wrecked makes no difference. They are a simulacrum of the adult world. So the children keep house in burnt-out cottages, or climb into the cabins of tractors and roam the tundra on vanished wheels. Sometimes they man the bridge of the beached and derelict cargo ship, and steer for the Arctic Sea. Only when they stop being children do they realise that they are inhabiting a world in ruins.

At the age of twelve or thirteen, said Nikolai, they start to drink.

He hated the arrival of the boat-shop which plied the river. That afternoon it had opened its hold on a thin range of expensive goods–vodka, above all–and the villagers had sped out in their motor-boats to meet it. In his dim-lit clinic Nikolai looked through the window at the night and circled his arm. ‘Probably this whole settlement is drunk around us at this moment. Almost everyone.’

He dreaded the monthly arrival of pensions. ‘Single parents get an allowance for each child, so a man with five children and no wife can feel a millionaire! He’ll drink himself sick while the children starve. The women do it too. Everybody. And when the vodka gives out they’ll search for anything. There’s an American machine oil which is bought galore here. Our machines are all broken, of course, but people drink this fluid by the bottle. Within two to three hours they’re asphyxiated. If they get to the hospital I can save them, but they die in their homes or in the streets.’
Thubron's descriptions of the drunken town-dwellers in "Potalovo" (or Potapovo) seem very different from what Werner Herzog narrates about the hardy trappers of Bakhtia depicted in The Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Both communities are tiny outposts on the mighty Yenisei River isolated for much of each year.