BOOK REVIEW : A Soviet Memoir on Russia’s Vietnam : THE HIDDEN WAR: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan <i> by Artyom Borovik</i> , Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95, 252 pages
D ukhi --"Ghosts"--was Soviet army slang for the elusive enemy during 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Once, when Soviet war correspondent Artyom Borovik spotted red and yellow lights flashing back and forth through the night sky, he took it to be passing traffic on a distant highway:
“No, I am really watching two bands of dukhi locked in a ferocious battle,” he explains in “The Hidden War,” a memoir of the war in Afghanistan. “They are painting the sky with thousand of long, threadlike tracers--the slanting rain of a bloody storm.”
The same sense of ghostly peril--war as phantasmagoria--is at play throughout Borovik’s remarkable book. The author, still in his 20s when he first arrived in Afghanistan as a Soviet journalist, adopts the familiar stance of the grizzled and fatalistic war correspondent. But “The Hidden War” is shot through with flashes of “Apocalypse Now” and “Catch 22.”
At first, what makes “The Hidden War” so surprising is simply its point of view, especially after a decade of reporting (or, in some cases, rhapsodizing) on “the Afghan resistance.”
Borovik shows us exactly what the Soviet soldier saw (“eight millimeters of bulletproof glass through which we stared in fear from inside our armored carrier”) and we recognize something deeply and disturbingly familiar in these harried young men: Afghanistan was truly Russia’s Vietnam.
Then, too, Borovik manages to convey an intimate sense of the war in Afghanistan with the novelist’s eye for the telling image. A flock of sheep crossing an isolated stretch of road turns out to be a camouflaged weapons shipment; a brand-new machine gun is strapped to the belly of each animal.
And there is the Red Army sniper “who’d inscribed a passage from the 91st Psalm on the underside of his dirty collar: ' . . . my refuge and my fortress: my God; in whom I trust.’ ”
Borovik tells his tales of war in a voice that is mock-gruff and matter-of-fact. But he has a poet’s soul, and he occasionally breaks into songs of irony:
“A whirlwind of dust and sand dances next to our APC (Armed Personnel Carrier). It dances on one leg, twirling around its axis like a prima ballerina, bewitching its audience and luring them with its giddy performance. We hide inside the carrier. It will shelter us, if not from the antitank shells, at least from the wind.”
“The Hidden War” includes Borovik’s well-informed observations on the sinister origins of the war in Afghanistan, its corrosive effects on Soviet morale, and its ominous implications for future encounters between Islam and the secular world.
He even suggests that perestroika first stirred in the Russian soul precisely because of the horrors of the war in Afghanistan. And he shows us that the lessons of Afghanistan are the lessons of Vietnam:
“We thought that we were civilizing a backward country by exposing it to television, to modern bombers, to schools, to the latest models of tanks, to books, to long-range artillery, to newspapers, to new types of weapons. But we rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us,” Borovik concludes.
“In Afghanistan, we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well.”
The fact that “The Hidden War” comes to us at all is a measure of glasnost in Soviet society: Borovik is brutal and unsparing, and he allows us to see the real face of the Soviet soldier. And when we stare into that face--the human face of our traditional enemy--what we see is ourselves.
Next: Huston Horn reviews “Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871-1960" by Stephen J. Ochs (Louisiana State University Press).