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Authors: Svetlana Alexievich

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BOOK: Zinky Boys
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Dostoevsky described military men as ‘the most unthinking people in the world'.

The stench of a broken lavatory in the little waiting-area for the Kabul flight. It was a long wait. And I'm amazed to see so many women.

Snatches of conversation:

‘I'm going deaf. First thing I noticed, I couldn't hear birdsong. For example, I can't hear the yellowhammer properly. I taped it, you know, and I turn it on full blast, but … It's the result of my shell-shock.'

‘You shoot first, and then you find out if it was a woman or a kid … We all have our nightmares … '

‘The donkeys over there, they lie down during the shelling, and when it's over, they get up again.'

‘What would I be back home? A prostitute? That's what it amounts to. I just want to get enough dough together to buy a flat of my own. Men? What about them? All they do is get drunk.'

‘This general was talking about the external deficit and the need to defend our southern borders. He was almost in tears.'

‘Bring them sweets. They're just children. That's what they like best — sweets … '

‘There was this young officer. When he found out that his leg had been amputated he began to cry. He had a face like a little girl, all rosy and white. I was scared of bodies at first, especially the ones with arms or legs missing, but in the end I got used to them.' That was a woman talking.

‘They do take prisoners. They cut off their limbs and apply tourniquets so they won't bleed to death. They leave them like that for our people to pick up the stumps. The stumps want to die, but they're kept alive.'

‘The customs people noticed my bag: “What are you taking home?” — “Nothing.” — “Nothing!?” They didn't believe me. Made me strip down to my underwear. Most people bring home two or three suitcases full of stuff.'

‘Wake up. You don't want to miss the show, do you? We're over Kabul.'

We're landing.

… The sound of gunfire. Patrols with automatics and flak jackets inspect our papers.

I didn't want to write about war again, let alone one actually in progress.

There's something immoral, voyeuristic, about peering too closely at a person's courage in the face of danger. Yesterday we had breakfast in the canteen and said hello to the young man on guard-duty. Half an hour later he was killed by a stray fragment of mortar-shell that exploded in the barracks. All day long I tried to recall the face of that boy.

‘Fairy-tale merchants.' That's what they call the journalists and writers here. I'm the only woman in our group. The men can't wait to get to the front. ‘Why are you so keen?' I ask one of them.

‘It's interesting. I'll be able to say I've been to Salanga. Do a bit of shooting.'

I can't rid myself of the feeling that war is a product of the male nature. I find it hard to fathom.


‘I fired point-blank and saw how a human skull explodes. I thought to myself: that's my first. After action there are always dead and wounded lying about. No one says anything. I dream of trams here. I dream I'm going home by tram … My favorite memory is of my mother baking pies, and the whole house smelling of sweet pastry … '

‘I had a good friend, one I got to know here. One day I see his guts trailing over the rocks … I want revenge.'

‘We were waiting for this caravan. We waited for two or three days, lying in hot sand, had to shit wherever we could. After three days you go crazy. That first burst of firing, you give it to them with such hate … After the cease-fire, we discovered the caravan was carrying bananas and jam. We ate ourselves stupid … '

To write (or tell) the whole truth about oneself is a physical impossibility, according to Pushkin.

‘Revenge for Malkin!' scrawled in red paint on a tank.

In the middle of the road a young Afghan woman kneels by
her dead child, howling. I thought only wounded animals howled like that.

We drive past devastated villages. They remind me of ploughed fields. The shapeless mounds of mud, family homes not long ago, frighten me more than the darkness which may be concealing enemy snipers.

At the hospital I watched a Russian girl put a teddy bear on an Afghan boy's bed. He picked up the toy with his teeth and played with it, smiling. He had no arms. ‘Your Russians shot him,' his mother told me through the interpreter. ‘Do you have kids? A boy or a girl?' I couldn't make out whether her words expressed more horror or forgiveness.

There are many stories of the cruelty with which the mujahedin treat our POWs. It is, literally, a different era here — the fourteenth century, according to their calendars.

In Lermontov's
A Hero of Our Time
, Maximych says of the mountain-tribesman who has killed Valla's father: ‘Of course, according to their lights he was completely in the right' — although from the Russian's point of view the deed was quite bestial. Lermontov here pinpointed the amazing ability of Russians to put themselves into other people's shoes — to think according to ‘their' lights, in fact.


‘We captured some terrorists and interrogated them: “Where are your arms dumps?” No answer. Then we took a couple of them up in helicopters: “Where are they? Show us!” No answer. We threw one of them on to the rocks … '

‘They killed my friend. Later I saw some of them laughing and having a good time. Whenever I see a lot of them together, now, I start shooting. I shot up an Afghan wedding, I got the happy couple, the bride and groom. I'm not sorry for them — I've lost my friend'.

In Dostoevsky's novel Ivan Karamazov observes: ‘No animal can be as cruel, so exquisitely and artistically cruel, as man.'

Yes, and I suspect we prefer to shut our eyes and ears to such truth. In every war, whether it's fought in the name of Julius Caesar or Joseph Stalin, people kill each other. It's killing, sure enough, but we don't like to think of it as such: even in our
schools, for some reason, the education is officially described not as patriotic but as
military patriotic
education. I say ‘for some reason', but there's no secret about it: the aim is military socialism and a militarised country. And do we really want it any other way?

People shouldn't be subjected to such extremes of experience. They just can't take it. In medicine it's called ‘sharp-end experience' — in other words, experimenting on the living.

Today someone quoted Tolstoy's phrase that ‘man is fluid'.

This evening we switched on the cassette-recorder and heard Afgantsi songs — written and sung by veterans of this war. Childish, unformed voices, trying to sound like Vissotsky
, croaked out: ‘The sun set on the
like a great big bomb'; ‘Who needs glory? I want to live — that's all the medal I need'; ‘Why are we killing — and getting killed?'; ‘Why've you betrayed me so, sweet Russia?'; ‘I'm already forgetting their faces'; ‘Afghanistan, our duty and our universe too'; ‘Amputees like big birds hopping one-legged by the sea'; ‘He doesn't belong to anyone now he's dead. There's no hatred in his face now he's dead'.

Last night I had a dream: some of our soldiers are leaving Afghanistan and I'm among those seeing them off. I go up to one boy, but he's got no tongue, he's dumb. I can see hospital pyjamas under his army jacket. I ask him something but he just writes his name: ‘Vanechka, Vanechka … ' I remember that name, Vanechka, so clearly. His face reminds me of a young lad I'd talked to that afternoon, who kept saying over and over again: ‘Mum's waiting for me at home.'

For the last time we drive through Kabul's dead little streets, past the familiar posters adorning the city centre: ‘Communism — Our Bright Future': ‘Kabul — City of Peace'; ‘People and Party United'.
posters, printed on
presses, and
Lenin standing here with his hand raised …

At the airport we came across a film-crew we knew. They'd been filming the loading of the ‘black tulips', as they're known
here. They wouldn't look into our eyes as they described how the dead ‘sometimes have to be dressed in ancient uniforms, even jodhpurs and so on from the last century; sometimes, when there aren't even enough old uniforms available, they're put in their coffins completely naked. The coffins are made of shabby old wood, held together with rusty nails. Casualties waiting to be shipped are put in cold storage, where they give off a stench of rotting wild boar.'

Who'll believe me if I write of such things.

15 May 1988

My calling as a writer involves me in talking to many people and examining many documents. Nothing is more fantastic than reality. I want to evoke a world not bound by the laws of ordinary verisimilitude but fashioned in my own image. My aim is to describe feelings about the war, rather than the war itself. What are people thinking? What do they want, or fear? What makes them happy? What do they remember?

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War II, is what ‘they' consider safe for us to know. We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring. ‘Russian writers have always been more interested in truth than beauty,' wrote Nikolai Berdyaev. Our whole life is spent in the search for truth, especially nowadays, whether at our desks, or on the streets, at demos, even at dinner parties. And what is it we literary people cogitate upon so interminably? It all comes down to the question, Who are we, and where are we going? And it dawns on us that nothing, not even human life, is more precious to us than our myths about ourselves. We've come to believe the message, drummed into us for so long, that we are superlative in every way, the finest, the most just, the most honest. And whoever dares express the slightest doubt is guilty of treachery, the one unforgivable sin!

From a history book I've been reading:

‘On 20 January 1801 a Cossack expeditionary force, under the command of Vassily Orlov, was ordered to spearhead the conquest
of India. They were given one month to reach Orenburg [in the Urals], and a further three to gain the Indus River via Bukhara and Khiva. These 30,000 Cossacks crossed the Volga and penetrated deep into the Kazakh steppes.'

Pravda, 7
February 1989:

‘The almond trees were in blossom in Termez [a Soviet town on the Afghan border]; but even without so generous a gift from Nature the inhabitants of this ancient town could never forget these February days as the most joyful and splendid of their lives.

‘An orchestra played as the Nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations. For ten years Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over thirty 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 kilometres of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in Kabul.'

Berdyaev again: ‘I have always been my own man, answerable to no-one.' Something which can't be said of us Soviet writers. In our day truth is always at the service of someone or something — either the interests of the Revolution, or the dictatorship of the proletariat, or some brutal dictator himself, or the Party, or the first or second five-year plan, or the latest Congress … Dostoevsky insisted: ‘The truth is more important than Russia'.

‘Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ' (St Matthew, 24:4,5). Russia has had to suffer so many false Messiahs — too many to mention.

I ask myself, and others too, this single question: how has the courage in each of us been extinguished? How have ‘they' managed to turn our ordinary boys into killers, and do whatever they
want with the rest of us? But I'm not here to judge what I've seen and heard. My aim is simply to reflect the world as it really is. Getting to grips with this war today means facing much wider issues, issues of the life and death of humanity. Man has finally achieved the evil ambition of being able to kill us all at a stroke.

Nowadays it is no secret that 100,000 Soviet troops were deployed in Afghanistan every year. Over ten years, that adds up to 1,000,000. The war can be described in neat statistical terms: so many bullets and shells spent, so many armoured cars and helicopters destroyed, so many uniforms torn to shreds. How much has all this cost us?

Fifty thousand dead and wounded. A figure you may believe or disbelieve, because we all know how well officials can count. The dead of World War II are still being counted and buried …

Fragments of conversations:

‘Even at night I'm afraid of blood, in my dreams … I can't even bear to step on a beetle … '

‘Who can I tell all this to? Who'd want to listen? As the poet Boris Slutsky put it:

‘When we returned from the war
I saw we were needed no more.'

I have the whole Table of Elements in my body. I'm still wracked by malaria. Not long ago I had a few teeth pulled, one after the other, and in my pain and shock I began to talk. The dentist, a woman, looked at me almost in disgust: “A mouth full of blood, and he wants to talk … ” At that moment I realised I would never be able to talk honestly about anything again. Everyone thinks of us like that: mouths full of blood, and we want to talk.'

That's why I haven't used people's real names in this book. Some asked for confidentiality; and there are others whom I can't expose to the reproach of ‘a mouth full of blood, and he wants to talk'. Are we going to react to this moral crisis as we always have done in the past, by attaching blame to a few individuals in order to exonerate the rest of us? No! We are all accessories to this crime.

BOOK: Zinky Boys
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