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Authors: Svetlana Alexievich

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BOOK: Zinky Boys
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But I did record their names, if only in my diary, in case my cast of characters wish to be recognised one day:

Sergei Amirkhanian, Captain; Vladimir Agapov, 1st Lt., gun-crew leader; Tatiana Belozerskikh, civilian employee; Victoria V. Bartashevich, mother of Private Yuri Bartashevich, killed in action; Private Dmitri Babkin, gun-layer; Maya Ye. Babuk, mother of Nurse Svetlana Babuk, killed in action; Maria T. Bobkova, mother of Private Leonid Bobkov, killed in action; Olimpiada R. Bogush, mother of Private Victor Bogush, killed in action; Victoria S. Valovich, mother of 1st Lt. Valery Valovich, killed in action; Tatiana Gaisenko, nurse; Vadim Glushkov, 1st Lt., interpreter; Captain Gennadi Gubanov, pilot; Ina S. Golovneva, mother of 1st Lt. Yuri Golovnev, killed in action; Major Anatoli Devyatyarov, political officer of an artillery regiment; Private Denis L., grenadier; Tamara Dovnar, widow of 1st Lt. Petr Dovnar; Yekaterina N.P., mother of Major Alexander P., killed in action; Private Vladimir Yerokhovets; Sofia G. Zhuravleva, mother of Private Alexandr Zhuravlev, killed in action; Natalya Zhestovskaya, nurse; Maria O. Zilfigarova, mother of Private Oleg Zilfigarov, killed in action; 1st Lt. Vadim Ivanov, platoon leader, engineer; Galina F. Ilchenko, mother of Private Alexandr Ilchenko, killed in action; Private Yevgeny Krasnik, armoured car gunner; Konstantin M., military adviser; Sergeant-Major Yevgeny Kotelnikov, medical instructor in an intelligence unit; Private Alexandr Kostakov, signaller; 1st Lt. Alexandr Kuvshinnikov, mortar-platoon commander; Nadezhda S. Kozlova, mother of Private Andrei Kozlov, killed in action; Marina Kiseleva, civilian employee; Vera F. K., mother of Private Nikolai K., killed in action; Private Taras Ketsmur; Major Petr Kurbanov (mountain infantry battalion); CSM Vassily Kubik; Private Oleg Lelyushenko, grenadier; Private Alexandr Leletko; Sergei Loskutov, army surgeon; Sergeant Valery Lissichenko, signaller; Vera Lysenko, civilian employee; Major Yevgeny S. Mukhortov, battalion commander, and his son Andrei, 2nd Lt.; Lydia Ye. Mankevich, mother of Sergeant Dmitri Mankevich, killed in action; Galina Mlyavaya, widow of Captain Stepan Mlyavy; Private Vladimir Mikholap, gunner; Captain Alexandr Nikolayenko, helicopter flight-commander; Oleg L., helicopter
pilot; Natalya Orlova, civilian employee; Galina Pavlova, nurse; Private Vladimir Pankratov, reconnaissance company; Private Vitaly Ruzhentsev, driver; Private Sergei Russak, tank crew; 1st Lt. Mikhail Serotin, pilot; 1st Lt. Alexandr Sukhorukov (mountain infantry battalion); Lt. Igor Savinsky, armoured car platoonleader; Sergeant Timofei Smirnov, gunner; Valentina K. Sanko, mother of Private Valentin Sanko, killed in action; Lt-Col. Vladimir Simanin; Sergeant Tomas M., infantry platoon commander; Leonid I. Tatarchenko, father of Private Igor Tatarchenko, killed in action; Captain Vladimir Ulanov; Tamara Fadeyev, doctor and bacteriologist; Ludmilla Kharitonchik, widow of 1st Lt. Yuri Kharitonchik, killed in action; Galina Khaliulina, civilian employee; Major Valery Khudyakov; Sergeant Valentina Yakovlova, commander of secret unit.

*
Vladimir Vissotsky, a dissident singer and song-writer who dared to express what millions thought. He died in 1980, but is still vividly remembered.

†
The unspoken message here is that this force never reached its destination, and that the Emperor Paul I was assassinated in a coup partly provoked by such adventurism.

The First Day

‘For many will come in my name … '

Very early one morning the phone woke me like a burst of machine-gunfire.

‘Now you listen to me!' said my caller without introducing himself. ‘I've read this slanderous stuff you've been writing, I'm warning you … '

‘Who are you?'

One of the people you've been writing about. God! How I hate pacifists! Have you ever tried climbing a mountain in full battle-dress, or sweltered inside an APC in 70 degrees Celsius? Have you had the stench of desert thorn-bushes in your nostrils all night? If you haven't, then shut up and leave us alone! This was our affair, and nothing to do with you.'

‘Why won't you tell me your name?'

‘Just leave it alone! My best friend, he was like a brother to me … I brought him back from a raid in a plastic bag. His head cut off, and his arms, and his legs, and all flayed — yes, skinned. He used to play the violin and write poetry. He should be writing now, not you … His mother went mad two days after the funeral. She ran to the cemetery at night and tried to lie down with him. Just leave it alone! We were soldiers. We were sent there to obey orders and honour our military oath. I kissed the flag … '

‘“Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name.” Gospel according to St Matthew.'

‘Aren't you the clever ones! With ten years' hindsight! You all want to stay squeaky clean. Motherfuckers! You don't even know the way a bullet flies. You've never shot anybody … I'm not
scared of anything. I don't give a damn about your New Testament or your so-called truth. I brought my truth back in a plastic bag … Head, arms, legs, all skinned … Go to hell!'

He slammed down the phone; it sounded like a distant explosion.

All the same, I'm sorry we didn't talk. He might have become the main character of this book, a man wounded to his very heart.

‘Just leave it alone! It's ours!' he had shouted.

All of it?

Private, Grenadier Battalion

I could hear voices, but the voices had no faces attached, however hard I tried to make them out. They faded away, came back, faded again … I remember thinking, I'm dying — and then opening my eyes.

I came to in Tashkent sixteen days after I was wounded. My head hurt when I whispered — I couldn't speak out loud. In the hospital in Kabul they'd opened up my skull, found a lot of porridge and taken out a few bits of bone. They put my left hand back together, but with screws instead of knuckles. The first thing I felt was sad. Sad I'd never be going back there, never see my friends, never work out on those horizontal bars again.

I spent two years less fifteen days in various hospitals. Eighteen operations, four under general anaesthetic. Medical students wrote essays about me — what I had and didn't have. I couldn't shave myself, so the lads did it for me. The first time, they poured a bottle of eau-de-Cologne over me, but I screamed at them to do it again because I couldn't smell a thing. They took every damn thing from my bedside table, sausage, gherkins, honey, sweets and left me with nothing. I could see colours and I could taste all right, but I'd lost my sense of smell. I nearly went crazy. When Spring came, and the trees blossomed, I could see but not smell it. They removed one and a half cubic centimetres of my brain, including some kind of nerve centre connected with the sense of smell. Even now, five years later, I can't smell flowers, or tobacco smoke, or a woman's perfume. I can make out eau
de-Cologne if it's crude and strong, but only if I shove the bottle right under my nose. I suppose some other bit of my brain has taken the job on as best it can.

In hospital I got a letter from a friend of mine. He told me that our APC got blown up by an Italian land-mine. He saw a guy being blown out together with the motor — that was me.

I was discharged and then given a one-off payment of 300 roubles.
*
It's 150 for minor injuries and 300 for serious. After that, well, it's your look-out. Live off your parents. My father had his war without going to war. He went grey and got high blood pressure.

I didn't really grow up in Afghanistan. That came later, back home, when I saw my whole life from a different point of view.

I was sent over there in 1981. The war had been going on for two years, but the general public didn't know much about it and kept quiet about what they did know. In our family, for example, we just assumed the government wouldn't be sending forces to another country unless it was necessary. My father thought that way, so did the neighbours. I can't remember anyone thinking different. The women didn't even cry when I left because in those days the war seemed a long way away and not frightening. It was war and yet not war, and, in any case, something remote, without bodies or prisoners.

In those days no one had seen the zinc coffins. Later we found out that coffins
were
already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night. The gravestones had ‘died' rather than ‘killed in action' engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden. From too much vodka, was it, or flu? Too many oranges, perhaps? Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves. The newspapers talked about how our soldiers were building bridges and planting trees to make ‘Friendship Alleys', as they called them, and about how our doctors were looking after Afghan women and children.

At our training-camp in Vitebsk everyone knew we were being prepared for Afghanistan. One guy admitted he was scared we'd
all be killed. I despised him. Just before embarkation another guy refused to go. First he said he'd lost his Komsomol card! Then, when they found it, he said his girl was about to have a baby. I thought he was mad. We were going to create a revolution, weren't we? That's what we were told and we believed it. It was kind of romantic.

When a bullet hits a person you hear it. It's an unmistakable sound you never forget, like a kind of wet slap. Your mate next to you falls face down in the sand, sand that tastes as bitter as ash. You turn him over on his back. The cigarette you just gave him is stuck between his teeth, and it's still alight. The first time it happens you react like in a dream. You run, you drag him, and you shoot, and afterwards you can't remember a thing about it and can't tell anyone anyway. It's like a nightmare you watch happening behind a sheet of glass. You wake up scared, and don't know why. The fact is, in order to experience the horror you have to remember it and get used to it. Within two or three weeks there's nothing left of the old you except your name. You've become someone else. This someone else isn't frightened of a corpse, but calmly (and a bit pissed off, too) wonders how he's going to drag it down the rocks and carry it for several kilometres in that heat.

This new person doesn't have to imagine: he
knows
the smell of a man's guts hanging out; the smell of human excrement mixed with blood. He's
seen
the scorched skulls grinning out of a puddle of molten metal, as though they'd been laughing, not screaming, as they died only a few hours before. He knows the incredible excitement of seeing a dead body and thinking, that's not me! It's a total transformation, it happens very quickly, and to practically everyone.

There's no mystery about death for people caught up in war. Killing simply means squeezing the trigger. We were taught that ‘he who fires first stays alive'. That's the law of war.
‘You
need to do two things — run fast and shoot straight.
I
'll do all the thinking round here,' our CO told us. We pointed our guns where we were told, and then fired them, exactly as we'd been trained, and I didn't care, not even if I killed a child. Everyone was part of it over there: men and women, young and old, kids. One time,
our column was going through a
kishlak
when the leading vehicle broke down. The driver got out and lifted the bonnet — and a boy, about ten years old, rushed out and stabbed him in the back, just where the heart is. The soldier fell over the motor. We turned that boy into a sieve. If we'd been ordered to, we'd have turned the whole village to dust.

All any of us wanted was to survive. There was no time to think. We were eighteen or twenty years old. I got used to other people's deaths but I was frightened of dying myself. I saw how a man could become nothing, literally nothing, as though he'd never been. When that happened they put empty full-dress uniforms in the coffin, and threw in a few spadefuls of Afghan earth to make up the weight …

I wanted to live.

Never, before or since, have I wanted to live as much as I did there. After a battle we'd just sit and laugh. I never laughed like I did then. We loved jokes, the older the better. For example: This currency smuggler or
fartsovshik
comes to the war zone. The first thing he does is find out how much a POW would fetch in
cheki
[hard currency vouchers, used to buy otherwise unobtainable goods in special shops.] Answer: eight
cheki.
Two days later there's this great cloud of dust in the garrison — it's the
fartsovshik
with about 200 prisoners in chains behind him. His friend says: ‘Sell me one, I'll give you seven
cheki
for him.' ‘Not likely,' says the
fartsovshik
, ‘I paid nine myself.'

We could hear that daft joke a hundred times and still laugh. We'd laugh at any damn stupid thing till it hurt.

There's this
dukh
, a sniper, lying there calculating his ‘tariff. He gets three little stars in his sights — 1st lieutenant, that's worth 50,000 afoshki. Bang! One big star — a major, 200,000 afoshki. Bang! Two little stars — 2nd lieutenant. Bang! That evening the
dukh
boss pays him for the 1st lieutenant, the major and the — ‘What. You shot the 2nd lieutenant? Our provider! Who's going to sell us our condensed milk and blankets. Hang this man!'

We talked a lot about money — more than about death. I didn't bring back a thing except the bit of shell they took from my brain. Some of the guys brought in porcelain, precious stones, jewellery, carpets. They picked them up in battle when they went into the
villages, or bought them. Or else they bartered. For example, the magazine of a Kalashnikov bought you a make-up set for your girlfriend, including mascara, eye-shadow and powder. Of course the cartridges were ‘cooked', because a cooked bullet can't fly, it just kind of spits out of the barrel and can't kill. We'd fill a bucket or a bowl with water, throw in the cartridges, boil them for a couple of hours and sell them the same evening. Everyone traded, officers as well as the rest of us, heroes as well as cowards. Knives, bowls, spoons, forks, mugs, stools, hammers, they all got nicked from the canteen and the barracks. Bayonets disappeared from their automatics, mirrors from cars, spare parts, medals … You could sell anything, even the rubbish collected from the garrison, full of cans, old newspapers, rusty nails, bits of plywood, and plastic bags. They sold it by the truckload, with the price depending on the amount of scrap metal. That's war for you.

BOOK: Zinky Boys
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