“Zinky Boys” by Svetlana Alexievich

In “Zinky Boys,” Alexievich weaves together interviews with those who have been affected by the Soviet war in Afghanistan–soldiers, yes, but also doctors and nurses, civilian contractors, and, most tragically of all, the mothers and widows left behind–to create a document that is heartbreaking, harrowing, and utterly damning.

Those who ended up in Afghanistan did so for various reasons: some because they were tricked, some because they wanted to get away, some because they wanted to prove themselves, and some out of a sincere desire to serve the Motherland. In all cases they ended up shattered by the experience and disillusioned in the very Motherland they had sworn to serve. Far from being heroes in a glorious victory, they were caught up in baffling guerrilla warfare, where it was impossible to know whom to trust and even the most principled of them found themselves wiping out villages and caravans of women, children, and even animals–the pointless killing of camels and donkeys comes up frequently in veterans’ memories, as the most egregious example of the senseless violence they found themselves undergoing and inflicting. Even those who had no first-hand contact with the violence of the war ended up indelibly scarred by it.

If this sounds grim, it is, but Alexievich’s ability as an interviewer and compiler transforms what could be a death-march-like litany of misery into a work of art and a living monument to those affected by the war. Even the worst stories of suffering and despair have threads of lyrical beauty and love, whether that be for a child, a spouse, a friend, a country, or an ideal. The speakers’ voices jump off the pages, allowing the reader to see and sense what they have seen and sensed, both the bad and the good. While some of the interviewees are unremittingly bitter about what happened to them, many long for Afghanistan, smitten with its natural beauty and addicted to the natural high of living on the edge, when everything is life or death. Shattered as they are by the experience, many “afghantsy” find their return to civilian life to be even more shattering, as those around them have no conception of what they’ve undergone and often react to the news of their service with scorn and angry accusations.

The events Alexievich chronicles all took place in the 1980s, and the book was released just at the collapse of the Soviet Union, which swept the Motherland that the book’s subjects were serving out of existence, replacing it with multiple Motherlands, some more motherly than others. The material, however, feels in no way dated: now it is the West that is welcoming home, with arms that are more or less open, people whose lives have been changed by a conflict of dubious value in Afghanistan. As such, “Zinky Boys” serves not only as a memorial to Soviet service members, but as a timely warning for Western readers: what, we are forced to ask ourselves again and again, is the damage done to a society that has a significant underclass of its members who are so traumatized and disaffected that they can no longer function as productive citizens? When parents lose their minds or kill themselves out of grief, and young people who should have their whole lives ahead of them are so consumed with rage that their chief desire is to lash out at innocent victims with yet more violence? The USSR’s tragic experience in Afghanistan does much to explain the dysfunction of post-Soviet society; what, then, do the US’s (and Great Britain’s) similar misadventures say about ours? Alexievich provides no ready answers, but she does present us with a starkly compelling set of questions, the solutions to which it is up to us to find. “Zinky Boys” is not for the faint of heart, but it is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the post-Soviet world which we all–Eurasians and Westerners alike–find ourselves inhabiting.

You can get your own copy here.

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