In this collection of tales, in turns lyrical and brutal, Oleg Ermakov, probably Russia’s foremost writer on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, depicts the war from multiple points of view: a boy on a date a couple of days before he heads off to basic training, a raw recruit forced to commit an act he wishes he hadn’t, a prisoner of war, a wife waiting for her husband’s return, soldiers being demobbed and trying to make it home, an embittered veteran with a drinking problem. Each story is a short sketch that focuses as much or more on the characters’ inner states as it does their outer circumstances, and there are few instances of actual combat: most of the action takes place in the barracks, on transport, or on the home front.
Western readers may find these tales unexpected: there is very little of the “boys and their toys” aspect to them that features so heavily in modern Western writing on war. Instead there are lyrical descriptions of scenery, meditations on literature, and dreams, sometimes hopeful, sometimes nightmarish. While the grim nature of the war in Afghanistan, and particularly the prevalence of “dedovshchina,” the vicious system of seniority-based hazing that arose in the Soviet and later Russian army in the latter part of the 20th century, are on display, these tales are not so much an expose of the wrongs and abuses of the late Soviet system as they are an exploration of what war–any war–does to the psyche, and how it is both beautiful and terrifying. Readers will not come away from this stories with a deeper understanding of troop movements or battle tactics, but they will gain insight into the experiences of the Afghan veterans, and read some quality contemporary Russian prose in the bargain.