Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Zinky Boys

 If you have an inquiring mind and lot of time to read, one bit of information can sometimes lead you down a rabbit hole. For instance, I’ve always been interested in World War II and reading the history of that conflict got me interested in World War I. You see a lot of the same names in both conflicts and while it is overly simplistic to say that World War II was a continuation of the Great War, the second conflict definitely had its roots in the peace that followed the first. Going even further, reading about WWI history similarly whetted my curiosity about the Spanish-American War.

A more recent example is how a podcast led me to the book, “Zinky Boys” by Svetlana Alexievich. I first heard about the book, published way back in 1992, on the podcast “Cold War Conversations” in a recent episode about the Soviet-Afghan War. I’ll plug “Cold War Conversations” as well for its enlightening interviews and discussions of Cold War history. Episodes range from descriptions of military service on both sides and life behind the Iron Curtain to discussions of incidents in Cold War history. I was hooked after hearing an episode interviewing a USAF F-111 pilot.

A Soviet soldier waits in the shadows, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. (By Mikhail Evstafiev, CC BY-SA 3.0,

But I digress. “Zinky Boys” was mentioned in an offhand comment on the podcast, but I thought it was interesting enough to look up the book in our local library system. I’m glad I did. It isn’t only a book of firsthand historical accounts of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, it also to provide a window into the Russian army that seems to be accurate even 30 years later in Ukraine.

As you all know by now, I’m a self-confessed history nut. I grew up in the 1980s when the Soviet-Afghan war was raging. Believe it or not, for a long time I was a faithful reader of Soldier of Fortune magazine (“The Journal of Professional Adventurers”), whose pages often contained accounts of journalists traveling with the Afghan mujahedin, Nicaraguan Contras, South African counterinsurgency troops, and others. Needless to say, my anti-communist foundation is strong. Little did I know that about two decades later, Americans would be fighting on the same ground.

At first, I didn’t know what “zinky” referred to. My first guess was that maybe it had to do with the color of Soviet uniforms, but zinc is actually bluish-white. You don’t have to read very far, however, to learn that a “zinky” is a Soviet military coffin. These coffins are zinc-coated and delivered sealed up to the surviving family. They are still used today.

“Zinky Boys” isn’t fact-checked history. It is a collection of accounts from Afghantsi, the Russian term for Afghan war veterans, and surviving family members such as mothers and wives. Much of what the veterans and families wrote I have seen corroborated from other sources.

For example, several describe the culture of brutality and hazing in the Soviet army. New recruits were “welcomed” by dembels, veteran soldiers nearing the end of their term of service, who would beat up the newbies, steal their uniforms, and almost enslave them until they gained seniority.

The brutality does not end with new recruits. Many tacitly or explicitly admit their part in killing civilians and noncombatants. Some write that entire villages were razed to the point where no trace was left. Soldiers would indiscriminately fire at both people and animals. One described turning out the lights at night by shooting out the light bulb. Of course, the Afghan mujahedin subjected captured Russians and the corpses of the dead to extreme cruelty as well.

The soldiers talk a lot about their motivation for going to Afghanistan. Some were conscripts, others volunteered for “international duty” in what they were told was a war to help the Afghan people. One wrote that he was told that the USSR invaded Afghanistan hours before American Special Forces would have landed. Some wanted adventure or to prove themselves, but for most, the motivation seems to have been a simple desire to do their duty to their country. Several mention that they knew that if they bought or bribed their way out of combat duty, someone else would have to go in their place. They describe seeing videos of Afghan children greeting Soviet soldiers with flowers when the war was mentioned at all at home, but they are almost unanimous in their belief that their government lied to them about the war.

One soldier described how his unit was not told that it was going to Afghanistan until they were en route. They were surrounded by a different unit while their commander read their orders and then provided the soldiers with vodka to drown their sorrows.

I remember hearing a similar story from the early days of the Ukraine war though I can’t find it now. Captured Russians said that they weren’t told that they were invading Ukraine but that they were on a training exercise.

Corruption was rife in the Red Army in Afghanistan. The black market thrived and Russians would sell anything - including their own weapons - to buy Japanese tape recorders and fashionable Western clothes. One soldier described how his comrades would “cook” their bullets by boiling them in water before selling them to the Afghans. They knew that the Afghans would likely be shooting the secondhand ammunition back at them and wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t be accurate. You can’t make this stuff up.

The black market may have also driven the shortages. An infantryman explained that soldiers were only issued four magazines, although many bought or bartered for more. A doctor complained that his clinic only had one syringe, and a nurse said that she had to make thread to sew up wounds by unraveling parachute cord.

But the Soviet system was also responsible for the dearth of equipment. Soldiers were often issued used uniforms and several mention working with WWII-era equipment. In Ukraine, Russia has used 1950s-era T-55 tanks and the invaders have been plagued by supply shortages and logistical problems.

Shortages and losses likely contributed to poor morale among the Soviet soldiers. Drunkenness was common as was drug use. Some soldiers went out on patrol under the influence of hashish and opium, sometimes provided free by Afghan traders. This tended to shorten life expectancies.

Women had other problems. Sexual harassment and sexual assault were commonplace as well. The Soviet army was definitely not enlightened and progressive when it came to the treatment of female soldiers and civilian workers. In many cases, women paired up with an officer both for protection and for the creature comforts that rank provided.

I have to imagine that many Russian soldiers in Ukraine are similar to the soldiers in this book. Russia is conscripting large numbers of young men and shipping them to the war zone with minimal training. Some soldiers described in the book went from conscription to casualty in as little as five months. Basic training sometimes involved doing more labor for officers than training for combat. Many Russian conscripts in Ukraine are similarly rushed into combat and used as cannon fodder.

Some things are similar, others are different. Where the Afghantsi write about mines and snipers, their comrades in Ukraine would also have drones and artillery to fear. Rather than an insurgency, the Ukraine war has developed into a trench and artillery war similar to WWI.

One thing that’s different is that the butcher bill is much higher in Ukraine. The BBC reports that 50,000 Russians have been confirmed killed in two years in Ukraine. That’s equivalent to American casualties over 20 years in Vietnam. For further reference, the USSR lost about 15,000 soldiers killed in the 10-year Afghan war and the US has had about 7,000 soldiers killed in the War on Terror. Russia’s population is smaller than the US as well so the heavy losses are even worse on a per capita basis.

The Russian people back home may not hear or believe the truth of what their boys are doing and suffering in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, there was a news blackout on the war for many years. Casualties were returned home in sealed zinkys (sometimes smelling bad and, according to one parent, dripping worms) and the information about how they died was classified. Surviving veterans were warned not to talk about what they had seen. Film (that stuff that used to be in cameras in order to take pictures) was confiscated and letters were censored.

In 2024, it is more difficult to maintain a news blackout than it was in the 1980s, but most Russians have still grown up under the brainwashing of the Putin regime. Another podcast that I’m currently listening to “To Die For,” explains how Russian children grow up under an authoritarian state that they view as almost Christlike. Paramilitary training for Russian children now starts as young as six years old, and service to the Putin state, much like the communist state of old, is considered the ideal.

”To Die For” follows the story of a young woman who was trained by the FSB (i.e. the new KGB) to be a seductive “honey trap” agent. While I can only recommend it to mature audiences, the podcast is salacious but not erotic. You feel deeply sympathetic to Aliia Roza, who grew up in a conservative Russian Muslim family and was essentially human-trafficked by Russian security services after training that consisted of a seemingly endless string of sexual assaults. Harvey Weinstein has nothing on the rape culture in the Russian military.

Both “The Zinky Boys” and “To Die For” provide disturbing windows into Russian life. I can dislike “The Zinky Boys” for their undisciplined behavior in Afghanistan, but as several of the Afghantsi point out, the real bad guys were the party leaders who sent them there. In Soviet Russia, as in Putin’s Russia, you point and shoot where the commanders tell you. Dissent is not encouraged and can be hazardous to your health.

While you can dislike the Russian soldiers for their atrocities, you can also pity them. Their lives were drastically altered by the loss of loved ones and, in some cases, limbs. The anguish of the wives and mothers is real and relatable. These people are human, even if they are an enemy.

Putin’s government is as morally bankrupt as the Soviet communists who sent young Russians off to die for a lie in the 1980s. In many ways, the two are very similar. And that includes the steady stream of zinkys returning from the battlefield of an unpopular war.

I’m a nonviolent guy, but I’m not a pacifist. Even though I enjoy reading military history, I see war as wasteful and horrible. I also see it as sometimes necessary. When an aggressive dictator tries to annex a neighboring country, war is necessary if those people want to preserve their freedom. I also believe that America should support the cause of freedom whenever it is practical to do so.

While I pity the poor Russian soldiers caught between Putin’s imperialist police state and Ukrainian defenders, I welcome the news that Speaker Johnson is finally going to allow a vote on aid to Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine. I think that it has the votes to pass, which is probably why Johnson and the MAGA fringe refused to bring it to a vote.

Russia is experiencing many of the same problems that the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan. The Russian army is big, but not very efficient. They can be beaten. As I’ve said before, Putin’s best hope lies with the Republican Party.

War is an ugly business but sometimes necessary. For Ukraine, the war is not a war of choice. The only man who has the ability to end the war is Vladimir Putin, but he seems intent on creating a new generation of Zinky Boys.

From the Racket News 

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