The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Because if Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Persians, and the British couldn’t do it, we obviously can

Painting depicting a Mujahideen fighter firing an American-made Stinger missile at a Soviet Hind attack helicopter

On 27 December 1979, members of a Soviet airborne brigade were airlifted into Kabul, Afghanistan to overthrow the Afghan government and install a sympathetic regime, thus making the same mistake as several great empires had made before them. Within hours of the initial troop deployment, Soviet forces had overwhelmed the Afghan presidential guard and captured president Hafizollah Amin who was later executed (Phillips). Within days, Soviet armored units had advanced into the countryside to secure major population centers, airbases, and communication lines, and began a full-scale counter-insurgency operation against Muslim tribesmen who had been waging a guerrilla war against the Afghan central government (Phillips).

How did we get to this point?

Soviet involvement in Afghanistan can be loosely traced back to a loan of the equivalent of $100 Million granted to the Afghan government, headed by King Muhammad Zahir Shah, to finance the first Five-Year Economic Development Plan in 1957. The Plan was intended to develop the infrastructure and economy of Afghanistan, and was followed by a second five-year plan in 1962 (Kakar, 8). Soviet support came after Afghan appeals to the United States government for economic and military aid had failed and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles determined that Afghanistan was of no “security interest” the the United States, forcing the Afghans to turn to the USSR for support (Kakar, 9).

Dependence = Independence?

Mohammed Daoud Khan - National Radio TV of Afghanistan
Muhammad Daoud Khan

On 17 July 1973, Muhammad Daoud Khan staged a coup and peacefully overthrew his cousin and brother-in-law King Muhammad Zahir Shah (Heller). Daoud Khan’s regime held power amid significant opposition throughout Afghanistan until Khan was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Marxist regime headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki in 1978 (Heller). Taraki’s regime began to transition Afghanistan into a socialist society by redistributing land, cancelling debts, repressing Islamic institutions and dignitaries, and “compulsory political-education classes under the guise of an anti-illiteracy campaign” before being succeeded by Hafizollah Amin (Heller). The result was widespread revolt among tribal groups in the countryside that were opposed to a secular regime that aimed to dissolve the religious fabric of Afghanistan. The Soviet government provided military and economic aid to Amin’s regime until December 1979 when ” a rump meeting of the Politburo elected to intervene militarily because of the region’s strategic importance, popular opposition to the Afghan government, and rumours that Kabul was making overtures to the American government” (Freeze, 446). The Soviets’ objective was to prop up the faltering Afghan government and install the more moderate Babrak Karmal as president to restore Afghanistan’s status as a Soviet client state (Britannica). However, Karmal was unable to achieve popular support, and the Mujahideen rebellion grew with the support of the United States to drag the USSR into a 10-year war that could not be won.

USSR timeline | Timetoast timelines
Nur Muhammad Taraki

A Foreign War is a Great Way to Pull a Stagnant Economy out of Recession

When the Soviet military entered Kabul in 1979, the USSR was in no position to conduct a prolonged foreign military campaign. Despite the deployment of Soviet units to Afghanistan from as far away as Hungary and East Germany, a demonstration of the strategic mobility and flexibility of the Soviet military, the Soviet economy was in sharp decline under the stewardship of Leonid Brezhnev (Freeze, 440). Furthermore, the invasion was a shining example of Brezhnev-era foreign policy, where a close circle of advisors was consulted and raw military power was preferred over a nuanced understanding of events on the ground (Seventeen Moments). These two aspects were what ultimately doomed the Soviet effort in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union ultimately signed an accord with the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to institute a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. The last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on 15 February 1989 after failing to install a sympathetic regime and losing more than 15,000 soldiers.

Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan in 1988 - file pic
Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan (1988)

The Soviet war in Afghanistan marked the beginning of the end for the USSR as a global superpower. The already strained economy was further hampered by the diversion of resources for the war effort that had no end in sight. Additionally, the tense relations with the west before the Soviet invasion were only made worse through the prolonged conflict. Lastly, the USSR’s reputation as a champion for the “third world” was ruined by the Soviets’ asymmetric response to the Afghan situation, making them appear no better than the imperialist powers of the capitalist west. The Soviet war in Afghanistan pushed the Soviet Union past the point of recovery economically, militarily, and diplomatically until its ultimate dissolution in 1991.

Works Cited

Britannica. Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. 4 December 2019. 22 April 2020.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Heller, Mark. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” The Washington Quarterly (1980): 36-59.

Kakar, Mohammed. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. University of California Press, 1995.

Phillips, James. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” 9 January 1980. 23 April 2020.

The Enemy of My Enemy: Partisans on the Soviet Frontier (1941-1945)

“The enemy shall not escape the people’s revenge” (1941)

The Second World War saw partisan movements in nearly every conflict zone and occupied territory in the world, and the Eastern Front was no exception. Concentrated in occupied Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, underground resistance movements were organized to disrupt and defeat the German eastern advance. In some cases, these same partisan groups turned on the Soviets following the German capitulation in 1945 to fight for independence from the Soviet Union. Although underground movements were widespread in Eastern Europe, this post focuses on partisan movements in Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine.

When the German military initiated Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Red Army was unprepared and forced into retreat, leaving the local populations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine to fend for themselves against the invaders. The racial supremacy-driven ideology of the Nazi occupiers bred “expropriations and atrocities” that alienated the occupied populations and “fuelled the growth of the partisan movement, which may have enrolled as many as 200,000 people by 1943” (Freeze, 385). While resistance forces were active everywhere along the Eastern Front, most notable were the partisan movements in Poland/Belarus and Ukraine.

Soviet partisans in the forest near Polotsk, Byelorussian SSR, 1943. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Belarus stands apart from other occupied states in that approximately 1/3 of the Belarusian population was killed during the German occupation (Ioffe). Belarusian partisan groups appeared as early as 22 June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht entered Belarus, and the partisan movement grew to about 374,000 strong by 1944 when the Red Army liberated the country (Ioffe). By the time the Red Army reached Minsk in 1944, there were approximately 997 partisan units taking orders from Soviet commanders with an additional 258 units operating independently throughout the country (Iotte). Accounting for the assassinations of nearly 500,000 German military personnel and collaborators as well as the destruction of numerous trains, supply depots, telephone wire, tanks, aircraft, vehicles, bridges, and garrisons, the partisan units were instrumental in the defeat of the German army in Belarus and the westward advance of the Red Army. After the war, Belarus was given increased autonomy in the Soviet Union until its formal independence in 1991 (Iotte).

A member of the Polish AK wields a Polish adaptation of the American M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)

Polish partisans operated widely in Poland and western Belarus during the occupation of Poland. Formed in 1939 following the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Home Army (AK) was the primary armed Polish partisan wing (Ney-Krwawicz). The AK was commanded by the Polish government-in-exile and cooperated with the Soviet Union until 1943 when the USSR refused to recognize the Polish government and began disarming AK units (Geldern). As a result, the AK began treating both Germans and Soviets as hostiles and closely aligned with the British through the end of the war (Kondracki). By June 1944, the AK and its affiliates were responsible for the destruction of thousands of tonnes of military hardware and the liberation of many Polish precincts that paved the way for the Soviet offensive of 19 January 1945. Three days later, the Soviet invasion of Germany began from Warsaw (Ney-Krwawicz).

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was perhaps the only underground movement in World War Two to fight against both the Axis and the Allies.
Members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army posing with captured Soviet small arms

With the memories of Soviet-Ukrainian War of 1917-1920 and Polish subjugation of western Ukraine in mind, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) collaborated with the Germans against the Poles and Soviets from 1939-1943 based on the promise of Ukrainian independence ( Stepan Bandera, leader of the OUN, declared an independent “Ukrainian State” on 10 June 1941 with nominal German support. Shortly after in August 1941, the “Ukrainian State” was dissolved and Bandera was transferred to a concentration camp along with many of his associates ( By 1943, the OUN severed ties with the German military and began fighting against both the Germans and Soviets for an independent Ukraine. The OUN and its affiliates helped drive the German army out of Ukraine and used the abandoned German arms and equipment to resist Soviet advance and continued to operate into the 1950s ( The OUN was one of few groups that actively fought against both sides during the Second World War.

In the early months of the Second World War, the Red Army was forced to abandon much of the Soviet frontier in the wake of the German Blitzkrieg. However, the underground partisan movements that arose in opposition to the German occupation were pivotal in the slowing of the German eastern advance and the eventual Soviet victory in Europe. Partisan groups, regardless of their end goals, hampered German war-fighting capabilities by destroying supply and communication lines, disrupting troop movements, and assassinating key German leaders which paved the way for the Red Army’s march to Berlin.

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Global Security. “Ukraine – Anti-Soviet Partisans – 1941-1949.” (n.d.).

Ioffe, Grigory. “The Partisan Movements in Belarus During World War II (Part One).” Eurasia Daily Monitor (2015).

Kondracki, Tadeusz. “The Warsaw Uprising.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).

Ney-Krwawicz, Marek. “The Polish Underground State and Home Army.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).

von Geldern, James. “Partisans in the Forest.” n.d.

Fighting Capitalism with Capitalism: NEP and Russian Youth

The image above is a poster titled “6,000,000 Children Not Served By Schools” (1923). The poster warns that homeless children will resort to crime and begging if they are not helped.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 as a means to reinvigorate the Russian economy following the Civil War. As mentioned by Freeze, the NEP had several aims: “to ease public resentment against the emergency measures of the civil war; to regularize supply and production through a limited reintroduction of the market; to invigorate the grass-roots economy and generate investment capital for industrialization; and, in general, to lay the foundation for the transition to socialism at some unspecified but inevitable future date” (Freeze, 309).

An interesting aspect of the NEP is its seeming separation from the revolutionary vision of the Bolshevik Party. As a result, the Party faced a great challenge in rebuilding the Russian economy while avoiding returning to the ways of the old regime. With a wider socialist revolution in mind, the Bolsheviks naturally concerned themselves with posterity. As with all ideologies, the most effective way of preserving and evolving the Bolshevik ways was through Russian youth and a cultural revolution.

By the end of the Civil War and the 1921-22 Famine, it was believed that there were up to 7.5 million besprizornye, or homeless children, throughout the Soviet Union (Siegelbaum). Thus, the Bolsheviks established institutions for housing, feeding, and rehabilitating homeless children through the 1920s before collectivization was instituted (Siegelbaum). As seen on the poster above, the purpose behind educating and rehabilitating homeless children was to preserve the revolution and prevent youths from straying from “Communist values” (Neumann, 248). Nikolai Bukharin spearheaded the campaign to bring about a “fundamental change in the virtues of men, in their habits, in their feeling and desires, in the way they lived their daily life” (Neumann, 243). However, fostering the “New Soviet Man” came with its own challenges.

Despite efforts to educate Russian youth to be “a lively, active, healthy, disciplined youngster who subordinates to the collective and is prepared for and dedicated to learn, study, and work” like a good communist, the NEP was innately counter-revolutionary. The dire economic circumstances forced the Bolsheviks to compromise “in response to public pressure and in keeping with their own ideological predilections” and postpone the transition to socialism in favor of economic recovery and development (Neumann, 248)(Freeze, 308-309). As a result, educating Russian youth meant instilling the beliefs and principles of Bolshevism and the revolution despite the Bolshevik Party not acting on said beliefs.

What is most interesting about how the Bolsheviks handled children, especially homeless children, is that it seemed less about the public welfare and more about maximizing the number of devoted Bolsheviks under Party control through rehabilitation/indoctrination of children who otherwise had no family or opportunities. Regardless, the institutions established to combat homelessness among Russian youth saw horrible living conditions and high mortality rates (Siegelbaum). Additionally, the introduction of collectivization greatly increased the number of homeless children in the Soviet Union and the institutions for homeless children slowly withered and dissolved.

Overall, Soviet policies for educating youth and reducing the number of homeless children was wrought with inconsistency in planning and execution. The Bolsheviks constantly faced the challenge of preventing the Russian population from returning to pre-revolutionary social norms and practices, and attempted to bring about cultural revolution through the Union’s youth. However, the capitalist aspects of the NEP contradicted the socialist principles taught to youth and was ultimately a failed cause that was overturned by Stalin along with the NEP itself.

Works Cited

Neumann, Matthias. “Revolutionizing Mind and Soul? Soviet Youth and Cultural Campaigns during the New Economic Policy (1921-8).” 2008.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Works of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944)

The Works of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944)

Village of Saatli. Mugan Steppe

The image you see above is titled “Village of Saatli. Mugan Steppe” taken in 1905 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. During his travels throughout the Russian Empire, Gorskii traveled to the Caucasus region in 1904-1905 to photograph the many settlements established by various Russian subjects. The village of Saatli, pictured above, was established by Ukrainian migrants. Saatli is a shining example of Russian expansionist policy as well as its ethnic and geographic diversity. The settlers are seated on logs and wearing the distinctive sheepskin hats of Eastern Europe, surrounded by buildings made of wattle and mud. The areas surrounding the Aras River proved to be extremely harsh, with hot summer temperatures and the constant danger of flooding from the nearby Aras River. What I find most interesting about Gorskii’s photographs of the Caucasus is that they were made possible by the railroad system that further connected the Russian Empire under Sergei Witte’s industrialization policies of the late 19th century. As a result, the Russian Imperial frontier was increasingly connected with Russia itself.

As seen on the map above, Saatli is situated on the right bank of the Aras River (visible in the northern part of the red outline) very close to the border with Persia (contemporary Iran) and approximately 3,074 kilometers south of St. Petersburg, Russia. Gorskii’s photographs in the Caucasus illustrate the far-reaching power of the Russian Empire and how the resettlement policies of the latter 19th Century shaped the region (Shafiyev, pg. 5).

Russian imperial claims in the Caucasus date back to the construction of the Tarki fortress on the Caspian Sea under Tsar Ivan IV in 1559 (Nation, pg. 1). In the subsequent years, Russian claims expanded to the banks of the Aras River, which became the border between the Russian Empire and Persia following the 1829 Treaty of Turkmenchay which concluded a series of wars between Russia and the Ottoman and Persian Empires (Nation, pg. 1). Based on the precedent set by Peter the Great’s resettlement of Russians in St. Petersburg in 1703 after the fall of the Swedish fortress of Nyenschantz, the Russian government encouraged and/or forced Russian subjects to resettle in frontier zones to create “loyal space in the borderland,” and the area of Saatli was no exception (Shafiyev, pg. 5).

The objective behind the resettlement program in the Caucasus was to establish a Christian majority and force out the Muslim populations that resisted Russian occupation and made the area “a cauldron of unrest and armed resistance (Freeze, pg. 224). Though the bulk of the peasants encouraged to settle in the Caucasus by force or otherwise were Germans, Armenians, and Russians, Ukrainians were also settled there as they “were Orthodox by faith” and had “been Russified to a considerable degree” (Freeze, pg. 222).

However, when the above photograph was taken in 1905, “the rebellious sentiments, combined with weakness of state control, was turning the borderlands into the staging-ground and bastion of revolution” (Freeze, pg. 233). While the peasants of the Caucasian frontier endured the hardships of daily life, the Russian military had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1904-1905, demonstrating the weakness of the Russian state, and raising “the level of political unrest in almost every layer of society and within every political grouping, pushing Russian political dialogue several degrees to the left” (Freeze, 249). The Ukrainians seen in Gorskii’s photograph were among one of several national minorities that had “significant nationalist, socialist, and liberal (sometimes all three simultaneously) movements” in Transcaucasia on the eve of the Revolution (Freeze, pg. 256). However, the Ukrainian and Polish minorities throughout the Russian Empire faced “uneasy hostility” from political groups such as the Kadets and Octobrists who increasingly opposed minority aspirations during this time (Freeze, pg. 257).

“Village of Saatli. Mugan Steppe” is one of many examples of the extent of Russian imperial power Russian policies. It is very interesting to see how the Russian government sent people from one occasionally unstable region of the empire (Ukraine) to another (the Caucasus) to quell dissent and resistance as part of Russification. Furthermore, it makes me wonder what the people in the photograph were thinking and doing as the Revolution was beginning 3,000 kilometers to the north while they were struggling to provide for themselves and their families on a daily basis. Personally, this photograph puts the Russian Empire on the eve of Revolution into perspective as its effects were felt in the far corners of the Empire.

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Nation, R. Craig. “Russia and the Caucasus.” Academic Paper. 2015.

Shafiyev, Farid. The Russian-Soviet Resettlement Policies and their Implications for Ethno-Territorial Conflicts in the South Caucasus. PhD Thesis. Ottawa: Carleton University , 2015.

Click to access shafiyev-therussiansovietresettlementpoliciesandtheir.pdf

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