Fancher on Umland and Ackerman and Galbas and Blacker, 'Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society: Double Special Issue: Back from Afghanistan: The Experiences of Soviet Afghan War Veterans, vol. 1, no. 2 (2015)'

Andreas Umland, Felix Ackerman, Michael Galbas, Uilleam Blacker, eds.
James Fancher

Andreas Umland, Felix Ackerman, Michael Galbas, Uilleam Blacker, eds. Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society: Double Special Issue: Back from Afghanistan: The Experiences of Soviet Afghan War Veterans, vol. 1, no. 2 (2015). Stuttgart: ibidem, 2016. 250 pp. $39.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-0806-0.

Reviewed by James Fancher (University of North Texas) Published on H-War (November, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Since the end of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), scholars have increasingly focused on the role of combat veterans known as afgantsy in post-Soviet societies. In this double special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, general editor Julie Fedor and several guest editors bring together a collection of fourteen well-researched and detailed articles exploring the complicated position of these veterans in their post-Soviet native countries and the revival of martyrdom in the national memories of postcommunist eastern European countries. In addition to these two main sections containing articles, the volume includes three smaller sections discussing a report about the July 2015 Munich conference on martyrdom in Ukrainian politics, three excellent review essays focusing on a scholarly biographical approach to Ukrainian insurgent leader Stepan Bandera, and a highly informative book review section.

Several articles describe the political rise of Soviet soldiers returning home, including Russian Federation vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi. This resulted from veterans joining local Communist Party units in Tajikistan, Russia, Ukraine, or elsewhere, successfully integrating themselves into the realm of politics. In the article “The Varied Reintegration of the Afghan War Veterans in Their Home Society,” Yaacov Ro’i states that many veterans had risen to power in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies by early 1989 and subsequently played a key diplomatic role in securing the release of Soviet troops being held captive by Afghan insurgent leaders.

According to Michael Galbas, veterans became the subject of national neglect in post-Soviet society as Russian leaders of the 1990s sought to brush aside the Afghan fiasco as an inconvenient and annoying memory. In Russia, veterans’ organizations struggled to gain recognition and state benefits for the afgansty, receiving little recognition for their service until the rise of President Vladimir Putin in 2000. Galbas argues that under Putin’s rule, Russia’s afgantsy have been propelled from victim status to national heroes as the regime has continued portraying the Soviet-Afghan War as a preemptive struggle against global Islamist militancy.

In post-Soviet Ukraine and Tajikistan, Soviet-Afghan War veterans frequently found themselves on opposing sides of various internal conflicts. Iryna Sklokina points out that in the recent and ongoing conflict over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, veterans on opposing sides have volunteered as mediators to resolve local confrontations. Another article, by Markus Goransson, discusses the relations between Tajik veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War and their country’s communist and early post-Soviet regimes. In “A Fragile Movement: Afghan War Veterans and the Soviet Collapse, 1979-1992,” Goransson argues that while many leading Tajik veterans rallied to support the Communist Party and the regime that replaced it, many others embraced the nationalist and Islamic resistance movements that emerged as the Soviet system collapsed.

Focusing on the role of martyrdom and memory in postcommunist eastern Europe, the other half of the articles included by the editors discuss the ways in which the region’s popular perception of the martyr’s image has been adopted by governments and popular movements alike. In “Martyrdom, Spectacle, and Public Space: Ukraine’s National Martyrology from Shevchenko to the Maidan,” Uilleam Blacker traces the origins of martyrdom as a concept in Ukraine to the foundations of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Coopting Christian imagery of Christ’s suffering on the cross, resistance leaders such as Stepan Bandera continued recruiting supporters to the national cause while denouncing Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as villains equal in their sins against the Ukrainian people.

No less than their Ukrainian counterparts, Russian playwrights, authors, and politicians have also successfully connected the popular concept of martyrdom to national memory, influencing the Russian public’s general perception of its country’s history. In “The Eternal Martyr: Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger as a Cinematic Reflection on Russian Martyrdom,” Sander Brouwer emphasizes the former Soviet and modern Russian government’s use of martyrdom to emphasize the enormous sacrifices involved in defeating Hitler’s armies. After achieving victory in the Second World War, post-Stalinist leaders continued comparing Western governments with the Nazis during and after the Cold War to instill patriotism and hostility towards the perceived Western threat until the present day.

The articles presented throughout this volume are well researched and highly informative, providing readers with detailed accounts of societal developments in the last years of the Soviet Union and postcommunist eastern Europe. Most of the authors, including Jan C. Behrends, Markus Goransson, and Yaacov Roi, interviewed Soviet Army veterans who served in Afghanistan. The interviewees also include many participants in the ranks of opposing sides in more recent conflicts such as those in Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The volume’s second half presents readers with an equally fascinating range of topics relating to martyrdom. Emphasizing the divergent ways in which the Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Jewish faith communities of Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere remember and honor their fallen ancestors persecuted by the Nazi or Soviet regimes, the authors call attention to the conflicting attempts at memory in the former Eastern Bloc countries. These conflicts primarily occur as members of each faith seek to remember and honor the fallen, sometimes to the neglect of the struggles of their neighbors.

These works successfully address virtually all topics relating to the postwar lives of Soviet-Afghan War veterans and the role of martyrdom in eastern Europe. More information on the lives of the Soviet Army defectors who joined the Afghan resistance fighters in the trenches against their former comrades would have made for a fascinating topic for the scholars to include. Yet the authors have successfully addressed and explained the major issues faced by the Soviet-Afghan War veterans and the diverse nature of their subsequent political activities, and the editors have made an important contribution by organizing their works into this volume. They have also succeeded in informing readers about the uses of martyrdom as both a cultural and political tool in much of eastern Europe. Readers with even a minimal level of knowledge of the subjects emphasized in this issue will genuinely appreciate and learn from the findings of each scholar’s research as this diverse region of the world continues to captivate historians investigating how its turbulent past continues to affect those living in the present.

Citation: James Fancher. Review of Umland, Andreas; Ackerman, Felix; Galbas, Michael; Blacker, Uilleam, eds., Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society: Double Special Issue: Back from Afghanistan: The Experiences of Soviet Afghan War Veterans, vol. 1, no. 2 (2015). H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL:

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