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‘No normal person would oppose the Afghan War’ Protesting the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan came at a heavy cost. In Russia today, history is repeating itself.
This story was originally published by Meduza in Russian. The following translation, which has been abridged for length and clarity, appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza in English covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
In December 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Upon hearing the news, 31-year-old Natalya Lazareva, an artist from Leningrad, penned an “Appeal to the Women of the World” condemning the invasion. But when she read over the text, she wasn’t happy with how it had turned out. So she crumpled the piece of paper, put it in a folder, and forgot all about it.
Nine months later, KGB officers who raided Lazareva’s studio discovered the abandoned “appeal.”
Initially, the artist was accused of violating article 190-1 of the Russian SFSR’s Criminal Code on “spreading deliberate fabrications that slander the Soviet political and social system.” However, Lazareva ended up standing trial on a different charge, perhaps so the authorities could avoid further accusations of human rights violations against the backdrop of the war. The artist was ultimately convicted of forging employment records and sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Lazareva served half of her term in Leningrad’s notorious Kresty Prison and the rest in a women’s penal colony in the Leningrad region. “Having gone through this, I could no longer stay on the sidelines and refrain from engaging in human rights work, which in those days was considered ‘anti-Soviet activity,’” she said years later.
In March 1982, less than a year after her release from prison, Lazareva stood trial once again — this time on felony charges of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” She then served another four years in a Gulag camp for women political prisoners in Mordovia.
‘The bloody mess of the Afghan venture’
“International assistance” — that’s how the Soviet authorities justified the Afghanistan invasion, recalled a historian who specializes in the dissident movement in the USSR during the Thaw and Stagnation eras. The Soviet leadership had used this playbook before: when they crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, for example. “In the case of Czechoslovakia, [claims] that they had asked for this aid were simply made up,” the historian underscored.
Please note: The historian quoted in this article was granted anonymity for safety reasons. As you may recall, the Russian authorities outlawed Meduza as an “undesirable organization” in January 2023, making any “cooperation” with our newsroom a criminal offense in Russia, punishable by fines and, in some cases, imprisonment.
Representatives of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which came to power after a coup d’état in April 1978, did in fact appeal to the USSR many times, but to no avail. The Soviet authorities only decided to initiate a military operation against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with the United States and its allies — namely, in late 1979, after revelations about NATO’s plans to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany, within striking range of Soviet territory.
Soviet officials told the population that only a “limited contingent of forces” was sent into Afghanistan, claiming that servicemen were mainly involved in building roads, hospitals, and schools, the historian recalled. “Soviet society truly had no idea about the scale of the losses,” he added.
Despite the dearth of reliable information, many people in the USSR opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, they weren’t able to express their anti-war stance openly. The Soviet Constitution guaranteed citizens freedoms of assembly and speech, but only in accordance with the “interests of the workers.” And these interests were determined by none other than the Communist Party leadership.
Under these conditions, writing appeals to the Soviet authorities and Western leaders became one of the main forms of protest. On January 21, 1980, for example, the Moscow Helsinki Group adopted “Document 119,” which demanded the implementation of a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for the “immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.” Since the Moscow Helsinki Group’s founding in 1976, its members had been under constant pressure from the KGB. The rights group was forced to stop working in 1982.
The Moscow Helsinki Group resumed operations at the height of the Perestroika era in 1989. In January 2023, however, a Moscow court ruled in favor of the Justice Ministry and ordered the Moscow Helsinki Group’s dissolution, thereby shutting down Russia’s oldest human rights organization.
The USSR’s most prominent human rights activist, physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, also condemned the invasion — both in his personal letters and in interviews with the Western press. A month into the war, on January 22, 1980, both Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner were arrested and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) without trial.
Assessing the overall scale of the protests against the Afghanistan invasion remains difficult, the historian told Meduza’s correspondent. Expressions of dissent were “individual” and “unrelated.” People like Valeryan Morozov (an economist from Nizhny Tagil), Pyotr Siuda (a worker from Novocherkassk), and Viktor Tomachinsky (a mechanic who repaired dissidents’ cars) all spoke out against the war, independently of each other.
In the Moscow Metro, unidentified protesters scrawled “Freedom for Afghanistan!” across subway cars. Leaflets calling on citizens to start fighting the Soviet authorities at home rather than dying “for a foreign land” appeared across Ukraine.
Posev, a Russian-language socio-political magazine printed in West Germany and circulated clandestinely in the USSR, published the testimonies of Afghan refugees and recounted how “yesterday’s tenth graders” were dying after being “thrown by the caring hands of the government into the bloody mess of the Afghan venture.” The Samizdat magazine Maria, created by activists from the USSR’s underground women’s movement, urged mothers not to send their sons off to war and quoted the recollections of conscripts who had returned from Afghanistan. And the Group for Establishing Trust between the USSR and the USA — a pacifist dissident organization — repeatedly tried to hold demonstrations in both Moscow and Leningrad.
According to the historian, there could have been more protests if not for the fact that many key human rights activists had been locked up before the Afghanistan invasion, in preparation for the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980. “It’s easier to name who wasn’t arrested in 1979 and 1980 and who was arrested later,” he said.
As a rule, the war’s opponents were charged with “spreading deliberate fabrications slandering the Soviet political and social system” or with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” — criminal offenses that carried punishments of up to three years in prison or up to seven years in a Gulag camp and five years in exile, respectively. Repeat offenders charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” risked up to 10 years in the camps.
The authorities even forced some dissidents into psychiatric hospitals, where they underwent punitive “treatment” using potent drugs and brutal methods that left some disabled.
But people protested nonetheless.
Protesting in the USSR
For Radio Moscow World Service announcer Vladimir Danchev, it all started with a misprint in a news bulletin. “The meaning of the sentence was completely distorted by the chance appearance of the grammatical particle ‘not,’” he later recalled in an interview. “I thought, What if I don’t take out this [‘not’] on air and read it as is? Worst comes to worst, I can point to the typo.”
No one noticed the “mistake” during the broadcast — and so Danchev gradually started changing the scripts himself.
These “dangerous games” continued for about a year. During a news program on May 18, 1983, Danchev reported that “the leaders of the Afghan tribes [had] vowed to fight against the Soviet invaders.” Two days later, he declared that “the Soviet Union [had] again shown that it’s not ready to develop constructive solutions regarding nuclear arms limitation in Europe.” On May 23, he condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in three consecutive news reports.
Fellow radio announcer Vasily Strelnikov was listening to the radio at home when he heard the news that “Soviet occupiers have burnt down a village.” He couldn’t believe what Danchev had said (Strelnikov described his colleague as a “Community Party member” and “an exemplary Soviet citizen”). The next day, he asked Danchev if everything was all right following his “mistake.” “I read out everything just as it should be,” his colleague calmly replied.
The Moscow Radio leadership found out about Danchev’s dissident messaging from the Western press. The newscaster was fired from his job, expelled from the Communist Party, and exiled to his hometown of Tashkent, where he was forced to undergo psychiatric “treatment.” In 1990, Danchev said in an interview that a group of French journalists helped secure his release.
In 1972, nuclear geophysicist Iosif Dyadkin moved from Bashkortostan to Kalinin (now Tver). There, he befriended Soviet dissidents and, a few years later, decided to conduct a demographic study. In his work, which was poignantly titled “Extras,” Dyadkin analyzed official population data and determined that famine and repressions killed 10 to 15 million people in the USSR between 1928 and 1941.
Just as he did with other uncensored articles, Dyadkin typed up his findings and circulated it among his friends and acquaintances. In April 1980, he was arrested on charges of “spreading deliberate fabrications.” Investigators accused him of “slandering” the Soviet authorities not only in his writing, but also in conversations with his colleagues at the Geophysical Research Institute. Among other things, he had called socialism “a regime of violence and mass extermination of peoples,” referred to Soviet “assistance” to Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan as “aggression,” and said that the “Soviet Union’s foreign policy had led to the outbreak of World War II.”
Dyadkin was put on trial along with 27-year-old Sergey Gorbachev, a junior employee at the Centerprogramsystem Research Institute. “Apparently, [the authorities] decided that if they arrested and put pressure on him, then he would testify against me. But they miscalculated,” Dyadkin recounted. “Sergey, although he wasn’t a dissident, wasn’t the kind of person who would testify against a friend.”
Gorbachev was accused of printing copies of Mikhail Rozanov’s “Non-political Letters” (a pamphlet about totalitarianism and how to resist it) and giving one to a friend. Both men pleaded not guilty and received the exact sentences the prosecutor had asked for: three years in prison for Dyadkin and two for Gorbachev.
Boris Mirkin, a senior laboratory technician at the Research Institute of Military Medicine, was known as a “calm, peaceful, and quiet” man who wrote songs and loved to play the guitar. His arrest in 1981 provoked surprise and disbelief.
A month earlier, during a “secrecy inspection,” the 44-year-old was found in possession of “typewritten materials in poetic form” — poems in which Mirkin had condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Investigators alleged that Mirkin’s poems were “malicious fabrications” that slandered the USSR’s state system, as well as its domestic and foreign policy, and contained “calls to overthrow the Soviet government.” Mirkin didn’t deny that he used poetry to express his political views but maintained that he wasn’t guilty of committing a crime. His colleagues at the research institute agreed.
Nevertheless, in August 1981, Mirkin was convicted of “anti-Soviet agitation” and sentenced to three and half years in prison. He served his sentence in Perm-35, a Gulag camp for political prisoners. There, he trained as a wood turner. After his release, he was no longer allowed to carry out scientific research and continued working as a tradesman.
In 1984, Evgeny Denisov, an archeologist from Dushanbe, spent several days doing excavation work near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. In his recollections of that trip, he described helicopters carrying rockets flying overhead and the muffled sounds of intermittent explosions coming from the South. “One of the members of the expedition showed me a small cape on the opposite bank of the Amu Darya [river] where, according to him, a group of Afghan guerrilla insurgents were corralled and then burned alive with Napalm from a helicopter.”
The next day, Denisov wrote, the members of the expedition were “laughing and discussing everyday trifles.” The events on the neighboring shore seemed as though they were “on a big television screen.” But upon returning home — where “it seemed as though the ‘television’ had been turned off” — Denisov realized that he couldn’t stay silent.
For the next year, he spent his free time typing up leaflets calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. “I wanted not so much to tell the truth as to nudge others towards opposing this never-ending, bloody madness,” the archeologist explained.
In December 1986, the 35 year old took another work trip — this time to Moscow. While there, he mailed more than a dozen letters to magazine and newspaper editors in the capital, and another three letters to friends, imploring them to “forward” his anti-war texts “to the West.” Denisov then made his way to the GUM department store, where he climbed to the top floor and proceeded to scatter anti-war leaflets. Once finished, the archeologist simply waited for the police to come and arrest him. Officers took him in for interrogation, first at a police station and then in the psychiatric hospital at the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention center. He was then moved to a cell in the KGB’s Lefortovo prison.
A court convicted Denisov of “anti-Soviet agitation” and sent him for forced “treatment” at a special psychiatric hospital in Tashkent. “Because no normal person would oppose the war in Afghanistan,” the archeologist commented sardonically. Denisov was released in September 1988.
* * *
In late 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner permission to return from exile. Three years later, Sakharov gave a speech before the Congress of People’s Deputies — the highest official body in the USSR in the years leading up to its collapse.
“I have deep respect for the Soviet army; the Soviet soldier who defended our motherland in the Great Patriotic War,” the academic said. “The fact of the matter is that the war in Afghanistan itself was criminal. A criminal venture undertaken by no one knows who. We do not know who bears responsibility for this enormous crime against our motherland.”
The deputies in the hall interrupted Sakharov’s speech with disapproving cries, whistling, and stomping several times.
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Andrei Sakharov died on December 14, 1989. Ten days later, the Congress of People’s Deputies voted to denounce the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. However, as the historian interviewed by Meduza’s correspondent pointed out, the courts refused to rehabilitate those who had been persecuted for condemning the war until Russia passed a law “on the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions” in 1991.
“Often those [in the justice system] responsible for rehabilitation were the very same people who, for example, had previously upheld dissidents’ sentences,” he explained. “The times changed, and they started to act in accordance with the times.”
Some of these people are still in power today and use the same tactics to go after their opponents, the historian added. “Consider the president [Vladimir Putin], who took part in raiding the homes of dissidents in the 1970s. Or Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, who tried human rights activists in the 1980s. The new is the not-so-well-forgotten old.”
‘Everyone has forgotten everything and history is repeating itself’
In April 2023, a coalition of lawyers and human rights groups — including OVD-Info, Memorial, and Russia Behind Bars — filed complaints with Russia’s Constitutional Court on behalf of 10 people charged with “discrediting” the army.
According to OVD-Info, the authorities have opened more than 6,800 misdemeanor cases against people for “discrediting” the armed forces since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Some people were charged for holding up Ukrainian or white-blue-white flags, others for carrying signs with the words “Peace” or “No to War.” Other defendants were charged for poetry readings or even for wearing yellow-and-blue clothes. Another 80 people are facing criminal charges for allegedly “discrediting” the Russian army repeatedly.
“Any critical opinions about the armed forces are punished,” underscored OVD-Info lawyer Maria Nemova. “The ornate wording [of the law] is just tinsel that distracts from the unconstitutional, repressive aims of this article.”
“It seems that this lesson should’ve been learned,” said OVD-Info lawyer Violetta Fitzner. “But as we see now, everyone has forgotten everything, and history is repeating itself.”
Indeed, Russia’s ongoing crackdown on any and all anti-war sentiment increasingly resembles the Soviet authorities’ efforts to stamp out dissent.
“It’s the same policy: a monopoly on the truth and the interpretation of what’s happening,” the historian said. “The truth doesn’t matter, what matters is how information is used. If this information is used to criticize, in a manner of speaking, then the authorities say that it’s unreliable. Everything that’s not in our favor is a lie. Everything that’s in our favor is the truth.”
* * *
In the winter of 1983, Oleg Orlov — then a 30-year-old researcher at the Institute of Plant Physiology at the USSR’s Academy of Sciences — regularly spent his nights going around to different Moscow neighborhoods and pasting leaflets on bus stops and in the lobbies and elevators of apartment buildings. Orlov’s leaflets called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and an end to the war.
Photocopiers were few and far between in the USSR. So in order to print his leaflets, Orlov had taken it upon himself to assemble a hectograph — an old gelatin duplicator used by Russian revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century. “To my wild astonishment, it turned out that a hectograph is a very simple thing,” Orlov told Memorial’s podcast Single Protest (he found the instructions in a pre-revolutionary Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedia).
Even under cover of night, carrying out this type of protest action was “scary,” Orlov recalled. “It was especially scary when I’d done it and that’s it — it’s already irreversible. Maybe [the authorities] are looking for me already,” he said.
KGB officers never did manage to find Orlov. The raids of his home would take place many years later, on March 21, 2023. That same day, the news broke that Orlov — now the co-chair of the Memorial Human Rights Center — was facing criminal charges for repeatedly “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.
The Russian authorities have twice fined Orlov for conducting solitary pickets against the country’s all-out war on Ukraine. Now, he faces up to three years in prison. The formal pretext for opening a criminal case against him was a Facebook post: Orlov had shared one of his own opinion pieces titled, “They Wanted Fascism — And They Got it.”
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