During the first two years of Soviet occupation, the Soviet press never admitted the involvement of Soviet troops in combat in Afghanistan. The little Soviet news coverage that did come out about Soviet military activity was not informative.
Afghan students returning from the Soviet Union often commented on how poorly informed the Soviet public was about the real situation in Afghanistan. This lack of information was a reflection of the Soviet authoritarian system that was geared to screen out unfavourable news, to distort facts, and to hew to the set propaganda line.
Soviet soldiers were prohibited from discussing their military experience, even after separation from military service. Such information as was provided during 1980-81 to the Soviet public about Afghanistan sought to give the impression that the “limited contingent” of Soviet troops lived a normal home-country type of life in Afghanistan, consisting for the most part of training exercises.
Only occasionally was mention made of the courage displayed by some soldier subjected to “a severe test.” Not until September 1981, almost two years after the invasion, did the Soviet media for the first time admit to the death of a Soviet soldier, in this case, a military adviser attached to DRA troops.
For the most part, during those first two years, the theme repeated in the Soviet media was that “the situation (in Afghanistan) is gradually but steadily normalizing.” No details ever were given. Then, in 1982 and more so in 1983, the Soviet press began hinting that Soviet troops sometimes were directly involved in the fighting.
Again, however, no details were given on where the fighting occurred or what was the role of Soviet troops. By the end of 1983, despite a Western estimate of 20,000 accumulated Soviet casualties, the Soviet media had reported only six deaths and six wounded after four years of fighting.
Two of the very few Soviet press statements touching on how the troops were faring were as follows: We are not going to hide the fact that they are having a tough time, and sometimes it is very, very tough. It is dangerous for our officers and men fulfilling their inter- nationalist duty in Afghanistan.
The Soviets were very sensitive about revealing losses of any kind suffered in the Afghan war. No casualty lists and virtually no names were publicly released. The first admission that a Soviet soldier had been killed occurred only in September 1981, and thereafter no more than a handful of Soviet casualties was mentioned.
By the end of 1983, only 12 Soviet soldiers had been identified as casualties (six killed, six wounded) after four years of fighting. To hide the existence of casualties, the Soviets initially evacuated most of their wounded to Eastern Europe. Later, as casualties mounted, the Soviets were compelled to convert two schools in Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia into military hospitals.
To hide casualties further, the Soviets stopped shipping bodies back to the Soviet Union, supposedly burying them in Afghanistan. This tactic presumably was taken because the number of coffins might draw comment; and also the Russian family custom of viewing the dead before burial might draw attention to the war.
The Soviet penchant for hiding casualties is illustrated by the experience of a Swedish journalist who travelled behind the lines in Afghanistan in the winter of 1983-1984. On returning to Stockholm, he phoned a Soviet couple in the USSR to inform them that their prisoner-of-war son, held by the resistance in Afghanistan, was alive in December 1983 but probably would not be able to return home soon.
The Russian parents said that they had not even known their son was in Afghanistan, much less that anything had happened to him. His last letter to them was dated August 1983 and was stamped “field post.”
The US government estimated that through 1984 the Soviets suffered casualties of between 20,000 and 25,000 (one-third killed), a rate of 4,000 to 5,000 casualties per year. 15 Estimates of Soviet casualties by resistance groups were much higher, as much as 50,000.
The fact that the Soviets sometimes experienced considerable casualties was confirmed by Western newsmen travelling in resistance-held areas. In January 1981 an Italian correspondent wrote: “You can see piles of identity cards taken from the corpses of Russian soldiers.”
A Soviet soldier flown to Moscow to recuperate from hepatitis reported that 20 per cent of his unit was dead, wounded, or ill. A Soviet soldier defector estimated in February 1984 that more than half of Soviet soldier deaths in Afghanistan had been from disease or negligence by the military unit commanders.
Due to the absence or shortage of antibiotics, many die of their wounds in the hospitals. Wounded limbs are often automatically amputated, even when the injury is relatively slight. There is an enormous number of unjustified amputations. A frequent cause of death is accidents with poison gas and napalm.
Two Soviet deserters reported that they had been influenced to desert — apart from feelings of disillusionment — because of rumours circulating in Soviet camps that the mujahidin were no longer killing prisoners (other than Soviet officers), and that captured or deserting soldiers were treated well.
They said that many Soviet soldiers, sick of their lot in Afghanistan, almost openly discussed trying to get captured.
Adapted from Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation, (1986) by Bruce Amstutz. Photograph Courtesy of Yuriy Somov. Published under a Creative Commons license.