Zinky Boys – Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War – Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Julia and Robin Whitby)

For a number of years, each September the speculation about the latest Nobel Laureate surface, and for a number of years Svetlana Alexievich is a name that has been high up on the betting boards. Finally on 8 October this year the Nobel Prize for Literature judges announced Svetlana Alexievich as the 2015 winner, for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
As per last year’s winner Patrick Modiano, there are a limited amounts of Alexievich’s works available in English and given the Prize announcement the availability of her books from libraries is virtually non-existent. The two works currently available in English are “Voices from Chernobyl” and “Zinky Boys – Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War”. Her work “Second Hand Time” will be released in May 2016 by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the United Kingdom. Both “Chernobyl” and “Zinky Boys” use the interview form to explore Russian national traumas and as Philip Gourevitch said in the “New Yorker”
But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices. …Every mode of expression has its formal demands. For writing that’s not fictive, that means fidelity to documentable reality; yet the best of it can only be done when the writer has an imagination as free as any novelist, playwright, or poet.
So perhaps, given the favorable odds at Ladbrokes for Alexievich, we may, before long, see novels routinely praised as having all the power and scope of nonfiction, rather than the other way around. And, as soon as the Nobel’s nonfiction barrier is, at last, broken, the fact that it ever existed will come to seem absurd. Literature is just a fancy word for writing.’
“Zinky Boys” looks at the failed Russian invasion of Afghanistan through the voices of the players, not only the voices of the soldiers, but also the mother’s the civilian workers and more. It is a revelation on a war that was reduced to the small sections of the newspapers, if reported at all, it is an expose of a propaganda machine and an insight into the horror of a forgotten conflict.
The average age of Russian soldiers deployed to Afghanistan (and interestingly US Vietnam GI’s) was nineteen, they served fixed combat tours of duty, two years for the Soviets, one year for the GI’s, and they generally came from lower socio-economic backgrounds:
Indeed, before 1980, meaningful, sensible treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the Veterans Administration (VA) was simply unheard of. If a veteran went to the VA he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, invited to enter the Psychiatric Ward and join the Thorazine shuffle.
Until 1988, Soviet psychologists had never heard of PTSD, until American psychologists expert with post-war trauma visited and told them. Up till then their answer was behaviour modification with drugs – the way Soviet psychiatry had always dealt with mental illness.
          Larry Heinemann “Introduction
That alone does not address the handicapped (those missing limbs) who have to deal with a poor health system, nor the “self medicators”. All of this information is presented to you before you begin the book, the background to a war seen as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
“Zinky Boys” itself opens with “Notes from my diary” and explains how Alexievich was handed the fate that forced her to write this book:
Yur Karyakin once wrote: ‘We should not judge a man’s life by his perception of himself. Such a perception may be tragically inadequate.’ And I read something in Kafka to the effect that man was irretrievably lost within himself.
But I don’t want to write about war again…
Reading Svetlana Alexievich’s notes from her diary, we come across numerous references to writers, Kafka, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, just to name a few, the heroic references to noble wars:
There’s something immoral, voyeuristic, about peering too closely at a person’s courage in the face of danger. Yesterday we had breakfast in the canteen and said hello to the young man on guard-duty. Half an hour later he was killed by a stray fragment of motar-shell that exploded in the barracks. All day long I tried to recall the face of that boy.
Once we learn of Alexievich’s decision to write about the Afghanistan war, the book moves to the voices of the impacted people. We have the stories from the veterans in their own words, for example a nurse:
We must show understanding for the kids who went through all that. I was a grown woman of thirty and it was devastating enough for me, but they were just boys, they didn’t understand a thing. They were taken from their homes, had a gun stuck in their hands and were taught to kill. They were told they were on a holy mission and that their country would remember them. Now people turn away and try to forget the war, especially those who sent us there in the first place. Nowadays even we vets talk about it less and less when we meet up. No one likes this war. And yet I still cry when I hear the Afghan national anthem, I got to like all Afghan music over there. I still listen to it, it’s like a drug.
The term “Zinky” comes from the zinc coffins in which the dead were transported home and secretly buried, the sealed coffins with possibly full bodies, sometimes just parts of remains, and each coffin was never opened, buried in remote sections of cemeteries, generally at night, to keep the general public in the dark about the casualties the war was inflicting.
The book is made up of numerous interviews, relentless stories of horror, generally told in a clinical voice, and the same repetition, “we were/are abandoned by our Government”, “we were lied to”:
I went to Afghanistan thinking I’d come home with my head held high. Now I realise the person I was before this war has gone forever.
Our company was combing through a village. I was patrolling with another lad. He pushed open a hut door with his leg and was shot point-blank with a machine-gun. Nine rounds. In that situation hatred takes over. We shot everything, right down to the domestic animals. In fact, shooting animals is the worst. I was sorry for them I wouldn’t let the donkeys be shot – they’d done nothing wrong, had they? They had amulets hanging from their necks, exactly the same as the children. It really upset me, setting fire to that wheat-field – I’m a country boy myself.
And:
Only a madman will tell you the whole truth about what went on there, that’s for sure. There’s a lot you’ll never know. When the truth is too terrible it doesn’t get told. Nobody wants to be the first to come out with it – it’s just too risky.
Did you know that drugs and fur coats were smuggled in in coffins? Yes, right in there with the bodies! Have you ever seen necklaces of dried ears? Yes, trophies of war, rolled up into little leaves and kept in matchboxes! Impossible? You can’t believe such things of our glorious Soviet boys? Well, they could and did happen, and you won’t be able to cover them up with a coat of that cheap silver paint they use to paint the railings round our graves and war memorials…
Even though the horror is relentless Svetlana Alexievitch has managed to get these people to speak the truth, we hear so many stories from so many angles, wives, mothers, support crew, soldiers, commanders, doctors, nurses and the truth is so terrible you wish it hadn’t been told. It is not only the killing, the dehumanisation, it is also the sexual abuse, the pursuit of material goods, drug use, wanting to go home with a decent cassette recorder, we learn of bribery to stay out of the call up:
I had twins, two boys, but only Kolya survived. He was on the ‘Special Care’ register of the Maternity Institute until he was eighteen, when his call up papers arrived. Was it necessary to send boys like him to Afghanistan? My neighbour kept getting at me – and perhaps she was right. ‘Couldn’t you scrape a couple of thousand roubles together and bribe someone? We knew of a woman who did exactly that, and kept her son out. And my son had to go instead. I didn’t realise that I could save my son with money. I’d thought the best gift I could give him was a decent upbringing.
This is a harrowing book, a plethora of atrocities, a living nightmare, and as we draw to a conclusion there is a section of letters and phone calls made post publication, of the dark feelings and rebellion that this expose has brought to light. As our back cover says:
Zinky Boys does raise, in stark fashion, the problem which has plagued Americans for twenty years: how to honour the dead and respect the rights of the veterans of a war which has become widely accepted as a national historical disgrace” Literary Review.

This is a book that demands to be read, one that has been around for twenty-three years in English and has now only come to my attention as a result of the Nobel Prize. A book that will rock you to the core a book you will never forget.

Source – personal copy.

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One thought on “Zinky Boys – Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War – Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Julia and Robin Whitby)

  1. Great review. Another writer where the Nobel publicity seems well deserved – I'm afraid I would never have heard of her otherwise. The blurring between fiction and non-fiction is also interesting.

    Like

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