Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Different World

The Soviets brought rigid political conformity but also a degree of social liberalisation when they invaded Afghanistan 25 years ago.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

Like all invading armies, when the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan 25 years ago this month, they brought with them a peculiar mix of the good, the horrendous and the bizarre.

There were certainly no flowers thrown as the tanks rumbled into Kabul. The Afghans were only too well aware of their northern neighbour’s might. It was with a feeling almost of resignation that local people viewed the arrival of these alien creatures.

In the months and years that followed, thousands of people, both Afghan and Soviet, would be killed or injured; towns and villages erased from the map, and millions made homeless as they sought refuge in Pakistan or Iran.

One of the Soviets’ first tasks was to get the media "on message". TV and radio could promote only communism, and the newspapers wrote enthusiastically about Afghan-Soviet friendship, and the amount of aid being given to the country. Free speech was crushed.

Cinemas were allowed to show only films from socialist countries, or Hindi films if they praised the India-Soviet pact. They were forbidden from showing anything from other parts of the world.

All information highways with the rest of world were blocked, students were jailed for listening to BBC news, and writers and journalists were forced to follow the party line.

On the political front, all parties bar the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA - were dissolved, and no one had the right to be politically active or express an opinion. Ordinary people were forced to join the PDPA, and anyone who wasn't a member was seen as an enemy.

Education suffered badly during those ten years. Almost every school in rural areas was destroyed, either by the Soviets or the mujahedin, leading to illiteracy among millions of children.

Urban education was also affected. When Soviet methods were introduced in schools and universities, many teachers and lecturers either fled the country or were imprisoned. Russian started to be taught in many schools.

But there was another problem that prevented many from continuing their education: every young man on reaching the age of 18 was forced to enrol in the military, and this led to thousands fleeing to the countryside and joining the mujahedin.

Some who did not manage to escape were sent to the Soviet Union to be "re-educated".

Afghanistan was economically dependent on Russia. The country's agriculture and its livestock were wiped out, and all main roads were sealed or were mined.

But amazingly, there were few shortages and the shops were always full of essentials.

Despite the continued fighting, all government employees - and there were thousands of them on well-paid salaries - were issued with ration books which entitled them to a free monthly allowance of 56 kilograms of flour, two kg of rice, seven kg each of cooking oil and sugar, and one kg of tea. Even soap, razor blades and toilet paper were included in the package. Not surprisingly, much of it found its way into the local bazaars.

Hospitals were transformed and well-equipped, with free treatment for all.

Soviet-made goods, including cars, refrigerators, televisions, radios, electrical equipment and clothing, were available at low prices.

People had no wish to buy Soviet goods, but there was no other choice as the government controlled every aspect of life.

Government offices were well run. Corruption disappeared; the cities were well lit and secure, and urban crime was at an all-time low.

There was a much darker side - the Soviet KGB, working in tandem with its equally feared Afghan counterpart KHAD, was responsible for the murder of thousands of dissidents. The power of the secret police was so pervasive that even members of the same family could not trust each other, and neighbour spied on neighbour.

But the Soviet authorities were not foolish enough to tamper with the traditions and beliefs of the country. Religious occasions were observed, new mosques were built and several religious scholars were sent to visit sacred Muslim sites in the Soviet Union.

One thing jarred with tradition - the easy availability of alcohol, which led to drunkenness among many young Afghans. Anyone could buy drink, cheaply and anywhere.

For young people there were other freedoms, too. Women were at liberty to wear whatever they wanted and many girls took to wearing mini-skirts.

But outside the cities, people faced the problems caused by war: lack of healthcare and education, poor nutrition, and absence of opportunity - the same pressures many still face 25 years later.

Hafizullah Gardesh is an editor with IWPR in Kabul.

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