RD Flashback: As U.S. forces and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan, a former Soviet officer remembers the beginning of the war he fought there 35 years ago.
A column of armored personnel vehicles rides on the way from Herat to Kushka as Soviet troops return home from Afghanistan in 1988. Source: ITAR TASS / Vladimir Zavyalov
In June 1977, 23-year-old Oleg Novinkov, a recent graduate of the Saratov State Medical Institute, was serving in the Belorussian Military District as a Soviet Air Force medical officer when he received a call with an order to “serve in the south.”
“The south at that time for Soviet officers referred to service in Hungary,” Dr. Novinkov recalls. “At that time not many people knew about Afghanistan.”
Dr. Novinkov was sent to an airfield in Uzbekistan, 27 miles away from the Soviet-Afghan border, to prepare for entering Afghanistan. This particular airfield was one of the main points of invasion, and nearly all of the military planes continued to Kabul or Bagram.
For Dr. Novinkov, “the month I spent on the border was a totally different experience from Belarus: a lot of tanks, everyone in uniform, machine guns… and an atmosphere of uncertainty, knowing that some units were about to cross tomorrow or next week.”
After one month in Uzbekistan, Dr. Novinkov’s unit crossed the border in a 90-car convoy, stopping first near the Salang tunnel and then in Kabul.
“My first impression was that of a different country – something unusual, a nice dream," he said. "I was young; I wanted adventure. There was sand and unusual trees that I’d never seen before. We looked at the landscape in fascination without thinking about the danger. Two hours after the drive we began seeing abandoned Soviet military vehicles on the sides of the roads and started to realize what was going on.”
Because the Soviets did not anticipate a violent conflict, Dr. Novinkov and his comrades were told to not expect to fight.
“We did not think about the invasion in the context of the competitive world systems, but as international help to our southern neighbor,” he said. “As an officer I had just one gun with just two rounds on it, just 16 bullets. I felt insecure because if something happened I couldn’t fight very much.”
Only a few hours after crossing the border, as the convoy continued along a narrow road with endless switchbacks to Salang, they received a radio call to prepare to fight the dushman (rebel fighters) that were moving from the mountains in their direction.
“It was a scary moment. I had one gun; the military ambulance driver had one Kalashnikov, the other officers the same. We were vulnerable. We had one armed vehicle in the beginning of the column and one other at the end. For 40 minutes we drove the road in total silence. Finally some information came to us that, instead of attacking us, the militants had destroyed a another column returning from Kabul to the Soviet Union.”
When Dr. Novinkov arrived in Kabul, his unit was placed across from the runway of the Kabul International Airport, with hundreds of planes taking off and landing each day. Though Kabul was supposed to be a main center of the Soviet effort, little infrastructure was in place.
“They put us in dirt trenches 20 inches to the knee," he remembers. "We were supposed to put our tents here and create a base. My first impression was that it was interesting; I was kept busy.”
As only one of three flight surgeons for the Soviet Air Force in all of Afghanistan at the time of his arrival, Dr. Novinkov was responsible for the pilots’ medical support in Kabul, Bagram, and in special operations near the border with Pakistan. He was involved with wounded or killed soldiers each day.
“I told myself that if I thought about death or being killed, then it would happen," he said. "So I tried to push away these thoughts from my head. We were able to save some of the wounded, but we couldn’t save others. I thought, what a different life. Two months ago I was in peaceful Belarus, now I am surrounded by dirt and blood.”
When commanders sent helicopters to the ethnic province of Ghazni, Dr. Novinkov traveled with them.
“It was a very bad place to be at that time," he said. "My first time there, in a field that was an airport, we were less than four miles away from the fighting. You could hear all the gunshots. I will never forget my first two weeks there. One time we lost a pilot and my help wasn’t enough to save him. When you see your friends killed in operations you feel terrible. But the experience of being with killed and wounded people was just my medical duty and I accepted it.”
After nearly two years in Afghanistan, Dr. Novinkov returned to the Soviet Union, where he continued medical service in military units before eventually immigrating to the United States in the 1990s. In 2010, he returned to Afghanistan as an American citizen and made several insightful observations about the nature of the American and Soviet conflicts there, particularly in their methods of communication with the Afghans.
Dr. Novinkov in Ghazni province 1980. Photo: Personal Archive
“The Afghanis had very different opinions about the Soviet invasion and the American invasion,” he explains. “Every other day I was in the military ambulance with wounded soldiers or officers and we traveled on the same roads as the Afghanis. Soviets were not afraid to stop in the village, talk to locals, drink with them and buy something. It was risky, of course, but the Russians have a different mentality from other nations, what we call the avos’ (“hit or miss”) phenomena. Sometimes we went to the village and helped Afghan people with medications. We built relationships. But we also killed so many Afghans. I once provided medical service to a wounded Afghan soldier. Who was he to me? Nobody. But he was bleeding to death and I helped him.”
“I’ve noticed that the Americans had a different approach to communication,” he continues. “To the Afghans, they appeared that they did not want to communicate so much. Americans use their advanced technology, but sometimes I feel that it was not to their advantage. It is better to respond as human to human.”
After reflecting upon his personal experiences, researching in Russian archives, and speaking with other veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Dr. Novinkov urges other nations to acknowledge history and avoid conflict. As he explains, “Nobody can change Afghani culture or ideology or introduce democracy so quickly. That is why everyone who invaded Afghanistan experienced the same thing.”
Oleg Novinkov is one of the few former officers of the Soviet-Afghan war that speaks openly about his experience. He published an award-winning book, “Afghan Boomerang,” in 2011.