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Book Review April 29, 2004
 
Stepmother War
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
"Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War" - by Svetlana Alexievich, W.W.Norton, 1992

"Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War" - by Svetlana Alexievich, W.W.Norton, 1992

In a review of several Vietnam memoirs, I asked readers for information on oral histories by Soviet soldiers who served in Afghanistan. Several mentioned this book, Zinky Boys, published in English translation 12 years ago. As far as I know, it's still the only oral history by Afghan vets available in English.

Zinky Boys is clearly modeled on the many bestselling Nam memoirs. The introduction is written by one Larry Heinemann, a Vietnam vet who visited Russia to talk to Afghan vets. His introduction is the worst thing in the book, full of silly blather about how democracy is sweeping over Russia and how the Afghan vets will no doubt play a part in its victory.

Yet, for all the superficial resemblance to Nam books, Zinky Boys is unlike any American war memoir. The differences are easy to spot, but hard to explain. Some you'd expect: for one thing, the editor can hardly make a point without quoting Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Berdyayev or Tolstoy. You don't find that sort of literary figure quoted much in the typical Nam memoir. Hendrix is about as close to high culture as they usually get.

A far more radical and intriguing difference is the prominence of women in the book, starting with the fact that the editor is Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist. I can't think of a single Nam memoir edited by a woman. It may be that Russian women feel entitled to speak about war more freely than American women simply because Russian women took a huge role in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. In fact, one of the Afghantsi who tells his story here mentions that his grade school was once visited by a WW II vet nicknamed "Mother Sniper," whose claim to fame was that she had killed 78 Germans during the war. (She scared him so much he was ill for a week.)

But the women who speak here really didn't enjoy Afghanistan much. As one of them says frankly, "I wanted to be in a war, but not like this one. Heroic World War II, that's what I wanted."

Zinky Boys focuses, much more than any Nam memoir I know, on the dead. Even the title refers to the closed zinc coffins in which Soviet dead were sent home. Grieving families were forbidden to open the coffins, and many of the soldiers' mothers interviewed talk about how awful it was, never knowing whether their dead son was actually in that zinc box:

"They brought in the coffin. I collapsed over it. I wanted to lay him out but they wouldn't allow us to open the coffin to see him, touch him...Did they find a uniform to fit him?...Now I just want to be in the coffin with him. I go to the cemetery, throw myself on the gravestone and cuddle him ...."

Many of the mothers interviewed went insane after their sons' deaths: "His mother went mad two days after the funeral. She ran to the cemetery at night and tried to lie down with him." Does the emphasis on grieving mothers reflect simply the author's special interest, or does it imply that the mother-son relationship is more important in Russian than American culture? Some of the interviews suggest that this is by far the strongest bond in Russian women's lives: "Yura was my eldest son. A mother shouldn't admit it, probably, but he was my favorite. I loved him more than my husband and my younger son."

Yura's mother's story is one of the grimmest in the book, because she blames herself -- with some justice -- for his death. Theirs was a "good family" in Soviet terms. And like a good Soviet son, Yura enters officers'school, then tells his mother, "All those high ideals you taught me, they don't exist. Where did you get them all from?" His mother keeps up the lie: "I told him yet again that our Soviet life was wonderful and our people were good."


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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