© Copyright Mikhail Evstafiev
     © Translated by Mikhail Evstafiev and Alyona Kozhevnikova
     Email: photoobraz@hotmail.com
     WWW: http://artofwar.ru/e/ewstafxew_mihail_aleksandrowich/
     Date: 22 Feb 2002
     Author's guestbook

Mikhail  Evstafiev graduated from the Moscow State University in 1985 with a
Master's  degree in International Journalism, worked  for  two  years  as  a
reporter for  a  news agency before  volunteering to  serve  in Afghanistan.
During his two-year  tour of  duty in Afghanistan=he  took  part  in  combat
operations, worked as editor  of  a  joint Soviet-Afghan  radio  station and
wrote for  various  Soviet  magazines.  He=spent as much  time  amongst  the
'grunts' of war, out  in  the firing line,  as  with  the generals.  Besides
Afghanistan,  he worked in different war zones including Bosnia, Tajikistan,
Nagorny-Karabakh,  Georgia,  Trans-Dniestria   and   Chechnya,  covered  the
break-up of he Soviet  Union and two  coup attempts in  Moscow.
     His work has been published in several books.

     Because sentence against an evil work is not executed
     speedily, therefor the heart of the sons of men is fully
     set in them to do evil.
     Ecclesiastes, 8:11

     For God shall bring every work into judgment, with
     every secret thing, whether it be good or it be evil.
     Ecclesiastes, 12:14

     Head muffled  in  a  blanket,  Sayeed Mohammed  shivered  in the  snow,
touched his frostbitten  feet with frozen fingers and whined like a  forlorn
pup. It  had been several days since he left the bomb-devastated village. It
was amazing that he was still alive, that he  had not frozen to death during
the past night, which  had been a particularly cold one. It must be the will
of Allah!
     His cracked lips  whispered:  "In the name  of Allah  the merciful  and
charitable.  The "Lion of Panjsher",  the  wise Ahmad Shah Massoud has  been
right,  you should never  believe the shuravi.  The Russians had promised to
leave  Afghanistan for  good. Ahmad Shah opened the  road to  the north,  go
ahead,  "buru bahai!"  Go back to where you  came from! The mujaheddin won't
fire a single shot! Not touch a  single  infidel. Then  why had the Russians
proceeded to bomb and shell poor Afghanistan after that? Why had they killed
so many people for nothing?
     Sayeed had been  caught by the  air strike, too, he had not stayed with
his unit but headed for his native village to visit his family.
     Finally he saw two kerosene lamps. Two  specks of light. The one to the
left  shone through  the window of their house.  The  other  one  was  their
neighbor's. Other  families did not  waste  money on kerosene.  He had  lain
unconscious the whole night. And  just as  well that he did  not regain  his
senses earlier. If he had, he would have heard the cries and moans under the
ruined  houses,  including the voice of his youngest sister, crushed by clay
and rocks. When he came to, a  noise like a roaring  mountain torrent filled
his ears and its icy water crackled and rang, drowning out weak, dying human
voices. Semi-conscious and slightly disoriented, he remained alone  with the
mountains and clouds that flowed across the sky like that phantom river, not
knowing what had happened to the village.
     By  evening,  the moans  ceased. There  was no need to bury anyone. The
Russians had buried them all.  Alive. Unsteady  on his legs, Sayeed wandered
around the village which had been transformed into a large graveyard, hoping
at  first  to find  at  least someone alive, to dig  them  out,  save  them.
Useless.  He recalled whose house had stood where, then sat for a long  time
by  the spot  where  his family  had  lived,  crying beside  the  smoldering
timbers, which looked like small islands  in the surrounding snow. There was
no sense in staying in the ruined village any longer.
     Sayeed picked  up a frozen flatcake, bit  off a piece  leaving the rest
for later,  and hobbled down the  beaten path,  which  led  to  the road. He
turned around and looked. The first time he had  left here, people had stood
outside houses  which were built  in ascending tiers on  the mountain slope,
children were on the flat roofs, all of them watching him, seeing him off to
war. Nobody  would come looking for him.  Nobody would even remember him. In
any case, who would believe that anybody could have survived such a terrible
scourging? Even  the  mountains  and  cliffs  of  Afghanistan cannot  always
withstand  such  onslaught  but  crumble, fall, and  shudder from the  bombs
raining from the skies!  What  chance  for mere mortals? And who would think
that  the air  strike  would catch  Sayeed Mohammed on  the approach  to the
village, that the shockwave would hurl the youth back some twenty meters and
that  he would  fall into  a deep snowdrift,  missing  the sharp  rocks? The
Kalashnikov and a full magazine were undamaged, Allah be praised. But Sayeed
did not dare to shoot himself. He hoped for a miracle. He hoped to encounter
some mujaheddin,  get to a village or,  should the worst come to the  worst,
find some shuravi and attack them in order  to  avenge his family. But where
were they now, those Russians? His feet would not obey him, Sayeed fell many
times,  crawled in the snow. He would freeze to death in  the  mountains and
his clan  would come to an  end, unavenged. What a stupid death. Why  had he
not fallen in the last  battle, why  had he not  gone straight  to Paradise?
Sayeed Mohammed is an upstanding Muslim,  he obeys the Koran,  he prays five
times a day, he fights against  the infidels, he knows that a mujahideen has
nothing  to fear, that the holy war  - jihad - is a direct road to Paradise.
That is what his older brother Ali had always said.
     Ali  had come  back from  Pakistan  a completely  different  person. No
longer  an impoverished,  cowering village lad in  galoshes,  but confident,
wearing leather shoes with laces,  in new  clothes, with a submachine gun, a
wad of afghanis and a string of lazuli worry-beads in  his hands.  Oh, those
beads! It seemed as though  the smoothly polished  mineral absorbed  all the
blueness  of the  Afghan  skies. Ali  nibbled a sugar cube,  sipped tea  and
clicking the beads spoke  about Pakistan, about the jihad, about Ahmad  Shah
Massoud,  about the  bloody  regime in Kabul,  about  the  hated shuravi who
wanted to enslave Afghanistan.
     In time, Ali headed a whole unit, he was respected and somewhat feared.
Ali had made a lot of trouble for the infidel before being killed, sent many
Russian soldiers to their death. Ali had died like  a real  hero, in battle.
He slipped away from the Russians, brought his squad out of encirclement and
even managed to send the Russians a last greeting from Allah by  cutting off
a  whole group and giving them one hell of a pounding. He  would have killed
them all if Russian reinforcements had not arrived. Ali became a martyr, and
that meant his soul went straight  to  Paradise, easily and  painlessly, not
like those  of other people,  it just broke away from his body and flew off,
and now he was there, above the leaden sky,  where  it is always warm, where
it never snows,  where  there  is a  bounty  of fruits  and  flowers,  where
everyone  drinks wine  and loves beautiful  women. In  Paradise, a Muslim is
allowed all that  was  forbidden on  earth. And Sayeed Mohammed would follow
Ali, he would not live to see his fifteenth birthday.
     War  is  good.  What  would  life be without war? He  would  never  see
anything except his native village,  toil all day, be hungry  and sick.  The
war had brought  Afghanistan much  grief, but it also made Sayeed one of the
mujaheddin, a warrior of Allah! Now all that was in the past. ....

     The submachine gun pained his shoulder. How can a child's  hands manage
it! It  is  not easy to compete  with adults. His  bullets did not reach the
mark, fell into the dust. Shame! Shameful enough to  bring tears. They would
all laugh  at him. Was  it possible that  this  time, too, he would not kill
anyone? There they are,  Russian  soldiers, so  close! They  aren't shooting
back any  more.  They're  out  of ammunition.  They're  retreating from  the
village. The mujaheddin are shooting  accurately from  all sides.  One down,
now another. The third would  be dead any moment now, and that would be all,
the fun  would be  over. He  must  hurry!  Sayeed  Mohammed  braced himself,
targeted the third shuravi,  pulled the  trigger and wounded him in the left
leg. Finally!  Yes, it was his bullet that found the soldier. No doubt about
it! The soldier fell, looked back, got up and lurched away. At Ali's command
the  mujaheddin ceased fire, leaving  the soldier  to Sayeed Mohammed.  He's
your game!  He  won't get  far. Finish him off! The mujaheddin rose to their
feet from concealment, squealing with delight like children. Isn't it fun to
shoot at a moving target! To kill one of the infidels is a sacred task
     "Aim at his  back," advised  Ali. "Got  him! Good  lad!"  It  looked as
though the  fleeing  soldier had  received an invisible whiplash  across his
back.  The next shot made the  soldier clasp his right arm against his body,
the bullet must have gone clean  through.  Sayeed Mohammed aimed  again  and
again, firing one shot after another, the shuravi was a tough one, he simply
wouldn't die. Fell, got up, went on. Another bullet struck, the soldier kept
crawling, they'd got  him, he was squirming in agony. The final shot, and it
was over, the  soldier  lay motionless. "Let's go!"  cried Sayeed  Mohammed,
eyes shining  with elation, slung the rifle over  his  shoulder proudly  and
marched obediently after his brother. The soldier  lay on his stomach. Blood
flowed from his  nostrils. His face, his  curly black hair,  his tanned skin
and blood-spattered sweatshirt were powdered with dust.
     "You shot well," praised his brother and took the dead man's submachine
gun. Sayeed Mohammed saw the approving glances of the other mujaheddin. "Cut
off a finger," said his  brother, handing him a big knife. "He's your  first
     Sayeed Mohammed walked  around the dead soldier,  squatted by his head,
lifted  the  limp left hand, spread out the  fingers, chose the index as the
easiest to cut  off,  laid  the knife against  the center, pressed down  and
sliced through skin. The tip of the knife sank  into  the ground.  He didn't
have enough strength. Sayeed Mohammed pressed  down  again,  harder,  a bone
snapped ...

     Fog descended on  the  mountain  pass  a blizzard  began to  blow.  His
camel-hair hat and blanket were covered in snow. Snowflakes lay on his thick
dark brows and long  eyelashes and on  his barely visible first trace  of  a
mustache.  In  an hour or so  the snow would bury  him  and he would have no
strength to  withstand the cold. He would never get  up again, he would soon
freeze completely, fall asleep, stop thinking  and hoping for rescue, he was
already no longer remembering his  family, his  older brother. No, Ali would
always be  beside him, he would wait for him, take him by the hand and  lead
him into Paradise. He had always followed his older brother.
     Another  sound joined  the  wailing of the snowstorm.  Fear held Sayeed
Mohammed rigid more than  the cold  and  snow. A helicopter! Was it possible
that the Russians had  returned to finish off  those who  had remained alive
after the  bombing? Could they possibly  know that  he was still alive? How?
Why  did  the shuravi  hate  the Afghans  so much?  Why  had  they  come  to
Afghanistan? Why had  they been killing  innocent  Afghan people for so many
years?  He  would  never  surrender,  he  knew what  the  Russians  do  with
     ...A  few  years ago Sayeed  Mohammed had pulled  his head  between his
shoulders, like now, closed  his eyes and shuddered at  the growing sound of
approaching choppers. From a distance they had looked  like a flock of black
birds, noisy, frightening and merciless to the  mujaheddin.  He prepared  to
run  and save himself, hide, dig  in, disappear. Ali had taken his hand  and
they hid in a dry watercourse. Peering out at  the  terrifying choppers that
filled  the  sky  they saw, through a pair  of binoculars,  how the  shuravi
landed behind the village, how they ran out and took up defensive positions.
     The village elders approached the senior shuravi, a tall, heavily-built
and not  very young  general in camouflage  uniform, which looked  like  the
green and  brown patterns  on  the choppers.  The elders behaved as  if  the
general were  a  king or God,  bowing  and  scraping  before him and,  after
parlaying,   surrendered  the  bodies  of  three  Soviet  advisors  and  the
mujaheddin who  had killed them into the bargain. Everything  had turned out
just  as Ali predicted. Yet  what  else  could  they  do?  The  shuravi  had
threatened a storming bomb attack on the entire district otherwise.
     "Look!"  commanded  Ali, and said the word that made all the mujaheddin
shudder:  "Spetsnaz."  Sayeed stared  through the  binoculars. The  soldiers
looked  like  any  other  soldiers?  Perhaps a  bit  more  lithe and  agile.
Certainly nothing ferocious. They  had same assault  rifles, the same  light
brown hair. Why  do the mujaheddin  fear and  hate this "Spetsnaz"  so much?
While they waited for the general, the soldiers unbound the hands  of one of
the mujaheddin and laid a loaded submachine gun before him.
     "Pick it up, you bastard!"
     Sayeed and his brother were too far away to hear what the Spetsnaz  guy
was saying, and they would  not have understood  his foreign tongue  even if
they had been closer. They  saw  only the  officer's  contemptuously twisted
mouth. He was lean, wearing sneakers, beige trousers and beige battle jacket
with sleeves  rolled  up and with tattoos on his forearms.  He stepped back,
pointing at the submachine gun.
     "I've  only got  a knife, and even that's  not real."  The Spetsnaz man
flexed his muscles, showing a  Bowie knife tattooed on his  skin. "Take it!"
He shoved the gun closer to the prisoner with his foot. "Shit yourself, eh?"
The Afghan  crouched, his eyes fixed on  the  Kalashnikov. A last chance, he
had  been  given a last chance  to  fight  back. He looked  sideways at  the
shuravi,  baring uneven yellow  teeth in a grin and  then,  when the officer
turned away  casually, as  though  he  had  forgotten all about  the  weapon
offered  to the prisoner and seemed to be  more interested  in  the  chopper
patrolling in circles overhead, the prisoner  made his decision. But the men
in Spetsnaz are not stupid enough to let themselves  be tricked by some dumb
Afghan  peasant!  The officer gave a satisfied snort when a soldier standing
ready  at  the Afghan's back brought his rifle butt down on  the head of the
prisoner as he lunged forward.
     "Thought you could escape, spook?" The officer flung himself toward the
Afghan who was struggling to his feet and knocked him out.
     "Stop that!"
     "He was  trying to escape, comrade  major," said  the tattooed Russian,
justifying himself before a senior officer in dark glasses.
     "Move out!"
     The blades  of the choppers  sliced  through  the hot air, the choppers
rose one after another and  flew off. Sayeed Mohammed and  Ali got up, shook
themselves  and,  without a word, startled in unison when  a figure of a man
detached  itself from the chopper flying a little to the right, and  fell to
earth like a stone...

     A  helicopter circled beside Sayeed  Mohammed, frighteningly close.  He
flung the blanket away, snapped off  the  safety catch. "There is no God but
Allah, and Mohammed  is his prophet!"  Here it was, the heaven-sent trial! A
chance to avenge his brother, his relatives, himself. The roar increased. It
seemed to  him  that  everything around him shook, as though  there were  an
earthquake.  The  chopper had clearly  gone off course, gotten lost, and was
searching  and  circling in  the  growing  darkness. Obviously, the  chopper
wanted to be saved, just like Sayeed  Mohammed. The chopper flew toward him,
above  him,  to his  right and  to his left.  If only it would come  closer!
Sayeed Mohammed prayed that Allah should send the  helicopter  right at him!
Then  he would not die alone, for nothing! He was ready for battle! He had a
trusty  friend  - the  Kalashnikov.  He would  avenge  his  brother!  Sayeed
Mohammed  laid a  frozen  finger, like  a hook,  around  the trigger, raised
himself a  little and when something  dark seemed  to appear very close, and
that dark blob started  to crawl over him like a monster  wanting to swallow
the pitiful,  freezing victim and  he could see the blur of the pilot's face
through the  glass canopy, he shuddered as the Kalashnikov released a string
of bullets and cried: "Allah akbar!!"  rejoicing  at his  victory  over  the
Russians in the moment before death....

     Planes appeared out of nowhere. They simply swelled like white drops in
the  sky  and  slid  down, like  oblique  streaks  of rain on  a window; and
probably because these planes were hurrying  to land,  afraid of  being shot
down by  an  invisible but omnipresent enemy,  in their haste they scattered
gleaming  flares  that sparkled like  Bengal lights  and burned out quickly,
leaving a brief reminder of themselves as white trails of smoke above Kabul.
     The soldiers  messing around in  the repair park,  and  those  who were
cleaning  their weapons and enjoying the  warm sun bared to the  waist or in
undershirts, and those who were drilling in  the  square, and those who were
washing down military vehicles looked up from time to time, expecting to see
these  heavy transport planes, nicknamed  "cattle carriers"; they waited for
them  the way  people wait  for  a  ship  from the  mainland, which they are
unlikely to board  this time, but  catch  at least a distant glimpse  of the
ship docking, and indulge in unlimited dreams.
     The early morning arrival of the IL-76s had become a daily routine. The
passage of these  airborne mediators between the USSR and  Afghanistan could
be seen from  practically every  Soviet  garrison  and, if  the flights were
canceled for some reason , everyone felt sad and deprived, as  though maybe,
back there in the  Motherland, the "limited contingent" sent  to Afghanistan
had been forgotten.
     Those who  had carried out a  long tour of duty  watched the  planes in
anticipation  of  their  imminent   demobilization,  and  dreamed  up  sweet
fantasies of civilian life. Those only  half way through their service would
sigh, all they could hope for was a letter from home. Those who  were new in
the service still had vivid  memories of the  flight in the belly of  such a
transport aircraft and that awful  feeling of impending doom when the plane,
packed  with  people like brainless  cattle,  exhausted  by  the  night-time
flight, indefinite  lengthy delays, customs control  and border crossing had
just begun to catnap  when they were snapped back into  awareness, barely an
hour after takeoff, by the steep plunge of  the plane from a  height of some
seven thousand or more  meters, as if it had hit a sudden  air-pocket or had
been struck  by an enemy rocket, a "Stinger" missile  or some  such. In fact
the plane, shooting out dozens of heat emanating decoy targets, was making a
steep, spiraling descent in order to land.
     When  the  plane taxied down the landing  strip,  the ramp  would open,
letting  in a  rush of  unfamiliar  Afghan mountain air and the sight  of an
alien, and therefore  alarming, mountainous landscape.  From this moment on,
the countdown began, measuring the fated time  in Afghanistan  for  the  new
arrivals, a time which, for some, meant the last months of their life.
     The newly-arrived  soldiers,  officers  and  non-coms, including women,
obviously felt  awkward, and stared around in barely concealed curiosity and
unease, squinting in the  strong mountain sunshine. Those who were returning
from leave,  or  military business,  or medical  treatment  could be spotted
immediately: they knew why they had come here and which way to head from the
landing strip. They were returning to  a  place  that  had become  familiar,
home. The  soldiers arriving  at the Kabul airdrome had identical  haircuts,
were equally  puzzled, equally  without rights, wearing  identical uniforms,
and  depersonalized  by  this   sameness;  in  long,   often  badly  fitting
greatcoats,   heavy,  uncomfortable  "shit-squasher"  boots"   and   similar
kit-bags, they all looked the same from a distance. They were delivered here
like ammunition: like little  missiles in  the guise of soldiers if you  did
not look  too closely,  expendable material, which differed only in size and
     Hardly anyone  throughout  the breadth of  the great and  mighty Soviet
Union took the lives of the soldiers, officers, non-coms, lieutenants, first
lieutenants and captains seriously. Insignificant units of humanity, of whom
there was still an endless supply! So there was nothing to feel sorry about.
     The soldiers arriving in Kabul  were  faceless,  just like thousands of
other young men  dragged in for  two years, torn out of their usual lives in
order  to  learn  suffering,  patience and survival  until such  time as the
Motherland would consider that they had paid in full for  the care and happy
childhood  she had lavished on  them, and  sent  them replacements which had
grown up in the meantime.

     "They're  flying, comrade senior lieutenant. Two  flights have landed,"
reported junior  sergeant  Titov to the  officer  who  lay  on his  bunk  in
hopeless and  dreary  anticipation  of  his  replacement's  arrival. Dressed
correctly in uniform, he was watching  the progress of the flies crawling on
the ceiling and turned an irritated eye on his junior.
     "So what, Titov?"
     "I wouldn't know, comrade senior lieutenant..."
     "I said, so what that they're flying?"
     "...you told me to report when any planes land ... So I'm reporting..."
     "What  does  that tone of  voice mean? Hey? Bloody homo stallion! " The
officer turned his  head and stared Titov in the  face. "Who the hell do you
think you're talking to? Dismissed, Titov! Close the door!"
     "Close the door on your way out!  And don't bother me again! Straighten
up, you lump! Wake me only for two reasons: when my replacement  arrives, or
if the Soviet forces pull out of Afghanistan! Got that?"
     "Get lost!"
     Titov, a hulk far  superior in strength and size than the officer, bent
obediently, like  a lackey reprimanded by a demanding master  and backed out
of the room.  Knowing  the senior lieutenant's fiery temper,  and having had
his  liver  and  kidneys  bashed,  like  all the  other soldiers,  when  the
lieutenant was in a bad mood for some reason or no reason at all, he decided
that discretion was better than pre-demobilization impudence. He  closed the
door  quietly behind him, straightened his  shoulders and, like  a  werewolf
under a full moon, immediately became a merciless  "grandpa" the severe boss
of the barracks.
     Venting  his  spleen  for  the humiliation he  had just endured  -  the
offensive  words had carried clearly to  the young soldiers  on duty,  Titov
kicked  the  slow and inefficient private  Myshkovsky, who  was swabbing the
floor with a mop:
     "You fucking leaky rubber! When were you supposed to finish cleaning?!"
     The pail fell over  with a clatter and  murky water spread in a pool on
the plywood floor of the barracks.
     "I'll  make  you  lick  the latrines  clean with your  tongue, Myshara!
Useless turd!" yelled Titov at the top of his voice,  so that everyone would
     "Junior  sergeant  Titov!"  The  commander's  voice cut  across Titov's
     "Do you understand, worm?"  continued  Titov regardless.  "Down on  the
ground and do ten pushups! Fast! Fast! I'm warning you, Myshara!" He pressed
the  soldier's head down with his boot, and added in a slightly lower voice:
"I'll finish you off!"
     "!" came the commander's voice again..
     "What's the MPF, Myshara?" Titov pressed own even harder with his boot.
     "The Military Paratroop Forces ..."
     "The  MPF are the shield  of the Motherland,  greenhorn!  And you don't
deserve to be a rivet in that shield! "
     Myshkovsky   continued  to  lie  prone  in   fear.  The  boots  of  the
all-powerful "grandpa" stamped off in the direction of the common room.
     "Junior sergeant Titov  reporting  as  ordered" he  stated  with barely
concealed insolence, addressing lieutenant Sharagin, who was having his head
shaved  bald. Legs crossed, he  sat immobile on a  small bedside  chest. His
shoulders were draped  with a bedsheet bearing the stamp of  the Ministry of
Defense  -  a purple star.  A uniform with  the red armband  of the  officer
responsible for the company lay on a nearby shelf.
     Lieutenant Sharagin was studying his new appearance in a small, cracked
mirror. The mirror  reflected gray-blue eyes,  a clean-shaven  chin  with  a
fresh razor  nick, a straight nose, a thick mustache. There were only  a few
patches of hair remaining  on his head  to be scraped  off  by the  barber's
blade  wielded by sergeant Panasyuk.  The  white skin  exposed was  in sharp
contrast with the deep mountain tan  and seemed to be stretched tightly over
his cranium, like the skin of a drum.
     That  was exactly  how  Sharagin wanted to  see himself - with a shaved
     Mother  Nature  had  slacked a little when working  on the lieutenant's
face,  giving   him   unremarkable,   standard   features,  devoid   of  any
individuality, a kind of Russian universality.
     Still  watching his  own  reflection, Sharagin maintained a  theatrical
pause before asking casually:
     "What's with senior lieutenant Chistyakov?"
     Titov stood behind him, leaning against  the  door frame and twirling a
bunch of keys on a chain:
     "The comrade senior lieutenant ordered that nobody should wake him."
     "We're just about  done," said  the sergeant  who was carrying out  the
responsible duty of barber.
     "What a  waste  of talent!" said  Titov,  poking fun  at  his  comrade.
"Instead of exposing your ass to enemy fire, you would  have been better off
as company barber, eh Panas?"
     "Fuck off, Tit!  I apologize for the bad language,  comrade lieutenant,
but Tit doesn't understand anything else, otherwise  he'll fucking drive you
into the ground, the way Pol Pot did with Kampuchea. Ha, ha, ha!..."
     "Pay  attention,  comrade  sergeant," snapped lieutenant  Sharagin, "Be
careful when you're shaving your commanding officer!"
     Unlike  the  large,  dull  and brutish junior sergeant Titov,  Sharagin
detected traces of humanity in Panasyuk, which had not all faded  during his
term of service. Panasyuk was from the Altai region, skinny as a Belorussian
peasant , tall as a flagpole, wiry and hardy. Panasyuk liked to joke, smoked
like a chimney,  suffered paroxysms  of smoker's  cough, swore  after  every
second word, and when he laughed, deep and untimely wrinkles appeared on his
forehead  and  under his eyes. He  usually spoke in a long, drawling  voice,
like  a  Catholic  priest's  intonation:   "Whatcha  worrying  for,  comrade
lieutenant? Leave it to me - everything'll be hunky-dory."
     "Somebody  cleaned  out  the  food  store last  night," said  Sharagin,
catching Titov's  shifty eyes in the mirror.  "It better not be  anyone from
our company - I'll beat their brains out!"
     "Everyone was  asleep  last  night, comrade lieutenant, Titov responded
     Sergeant  Panasyuk confirmed that it wasn't  anyone from their company,
and wiped Sharagin's neck with a thin cotton towel:
     Another thing lieutenant  Sharagin  appreciated  in  Panasyuk was  that
although  the  sergeant  was  hard  on   the  men,  he  never   mocked  them
deliberately,  did  not  turn  their  service  into a  nightmare  and,  most
importantly, restrained the other "grandpas" to the best of his ability.

     ... especially louts like Titov...

     thought   Sharagin.   "Initiation"   rites  such  as,   for   instance,
"registration" during  which  the  new  recruits  were beaten on their  bare
backsides with leather slippers so hard  that the  next day they were unable
to sit down and only rub their black-and-blue buttocks, were held in deepest
secrecy. This  was part  of the unspoken soldiers' ritual, and  with all the
will in  the  world  the  commanding officers would not be able to  spot  or
prevent  it. So Sharagin  did not  waste  any regrets on that  score. It was
beyond      his      power       to       break      the       long-standing
"youth-"finch"-"dipper"-"grandpa" tradition of relations in the ranks. There
was no changing the unchangeable.
     Unreasoning  impulsive  cruelty, anger alongside  a  childish  naivete,
sentimentality,  unexpected  kindness,  pity,  valor,  sympathy which  turns
easily into hatred (though not for long) - all these traits existed side  by
side,  from times immemorial,  in  officers and soldiers of the Russian army
and, probably, any Russian man.
     "Mother  fuckers!"  cried  lieutenant  Chistyakov suddenly  in  ringing
     This cry of the officer's heart had resounded  regularly  over the past
few weeks, a heart that was longing  for home, and was addressed to everyone
at large: the army, Afghanistan, and soldiers on duty.
     Junior sergeant Titov  went off and hid in the store-room just in case.
Titov knew that  if Chistyakov had left his room and was  in a foul mood, it
was better to stay out of his way.
     "Shaved your head, eh? Good for you!" Chistyakov  ran  a  hand over his
friend's smooth skull.
     "Well, what do you think?" asked Sharagin, pleased with his new look.
     "Fine, we've been through that. Get the fuck out of here!" he yelled at
a soldier who  had looked  into the room.  "Can't  stand the sight of  their
stupid mugs! I don't envy you!  Our "graduates" are real tigers, of  course,
but  when they're gone,  who'll  we  have  left to fight with? Am  I  right,
Panasyuk?"  asked the  senior lieutenant  turning  suddenly and for no  real
reason ,  but just  (as  he liked to  say) to  keep everyone on their  toes,
punched Panasyuk hard in the stomach.
     Panasyuk doubled over, gasping with pain:
     "Y...y...you're  right  about  them  being   tigers,   comrade   senior
lieutenant," he squeezed out  after a moment's pause while his head cleared.
He smiled waveringly at Chistyakov, appreciating the compliment.
     The silence of the barracks was shattered by the arrival of  a horde of
the men, who filled the air with stamping, swearing, laughter and threats:
     "Where d'you think you're putting that rifle, asshole!"
     "What are you standing there for, move over!"
     "...so what, a rifle..."
     "Here, take mine and put it there too, I'm off to wash..."
     "Put it there, stupid! Won't you morons ever learn!..."
     "Sych! Look how you've made up my bunk!"
     "Cat got your tongue?"
     "I'll remake it..."
     "Lazy sonofabitch! See my fist? What's it smell of? Your  death, that's
     "Company ten-hut!" yelled the soldier on  barracks  duty,  saluting the
company captain, who had just entered. "Ready to report!"
     "At  ease,"  responded the lanky  captain leisurely and sniffed loudly.
"Thirty degrees outside, and I've caught a cold! Who'd believe it?"
     "It's  the   air-conditioning,  captain,"  interjected  senior  warrant
officer Pashkov. He walked behind captain Morgultsev.
     "What's that got to  do with it?"  retorted Morgultsev,  pulling out  a
handkerchief and blowing his nose loudly.
     "Those air conditioners can kill you. They'll give you pneumonia before
you  know it. What's  so funny? Nothing. Air conditioners are death  to your
     "You'd  die  even  faster  here  without   the   conditioners!"  argued
     "My God!" exclaimed  Morgultsev, spotting the  clean-shaven head of the
platoon leader.  "The appearance  of Taras Bulba to the people! No other way
to describe it."
     "Yakshi Montana!" cried Pashkov, flinging up his arms.
     Sharagin was somewhat embarrassed, scratched his bald  pate, donned his
cap and reported with all due ceremony:
     "Comrade captain! Nothing to report in your absence!"
     "Shitheads! Hell!"  growled  the captain,  and  pronounced  one of  his
carefully thought  out  in  advance quips:  "The  human  body needs  a  good
shake-up sometimes. On that day, I don't drink..."
     "Don't  worry,"  Chistyakov  winked  at  Sharagin.  "He's been  to  HQ.
Bogdanov probably tore a strip off him."

     Senior  lieutenant Nemilov had no gift for  retelling political studies
materials in  his own  words. He  droned out passages he had  underlined  in
various pamphlets  or  the "Armed Forces Communist"  magazine. He was easily
distracted  if,  for  example, he noticed  that someone  was  not wearing  a
Komsomol badge. It would have been naive to expect that any of the men would
remember anything out of  what  they  heard  during  political  studies,  so
Nemilov made them write out certain sentences he dictated. Should there be a
sudden inspection, every soldier had a notebook with suitable entries.
     "Now! Write this down: the democratic Republic of Afghanistan."
     "Sounds  familiar," sniggered PFC Prokhorov. "I'm  sure I've heard that
somewhere before."
     "Never mind clowning! You don't know the history of the country  you're
in.  Right!  The official  languages  are  Pashtu and  Dari. The  population
numbers ...who the hell knows what their population is now? Don't write that
down!!!  And  now  -  a bit of  history.  Write  this: Britain's attempts to
subjugate Afghanistan in the 19th century failed. Due to the support granted
by  Soviet  Russia, the  next Anglo-Afghan war in  May-June 1919 ended  with
victory for Afghanistan. In 1919..."
     "What year?"
     "For  the benefits  of the  morons in this  room,  I  repeat: in  1919,
Afghanistan declared independence. Now...no, you don't need this..." Nemilov
turned a page.  "Here we are:  the  USSR and Afghanistan have  been bound by
ties of friendship  for a very long time.  After the April  1978 revolution,
these  ties  have become  truly  fraternal and  an  example of revolutionary
solidarity. On the basis of the Agreement of Friendship, Good-neighborliness
and Co-operation, the  government  of  Afghanistan  has  addressed  numerous
appeals for military aid to the USSR. The government of the  USSR decided to
offer such  assistance and sent the "Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces" to
help the fledgling  republic defend  itself  against  the  forces of  global
imperialism and domestic reactionary circles. New paragraph! Soviet soldiers
have proved themselves true friends of the Afghan people and carry out their
international duty in  Afghanistan  with  honor.  New paragraph!  The  April
revolution was a  turning point in Afghanistan's development, the outcome of
many centuries  of struggle against ignorance, poverty,  repression  and for
the triumph of justice. Panasyuk, why aren't you writing?"
     In fact, the sergeant had started on a letter home, but after the first
two sentences  ("How  are you all?  I'm fine") had run out of  ideas and sat
staring at a Lenin  quote on  the wall  which asserted that a  revolution is
worthy  only  if it can  defend  itself. Even  an  idiot knows that, thought
Panasyuk  and cast an oblique glance at the "iconostasis"  of the  Politburo
members.  The Lenin Room, existed in  every subdivision and its  walls  were
covered, church-like, with images of the most celebrated party-angels beside
the "holy trinity" of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The men  were supposed to come
here  in their free time - to play chess,  write home, watch television, all
under the vigilant gaze of the leaders of the world's proletariat.
     "I'm thinking, comrade senior lieutenant."
     "You're  not here to think, Panasyuk! You're  here to listen and  write
     "Yessir!"  Inspiration visited the  sergeant briefly  once more and  he
added another two lines to his missive: "It's very warm here. Summer will be
coming soon."
     "Experience has shown  - don't write this down! - "  continued Nemilov,
"that Afghan citizens often ask Soviet soldiers to tell them about the USSR,
how  Soviet people live,  the history  of the  revolutionary struggle of the
USSR. Sychev! I said don't write this down! Are you deaf?"
     Private Sychev, looking hunted, pulled his head into his shoulders.
     "Nobody's ever asked me," drawled Prokhorov provocatively.
     "They will, Prokhorov, they will!"
     "So how the hell will I know what they want if I don't understand their
     "You  will! Through an interpreter..." Nemilov broke off. There was  no
point in responding to stupid  questions. They were just  playing for  time.
"You must always be prepared to converse with our Afghan comrades."
     "They should all  be shot, that's  what! They're all spooks!" burst out
Panasyuk. What the shit do we need to talk to them for?!"
     "As  you  were! Resume  writing!  Without  Soviet  aid,  the forces  of
imperialism  and internal counter-revolution would  have  stifled the  April
     Junior sergeant Titov rapped on the glass door.
     "Comrade senior lieutenant?"
     "Two men needed for kitchen duty..."
     "Take them and  get out! ...Now, where were we?  "  Nemilov  opened the
'Memorandum for the Soviet Soldier-Internationalist.' Write  this down!  The
Afghan people  are naturally trusting,  receptive of new information, have a
fine sense of good and evil."  A  wave of laughter rolled  through the room.
"That's  enough of  that!  In particular,  the  Afghans appreciate  courtesy
toward children, women and old people.  That's  very important! While in the
DRA,  observe  all customary  Soviet moral values,  manners and  laws,  show
tolerance of  the customs and mores of the Afghans. Write it down! Write  it
down!!!  Always be friendly, humane fair and honorable in your dealings with
the workers of Afghanistan."
     The men wrote laboriously, with numerous spelling mistakes, missing out
entire sentences. The "grandpas" only pretended to write.
     "Chirikov, I want all that in my notebook  by tomorrow  morning,"  said
PFC Prokhorov, busily ruling up a sheet of paper to play "Battleships."
     "Don't write just yet! I'll tell you when  to write! You all have to be
able  to  give  specific  examples to illustrate the  honorable  behavior of
Soviet soldiers towards the local population. Who can name  a few  examples?
Nobody! Wonderful!  You should read the newspapers.  Why do we keep files of
them  in  this room?  So  that brainless  idiots like you  should read them,
that's why! Everyone's got to know at least two examples for next time. I'll
be testing you!"

     "He who eats  meat, suffers frequent colds," pronounced warrant officer
Pashkov with a sly look in Sharagin's direction. "If a man eats  meat,  then
something starts  to stir during the night, rises  up and lifts the blanket,
bares his legs, and all the time the air conditioner is pumping out cold air
- that's where colds come from."
     Sharagin laughed good-naturedly.
     Senior  Lieutenant Chistyakov  grabbed a parachute  canopy  out  of the
cupboard in the officers' room and  shoved  it into  a  bag. He had taken to
warming himself in the sun  at this time of day behind the huts, well out of
sight of the senior staff.
     "Line up!"  hollered the  soldier on  duty, for all the  world  like  a
village rooster.
     "Listen up, rooster face!" Chistyakov dragged the soldier off his stool
and clamped a hand around his  throat: "Why are you  yelling in my ear?! I'm
enjoying  my  well-earned rest. Got  that?  Don't  bother  me  with trifles.
Anything important happens, lieutenant Sharagin will know where to find me."

     With  the coming of the hot  weather, the  company was hit by diarrhea,
everyone running to the can day and night. The path leading from the camp to
the latrines was trodden hard as asphalt.  Every half  hour or less, someone
would race from the command barracks to the  latrine like a bat out of hell.
The  rookies,  more seasoned  soldiers and  the grandpas were reduced  to  a
common level by their plight as they sat side by side in the latrine.
     There  were  not  enough newspapers.  The  bound  volume of "Red  Star"
disappeared  from the Lenin Room. Nemilov was  furious, branding the unknown
thieves  saboteurs, threatened  an  investigation  by  the Third Section but
removed the bound volume of "Pravda" just in case. The Political Officer was
known  for his fastidiousness,  washed his hands about  seventeen and a half
times a day,  tried not to  touch anything. His  thin,  pale lips twisted in
disgust  at  the  sight of  the diarrhea-drained soldiers, his face mirrored
distaste  toward  the  illnesses  which  broke  out  in  the  company,   his
evenly-parted  hair, clean  fingernails and flawlessly  white collars  spoke
eloquently  of   his   disapproval  of  the   common  soldiers  and  certain
non-too-clean officers.
     Formerly tanned  lads,  bursting with rude  health would quickly become
listless, thin,  their  faces a  greenish hue when they succumbed  to amebic
dysentery  or some other local  bug. They lost weight visibly, dehydrated by
the dysentery.
cleaning-toilet-lunch-toilet-duties-toilet-dinner-toilet-lights out - toilet
round  the clock kept everyone chained  to the vicinity of the latrine, even
the sick did not venture from this vital object  to a distance from which it
would not be possible to reach the latrine faster than a spook's bullet.
     The  troops forgot everything on  earth, took no  pleasure in anything.
Even the grandpas were so exhausted by constant "shit hemorrhages" that they
stopped  harassing  the rookies. Junior  sergeant Titov, who  liked  to pump
lead,  flexing  his  ready  for   demobilization  biceps  and  triceps,  and
gunlayer-operator  PFC Prokhorov  -  a bark and  troublemaker,  and sergeant
Panasyuk, spent their  days sitting glumly in the smoking  room, because  it
was  closest to  the  latrine. All in all, though,  suffering  diarrhea  was
preferable  to  turning  yellow  and  being  shunted  off  to hospital  with
     The only  officers  in  the company  who did  not  catch  the  bug were
Chistyakov and Morgultsev. Zhenka was certain that God was looking after him
and keeping him  safe from illness and death in battle, because  he had been
carrying a small  icon  in  his  pocket for  two years  now. His  mother had
sneaked the icon into  his case just before  he left home. Zhenka discovered
the icon en  route, did not throw it away but secreted it just in case, with
his documents,  and  thus managed to carry it through customs and across the
border unnoticed. Nemilov  once  caught Zhenka  with  the icon,  read him  a
homily,  but  refrained  from  reporting  him.  Actually,  the  God  who was
supposedly  looking  after  Zhenka slipped  up  once;  Zhenka ate  a jar  of
home-made jam, sharing the same spoon with a KGB officer who hailed from the
same  parts  as he. The  KGB  man  succumbed  first,  went  all yellow,  the
hepatitis gathered strength, and a  week later Zhenka followed him  into the
infectious diseases  hospital.  In  fact,  Zhenka  was  a  dyed-in-the  wool
atheist, and cursed by  God and  His Mother  so frequently, that the ears of
the Holy Family must have burned so much  it was a miracle that the wrath of
God did not descend on the senior lieutenant's unit.
     Morgultsev, company captain, considered himself a  total unbeliever. He
had never stepped across the  threshold  of a church and did  not believe in
miracles.  He kept himself safe with garlic.  He would  eat a whole head  of
garlic before lunch.  Zhenka had nothing against a bit  of insurance on  the
side through garlic,  but that made  forays into the goods depot  a problem.
Zhenka  went  there whenever  he could in order to entertain  members of the
female sex in the Soviet Army. He  would play the  guitar  and sing. Amorous
interludes would follow  later. He would swear that this  was true love, but
that he could not stay behind even for her, beautiful though she was. Before
going to sleep he would sigh: "A blonde....and  not for  money, but for real
love, with me..."
     They never did find out who brought the infection into the company.
     "The  fuck  you'll  sort  it  out,"  said  captain  Morgultsev  dourly,
sweepingly classifying the drooping "elephants" as malingerers.
     Any commanding  officer would be at his wits'  end in such a situation.
Is this a company, or what? Are these paratroopers, or what? The troops were
issued tablets, some were packed off to hospital.
     The strange appellation "elephants" caught on among the troops long ago
and for a rather unusual reason. It  arose from  their  training in case  of
chemical warfare, before Afghanistan. The  officer would shout: "Masks!" and
the men  would drag  gas  masks  out of the green bags on their backs, shove
them over shaven and  unshaven heads: their eyes would stare out from behind
the glass, which would soon mist over,  and long tubes  extended like trunks
from the masks to the filter in the bag. Very soon, a joke started doing the
rounds about a commander of unit X whose small, capricious daughter demanded
that Daddy show  her some elephants  running around  outside,  otherwise she
won't  go to sleep, or eat, and stood there stamping her  tiny feet angrily.
Anything for peace! So Daddy  issued an order: "Company, ten-hut! Gas masks!
On the double!" And the "elephants" had to run  around and work  up a sweat,
choking and cursing everything on earth until ordered to stand down.
     Maybe someone  picked up the bug  in  the mess hall,  or drank unboiled
water, or ate an unwashed fruit from the town. Or maybe the disease had come
from the nearby  village, brought  in  by  flies, or a cloud  of dust, which
would hang in the air for a long time after the passage of any vehicle.
     The regiment had long shielded itself  from  the  Afghans  and anything
connected  with  them.  Fenced  itself  off with  barbed  wire,  minefields,
trip-wires, flares, machine gun nests, trenches, parapets, watchtowers, tank
armor, mortar and  artillery positions.  Sentries kept  a  sharp lookout  to
ensure that the enemy or some Afghan from  the neighboring village could not
come close. But the enemy did not come, made no move to attack the regiment.
Dysentery, hepatitis, amebic dysentery and typhoid struck instead.
     "Go  take  a  rope  and hang  yourself!"  joked the  company  commander
watching senior  warrant  officer Pashkov's diarrhea-induced sufferings. "At
least you'll die like a man and not a shit fountain!"
     Pashkov was  the first  to fall ill, and for some time it was suspected
that he had been the vector. However, it turned out that three soldiers from
the last contingent  of  newcomers  had been afflicted for several days now.
Rookies Myshkovsky, Sychev  and Chirikov had simply kept their  mouths  shut
out of military stupidity and ignorance of local diseases.
     From their arrival in  Fergana, efforts were made to instill elementary
rules of basic personal hygiene into the thick workers-and-peasant skulls of
the  recruits but  as a rule, with meager results.  Only  after having  gone
through  the furnace of  hepatitis,  typhoid and  dysentery does  the rookie
understand that  hands must  be  washed with soap, and not just  once a day,
that only boiled water  should be drunk - and if that's not available, it is
better  to remain thirsty.  That it  is not advisable  to use someone else's
spoon, that mess tins should be scrubbed until they shine, that if an Afghan
fly settles  on your miserable portion of yellow,  runny butter,  you should
think a dozen times before sticking it down your throat, that you should not
eat anything that comes to hand however hungry you might  be. Young soldiers
are always hungry.  They will gape at the fruits and vegetables displayed on
Afghan stalls,  they will pick  up a fallen unripe tomato from a puddle  and
eat  it  after a cursory wipe  against their sleeve, eat their fill  of free
water-melon, they will drink from a mountain stream without a second thought
if they're thirsty.
     PFC Prokhorov saw private Chirikov hanging around near the latrine, and
called him over:
     "Hey! 'Buchenwald strongman'! Come here!"
     "What?" asked Chirikov listlessly.
     "Not 'what', but report properly!"
     "Comrade PFC, private Chirikov reporting as ordered."
     "Go get me a bottle of soda."
     "What about money?"
     "Don't you have any of your own?! What are you gaping  at?! I'll square
up with you later." Prokhorov  was a small man, but very agile. He took up a
karate stance and landed Chirikov a shrewd blow on the neck with the edge of
his  palm.  Chirikov yelped and shuffled off in  the direction of the store.
Junior sergeant Titov gave a snort of laughter.
     "Think you're a regular Bruce Lee, don't you?"
     "If I wasn't sick, I'd show you the meaning of sparring!"
     "You already  have."  Titov  waved dismissively. "While you're flinging
your  fucking feet around in the air, I'll give you such a whack on the head
you won't know what hit you."
     Myshkovsky and Sychev emerged  from  the  latrine.  Myshkovsky had been
nicknamed "Virgin" because his parents  had conceived  him somewhere in  the
steppes of Kazakhstan, while they were turning up its virgin soil. They must
have been  overcome  with joy at their  own inhuman efforts. The mother died
soon after giving birth, and  the  father  took to  drink. So Myshkovsky had
been  called "the  orphan"  in his time, but  eventually  "Myshara"  was the
nickname that stuck. The other one, Sychev, freckle-faced and with prominent
ears, gloried in the nickname "Odessa" in honor of  the fine Black Sea  city
in which he was born.
     "Myshara! Odessa! Get  your asses over here! Going to the can a bit too
often,  aren't  you?" Hounding the  youngsters  was  a  favorite  pastime of
Prokhorov's. He used Chirikov as a target for his karate tricks, but did not
try that  with  Sychev,  who was  strongly built  and  quite up to taking on
Titov.  However, there  was  nothing to  stop  Prokhorov from having his fun
verbally. "What the hell do you do in there? Read the papers?"
     "What does everyone usually do there?" snarled Sychev.
     "Jerking off?!"
     "No!" chorused the recruits indignantly.
     "Don't wait for policemen in the night!" quoted Prokhorov aggressively.
"How does the rest of the rhyme go?"
     "Jerking off  you'll  feel  all right,"  replied Myshkovsky and  Sychev
obediently.  "Dismissed!"  Prokhorov ended  the  lesson  -  warrant  officer
Pashkov was trotting purposefully toward the latrine.
     Like  any warrant officer,  Pashkov was convinced that he was  craftier
than  everyone else. His craftiness was  expressed in his  refusal to accept
medical  methods  of  treatment. Having done  his  share  of dashes  to  the
latrine, Pashkov realized that  the microbe  would not just go away  but had
taken up firm residence in his  guts. So Pashkov acquired  a three-litre jar
of pure alcohol,  locked  himself in the store-room  and  did not emerge for
three  whole  days.  Drinking  himself  stupid, he would  snore  like a pig,
whistling, snorting and grunting.
     Nobody dreamed of bothering him, simply every so often they would knock
on  the door and offer to bring him  some tea. True,  some  of  the soldiers
maintained, and lieutenant Sharagin personally attested that, at night, when
everyone else was  asleep,  Pashkov would  emerge from the  seclusion of the
store-room and wander around the camp like the ghost from "Hamlet",  heading
in the general direction of the latrine. He didn't recognize or even seem to
see anybody, did not  react  to human speech, and bore no resemblance to the
real senior warrant officer Pashkov, the terror of the troops.
     Everybody  felt  sorry  for  Pashkov  except  the  company   commander.
Morgultsev knew Pashkov from service back home, so when lieutenant Sharagin,
suffering dysentery himself, remarked that  it was  a  pity about  poor  old
Pashkov, looks as  though the bug  could kill him and wasn't it time for him
to be shipped off to hospital, Morgultsev snapped:
     "The fuck he's sick! He's just gone on a bender with the booze! Happens
with him regularly, once every quarter! " Calming down, he added:
     "Still,  it  happens  even  more  frequently with some of  the  warrant
officers -  just like women's  monthlies..." Morgultsev left Pashkov alone -
he knew that he would come around and cure himself soon. Just like a wounded
animal going off alone to hide  in the forest, Pashkov had hidden himself on
the store-room and closed himself off from anyone,  fighting the  illness or
     On the  third day, an explosion shook the store-room. The explosion was
not all that  big, it sounded rather like the detonation of a fuse, but  the
whole company took fright, thinking that maybe Pashkov had gone off his head
from too much drink and had decided to  finish off not just the germs in his
intestines or the depression which tortured his mysterious Russian soul, but
himself as well.
     The door was broken down. Inside they found  the senior warrant officer
in the grip of dementia tremens and an empty three-litre jar.
     Pashkov  was  half-sitting,  half-lying  on  a  pile  of  kit-bags  and
greatcoats,  whiskers quivering and his eyes rolling  around  madly.  He was
pointing at a small crack in the floor from which, he maintained, scorpions,
phalanges and snakes were crawling out to get  him, and that he had disposed
of some of them  by throwing a lighted grenade  fuse down the hole.  Just in
case,  he  was gripping  a Makarov  pistol in  his hands  to shoot down  any
"creeping bastards" that might venture near him.
     "Take  the gun away, and get him  out of here!  Cured himself, has, he,
stupid moron!" rapped out Morgultsev.
     By some miraculous means the raw  alcohol helped Pashkov get rid of the
Afghan  bug and depression,  so  that  a week later he was vainly trying  to
convince his commanding officer  that he  had  not been malingering, that he
really had been ill and -God forbid! - should comrade captain succumb to the
same curse  he, Pashkov, bore no  ill  will and would help and explain, as a
specialist in  the  field, how and  where to  get  a three-litre  jar of the
necessary  medicine. A smaller dose,  according to him,  was insufficient to
kill the offending microbes.
     Unlike  Pashkov, lieutenant Sharagin suffered  longer, but resorted  to
tablets instead  of downing spirit.  As an educated man, he did  not believe
that  the  disease  could  be  expunged  by  alcohol  alone.  Rising for the
umpteenth  time in the middle of the night, sweating and sleepy, he  hurried
     Trying  to breathe  as infrequently as  possible he studied  a scrap of
"Red  Star", then crushed it up in order to soften it  a little. The central
Soviet press and the regional paper "Frunzevets" were frequently read in the
regiment, and not only during  painful  sessions in  the latrine. They  read
about  events in the capitalist  world, in countries where socialism reigned
triumphant, about Party and Komsomol congresses, laughed  at  the writers of
reports on Afghanistan. But should any outsider say the same, they would all
rise  up  as  one  in  defense  and  swear  that  every  word written  about
international help was God's truth, and how, for example, that APC got blown
up  because the lieutenant spared the Afghans'  crops because  he remembered
his  own collective  farm and  the fields  of home,  the  hard  labor of the
peasants, how  he had once dreamed of becoming  a tractor driver but went to
military school  instead, knowing  that there is  such a  profession as  the
defense of  one's  motherland: recalling all this,  the  lieutenant chose to
travel along the road rather than across fields, a road which the spooks had
mined, of course....
     In  any  case, if  you look  at  things  squarely,  it's  not right  to
criticize the Soviet Army; any story, any garbage  in the press, any feat of
courage, be it true or invented, raises morale.

     ...let  the  inventions continue to  appear  in the  press...let people
remember that there is a war on... thought Sharagin.

     ...  one must  pretend that the concoctions in the papers are true  ...
reporters come here on tours of duty in order to  make a name for themselves
... like that one, what's his name? Lobanov ... some writer!  ... made up  a
truckload of malarkey ... made himself famous but mentioned us paratroopers,

     The night,  dressed in a myriad  of spiky  stars, unfolded itself above
the regiment. The paras slept quietly, if  you  did not count the humming of
the diesel generators located on the edge of the camp, and to which everyone
had grown accustomed.
     Sharagin  stopped  to  clear  his lungs  of  the  acrid smell of  human
excrement  and lit  a cigarette, enjoying the silky  moon and the  scattered
multitude of stars. His insides squirmed, he felt like a limp dish rag which
had been thoroughly wrung, no strength at all, he felt weakness filling him.
From  time to time, tracers would rise  into  the sky - one of  the sentries
must be relieving the boredom of standing watch.

     ...like  the  overburdened souls  of people  who were sick  of war, the
tracers shot silently skyward in order to lose themselves in the skies above
Kabul, hoping to flee this city and this country...

     It also seemed as if

     ...the  distant  stars  were   fragments  of  broken  souls,  scattered
throughout  the  cosmos;   winking  in  the  moonlight,  still  hoping   for

     Back in the command barracks, he spent a long time turning from side to
side,  bed springs  creaking.  When  drowsiness  finally began to muddle his
thoughts about family and slide into sleep, a shot sounded practically under
the window and broken glass seemed to cry out.
     Zhenka Chistyakov  was off  his bunk  and on the  floor even before the
bullet which smashed the window became embedded in the wall.
     Guessing at once that this was no enemy shot and that there would be no
more, he raced outside as he was,  in sateen  drawers, hastily  shoving  his
feet into sneakers.
     "Bastards!" he yelled. "They want to kill me!"
     By  the time Sharagin  and  the other officers  emerged  and  a  mob of
soldiers, also awakened by the shot  gathered nearby,  Zhenka had managed to
give the sentry  a good thrashing. The unsuccessful  suicide did nothing  to
shield himself from the blows. Dressed in  helmet  and bullet-proof vest, he
tried to explain  between punches that it had been  an  accident, he  hadn't
been intending to fire, but  simply tripped. He lied, sweated, and  tried to
justify himself.

     ...probably  decided to shoot himself in  the hand, then got scared  at
the last moment...

     Muddled thought reflected on the army-tried features of the soldier.
     "Far as I'm  concerned, it would  be  better if you'd killed yourself!"
grated Chistyakov,  continuing  to beat  up the soldier. "Only  quietly  and
further from the barracks. But no, you had to go  and do it under my window,
you sonofabitch! `'

     ...the "grandpas" must have really gotten  at  him...or he doesn't want
to serve in Afghanistan...

     thought Sharagin, yawning.

     ...hope they don't drive  Myshkovsky  over the line  ...  I'll have  to
answer for him, after all...

     whispered a voice in his head.

     The sentry looked very much like Myshkovsky, and  Sharagin  experienced
an ambivalent  feeling of pity and irritation. The  soldier  looked awkward,
was obviously not too bright and clumsy.
     The helmet  had fallen off his  head, and his ears stuck  out funnily -
like two halves of a broken plate, which  someone had pasted to his head. He
wore his uniform badly, but then nothing  would have looked a good  fit on a
body like that.

     ...anger arises from a  desire to gain revenge ...  the weaker the man,
the more he is oppressed,  and when one who has been  slighted gets a chance
to rise, he takes his revenge on the new boys - a vicious circle...

     ... time  to sleep ... let others sort out this mess... after all, he's
not from our company...

     "Let's  go back  to bed, Zhenka," suggested  Sharagin  after  they both
smoked a cigarette,
     "How can anyone sleep after that?"
     He could understand  Chistyakov. Afghanistan  has made him so harsh and

     ... who can say what I'll be like at the end ...

     Chistyakov had served twenty  three months in  Afghanistan and  for the
past eight weeks had been hanging around waiting to be replaced.
     He had stopped going  to the mess hall and lived off canned food, bread
and  tea. From  time to time  the girls in the goods depot  would give him a
snack  out  of  gratitude  for  his  songs  and attentions,  especially  the
mysterious  blonde nobody  had ever seen but  who, according to  Zhenka, was
crazy about him.
     "She though I was going to marry her," confided Zhenka to his friends.
     "How's that?" queried Sharagin. "You've already got a family,"
     "That's right. That's what  I told her, if I didn't have a family,  I'd
take you to the ends of the earth.
     "And what did she say?" chipped in Pashkov.
     "She kept crying, damn it..."
     "That's  a  bad sign," warned Morgultsev. "We'll be going  into  combat
soon, and women in war bring bad luck..."
     Chistyakov spent the entire  following day lying on his  bunk. He  even
refused to  go  into town when  the  opportunity  came up, just lay there in
     "Where's senior lieutenant Chistyakov?" demanded the commander, running
his eyes over the troops.
     "His  lordship's resting.." replied  Pashkov, smoothing  his  luxuriant
     I see, down for safe keeping..." The captain knew this  mood well. This
was the state of many awaiting  replacements. The  Lord helps those who help
themselves  .  Should the spooks start  shelling, even the most seasoned and
brave  soldiers  would race for cover without a second thought. Who wants to
be killed a few days before going back home?
     "Fuck! Where the hell is he?" moaned Chistyakov. "Where is that fucking
son of a no-good bitch?"
     "Enjoying  his  leave," replied  Pashkov, fueling the flames. "Or maybe
he's drunk as a skunk in Tashkent. Putting down one beer after another..."
     "Just wait and see," prophesied the  commander. "Right now Chistyakov's
cursing his replacement with every name  he can think of, but the moment the
guy  arrives he'll treat  him  like  a  china  doll. We've  been through all
     Chistyakov  did not go to  dinner. He threw a tin can against the floor
with all his strength:
     "... so the microbes inside will  drop dead!"  Then  he polished  off a
0.75  bottle of vodka and sat at  the  table, smoking, blowing smoke through
his nostrils and confiding bitterly to the sardines floating in the tin can.
Finally, after baring his soul, he declared:  "... a cow stands on  a bridge
and shits, and man lives and dies just like that..." When Sharagin turned up
Zhenka, quite  drunk, said: "Look, you like writing down all sorts  of crap.
So I'll tell  you  the paradox of the Russian soul: steal a crate of  vodka,
sell it, and then spend the money on drink."
     "Lay off." Sharagin stretched out on his bunk, thinking about writing a
few lines home.
     "What's the date today, Zhenka?"
     "The forty-fourth of April."
     "There's no such thing."
     "Yes there is."
     "In  April," retorted  Sharagin  who had not touched a drop of  alcohol
either yesterday or today, "there are thirty days."
     "I was supposed to  be  replaced in  April.  And until  my  replacement
arrives, it'll stay fucking April!"

     Despite  his bad mood and the vodka, despite  his avoidance of duty and
short-distance sorties from the camp, Chistyakov was  the first when it came
to combat duty, and infected others with his attitude. Ready for war.
     "Now that  everyone's  run  out  of  shit, it's  time  to  get down  to
business, " he barked at the "elephants." 'And I don't want to  hear another
fucking word about someone not feeling well," he bellowed left and right.
     Zhenka  shone like a lamp in anticipation of battle, the risk, the fury
of  combat. It's not frightening for an officer to  die in  battle. What  is
frightening or,  rather, it would  be  a  shame,  to catch a bullet or shell
fragment from some stupid act.
     The soldiers' lot was no bowl  of  cherries, either. They  waited to be
demobbed  no  less  keenly, they'd  spent a  year and a half  plugging  away
without discharge or leave, but, unlike the officers, they had no choice and
could not show their displeasure. Chistyakov barked at everyone, testing the
livers of the "elephants" with his fist.
     "A whack on the liver is as good as a mug of beer!"
     Chistyakov was all afire  to go to war,  went around  as if in  a haze,
forgot all about his replacement,  cleaned his rifle, got his gear together,
honed his combat knife.
     "I  sure  don't envy the  spooks," remarked Pashkov, shaking  his head.
"Where'd he suddenly get all that energy?"  He was checking  out the fixings
of the machine gun on the turret of an armored vehicle.
     "Why are you so glum, Sharagin?"
     "I had a bad dream..."

     Army service  consists of discipline,  petty  tyrannies,  humiliations,
details, eating,  digesting, sleep and expectation -- expectation of orders,
expectation of leave, expectation of returning  home, expectation of freedom
from  the power  of highly placed fools  and scoundrels,  expectation of the
decrees of Fate. If an army is  at war, service also includes expectation of
death: be  it in the name  of  obeying orders, serving the  interests of the
Motherland, or simply because on that day, at that moment, a specific number
comes up, YOUR number. Someone must be sacrificed, after all.
     Such choices  of Fate are subsequently and most frequently described as
heroism  and fulfillment of duty, less  frequently  as sheer bad luck, while
those  who  stood side by side with death, later find  some explanation  for
that particular  stroke of fortune, even  though  everyone knows exactly why
and how it came to pass.
     But people tied to the army conceal from each other that their survival
so far in this inscrutable lottery has been due to blind luck,  no more; and
only in the deepest recesses of their minds, mostly subconsciously, do  they
render thanks to that hand, which did not draw THEIR number...

     Rebellious Afghan tribes that  had refused  to swear  allegiance to the
new regime had taken refuge on the  plain between high mountains. The troops
took up positions on the  dominant heights above the  plain, presiding above
villages and wooded  patches -- "greenery" -- which lay below silently, like
a predator gone to earth. The troops knew that victory would be theirs, that
the greenery would fall before them, but they also knew the price they would
have to pay.
     Those who had planned the battle and were ready to order its  start had
already estimated the costs of the operation, because war is a science,  and
science demands precision and calculation. War does not excuse weakness, war
knows no  mercy,  and therefore people  who decide to  make war  never allow
themselves  to  be  guided  by  such  feelings.  They  deliberately distance
themselves from  the  epicenter of  battle in order  not to see the soldiers
they are sending  off to be  slaughtered, in order  not to look  into  their
eyes. Instead,  they  content  themselves with sending them rousing messages
and promising medals and titles. They are well aware that after victory  the
number  of  the fallen will not  be a determining factor, because those  who
died will automatically become heroes, while the maimed and wounded shall be
whisked  away from the theatre  of war to  specially  devised hospitals  and
military  medical installations, so the sight  of them will  not upset their
former comrades in arms and newly arrived reinforcements.

     Sharagin's  platoon soon took  possession of the hill  overlooking  the
road, making  a  nest  for itself at  the top.  Like the company,  the whole
battalion, and all the units assigned to this particular military operation,
the  platoon  lived in  daily expectation  of orders, meanwhile the soldiers
slept  under canvas  awnings  erected on the slope and under armoured  cars,
dreamt of home  in  the  stillness of afternoons and nights, ate dry rations
and relieved themselves in the immediate vicinity.
     Lieutenant Sharagin worried  that this  relaxed atmosphere  could prove
fatal if it were to last a few more days, but there was  little  he could do
about it but hope for speedy orders to advance.

     .... we're surrounded by mountains... when the sun goes down,
     and darkness falls, and the first stars appear like sentinels in
     the heavens, the sun still lights up the other side of the
     mountain range, making it look as though it is still daylight
     over there, and they look flat ... as though some giant has
     made cardboard cutouts of ancient warriors, heads bent, and
     tired horsemen, and the peaks and contours look like their
     heads, lowered in exhaustion, who have struck camp, backs and
     shoulders slumped, and their horses' heads ... the giant has glued
     them carefully and disposed them like immense decorations,
     gifting the sleeping valley with a certain coziness ... the
     valley that we shall take soon...

     The  atmosphere of  tedium and lyrical  musing  was  heightened by  the
effects of the dry, hot, all-pervasive and heavy wind known as the "afghan,"
which descended out of nowhere and blew unrelentingly all day.
     The "afghan"  was fierce, as though angered by the  platoon and all the
troops that  had come to the valley. It drove myriad grains of sand  against
the  canvas of  the tents, stung faces,  covered those who had  taken refuge
behind rocks  with  sand and dust and  harried the sentries  who crouched in
dug-outs and waited to be replaced.
     But the  relief sentries  never arrived  punctually.  The  "grand-dads"
slept, unconcerned by the problems of the youngsters,  and  those  who  were
scheduled for duty strung out the time as long  as possible to shorten their
own stint on guard.
     The  wind danced up and  down the  valley,  blotting  out the  sky  and
mountains with an  impenetrable  shroud  of dust. Stubborn,  capricious  and
merciless, the "afghan" spun at liberty, feeling its power and impunity.

     ... what was that bit in the Bible? How apt it was!...

     Sharagin racked  his  brains, trying to  remember  those words  out  of
Ecclesiastes, which he had read so long ago, before military school:

     "The wind  blows to the South and goes  around to the North;  round and
round goes the wind and on its circuits the wind returns."

     ... it was as if the prophet was talking about the "afghan"...
     I'll have to read it again when I get back home....

     It was  easier  to tolerate the "afghan" in company, but depression was
just as great, the desire to go  home was always there, and because home was
far away, the next best thing was to get drunk.
     The  sand  raised  by  the "afghan"  penetrated  everywhere,  filtering
through every crack, every hole.  People spat, rubbed  their eyes and noses,
but the  sand filled their hair and crept down their backs. The wind carried
a hidden premonition of disaster.
     Toward evening the "afghan" finally tired of  making mischief, and took
itself off. It had not  exhausted itself, no, that was not why the wind died
down. Most likely it got bored  with this place, and sped off to wreak havoc
and bother people elsewhere, after a few parting sand whirls.
     It was completely quiet again, cold and distant stars filled  the  sky,
but  in  the morning  torture by the sun  resumed.  The soldiers, usually so
talkative and noisy, were silent.
     Sharagin inspected the positions  once more. Two soldiers snored in the
shade  of a canvas awning. One of them --  Savateyev -- was swiping at a fly
on his face in his sleep, frowning and scratching his cheeks.  When his hand
brushed against the top of his head, the  lice he dislodged leapt  nimbly to
the head of the soldier sleeping next to him.

     ... I'll order their heads shaved, every last one of them!...

     Sharagin saw junior sergeant Titov wandering around clad in nothing but
a  pair of sateen  drawers, rolled up to look like bathing trunks,  absently
scratching his  crotch.  Sergeant  Panasyuk, his face  sunburnt a fiery red,
sprawled  on a greatcoat  on the ground. Nearby, private Sychev,  in correct
uniform, was squeezing festering pimples on the back of a "grand-dad" of the
Soviet Army, Prokhorov.

     ... disgusting ...

     By certain unwritten  laws, only the so-called grand-dads had the right
to go around undressed. In principle, the grand-dads were not supposed to do
so either,  but any  officer in his  right mind  turned a blind eye  to such
liberties,  provided they  remained within reason. The grand-dads  knew what
they were  about, they knew that they could allow themselves  a  measure  of
insolence with any  commanding officer,  and if  they did not go too far, if
they did not overdo things, no conflict would ensue. One only needed to know
exactly where to draw the line. Sharagin glanced sideways at Panasyuk, Titov
and  Prokhorov, all in their  satin underwear, threw a  second glance on his
way to relieve  himself, and when he passed by a  third time, the grand-dads
were all  getting dressed.  They took the squad leader's hint. Once dressed,
they went off to harry the younger personnel, because there was nothing else
to do that day.
     It did not  take long for Panasyuk to adopt some of the  squad leader's
mannerisms and expressions. Aping Sharagin, he took to  addressing the lower
ranks with the  polite "you" instead of the familiar "thou," but with an air
of paternal superiority; at combat training  he  would urge them on with one
of the new commanding  officer's aphorisms: "At first, a  soldier marches as
long  as  he  can,  and  after  that,  as  long  as  necessary."  Panasyuk's
stubbornness and persistence  earned him the nickname of "the mountain brake
of communism." Combat vehicles of the commando  forces are all equipped with
a so-called  mountain  brake with a catch.  Once this is engaged,  the motor
will continue to roar and strain, but the vehicle will not budge an inch. It
was  due  to his unwillingness to  give one iota that Panasyuk lost  a front
tooth during his first months of service.
     The people on the hilltop wilted  from  the burning sun and inactivity,
becoming  dull and stupid. In this kind of heat,  anybody's thoughts  become
scattered.  Even  in the shade you toss around as  in  a fever, sweating out
every drop  of moisture and  waking up  stupefied by the stifling heat, with
spittle on your lips, your head like a chunk of lead, sticky with sweat  and
mind fogged with fragments of restless dreams.
     ... Sharagin wove around in  his half-dreams, and although his thoughts
remained perfectly clear and  consistent, coordination disappeared:  the men
would  run  out  to line up, and all  Oleg  could  do  was mumble something,
drunkenly trying to pull on a pair of socks which, for some reason, were two
sizes too small, so the heel was  too far down and the sock wouldn't fit; he
hopped around on one bare foot, lost balance  and tumbled backwards, luckily
onto his bunk, avoiding injury ... Soldiers' voices reached his ears through
a  thin, silken  veil  of slumber:  "...took  fright, that greenhorn!...shit
himself when the shooting started!...well, it's true, isn't it?", "a  rocket
exploded just five meters off, and not a single splinter hit us,  would  you
believe?", "and  fuck me dead  if I didn't kill three spooks right then  and
there," "I'd rather  walk into someone else's shit instead of going up there
on the slope. We already had one stupid bastard who went out into the  field
for a crap ... we found his arse about twenty meters away,  ha, ha, ha..." ,
"remember that warrant  officer,  Kosyakevich,  how he  rolled around on the
ground when that, well,  when them  spooks  had us holed up  in a ravine and
opened  up with a  fucking heavy machine gun? Kosyakevich copped  it  in the
stomach... the first aid instructor bandaged him up, but we knew that it was
curtains  for  the  poor  sod!",  "death's  a  bugger,  always  catches  you
unawares...";  and in his dreams Oleg also heard the soldiers bitching about
their details, and the lousy rations, and  that "you always have to put down
your own  cash to get  a  decent  bite  of something,"  and  the curses  the
soldiers aimed at the merciless sun of Afghanistan.
     Finally  Sharagin could not stand this monotonous and  stupid  chatter,
which  would  not  let him sleep properly, and  barked:  "Stop that  fucking
noise!"  to shut them up. Then  he took a gulp of water from his canteen and
turned over, hoping to fall asleep until dinner time.
     One  lot of voices was  replaced  by another, distracting  him from his
attempts  to sleep, and, if truth  be told, Sharagin didn't  really want  to
sleep, and all kinds of  thoughts went round  and round in the  lieutenant's

     ... when you get down to it, soldiers are nothing but rabble, the
     dregs of our society, they're ... hell, how quickly they've become
     an uncontrollable wave away from home! ... nothing but trivial,
     idiotic thoughts in practically every head that's why they
     talk such rubbish ... but if our soldier is so dumb and useless,
     what about the "diesel-heads"? All the mototrised infantry are

     "I tell you,  those flies weren't fucking!" cried someone, as though in
confirmation of Sharagin's thoughts.
     "Everyone's a psycho!" yelled someone else.

     ... grown-up idiots, the whole bleeding lot...

     The  lives of  sons of bitches like Prokhorov, slobs and  mean bastards
like Titov, hounded  juniors like  Myshkovsky,  Sychev and Chirikov,  clowns
like Panasyuk and similar  typical and untypical  persons and non-persons of
the  latest and  intervening call-ups belonged to Sharagin. Rather,  he  was
assigned to  this  motley crew  known as a platoon, and it was up to him  to
make the platoon combat-worthy, it was his job to think  about the  platoon,
these people, every hour, minute and  second, to worry and make decisions as
a result of which  the soldiers would return home alive from Afghanistan, or

     One could spend eternity cursing these young men, drafted from all ends
of the Land of the Soviets to active military service,

     ... brainless "elephants"...

     but  right now Sharagin cursed them to  himself,  just as he did aloud,
for errors and for trifles about which  the soldiers didn't give a damn, but
which could prove fatal  in  war. He  cursed them, but  at the  same time he
sympathised with each one individually, and  was saddened each time when the
hardened  youngsters left his squad,  in the  USSR  or here  in Afghanistan,
after  their  two-year stint.  Sharagin  truly valued  that inexplicable and
unique phenomenon that is called a Soviet, Russian soldier.

     ...  where does the Soviet soldier's  frequent total disregard of death
arise,  his endless  courage and  desperate feats? ... an  Afghan soldier is
nothing  like that, just try  telling him that he  has to go from  Kabul  to
Kandahar: he won't, not for any money, each one of those 'afghanoids' thinks
only of saving his own skin, while we guard their peace, do their dirty work
for them, slave our guts out ... because  they're all cowards, and  our lads
can't wait to  get into  battle ... what  is it, excessive romanticism?  no,
they've seen it all, and  still strain at the leash ... are they stupid? but
they're not such fools as to throw life away needlessly ... duty? no, that's
for the newspapers, empty words ...  Russian recklessness? partly ... nobody
can really understand  it ... just as  nobody can  solve the riddle  of  the
Russian  soul,  nobody  ... huge, deep, like our  country  ...  untractable,
unpredictable ... only the Russian soul can encompass unbelievable  breadth,
sincerity,  openness  and sentimentality alongside such traits  as villainy,
boot-licking,  baseness,  servility,  selfless  love  of  others  and  total
disregard for human life ... especially for those on  top, human  life loses
all value, especially in Moscow, among those bastards who wear out the seats
of their pants in HQ offices ... they do  not see us as individuals, but  as
battalions, companies and divisions ...

     ...  that's  enough  philosophizing,  Sharagin, time  to  get  back  to
business,  the war, and not sit around meditating ... what did I start with?
oh, yes - the boundless courage of Russian soldiers...

     No  matter  how  hard  Sharagin tried  to  get away from  philosophical
musings, he kept plunging  back  into thought. He turned over and started to
examine  the  peeling green paint of  the APC, the dried mud plastering  its
body, the thick layer of dust that covered it just as it lined his lungs.
     Soviet  people  in Afghanistan choked on dust and spat it out  in thick
gobs of yellow, pus-like spittle.
     Unexpectedly  it  came  to  him  that glorification  of  war,  romantic
perception  of  battle  begins in  childhood,  when  a  child  encounters  a
veritable landslide of  literature on the subject, when his mind  is  barely
able  to digest heroic films in  which the soldier is always victorious, and
where death of the enemy is a great feat.

     ...  kids barely out of the cradle run around with wooden machine guns:
bang-bang, you're dead! ... nobody ever told us what real war is like, not a
single book  explained that by  its nature, war is  an abomination  ...  the
Great Patriotic War was idealized, made into a fetish ... yes,  we won,  but
at  what  price! ... I  learnt  a lot  from my grandfather ...  but  this is
something that will never be published in a single book or newspaper! ... so
it looks as though the  loss  of ten million lives is justified, and instead
of  condemning  such  monstrous  losses,  instead of  condemning  those  who
couldn't give a damn  whether thirty or forty millions perish in the name of
victory,  we eulogise martial success  and prepare another generation hooked
on self-sacrifice ...  my  generation  was well prepared,  that's why  we're
here,  that's  why  our Soviet soldiers in  Afghanistan  perform miracles of
heroism ....

     Saturated  with  specious, sweet, superficial  and erroneous images  of
war, boys with wooden guns dream of battle, dream of going to war, no matter
where or what.

     ...  sadly, most of them never  shed these  childish illusions as  they
grow up ...  stop! cancel that! it looks  as  though we can't  live  without
violent  emotion, without heroics, we  always  need  an enemy  who  must  be
destroyed  ...  so  were we  all, our whole  country,  only waiting for  yet
another war, like this one in Afghanistan? ...

     As soon as the sun was  past the zenith, the soldiers, who  had quieted
down for a  while, came  back to life, rubbing their eyes, yawning, crawling
out of their holes.  With returned  vigour  came jokes,  laughter, swearing,
     The day before, when the squad was moving out to its assigned position,
the lads pulled a  fast  number to get additional food, which  they hid from
their commander while they were digging in and sheltering from the "afghan."
     The armoured military vehicles,  BMPs,  met a herd of goats on a narrow
mountain  road. The  older  herdsman,  a  sturdy man who struck Sharagin  as
highly suspicious,

     ... he's a  "spook,"  for  sure ... and he'll remain in  our  rear, the
bastard ...

     and a young boy, were  driving  the  herd toward them. The Afghans were
afraid  that the shuravi would run  down their goats and began to mill about
and fuss.  Sharagin signalled  a  halt.  At the same  moment, lance-corporal
Prokhorov,  the wiry  and  daring  gunner in the first BMP,  opened the rear
hatch and seized a young kid.
     Sharagin didn't  notice anything, all he heard  was a dull thud  as the
hatch slammed shut,  and  turned  around  in surprise to see a  female  goat
butting the BMP's armour:

     ... stupid animal ... what on earth possessed it? ...

     The  kid traveled on with the squad,  quietly  chewing into a  sack  of
potatoes. Halfway through, it almost started on some sticks of TNT that were
kept to  help  in digging trenches. Prokhorov and  Panasyuk caught  the  kid
devouring  the  short-supply  potatoes and  dragged  it out of the  vehicle,
swearing profusely, to the encouraging shouts of their comrades.
     The poor, frightened animal plunged wildly  amid a forest  of legs  and
shadows cast by surrounding soldiery until Titov felled it to earth and slit
its throat with his bayonet.
     Naturally, there was  not enough fresh  meat to go  around. The younger
men had to make do with boiled pearl  barley, but the youngsters devoured it
greedily, chomping and belching, licking their spoons and mess tins clean in
their  hurry  to  fill  their  bellies  before  their  older comrades  could
     They  watched  from a  respectful distance how  the old  hands savoured
their  meat,  sucking  the  bones  clean  and helping  themselves  to  baked
potatoes: first they would  poke around in the hot ashes with  a twig,  roll
out a potato, pull off the blackened peel, pop the white  inside into  their
mouths, and take another bite of goat meat.
     "A drop of whaddya call it, port, would go down a treat now, eh Panas?"
Asked lance-corporal Prokhorov, licking his greasy fingers.
     "Stop breaking my heart. When we get back to the Union, then we'll pull
out all the stops and celebrate! As much port and vodka as you can hold!"
     "Shit yes, that'll be really something!"
     "When we get back to the  company, fuck me if  I get up off my bunk for
anything. I won't move a finger until I'm demobbed!"  Panansyuk took  a bite
of potato.  "If it wasn't  for this assignment, we'd  be getting ready to go
back right now..."
     The  youngsters chewed on dry crackers,  listening enviously to the old
hands' fantasies.
     "Hey, Chiri, why are you resting your balls  by that fire? Where's  the
tea, boy?" shouted Prokhorov.  "Damn greenhorns! You'll be jerking off for a
long time yet  before you can think of  demob!" He laughed loudly.  "But the
grand-daddies of the Soviet Army  will  be getting up to God knows what in a
month's time. Lock  up  your daughters,  people! I  told you,  remember, how
we've got this whole female hostel right next door, a new slit every night,"
he went on,  making things up on the spur of the  moment, and believing  his
own lies. "I  remember Panas, see,  how you'd  come  every night to a dance,
pick up a chick, and on the way back to the hostel, naturally, you'd get her
into a clinch somewhere in  the bushes,  then take her home, and another one
would be waving out the window at you, like, hell, come and hop into my cot,
soldier-boy! Just think, fuck it, what a life we had!"
     "Who d'you think  you're shitting, Prokhor?" jeered  Titov. "One  and a
half years I've  known you,  and all you've done is  bullshit on about  that
hostel, and I bet before that you hadn't so much as squeezed a tit!"
     "Bullshit yourself,  I didn't!" roared  Prokhorov,  though  he  clearly
realized that any moment now he'd be pinned down for outright lying.
     "With a  willy like yours, even if you got to climb up  on  a woman she
wouldn't feel  a  thing!  It'd be  like a  pencil in  a glass!"  said Titov,
quashing his friend even further.
     "How would you know?" challenged Prokhorov sourly.
     "Well,  it's  no  great  military  secret,  is  it?  We've been in  the
bath-house together, haven't we?"
     "Chiri, you  mother-fucker!" Shouted lance-corporal Prokhorov,  glaring
at a soldier sitting nearby.  "How long  are  we going to wait for that tea,
eh? It's  ready? Well, bring it here,  bugger  it, before I  have to get up!
I'll count to three ... fucking one ... fucking two ..."
     Thin, fair-haired Chirikov grabbed up the hot mugs with his bare hands,
and just made it on the count of three.
     "And where's the  jam, worm?" Demanded Prokhorov, pinning  the  hapless
soldier with a merciless glare.
     " ? "
     "I'll count to one and a half! Starting now! One..."
     "Come off  it,"  interrupted  Panasyuk. "Dismissed,  Chiri!" After  the
soldier  retreated, he added: "You've driven the poor sod  into  the ground.
He's just  come off duty. Give  him a  break. Otherwise,  he'll goof  off on
duty, fall asleep, and that will be that."
     "Fuck the  lot  of you!" Retorted Prokhorov,  offended, and stumped off
with his mug, muttering as he went: "Fine friends, bugger them!  If I hadn't
swiped that fucking goat, you'd all be sitting around sucking your balls!"
     "Hold it!" Shouted Panansyuk.
     "Let him go," interposed Titov, waving dismissively. "Five minutes, and
he'll be back to normal."
     They sat around, slurping thick black tea, which had been overboiled on
an improvised grill  made out of  a zinc  cartridge box.  The subject  under
discussion was how to make a cake out of biscuits and condensed milk. It was
imperative  to  make  their  own  demob cake.  Tradition.  Sweet  dreams  of
demobilisation  reflected   on  the  faces  of  Panasyuk  and  Titov,  while
Prokhorov,  miffed by his friends' digs,  wandered around the  post, sipping
his  tea, burning  his  mouth on the  hot aluminum mug, and shouting at  the
younger soldiers.
     Sharagin, relaxing with an after-dinner cigarette, heard a single shot.
     "Find  out  who   that  was,  and  report  back,"  he  ordered  private
Myshkovsky, who  had jumped at the shot, and again at the harsh tone  of his
commanding officer's voice.

     ... you'd swear someone dropped him flat on his face on some asphalt in
childhood  ... he's put up with the grand-dads, month after month ...  never
mind, Myshkovsky, we'll make a paratrooper out of you yet ...

     "It  was  lance-corporal  Prokhorov  shooting,   comrade   lieutenant,"
reported Myshkovsky breathlessly when  he  got back.  "He said it was so the
spooks in the  village wouldn't  stick their noses out.  Remedial  shot,  he
     Prokhorov had taken up a position with a  sniper's rifle, and turned to
the cowed sentry:
     "Burkov, fuck you! Get over to the sergeant and tell him to come here."
     "But I'm on duty, I can't leave my post ..."
     "Whaaat? Lost your marbles in attack, or something? On your  way -- one
foot here, the other one there!"
     At first, they  just fooled around to shape  up, aiming  at  rocks  and
bushes from the top of the hill. However, this pastime soon palled. Panasyuk
offered a bet to make things more interesting:
     "For five chits,  all right? Prokhor, let's see which one of us can hit
that donkey over there."
     Prokhorov missed,  which made him even  more  angry. Panasyuk  got  the
donkey with  his  first  shot, leaned  back against a rock and  pulled out a
packet of cigarettes, while the unlucky grand-dad, boiling with frustration,
studied  the  village through the rifle sights,  hoping  that something live
would appear, a domestic animal, say, or an Afghan,  so that he  could renew
the bet and win back his five chits -- a whole FIVE -- from Panasyuk.
     Sharagin went  for a piss  after his tea and saw the grand-dads messing
around with the rifle. He saw  Prokhorov, pop-eyed and red-faced, pull money
out of his pocket and give it  to the  sergeant. Buttoning up  his fly as he
went, Sharagin  wandered over to the shooters.  He wouldn't mind doing a bit
of shooting himself.
     "Hey, Prokhor, look! An old  woman's come out! No, no, a bit further to
the right," prompted the sergeant.
     "Same conditions as before?" Asked Prokhorov, just to be sure.
     "Yep.  There's a war on, she's  got no  business  roaming the  streets.
Right, comrade lieutenant?"
     "I guess so."
     "One fucking spook about to bite the dust!" Cried Prokhorov gleefully.
     The sun was already low, and the veiled woman cast a long shadow, which
dragged  behind  her  along  a  wall, as  if  trying to  hold  her back from
inevitable disaster.
     A 7.62 whooshed toward the village.
     The old woman stopped,  as  if  struck  by a sudden  thought, then slid
slowly to the ground, fell on her side and lay motionless.
     "Never cross the  road on a red light," quipped one of  the men who had
gathered to watch the show.
     "Want a go, comrade  lieutenant?" Offered  Panansyuk. "I'll load  it up
with  an  exploding  head, if you like." He retreated a few steps behind the
beaming Prokhorov and  returned the five chits. They stood there watching as
their  commanding officer  settled down  on a sleeping bag, and adjusted the
rifle sights.
     "Look,  look,  comrade  lieutenant,  over  on  the left  by the  wall!"
Prompted Titov, eyes glued  to a pair of binoculars. "There's a spook there,
see him?"
     "Yes, I see him..."
     He  did  not dampen the  grand-dads'  exhilaration, consenting silently
that the  village belonged to the spooks and was thus doomed to destruction,
so there was no point in wasting pity on  its inhabitants. He had agreed, so
he, too, was now part of this "game." He lay cradling  the rifle and looking
through its sights at an old man who peered out from behind a wall from time
to time.

     ...  Prokhorov's right: there's a war on,  they've no business  showing
themselves outside ...  there's a war on, so it's either them or us ...  all
these so-called  peaceful civilians, old and young, hate our guts, and given
the  chance, they'll wind our  gizzards around a pitchfork and put  them out
for all to see ... they help the spooks, the bastards, going back and  forth
as  if they're tending their fields,  but  at  the same  time,  the sons  of
bitches are setting out trip-wires ... "

     Sharagin took  aim, but at the same moment decided not to kill  the old
man, just shoot  over his  head, and tightened his finger on the trigger. In
training, he had  been the best  shot in his  group. It would be easy to hit
the target at this range -- too easy.

     ... live, old man ....

     "Bet you he'll miss," came a whisper from behind.
     " ....."
     "No guts?"
     "No ... Bet you ten chits." That was Panasyuk.
     Sharagin aimed again. A  drop of sweat trickled from his  hairline past
his ear, down  his cheek and fell on the rifle butt. He  held his breath. He
couldn't understand  why he  had  suddenly given way to  doubts. His fingers
felt the stiffness of the trigger, as though it was resisting him.
     "...  taking too long to aim, fuck it,  he'll  miss for  sure!" needled
Prokhorov's voice.
     The  shot  boomed out. The  old man fell away from the wall,  staggered
forward a few steps and fell.
     "Ha! Gotcha!" whooped Panasyuk.
     "Class shot! Right in the brain box!"  Confirmed Titov,  still glued to
the  binoculars.  "Head's gone like it was  never  there. Just  his  jawbone
hanging on his neck!"

     The  armoured vehicles  were  like pincers  around the village;  moving
inward,  the  paratroopers  began  combing  through the  village.  Groups of
soldiers dispersed along its dusty, crooked streets.

     ...  the  village  is  empty,  definitely empty ... and  the  artillery
pounded the hell out of it ... everyone must be long gone ... but, then, who
knows? ...

     A dead donkey lay beside the last hut, distended  from the heat  like a
barrel to which  someone had tied four legs for fun. A suffocating stench of
decaying flesh hung in the air for several dozen meters around.
     Suppressing  the urge  to vomit, the soldiers tried to keep as far away
from it  as  possible,  as  if fearing that the  rock-hard  hide of the dead
animal,  bloated to its  limits,  might burst and douse  them with stinking,
rotten matter.
     Armed men filed through the winding streets, which were not wide enough
for  their  vehicles: a  BMP  was bound to  get  stuck and become a  sitting
     The new boys gazed  around fearfully, creeping sideways along the walls
in momentary  expectation  of  attack, delaying the others  as  they pressed
their  backs to the blind walls  of houses.  Lacking experience, borne along
only by  the fear and excitement arising  out of terror of the unknown, they
could  only count on  the  speed of their reaction, the ability to  fire  at
once, emptying the entire magazine.
     The  more   experienced  soldiers   were  like  predators:   listening,
constantly  evaluating  their position  in relation  to  a  possible  enemy,
estimating the best  and closest cover to dive into at the first  sound of a
shot. Intuitively, they sought the temper of the village, tried to catch its
breath,  and moved confidently ever deeper, to  complete the combing and get
out of this silent, malevolent and alien kingdom.
     The men advanced quickly but quietly,  fearful of mines and trip-wires.
Their  eyes searched the ground. The labyrinths under  the houses led to the
very heart of the village.
     Part of  the  village was destroyed by artillery fire: some  roofs  and
grey  mud walls had collapsed,  shattered  windows  were  black holes in the
walls of houses.  Here and  there, on houses that were still standing, there
were small Chinese-manufactured padlocks -- a sure sign that the inhabitants
had fled, expecting the worst, but hoped to return at some later time.
     "Check 'em out!"
     A door was rammed in.
     "Sychev,  follow  me!"  Ordered  Sharagin.  "Titov,  Myshkovsky!  Check
opposite, in the yard!"
     "All clear!"
     "The spooks have fucked off!..."

     Captain Morgultsev took off  his hat, wiped the sweat off his brow with
his sleeve, and unfolded a map on the armour.
     "Combing through  the "greenery" is like chasing lice  out of your hair
with a bloody fine-tooth comb ... All right ...The Afghan units will move in
from here,  and  here. Our orders are to move along here." He poked a finger
at a green-shaded section on the map,  criss-crossed by roads, like so  many
     "To hell  and gone with that  fucking greenery!" Chistyakov  hawked and
spat through his teeth, then rubbed the spittle into the ground with the toe
of his boot. "Can't we do  without  those bloody  Afghans? They'll scare off
the spooks for miles around!"

     ... wants  to take a  last drink of blood, and there  aren't any spooks
about, nobody to kill ...

     guessed Sharagin.
     "Comrade senior lieutenant!" squeaked the political officer. "Enough of
your fu ... '' he cut  himself off.  ''Enough  of these emotional outbursts!
They're our military allies!"
     Chistyakov bit his lip, scowled at Nemilov and burst out:
     "What do you fucking well want, more than anyone else?"
     "Bloody hell, will you stop that?!" interrupted Morgultsev. He gave the
platoon leaders their instructions and ordered them to their vehicles.
     "I won't leave it at that," fumed the political  officer. "I don't care
if he's due for replacement! What kind of an example is he setting others?"
     "Leave him alone," advised Morgultsev.

     Sharagin's  BMP  bounced across a trench, the  armour slicing through a
corner of a house, and raced away from the village.
     They penetrated deeper into the valley and the "greenery", breathing in
the unhealthy, greasy dust of deserted houses,  the treads  of BMPs churning
up the spooks' former land holdings,  driving them away and pursuing;  their
advance drove  the spooks back from their bolt-holes,  squeezed them  out of
the  valley, pointing them toward other hunters, even though they knew  that
once the operation was  over and the companies went back to base, the spooks
who  had managed to break through  would return and  bring others with them,
return and take up  residence once more, and revolutionary power would never
be established in these parts.
     Unruly  and defiant, condemned as treacherous or  subversive,  at times
due to errors inevitable in war time, the villages were methodically pounded
by Soviet air  power  and artillery. Heavy  arms fire  felled and  destroyed
Muslim  gravestones,  flags  fluttering  in  the  wind. Shells  disemboweled
cemeteries and homes of the heathen, cleared  Afghan  mountains, plains  and
deserts of the spooks, of the unclean, making way for the builders of a new,
bright future. The shuravi hoped the time would come when they would finally
wipe  all treacherous  villages  from the face of the earth. Villages  fell,
burned,  disintegrated, but  for some  reason never disappeared  completely.
Like scabbed-over sores  they lay on  mountain slopes, in the "greenery" and
along  roadsides  -- a blind reproach, malignant and unforgiving of what was
done  to them, ready to wreak revenge for the cruelty with  which, free from
doubt and hesitation, the people from the North, the shuravi, who always did
whatever they wanted, had dealt with them.

     A lone,  stunted tree stuck out above a  long, partially  ruined  wall,
chunks missing from it like bites from an apple. The tree had lost its crown
in  the  shelling, but  it still  lived.  It  looked out  fearfully  at  the
surrounding world after the artillery storm.

     ... just like that old man behind the house ...

     The familiar, relatively safe passage of life,  accompanied by the roar
of  diesel engines and  shuddering  armour, suddenly broke  off.  A  grenade
launcher opened up on the first BMP from behind the wall.

     ... like a fireball ...

     it flew from  the shelter of  the  wall, beside  the tree, and a moment
later  the  armour under  Oleg jumped.  The  shell hit the  vehicle's tread,
blasting it off.
     Whee, whee, whee! Screamed wayward spook bullets on all sides. Soldiers
fell  flat,  pressing  themselves  against the ground,  into the dust, dived
under vehicles. Everyone took whatever shelter they could.
     A machine gun  chattered  in  fury and  hatred, striving to kill off as
many as it could of these suddenly vulnerable people, jumping off the armour
to the ground.
     Sergeant Panasyuk was caught in mid-leap. He bounded up and fell like a
sack on his back; his helmet rolled away, and his hand clenched his gun.
     The  sergeant  had  no  time to  even  shout, he  just  grunted  almost
inaudibly, as  if to himself, before his long, bony body  struck the ground.
In  the  all-embracing  silence before  death, the sergeant  was  quiet  and
relaxed for the  first  time in one and a  half years of war, as  if he  had
returned home  and wrapped himself in a  blanket,  hid his head  and went to
     Hefty Titov crawled up  and dragged him behind the BMP,  pulled off his
bullet-proof vest,  and only  then  saw the reddish-brown spot on Panasyuk's
     The battle cut off the  squad from the  rest  of the world, deafened it
with shell-fire, blinded it with explosions; lead whizzed all around.
     Sharagin emptied his second magazine, replaced it and turned, wondering
why the BMPs were  not firing. The  cannon of the nearest one  was swiveling
back and forth.  Prokhorov, staggering,  as  if  drunk, could not figure out
where the  fire  was  coming  from  and where  the spooks had taken up their
position. Finally he fired by guess: Kaboom! Kaboom! Kaboom!
     Kaboom! Kaboom! Came belated fire from the second BMP.

     ... serve the bastards right! ... give them another one! ...

     Ah, that was better. Now all guns were firing.

     Shattered by explosions, the village  fell silent. The spooks  must  be
retreating. But  the  infuriated soldiers kept raking  the  area with  every
available weapon. Eventually  the  barrage ceased,  hot barrels cooling  one
after another.
     Death, which seemed to have come from nowhere and almost won, fell back
in the face of the soldiers' desperate resistance, taking  sergeant Panasyuk
with it.
     He lay there with an expression of faint  chagrin or  disappointment on
his face, his legs  bent and doubled  over like  a snapped branch,  pitiful,
frail,  shot  through  the  side  just  in  the spot  left  exposed  by  the
bullet-proof vest.
     Sharagin  railed,   swore   at  the  radio  operator,  who   spluttered
desperately, trying to summon a  helicopter. There was not a single cloud in
the  sky,  and  not  a  single  chopper.  Time   was  passing,  flying  away
uncontrolled,  and together  with  it,  with  those  speeding  minutes  that
replaced one another on the  liquid  crystal display  of  the  black, quartz
watch in a plastic thick casing on the sergeant's wrist, hope faded.
     "Where the hell are  they, the swine!" Shouted Sharagin, but there  was
nothing  anyone could say. "I've got  a man dying here!" He yelled into  the
silent airwaves.
     Titov, Prokhorov and others stared at the distant pass, hoping to catch
sight  of the choppers, then  looked  back  at Panasyuk, seeing  how he  was
slipping away, without a  word of farewell, into another world,  giving  up,
cornered  and unable  to find anything to grasp and  hold  on to  life.  The
younger soldiers  gaped at their  dying comrade  in  terror, as though  they
could no longer recognize him, so helpless and no longer in charge of them.
     The men wandered around, smoking, chewing dry rations, talking in muted
voices, and each one was thinking: fuck, what lousy luck ...
     Unable to  do  anything,  the  squad leader  went  through  moments  of
despair.  When  the sergeant  opened  his  eyes  slightly for the last time,
Sharagin thought:

     ... it'll be all right ... hang on, just don't die ...

     Even though it was obvious that the sergeant wouldn't pull through: and
in that moment,  in some distant corner of his mind, a hint of his own death
raised  its head, a hint he immediately and naturally brushed  aside, unable
to agree or accept such an eventuality, but at the same time, he wished that
his own end would be quick and without suffering.
     Panasyuk died fifteen minutes before the choppers  arrived.  Lieutenant
Sharagin sat beside the  dead  sergeant, exhausted, drained, for  the  first
time  in  his  service  in  Afghanistan  cursing  the  war, cursing himself,
suffering as though he could have stopped those bullets that penetrate human
bodies, or dissipate  the  fog  at  the  other  end  of  the  pass,  so  the
helicopters could come sooner and get the sergeant to the hospital on time.

     He saw Yepimakhov for the first time when  he  returned to the regiment
after  conducting  the  column,  and  was  dragging  his tired  body to  the
barracks, thinking only of two  things - to have a bath  and down a glass of
vodka. Zhenka  had stopped in town and bought a couple of bottles. Almost as
if he knew they would be needed.
     The new man  with  a lieutenant's shoulder  boards  was being  escorted
toward regimental  headquarters by  a  soldier. He was  dressed in a "Union"
uniform, which nobody in Afghanistan had worn for a long time as it had been
superseded  by  the  special  so-called  "experimental" uniform,  supposedly
tailored  to  new field conditions.  The  soldier  was  lugging  a suitcase,
bending under its weight,  and  a  carrier bag. The lieutenant,  natty in  a
tailored military jacket  with  a high collar, carried a  greatcoat over his
left arm.

     .... must be Zhenka's replacement at last ....

     Sharagin  unlocked  the Chinese padlock which hung  on  two bent  nails
after they had lost the only key to the  dead lock  on the door  and stepped
into the tiny  entry hall. He leaned his rifle against the wall, dropped his
rucksack on the floor, gave a tired yank  at his bootlaces, too lazy to undo
them completely, and  got his boots off by pushing the  heel of one with the
toe  of the other foot.  He flung back  the curtain separating the entrance,
and stepped into the main room. The platoon leaders and sergeant lived here,
surrounded by family photographs and cuttings out  of the "Ogonyok" magazine
pinned  to  the walls. Standard iron  bunks lined  the walls, and a doorless
clothes cupboard leaned crookedly. A  heating pipe ran under the window with
a  thin, flat radiator  which  leaked frequently  and was  therefore  rusted
through. Wooden pegs were stuck into the radiator here and there,  where the
leaks were strongest. They all froze in winter, wrapped themselves in  their
greatcoats. Home-made heaters  made no difference. A lone, naked  light bulb
hung from the ceiling.  Greatcoats hung  on nails hammered into the walls. A
twin-cassette player stood on the table, surrounded by old newspapers and an
ashtray made out of half of a can of imported "Si-Si" soda.

     ... towel, soap, clean underwear...that's all ...

     The burner by the bath-house was silent, cooling down.

     ... too damn late...

     Usually the gas burner hissed, throwing out a  tongue of flame, heating
up the steam room. Sharagin threw off his stiff uniform and underwear, which
stank of  sweat and diesel and which he  had not changed for  some time, and
his  socks which  had a big hole on one toe and  also  smelled  terrible and
stuck to his road-weary feet.  He did not throw  away the socks, but  washed
them with the rest of his clothing. The trickle of water from the shower was
lukewarm, but he gloried in it nonetheless. He stood  under it  for at least
five minutes as if trying to soak  himself through and through, rubbing  his
body  briskly   with  a  sponge   to  get  rid  of   the  accumulated  dirt,
simultaneously shedding  the fatigue and nervousness  brought  on by combat,
washed his cropped hair.

     ... maybe I should shave  my head bald once more?  No, once  was enough

     He  scraped  his cheeks  under the now cold shower,  swore at the cheap
blade which lost its edge  straight after  contact with the stubble of  many

     ... the unit  had not noticed the loss  of a soldier ...  they  had not
even had  time to deal with the enemy properly  ... this  particular lot  of
spooks  was  very  crafty,  retreating  from  battle along  mountain tracks,
underground tunnels ... But Chistyakov  got his way, did some shooting later
... battalion reconnaissance  took three  prisoners... one  spook was bumped
off on the way ...

     All these days, the simplicity and unexpectedness  of Panasyuk's  death
haunted  Sharagin  and the  war, which had previously given special color to
the  imagination, a  whole spectrum of exhilarating  shades  and fascinating
variety of sounds, now seemed bleak and almost monochrome.  Earlier  the war
had enticed and beckoned with unlimited shooting, frightened from afar  with
shell  explosions,  warned  against hidden peril with  triggered mines which
concussed but did not kill.  Now, for the first time, war had struck a vital
blow, which was serious and extremely painful. War had descended suddenly on
all sides,  grim,  real, merciless. From now on, Death  kept a sharp eye  on
every individual, walked in step and whispered something, its breath cold on
the back of the neck.
     The bath-house  was fast becoming cold. Sharagin splashed a few dippers
on  the stones, climbed  on to  the top bench, stretched himself, closed his
eyes and relaxed. He almost fell asleep. Once something similar happened  to
Pashkov, who had  drunk a lot, set out for a steam bath and went to sleep on
the  top  bench. If  it  were not  for  the soldier  who stood guard at  the
bath-house, Pashkov  would have  been broiled like  a lobster. When  he  was
shaken awake, he could barely move his whiskers and had no idea  about where
he was. He drank nothing but mineral water for a whole week after that. When
Sharagin had soaked enough and washed himself clean, he felt  fresh in  mind
and body

     ... like a newborn baby...

     He  went out  into the dressing room  and was already standing  on  the
plank floor, barefoot and in  his underpants, when he  suddenly felt a sharp
surge of desire twist him up inside. Male need.
     In order not to embarrass himself before other officers,  he bent  over
quickly, sat on a bench and pulled on his trousers.
     He had forgotten all about that in the last few months, but  now, after
the bath, he needed a woman. Badly. So much that he ground his teeth.

     ... you couldn't bend it using both hands...

     The  meager  handful of  women in the company  were all accounted  for.
Paired off, living with senior officers, no way you could approach them.
     Sharagin went out and lit a cigarette.

     ... it's  easier  for the  "elephants" ...  those  who  are  more  shy,
masturbate  in secret,  on sentry duty, when else  is a soldier alone? or in
the latrine, surrounded by the stink of shit...but what  am I to do? I don't
know how to do it for money ... guzzling vodka is all that's left!... Zhenka
manages much better,  straight  into battle with  reconnaissance and  claims
victory over the latest girl...and forgets about it the next day...

     ... what does a man really need in wartime?..

     he wondered, returning from the bath-house.

     -"food, medals, vodka and dames!" according to Morgultsev ....well, the
food situation is bearable, there are never enough  medals to go around, nor
enough vodka, either, but especially women ... you'd think  they'd  bring in
enough for everyone, so  you wouldn't have to think about it! ... good thing
the replacement's arrived, it will mean a drink or two! ..

     The  orderly  on duty  pulled himself  to attention  and reported  that
Chistyakov's replacement  had arrived , and that the company had gone off to
     Sharagin hung out his washing, lay down on his bunk and turned his head
to the wall, facing the photograph of Lena and Nastyusha. The gray cardboard
was cut  unevenly around  the  edges to palm size,  because for some time he
carried the photo in his pocket. Wife and daughter were frozen in unnatural,
tense poses before the camera, having taken inordinate pains to look as good
as possible.
     The tasteless provincial hairdresser had given Lena a "stylish" hairdo,
hiding her beautiful long hair. For some reason she had colored her lips and
eyelashes with  something.  Her wide-spaced,  usually bright and  warm eyes,
high  forehead  and clear, touching  face were  immobile, as though they had
frozen Lena, enchained her, frightened her. Meek and helpless, but strong in
her love for  him, and fearful  for him, she seemed to look into  the camera
lens as though trying  to  catch  a glimpse of  the future,  the day when he
would  receive this photo, in  order to tell him of  her love, her  anxiety,
about all that  surrounds a woman  who  is left for a long  time without the
husband who has gone off  to war. Nastyusha had huge  bows of ribbon on both
sides of her head, making her look like a funny toy.

     ... it would have been better to take the photo at home ...

     At the moment when "the birdie" flew out they, naturally, were thinking
of Daddy,  who  was  serving in a  distant  country,  and  their fears  were
involuntarily captured on film.
     He  had never known  the pulling  power  of  photographs before. That a
glance at a photograph is  like a voyage in time: a moment of human  life is
permanently fixed on a card, so  tiny that the person probably  did not even
notice it or attach any significance to it, it's like a trip into  the past,
a projection into another dimension.

     He closed  his eyes and imagined the hairdresser's they usually went to
- on the corner near  the railway station, possibly  the  only  one in town.
Then - how they stood in  line holding the  receipt  until their time  came,
probably going to the mirror a few times  to check how they looked, tried to
tune  themselves  up to smile  and  then headed back  home, dressed in their
Sunday best, along the pitted, dirty streets.

     ... I bet it was Mother's idea to have that photo taken ...

     He did not lie alone for long. Solitude  is a great luxury in the army.
The door squeaked open, and senior lieutenant Ivan Zebrev, commander of  the
1st  platoon  entered and, in joyful anticipation  of the imminent  drinking
spree, announced:
     "Chistyakov's   replacement  has  arrived.!"  and  added  his  favorite
     "I know, I saw him."
     "Zhenka's beside himself with joy. He's making sure not a speck of dust
settles  on  him.  You  could die laughing.  He  even  missed  going to  the
bath-house,  but took the  lieutenant  by  the  elbow  and  steered him  off
somewhere. Listen - this is what we'll do.  My "elephants" - harrumph! - are
on kitchen duty today, so  they'll  set up everything,  and  we'll  all make
tracks there  after lights out. We'll have a wow of a time. It's been a long
time since we got drunk. What's that you said? You sick or something?"
     "Just tired. Is there anything to drink right now?"
     "Harrumph!.." Zebrev  dived under Chistyakov's  bunk and emerged with a
bottle in his hands. "How much d'you want?"
     "About a hundred grams..."
     It was hard  to force down  the industrial alcohol.  Even if drunk half
and half  with juice  or water, it gave  off  a tang  of either kerosene  or
rubber, seemed  to stop  in your throat and, after drinking a bottle of that
garbage some people broke out in red spots.
     "Going to eat?"
     "No thanks, Ivan, I won't bother if we're going to be eating later."
     "Right. I'm off for a wash, and then to feed my face."
     "There's almost no water left."
     "See you!"
     For  a  while longer  Oleg remained  alone. Relaxed  by the alcohol, he
pulled  out and re-read his wife's last  letters. Lena  never complained and
never would complain  about  any  difficulties, especially  in a letter. She
wrote only about  good  things, even if they were  a tiny drop once a month.
She wrote that she loved him and was waiting  for him. She described all the
new  and funny  things Nastya had  said,  how quickly she was  changing, how
fascinating it is to watch a child's reactions to the surrounding world, and
did not fail to  mention that Nastya loves  her  Daddy very much  and misses
     He really ought to sit down  and  write, but he couldn't  get into  the
right mood. The words written down on paper became generalized, even if warm
and  sufficiently understandable  to someone  close  who was  far  away  and
suffering anxiety. As a rule the tone of his letters was  restrained, brief,
from a desire to save the really important words for his return home.

     ... Lena will understand. Lena will forgive ...

     Distrust of the army postal service precluded putting anything secretly
sentimental in  a letter. Letters from home were sometimes a  week late, and
on the back of the envelope he had twice seen the stamp "Letter  received in
damaged condition." That meant that  the letter  had been  opened,  checked,
possibly read. Sometimes letters did not arrive at  all. It was assumed,  in
such  cases, that some swine of  a  soldier on  duty at the  post office had
opened the  letter in search of  money - cash  was often enclosed - and then
thrown the letter away instead of resealing the envelope.
     Suspicion also fell on the KGB personnel,  and he did not want some KGB
sneak finding out the thoughts of lieutenant Sharagin.
     In  the barracks,  everything  went haywire whenever senior  lieutenant
Chistyakov appeared on the threshold. The men would report glibly, one after
another. Chistyakov had trained them well, had them running on a string.
     Zhenka was a bit "under the weather", his face red

     ... he's already had a drop or two...

     thrusting  the lieutenant  in the "Union" uniform into the room. "Olly!
Fuck  it,  why are  you lying around? Reveille! It's my big day today!  Look
who's here - my replacement!"
     "Pleased  to meet  you. I'm Nikolai  Yepimakhov, "  said the  newcomer,
standing uncertainly between the doorframe and his big suitcase.
     "Come in,  come  in," urged Chistyakov,  dragging him forward. "Take  a
seat, you'll soon be at home here. "
     "On this chair. We need  some more  glasses," fussed  Zhenka. He fished
under his bunk for the bottle and was surprised to find it  had been opened.
"Shit, you're gone for half an hour, and some sonofabitch takes advantage!"
     "What's the matter?" asked Oleg, not understanding.
     "Someone's been at my vodka!"
     "Actually, I took a swig."
     "Oh.. well,  in that case, all  right," replied Chistyakov approvingly.
"Right,  mate, we'll drink later. Meantime,  let's go  get  you  some cotton
clothes. It won't do to be wandering around the regiment in Union uniform.!"
     Chistyakov's farewell party made Oleg feel sad. Zhenka had been part of
his  first  months of  service, Zhenka  had taught  him  how  to survive  in
     However, Sharagin liked the look of the new lieutenant, and this helped
lessen the gloom.
     There  was something child-like in Nikolai Yepimakhov that  immediately
appealed, something  clean and naive - in his  eyes, his long eyelashes,  in
his  unfeigned  enthusiasm, mixed  with a measure of shyness, in the  way he
would spread a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread and top it off with
home-made jam or sweetened condensed milk from  additional rations,  sipping
tea into which he put at least six lumps of sugar.

     ... interesting, how did he get into the army at all? ..

     Yepimakhov changed his uniform  for the "experimental" rig and now held
himself proudly, trying not to crease his imperfectly ironed new outfit. His
uniform stood out in its bright greenish-yellow markings and  smell of  dust
from the quartermaster's shelves. The clothing of  the other officers in the
room was faded from numerous washings, almost colorless.
     "Fabulous uniform!"  enthused the lieutenant.  Like  a child, he played
with the Velcro stickers on the  pockets. "It's really comfortable,  and all
these pockets...!"
     "Sure,"  interjected Ivan Zebrev, "only for  some reason you're cold in
it in winter, and boil to death in summer..."
     Zhenka Chistyakov, as  hero of  the day, poured  the  drinks.  He  also
offered a toast: "To replacements! I've been  a  long time waiting  for you,

     ... we drink the first seventeen toasts quickly, and another forty nine

     That was how such parties usually went.
     In the short breaks between  toasts, everyone  questioned  the newcomer
about news from home, and where had he served and with whom.
     Paratroops means a  school in Ryazan and a few air-borne divisions  and
storm brigades for  the entire  Soviet  Union.  Its like  being  on a  small
island, on which it is hard to land and even harder to leave, where everyone
knows everything about each other: either they studied together, either they
served together,  or from hearsay.  A  closed  circuit.  Being a paratrooper
means belonging to a caste, the  elite among the armed services, great pride
and  amazing chauvinism  with regard  to  the other  branches of  the  armed

     ... paratroopers are  like  mythical beasts, descending from  the skies
... there's nobody to  equal us! ... the paras strike unexpectedly, like the
wrath of God, they are as unpredictable as Judgment Day...

     'Where'd you guys buy vodka?" asked Yepimakhov in his turn.

     "From the locals," replied Sharagin.
     "Wha-a-t?" Yepimakhov glanced warily  at his  glass,  and  tried again.
"I've heard that they often sell poisoned stuff..."
     "Hey,   you   don't   want  it,  don't  drink  it!"  retorted  Pashkov.
"Personally, I've become  im-mu-ne (he stressed the word deliberately, don't
teach granny to suck eggs, boy!) to it."
     "Quit  scaring  him,"  protested  Sharagin.  "They'd  never  dare  sell
poisoned vodka in Kabul, and everyone knows where they bought their supply."
     "If need be, we'll shell the shop," explained Zhenka Chistyakov.
     They were nearing the end of  the third bottle when  captain Morgultsev
arrived together with captain Osipov from Reconnaissance.
     The entrance door flew open, and somebody coughed loudly.  It was clear
that the arrivals were friends, so everyone continued eating and drinking as
though nothing had happened except  for lieutenant  Yepimakhov, who  shifted
uneasily and put aside  his glass, obviously afraid of being caught drinking
on his first day.
     Yepimakhov did not know that any appearance by one of the regimental or
battalion  brass within  fifty  meters  of the  barracks  would  be  spotted
immediately by some of the juniors, who had been taught to  stand guard, and
who would warn the  officers in time to avoid  being punished  for  drinking
just because some damn sonofabitch in the political section had insomnia.
     Captain  Morgultsev was worried about something,  and therefore sounded
     "Bloody hell!  Why are you giving  me  this  thimble?  Pour me a proper
glass -  right,  right, half is enough. Got  another glass?" Warrant officer
Pashkov trotted over to the hand-basin, rinsed out  a mug  and placed it  in
front of captain Osipov. "Right men, your health! To you, Chistyakov!"
     "When are you off?" asked Osipov.
     "No need to hurry now."
     "I thought you'd be off first thing tomorrow."
     "I have to get rid of the hangover tomorrow, tidy up any loose ends..."
     "Any loose ends are already in the hands of  the military prosecutors,"
joked  Pashkov, who was on  the jump, opening new  cans and clearing  things
from the table.
     "...get  a good  sleep, get  my  gear together,"  continued Chistyakov,
oblivious of Pashkov's attempt at humor. "Then I have to go around  and  say
good-bye to everyone..."
     "And get roaring drunk again in the evening. Ha-ha-ha!" needled Pashkov
with a braying laugh that shook the barracks.
     "By the way, Sharagin, take a  good look through your idiots' stuff.  I
feel it  in my bones  that  they got some hash  when you went  out on combat
duty.  Damn their eyes," said  Morgultsev angrily. "They'll smoke themselves
silly on shit ... You know full well that our sergeant does bugger all about
it," he indicated Pashkov. "All he can do is chuck grenades at scorpions..."
     Everyone laughed except Pashkov.
     "Sorry, comrade  captain, but that's unfair.  Everything in  our unit's
     "Nobody's asking you, warrant officer!" snapped Morgultsev. "Never mind
shoving your fucking nose into officers' discussions!"
     "Senior warrant officer, " corrected Pashkov.
     "Same shit," retorted his commander.
     Pashkov never took umbrage. He was not young and very cunning, like all
warrant officers. Morgultsev once remarked, that "being a warrant officer is
a state of  the soul" and that "the  world  is divided into people  who  can
become warrant officers, and  those who cannot." The  company commander  was
fond  of  Pashkov,  but yelled  at him in public, chewed him out like  a raw
recruit and accused him of all the deadly  sins. Pashkov drank in  one gulp,
not eating  anything afterwards. He was older than the other officers in the
company, but the alcohol  which he consumed in inordinate  amounts seemed to
rejuvenate him. Amazingly, nobody ever noticed in the  mornings that Pashkov
was suffering from a hangover.
     "Solid  bone,"  declared  Morgultsev, rapping Pashkov  on the forehead.
"Nothing there  to  hurt." Pashkov was always  first for  physical exercises
after  any  drunken  spree.  "A bottomless  pit," the  commander  would  say
jokingly. "Don't give him  any more, it's  a waste of a precious product. If
it's free of charge he'll drink a full jerrican of vodka in three days."
     After  an  "introductory" amount, Pashkov's cheeks  would redden  as if
he'd been out in the sow, he would perk up and become full of energy, like a
car which had just received a tankful of gas. And if  he had been ordered to
do so at that moment,  Pashkov  would have  scaled the  peak of  the highest
mountain in Afghanistan, dragging a mortar on his  back, taken on ten spooks
and beaten them!
     Pashkov's favorite word was "Montana." He applied it universally - from
the   brand  of   jeans  so  popular  in  the  Soviet  Union,  to   delight,
understanding, agreement with an interlocutor,  happiness and joy. If he did
not like something he would  say: "That's not Montana!" He  savored  today's
vodka very much, real,  not some cheap substitute, and he  repeated over and
over, wiping a hand across his whiskers:
     "Montana, real Montana!"
     Pashkov  took a bite of ham, spread a thick layer of butter  on a slice
of bread.
     "Yakshi Montana!  Dukan,  baksheesh,  hanoum, buru!" This  was the  sum
total of the senior warrant officer's knowledge of the local tongue.
     "What did you say?" asked Yepimakhov.
     "It's an old Afghan saying," replied Pashkov sagely.
     "Literally: shop, gift, woman, get out of here!" translated Morgultsev.
"Don't give him any more to drink!"
     "Why's that?"
     "Because  every time I  hear that idiotic phrase,  you go on a drinking
     Ivan Zebrev winced when he drank  vodka, so his face always looked worn
and tired.
     "How the hell do the Bolsheviks drink  this  shit?" he would  say every
     To which Morgultsev's usual reply was:
     "Yes, it's as strong as Soviet power!"
     Some nights Zebrev, swearing profusely, would command in battle, waking
Sharagin, Chistyakov and  Pashkov; without  saying a word, they all  tacitly
agreed that Zebrev,  if  he didn't get killed in the meantime,  would be the
next company  commander.  Because inside  this medium-built, unprepossessing
and grayish man there was a stubborn, conscientious officer who, through his
ability and application  and  devotion  to the army would climb  the  career
ladder to the height of battalion  commander. People like  that are born  so
that in due time they  will  occupy  their proper place in the armed forces.
Ivan Zebrev was born to  command a battalion, and by all  laws he would be a
battalion  commander  at  thirty,  and  forty, and go on  pension  with  the
battalion commander still alive inside him. At this stage, Zebrev dreamed of
captain's shoulder boards because, as he often stressed and repeated tonight
for Yepimakhov's benefit:
     "Captain's boards have more stars on them than any others."
     Zhenka  Chistyakov always took  a sip  of pickled  gherkin  brine after
drinking  vodka.  Waving aside a  can opener, he pushed the lid in with  his
elbow, prized it up  with his  thumbs,  speared out all the gherkins  with a
fork as if  they were fish in a pond  and put them on a plate.  The can with
the brine he put by his own plate and wouldn't let anyone else touch it.
     The  deputy  commander  of  the  company's  political  section,  senior
lieutenant  Nemilov, never drank  his entire glass, always  left a little at
the  bottom.  Neither the officers nor the men liked Nemilov, he  didn't fit
in. From the very first day he was disliked for his small, cunning, deep-set
eyes, which seemed to lurk inside his skull. It was obvious that he had come
to Afghanistan  out of career considerations and personal ambitions, that he
couldn't care less about his  colleagues  and despised everyone. Even if  he
had been  a  teetotaler,  as  was implied  by some of his fiery  speeches at
meetings, the others would have treated him with a measure  of distrust, but
would have forgiven what they considered sheer nonsense. But because Nemilov
only acted the part of a high-principled communist, obeying the instructions
of the Party  and  the new  secretary-general  comrade  Mikhail  Sergeyevich
Gorbachev,  who had declared  war on  drunkenness  and alcoholism  and  even
ordered that there should  be no champagne at weddings, the officers and men
turned their noses up at the political officer.
     However, despite his superciliousness, high-handedness and  sententious
pronouncements, senior  lieutenant  Nemilov did not miss  any opportunity to
have a drink  with  or without good reason,  because everyone in Afghanistan
wanted to drink vodka, but not everyone was willing to spend their own money
on  it.  Moreover, Nemilov  did not  say  much in company, and  this  fueled
further suspicions.
     Nikolai Yepimakhov  prepared to down his  vodka after every  toast with
great care:  first he would breathe out, tip the drink down with difficulty,
and  it  was  clear that  although he was  unaccustomed to drinking in  such
quantities,  he was doing his best  to keep up. The  new boy became  visibly
drunker by the minute.
     Morgultsev, whose lower jaw tended to stick out, and who was often  the
butt of jokes to the effect that he must  get a mouthful of water every time
it rains, followed each draught with a gherkin,  crunching  them in  evident
enjoyment. He had a prominent forehead, and  was the  author  of many snappy
phrases and sayings such as: "An officer has a head not to eat porridge, but
to wear a cap."
     This  was his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He never talked about
the first months after Soviet forces entered Afghanistan in 1979.
     Captain  Osipov was an  unexpected guest, but the legendary "regimental
scout" was greeted  enthusiastically, despite  the old Russian  saying:  "An
unbidden guest is worse than a Tatar."
     "An  unbidden guest is better than a Tatar," quipped Chistyakov when he
saw Osipov.
     Osipov drank  vodka  as  though  it  was ordinary  water,  occasionally
sniffing an onion. His reconnaissance company had recently caught a  caravan
carrying a large consignment of weapons, so a medal for past accomplishments
arrived  right  on cue. For  some days,  he had  been "watering"  his award.
Osipov  was of  medium height, sturdily  built, a tough nut  with wiry  hair
cropped short, with a prickly mustache and a hard stare, the stare of a lone
wolf. Even drunk, his eyes never lost that hardness, his gaze did not become
blurred but seemed even more penetrating.
     "Fuck it, Vasili, show us  the medal!" Zhenka Chistyakov  held  out his
hand. Somewhat reluctantly, captain Osipov  parted  with his  trophy. Zhenka
had no intention of examining the "piece of tin", he had one exactly like it
himself.  Chistyakov just wanted to  test his friend, so he  said: "Shall we
'water' it again?"
     "What?" asked Osipov.
     "One more time," proceeded Chistyakov, putting the medal in a glass and
filling it to the brim with vodka. "Can you handle it?"
     "Sure thing!"
     "O, my replacement," said Chistyakov,  slapping Yepimakhov  on the back
and pointing  at captain Osipov: "Remember  captain Osipov, he'll go far.  A
regimental legend! Not just the regiment - the division! A famous scout!"
     "Come off it!"
     "This man will soon be awarded the Hero's Star.  Fuck it, I  heard with
my own ears how the commander said: "I'll give the Hero to whoever  gets the
first  Stinger  from the spooks!" So when are you  going  to get a  Stinger,
     "We're working on it."
     "There you go!" Chistyakov held  out the glass and slopping out some of
the vodka.  "Drink  it down, Vasili. God grant you'll be given the Hero. But
that'll be without me. I'm fucking  off  out of here. .. Enough, I've fought
enough. It's impossible to  kill all the Afghans. The bastards breed  faster
than we can kill them!"
     Captain Osipov stared into the glass  as if he were  preparing to  dive
off a bridge into the river, but couldn't decide at the  last moment whether
he should remove his  shoes, or the hell  with them? He gathered himself and
took  the  plunge  .... Choked, but  kept drinking. His short hair seemed to
stand  on  end,  his Adam's apple  bobbed  up and down  like the breech of a
rifle, forcing down the vodka. The glass rose to a steeper angle, now it was
vertical, now the medal slid down the side. Captain Osipov seized  it in his
teeth and sat there beaming and looking for  all  the world like a satisfied
walrus.  He took the  medal out of his mouth, put it back  into his  pocket,
cleared his throat and took a bite out of a chunk of ham, which had been cut
the way men cut - in thick slices.
     "Basta!  " said Osipov when Zhenka  began  to  pour for the next toast.
"I've  had my litre for today ... one  should practice moderation, my fellow

     "That's what  I'm always saying," added Morgultsev.  "Drink your  norm,
and into bed."
     A few  months ago  Morgultsev had behaved differently, more  simply and
comradely, and  would not have left until the last drop  had been drunk. Now
that he was aiming to become  battalion commander, he kept his distance from
his subordinates.  Furthermore,  the  captain  felt  that  the newly-arrived
lieutenant should begin his service in strict  observance of discipline, and
not a  drunken spree. However,  there was  no  way he could  forbid Zhenka's
farewell evening.
     Morgultsev reluctantly stayed another strained quarter of  an hour, but
managed to  drink quite a  lot in that time. Finally he rose from the table,
pleading pressure of work and collected Osipov, who was dead  drunk. Nemilov
began taking his leave as well.

     ... it's way over time...

     Morgultsev poured a  final glass, breathed out  with all his might  and
downed it with a single gulp, belched loudly and grabbed the last gherkin:
     "I'm off, guys. Make sure you keep order here, dammit! Sharagin, you're
the least drunk. I'm making you responsible!"
     "Don't worry, Volodya, everything will be fine," promised Chistyakov.
     "Bye,  Volodya,"  intoned lieutenant  Yepimakhov, completely drunk  and
barely able  to  move his  tongue, without realizing that Morgultsev had not
left yet.  "He's a first class guy, our commander!  And all you guys are all
first class..."
     "On  your feet,  comrade lieutenant!" bellowed Morgultsev, forging back
into the  room.  "Attention!  Who the hell  do you  think you  are,  comrade
lieutenant? You go teach your granny to piss through a  straw first! I'm not
your kith and kin for you to use the familiar  form of address to me! Do you
understand that, comrade lieutenant?"
     Lieutenant  Yepimakhov stood  rocking  slightly and trying to  find  an
answer. Instead of that, he suddenly gave a loud hiccup.
     All the officers burst out laughing, and the tension dissipated.
     "What's so funny?" asked Pashkov plaintively.
     After Morgultsev left, everyone took a turn at imitating Yepimakhov. He
sat there, embarrassed and magically sober, blushing like a schoolgirl.
     Everyone in the room was drunk.

     ... when  you're drunk, you want  it  even more,  I'd smother  anyone I
could drag into bed right now ...

     Sharagin drank all evening without cheating, taking little  part in the
conversation and watching Chistyakov and Yepimakhov.
     The lieutenant choked but forced himself to drink vodka in order not to
shame himself before  his new comrades. He listened  avidly to stories about
the Panjsher Valley,  twiddling his wheat-colored mustache and poking  at it
with his tongue. In spite of the drink, his eyes glistened with interest.
     Chistyakov was not as tall as Yepimakhov, but more solidly  built, more
muscular. His hair had  started to thin  and hung down onto  his forehead in
stringy  wisps, his  eyes either  went around the room slowly,  softly, then
seeming  to stop, die.  When he looked  at his neighbor with that  colorless
gaze, it was impossible to tell whether  Chistyakov felt anything about what
he was telling, or not.
     Drunk Chistyakov was remembering how he was wounded and had to pick out
fragments which had entered his body in different places. Pointing at a deep
cleft a centimeter from his eye, he explained:
     "Just a fraction over, and  I could have  played the leading  part in a
film about general Kutuzov. "
     Zhenka knew dozens  of  stories about the spooks  and took  pleasure in
regaling his  replacement with them, so that the new boy would realize  that
there  was  a  real  war  on  here,  fuck  it,  that  they  weren't  playing
     Chistyakov called the Afghans "monkeys" and repeated constantly that if
he had his way, they would all be exterminated, root and branch.
     "But why all of  them?" protested Yepimakhov.  "Are the simple peasants
guilty of anything?"

     ...O, God, another truth-seeker ...

     "Why?" exploded Chistyakov. "Why? Because your fucking peasants  finish
off  our  wounded  with  pitchforks!  And  hang out  severed  heads  in  the
marketplace! Animals!"

     ... poor naive kid ...

     Yepimakhov  wriggled around uneasily in his chair while Zhenka informed
him how he had shot a captive spook, and Sharagin remembered, because he had
been there, how Chistyakov had emptied a whole magazine into that spook. The
Afghan lay without breathing

     Yepimakhov wriggled around uneasily  in his chair while Zhenka informed
him how he had shot a captive spook, and Sharagin remembered, because he had
been there, how Chistyakov had emptied a whole magazine into that spook. The
Afghan lay dead, his body jerking as it was riddled by bullets.

     ...Zhenka laughed, then spat in the spook's face ...

     The  new  lieutenant was fascinated by  stories  about the real war, no
doubt about it,  it was all new and rather strange, rather frightening.  Not
frightening because combat officers  could casually discuss with panache how
to kill  someone, and  not  from the realistic descriptions, but out of fear
that something  like  that would  happen  to him, the  way it  had  with the
platoon commander Chistyakov had mentioned - the one who got blown up on his
first sortie.  As for any normal  person, something quaked inside Yepimakhov
at the thought that there were two more years he would have to spend at war,
that anything at all could happen to him, that he might stop a bullet from a
"Boer" at the very beginning of his service.
     "That's  an old  rifle,  dates back to  the  start  of  the  century, "
explained Chistyakov. "The spooks can hit you in the head from a distance of
three kilometers. The rifles were left here by the English. The Afghans beat
the shit out of the English. Killed  half the expeditionary corps, the other
half dies from hepatitis..."
     The  vodka  helped  in  overcoming  bad  premonitions  and   Yepimakhov
listened, spellbound. They filled him to the brim with stories and drink.
     That evening  he  had  only  one real hero, one  truly  combat-hardened
officer - senior lieutenant Chistyakov, who would be  leaving Afghanistan in
a few days time with a combat medal.
     Sharagin  reacted quite  differently to  his  friend's  tales.  He  was
genuinely fond of Zhenka, pitied him but acknowledged  that he feared  him a
bit at times because Zhenka was not  quite right in the head, just like many
who had  served  a full term in Afghanistan, not sitting in HQ, but taking a
big and real part in the fighting.
     It was said that Zhenka had changed noticeably in two years. He came to
Afghanistan voluntarily, like his brother Andrei.

     ... probably came here just as green and naive as lieutenant Yepimakhov

     There  was  no  more cheerful officer in the  regiment  or, indeed, the
battalion  than Chistyakov He lived  easily, served diligently,  fought well
and  bravely, so he  was  put up for  a  medal  in  a few months'  time. The
battalion commander thought the world of Zhenka.
     Then   once  Zhenka  wandered   in  to  visit  the  regimental  Counter
Intelligence officer - they were practically neighbors back home - and saw a
pile of specially selected photos of "brutalities committed  by the spooks."
The  Counter  Intelligence  officer kept them mainly as an object lesson for
the common soldiers. Once you see photos like that, you'll think twice about
venturing beyond the gates  of the  compound, trade with the  Afghans at the
post or on sortie, stay within twenty meters of your position and not take a
step outside the guard post.
     "See this soldier with the star cut on his back -  he left the  post to
go for a swim," the  Counter Intelligence officer would  say in confidential
tones,  steering  a  soldier into  a  separate room.  Then  he  would  apply
pressure: "That's what will happen to you, too, but the whole band of spooks
will fuck your ass first and tear it  apart into  the  shape of a  swastika.
Never  been  fucked in  your ass before?  No? Good, that  means you're not a
queer. The spooks will make one  out of  you, though!  Then they'll cut your
balls off!"
     The Counter Intelligence officer worked on the newcomers who, according
to his  information,  had  been  driven to  the edge  of desperation  by the
violence in  the ranks and were  contemplating whether to make a run for it,
or hang themselves.
     He would scare them, shove the photos under their noses:
     "Is this what you want, you idiot? No, don't turn away! Look at me!"
     If  a soldier  shot himself, that  was no big  deal,  it could be swept
under the rug, write it off as careless  handling of  weapons  or some  such
thing. In a case like that, let his direct commander find  a way out. But if
a soldier driven to despair  were to run off into the mountains - that would
be something the Counter Intelligence officer would have to answer for.
     Someone knocked on the door.
     "Pour yourself a cup of tea, help yourself  to some jam. I'll only be a
moment." The Counter Intelligence officer slid out into the corridor.
     Chistyakov scooped  a  spoonful  of jam,  licked  the spoon. Delicious!
Raspberry jam. Just like mother used to  make. He put a spoonful of jam into
his tea,  reached out  and  picked up the half-open  file. Sipping  tea,  he
leafed  through it dispassionately:  torn  bellies,  guts  scattered  around
everywhere, eyes put out, probably prized out of their  sockets with knives,
a cut off penis thrust  into  a  mouth  like a  gag, severed heads.  Nothing
special. Back home Zhenka would have been horrified by such sights, but here
it was run-of-the-mill, he'd seen just about the lot.
     "Hey, let me put that away, said his host when he returned. "That's for
special occur..."
     He stopped  in  mid-word  in the center  of  the  room,  because Zhenka
suddenly jerked, went pale. He thought he'd recognized his brother on one of
the photos.  He  took  a  closer  look. Yes! It was  him! Andrei! Rather, he
recognized a severed head, lying next to a body.
     Andrei Chistyakov  had served in  the "Spetsnaz", their group had  been
ambushed and  nobody  survived.  Zhenka went  to his brother's  funeral back
home,  but  it  had  proved  impossible to find out the details of what  had
happened. The  authorities were  evasive.  They kept silent about  what  the
spooks  did  with wounded  Russians, how they desecrated the bodies  of  the
dead.  The spooks did not dent themselves anything with prisoners. Some were
skinned alive, and  the skins were hung out to dry in  the sun in the market
place for all to see. The men taken prisoner died terrible deaths.
     "You knew all  the time, you  bastard!  You knew it was my brother! And
showed these photos to the men  as a teaching aid! You fucking sonofabitch!"
yelled Zhenka in fury.
     The Counter Intelligence  officer  was  perturbed, demanded  the  photo
back, threatened with dire consequences.
     "You rotten  swine! And  a  fellow-countryman at that! All  you Counter
Intelligence  bitches  are the same, dirt!  Don't you come  near me!" Zhenka
picked up a chair and swung it warningly. He clutched the photo, then thrust
it into his pocket.
     They  really went at it, a genuine fight, Zhenka almost  gouged out the
man's eyes. He was totally beside himself:
     "Just try and take it away, I'll shoot you, you bastard!"
     It was when he found out about his brother  that  Zhenka went  slightly
crazy. He became vicious and retreated into himself. And for the rest of his
term, he wreaked revenge for his brother, showing the spooks no mercy.

     ...Their parents had been afraid that  the older brother would one  day
land in jail, he kept bad company from his early years, got into fights, all
sorts of mischief,  carried a prison-made blade, dreamed of using it on some
"deal", even had his arms tattooed.
     yet after  all, he  had turned  into a fine officer, a brave commander,
and his nature helped.
     He stopped drinking, took up sport, entered the Ryazan military school.
He found himself when he joined the army.
     Andrei never went around minefields, but plunged  across regardless. He
got  a charge  out of it. He proved an ace  in capturing caravans, came  out
without losses of life from the most  incredible situations. If rumors could
be believed, the spooks set a price on the head of "commander Andrei" to the
sum of 100.000 afghanis or more.
     There  was  just  one  unexplained episode. No one  could say  what had
really  occurred.  The  fact  of  the  matter  was that some  general became
infuriated  and almost sent  Andrei before  a military tribunal.  "What  the
hell,   they  were   one   spook   short!"  fumed  Zhenka.  Andrei's   early
recommendation for a medal was withdrawn, and he had  been under a cloud for
a long time. The general had  a long memory. When Andrei's group was finally
killed in ambush,  he was recommended by his captain for a  posthumous award
of Hero, but the recommendation  was turned back, all Andrei got was  a  Red
Banner order.
     Andrei was shipped home in a zinc  coffin without a small glass window.
As  if he's been canned. There was no  way of opening  the coffin for a last
look.  The coffin stood on a table in their apartment, alien and cold; their
mother  tore  at the  coffin  with her fingernails in grief, pleading for  a
look; she never came to believe, not having seen with her own eyes, that her
son  was dead. She moaned,  holding  a  photo of  Andrei  to her cheek,  his
graduation photo from military school.
     "Leave her be," their father said to Zhenka. "Let her cry herself out."

     Zhenka worked out a reflex for spotting spooks, just like Pavlov's dogs
learned to  salivate  on cue.  He could  tell  them  at a  glance, or so  he
thought, thrusting any doubt aside, and later it would be too late to check,
and  why  bother? Usually  he finished them off on the spot,  straight after
battle, taking no prisoners.

     ... paying bloody barbarians in their own coin ...

     and  nobody could stop him, even Morgultsev. He just pretended  that he
knew nothing. Nemilov tried once, when one of the  men tattled to him, tried
to threaten Zhenka with Court Marshals, and then wished he hadn't opened his

     ...Zhenka warned him: "you're either with us, or against us"...

     However,  despite his hatred of the Afghans, Zhenka did not let his men
go too far and  forbade any brutalities  against spooks taken prisoner, just
as he  never allowed any  marauding in the platoon, any  theft, and punished
all violators with all severity.
     He was the sole judge, avenger and executioner.

     ... and if  Zhenka's brother had not died in such tragic circumstances,
if his body had  not been desecrated by  the spooks,  Zhenka  would not have
turned into a blood-soaked avenger ... that's for sure! ..

     Nobody  tried  to stop Chistyakov  because  everyone knew  the  reason,
understood  that he was  wreaking vengeance on the Afghans for his  brother,
and sympathized.

     ... who hasn't been changed by Afghanistan? ..

     It usually started when one heard about the cruelties of war; this  was
topped  of  by  personal  experiences  and  impressions,  which followed one
another like  pieces  of good, juicy  meat on a skewer;  and  then,  without
consciously realizing it, a man would move further and further away from the
values he knew back home,  the norms of behavior, and become infected by the
local, temporary Afghan morality, rough mores;

     ... just like the times of the Golden Horde ...might becomes right ..

     that  which  seemed  barbaric  back  home,  somehow  became natural  in
Afghanistan, everyday, customary,  like the passage of  day into night, like
reveille and lights out.
     Incredible sufferings and grief for  lost friends,  the difficulties of
semi-nomadic existence essentially incomprehensible  life in a strange land,
hundreds and  hundreds of  kilometers  away from home, physical deprivation,
encounter  with medieval barbarity  and cruelty, horrors endured  - all this
dulled the  senses,  drained  pity,  sapped  the good nature  so  common  to
Russians, reawakened long forgotten, lost in the mists of time crudeness and
inhumanity inherited by  one's ancestors from the times of  the  two-hundred
year reign of the Mongols over Russia.

     ...  Zhenka will  come  home  and everything will change, all  the  bad
things will  be forgotten, be  left behind, forever in  the past ... or am I
kidding myself? ..

     In  order  to  break the silence which descended  on  the  room, Zhenka
Chistyakov  began  a  casual  account  of  the  last  raid,  stressing  that
everything had gone well:
     "...  as far as carrying  out my socialist obligations in the matter of
collecting  "ears." Well, I collected  a  bagful. They've already dried  out
quite nicely... I'm going to give them away as presents. I've put  them on a
string, like beads. I'll give you a couple if you want, kid! How about that?
For  luck!" offered Chistyakov sincerely, smiling at his replacement for the
first time that evening and dipping a hand into one of his pockets.
     Lieutenant Yepimakhov grinned  uncertainly,  probably thinking this was
some kind  of joke  invented  by his new friends.  When  the  truth  finally
penetrated  his  alcohol-dulled  brain as  to what  was  being offered as an
Afghan  souvenir  he  paled and stared as if hypnotized  at  the little  rag
Chistyakov had unfolded  in the  palm  of  his  hand. It  contained a  small
cluster of shriveled brownish-black human ears.
     "There you  go, kid, they don't bite,"  urged Chistyakov, thrusting the
ears at Yepimakhov.
     "Get them out of  sight, fuck you!" said Sharagin  angrily. "He'll spew
all over the table if you don't...Everyone's fed up with those ears..."
     Zhenka  did  not seem to take  offense:  he  gave a snort of  laughter,
shrugged, wrapped up his trophies again and put them back in his pocket.

     Chistyakov flew  back to the  Soviet  Union, having said his farewells.
With his departure, the  company suffered a tangible loss, everything became
quiet and  dull. The newcomers slouched around the barracks, making Sharagin
feel  bleak.  He studied  their sleepy, inexpressive  faces, having  trouble
remembering their  names, surnames,  recognizing  the new  recruits by their
snub  noses, freckles, prominent ears,  watched their awkward movements with
distaste, was annoyed by their hesitation in handling weapons and machinery,
but nonetheless, saw potential in several of them.
     Gradually, he got a picture of the replacements. Asked a few of them in
passing about their lives  prior to being drafted,  about their families. He
learned about  some of  them from their  personal dossiers; a whole host  of
small, seemingly insignificant details, made a mental  note  of them for the
future. He  wanted  to  have a  clear  idea, and  quickly  found  out,  what
determined the  mind-set  of  this or  that soldier,  whether  they were all
suitable for duty in  Afghanistan,  what sort of  news from  home upset each
young man before going out on a sortie.
     It was still too soon to try and guess who was capable of what, because
only the war can put things  into proper perspective. As  captain Morgultsev
liked to say  on  such occasions: "Only the  spring  thaw will show who shit

     That first evening, Sharagin had not noticed that lieutenant Yepimakhov
was one of  those people towards whom, after you  have spoken with them, you
begin to feel sympathy and even a degree of pity when you spot a far-off, as
yet  unplayed  tragedy  behind his  indestructible  or  incredibly  youthful
interest and enthusiasm.  Yepimakhov turned out to be well-read and educated
above army level. Paratrooper in the bone and a dreamer at heart.
     After a few weeks, Sharagin  realized Yepimakhov's leadership potential
and grinned dourly:
     "A  brain like  that  shouldn't be  confined  by straps and belts. That
would be criminal! Let's go out and catch a breath of fresh air, Nikolai"
     "Did  you do well at school?" asked Sharagin  casually, dragging on his
     "Reasonably well, I suppose," replied Yepimakhov modestly.
     "D'you remember everything?"
     "Well, forget all that crap!"
     Yepimakhov proved to be  an obedient, attentive and grateful  pupil; he
absorbed  advice  like  a thirsty  sponge,  and  did  not  hesitate  to  ask
questions:  what does  one  do in  such a situation? what if it happens like
this? He went into everything in the finest details.
     Only he was more inclined  to talk about other things.  Like a kid (and
he  was little more than that  - almost a contemporary  of  the long service
soldiers!) Yepimakhov swallowed all that he was  told here  and there  about
the  war, all that was  heroic  and tragic; about the war which  lived  next
door, somewhere  beyond the fencing  of the camp,  and everyone had seen  it
except him.
     He was impatient, a typical trait for a newcomer. Yepimakhov  wanted to
try, prove himself  in  battle, under fire, he probably imagined medals  and
all sorts of feats of valor.
     And in those blue eyes, as yet unshadowed by  the war, Sharagin saw the
unspoken question, to the point but not quite: "Have you killed many people?
What did you feel then?" The question shimmered in the air, then disappeared
- lieutenant Yepimakhov could  not  bring himself to ask outright about such
things, even though they had become friends.
     Furthermore, he had burned his fingers in those first weeks, had become
more cautious and  restrained.  Firstly, he had been  put in his place in no
uncertain manner  when he had  used the familiar  "thou" form of address  to
captain Morgultsev, being drunk at the time,  and then being told to go fuck
himself when he had interrupted someone else's story about something.
     "We're not  interested in your philosophy, lieutenant," another officer
had said.  "You're a snotty-nosed newcomer, and you're shoving your  oar in!
We  don't need your clever  quotes out  of books,  we graduated  from  other
universities!"  And an even more telling  blow: "Your philosophy starts with
dinner, and ends up in the latrine!"
     There was  no need to ask Zhenka Chistyakov whether he had killed. Just
count the ears  he kept as trophies, but Sharagin was different. He knew how
to listen, he read if he had the time. He was the only one to appreciate the
books  Yepimakhov  had brought. The  others were still  laughing, and  would
probably be laughing still when he ended his service.
     "What  have  you got  that's  so heavy?"  asked senior  warrant officer
Pashkov with that rehearsed respect for officers and ill-disguised hope of a
freebie,  when he first met Yepimakhov and hefted  his suitcase. "Bet you've
got some beer in here! I could murder for a beer right now!"
     "Sausage?  Smoked fat?"  ventured  the slightly  disillusioned Pashkov,
still hoping for a miracle.
     "No, just personal stuff and books and journals."
     "Wha-a-at?" asked  Pashkov in disbelief.  "You brought books here?  You
crazy  or something?"  he  burst out at  this unexpected  turn,  shifting in
amazement  from the  formal 'thou' to the informal 'you.' "What the hell  do
you need them for?"
     The newly-baked lieutenant felt a bit miffed at being addressed in such
a  manner, but Pashkov's age  and the fact that he had been here for  a long
time  did not allow Yepimakhov to show his chagrin. Anyway, there was nobody
else in the room at the time.
     Yepimakhov tried to see Pashkov as simply nice  but stupid, a man twice
his own age, especially as Pashkov really was kind, something you could read
in his face at once, no matter how he puffed himself up.
     "To read. I think I've  brought enough  for the  first  year. Actually,
there are  some very interesting books there, a good  detective  story,  for
instance ... I'll show it to you later."
     "Good  Lord, what have we come to?  Bringing books  into the  war zone.
Don't tell anyone else."
     "Don't tell what?"
     "That  you dragged books across the border. There's got to be about ten
kilos of paper here." Pashkov kicked  a dismissive toe at the bag. "Have you
brought the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, or the complete works of Karl Marx?"
     "Why shouldn't I tell anyone?" persisted Yepimakhov.
     "They won't understand..."
     Sharagin  was  the only one who understood. Yepimakhov was sure of  him
immediately. He was different from  the  other  officers. He put  on a stern
appearance  to the  men, but apart from that he was  friendly, open, refined
and cynical in reasonable measure. Who else would have spoken confidentially
to a newcomer:
     "You think you'll come face to face with the enemy  immediately? If so,
I don't envy you,  if you have to look into their  eyes while they're alive.
You take  a look, and it means you've come too close. It's not likely you'll
live to tell the  tale. It's better to look at  dead spooks after  battle...
And don't think, never think that you're smarter than  them.  The spooks can
watch you from cover  all day, and when  they  find your  weak  spot, that's
where  they'll  strike...  And  another thing -  Don't  be  afraid  of being
demanding and meticulous with the men. If you nursemaid them,  they'll be on
your  back  in a flash. If you can't control them through  strictness -  use
force! A good fight in wartime  is good practice, insurance against  losses.
If you see that the "elephants"  are getting out of hand - beat the shit out
of  them!  So that they won't loosen up after Chistyakov. You have to keep a
constant  eye on  those slobs. See that  they don't sell fuel to the spooks,
that they're wearing their bullet-proof  vests when  you  go out  on  combat
duty. If one of them catches a bullet, you're the one who's going to have to
drag his  body. If anyone disobeys  you  - pow! Straight  in the kisser! All
they understand is force! They behaved themselves beautifully under  Zhenka.
And Zhenka kept them safe. Now they're grateful that he beat some sense into
them and they're still alive..."
     "But you don't hit them, like Chistyakov..." demurred Yepimakhov.
     "When you've served  six months here, you can decide  whether to bash a
soldier in  the liver, or address him formally... As  a matter of  fact, you
haven't  seen  me working out, but  if  need  be, I  can hurt them more than
Zhenka could, if they deserve it..."
     "Know  something?" asked  Yepimakhov, looking  like a mischievous small
boy. "Yesterday,  after lights out, there  was  this stamping on the roof. I
thought it was a whole herd of mice running to the other end of the barracks
to feed, racing each other to the table, so  to  speak. Claws scratching  on
the  wood. You know what the men thought up? They've  already killed about a
hundred mice, put out traps for them."
     "That was a favorite pastime of Zhenka's."
     "...then  last night  I heard:  snap!  Everyone  ran to see.  A  mouse!
Honestly, everyone was so happy! They were squealing like children."
     "They are children..."
     "They put this  mouse into an empty pail, sprayed  it  with petrol -  I
thought there'd be a fire, but there wasn't - and threw  in a lighted match.
You  should have seen  it! The mouse went  up in  flames, it must have  hurt
terribly, it was all  aflame and running around the bottom of  the pail like
crazy. Everyone was laughing! It was just like a living torch!"
     "Check  out that  everything's all  right  in  there,"  said  Sharagin,
indicating the barracks, "and let's go eat. I'm starved."
     In the smoking  room near the  mess hall, hungry officers milled around
under a  canopy of  camouflage netting. Lieutenant-colonel Bogdanov, who was
temporarily  in command of  the  regiment,  was strutting past headquarters,
shoulders back and chest forward, like some hero from a  folk tale.  Warily,
they  eyed this officer,  with fists  like basketballs.  It was said that he
once killed a spook with a mere blow of his fist....

     ...there    is    an    unpleasant    look    in    his    eye,    that
lieutenant-colonel...makes your skin crawl...the 'grandpas' straighten their
belts and backs at the sight of him....they're afraid of him....they respect
him .... Bogdanov is strict beyond the call  of duty...and rarely fair ....a
petty tyrant ... if he's appointed permanent  commander,  it'll be  curtains
for us all... commanders like that only think about ranks and titles...

     "...what in  hell do you want with Yugoslavia,  Petrovich?" demanded  a
warrant officer. "What will you do there?"
     "They  sell   these   cans   of  cherries   from   Yugoslavia   in  the
quartermaster's store. What does it say on the cans? Yugotutun or something.
     "I want to go to that  factory in Yugoslavia and see how they  take the
stones out of the cherries."
     "There's probably  a  machine that does it," suggested captain  Osipov.
"That's really interesting - can't say it ever occurred to me before."
     "Or they sit there and remove them by hand."
     "Nah, by hand? That many cans? Can't be done."
     "Why not? Easy  as anything. D'you know how many potatoes a platoon can
peel in an hour?"
     "About five sacks."
     "Five? Ten! You just have to clout them hard and often enough."
     "A few tons in a night," was the general agreement.
     "So in  Yugoslavia they've  got  soldiers  pitting  those cherries.  So
     "Wheeee!" the eyes of all  the  officers senior and  junior  followed a
very plump young woman who was heading for the mess hall.
     "A new waitress!"
     "Hey, Yakimchuk, look at that ass! All that fat! You'd  never manage to
eat that much in a year!" said someone.
     Then it was a free-for-all:
     "That's some workbench! Enough for a whole platoon!"
     "Yes, man, that's a delayed action sex bomb..."
     "Nah, she's not my type..."
     "Who's asking you?
     "In  Afghanistan,  pal,  you don't  have much choice.  You  take what's
     "Spending winter with a woman like that would  be  easy. She'd keep the
whole barracks warm."
     "Where the hell did they find her?"
     "She's instead of Luska..."
     "What Luska?"
     "Remember, the one with the big tits?"
     "Oh yeah, I remember her..."
     "She didn't work long before she got herself under Bogdanov."
     "He's a real one for the ladies, that's true. A stallion!"
     "He didn't  have much time to ride her, though. She got herself in with
a general  from headquarters  while  Bogdanov was  away on combat duty.  The
general had her  transferred closer to him. Maybe it's a lie, but I've heard
that the general recommended her for a medal."
     "Well, well: "Ivan gets a poke  up the ass for being in the attack, and
Masha gets a Red Star award for her cunt..."
     "That's what I'm saying:  this new one will be under some  colonel soon
     "Who'd want a fat slob like that?"
     "They  could  have  sent  someone a bit thinner. I went to pick up  the
"elephants" last week, and you should  have seen the dames that arrive! Make
your eyes pop. And what do we get? We have to look at that fat ass every day
in the mess hall! She'll never squeeze between the tables! Makes you sick...
I'm not going to the mess any more."
     "So who's forcing you?"
     "You lads have got it all wrong," chided  a gray-haired warrant officer
after the  doors into  the mess hall slammed shut  behind the  new waitress.
"You're laughing, but  there's a  man for every woman here. Not a single one
will be left with nothing to do. This one will find her match, too..."
     "Maybe  it  will  be  you,  Petrovich?"  suggested  someone.  Everybody
laughed. "In that case, all the parachute silk in  the regiment will have to
be used up for her knickers! ..."
     Butts were thrown into the  shell case that served as  an ashtray,  the
smokers headed for the mess. Only two remained in the smoking hut - Sharagin
and Yepimakhov. Oleg had wanted to draw his  friend away, but the  other was
obviously  interested  in  the  neighboring  conversation,  even  though  he
pretended he was not listening and sat with his back turned.
     "Take my family, now, Petrovich," said one of the warrant officers. "My
wife doesn't work. Two kids. A third was born last year. D'you know what she
gets  from  the state? Thirty five rubles a month! Thirty five! If  anything
happens to me here..."
     "Nothing'll happen to you, you're in the rear, damn it!"
     "No,  I'm  serious. If  anything happens  to  me, how will she  live? I
wouldn't walk to the fucking checkpoint for thirty five rubles! "
     "You will, what can you do?" insisted the  gray-haired warrant officer.
"If you're ordered, you'll go."
     "No I won't! As a matter of principle! But you tell me, how  can anyone
live on that? And they want me not to steal!"
     "All  right,  let's go," said Oleg rising, bored with this chatter. "No
wonder their character  reports  say that warrant  officers are "thoughtful"
and "have staying power"...."
     "In what way?"

     ... this kid's really from another world...

     "Well...how  shall  I put it to  be  fair?  I  don't mean  all  warrant
officers. Our Pashkov won his medal fair and square. But those two - they're
quartermaster's rats. They're  not equal to Pashkov. So they're "thoughtful"
and "have staying power" because they  sit around in their store jerking off
until dinner time, thinking and thinking, and after dinner they need staying
power to carry away all that they've stolen. When  you  go into town, you'll
see that all the shops are  full  of our products. You and I are supposed to
be fed normally,  but these  sons  of bitches sell off everything right  and
left, while we Soviet officers are left with fuck all!"
     "When do  you think there'll be a chance to go into  town, Oleg?" asked
Yepimakhov once they were in the mess hall.
     "Been here five minutes, and  he's  already wanting  to go into  town,"
commented Nemilov sarcastically.
     "But it would be interesting to take a look..."
     "Save up your chits first," advised Zebrev across the table.
     "Everything in its own time," winked Sharagin.
     Spooning  soup  from  a  plastic  bowl, Sharagin remembered  his  first
clandestine visit into town.  Together with  Ivan Zebrev,  who was  going on
leave  and had  to buy up as  much as possible, they had taken their chances
and gone around the shops. Unfortunately for them,  an order had been issued
forbidding anyone going into town for security reasons. You could leave your
unit only with written  permission from headquarters, so the MPs were having
a field day rounding up everyone from the shops.
     They  dressed in "civvies" and  gave a  bottle  of "Stolichnaya" to  be
taken  out of the camp in a  BMP, worrying all the way that  something would
happen and  their absence would  be noticed. Nemilov might report them. They
dodged patrols. Sharagin almost fainted the first time he entered a shop and
saw  the  abundance  of imported  goods: jeans, all  sorts  of cloth, shoes,
folding sunglasses,  quartz  watches, cigarette lighters of different kinds.
He  suddenly  felt  offended on behalf  of Lena and Nastyusha, who were back
there in the Soviet Union and would never see anything like this.

     ...  how  wonderful it  would be  if Lena  could  choose  whatever  she
wanted!...I'd give  her  all  my chits  - let  her  enjoy herself...and  the
children's things!  why are all our  children so gray and unattractive?  why
can't we make decent clothing for them?!..

     Oh, what a chewing  out they got from Morgultsev later! He treated them
like  naughty children! He almost burst with  indignation when he found he'd
been fooled  by his  lieutenants,  he'd  shouted and  shouted,  about twenty
minutes, turned red as a beet, and ended by saying:

     "You have been formally reprimanded, and it will go on your records!"
     That meant that they would have  to give the  commander a half litre to
get his nerves back in shape.

     ...of course,  we're  used to him  and don't react  or  take particular
offense, he  is what he is ....on edge, easily wound up, shouts  a  lot, but
usually without  real anger  ...  he cools down soon, so we forgive him  his
quick temper ... you resent it when he yells and yells, but once he quietens
down you feel  sorry  for him, because you know that he's  not mean, that he
cares about us, his company, his officers, the "elephants"...

     Shall we  go?" asked  Yepimakhov, interrupting  Sharagin's  reminiscent
train of thought.
     "You go. I'll stay and have some tea..."
     Almost  everyone had finished eating.  Sharagin sat alone in  the empty
mess hall. A soldier went around lazily swiping crumbs off the tables with a
towel,  two waitresses  were  exchanging  confidences  near the  kitchen.  A
soldier without a belt was mopping the floor. Oleg dipped sugar cubes in his
tea and sucked them  lazily,  holding them in two fingers. The sugar changed
color, fell apart, melted in his mouth. He ate a  slice of bread with butter
that  smelled  rancid. The day  they had  made their illicit sortie  to  the
shops, he had been indescribably happy. Together with  Zebrev,  he sent  his
first presents home for Lena and Nastyusha - a musical postcard and a tin of

     ... with bergamot oil...not just  any old Georgian tea,  or that Indian
one with three elephants!...how they'll love it!..

     Zebrev had taken the trouble of going to the Sharagins, stayed a  while
and told  Lena  that they  were  living and working well,  comforted  her by
saying there was virtually no danger, there were only rare clashes somewhere
near the border, far away from the regiment. "Unusual woman, your wife, " he
commented. "Harrumph! - Quiet and meek. Wish  mine was like that. I took out
the parcel from my bag, and she just put it on the couch without opening it.
I barely managed to talk her into unwrapping your presents. You have to make
sure  everything fits,  I told her. How many chits  did you spend? Actually,
you did the right  thing. I  was too stingy  in  that shop. She particularly
liked that blue dress. I thought she'd  rush out and try  it on, but she's a
strange  woman, she just sat down by the table and burst into tears. I asked
her why she was crying, and she said  she'd never  had such beautiful things
in her  life.  How  do  you like  that! I felt really  awkward. My  wife did
nothing  but bitch  and criticize everything I brought.  That  dress will be
just right for your  wife, don't worry, she's very slim. Then she sorted the
children's things and dressed up your daughter. Then she sat  down again and
started asking about you. What  could I say to her? - Harrumph! - I can just
see her now, sitting on the edge of the chair, pale as anything. Is she sick
or something? Very fragile, she is....

     ... like a cup from a Chinese tea service... Pashkov bought himself one
     like that...

     ...So  there  I am,  talking  all sorts  of  crap, and  she sits  there
listening, smiling and crying. Silly little thing...."

     Sharagin picked up a  tin of  aubergine caviar, thanked  the waitresses
smoking at a corner table and went back to the company.
     Morgultsev looked annoyed..
     "Get yourself ready!" he ordered without preamble. "You'll be going out
     "Again? Where?"
     "Who the fuck knows? They called from the  political  section . They've
got  some  production brigade, or musical brigade  or propaganda brigade  on
their hands. Damn  it! I couldn't make head or tail of it, so don't ask  me!
Don't rile me up, Sharagin, I'm  in a bad mood today, so  be warned! ...What
are you standing around for?"
     "I'm waiting for more detailed instructions."
     "Wash your ears, Sharagin, I said you're going out tomorrow!"
     "Where are we going exactly?"
     "How the hell would I know?  ...The  task is a simple one. They want an
escort, see, to drive around  the  villages and  teach the fucking spooks to
play the balalaika or some such shit!"
     "How can I  know?!  The  vehicles are falling to pieces, we've  got  no
spare  parts,  it's  time  to write  them off and not  barge around  playing
amateur theatricals!  I said  to them: "The  company's not ready to go!" And
what  did they say to me? "Obey  orders, fuck it!" So - you're off tomorrow.
We pull out at zero four hundred hours..."

     The  paratroop company rumbled through a still sleeping Kabul, as if by
waking  the  hated Afghans  would  give them  a  measure of  revenge for the
troops' early  start.  The  tracks of the  BMPs  grated  over  the  asphalt,
powerful motor  roared,  headlights swung here and there  throwing light  on
stone walls and the few people up and about at this early hour.  It was only
after the company had left the city behind that mullahs left their  beds and
the  first cries of "Allah is great" screeched out of the loudspeaker in the
     They  had  to  wait for  three  hours at the last checkpoint before the
mysterious agitprop brigade put in an appearance.
     Morgultsev cursed, calling headquarters to find  out where those damned
"artists" were. Meantime, the men dozed.
     "What a screw-up! Damn them all to hell!"
     Dawn  broke. The drivers who had been sleeping in their vehicles at the
checkpoint  woke  up  and  went off  to  wash, clean  their  teeth  and  eat
breakfast. Finally, their transport column moved off toward Salang under BMP
     All  traffic  stopped  along  the roads with the coming  of darkness. A
temporary  exchange of power was  taking  place in Afghanistan.  By day, the
roads  belonged  to the  Soviets,  and night  was the  time  of  the spooks.
Lieutenant  Yepimakhov, looking very  serious, sat on  the  turret of  a BMP
wearing an earphone helmet, new pea jacket and did not let go of his machine
gun for an instant.

     ... let him take an excursion, we'll spend a few days in the fresh air,
and then it's
     back to the regiment ...

     The  agitprop brigade  arrived  at last. Those officers and drivers who
had alpine or motorbike  goggles put them  on to keep the dust  out of their
eyes.  Sharagin  nodded  to  his  friend.  Yepimakhov  raised   a  thumb  in
acknowledgment as if to say - this is just great!
     The company reformed into battle positions, all the trucks taking their
places between the BMPs.
     They topped a hill. A  breath-taking  panorama  opened  before them:  a
beautiful valley lay below, bisected by a concrete road. In the depth of the
valley  Afghan  houses clustered  among the  "greenery" and along its edges,
like mushrooms on  a tree stump, forming tiny  clusters on the cliffs - sort
of tiny oasis amid the trees.
     "This is  zero three, this  is Zero three! Can  you hear me?  Over  and
out!" came Zebrev's voice through the earphones.
     "This  is  zero  one!  I  hear  you loud  and  clear"  Roger!"  replied
     "Column's moving OK,"  reported  Zebrev to his  commander. His vehicles
were at the end of the convoy, covering the rear.
     If it were  not for the danger, it would have been interesting to watch
the column  weave its way along the concrete: armored cars, then a couple of
Kamaz trucks,  the agitprop's armored personnel carrier (APC), a jeep with a
red  cross,  another APC,  a fuel truck,  a BMP,  a "Zil" truck  and another
armored vehicle to close the line.
     "Attention on the left!"  barked Morgultsev. The BMP cannons rotated to
the left. They were passing  a bomb-blasted village, which meant "be on your
guard!". A line  of Afghan  passenger  buses and trucks were coming  towards
them. The column went through the Soviet and Afghan posts along the road and
past  piles  of  the  rusty remains  of  destroyed combat  vehicles,  lonely
monument to fallen Soviet soldiers.
     They stopped  for a while in the regional center, while the forthcoming
operation was discussed with the  Afghans. Yepimakhov smiled amiably  at the
Afghans and nodded to the urchins who clustered around, begging.
     "Don't  mistake  those  animal grins  for  friendly  smiles!" cautioned
Morgultsev as he passed by.
     "What do you mean? They're only children!"
     "Sons of bitches," corrected Morgultsev.
     Several Afghans, unarmed but dressed in army uniform climbed  on to the
first BMP to show the way to the village. As  bad  luck  would have  it, the
selected  village  lay  a  fair distance  from  the  main  road.  It was not
comfortable  going  so  far. The officers and  men  traded  silent looks  of
inquiry: were they heading into a trap?
     "Should've posted sentries first,  and  then go  into  this godforsaken
hole!" muttered Morgultsev.
     The company spread out over the village, taking up defensive positions.
The vehicles were parked as close as possible to the houses, waiting.
     "What they're doing isn't worth a tinker's damn, but we've got to cover
them!"  commented Morgultsev  angrily. "Going along any country road without
     Only Yepimakhov, who did not  yet understand  all the  dangers  of this
window-dressing venture into an isolated  village, who had not  yet  smelled
gunfire  and knew nothing of the treachery of  the Afghans, was  inspired by
the situation. He was gripped by revolutionary fervor. Even the  officers of
the agitprop group  kept  a wary  eye  on  the surrounding hillsides, at the
armed men who mingled with the crowd of locals.
     "Who's that  with  a machine-gun and  worry-beads?"  asked  Yepimakhov,
suddenly feeling a stab of unease. "Is that a spook?"
     The skinny Uzbek  who  was the  agitprop  interpreter, a small  man who
looked like a ruffled sparrow, glanced at him with narrowed eyes:
     "Don't  use that  word.  It  means  "enemy." That  man over there, ' he
indicated  the  armed  Afghan  with a  jerk  of his  head,  "belongs to  the
self-defense unit."
     "Oh...I see...."
     "You new here?"
     "Yes... My name's Nikolai." Yepimakhov held out his hand.
     "Tulkun." The interpreter's hand was small and limp.
     "Look Tulkun, could you tell me a couple of phrases that I could say to
these people?"
     "What phrases?" asked the Uzbek, still eyeing him distrustfully.
     "Well,  something  like  'how  are  you  doing?  or  'is  everything in
order?"', that type of thing'"
     The Afghans usually say: "Djurasti, cheturasti?'"
     Yepimakhov wrote this down in a small notebook, then repeated the words
aloud. The armed Afghan from the self-defense brigade beamed at him.
     "Djurasti,  cheturasti,  grow  your  dick  until   your   old  age-sti,
chopper-sti will come here-sti, and that  will be fuck-all-sti for you-sti!"
mocked senior warrant officer Pashkov.
     "I would  advise you," said the  interpreter when  Pashkov  was  out of
earshot, "to learn some verses from the Koran."
     "They could come in useful.
     Yepimakhov  dutifully  wrote  out  a  long  sentence  dictated  by  the
     "And what does this all mean?"
     "It means that there is no God  but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.
"  The   interpreter  took  Yepimakhov   by  the  arm,  lowering  his  voice
confidentially.  "If you get  captured,  keep saying that over and over. The
spooks won't kill you then...  Excuse me, I have to go  and help the doctor.
We can talk later."
     "Capture?" repeated Yepimakhov, stunned.  "I've no intention  of  being
captured by the bandits! I'd never plead for mercy like that Uzbek!..."
     Sharagin felt strange, taking part in this charitable agitprop venture.
He sat on the sun-warmed armor and smoked, eyes roving over the  surrounding
slopes, the armed Afghans, the activities of the agitprop brigade staff.

     ...  Morgultsev is right when he says that "the  only good Afghan is  a
dead one" ... all these Afghan villages  are hazardous ... you  have to keep
your  eyes  peeled every second with  these bearded bastards  ...  turn your
back, and you'll get a knife in it before you know it ...

     ... that's  how we  screwed up over Afghanistan! Instead of bombing the
shit out of them, they play Mister Nice Guy with  them, thinking that a sack
of  grain's  enough to make an Afghan our friend! ... What  utter  crap! ...
Dream on!..."

     He  was used to fighting the  Afghans,  not visiting their villages and
playing namby-pamby. Just look!

     ...  Doctor  Dolittle  in a  nice  white  coat  giving them  a  medical
check-up. It's enough to make you die laughing. He's lucky he's got an armed
soldier  beside him, you can never know what  to expect from  these monkeys.
They say 'this  village supports the  people's power regime' ... the hell it
does! Simply the  men have all gone off into  the mountains or  to Pakistan,
where they're  being trained to lay mines, what else can they do? There's no
work for them, and they've forgotten how  to work the  land!... then the men
will return, and the village will belong to the spooks  again...look at that
old guy  all covered with sores and skin  ulcer's pushing his way through to
the table with the  medicines ... back home he wouldn't be  allowed inside a
hospital, but would  be  packed off to a leper colony ... and you,  old man,
probably  go out into  the  fields every  day ... Dolittle  there  puts some
lotion on a piece  of cotton-wool and swabs down the  sores,  not afraid  of
infection"  "there  you go," he  tells the oldster  through the interpreter.
"There  you  go. Next!"... dekhkane,  what  a word  - sounds  similar to our
Russian 'workers and  peasants'! Dekh-kane-ne! Whole  village is turning out
by  the  looks  of it, they believe that this  is all it takes -  a  swab of
something or a pill, and all their ills will be cured! Blessed are those who
have faith! That junior lieutenant who's the  interpreter can barely keep up
translating  their babble:  hepatitis, ulcers, blood pressure, diarrhea, the
clap  ....good for  you, Grandpa!  Says  he's got the clap, but  I  bet  his
soldier still stands at  attention, otherwise why would he bother looking to
be cured,  probably has a nice new young bride  lined up,  polygamy's not  a
problem  here  ...  Bravo,  Dolittle! Nothing  you can't  handle!  Calm  and
collected, helps all  the  natives, gives  one  a packet of powder, breaks a
pill in  half for the other and tells him  that one half's for the diarrhea,
and the other half for headaches.

     ...the spooks are  pleased the Russian  doctor's  cured them, gave them
three tablets  and made them  well...that nurse  they've  got with  them  is
something, though! I wouldn't mind  traveling around villages for weeks just
for her... she's examining the local women ... shoving a stethoscope under a
raised burqa...  I can imagine  the filth underneath! Probably hasn't washed
since  the day  she  was born  ...  you can't see  her face...probably she's
uglier than  a hundred Chinese... the nurse  is  monitoring her  heartbeats:
tick-tock, tick-tock... can't tell the woman's age  - could be anything from
twenty five to sixty five... they all have  equally shriveled hands, and the
rest is under those robes...

     ...  hey, nursie, you'd be  better off  monitoring my  heart! ... there
they go  over by the truck, sacks of  grain going one  after the other,  and
just  watch  the  spooks grabbing  those  free galoshes... not everyone back
home's got shoes, and we've  been living without decent roads for centuries!
dirt  everywhere, any  town you name, it'd be better if  they  gave out free
galoshes to our own Soviet citizens: here you are, instead of asphalt on the
roads! a pair of galoshes for every Soviet family!... like hell! the Afghans
need them more,  you  see... the friendly  Afghan  people! we're helping the
revolution ...if  we didn't throw everything away  to these so-called allies
in the socialist camp  and in our struggle, we'd have a chance  to live like
normal human beings ... hey, the natives have  started a fight, what do they
call  them?  saksauls?  aksakals? elders? going  at  each other  like  angry
roosters, give  them a  chance and they'll work  up  a real Waterloo!  grain
being issued by the sack-load, all free of  charge!.. ah, they've  put  on a
movie...  what  in  hell's the point?  a Russian  movie at that, a classical
masterpiece ... 'Anna Karenina' isn't it?  dubbed  of  course, but are these
creeps  likely to have any idea  about what's being shown on the screen? ...
hey,  they've shown only one part, and are wrapping  up...some agitation and
propaganda exercise! ...and  over there, they've got  native songs  blasting
out over a loudspeaker and are handing  out leaflets  ...  it'd be better if
they printed more  books back home  instead of these leaflets, you  can only
get proper books with special  cards, and the amount of paper they've wasted
on  these leaflets would be enough  to  print the entire  works of  Dumas, I
bet!...  tell me, what use are these leaflets for the  natives?  they're all
illiterate,  anyway! They  haven't even  learned to wipe  their  asses  with
paper! they squat for just a piss!....

     ... the lieutenant who was  interpreting for  Doctor Dolittle's talking
to the  elders now ... why don't we bring out  a piano-accordion, sing  some
songs do  a little  dance for them, maybe then  they won't start shooting at
our backs  when we leave this bloody village! we'll all get ourselves killed
with this idiotic agitprop do-gooding!...

     "Show's finally over," said Morgultsev, not hiding his relief.
     They crawled  back  towards the surfaced main road and  returned to the
regional  center. The commanding officers of the  agitprop brigade retreated
to confer with Afghan activists in a one-storey barracks.

     ... bet they've gone off to eat pilaf ... and we have to sit around and
wait, like beggars on the threshold...

     Impudent, pestering natives  began sneaking around  the  army  vehicles
like flies. Some of them were fluent in Russian swear-words. Weaving around,
prying,  staring, they try to sell something  to the Russians: two  offering
wares, four hanging around looking out for something to steal.

     ... blink an eyelid, and they'll dismantle the BMP in five minutes flat

     ... that sonofabitch isn't as high as the vehicle wheel, but he's ready
to try and lug it off on his back ...

     "I'll show you  baksheesh  in a  moment!" roared  private Chirikov, and
rattled a grenade menacingly.

     ...  those  bastards aren't even a little bit scared,  they  know  that
nobody'll shoot them here ...

     A red and white civilian bus  pulled up on  the other side  of the road
from Sharagin's vehicle.  A few minutes  later  it drove off, leaving an old
Afghan with a girl  aged four or five sitting on  his back,  her arms around
his  neck. Bending his trembling  knees, the old  man  set the girl down and
stood  there,  looking  around and seeming at a total loss. To the right,  a
group of Indian traders sat in a  group drinking tea, on the left  - bearded
men  with machine  guns  were exchanging greetings, hugging one  another and
touching cheeks.

     ... either they're spooks that are observing a cease-fire agreement, or
they're  so-called people's militia, who are also spooks , but today they're
for the Kabul regime, and tomorrow against it ...

     Hesitantly,  bowing like a  slave and cringing, the  old man approached
the traders, paused beside them and mumbled something, indicating the little
girl with his hand. The traders eyed  him  contemptuously and shrugged. They
turned  away from him,  but the old  man did not  go  away. He milled around
indecisively,  turning  his  head  this  way and  that, finally  stopping  a
passer-by. The passer-by did not want to listen.

     ... that child looks sick ...  or maybe she's sleepy ... Nastyushka,  I
wonder what my little Nastyushka's doing right now?

     He  imagined her romping around  in the grass in little white knickers,
surrounded by butterflies, while Lena  lay nearby on a blanket,  reading and
enjoying the sunshine ....
     Sharagin watched the confused old  man, who disappeared  and reappeared
through passing traffic. He shifted from one foot to another on the spot and
glancing at the little girl, who was leaning over at a strange angle towards
the traders.

     ... what if that were my Nastyusha?..

     "Run down and get me an interpreter from the agitprop brigade. Not that
Uzbek, though, there's a Russian junior lieutenant there.  Tell  him to find
out from the old  man ... Which one? That one that's crossing the road! Tell
him to find out what's wrong with that little girl. Got that? On the double!
Savatyev and Sychev -  you come with me. You keep a watch here," he added to
Yepimakhov, who had just come up.
     Had anyone asked Sharagin right then why he was concerning himself with
the old man's problems, he would probably have been unable to answer, it was
just that at this  specific time, he thought of nothing  else and, moreover,
it looked as though the child was crying.
     The old  Afghan replied with a torrent of words,  gesticulating  wildly
with typical peasant incoherence.
     "His grand-daughter's been wounded.  Got a bullet in the  shoulder. She
needs a doctor," translated the junior lieutenant.
     The soldiers carried the child  across  the road and put her down  near
the BMP and the vehicles of the agitprop people.
     "Find the doctor!"
     Sharagin turned back to the interpreter and explained, as if justifying
     "I  thought she might have got travel-sick on the bus. Then  I  saw her
keeling over...."
     Chirikov returned alone.
     "Where's that Dolittle?" demanded Sharagin in displeased tones.
     "He's  over there, comrade lieutenant, having dinner with  the  Afghans
... Says he'll come soon..."
     A crowd  of  some thirty curious  Afghans gathered around in a  circle,
pushing to get a look, clambering on to each other's shoulders.
     "Chase 'em off!" ordered Sharagin.
     Private Burkov aimed his gun at the Afghans, snapped the bolt. The kids
jumped back, but were unafraid. They mocked the Russian soldiers.
     The  girl sat there, crying quietly. The doctor arrived finally, rolled
up the  torn sleeve and took a cursory look  at the thin arm  bandaged  with
dirty rags covered with dried spots of blood.
     It  looked  as though the  bullet entered the  shoulder  and was lodged
below the shoulder-blade. The interpreter repeated the  old man's account of
what had happened:
     "She was working in the fields in the topmost village. The spooks often
fire on the Russian outpost,  the Russians fire back, and  the civilians get
the worst of it. This was a stray bullet. The field's right in the middle of
the crossfire... She was hit about three hours ago."

     - poor little thing, in pain for three hours ...

     The  doctor  put  on  a  new dressing,  gave  the  child  a  painkiller
injection,  and told the interpreter  to tell the old man that the girl must
be taken to hospital at once, and have an operation.
     "Tell him that the bullet may have grazed one of her lungs, and there's
damage  to the  blood  vessels. Tell  him  to hurry. That  wound could  turn
     "I don't know how to say that ..."
     "Well, tell him simply that she's got to have an urgent operation. Tell
him to take her to Kabul. Otherwise she'll die!"
     "He says he's got no money."
     "Oh,  shit!" spat  the doctor.  "What's  it got to do with me?  Am I  a
doctor,  or a taxi  driver? Am  I supposed to  operate on  her  here with my
bayonet knife?!"
     "Hang on," interrupted Sharagin. "Are there any sacks of grain left?"
     "Probably," nodded the interpreter.
     "Give him a sack. Any car will take him to Kabul in exchange for that."
     "That should be discussed with the commander..."
     "What's there to discuss? How many bags did you give away to the spooks
in that village?! I'll go and speak to your commander myself. Where is he?
     "Here he comes now. Captain Nenashev. "
     The commander of the agitprop unit needed no  persuasion, turned out to
be a right kind of guy. He understood what was happening at once and ordered
a bag of grain unloaded.
     In  the  time  it  took to flag down  a car, haggle with the driver and
bring a sack of grain from the truck, the  doctor  scribbled something  on a
scrap of paper which he handed to the interpreter:
     "Tell him to go  to  the Soviet hospital  in Kabul  and  give them this
note. I've written down what's necessary..."

     In the  morning, the agitprop commander  decided  to  visit  some  more
villages in  order  to "get  rid of" the remaining humanitarian aid  in  the
trucks,  then  return  to  Kabul with  a  glowing  report  about the  latest
successful propaganda action.
     Once again,  nobody asked  the paratroopers whether they wanted to trek
from village to village, or not. They were assigned to  guard and were under
the orders of the political  workers, so they were bored and had  nothing to
do from early morning onwards.
     They pitched camp in a field behind the Soviet checkpoint.
     Lieutenant Yepimakhov was  becoming used to life on the armor, and  had
by now a close look at the Afghans. He  placed the troops in  position quite
confidently and fairly sensibly, assigned sentries for the night.  There was
a definitely commanding  note in  his voice  now, even though it was still a
bit  overdone and too loud,  imitative, but even that  was not bad. The main
thing  was to  keep the troops on their toes and  respect the voice of their
commanding officer.

     ...so  that  they'll  hear his voice in  their  dreams alongside  their

     The "elephants" were nobody's  fools,  either, if they should notice  a
blind  spot or a  hint of  indecisiveness, it  would  be  the  end for  that
officer's authority, the old-timers  would  be  on his back in a flash. They
know  their own  worth, move around sloppily, know how to avoid duty and are
masters of kibitzing.
     At  first  they  traded knowing winks, why show initiative?  We'll wait
until  we  get  orders, let  the "finch" jump around for a bit, sweat  some,
realize that  he's  nothing without us; was  the attitude of the  "grandpas"
toward the new commander.
     Yepimakhov was not confused. He issued a string of orders, did not take
offense  at silly  questions and jibes, pretended not  to  notice  them  and
showed a strict  face. His expression  seemed to  indicate that he was  very
displeased  with the  men, but was holding back. Still, the implication  was
clear that he would have no hesitation in giving someone a punch in the face
if he decided to do  so. The "grandpas" had not seen  him like  this before,
decided  that  it wasn't  worth pushing  their luck and, like  king Solomon,
settled  on  a compromise solution: they stripped to the waist and, snapping
their braces,  loudly  repeated  Yepimakhov's  orders  to  the  finches  and
dippers. Those, in turn, bared their torsos, spat on their hands and started
shoveling, breathing in the aroma  of freshly-turned  earth. These lowest of
the low had no way of understanding the likes of their new  commander in any
case, nor did they have the time - pick up  shovels and dig! put  your backs
into it! get it all done before dark

     The  first  missile  landed  about one  hundred  meters from the  camp.
Yepimakhov turned and saw a  pillar of  smoke.  Five seconds later  a second
surface-to-surface  missile  came  closer.  First  he  heard  its  whistling
approach and decided,  for  some strange reason, that the next one would hit
the camp squarely and he would be killed.
     Yepimakhov was dumbfounded, milled around and  shouted to  the  men  to
take cover, even though  most of them had already done so.  He looked around
frantically for a safe place. The third missile hit  the  ground about fifty
meters away, the  earth  shuddered, and its  movement under his  feet filled
Yepimakhov with terror.
     The following hits were scattered in the field behind the camp.
     As   soon  as  it  formed,  fear,  deep,  animal  fear,   engulfed  the
lieutenant's  heart, mixed up  his thoughts, drained all resolve and assumed
confidence.  He  fought the all-pervading  fear, with the natural impulse to
hide,  to flee from danger. He shook all over, knees buckling, but stood his
ground, repeating  over and  over:  "You're an  officer, you don't  have the
right  to  be afraid, you're  an officer,  you  don't have the right  to  be
     All in  all, only seven  missiles came over the  hill. Sharagin counted
the explosions. Taking cover,  just in case, behind the armored bulk of  the
BMP, he and the officers of  the agitprop group tried to estimate  where the
missiles were coming from.
     The spooks  were  clearly  shooting  at random.  Most likely  they  had
spotted the Soviet convoy traveling and then breaking camp from some vantage
point, and decided to have a go.
     There was another  explosion further away, somewhere behind them on the
road leading  to Kabul. Really alarmed this time, Sharagin  and the agitprop
officers spun around  as if on command. For a  moment they  wondered  if the
spooks  were coming  at  them  from  two  different  directions. There was a
chatter of machine gun  fire  from the road. It was comforting to  know that
there was a Soviet outpost nearby, a reliable shield on one flank at least.
     Captain  Morgultsev became  nervous,  lit a  cigarette  and went off to
contact Zebrev's platoon. Returning, he gestured Sharagin aside:
     "Zebrev's lost a "box"...
     "On the road."
     "Shall we go there now? Any  losses?" asked Sharagin, getting ready  to
move fast.
     "Calm  down,  everything's  all  right,"  said  Morgultsev  in  hushed,
conspiratorial tones. "No losses. But one vehicle's burned out. I'll  go and
sort it out myself."
     When the firing stopped and  it was quiet  again, Yepimakhov peered out
from behind the armor, and realized at once,  to his profound embarrassment,
that  there  was  no point  in  celebrating victory  over  fear  after  such
     He looked around covertly, had anyone noticed his confusion? He had  no
doubt that he looked  pathetic and lost. But nobody seemed  to  be laughing.
However, this did not make things any better. Deep contempt seared the proud
heart of the would-be hero.
     "Our boys  will have their firing point  targeted by now and  will give
the spooks a nice dose of artillery,"  Yepimakhov heard  someone  say in the
group of officers standing nearby.
     "You don't say? Optimistic, aren't you?" Sharagin  lit a cigarette from
someone else's and glanced  briefly  at  Yepimakhov. He  could guess why the
lieutenant  did not look too happy,  but  showed  no trace either by word or
gesture.  "They  came from  behind that hill," he went  on casually. "Do you
think anyone's still there?  Those spooks  would have jumped  into a waiting
Toyota and disappeared. Talk about chasing ghosts in a fog...!"

     Yepimakhov sat beside Sharagin immersed in his own thoughts, poking his
rice pudding with a fork.

     ...  nothing  surprising  in  that the  kid got scared ... it  would be
stranger if  he  hadn't  ... if  you're afraid,  it means you're no fool ...
he'll get used to it ... people get used to everything  ... I read somewhere
that the Irish say you can even get used to being hanged ...

     An APC  was approaching the  camp rapidly along the deeply worn ruts in
the  road. A  major in  an  earphone helmet, the  battalion commander of the
nearest outpost jumped down. He looked like a native of Turkmenistan.
     "Where's  the company commander?" he shouted furiously. "Ah, there  you
are! sitting here drinking tea while one of your BMPs is on fire!"
     "Why  are you yelling  at me?" demanded captain Morgultsev, getting  to
his feet.  "I know all about that  BMP, I've  just got back from there.  The
spooks hit it with a grenade launcher. Got it right in the oil tank!"
     "What fucking rocket  launcher!  What  fucking spooks!"  continued  the
outpost commander, raising his voice even higher. "Over the past months, the
spooks haven't hit a single column,  a single vehicle! I've got an agreement
with the leader of  the  local gang!  So don't  give me any crap, captain! I
drove past your three BMPs and  saw  for myself that the last one had broken
down, the men were trying to repair it ... You set it on fire yourselves!"
     "Don't  say  that  comrade major," replied  Morgultsev,  speaking  very
deliberately. "There's no call to slander my officers like that," he went on
with growing  irritation, his face  turning red.  "Everyone heard that  shot
from the grenade launcher! "
     The major was not ready to back down  - "Where are your wounded? Eh? No
answer,  captain?  It's impossible that someone isn't at least shell-shocked
after that!"
     The  war of words continued.  The major and captain were  no longer the
only combatants,  they  were  looking for supporters  among  the surrounding
officers and agitprop personnel: who had the more convincing argument?
     The major pulled off his helmet, exposing a cleanly shaven head.

     ... there was time when I went around bald, just like that ...

     grinned Sharagin.

     ... looks like the head of a prick! ...

     The  outpost commander  kept shoving his hands in his pockets and  then
pulling them out  again, gesticulated, poking a finger  at  Morgultsev,  and
then  in the direction of the burning BMP, which could not be seen from that
     "What are you smiling  about, captain? Admit that you simply  wanted to
write off a faulty vehicle as destroyed in battle! It won't work, youngster.
Where have you ever seen anyone attack a BMP that way?!"
     "Comrade major," said  Morgultsev unpleasantly. "This is my second term
of service in Afghanistan, It's happened to me three times..."
     "If  you  needed  to write off  that BMP,"  interrupted the major, "you
could have said so to  me. I'd have shown you where to drive it over a mine,
there's a whole shitload of them around!"
     Explosions were heard  from somewhere beyond the outpost, about one and
a half kilometers away from the camp. It was  the  explosives in the burning
BMP going up. The major spat in disgust:
     "I had a meeting with  the head of  the gang  only yesterday. We agreed
that the spooks wouldn't hit anything along my stretch of the road."
     "Does that mean you'd rather believe a spook than a Soviet officer?"
     "Listen," whispered Sharagin, "sic our political officer on to him. Let
him give this jerk a brainwashing."
     "The hell with him," replied Morgultsev with a dismissing wave.
     "Captain, I can hardly believe my eyes, "  continued the major, cooling
down  visibly.  "First there's a  broken down BMP on the road, and then it's
attacked by  spooks.  And  no  losses at all!  Everyone's  alive  and  well!
Congratulations, captain! Tell me, have you thought about what happens next?
This is  an emergency!  What am I to say to the leader  of the gang? Fucking
rangers, damn your eyes! Foraging out to taste a bit  of combat, do a bit of
shooting, and I have to pick up the pieces! You'll be off to Kabul tomorrow,
but I have to stay on here..."
     Little by little, he lost  steam having shouted himself out.  Breathing
heavily, the major turned to the officers present,  as  though seeking their
     "I  come driving up, but they've already taken up positions and  opened
fire on several villages. I asked them who  they were shooting  at, and they
said that there  must be spooks behind the  walls. They  thought someone had
fired on them, you see! So here  I am, walking around without a bullet-proof
vest  and  trying  to  get  those  fucking  rangers  to stop!  Their  senior
lieutenant, what's his name ...
     "Senior lieutenant Zebrev," prompted Morgultsev.
     "That's right, Zebrev. The fusillade he  started, you wouldn't believe!
And what if  one of  your  rangers  killed or  wounded  some  villagers, hey
captain? That means the whole gang will come down to the road  tomorrow  and
hit a whole column in revenge! What then?!"
     "Come with me, comrade  major," said Morgultsev,  drawing  the  outpost
commander away from  unnecessary witnesses. They  wandered around  the camp,
arguing, for about five minutes. The major remained stubborn:
     "No, I'll  report  that the vehicle  went  up  in  flames  for  unknown
reasons. Let a commission come and investigate  the matter. And  I'll put  a
guard around the BMP so that none of your rangers can take a shot at it from
a grenade launcher."
     The incident was not discussed in the company. Everyone kept quiet

     ... just like inside a tank ...

     It was clear to all what had happened to  the BMP. A routine occurrence
in war. Why wag your tongue for nothing?
     Only  Yepimakhov,  through  naivete  and  lack  of  knowledge   of  the
realities, entertained suspicions all evening, and, when night  descended on
the camp, protest burst forth from the breast of the young internationalist.
He wanted to sort things out, discuss what had happened with his friend:
     " I simply can't understand it, "he  confided in a  low voice. "On  one
hand, if  the spooks really hit the BMP, then everyone's a hero, right? They
could be put up for medals! But  if the major's right - and  you  and I both
saw on our way back that Zebrev and his platoon stayed on the road and began
poking around in the BMP's engine, well that would be sabotage, wouldn't it,
it  could  mean  prison. That would mean  we're  ruining our  own equipment,
right? Can you imagine the scandal for the whole regiment!..."
     "It's  not  that  simple,"  replied Sharagin thoughtfully.  "The  whole
affair will be swept under the carpet, you'll see."

     - who wants  to go into combat  with defective equipment! ... you can't
fix it, you can't  write it  off - get rid of it! otherwise it will fail you
in battle ...

     "But if there were no spooks about, then it's dishonest ... unfair ...I
never thought Morgultsev could do something like that!..."
     "You're still new here. Don't judge people.  You can talk about  what's
fair or unfair back home... when the war's over..."
     Captain  Morgultsev  was  equally  troubled. He walked around the camp,
stopping here and there, smoking one cigarette after another.
     "I sure hit a snag, damn it all to hell! Screw that  obstinate Turkmeni
asshole! "
     That was the story of  Mogultsev's life - medals, then reprimands! From
king to peasant!

     He was a lieutenant when he  arrived in Afghanistan for the first time.
Nobody was asked whether they wanted to go there or not. The Motherland made
that decision for one and all.
     Shortly  before departure, in December '79, they spent more than a week
training in the  forests  of Belorussia. The cold was  intense, you wouldn't
wish it on your worst enemy. It was cold like this that beat the Germans and
the French in their times. Only the  Russians could  take it, and even so, a
few soldiers would be out every day with frostbitten fingers, toes or ears.
     The officers  felt  intuitively  that this training was  not just  like
that, there was something brewing. They spent the  evenings discussing their
suppositions, exchanging views. Afghanistan was  never mentioned, nobody had
any idea about  this country then. Iran was  mentioned frequently as  it was
there, out of all  the  countries bordering on the  Soviet Union, that there
was unrest.  The thought  of  Iran  cheered everyone  up. They joked that it
wouldn't be bad to fly south for the winter.
     Time  passed. The  men  began  to  talk  of home. Time to  get the tree
decorated for New Year!
     "Even  if  we miss  out  on New  Year, we'll  celebrate  on the 23rd of
February," sighed the officers.
     Fate decreed otherwise.
     The AN-12  gathered  height and  set  course  for the Urals. Lieutenant
Morgultsev worked this out easily by looking at the stars. After a five hour
flight they landed in Shadrinsk. The pilots were taken off for a meal  while
the paratroopers made do with dry rations with  the temperature at minus 30.
They  took off  again, and arrived in Andizhan  some four hours later, where
they remained on the airstrip for one and a half days.
     By  this  time, there were no secrets - commanders  were issued orders,
ammunition and maps ...of the Afghan capital.
     The regimental  HQ commander  pronounced: "..Your task  is  to  help  a
friendly  country,  protect it from reactionary forces  ... The situation is
extremely dangerous. Bands of insurgents have seized the airdrome ..."
     After these words,  the pilots flatly refused to fly. Flying is out  of
the question in such circumstances, they said. A parachute drop - OK, but as
for landing on a strip held by insurgents - no  way! Whoever heard of such a
thing! No commander would issue an order like that!
     "Look, guys," squirmed the HQ commander, "I only said that to scare the
men a bit ... the airdrome is safe, everything's in our hands!"
     They  landed in  Kabul at dawn. A strike force prepared for a lightning
victory, but  there  was no enemy to conquer. The enemy  had gone to ground.
What was the enemy planning, how did he intend to outwit them?
     Plane after plane came in, disgorging men and materiel.
     A very serious operation was under way.
     "So much for  southern climes," grunted Morgultsev,  rubbing his frozen
     The Soviet  units dug  in, slept  in their  vehicles under jackets  and
greatcoats. The day  brought wet  snow, moods slumped because of the driving
wind and a depressing feeling of uncertainty.
     A  cat,  unusually striped in  three colors,  came  up to Morgultsev on
frozen paws and rubbed against his muddy boots, mewing pitifully. Trying the
traditional  "here  kitty-kitty-kitty" routine, Morgultsev tried to pick  up
the cat, but it sprang back in fear.
     "Don't  understand  Russian, hey? Well,  I don't  speak  your language.
Still, you're a living creature. Come on, I'll get you something to eat!"
     He  took  an  almost  empty  tin of  canned  meat  from  the  soldiers.
Shivering,  the cat flung itself on  the food, frantically  licking  out the
sides of the can. She did not leave, but remained with the paratroopers.
     "First contact with the locals accomplished!"  laughed  the lieutenant,
then immersed himself in  rosy dreams:  - We'll be through here in a week or
two, go home, and  take this Afghan Murka with us! I've got to bring home at
least one souvenir!
     After breakfast, he was summoned to headquarters. A real  live  general
was  there. Morgultsev was given a military advisor who worked in Kabul, and
a map of object No.14, which his platoon was to seize.
     This  object turned  out to  be  the Pul-i-Charkhi  prison, a name  the
senior officers had trouble pronouncing.
     "Your task is to take object 14 and free political prisoners! According
to our information  there  are  about 120  guards. Comrade Korobeynikov will
instruct you  about  the  object.  He's  familiar with the  layout.  Comrade
Korobeynikov will deal with the political prisoners himself. Any questions?"
     "No sir!"
     "That hireling of American imperialism, Amin, wanted to destroy all the
prisoners in Pul-i-Charkhi," added the head  of the  Political Section. "The
prison's being guarded by troops loyal to  him. They  could start  executing
the prisoners at  any moment.  The  lives  of  thousands of  people  are  in
     "If you fail,  it's the military  tribunal for  you," promised the dour
general in parting. He fixed  Morgultsev with  a gimlet  eye, as  though not
trusting, doubting the lieutenant.
     Donning medics' white coats, Morgultsev  and  the advisor  set of  on a
reconnaissance trip in an ambulance.  They passed by the prison, checked out
the territory and returned to the airdrome.
     Uncle  Fedya  - that  was  the soldiers'  nickname for  the snub-nosed,
round-faced advisor - unfolded a detailed plan of the prison, they bent over
it  and discussed various tactics. Gradually, matters became clearer. In any
case, Morgultsev had seen the prison from the air when his  plane was coming
in to  land in Kabul. From above it resembled a wheel  which  had come off a
giant cart and rolled away. That was what he had thought at the time.
     They warmed  themselves by the fire and thrashed out the details of the
operation. The soldiers were  ordered  to pay close  attention  and remember
     "You can fire at will once  we're  in," said Uncle  Fedya. There  was a
moment  of silence as he looked hard at all  the men, so they would  realize
this was  not an exercise. "No limits! Any disobedience, any doubts  - shoot
on the spot. There won't be time for questions!"
     "One hundred and  twenty  guards,"  calculated  Morgultsev. "That's  no
pushover.  And  we're  just  one platoon. Still, we're paras, we've got  the
machines and we've got the guts!"
     They moved out in  total darkness. The road was blocked by  a  portable
checkpoint  with  a  makeshift  boom,  situated in  the  village closest  to
Pul-i-Charkhi. The column stopped. The leading vehicle trained its spotlight
on an Afghan soldier who pointed a bayonet and screamed "Dry-y-y-sh!" at the
top of his lungs.
     "Where the fuck did he come from?" ground Uncle Fedya through  clenched
teeth. "Light out! Don't shoot! Knife him!..."
     "Why's he squealing like a stuck pig?"
     "He's shouting 'Halt!' C'mon, lieutenant, do it!"
     Morgultsev jumped down and approached the Afghan, extending  a friendly
     "We're on the same side, pal! How are things, slob? What are you gaping
at?"  He  clapped the Afghan on the shoulder:  "Come with me! Come on, let's
get off the middle of the road!"
     He twisted the soldier's arm up his back with a practiced move, put the
knife to his throat:
     "Look, brother, get the shit out of here. I don't want your death on my
conscience, get it? Beat it!"
     The soldier fell  to his  knees, opened  his mouth wide in terror, then
scrambled back to his feet and ran.
     At Pul-i-Charkhi the road was blocked by an  Afghan armored vehicle. It
was quickly knocked out of action when machine  gun fire shredded its tires.
There was no return fire. Maybe the Afghans were out of ammunition.
     "Get those watchtower  lights," ordered Uncle Fedya, and the men did so
promptly with a hail of bullets.
     "Everybody mount up!"
     The day before, Morgultsev  had coaxed a mobile SU-85 installation from
the regimental  commander.  He meant  to  use it  to  break down the massive
prison gates with no loss of time. "We could hardly do  that with an armored
vehicle," he  argued, "the 'plywood shield of the Motherland' would never do
that job!"
     And  then what happened? A fool  lieutenant went off the road, panicked
and opened  fire with solid  anti-tank  shots. With no orders to do  so, the
"Sushka" hit the watchtowers.
     "Stop that!" yelled Morgultsev over the radio.
     "Yessir!" replied the lieutenant,  but thirty seconds later recommenced
     "Idiot!"  swore Morgultsev, and  turned  to the driver-mechanic: "Wreck
those gates!"
     The armored vehicle did it! So much for the slur "plywood shield of the
Motherland"! They broke into the prison compound.
     "Reverse! Faster!" commanded Morgultsev. He and  Uncle Fedya had it all
worked out: they  reversed and crushed the wooden  structure which served as
the guardhouse.
     "Full forward!"
     They  had to ram another pair of  gates in front  of the building where
the  political   prisoners  were  confined.  Bullets  flew  everywhere,  the
atmosphere was total chaos. Luckily, dawn had  broken.  Through  the triplex
glass, Morgultsev could see  armed  men  running hither and thither. Bullets
spattered against the armor like a downpour on a tin roof.
     "Start the carousel!"
     The armored vehicle spun around, all barrels blazing.
     "Time to go," said Morgultsev, touching Uncle Fedya on the shoulder.
     They opened the hatch and leapt out.
     The soldiers  hesitated. Shooting  continued,  but who was shooting  at
whom and where was unclear. Uncle Fedya urged them on:
     "We're losing  time! Get moving! " and ran  towards the entrance of the
building, jumping over corpses.
     "Two men stay here!"
     The babble of  an unknown tongue  could be heard in the depths  of  the
corridor.  They  flattened  themselves  against  the  wall  and  when  steps
approached, Uncle  Fedya fired a volley of shots  holding his machine gun at
waist level. Someone cried out  in the dark, there was the  sound of  a body
     "Chuck a grenade!"
     As  soon as the smoke cleared a little,  they raced for the far end  of
the corridor. Blankets hung across doorways on  both sides  of the corridor.
One  blanket seemed to bulge so Motgultsev pressed the  trigger. An old man,
covered in blood and  grasping a  string  of  worry-beads fell out into  the
     "Go! Go!" shouted Uncle Fedya. He himself paused for a  moment to jam a
new magazine into his gun. "Cover me!"
     It must have been even more frightening for the Afghans. How could they
know how many Soviets  had stormed the prison, how many  were still outside,
what  forces  were  involved in  the  operation and,  in  general,  what was
happening in Kabul? That was why they did not resist for long. Overall, they
amounted to two hundred plus  guards. The paras  had killed a small  part of
them, the rest  surrendered  willingly.  The  Afghans  had  no intention  of
fighting to the last drop of blood.
     Hundreds of hands protruded from the bars of the cells, someone waved a
long piece of cloth - an unrolled turban,  someone managed to reach a window
and stick out his hand.
     Morgultsev  should have felt himself a victor or, to be more precise, a
liberator, someone who had saved  thousands of human lives. However, he felt
nothing of the  kind. On  the  contrary, he  was  suddenly  scared: swarthy,
bearded  strangers watched the Soviet officer  from behind  bars. Morgultsev
     They'd saved them! Freed them! But who were  these people? Against whom
had  they rebelled?  What  were  they punished  for?  Maybe  they  were real
criminals? How can anyone tell?  Their language is incomprehensible and they
all look suspicious. We've saved and freed  them, but what now? No  question
of fraternizing with them!  Damn it, what kind of friends were they, anyway?
No, let them  stay locked  up for the time being. It will be safer that way.
Let those who are  in the know sort it out  and decide which ones to release
and  which ones to keep in the slammer! It's not my job. We've done what  we
were ordered.  If  something like  this  had  happened  back home -  if, for
instance, revolutionaries had to be rescued from prison ... well, that would
be another mater. That would be a sacred duty! But here ...
     "Don't let  anyone  out!"  he  warned his  men. "Are any  of our people
     "Not in our unit, comrade lieutenant.
     "Where's the third unit?"
     "No idea, comrade lieutenant," shrugged the soldier.
     The third unit had plunged into a sewage pit. When they drove into  the
prison yard, the second armored vehicle had veered sharply to the right and,
not  knowing where to go  in the dark and general confusion, landed straight
into the  evil-smelling muck. The exhaust fumes fed  back into the cabin and
the men started to  choke. They were discovered by chance  and just in time.
Someone saw the turret protruding from the pit.
     "Shitheads!" railed Morgultsev. "Not paratroopers, but real shitheads!"
     The taking of  Pul-i-Charkhi lasted less than one hour - 54 minutes, in
fact. Morgultsev had marked the time on his "commander's" watch.
     "Object 14 secured," he reported by radio.
     Uncle  Fedya  went off to Kabul, came back  with  Afghan "comrades" and
began sorting out the prisoners.
     Morgultsev's platoon received orders by  radio from headquarters: "Stay
and guard the object. You'll be brought food and ammunition."
     They posted  sentries, took over the  warmest building which was heated
by  an  oil  stove as  their  quarters and draped blankets  over the  broken
     Morgultsev warmed himself in the  sun,  the first  he  had  seen  since
arrival, drew on a cigarette.
     "Comrade lieutenant! There's a whole bunch of journalists arrived, they
say they're from Soviet television. Should we let them in?"
     "Sure, why not?"
     "There's a whole lot of Afghans, too."
     "What Afghans?"
     "About three hundred of them by the looks of it."
     "So-o-o," drawled Morgultsev. "What do they want here, I wonder?"
     He  refused  flatly   to  admit  anyone  into  the   prison,  contacted
headquarters and waited  a long  time for explanations. Better  be safe than
     "I'm not going to accept the responsibility. Send someone from HQ! Then
I'll let them in."
     "The television crew has to film the taking of Pul-i-Charkhi," said the
colonel who arrived eventually.
     "No problem. I'll go whistle up my guys."
     "You don't  understand,  comrade lieutenant.  The  prison  was taken by
Afghan  soldiers from  units that rose  against  the  bloody regime of  that
traitor Amin."
     "What do you mean, comrade colonel?"
     "I think I've made myself quite clear, lieutenant!"
     They made Morgultsev come down from the  watchtower he  had  climbed to
watch the filming -  there  should  be no accidental appearance of  a Soviet
officer in the film.  He sent a couple of  soldiers for the armchair out  of
the prison governor's  office  and  had  himself a  front  row  view of  the
     "Just try  convincing  someone that  we took Pul-i-Charkhi after this,"
said one of  the men in bitter disappointment. "Nobody will believe it for a
     "Too fucking right!" agreed Morgultsev, equally put out.
     They never  saw  Uncle  Fedya  again. It  was  said that he  was killed
several months later. Where? Under what circumstances? Nobody knew for sure.
Maybe they're  lying and maybe  he really was killed. He's a KGB  man, after
all. You'll never get the truth out of them.... decided Morgultsev.
     In the first years of the war,  asking questions was dangerous,  people
were afraid of everything. Once, when Morgultsev was in hospital after being
wounded, he  sat drinking spirit  with a  captain. A  black-haired,  swarthy
Tatar or Tadjik.  He remembered that the captain had a very long nose  which
was broken in several places.
     They   drank  a  lot.  With  alcohol-induced  frankness,  they  swapped
information about  where they had  been, what they  had done in Afghanistan.
Fate had landed them both in Kabul in December 1979. After a bit of  beating
about the bush, they agreed tacitly not to hold back.
     "I took Pul-i-Charkhi prison," confided Morgultsev. "What about you?"
     "I took the palace..."
     "Amin's palace?!"  Morgultsev almost choked. He glanced at  the captain
who sat there,  head bowed and staring at the floor.  He didn't even look up
when he affirmed: "Exactly."
     There were all sorts  of rumors about Amin's palace.  It  was said that
the Ninth company  of  the  Vitebsk division stormed the palace, others said
the KGB had sent a special task force.
     They shared  the last  of the spirit, clinked glasses:  "Cheers!", then
breathed out  almost simultaneously,  tossed down  their  drinks and sniffed
black bread as a follow-up.
     "I was in the Muslim battalion,"  continued the captain. "Ever heard of
     "Sure," lied  Mogultsev. He  decided  not  to ask for  details. It  was
probably some kind of special unit. "And you saw Amin himself?"
     "Yes ... only he was dead..."
     The captain remained silent, weighing  the pros and cons of saying  any
     "He was lying on the floor in just his undershirt and shorts, there was
a large red spot over his heart. We had to make sure he was really dead. But
when we tugged his left arm, it came off..."
     Morgultsev  broke out  in a cold sweat. "Why is he telling me this? Why
did I tell him about the prison? I should have kept my stupid trap shut!"
     He could  not fall asleep, the  words of  the captain from the  "Muslim
battalion" were very frightening:
     "It was like we were on a platter in front of them during the storming,
they could have shot us to pieces with no trouble. It was a miracle we broke
through,  especially  when we realized what  had happened.  After all,  we'd
killed a head of state! They loaded us into a plane, we thought we were done
for.  Who knows what they might decided to do with us?...They  could  simply
poison the lot of  us.  Why  leave witnesses? The unit was dissolved  and we
were all assigned to different places..."
     Over  breakfast  Morgultsev  felt as  if  his head would  burst  at any
moment, his eyes  refused to  stay open. Morgultsev greeted the captain, but
he  turned away  and pretended  not to  recognize  him.  "Talked too  much!"
Morgultsev decided that from now on he would  keep  his tongue on a padlock.
There was no need to boast and brag about the prison!
     Morgultsev was put up  for the "Red Banner"  order for  his part in the
taking of Pul-i-Charkhi. He was promoted to senior lieutenant ahead of time.
Then it  seemed as though someone had jinxed him! Everything started falling
apart  in  his hitherto  quite successfully  unfolding  life, as if  he  had
slipped on the top of a hill and rolled down the slope. First, his wife left
him. She had found someone else while Morgultsev was serving in Afghanistan.
Not someone from the unit, but a civilian who took her away from Vitebsk.
     Morgultsev started drinking  heavily, received frequent reprimands from
the  battalion commander,  found no pleasure  in  his  work.  The  Political
Section subjected him to psychological pressure, pestering  him  to mend his
     He  was  young  and  hot-tempered,  telling people  where to go  in  no
uncertain terms, was  too quick to resort to  fisticuffs  before considering
whom he was telling  to  fuck  off or  whose nose he was punching.  Then  he
landed  in  real trouble: the "grandpas"  beat him up within an  inch of his
     It took a  few years  for things to  improve. He married  again,  had a
daughter. Then he asked to be posted back to Afghanistan.
     He  never  discussed his family problems, but everyone knew anyway. Who
got divorced or  married, who  had remarried,  who  had children and where -
there are no secrets in the army.
     Morgultsev had a picture drawn by the son of  his first marriage pinned
to the  wall  in his room. Once a  month he sent  the boy  short letters and
asked officers going  on  leave to post the boy a  small package of presents
once  they  were in the  Soviet Union. The  drawing  was  full  of  birdlike
airplanes dropping icicle-bombs, burning  tiny tanks with swastikas on their
armor  which were being crushed by tanks bearing  red stars, and people with
machine guns ran between them. In the right hand corner Morgultsev's son had
written: "I drew this myself Dad plees send me chooing gum" ....

     + + +

     The  days  flew  by  unnoticed, running into  weeks and months.  Raids,
combat,  injury  and death of soldiers and  officers - he adapted himself to
the  Afghan rhythm which turned  every severed  life into something prosaic;
death  could  be  tragic,  accidental,  heroic, but  it no  longer horrified
Sharagin  as it  had in the early months; death became  a routine occurrence
and was accepted as one of the inevitabilities of war.
     Sharagin fished out  two new stars from a glass of vodka when they were
"washing down" his promotion to  senior lieutenant. He was due for a reward.
Morgultsev   signed  the  orders,  glanced   slyly  at  Sharagin  and  asked
     "Do you like sweaty women and warm vodka?"
     "Are you kidding?!"
     "Then you'll be going on leave in winter."
     "Why winter?" protested Sharagin, disappointed. "Come on...!"
     "Someone's  got to  go. Zebrev's  already  been.  It's  too  early  for
Yepimakhov, he's still  got to get into the swing of things here.  So you'll
have to be the one. It's your turn..."
     "Can't we make it a bit later? Like closer to spring?"
     "Later-shmater! Dismissed, comrade senior lieutenant!"
     "In that case, I'm going into town tomorrow!"

     ... what else? I can't go home empty-handed!.

     "I don't  want to  know  anything  about  that,"  answered  Morgultsev,
covering his ass just in case.

     Once over the border, back in the USSR, Sharagin fell into conversation
with an  officer  in a  jeans outfit as they waited by  the  military ticket
office. Sharagin had spotted him as an "Afghan" from afar.

     ...stone-washed  jeans like that  are  sold only in  Afghanistan ...One
     at his face and you can tell straight away that he's an army man ...

     To  an  outside observer, the officer and Sharagin  looked  like twins.
Oleg had bought his first-ever pair of jeans.
     The officer was hoping to get on the same plane. They were lucky enough
to be admitted  on the next flight. Sharagin followed his companion's advice
and  decided to do the unthinkable: draw money off his bank account and take
his family to the seaside.
     He and Lena had so much catching up to do,  all the feelings that could
not be fully expressed in letters, the anxieties, the warmth - all this they
would relive.  It would be better to do all this by  the sea  rather than in
the parents' apartment. Afterwards, there would be  time to visit relatives,
spend  a week  or  two  with  his  mother and father,  go fishing  with  his
grandfather.  He had  almost  a  month  and a  half  - plenty  of  time  for
     "You'll always  find a  place to stay.  If push comes to shove, you can
rent a room. The main  thing is to have money!" urged the jeans-clad officer
over a beer.
     Lena had  never been on vacation by the sea. For  that  matter, neither
had he. As for Nastyushka, all she had seen was a stream in the village.
     "The  sea is like hundreds of rivers,"  Oleg told  her in an effort  to
     "Wike two or free livers?"
     "More. Lots and lots of rivers. And you can't see the other side."
     The  money  seemed to  melt  like  snow.  He had  to overpay for  their
tickets. It  was not the vacation season, nobody flew  south at this time of
year, but there was a ticket shortage nonetheless!

     ... it could only happen in our country! ...

     Taxi  to  the airport,  taxi  from  the  airport - just as well  he was
earning  double  all  those months in  Afghanistan. He'd  never  dreamed  of
anything like that before!

     ... why regret the expense? I'll earn as much again!..

     For the first time in his life, Oleg felt himself a free man.

     ...because you can't earn a lot back home ... If someone has a lot of
     money, he'll start to feel independent and go his own way ...

     Previously, Oleg had always felt dependent and without any rights.

     ...  "I know no such other country," a  drunken captain had  sung once,
parodying the Soviet  national anthem, "where a  man can  be so  ...at ease!
attention! eyes right!"

     The money gave an illusion of freedom, the  chance to choose,  inspired
     Admittedly,  they were turned  away from the hotel because  they had no
prior reservation. Oleg  tried to  offer a bribe, but he  did  not have  the
knack and it  didn't work. Moreover, the hotel manager turned  out to  be  a
very  self-righteous  citizen and reacted to  the  offer of  money  as  to a
personal  affront.  Lena and Nastya  hovered outside  - the uniformed porter
would not let them into the vestibule.
     "You picked the  most  expensive hotel,  of course  they don't have any
free  rooms," comforted  Lena, searching for  some justification. "Why, only
foreign tourists live here!"
     "To  hell with them! We'll try  the private  sector!"  Sharagin flagged
down a passing cab.
     "Take  us along the waterfront, chief.  I'll pay  double! If there's  a
good restaurant on the way, we'll stop there for lunch. And we need to  find
a room, too, but it's got to have a sea view."
     "You're on, boss!"
     They breezed along and chose the most expensive restaurant. Lena gasped
when she saw  the  check: all that money, and for what? But Oleg was beaming
with pleasure as he counted out the money and added a bit on top.
     Lena could not contain herself any longer:
     "Why did  you give him more?  He  overcharged us  by  about three times
anyway!" She was unaccustomed to throwing money around, she was more used to
stretching every penny from payday to  payday.  When they were first married
they could barely make ends meet, had to borrow ten rubles here and there at
times, yet here was Oleg now, behaving like a millionaire.
     "That was  a  tip,"  explained Oleg expansively.  Seeing that  Lena was
upset by  such  profligacy he gave her a hug: "Sweetheart, don't think about
the money, we'll have this  much again! We'll have everything! We've got our
whole future to look forward to!"
     Nastyusha  woke  first, rousing Mummy and  Daddy who  lay  entwined  in
sleep. Oleg held Lena clasped close to him all night.
     "Daddy, le's  go to the liver!" entreated Nastyusha. The sea foamed and
stormed, dark clouds scudded  across the sky, blotting out  the sun and  the
few people out and about cast curious glances at the unseasonably tanned man
accompanied by a pale-skinned woman and child.
     For some reason, Oleg recalled a childhood episode:
     Oh, to cross the river clinging to his  father's  shoulders! Nothing is
frightening when you're with Dad! If only his father were always like  this!
Vital, happy, joking and laughing. Not only when he'd had a bit to drink. He
and his friends drank  a lot. They  were  lying on the  grass  surrounded by
sliced vegetables,  sausage  and  lots  of bottles.  Some of  the  men  were
accompanied by their  wives,  some were alone. The  officers  were relaxing.
Oleg sat nearby fishing, but seeing everything and listening  to the adults.
Mama hinted tactfully that maybe it was time to stop drinking,  that the men
had overdone things a little,  all of  them unsteady on  their  feet, speech
slurred.  Mama was  upset when the men decided to go for a swim: the water's
not at all warm, you'll catch colds, and why take the child with you?! Never
mind. A future officer needs toughening up. They threw off their clothes and
plunged  into  the water as though on  command,  splashing and laughing. One
dived under water and  the others guffawed: "He's gone down to spawn!"  They
say that a drunk thinks the ocean is no more than knee-deep. The water's not
all  that cold, honest, Mum! Oleg, jump on!  His father squatted down. Climb
on so you'll be comfortable. Someone broke into song: "From the taiga to the
British seas/ the Red Army can whip anyone at all!" Dad slicing through  the
water like a torpedo boat. We'll make it across, hey son? You're not scared?
No? Then  off we go!  But it was not easy to swim with his son on his  back.
Father trod on the bottom, standing  on tip-toe, the water already up to his
chin. The  current  pulled strongly to the right. Oleg shone with happiness.
Mama's worrying over  nothing! Wave to her!  We're perfectly all right!  The
others had climbed out and were wringing their shorts in the bushes, jumping
about on  one leg, unable to get the other one in, trying to warm up because
the  breeze  was quite stiff. They waved  their arms around, lit cigarettes,
downed a shot  of vodka. Dad kept moving  forward stubbornly, then  suddenly
went under!  Oleg slid  off  his back, plunged under  water, began thrashing
about because  he was not yet able to swim  properly. Mama shouted from  the
river bank, someone ran into the water, swam out to help.

     ... if only I don't drown!..

     And Dad, where was Dad? Oleg was caught by the current and swept along.
Dad was choking and no  longer swimming. His  face was strangely twisted and
he  seemed to  be  moaning.  Cramp...Oleg  floundered like  a  puppy, barely
managing to keep his head above water.  He swallowed  a lungful of water and
began  coughing convulsively.  But  rescue was  near. Somebody  reached him,
began pulling him back to shore. And Dad made it back somehow...
     Everything's  fine!  The  boy's  safe!  No  tears,  please!  It  wasn't
anybody's  fault! These things happen. Who could know that  there was a deep
spot  which couldn't be  crossed on foot? Like  dropping into a pit ... Pour
the man a penalty glass and give the boy a good rubdown...

     ... I must teach Nastyushka to swim! next vacation!..

     As bad luck would have it, it began to rain. They ate in a cafe, bought
some fruit at the market. It  seemed to Lena that Oleg forgot himself again,
he didn't even haggle  over  the prices, as if he felt ashamed of chaffering
over  one ruble, he  just flung money around without a thought!  Yet a ruble
here  and  a ruble there added  up to a tidy sum in the end! The traders can
tell  at  a  glance,  who  has  money and who  hasn't, and  set their prices
accordingly. Lena kept her peace, understanding that Oleg was doing this for
her, for Nastyusha, that he enjoyed giving  them a treat, and if she were to
protest that he was throwing away money needlessly, she would only  ruin his
pleasure.  He  would come to his senses soon enough. In  a few days' time he
would see  what  was in his  pocket and stop  spending  carelessly. He would
realize that at this rate, they would be left  without funds  for the return
journey. Still, they had been to the seaside! Who could say  when they would
do this again?
     The  first  home leave in  wartime flashes by before  you know  it. The
heart of an officer fluctuates too much between home and duty, there are too
few victories at his back  and  too many future expectations.  Sharagin felt
torn. Moreover, he had not  expected to see his  family quite  so  soon. His
parents were equally amazed, nobody had been expecting him earlier than in a
year's time, if not more, after his departure for Afghanistan.
     Naturally, they were  overjoyed, but they - both  his parents an Lena -
had  their  own  estimates  of  possible  times  and  had prepared  to  wait
accordingly. Then suddenly - Oleg phones to say  that he's  in  Tashkent and
will be flying out in two hours' time.
     The presents Oleg brought home! Tell me how you've all been without me?
We're managing, son, don't worry about  anything, dearest. Father could have
kept his mouth shut, though: who asked him to try and put Oleg "in the know"
when they found themselves alone:
     "You have a word with her."
     "What about?"
     "About that guy who's been hanging around her..."
     It was like an unexpected slap in the  face.  He felt dirty. It was not
like him to doubt Lena, but he couldn't bring himself to ask her directly in
case  she  took  offense.  Until he spoke  to his  mother. Mother  explained
everything  with feminine simplicity. Yes, there was this lieutenant,  not a
local but just passing through, and there's absolutely no cause  for concern
and Lena is completely blameless. The lieutenant saw her and fell in love at
first sight. Then he showed up after a  while with a bunch  of flowers. Lena
only felt  sorry for  him. Who could blame him? These boys  sit  around  for
months on  duty at the rocket launching site, there's nothing  else to think
about, so in order not to go crazy, the lieutenant  imagined himself in love
with her. Lena had a serious talk with him, and he had not been back since.
     After a week by the sea, Nastyusha began to sniff and sneeze, then Lena
caught the cold, then Oleg.

     ... some home leave!..

     "We forgot to throw  a  coin into the  sea!" exclaimed  Lena. They went
back to the beach, put down their suitcases  and went to the  water's  edge.
Seagulls mewled dismally under the darkening sky.
     "This is so we'll come back again," explained Oleg to  his daughter. He
put a twenty kopeck coin into her little hand. "Go  on, throw it in. There's
a belief like that."
     The coin rattled against the pebbles...

     + + +

     A new "son of  the  regiment"  had appeared in Oleg's absence. In fact,
Sharagin  never got  to  see him,  as everything was  over  by  the  time he
returned.  The pup had been adopted by Yepimakhov on a mission, a mixture of
boxer and German shepherd  by the looks of him.  You  couldn't tell straight
away.  A gift  from the  "road brigade". The  pup was  noisy,  naive, funny,
trusting and good-natured.  He absolutely oozed  affection. Whenever someone
came near or stroked him, he would start to wag his tail like the  blades of
a chopper and try to lick them from head to foot. The man dubbed him "son of
the regiment" or just "Son." The puppy rode the armored vehicles like a born
paratrooper. In no time  at all, he learned to yap at the Afghans. But  what
was  to be done with him? It was  winter. He'd perish alone. Then again,  he
could  hardly stay with  the platoon. They weren't manning  an  outpost, but
living within  the regiment. The rules here were different. The trained dogs
belonging to the sappers  were  a different  breed,  but  the  "son  of  the
regiment" was a ragamuffin mongrel.
     If Bogdanov got to hear about him, everyone would get it in the neck.
     They brought  Son into the regiment anyway. Now  what?  He  couldn't be
taken into the barracks, and you  could  hardly build  him a kennel out of a
box  in the  depths of the vehicle park. They put an old trench-coat  inside
for warmth and took turns bringing  him food. The most assiduous benefactors
were Myshkovsky and Yepimakhov.
     Morgultsev, as was  to be  expected, frowned and fumed. However, he was
spotted feeding  the  pup  secretly.  A  soldier  told Yepimakhov  that  the
commander had  brought Son a  mixture of porridge and canned meat, and tried
teaching him the "Sit!" and "Lie down!"  commands. However, the pup was till
too young, so all he did was mess up the commander's uniform with dirty paws
and cover him with saliva in attempts to lick Morgultsev's nose.
     We'll keep him  for a bit,  reasoned Yepimakhov, feed him up and on our
next sortie, we'll find a place for him, fix him up at an outpost.
     All would  have  been  well if Son  had not been  spotted  by Bogdanov.
Myshkovsky had time to hide behind a BMP, but Son was unaccustomed to hiding
on what he plainly  considered to  be his territory. And home territory must
be protected. In fact, it was  not  that  Bogdanov spotted him, but  Son got
under his  feet. Son knew  no distinctions  between an  ordinary soldier,  a
lieutenant or  a  lieutenant-colonel. And there was  no  way he could tell a
general from a captain.
     The puppy  bounded  out from under  the  BMP,  guarding  the  equipment
entrusted to him, and  started yapping furiously. Not the way he would at an
Afghan - he was good at distinguishing smells. He was just  giving a warning
as if  to say  - careful!  I'm  here to keep watch and am  awaiting  further
orders! Bogdanov, meanwhile,  had been talking to someone and,  taken aback,
stepped on Son's paw with a heavy boot.
     Oh, the squeals of pain! Myshkovsky poked his head out but did not dare
come forward  and  dived back  behind  the  BMP. Bogdanov  had offended  Son
deeply, and Son did not forget. That boot had really hurt his paw badly. And
for what reason?
     Bogdanov cursed  fluently and demanded to  know  who had  brought a dog
into  the  regiment. Morgultsev had a strip torn off for turning the vehicle
park into  a zoo. Bogdanov  ordered  that all stray dogs be removed from the
territory forthwith.
     In  his turn,  Morgultsev chewed  out Yepimakhov,  yelled  at  him  and
ordered  him to get rid of Son. Yepimakhov pleaded for a  few days' grace to
find Son a good home.
     Two days later, Son was found  dead  in  the vehicle yard.  Someone had
shot him with a pistol.
     By tacit  consent, nobody discussed  the incident, but individually the
men  were all upset. Yepimakhov and  Myshkovsky vowed  to find out who  shot
Son. Everything pointed at Bogdanov, but how could you prove it? And even if
you did, what would that change? It was not as though a human being had been
killed. Even when a soldier or an officer dies, you  can't always get to the
bottom of all the circumstances surrounding the death, and in this instance,
the victim is only a mongrel.
     A sentry confided to Myshkovsky  that Bogdanov had come  to the park to
check  personally that the  dog had been removed. "Did you hear a shot?" No,
the sentry  had heard nothing,  and refused to say any more. So the pup  was
gone - big deal! Tell Myshkovsky that you'd heard a shot and he might go and
shoot the  lieutenant-colonel.  Then  there would  really  be hell  to  pay!
Everyone would be drawn in, the Special Section, the Prosecutors...

     + + +

     Nothing  in the  regiment had  changed over the one and  a half  months
Sharagin had been away. When he was leaving, he had worried that there might
be battles. What  if he were to miss out on something really big? How  would
they go off without him?

     ...that's no good ... unfair...

     On the whole, he had not missed much, just a couple of sorties.

     ... as if I hadn't been on leave .. as if I'd never left.. .

     Yepimakhov  seemed to  have  been  scorched  under  fire several times,
bullets whizzing by his ears, but he was all  right. The lieutenant held his
head proudly now.

     ... as though he's just had his first woman ...

     Like any conscientious  and proud  young officer, in the best sense  of
those words. Yepimakhov had had to be restrained by  the  scruff of the neck
at first, until he understood the  difference between the romance of victory
and genuine combat. Invariably, someone needed to cool down the ardor of the
new boy to fling himself into battle so that he would not  share the fate of
so many half-baked lieutenants arriving in Afghanistan and not living to see
their  first home leave.  In  this one instance, nobody had been looking out
for Yepimakhov. He was simply lucky.
     "I've been told that I'm safe from bullets," he  said to  Sharagin when
Oleg came back.
     "Who told you that crap?"
     "A gypsy."
     "Go on, spit! That's better. And touch wood..."
     The newcomer  was gradually adapting  to military life.  He learned  to
kill,  swear  like  the  proverbial  trooper,  accept  death.  His  personal
possessions  increased: he'd saved up his chits, haggled  over wares  in the
shops, spent some money in the  army trade depot, bought  odds  and  ends  -
jeans, souvenirs,  knickknacks  - in  other  words,  acquired  the  standard
baggage of a Soviet officer in Afghanistan.
     He also found a reliable friend - vodka, that age-proven Russian remedy
for numerous misfortunes  and doubts, from sadness and spiritual desolation.
He  had  expended   his   youthful  enthusiasm,   become  slightly  cynical,
disillusionment  ousted his  former  belief in the saving role of the Soviet
army in Afghanistan.
     He did not share his feelings with anyone, Sharagin was the only one in
whom  he would confide to  any extent  when they  went outside for a  smoke,
especially after a good  intake of vodka, when thoughts  and tongues  become
more eloquent.
     They  talked about the country in which they had been born, grew up and
which they served.
     They talked about  the  war, which  had  brought such dissimilar people
together.  They  agonized over the frequently stupid,  uncaring  and useless

     ... that the strength of Russia was being misused...

     battalions and  regiments  are expended, that nobody gave a  damn about
the soldiers or the army.

     There was only one topic that was never discussed - the return home.

     If it  is not  admissible, in  wartime, when  you surrender  your  life
temporarily into the hands of fate, when a  situation may make you sacrifice
yourself for a friend,  an aim, a  principle, to plan and map out  a distant
future left  behind in another world, with  other values.  At  least not out
loud, because you could be wrong so easily, or just jinx your hopes.

     The  40th  army  or   the  "Limited  Contingent  of  Soviet  forces  in
Afghanistan"  was yet another illegitimate offspring of the enormous  empire
under  the name of the Soviet Union. Its parents - the  Central Committee of
the Communist Party  of  the Soviet  Union and the Ministry of Defense - did
all  they  could  to  hide their transgression,  and for  this reason,  most
likely,  forbade  the Soviet people to  mention the child as  if it had done
something unworthy, criminal, something that cast  a  shadow over the entire
     Millions  of the country's citizens did  not know,  were not interested
and  did not care that there was a war for almost  ten years on its southern
boundaries. As for those who served in the Limited Contingent, especially on
the first years after the  forces were  brought  into Afghanistan - they did
not  dare tell even  their  nearest and  dearest  about what  they  had been
through and seen, they feared to broach the subject.
     Parents  of other  illegitimate children who did as they wished in more
fortunate   and  not  war-torn  countries  -  Hungary,  Poland,  the  German
Democratic  Republic,  Mongolia, Czechoslovakia  -  were  more  benevolently
     The 40th army was dispatched to  a strange land at the end of  1979 and
it tried, over many years, to win  the love and good  will of its ageing and
slightly mad parents. The army was sent to an alien place to preserve order,
increase  the  prestige  and might of  the empire, work for  the  growth and
fortune of already endless, immense territories.  But because the empire was
not quite ordinary, and actually the last empire of the 20th century, things
were always turning out opposite to plan.
     Instead  of receiving profit from  its  subject lands, the empire  gave
away  its  life-blood,  shared its last crust, and its  strength  diminished
     The subjects of the great empire did not know why they  had to live  so
badly, what had happened to the plenty promised them a long, long time  ago,
at the dawn of  the Soviet power; they believed genuinely in the  gods which
thought  up  and  created  the empire; the subjects  were  romantics,  naive
people,  they liked  hearing  promises, believed  in  miracles  and in their
hearts believed that that the miracle could occur at any moment, like in the
fairy-tale about the  goldfish that promised  to grant the fisherman's three
wishes in return for release.
     However, they did  not  really have much choice. They had  nothing with
which to compare their empire.

     "If  you've  never  watched a  Japanese  television set,  you'll  go on
believing  that Soviet-made ones  are  the  best in the  world,"  once  said
captain Morgultsev bitterly after a walk around the shops.

     ... he also liked to repeat that "the Soviet wrist-watches are the
     fastest in the world, and Soviet paralysis - the most progressive"...

     The great empire's army which, in actual fact, had  not  engaged in any
large-scale  military actions for more  than  35 years, suddenly  decided to
flex its  muscles and test its abilities in  reality, assure itself that all
the weapons  manufactured  in  recent  years  worked  properly, try out  new
technology,  field test the commanders' knowledge of  the  tactical theories
they had studied in military schools and academies; the Soviet army needed a
foe, but as  the foe did not  attack, it was necessary to think up something
themselves, organize a lengthy march into a far away land,  moreover as  the
ideologists had, by  that  time,  concluded work on the latest chapter about
global revolution. That  chapter was entitled Afghanistan. Convincingly  and
simply as  always,  it maintained that  in exceptional cases, to transform a
feudal country into a socialist one without an intermediate capitalist stage
of development.
     Muscles tend to stiffen after a long ride on the armor - similarly, the
Army and the Ideology got tired of sitting around with nothing to do, like a
dog on a chain becomes sick of waiting.
     Pride forbade apology or retreat - the empire  admitted to no mistakes.
So from the first  days  of its  existence, the life  of  the 40th army went

     ...how was the decision about Afghanistan  really reached? No chance of
finding that out! if they goofed - its a damned  shame...they shouldn't take
us  for such fools! we fought  for a couple of years, it  became clear  that
things  were  going wrong,  so why not  change tactics?  you can't be  blind
stubborn, you  have to weasel around .. or stop pussyfooting around and  pit
all our strength against them...

     ... we all understand geopolitics too, even at the level of a platoon
     leader, we're not babies... that's what the army's for, that's what the
     paratroopers are for - to guard the Motherland  from  external enemies,
     strike first, preventively, so to speak, to be able to foresee what the
     enemy has in mind and put a stop to it! even a moron could see that two
     ideologies  collided  head-on  in little Afghanistan, locked horns  and
     fight  unto  death ... the more you see, the further you look - nothing
     all that simple here... we don't know everything .. there are all sorts
     underwater reefs  in this place ... so, all in all,  it's better not to
     ... better not to resist, not to indulge  in masochism ... if you don't
     everything ... you  get  your orders - forward ... we'll analyze it all
     we're old, retired ... by that time things will become clear ... I hope
     as for  today,  the task  is simple - never mind discoursing  about the
     revolution, just kill the spooks ...

     ... nobody argues, we're just spent cartridges from a small calibre
     weapon by comparison with those who  call the tune in big time politics
     with  the heavy artillery  ...  for  me,  everything  falls  within the
     of the company, I can't even visualize  the whole  division even  if  I
     but  for them -  why,  they  have to see to the whole country, all  the
     areas,  industry,  know what's going  on out there, across  the border,
     their eyes peeled and their noses  to the  wind, to  get  ahead  of the
     not to lose face ...do they see all this? they must! have they taken
     everything into account? they have to! then there shouldn't be any
     questions!  if  you  must,  you  must!  give  us  the  picture,   we'll
     and  win!  we  won't  retreat! only  keep faith  with us  and  don't go
     things later -, opinions and views, let's remain united to the end!
     international   duty   -  well,   let   it   be   international   duty!
     is the most dread thing of all! the most painful, when someone starts
     backing down! then  the  accomplishments  and  rewards of  the  Russian
     will not be worth a penny ... if you don't think you can stick it out,
     don't get into a fight! ...

     In  the  evenings,  the  enervating  heat  eased.  The  air  freshened,
especially in the tree-lined avenues on the territory of the army HQ located
in Amin's  former palace, a three-floor edifice  with columns, standing on a
high hill on the outskirts of the city and housing the senior command of the
40th  army.  The daily  fuss  around HQ died  down until  sunrise and people
became more relaxed in behavior and dress.
     The palace  suffered heavy  damage  in  December 1979  when the  empire
ordered the  liquidation of Hafizullah  Amin,  the leader of Afghanistan  at
that  time. Ironically Amin,  who  had urged the Soviet  Union to bring  its
forces into  his  country, was killed  by  those very forces  in their first
     As the years  passed, numerous  military installations grew  up  on the
territory  adjacent  to  the  palace.  A  compound  covered  several  square
kilometers. It was guarded assiduously against the Afghans and, as was to be
expected, Soviet power reigned supreme in that one specific part of Kabul.
     Feature films  were shown in an  open-air  cinema behind the  officers'
quarters so scraps of dialogue  floated  above the heads of the few  couples
strolling down the avenues.
     A red  "Lada" raced  past, bearing some visiting Soviet advisor back to
     Four soldiers in  bullet-proof  vests and  helmets,  rifles slung  over
their shoulders, emerged from the dusk.  They were led by a sergeant who was
supervising  the  changing of  the  guards.  One of the soldiers concealed a
cigarette in  his hand, drawing on it surreptitiously from time  to time and
blowing  out the smoke downwards, over his chin.  The men paused outside the
commissary for half a  minute, eyes right, gazing at the imported goodies in
the   brightly   lit,  empty   interior:   shoes,   track   suits,  Japanese
tape-recorders, all inaccessible to them price-wise.
     A  soldier could hardly gain  access to the store in day time, it's not
for the soldiers  to  roam around shopping, nobody will give them permission
to  leave their unit  and, in any  case, common soldiers  have no  money  to
spend: all they can do is sneak a glance at  the imported plenty. Anyone can
wish for a better life, even a common soldier.
     "What a brand!"
     "To a man in 'Adidas'/Any girl will give her ass!"
     "Come on you Siberian hick, keep moving," ordered the sergeant.

     After dinner in a circle of  fellow-generals and a game of billiards in
the Military Council hotel built at the foot of the palace, Sorokin took his
leave. The meal had been excellent, real home cooking. All the products were
specially  supplied  and  superb  meals  preceded  by  hors  d'oeuvres  were
separately  prepared. The waitresses at  the Military Council were  selected
carefully: friendly, pleasant and easy on the eye.
     Sorokin had declined various invitations  to visit,  having  decided to
take a break from sitting around tables and drinking. He wanted to check his
gear  and have an  early night in order to  go on tomorrow's  mission with a
clear head. The  general donned a track suit and went  out into  the street,
lit  a  cigarette and set  off  for  a walk.  He  relaxed,  putting everyday
problems out of his head.
     Nobody recognized him, nobody saluted or  greeted him, and  the general
enjoyed this because it meant that he was here only temporarily, without any
regular duties, unencumbered by responsibilities for day to day  matters  of
military administration or  the troops. At  the  same time he  was immensely
proud   of   the   fact  that  he  was  endowed  with  special  powers   and
responsibilities,  which were known  and  understood by a  very small circle
within  the  military command  in  Kabul  and  Moscow.  His responsibilities
concerned party and political issues, and therefore extended to one and all.
     Army  generals  were  always  divided  into  categories  -  popular  or
unpopular, known or  unknown, important or  unimportant.  The  generals were
also differentiated by the positions they held, by their temperaments and by
the way they had attained their rank and duties.
     Sorokin  was  one  of  those who came by  his shoulder  boards  due  to
Afghanistan.  He had  experienced the true meaning  of war  on his own skin,
earned his  colonel's  rank under fire  and not behind a  desk  in the Chief
Military  Political  Administration.  The  next promotion  resulted from his
participation in  the war because  in the 1980s "afghan"  officers  were the
driving  force of the Soviet Army, they were granted precedence and the main
emphasis was on them.
     Walking  around the HQ territory, Sorokin noted  how  substantially the
compound had been built and recalled that he had seen figures recently which
estimated  the  worth of army  property  in  Afghanistan at some hundreds of
millions  of  rubles. He  compared the  present conditions  with  life under
canvas in the first years of the war.
     ...An  entire battalion had become infested with  lice.  The  pests had
come from  the division and then - Mamma mia! - all the soldiers, filthy and
unwashed as they were, began scratching furiously. Sorokin had set a day for
them all to go to the bath house, ordered their uniforms burnt, tents shaken
out  and bed linen  boiled. As  for the men - a bath day  is  a holiday. The
commanders, however, panicked and cursed, because how could they disobey and
order from  divisional superiors, especially an  order from the head  of the
political  section?  To whom  does  one complain about a  political officer?
Nobody. Sorokin phoned divisional headquarters, reporting that here we  are,
we've  reached  rock bottom, the  men are living  like  pigs;  send  us  new
uniforms, the unit is not combat worthy otherwise.  The divisional commander
shouted that Sorokin had gone off his head, that he was a saboteur and would
find himself facing a military tribunal. Sorokin stood his ground: there was
no way back  in  any case,  because piles of shirts and pants  were  already
burning  merrily. This scandal rocked the entire army. However,  Sorokin got
what he wanted,  new uniforms were duly  delivered. What else?! That was the
way Sorokin cared for  the  men in those trying years,  fought  for justice,
pressed his point. Not every political officer would have had the guts to do
     Now  everything had changed. Naturally,  Sorokin was  glad that today's
soldiers were  well-equipped  with decent  housing,  air  conditioners, bath
houses, shops, cinemas, laundries, bakeries, cafes and barbers.  At the same
time,  he  felt  pity  for  those  who  had  huddled  freezing  under  their
trench-coats  in that first bitter winter after  the entry into Afghanistan,
those ill-equipped officers and men  who were ordered "across  the river" to
render international assistance. He  felt  sorry  for  himself  in the first
place, because he had experienced it all personally.
     He was  proud that he had been  one of the trailblazers. Prior  to this
trip to  Kabul, he  had even fancied  that his past  record  would raise his
standing  in the  eyes of other  officers,  but  was  quickly disillusioned.
Sorokin saw that nobody was interested in hearing about the hardships  faced
back in  1980.  For the colonels and generals he encountered in  Kabul  now,
Afghanistan existed  in the present,  occasionally -  in the future, as from
time to  time people did  wonder  about what would happen later,  was Moscow
likely  to order the withdrawal of the Limited Contingent, but  nobody cared
much about the past.
     Sorokin passed the officers' quarters in front of which stood  a lonely
and incongruous small statue of Lenin on a pedestal, then proceeded past the
stone  buildings  of  command  staff apartments.  A  stream  of  movie-goers
straggled towards him.
     There  was  another covert reason for this evening  walk, known only to
himself. Somewhere deep inside  he  hoped - who knows their  luck? - to meet
some attractive member of the opposite sex, of whom there were plenty in the
army cantonment.
     Sorokin had spent the previous day smoothing over a  certain unpleasant
incident. A Spetsnaz group that had been conducting  an aerial survey of the
approaches to Kabul in search  of spook caravans had stopped a bus. They had
fired a warning volley  from  the air, landed to conduct a  search, but when
the  men disembarked from the  chopper, the  bus suddenly drove off. The men
leapt back into the chopper and set off in pursuit, opening fire and turning
the bus  into  a colander. Blood streamed from the door and they  discovered
fourteen  corpses of allegedly peaceful civilians inside. Passengers who had
remained alive were  herded behind a  hillock by the  group leader, and shot
with a  silenced pistol. They did not finish off the driver, though. His jaw
was slack, and they decided that he was already dead. It was too  late to do
anything when it emerged that the driver  had only been  wounded and was now
an eye-witness in the matter. Otherwise, they could have  blamed  everything
on the spooks.
     Sorokin  was  pleased with  the  way he  had handled this very  awkward
situation. His tactic was to defuse it  by a number of diplomatic moves at a
meeting  with members of the Afghan  Central Committee  and their  advisors,
attributing everything to the known unreliability of the spook-infested area
where  the  incident  had  occurred  and  asserted  that  their  own  Afghan
intelligence service expected a caravan carrying surface-to-surface missiles
to pass through on  that day. To cap it all, Sorokin remarked pensively that
it might  be best  to stop all  aerial  reconnaissance by  the Spetsnaz. The
Afghan  to whom  he  said this took  fright  and,  unwilling  to accept  the
responsibility for any such decision, agreed that the whole incident was due
to an unfortunate misunderstanding  and that everyone was fully aware of the
need for reconnaissance and the Spetsnaz.
     Sorokin regretted what had happened, but worse things can occur in war.
Why,  whole  villages  had been  reduced  to  rubble  by  mistake, sometimes
wrongly-given coordinates brought  down fire on their own units. It happens.
War is war.
     When he returned to the hotel,  a new receptionist - a young,  striking
brunette - was seated  in front of the television set. Soviet programs  came
through to Kabul loud and clear.
     "Good night," said Sorokin, straightening his  back and  pulling in his
very slightly incipient belly.
     "Good  night  to  you too,"  she  replied  with  a  flutter of  painted
eyelashes  and turned  back to the screen -  it  was not part  of her job to
flirt with transient generals.
     Back in his  room, Sorokin indulged in a lengthy telephone conversation
over SAC - secret automatic connection - with a friend in the Chief Military
Political  Administration in Moscow,  from whom he hoped to learn the latest
news and what the weather was like back in the capital. The friend, however,
had more practical matters on his mind:
     "I'm going to be down your way soon," he informed Sorokin. The voice at
the other end  sounded stifled,  as if somebody had gripped the speaker in a
vise  and  was squeezing  out every word with pain. "I want  to  buy a video
recorder. And a track suit. I've been told  that 'Adidas' stuff is available
in Kabul."
     "True.  You  can buy the  suits  with coupons. There's  a colonel at HQ
who's chairman  of the party committee and who's in charge of  distribution.
All our operating group was supplied by him. There aren't many VCRs, but the
track suits's no problem."
     "Alexei, try to  get them to set aside a VCR for me, would you? I'll be
flying in next week."
     "I'll  do my best. I want  to ask  you  something, too. I'm going on  a
combat mission tomorrow.  Phone  my folks,  give them my love. Tell them I'm
     As  a  rule,  senior  ranking officers, especially the political  ones,
could not survive  a day without long discussions with distant headquarters,
districts and staff offices. To an outsider,  not versed  in the ways of the
senior military, it could  seem  that  SAC had  been  invented specially for
generals,  so that they could contact  their  friends and  relatives  at any
moment  to  hear the latest gossip, exchange rumors, suppositions,  find out
about  the  weather and what the fishing was  like in this or that corner of
the immense land of the Soviets.
     In the morning,  while Sorokin was breakfasting, his white "Volga" drew
up outside the  hotel. The staff car was equipped  with Afghan number plates
and had curtains on the rear window. Sashka, the driver,  parked between two
UAZ jeeps. He was in good spirits, as he had finally repaired the car to his
satisfaction. His  predecessor had almost  ruined the vehicle because he was
waiting  for  demobilization  and did not  give a damn about the car, didn't
want to get his hands dirty. Sashka had had to  strip  the gearbox, regulate
all  the  valves,  change the  head  gasket, adjust  the suspension and jump
through hoops to  get the necessary spare parts. Nobody gives away something
for nothing. His "Volga" was not the only general's car  around, there  were
plenty of others and they were all in demand by people of no lesser rank.
     Bringing the car up to  scratch had taken  a lot of time, Sashka slaved
over  it in the motor pool even at  night. If the car was at all  mobile, it
was in use during the day so he had no choice.
     Sashka was listening  to the  music which issued loudly  and  squeakily
from the cassette player between the seats. He had no idea  who was  singing
about what as the song was  in English, but he liked the catchy tune and the
refrain, which mentioned some Mary Magdalene or other.  Sashka  listened and
his simple, uncomplicated soldier's head was full of dreams about his return
home to his  obscure village in the Arkhangelsk region where he would stride
around in a pair of "Montana" jeans which he had not yet purchased but which
were  the most popular although  not cheap for a  soldier, and sport a smart
pen and a  quartz  watch. The pen  was already bought. All his friends would
die of envy!
     Dreams of civilian life were interrupted when a black "Volga" pulled up
by the  hotel. The driver  climbed out and crooked a lazy finger  at Sashka:
come  here!  Sashka  switched  off  the  player.  He hated that short-legged
Moldavian who was to be demobbed soon, and therefore considered it his right
to steal whatever he could  from the motor pool. He and his pals were expert
at disposing of the stolen goods.
     Sashka's position was very unenviable, a soldier still a  long way from
the end of  his term  of  service  and  thus with no  choice but to  obey  a
"grandpa." The Moldavian clapped him on the shoulder:
     "Where's your guy going today?"
     "To  the airport," replied Sashka  cautiously,  expecting some  kind of
     "I've slipped a little something into the boot of your car."
     "Why? I've told you - I can't-" pleaded Sashka miserably.
     "Yes, you can," said the Moldavian threateningly. "I'm a step away from
going home, fuck it, it's time I started  doing my shopping. Can a "grandpa"
run any risks? Nobody will dream of suspecting you. You're an honest lad. If
you  don't sell  the stuff - don't bother  coming back. You'd  be better off
with the spooks."
     Sashka did not know how to steal, how to lie, and had no desire to take
part in any  machinations. Before he'd been  assigned  a driver, he had been
free of problems. He knew and  saw that the  long-servers and even  men from
his own call-up who  were more daring  and enterprising than  himself  stole
spare parts  and  took them  into town for  sale. There  was  word that  the
previous week three  entire air conditioners had been spirited away. What if
the Moldavian had put an air conditioner in the  boot of  the "Volga"?  Or a
stolen machine gun or ammunition?
     "You go  to  Kitabula,  you know where  his workshop is,  give  him the
     " ? "
     "I'm not going to argue with you peasant! Stupid Arkhangelsk asshole!"
     "But they'll  stop  me at the checkpoint-" began Sashka, but before  he
had  time to finish, the Moldavian  struck him  on the  ear  with a clenched
fist, strongly enough for Sashka to see stars for a moment.
     "They won't stop you with a general in the car" -  the Moldavian headed
back towards his own vehicle, "here he comes now."
     Sorokin, as  a member  of the small but all-powerful  group  of  Soviet
military men who called the shots in Afghanistan, differed markedly from his
divisional  and staff  peers. Firstly,  he  bore himself very independently,
knowing that  he had only a  handful of  direct superiors.  With  these,  he
behaved  almost as  an  equal,  or  deliberately demonstrated  devotion  and
respect if  that particular  individual was close  to a marshal's stars. The
general's clothing  stood out, too:  he  liked to  sport  camouflage  which,
although  meant for the field, nevertheless looked good on him,  reminiscent
of summer kit, was better cut, and  had gold shoulder boards and narrow  red
stripes down the trouser-legs.
     Sorokin  paused briefly  on the  hotel steps, discussing something with
two other generals, then each went to his own car to start the day's work.
     Sashka's hands  were shaking, so he gripped the steering  wheel as hard
as he could. How  the hell did he get into  this mess? There was nothing  he
could do. Starting a  conflict with the "grandpas" in the motor pool was out
of the  question. Yet if he were  to do what the  Moldavian wanted,  he's be
loaded with stolen goods the next  day, too.  He would have no respite until
he found himself in  deep trouble. Why, oh  why had they put  him behind the
wheel of this car!
     "Morning, Sasha," said Sorokin, climbing into the back. He had gathered
a small bag  of stuff to  take  with  him. It was his long-standing habit to
address drivers by their first name, and not by their surnames. "We'll go to
HQ first."
     "Good morning, comrade general," replied Sashka, rubbing his ear.
     "What's the matter with your ear?"
     "Some bug or other bit me-"
     "Oh- well, let's go!"
     An unhealthy-looking, thin captain  was on duty outside the  office  of
the head of the Political Section  of the army  and  member  of the Military
Council. The captain was flicking through the latest reports in the logbook.
His attention  was  caught by  a  report  from the  Kandahar brigade, that a
certain commander had  punished a soldier by putting  him in a fuel drum for
half  a  day in an outside temperature  of  plus  50  degrees,  after  which
everyone had forgotten all about the miscreant. Twenty four hours later, the
soldier died. In another unit, a soldier had hung himself in the store room.
The report gave the soldiers  name, date of birth and stated that no factors
concerning harassment  were discovered in connection with the  suicide, that
he  had  not earned the respect of his peers. The report concluded with  the
names and addresses of the parents of the deceased.
     The  captain  read  these reports  in order to  be  aware  of  what was
happening  in other units, for his own information  and out of curiosity, so
that when he  went  off  duty  he would have  something  to tell  his  pals,
especially stories like the  one  about  the soldier in the  fuel drum. Some
sauna! Fancy the commander forgetting all about him!
     He opened  a newspaper, yawned from boredom,  then saw a  drably  clad,
plump middle aged woman coming down the corridor:
     "Excuse  me, but who are you? " he asked phlegmatically and cracked his
     "Actually, I need to see the head of the Military Council-"
     "He's very busy right now. Actually, why do you need to see him?"
     "I'm a milkmaid."
     "I  understand that  you're from the "Milkmaid"  retorted  the  captain
snidely, thinking about the call  signal  from  headquarters of the garrison
stationed at Pul-i-Khumri in the north of Afghanistan. "But what do you want
to see him about?"
     "I'm a milkmaid," repeated the woman, standing uncertainly and somewhat
guiltily by the captain's desk.
     "Yes,  I know,  I've  only  just been speaking to the  duty officer  at
"Milkmaid." It must have taken  you a long time  to get here. The convoys to
Kabul  take  a  while,"   continued  the  captain  with   unpleasant,  false
     "What convoy?" Heavens,  I  walked here, it's just a step. I'm from the
residence,"  she  explained.  "From the  army  general's  residence,  I'm  a
milkmaid. There."
     The captain was at a total loss. From the residence? A milkmaid?
     "We've  got a  cow there,  you see,  to  have  fresh  milk  for  Fyodor
Konstantinovich. He likes everything to be very fresh, you see, he's on this
strict diet,  and the doctor says that Fyodor  Konstantinovich can  eat only
fresh food, boiled meat, fresh  milk, you see.  So the thing is, you see,  I
promised to bring your general here some milk, you see-"
     The captain burst out laughing.
     "A milkmaid! And here I was wondering what brought you here?!"
     "Yes, I'm a milkmaid, you see."
     At  that  moment the  door  opened and the  general  himself  came out,
accompanied by Sorokin and a man wearing the uniform of an Afghan advisor.
     The captain sprang to his feet.
     "Well, Alexei Glebovich," said the general to  Sorokin, "I  wish  you a
successful trip. I'll  be off on combat mission  myself in a few days, we'll
meet up there. All the  best. And  to you, too," he added shaking hands with
the advisor in Afghan uniform. "You're off to see the  commander  now? Good,
good. Drop by, give me a call any time. Always at your service-Yes? You want
to see me?"
     "I've come about the milk-"
     "Ah! Excellent!"

     "I'm absolutely  exhausted,"  confided  the  advisor as he and  Sorokin
descended the winding staircase.
     The general couldn't quite  see  why  the  advisor  was  complaining of
tiredness. He certainly didn't  smell  of alcohol.  And at this  early hour,
     "Time to go on leave," continued the advisor. "The only pleasure I have
is  coming here - to see my army buddies, have a  dip in  the swimming pool,
spend  some time in the sauna - and everything  here is  fine as far  as the
fair  sex is concerned. You  military men  are lucky. It's absolute Paradise
     "Yes, it might look like that-But  the workload is enormous. Saunas are
saunas, but there's no  time to  rest," replied  Sorokin, bending the truth.
"I've only been to the sauna once since I got here. You know  how it is  - a
quick shower before bed, and that's it."
     "Well, let's go now."
     "Sorry, but as you heard the general say, I'm off on a combat mission,"
said Sorokin with excessive pride.
     "Next time, then-. I wanted to drop  in on the  commander. Do you  know
     "Very well indeed. We fought together back in '80."
     "Of course, you told me last time. Why not go and see  him  together? A
courtesy visit," winked the advisor.
     Whatever rank one serves in, one  has a master at that level. And it is
not  the Minister of Defense, as some  may think, who is the lord and master
of  the Armed Forces. In  the army, the boss is the commander.  For a common
soldier,  it's the platoon or company commander, for  a  platoon leader or a
company commander it's the commander of the battalion, the  commander of the
battalion is subservient to the commander of the regiment, and the  latter -
to the commander of the division. Then comes the commander of the army.
     Commanders of the 40th army changed every couple of years. Therefore it
would  be  wrong to single  out any particular  individual. One  brought  in
troops, another took them out, yet another built and fought and so on.  Each
had  his  own  pluses  and  minuses,  but irrespective  of  anything,  every
commander  was  the  viceroy of  the distant great  power, the master of  an
estate on which, beyond any doubt, Soviet directives and laws were in force.
The viceroy  was assisted by  party and political  structures  that kept  an
eagle eye on the men  to ensure  that everyone prayed to one God only  - the
Communist Party  of the  Soviet  Union,  that not a shadow of doubt  crossed
their  minds  concerning  the  correctness  of  the  choice  made  by  their
     For some of  the men the  horizon  is determined by  the battalion, for
others - the  regiment, others think within the framework of a division, and
very  few who serve  in headquarters think in terms of an army comprised  of
hundreds of  thousands. For those close to headquarters, the  commander  was
always a mere mortal.
     The lower army ranks  had  no time to wonder or discuss where  this  or
that general lives, with whom he lives, what  car he  uses to drive to work,
what he  eats for dinner  and which bath house he patronizes.  For them, the
level of the commander is inaccessible.
     The people at the bottom of the ladder, whose feet supported the weight
of the  entire  army machine, know  that it  is not done  to criticize their
commanders,  - history would laugh at them later if they were inadequate  or
foolish, -  these  people at  the top of  the iceberg must be  cared for and
nurtured, they must be  objects of  pride, because their resonant names were
more likely to go down in history than the names of those who served in  the
same battalion, and some five or ten years later  it would be nice to recall
that one served under such  and such a commander, stress that he would visit
once, regiment  frequently,  that  we knew him, saw him in combat  more than
once and that he was one hell of a guy!
     The commander of the 40th army  had returned from  the  battle  command
center where  he had taken early  morning reports,  and was now  engaged  on
urgent  matters concerning the imminent large operation. He was concluding a
telephone conversation with someone and gestured the advisor and the general
to come in and sit down.
     Sorokin made a mental note that the commander was once  again acting in
a not too friendly manner, for all that they used the familiar "you" form of
address.  Furthermore,  twice  in the past  few  days  the commander had not
called  Sorokin "Alyosha", but "Alexei Glebovich" indicating clearly that no
particular buddy  stuff was to be  expected. His rise  had been too swift in
recent years,  he had become too far removed from his old comrades in  arms.
Still, Sorokin hoped that during his stay in Kabul  there would be a  chance
to  share  a  bottle, just  the two  of them, and indulge in some  nostalgic
reminiscences  about  those early years. Then everything  would get  back to
     "Over  here,  please,"  said the  commander,  wanting to get rid of his
visitors  as  quickly  as possible.  "Viktor  Konstantinovich, and  you too,
Alexei Glebovich. Come and take a look."
     He led  them  over  to  the window and  pulled  back  the  white  tulle
curtains,  allowing  a view  of a  summer  house with a  pointed roof. Right
behind  it was a  swimming pool with  sky-blue water, covered completely  by
camouflage netting. Some home-made deckchairs stood  to the left, behind the
pine trees. A fat man  in striped trunks lay sunning himself, while a second
man swam  in the pool, pushing himself strongly away from the sides. A small
table was covered with various kinds of bottles.
     "Don't lose any time, Viktor Konstantinovich, go down to the pool, I'll
have my adjutant escort you there. I'm really sorry, but  there's no  way  I
can go there myself today. I'm absolutely snowed under with work."
     After saying his good-byes to  the commander and the  advisor,  Sorokin
made his way to the party commission chairman and went inside.
     "Alexei Glebovich!  Do sit  down! I want to copy some  Afghan  songs. I
could make you a copy too, if you like?"
     "Why not?"
     The stout  colonel  who  issued  coupons  for imported  technology  and
'Adidas' track suits unsealed a block of "Sony" tapes purchased in an Afghan
shop, and began to put stickers on every cassette to indicate sides A and B,
and on which one could write the name of the content.
     "Yes, I'll certainly manage that!"
     It was impossible to  refuse a request for coupons from a general,  let
alone a  general from an operative group of the Ministry of Defense, but the
chairman,  sly fox that he was, managed to give the conversation such a turn
that Sorokin found himself in the role of a supplicant.
     "Come in any  time, comrade  general.  Always happy  to be of service,"
invited the chairman in parting.
     Ask  a trifling  favor,  and find yourself  indebted,  thought  Sorokin
angrily. That sonofabitch will call in the favor, you can bet on that.

     "There goes the younger generation," said the duty officer in the  main
vestibule  to  his  partner, following Sorokin  with  his eyes. "Some  sharp
dresser! Thinks a lot of himself." He waited until the general  got into his
car.  "Before,  generals  were all  five  minutes  to their retirement date.
Nowadays  it's all different, Yura. They barely  have time to put  on  their
colonel's shoulder  boards before placing  an order  for those of a general.
That's all due to  Afghanistan, pal. If it weren't for the war, where  would
the  army get new blood?  You have to think here, run  risks, but those  old
farts  at the  top  couldn't handle it, this is  no  office  job,  or  paper
shuffling or spending a weekend with the grandchildren  at  their dacha. You
mark my words, Yura, those elders in the Kremlin will soon feel the pressure
of  new  forces,  they're  already  being  squeezed  with  perestroikas  and
accelerations. How can they speed themselves up?

     There were  two roads leading  to Kabul  from  staff  headquarters. The
first was meant for the higher ranks and served as a kind of parade entrance
to the HQ of the 40th. It  started from the front of the Amin palace, passed
the residence  where the operative  group of the  Ministry of Defense worked
and  where  Fyodor  Konstantinovich,  the  personal  representative  of  the
Minister of Defense and for whom a cow plus  a milkmaid had been flown in on
a special freight run, lived.
     The  road  came to an  asphalt-surfaced  square  surrounding the Afghan
Ministry of Defense. Another road came out on this square, too, one that was
virtually unknown to the army brass because generals, like lords and masters
of old, did not like to travel along dusty, uneven roads, they did not  look
at  the  rear   entrance  which  was   designated  for  lesser  beings,  the
insignificant, the servants.
     However,  the  general  opted for  this  particular  road,  which began
between the officers' houses, the commissary and the cafe, and was manned by
two checkpoints.
     They passed the first checkpoint, the thin chimneys of the boiler house
which  protruded like matches  above the single-storey barrackss, the sports
field, then the  second  checkpoint and  took  the  downward slope,  leaving
behind the shoddy museum of the  Afghan  armed forces, filled with obsolete,
disintegrating  Soviet military  technology,  covered with a  thick layer of
green  paint.  A  sort  of  crossroads popularly referred to  simply as "the
cross" was directly behind the museum. To  the left of it lay a road leading
to two regiments - the paratroops and the motorized infantry - and the goods
depot with its enormous  storage hangars. A  long line of  military vehicles
had passed through  here  early in  the morning. Now  they were replaced  by
numerous Kamaz trucks, which raised clouds of dust in their wake.
     A swarm  of bare-legged urchins "attacked" the trucks. The  more  agile
would  seize  the  tailboards,  pull  back the  canvas  cover and throw  out
everything they could reach.  Others ran behind the truck, catching whatever
they could and disappearing into alleyways.
     "Just  look  at  them!  Look what  they're  doing,  the  rotten  little
beggars!" cried Sorokin. "The cheek!-"
     Such pirate raids  by Afghan kids were carried out frequently on Soviet
columns, and were  accomplished so swiftly that the  truck drivers  did  not
have time to react in most cases.
     Sashka couldn't care  less at the moment, even though he dutifully made
noises  indicating agreement. Sashka was thinking his own soldier's thoughts
about the load hidden  in the boot and caught  himself on  the thought  that
those kids must be making a bundle and maybe he, since he  had already  been
dragged  into this shady matter, should demand a cut,  even  a tiny one, for
the  risk he  was  running, instead  of  a  mere "thanks!" You can't  spread
"thanks" on a piece of bread, after all.
     A  handful  of  modest  container-shops on wheels clustered  around the
"cross"  selling the  traditional selection of  shawls, "stone-washed" jeans
outfits,  pens  to suit every taste, sunglasses  and "biters", nail clippers
which were a favorite gift back home; you could buy a bottle of vodka at the
"cross"  at any  time  of the day  or night. The  shops were  decorated with
notices  in  mutilated  Russian   such   as  "Mischa-empori-shope",  posters
depicting  black-browed Indian beauties or heroes  of American action movies
such  as Rambo,  with mountainous biceps, streamlined  torsos and  cartridge
belts slung across their chests.
     Several more  container shops  stood behind  the Coca-Cola factory with
its yard full of hundreds of cases of  empty bottles. The road at this point
was  particularly bad, the general's  car and  the trucks bouncing along the
uneven surface. They slowed down  in  order not to wreck  their  suspension,
crawling past the military traffic police post lurking behind a wall. It was
here that  the dust they had raised caught up with the trucks and hung  in a
thick pall inside their cabins.
     From time to time the shop owners would come out with shovels and throw
some water on the road from  surrounding  puddles  in an effort to damp down
the yellow, choking dust.
     The general's "Volga" came out by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, drove
around its perimeter and sped along  the tree-lined Dar-ul-Aman, the lengthy
strip of asphalt leading to the center of Kabul.
     Various ministries and other  official  buildings,  schools,  shops and
bakeries and private villas flashed by.
     Sashka glanced at  the  general  in the rear  view mirror  from time to
     Sorokin looked about forty years of age. He was in good shape,  but had
aged early, gray-haired and with red veins on and around his nose.
     The general  was puffing on a  cigarette  and  speaking  in  a slightly
hoarse voice, more to himself than the river:
     "There's another road parallel to this one, a bit narrower, that  leads
to the Institute of Polytechnics. .. ever driven down it?"
     "Of course I know it, comrade general, "  replied Sashka. "It's  called
"the 'spooker'. We're not allowed to use it."
     "-.'spooker,, hmmm-we almost got burned alive there in '80-"
     They  passed the fork  where  soldiers from  the Tsarandoi,  the Afghan
militia, stopped and searched vehicles. One soldier made a move to flag down
the "Volga", but noticed  the uniformed Soviet driver behind  the wheel just
in time.
     They drove past villas, then the Soviet embassy with its two-meter high
walls. A lone ancient armored car with the hood  up  stood in  a vacant  lot
near the embassy - Afghan soldiers on guard duty.
     There were some shops  to  the left of the embassy, and Sashka caught a
few glimpses of jeans hung out for sale.
     They passed the  bridge over the  small Kabul River, which crossed  the
capital in a murky, brownish-green stream. Local women washed clothing along
the banks of the half-dry  riverbed, bathed children,  rinsed dishes, people
cleaned cars and if the  natives had refrained  from urinating in the river,
it would certainly have dried completely by now.
     At the end of the street,  where it  entered the  city  square, a  huge
portrait-poster of the start of the century Afghan king, Amanullah Khan, was
prominently displayed. He had luxuriant  whiskers,  was dressed in  a  field
jacket with red  tabs.  Soviet  military men and civilians working  in Kabul
would argue as to who it was really -  hero of the Russian civil war Blucher
or  Beria,  and  were  honestly puzzled why the Afghans had such  a reverent
attitude to Soviet leaders of  the  Stalin era. By the end of the discussion
they  usually agreed  that  the  Afghan people,  just like  Soviet citizens,
respect strong personalities and an  iron hand,  and sadly miss  those times
when order reigned supreme.
     Sorokin smoked all the way  to  the airport, immersed in  recollections
about the introduction of  the armed  forces, about  a  lieutenant-colonel's
     ...They had been pushing a  division down long wintry roads through the
tunnel  towards the  Salang pass,  choking from diesel and petrol fumes. The
winding  road  was  made even  narrower by  snowdrifts along  its sides, the
vehicles skidded on the icy surface. The column of tanks and APCs got stuck.
They pushed a broken down truck off the road into the precipice.
     Sorokin remembered how he had been driving through unfamiliar Kabul and
wanted nothing so much as to eat some mandarins. On every corner  there were
rough wooden two-wheeled carts  full  of  crates  of mandarins.  He told the
driver of the APC to stop, hopped out and approached one of the vendors. All
he had in his pocket were Soviet rubles. He offered the man five rubles. The
vendor  turned the  unknown  blue note around in his hands, handed  it back.
Sorokin offered ten  rubles, with  the same  result. Damn  you,  he thought,
pulling out a  twenty five  ruble note from  the bottom  of his pocket.  The
seller shook his head again .
     Then there was that time when he had gone into town in a  new UAZ jeep,
and was  stopped by  a crowd  of girls, several hundred of  them, near Kabul
University. They dragged  him out  of the jeep,  smeared him and  his driver
with some kind of paint and threw rotten tomatoes and eggs at them.
     When you talked  about it, everything was crystal clear:  international
aid, defense  of the southern  borders.  The party said one thing,  but  the
reality was quite different, and one had to live with this ambiguity.
     Almost got burned alive- It was  in February, on the eve of Soviet Army
Day.  He  was  then  a  member  of  the  Military Council and  had  been  in
conference. They  were returning late  to the division, it was already dark,
and  they decided to take a short  cut along the 'spooker' as Sashka  called
it: straight  for the Institute of Polytechnics, then left to the grain silo
and  down, along  the fringes  of Kabul  and straight to the  division,  the
"Teply Stan" (Warm Haven) district as it had been named by the Soviets.
     The  'spooker' was  quite  empty,  not a single oncoming  car. All  the
streets were  empty, the shops closed even  though at  that time  they  were
usually open,  and shafts of light from kerosene lamps speared out into  the
dark street.
     Sorokin rode the armor,  legs dangling  down into the  open hatch, eyes
half-shut against the bitter wind.  The APC took a  sharp  bend and began to
brake - ahead  of  them,  about a hundred meters away,  a  crowd of  Afghans
blocked the road.
     "Is it some holiday of theirs, or what?"  called Sorokin down the hatch
to the lieutenant who  sat in the command seat inside the APC. "Slow down as
much as possible, easy does it. They'll move!"
     The crowd engulfed the APC and would not let it  pass any further. What
an idiotic situation! For  a few  moments, Sorokin  lost  his composure.  He
tried to  smile in a friendly manner, waved his hand, but  the response  was
frankly hostile. Suddenly, the crowd boiled into  motion, like a stormy sea,
roaring its hatred of the Soviet military.
     "Allah akbar!  Allah  akbar!" screamed  the  crowd.  Sorokin seized the
machine gun hanging on  the open hatch, slipped off the safety catch, pulled
the breech and fired a shot in the air. Something struck  him on the back of
the head,  felt like a stick, just  as well  he was  wearing  a fur  hat, it
absorbed the blow. Rocks flew.  He fired  a few more warning shots into  the
air. The  crowd  continued to  press in on  the APC.  Quickly  and therefore
clumsily,  Sorokin scrambled  down  into  the  vehicle  -  for a  moment  he
panicked, thinking he was stuck - to hide from the rocks and seal the hatch.
Noses  pressed to the triplex,  they waited tensely. Dull blows  sounded all
around. The crowd was attacking the APC with  stones, shovels, hoes. Someone
jumped on top of the vehicle, pounding his  heel  against the closed  hatch.
The homogenous, infuriated mob, faces distorted with hate, ringed the APC on
all sides.
     About  five minutes went  by. The  lieutenant was first of the three to
break the silence:
     "They're coming with torches!"
     Someone from the mob threw a bottle of either kerosene or petrol at the
APC, then the  flaming torch. The  armor burst  into  flame on top, the fire
running swiftly along  the streaks of inflammable  liquid. The mob retreated
from the vehicle.
     A smell of smoke penetrated the cabin. The  lieutenant  awaited orders.
Rivulets of sweat ran down the lieutenant-colonel's face.
     "We'll burn, comrade colonel," warned the lieutenant finally
     "Take your choice, son," said Sorokin to  the driver  mechanic. "Either
we roast alive, or we go forward."
     Wisps of smoke appeared in the cabin. The lieutenant began to cough.
     The engine  roared into life and  the APC  lurched forward. There was a
shout, then another and another. The vehicle  gathered  speed and  velocity,
bouncing over human bodies like ruts on a country road.
     About  two  hundred meters further along they broke out and raced  full
speed, banging into and overturning oncoming cars, through the dark city.
     Once on the territory of the division, the soldier driver clambered out
of the cabin and made his way directly to the barracks, forgetting to switch
off the engine. It seemed to Sorokin that the young man had gone gray all of
a sudden-.

     The  "Volga"  stopped on  one of the central streets, making way for an
open-bodied  "Toyota."  The car  was  filled  to  the brim  with  chunks  of
butchered camels.  A  Khazara  boy aged  about nine lay  on the mountain  of
bloody  carcasses. He was  incredibly dirty and clad  in a much-mended  blue
nylon  jacket. The meat must  have still been  warm, and he laughed happily,
waving at passers-by and calling out something.
     Choppers filled  the air above the landing  strip, affording cover to a
descending Il-76. The plane was spiraling  down, weaving through the sky and
leaving a trail of curlicues behind it - trails  of  decoys,  like  the ones
being released from the choppers.
     The guard  on  the gates  of the airport  looked  questioningly at  the
"Volga"  with its  Afghan  number  plates. One of  the paratroopers remained
standing by  the gates with their welded-on  red star, the other  approached
the car lazily and peered in from under his helmet.
     "What's taking you so long?" barked Sashka.
     'Where's the car from?"
     " It's general Sorokin's car from army HQ. C'mon, open those gates-"
     "I can't admit a car with Afghan plates."
     "See this  pass?" demanded  Sashka,  thrusting a cardboard square under
the guard's nose.
     "Another one's needed for entry to the airdrome."
     "Will you quit stalling?!"
     "Wait a moment, I'll have to report -"
     "Idiots!"  muttered  Sashka, who  was  accustomed to more respect  from
     "I'm  sorry, comrade general," said the guard returning  from his post,
"but I can't let the car through."
     "Never mind." Sorokin got  out of the car. "I'll  let you know when  to
pick  me up, I  think I'll be back in three or four days. See you then! Take
     "Don't worry comrade  general, Alexei Glebovich, everything will be  in
order. I'll go straight back to HQ  now." Sashka did not look at the general
when he uttered those final words. He had trouble with barefaced lying.
     What if they catch me? Worried Sashka. I'll go to the shop, and what if
there's  a patrol nearby, or  the Afghans report on me? What will I tell the
general?  He trusts me. All right,  he decided finally.  I'll  go  just this
once, never again. Just deliver this stuff. But if they make me take  stolen
goods from HQ again-.No, let them take me off driving duty, let them beat me
up, but I'm not taking anything again. And I don't need any money!
     Sorokin  made  his way towards a  single-storey wooden building next to
landing place.
     "Comrade general, we take off in twenty minutes."
     While he waited, another  two Il-76s landed, rolled forward to  park on
the concrete apron and disgorged their passengers.
     Two  UAZ  jeeps carrying  senior officers drew up. The officers saluted
the general respectfully and came up to greet him. They stood there smoking.
     "We were coming back from Jalalabad  once," said a colonel, "and had  a
monkey with us for the divisional commander.  A  birthday present. We had it
in  a  bag, but it  managed  to  get  out somehow. Well,  I thought, there's
nowhere  it can go, the doors are shut. We took off, and  that damned monkey
shot  off and got  through  to the pilot's  cabin.  There it  was, over  the
pilots'  heads, grabbing everything in sight  and flipping switches. Can you
imagine it? There you are,  flying  along, and  this blasted  ape  goes  and
switches off  the engines  or something. Mind you, the  first pilot kept his
head, grabbed the monkey and tossed it to hell and gone out of the window.
     Two more choppers were brought up, Sorokin entered the first and took a
soft seat by the window.
     The senior  pilot  greeted  Sorokin,  saluted  smartly  and  introduced
himself as major Mitrofanov.
     Sorokin nodded.
     "Put on your parachute, please, general."
     "I fly without a parachute.  If they  knock us down, it's not likely to
     "Sorry, sir, but otherwise we can't take off."
     "Very well, then," agreed  Sorokin, fumbling  with the straps. "Show me
how to get this thing on!"

     The choppers  passed  over the villages  clinging  to  the outskirts of
Kabul,  swept above the hills. A  couple of Mi-24s flew  in front, providing
cover, greenish-brown-gray  camouflaged "crocodiles."  They  soon  caught up
with the column,  followed  the road. Peering out of the window, the general
watched  the  rails  snaking through the  valley,  interrupted in places  by
groups of cars. Everything reminded him of those first years in Afghanistan,
but at  the same time,  it all  looked different, somehow more  orderly  and
better planned.
     Its a  good army, thought  the general, only you need to get everything
properly organized. We had it a hundred times harder because when we came in
there  was  nothing. Yes,  today's  40th is  completely  different.  Strong,
experienced, with sound rear services. Look at the way they equip operations
now, they know  everything,  reconnaissance  is  reliable, the  Spetsnaz  is
active, there  is cooperation  with Afghan special structures, all is  taken
into account. We've certainly learned  a lot! The only bad thing is that the
political situation  hasn't changed,  it's  getting  worse. The  rebels have
grown in strength in these years, too. If the West wasn't helping them  with
arms, money  and  military advisors,  we  would  have  crushed  this blasted
counter-revolution long ago with our strength! The way it  works out is that
victory seems to be a mere step away, but you still can't see the end of the
war. How long is  it  going to  take?  We've learned to  fight  them in  the
mountains,  too, but can we be certain  of a final victory? So a year,  two,
three will pass. Then  what?  Then the Afghans will  have to learn to defend
their revolution  themselves.  We'll help them  build up a strong  army, and
then let them go at it! It looks as though we'll have to pull out anyway. We
can't stay here forever! This isn't Germany, or Poland or Hungary
     The   general's   thoughts   turned   to   inadequacies.   Specifically
inadequacies.  There  were and  could be  no  problems  in  the Soviet Army.
Sorokin realized this as soon as  he was promoted to colonel. If  you've got
problems,  you're  no good  as a political officer.  There were  problems in
companies,  battalions, regiments.  It was  permissible  now to discuss only
matters that still needed perfecting.
     Why do we worry most  about the men's outward  appearance, the neatness
of the paths  in the  compound, bright  tents  with portraits of  Lenin  and
quotes from party congresses instead of the essence of  the matter, wondered
the general.
     However, despite knowing  the  deficiencies of  the army,  occasionally
criticizing  them in his own mind or in a  circle of very close friends, the
general had no intention - and he did  not conceal this - of trying to right
any wrongs, stupidities and window-dressing. He hadn't  worked his way up to
general only to wreck his career by an open display of dissatisfaction.
     He criticized  mentally, noted numerous lapses, and was proud that  he,
unlike  the aging generals back  home, understood  and was concerned by  the
fact that not everything was ideal  in the Soviet army. He comforted himself
with the hope that  the time would come when he would climb  a bit higher up
the hierarchical ladder, and then get down to the business of putting things
to rights.
     In fact, though, the general contradicted his own thoughts on the spot,
has there ever been a  time when EVERYTHING we had was ideal? Is it possible
to  correct  EVERYTHING?  That  takes a great deal of  time and effort. If I
were, say,  head  of the  Chief Political Directorate, maybe I could  try to
improve EVERYTHING, or at least a great deal. And  anyway, not EVERYTHING is
all that bad even now.

     The  officers  at  the  command  post  looked  like  fantastic  spotted
creatures flecked by  rings of sunlight under the  canopy of the  camouflage
netting. Sorokin was told  that the column from  Kabul was making good time,
more  than twenty vehicles had broken down  on the way, two soldiers died in
an  accident  - their APC fell into a  precipice  -  and a major was  almost
crushed by two APCs when he stood smoking between them: he had been taken to
hospital in a  critical  condition. It was also reported that the main force
was expected to arrive by evening.
     There were still a few days to go before the operation:  all the forces
committed to  it had to be brought  up, concentrated  in the necessary areas
according to the approved plans, regrouped if need be,  reconnaissance  data
had to be studied and analyzed, the  area had to be  worked over politically
and when the critical mass was  ready, when all was set out like pieces on a
chess-board, then the game could begin.

     The  "crocodiles" rose  above the  hillocks,  slicing the  grayish-blue
morning  air  with  their blades, dropped altitude closer to the  road along
which army vehicles wove like a steel streamlet; then, some three kilometers
further, the  choppers  veered  to the  left,  and  flying  almost  at  zero
altitude,  examined a ruined village by  the road, sniffing it  out as if it
were a rotting carcass in the heat, then slid like predators into the depths
of the valley.
     Senior  lieutenant Sharagin noticed them from afar, when he  turned  to
get some matches from the men; and while he tried to strike one, cupping his
hands around  it  against  the  wind, he noticed the choppers as he made the
first few drags.  They  were  pretty  sure of themselves, he thought,  as he
watched them fly under the cover of the  "blocks" on the sides of the road -
BMPs with  guns aimed towards the  mountains  and soldiers who  had dug  in,
lying belly  up, on their sides, on their stomachs. The choppers circled the
dead village and swooped away. Sharagin, who had automatically been watching
the walls and a stand of trees relaxed after the survey by the choppers  and
looked  ahead,  over  the column  where  it  disappeared  from sight  in the

     ... hostile soil, the territory of war...

     He  knew  the  spooks wouldn't  dare  attack the army on  the  march; a
solitary column - yes, a string of "fillers" -  petrol tankers carrying fuel
to  distant  garrisons or a company hemmed  in by mountains - that they'd go
for, but an army was more  than they could  handle. However, writing off the
possibility  of  danger would be  wrong and criminal, and  in any  case, the
dangers were all very different  in this war. If something happened  to just
one of the men, it would be a mote of dust for the army, a mark in the daily
tally of losses, but for Oleg it would be a real person.
     Lots of men died or got  hurt on  any  march, not  necessarily  through
being shot or ambushed, but through their own carelessness or stupidity.
     Larger-bodied choppers with windows - Mi-8s - followed the "crocodiles"
as though  trying  to  catch up with  them,  looking  for all the world like
     "Probably delivering  the brass, hey comrade  senior lieutenant?" asked
private Sychev for the sake of saying something, following the choppers with
his eyes. Actually,  he did not  so  much say as  shout  in order  that  the
commander could hear him through the noise  of engines and the earphones. He
crouched  on the tower  of the  BMP with the  cannon  protruding between his
legs, which  gave him  the appearance of a sexual  giant. "Maybe they've got
the commander of the division on board?"
     "In  that  case, snap  to attention and  salute  him,  Sychev," replied
Sharagin ironically. "And stay  that way until we arrive. You just might get
a medal."
     "Yeah, the Order of saint  Fucker with  a twirl on the back,"  guffawed
junior sergeant Myshkovsky.

     ... jokers! A  year  ago  they were  all  milksops - was a  time when I
called their whole contingent that, yet now they're grandpas: Myshak,  Sych,
Chiri-they've grown, straightened their backs, matured, the sons of bitches,
they've become the  backbone of my army  - a  soldier remains blinkered only
until  his  first  taste  of combat,  then he starts  to  think about how to
survive, starts  using  his head and  making the  little gray cells do their

     It was expected that their division commander would arrive to watch how
the paratroops battalions would move out of Kabul. That was why that morning
the paratroopers went out as if  on  parade, cleaning, tidying and enhancing
themselves until the last minute. They traveled the first kilometers feeling
tense - expecting the division commander,  although as soon as the main army
column  spread out  on  the road behind the large,  dusty  field  after  the
infectious diseases hospital, all tidiness  vanished in  the fumes  and dust
that  swirled around the vehicles and settled on freshly-laundered uniforms,
columns and undershirts.
     The  Soviet  warriors  saddled their  armored  steeds, and  moved  out;
motorized infantry and paratroops, artillery and communications, sappers and
medics;  all  were  clad  differently: faded  camouflage fatigues,  mountain
outfits, "sands", tattered camouflage  cloaks. Regulation  footwear  mingled
with brown  "trophy" spook boots, and a  scattering of "Kimry," the best  of
the  worst sneakers  created towards  the end  of the  century  by  domestic
     Engines  roared into life, the column moved forward,  the wind  whipped
the men's faces. A long journey faced the men on the armor and in the trucks
with  bulletproof vests draped over their windows. All  that day, they would
be swallowing  greasy diesel fumes and dust whipped up by the passage of the
first vehicles, covering them from head to foot and getting into clothes and
     Earlier  on,  recalled  Sharagin,  the  regimental  leadership   fussed
unnecessarily,  afraid  that  the  division commander would descend  with  a
lightning inspection on the  eve  of the pullout. Because  of this,  all the
preparations  for the  operation were nervous,  tense, and  all  directives,
orders  and  comments were  accompanied  by  shouts  and fists,  which would
supposedly teach sloppy youngsters, toughen up and discipline lazy soldiers.
The  fist of the grandpas  was  pitiless, felling  and numbing, that of  the
commanders - hard, sharp and usually timely and fair.
     Preparations for the operation began well in advance. The orders came a
week earlier, but even  so  it had been  clear that  fighting would  soon be
inevitable, that an operation against the spooks was being planned. Everyone
in the  regiment, from  the  commander to the  waitresses  in  the mess hall
talked about  it.  Even the  shopkeepers in Kabul,  warming  food on  primus
stoves, would ask shopping  officers for how long  they would be going  into
the mountains, and  wished them well, expressing  sympathy.  The  transports
stood ready, patched  up as much as possible,  weapons  had  been cleaned at
least sixteen times, ammunition was loaded and political instruction carried
out. The officers,  who  traditionally "wet the head" of forthcoming  combat
operations had  recovered from  their hangovers; the men had  stocked up  on
cookies, juices and jam from the regimental commissary and  stolen bread and
sandwich spread  from the kitchen or  the commissary,  depending on who  had
friends where; they had already secreted  sacks of potatoes, written off and
stolen spare parts and anything else that wasn't nailed down for exchange or
sale to the Afghans - a small but appreciated bit of extra cash.
     It  would be nice to  get a  bit of sleep and  rest before going out on
combat mission, but no: instead  of that, you have the officers  making  you
run  around. Darkness  outside,  the stars are still bright,  then the alarm
sounds  and the regiment  has  to leap to its feet. The men rush out in full
kit, scramble  into the vehicles, then sit there  like idiots for  one hour,
two:  during  the  day  the  sun melts the asphalt -  the company  commander
decided that it was necessary to hold a drill session:  "Le-- -- e-f'  face!
Left! Left! Left, right, left! Start singing!"
     Those  new to the war - privates or fresh lieutenants - find it hard to
understand  why this stupid  square-bashing  is required.  You'd  think they
weren't in Afghanistan but  some showcase garrison in the  Union, as  though
they weren't going  into combat in a  day or two,  but  simply  had to drive
"boxes" through Red Square.
     It is  no secret that the commander determines what one's service shall
be like.  If  the commander's a  fool, then his foolishness will  affect the
entire  regiment,  until  he's  replaced, or killed  (not  very likely),  or
promoted; if he's fussy, nobody  will have a moment's peace; if they send an
idiot - it's curtains; if they send a great  guy -  that's marvelous, praise
and glory be to  all,  the smart "Cap", and those who sent him, and the fate
that brought you to this regiment.
     The  regimental commander  is like a  father, or  a stepfather - if  he
decides to  have the regiment line up in the middle of the night, it will be
done in minutes; if he can't sleep, then why should anybody else, he's got a
bee  in his bonnet that the commander of the division will stage a lightning
inspection. So he'll  drive  the men to exhaustion, sound the alarm once  an
hour and make them drill twenty-four hours a day, just in case the big brass
turns up. So  it's no easy  task to  earn praise in the  Paratroops, you can
slip  up  at  any  moment and,  if  you do, don't expect mercy, it's a small
world, a narrow one, closed in on itself, everyone knows everyone-.
     The long-servers stopped asking  "why?" and "what for?" ages  ago. They
adapted to the flow  of the  local  version of meaningful army stupidity and
learned  to act  on  reflex  level. They  know it's no use bashing your head
against a brick  wall, so nothing  can dampen  their spirits, their thoughts
are of tomorrow: there's combat ahead, but at the moment it's like  being on
holiday,  a lethally  dangerous  one, to be  sure,  but  still a break  from
endless  drills, boring  political  studies  and in any case,  they had been
sitting around idle for too long, it was time to  get some  action, do  some
shooting, they  had barely poked their noses outside the base gates for more
than a month as there  had  been nothing serious  to deal with. Orders would
come soon,  it  would be  time to start  getting your demobilization uniform
together,  but only a few could boast of a bit of tin to pin to their chest:
those  who  had  been  wounded  and  sent  to  hospital  had  probably  been
recommended for medals, but the others still had to try,  had to catch their
moment, fight a bit more and then - who knows? - you might even get a medal,
they're not always posthumous;  moreover, when you're out on combat mission,
there's always a chance to get  your hands on something  by shaking down the
     The further the column got from Kabul, the more chaotic it became. Like
an over-stretched spring,  the  vehicles tried to  get themselves  back into
some semblance of order.
     Sharagin's platoon  encountered more and  more breakdowns: the radiator
of an  "Ural" went on the boil like a kettle, clouds of  steam  pouring from
under  its  bonnet,  like a smokescreen,  infantrymen  struggled to get  the
tracks back on a  BMP, further ahead one armored car was towing another with
great difficulty.

     "Go  on, Degtyarenko, pass them!" Sharagin ordered his driver-mechanic.
Degtyarenko had veered to the  left a few times, but decided against  trying
to pass. Come on! Come on!
     "Pissing  his pants," commented junior sergeant  Myshkovsky, displeased
by Degtyarev's shilly-shallying. "Scared of that heap of junk!"
     They caught  up with  the BMP on  a tow cable,  then  the  one  towing,
driving alongside and forcing oncoming brightly painted Afghan trucks to the

     ... they look like Palekh boxes, Afghan-style...

     One  Afghan truck keeled over  on  the  side  of  the  road, while  the
paratroopers proceeded onwards like  kings along the wrong side of the road,
passing the "Kamazes" with their torn  canvas covers fluttering in the wind,
with headlamps like bulging eyes.
     They caught up with the first platoon and fell in behind.
     The sun became kinder, warmed the armor and the men clinging to it like
bees in a hive. The day was  just  beginning, but the men,  who had been  on
their feet since the crack of dawn tended to doze off. Those who had managed
to  get a comfortable spot lay on mattresses, others on  trench  coats, eyes

     ... it's always  been  like this in  the army: reveille at  two  in the
morning,  breakfast at four, final preparations at six,  pull  out at eight,
and there's nothing you can do about it...

     The  mountain pass slowed  down the pace of the advance. The road began
to wind steeply.  The vehicles  slowed to  a crawl, engines whining,  as  if
complaining about the load they were carrying, but not giving up.
     At  a bend in  the road,  beside  a  steep precipice,  two  machine-gun
carrying   dark-haired   soldiers  stood  beside  a  trailer,  arms  hanging
helplessly. They looked like  Central Asians,  Tadjiks most likely. From his
perch  on the armor Sharagin saw what the problem was without having to ask:
a mobile "Acacia" installation had come off its mounting and fallen into the
     The men  cheered  up at the sight  of someone else's  misfortune, their
comments  even  rousing the  old-timers who  had dozed  off to  the familiar
rumble of the engines.
     "Greasers!" uttered Myshkovsky contemptuously.
     "Shit soldiers!" agreed Sychev, who had been napping nearby.
     As they wound through the pass, Sharagin's platoon tried to outwit  the
sun, traveling when possible in the  shade of the cliffs. The vehicles dived
into the stone galleries occasionally, re-emerging into  the bright sunlight
on the road.
     It took a while, but the  platoon  finally reached the top of the pass.
Oleg looked back  down the winding road and saw,  where  the  cliffs did not
obscure  the  view,  the  endless  column  of  trucks, APCs, BTRs all moving
upwards and  seemingly  without  end, heading towards the  war, and who knew
where the end was, maybe only just leaving Kabul?
     Closer to midday, when the road worsened perceptibly,  pitted with ruts
and holes,  forcing the  vehicles  to  drive around  fallen rocks,  Sharagin
noticed that his driver was nodding off.
     The  BMP veered to the  right, toward a steep slope,  its nose swung up
and the vehicle began to tip.

     ... he's fallen asleep - we're going to overturn!...

     Just a bit more, and they would have rolled over like a tortoise on its
back, a  fifteen-ton  juggernaut  that would have  crushed  the  life out of
everyone riding on its armor. Sharagin, who keeled over backwards and to the
side managed to right himself with difficulty, and rammed  his boot into the
head of the driver, as if stamping on the brakes. The driver bashed his face
against the  edge of the hatch, the taste  of  blood  in his mouth and  pain
snapping him back to reality. Shaken and  disoriented  he seemed not to know
who he was  and where  he was,  he veered sharply to the left, blocking  the
road and jamming on the brakes. Sharagin bit his tongue painfully.

     ...  damn  you, idiot! Now my tongue's going to  hurt  the rest  of the

     Sharagin leapt to  the nose of the  BMP and punched  the soldier's dust
covered face twice:
     "I'll juggle your brains!"
     The clouded eyes of  the  driver cleared.  He found  no  reply or, more
likely, realized it was better to keep his mouth shut

     "Keep moving! Go!"
     The  soldier  tried  to wipe  his face with filthy,  oil-smeared  hands
covered in scabies, with cracked skin and hangnails, but all he succeeded in
doing was to make himself even dirtier.

     ...some luck! How do you fight with morons like that to back you?-every
third man in the platoon  is  a milksop who's  never  been under fire!-Never
mind, this one won't fall asleep again...

     But  for form's sake,  he landed  another blow on the driver's earphone
     "Just you try falling asleep again, Degtyarenko!"
     Struggling  to  regain  his calm,  Sharagin  chewed on a  cigarette and
studied the surrounding countryside.
     The  stone  monolith  that had once  cracked and given passage  to  the
aquamarine torrent  and serpentine pass, was replaced by a valley. After the
oppressive  feeling of  the  pass, the new vista  gladdened a Russian's eye,
accustomed as it was to flat plains stretching into the distance  as  far as
one  could see. He  saw reeds,  water-plains,  something that  for a  moment
seemed almost familiar.

     ... if only one could see a habitual horizon, edged with trees...

     He  stared at the  river  which flowed more  gently  now, having broken
through the  grip of the mountains, tried  to find a familiar line of trees,
but his eye  came up against  a cluster of  adobe dwellings and the illusion
vanished - Russia was a long way off.

     ... the village  at the foot of the mountain belongs to the spooks-last
year our  reconnaissance people got a  nasty  surprise there-.everything was
mined to  the  hilt-and  over there is  where we  combed through  the  hills
ourselves,  I   think   -mountains,  just   mountains-we're  surrounded   by

     The  towering, virginal peaks  of  the  mountains  seemed to gaze  down
disparagingly  at the  fuss  and  insignificance  of human  problems,  while
between them lay  streams  and fields, scattered villages, and alien hordes,
speeding towards victory and death.
     Huge cloud masses seemed  jammed between the mountain peaks, no smaller
in  size  but floating  like feathers. It was as if the ancient mountaintops
envied the lightness  of  the clouds,  their ability to fly further  without
thoughts or  regrets. The snowy peaks  reached up  towards infinity,  as  if
wishing for freedom,  wishing for  the chance to break away from this  world
and  hide somewhere  up  above, as though tired  of the world's foolishness,
cruelty,  as if choking on air  saturated  with hatred, injustice, blood and

     ... the mountains are always beside you in Afghanistan-sometimes behind
your back, like a person who stands there and  stands there, you go to sleep
-  and he stands  there, you wake  up - and he's still  there-standing there
immobile  and  not  going  away-or the mountains  rise  before  you  like an
unimaginably high wall,  so that nobody  will ever be able  to flee  -Nature
didn't  dream  them  up for  nothing -if there were no  mountains, who would
separate  peoples who hate  one another, who would  shield  them from death,
pursuit,  vengeance-they would  all  slaughter  their fellow beings  on open
plains, would all come together in a mighty clash and perish in short order,
for  people have  not yet  learned  to  live  in accord,  without  envy  and
violence-that's what mountains  are for, and mighty forests, and deserts and
seas-these mountains protected Afghanistan  for many years -It would  appear
that we, Russians, as a people significant in history, have  been endowed by
someone  with  extraordinary  powers-history has  scattered  us over immense
territories, and maybe that's why we decided that we can influence the fates
of other peoples, not numerous by  comparison with us, and therefore, not as
strong-.People  whose bad  luck it  is  to live next door to Russia-we never
took their  plans into account, we  decreed, we  were intoxicated by our own
might-we colluded with evil, the devil, took part in his nefarious plans-the
devil's   proving  ground  is  here,  in  Afghanistan-sounds  too  mystical,
somehow-we got used to it  gradually,  the lust for  power  entered into our
blood - we  must have some gene, just like the Americans,  which is infected
by  an illusory sense  of  being omnipotent-as if  the fate of  the  rest of
humanity depends on us-.actually, that's  partially right-if we want, we can
destroy the rest of the  world  in the fight against capitalism -however, my
friend, that's ideology-ideology is a temporary thing

     -  as  for  the Russian  soul,  that's eternal-who gifted us  with this
mysterious soul, and why? -we will never have peace because of it-but enough
of that, it's not the time and place for such thoughts....

     The ability to sense danger had never yet let Sharagin down. And if the
thought of spooks filled  his head, it was not for nothing. That  meant that
the  spooks  were really  there, hidden, watching. Yet despite the  sense of
spooks nearby, other thoughts flitted through his mind.

     ... they're right  when they  say: if you've got no erection, leave the
woman be!- we can't and don't know how to fight,  we can't bring a dump like
Afghanistan to  its knees all  these  years-so we should admit outright:  we
failed, broke our back and spilled our guts-we keep imagining that we're the
strongest army  in the world-yes,  the paras did their job, so what else can
you ask  of them? We're supposed to jump with parachutes, we're creatures of
the air,  but they've  driven  us  down  into the  dirt, we're  ordered into
columns and driven like greasers to the ends of the earth, they've scattered
us  over checkpoints and  roadblocks,  this isn't what we're  supposed to be
doing, let the greasers from the infantry handle it!...

     Sharagin  turned and cast a look at  his soldiers.  Their  dust-covered
faces expressed nothing.

     ...stupid blockheads-but the best soldier in  the world is our soldier,
the Soviet  soldier!...he isn't overly  literate, he's not pampered, he will
bear  anything,  he'll die,  he'll  perish,  but  he'll  never give  up! Our
soldiers aren't spoiled American boys in Vietnam, who had special deliveries
of beer!...

     Our soldier is the  best! He'll  break his back, but get to where  he's
been ordered... and our officers - especially the lower ranks, say up to the
rank of major, or  maybe inclusive, are  all in top form, they can withstand
anything,  they're not just  ordinary  people, they're supermen ... and then
what? What next? We're staying afloat on heroism of this kind, but it  can't
last  forever-so wouldn't it be better for us all to  put our heads together
and work out where we went wrong?...

     ... he-e-ey!  Mountains all around,  it's just beautiful! If  it wasn't
for the war, for those Afghans, it would be so great here!..

     The Afghan landscape held numerous  beauties for a northern man, and at
the same time frightened those who had not had time  to become accustomed to
its alien contours.
     At times  it was hard  to enjoy breathtaking panoramas objectively. Not
always  and not  everyone  could  separate  the vision of  snowy  peaks  and
copper-velvet slopes, plains  covered with the lush green  of vineyards, the
profusion  of blood-red poppies  spreading like  a carpet  woven by  skilled
masters, from the image of  a  treacherous mujahideen, an evil character out
of some Eastern tale, a bandit clutching a knife.
     The image  of the mujahideen produced a feeling of danger: this feeling
of danger  grew into fear, and  fear generated  hatred and distrust  of  the
mountains: one could enjoy the alien landscape only after conquering fear.
     It took years to accept, to fit into and understand this place, come to
love it and learn to stop fearing it.

     ...the  mistiness of  Andromeda, the Milky Way, Solaris...we have  come
from  another galaxy, bloody  cosmonauts... how did we  get here? ..piled up
armored vehicles... disturbed the Afghan anthill...

     And even  if  the  surrounding  landscape  opened  its secrets,  became
understandable, no matter how slowly and reluctantly, the Afghans themselves
remained an enigma.

     ...why are we here? What can we have in common with this wild, backward
country? What fraternization can there be? Damn it, how can they possibly be
our friends?! This place should be declared a reservation...the Stone Age...

     The Afghans had to be kept at a safe distance, any fool could see that.
Wrapped  in an alien prayer, the life of  the Afghans ran its course, in the
distant  14th  century  by  the  Muslim  calendar,  behind  blind  walls  in
accordance with laws passed down from fathers and grandfathers. In any case,
the distance between the Afghans and the shuravi was measured  in centuries.
Sometimes the distance would narrow to the counter of a shop. But even then,
there  could  be  no  full understanding. Devoured by  suspicion,  excessive
caution, the Soviets would  retreat quickly, buying a few things on the run.
More often than not, the distance  between  the Afghans  and the Soviets was
measured by a burst of machine gun fire.
     And because they did not  understand and did not wish to understand the
Afghans, because they guessed subconsciously that the war  would not be long
and was totally useless, nobody tried to like the land and its people.  That
was  probably why  every Afghan,  be he one of the mujahideen, or  a  farmer
tending his field, a smiling driver waving from a bus, an  unwashed barefoot
urchin, a newly-drafted recruit into  the Afghan army, clad in the sack-like
uniform  of an  army propped up by the tanks of the "limited  contingent"  -
they were all perceived as spooks, bandits, enemies, so you could trust only
yourself and  depend  on  yourself,  or  on  those  like you,  shuravi  like
yourself, Soviets; and a man felt safe  and secure only inside the garrison,
surrounded by  barbed  wire, tanks and machine guns; fate  had strewn Soviet
military divisions all over Afghanistan, they were like islands in an ocean,
lonely, far from the mainland.

     ... "mountains, dust and hepatitis- free additions to the international
duty," grumbled captain  Morgultsev... those bald mountains up ahead seem to
be crouching  silently, waiting for  their prey...us...and we  still have to
crawl and crawl before we reach the foot of those mountains-we move and they
stand  still,  we will  fight, we'll all die here, while  the mountains will
continue to stand there indestructible  and immobile, totally indifferent to
our sufferings, our joys, we're alien to them, our troubles,

     bent turret,  like an  impotent's penis ...dozens of machine gun  holes
and larger ones from grenades,  remnants of fuel carriers, an empty  "Kamaz"
cabin with  smashed front and side  windows...a huge garbage dump, the waste
products of unequal  battles...here they  got  the better  of us...the truck
found its mine, and it destroyed its front end, so now it looks like a drunk
with smashed lips, a broken nose and a dislocated jaw..."

     A  burned out BTR reminded Sharagin of a gigantic turtle. He had  never
actually seen a giant turtle,  only small ones, but in his imagination these
huge denizens  of  the  ocean  kingdom left the water  as immense  creatures
securely  protected by  an  impenetrable  shell, which hid  a wise, wrinkled
     As if  driven by  some irresistible instinct, infantry  combat  vehicle
turtles  and  BMP turtles, whole armies  of deep-water inhabitants had  left
their domain and come to war.

     Once in childhood  Oleg had stopped a boy who was running and waving an
ax, like a Red Indian. In his hand he held a tortoise.
     "Where  are you off to?"  asked  Oleg,  stopping the  boy who was about
three years younger than he was.
     "I'm going to smash the shell and pull that creature out!"
     "Give it here!"
     "No, I won't," the youngster replied sullenly.
     "I told you - give it here!"
     He took away the tortoise, took it  to the river and let it go. Finding
itself free, the  tortoise stuck out  its  head and  began to move  over the
grass. The next day Oleg encountered the younger boy again.
     "What are you grinning for?" asked Oleg suspiciously. The lad stuck out
his tongue, pulled a face and ran off.

     ... he  must  have  followed me and found that tortoise... And finished

     The  burned  BTR  looked  like  a tortoise that had  been  subjected to
lengthy assault with an ax, blows  inflicted with fury and shouts, until  it
     Closer  to the village lay a  tank turret, flung far by a mine and bent
like  a  paralyzed figure. Two Afghan  boys sat on it, watching the  passing
column of Soviet military might with black, beady eyes.
     A deeply tanned and wrinkled Afghan with a mangy beard walked along the
roadside, leading a heavily laden donkey. He looked askance  at the  passing
column and caught the eyes of a fair-haired, bewhiskered Soviet officer; the
Afghan  muttered something to himself, barely moving his lips  which exposed
greenish teeth; the old man's face expressed  neither pleasure nor  dislike.
In that moment or just afterwards, Sharagin experienced a sense of deja-vu.

     ... this has all happened before, but where? When?..

     The answer surfaced fairly soon.

     ...a  movie about  the Great Patriotic War  ...from childhood....one of
our  men is driving along in a hay cart,  and German  tanks rumble past him.
Tanned young men,  sleeves rolled up  to the  elbow,  smoking  and  shouting
something  in  their own  German tongue...the man  turns  his  head, and the
camera captures the hidden, unwilling fear in thy  eyes of those fascists, a
fear of  the Russian who  is presently unarmed, in principle poses no threat
at the given  moment,  who hasn't said a word,  but who silently watches the
German  army  vehicles  heading  across the  field  in the direction  of the
village...every Soviet  viewer would have felt,  after  that shot,  that  no
matter  how  gay  and carefree the fascists seemed, in their heart of hearts
they feared our people, especially the partisans-and fear had probably found
a place deep  in the hearts of the  fascists, because the more death,  grief
and destruction they wreak  on our Motherland, the more fear they experience
because they cannot know that the day of reckoning will come...

     Such  thoughts and  associations  were  fleeting, lasting  only  a  few
seconds, and in order  not  to let them grow into something bigger, press on
his psyche, he pushed them away quickly, to the back of his mind, for later.

     ... we're not  invaders-we're carrying out orders-.we came to  help the
Afghans, even though some of them don't want our help...

     All that was asked of Sharagin was  that he obey orders, make sure that
the unit entrusted to his care  - a tiny part of the machine called the Army
- functioned smoothly. And that he, as a man  genuinely devoted to the Army,
try to carry out  his duty  as platoon leader  to the best of  his  ability,
thrusting aside any heart-burning  doubts which, especially  towards the end
of the term of service, tried to surface and demand answers and conclusions.
     Sometimes he envied his friends who  lacked the ability to reason,  and
were thus calm and carefree.

     ... their faces  have never been  disfigured by thought...and they have
no trouble going to sleep...

     ...as  captain  Morgultsev  says:  "An  officer shouldn't think  why he
receives   a  certain  order  from   the  Motherland,  the  more   so   some
Ivan-the-platoon-leader!"-we are  paid not for  our rank or  duties, but for
devotion  to  the  Motherland, which has  the right, when she so wishes,  to
demand the life of an officer who has sworn allegiance to her...

     On  the way to the  operation Sharagin repeatedly  recalled  the  first
months of service in Afghanistan, his first sharp impressions of the war and
the people involved in it. Some of those people served in the platoon today,
riding neighboring  BMPs, part  had gone home, others  had not  lived  to be
replaced but found their final resting place in the mountains, the sands and
the greeneries of Afghanistan.

     ...somewhere in the dust storms are the souls of our men, borne away by
the  'afghan'  wind, people  who  were close,  and then  perished. ..all our
people are somewhere close ...one foot here, the other one back home...

     This was what the senior lieutenant  usually  told  himself whenever he
sighted yet another cairn - out of stones, shell-cases, tires -  with a name
and surname,  and  dates of birth and death -  short stretches of time, from
twenty to twenty five years.

     The  leading  vehicles  stopped, so there  was something like  a  short
break:  those who had lagged needed a  chance to catch up. And the men could
grab a quick bite of something, relieve themselves and stretch their legs.
     The drivers took advantage of the  unscheduled  break  and  with  tacit
consent delved in the motors of their vehicles; the army didn't dismount for
long, and  only  the  front ranks,  the  rest had long ago lost the  general
rhythm of the march, like the tail  of an immense lizard had become delayed,
broken down, lost miles far behind.
     Sharagin's  platoon, occupying its place in the general "thread" of the
company, came to a halt some two hundred meters from an Afghan checkpoint, a
squat clay fortification to the side of the road, surrounded  by some sparse
trees and a proudly waving flag.
     Children  from  the nearest  village  were  already  swarming  over the
military vehicles.
     "Nobody move away from the vehicles!" ordered Sharagin. "I'm off to see
captain Zebrev."
     "What if we  need a crap, comrade senior  lieutenant?" cried Myshkovsky
with exaggerated pathos, theatrically clamping his arms around his stomach.
     "Worry not, Myshkovsky, crap into your partner's hand!"

     ... never would have thought that weed would turn into a real para...

     "Hey, commander, how's things?" panted a barefooted Afghan kid, running
towards Sharagin.
     He was carrying mandarins,  chewing gum  and postcards  of Indian  film
stars in a torn paper bag.
     "Buru,  bacha! Buru!"  snapped Sharagin  at  the  youth  weaving around
     "Hey, friend! How are things?" said the lad  to  the soldier sitting on
the nose of the BMP,  who had just  been kidding  about a bellyache and  was
about to jump down to the ground. "Got goods? What you sell?"
     Junior  sergeant  Myshkovsky   stretched  himself,  sighed  deeply  and
squinted in the sunlight.
     "Nothing, bacha. We've earned nothing yet."
     "Yet!" repeated Sychev in minatory tones, raising his index finger.
     The  young  Afghan,  sensing  an interest,  did  not  retreat but  kept
offering mandarins, fanned out the postcards.
     "Give us a look at those," said Sychev. "Shuravi control, bacha!"
     The lad extended the photos.
     "Here, take them back! Now, if only they were wearing swimsuits-"
     The Afghan remained where he was.
     "Got no  money, understand? No  paysa.  Nist paysa! Want to  exchange?"
Myshkovsky  offered  a  pack of  "Donskiye", the  worst  possible cigarettes
without  filters  that  were  issued  to the  soldiers.  "You  give  me some
mandarins." The bacha understood  and agreed.  "Only remember,  bacha, don't
die from cigarettes! One costs three years of life!"
     The other soldiers laughed.
     Myshkovsky climbed down and began  to peel the mandarins and would have
finished them quietly and driven on, only  it was his bad luck that a chubby
lieutenant colonel appeared on the scene. Cheeks like a chipmunk, eyebrows -
a spitting image of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.
     The  lieutenant  colonel  looked  ludicrous in a helmet, because nobody
ever wore a helmet on the march, especially during a rest  break.  A machine
gun with paired magazines was slung across his chest, a cartridge case stuck
out from his side like an enlarged liver,  grenade  pins protruded from  the
breast pocket of his bullet-proof vest  - indeed, it  appeared  as though he
was ready to take on an entire band of spooks single-handed.
     The  lieutenant  colonel  fastened on to Myshkovsky, yelling  as though
he'd been just let loose off a chain.
     The officer was infuriated by the fact that a soldier had entered  into
an exchange with an Afghan, cigarettes for mandarins.
     "So what's wrong with that?" asked Myshkovsky, unperturbed.
     He was no newcomer to Afghanistan, he kept his cool. But the lieutenant
colonel,  judging by his extravagant  equipment, was a new  arrival, and was
probably a political officer who'd never  been under  fire  to boot, decided
Myshkovsky, even though he wore a striped undershirt.
     "They were my cigarettes, we swapped-"
     "By  what right?"  yelled the officer.  "What's your name? Where's your
commanding officer? What company?-"
     Not waiting to hear the answer, the lieutenant colonel became even more
angry when he saw the soldier was  not dressed in regulation kit: Myshkovsky
was wearing "Kimry" sneakers instead of boots.
     Political officer  for  sure,  decided Myshkovsky. Bloody  headquarters
     The well-fed lieutenant colonel, who had gone on this battle assignment
like a walk in order to earn another merit mark which would count later when
it  came  time to  receive  a  medal, had no  understanding  of  an ordinary
soldier's cunning:  in the mountains, the regulation  boots were  heavy  and
awkward, little better than  the domestic "shit-squashers." And in any case,
it did  not matter what you wear in combat and  what your have on your  feet
when you get killed.
     And so they stood there face to face.
     The lieutenant  colonel saw an insolent, rotten  creature of a soldier,
who  eats mandarins on  the march,  who  has  acquired freedom, who has been
over-indulged by his commanding officer, and who must be punished because he
stands  there in  the middle of the road without a  machine  gun, without  a
bullet-proof vest and wears sneakers.
     The soldier, in his turn, thought that all officers  are, by and large,
animals, blood-suckers, and this  particular lieutenant colonel is a pig who
doesn't really care about anything except his own hide and career-
     The  soldiers and junior officers drawn  by  the  lieutenant  colonel's
shouts stood around in silence  and, as  is  customary in the army,  did not
     Accustomed  to  frequently  unwise displays of emotion, high-handedness
and  sheer  rudeness  from  senior  officers, they  watched this  unexpected
nonsense in  silence;  none  of them  had the right  to contradict a  senior
officer. Everyone understood that the  lieutenant colonel was an idiot, that
he had been born that way and would never change, and also realized, because
that  is  always  obvious,  that  the  lieutenant  colonel  had  no  genuine
commander's anger in him, only  a  passing outburst, a stupidity far removed
from  matters of principle or  discipline,  the stupidity of  a man who  had
never assumed  command and therefore had nobody to vent his spleen on  for a
long time.
     In the army - you yell, and get it off  your chest. As  for the one you
yelled at, he'll  yell at or insult somebody else, you can't bottle emotions
up indefinitely, after all, or you'll go mad.
     So  that's  how it comes to  pass that  the armed forces of  the Soviet
Union are daily shaken by yelling, the chain of slights extends from the top
to the very  bottom of the  scale, to the soldiers, and they  have their own
     Undeserved  offensive  words poured from the lieutenant colonel's lips,
like  amoebic diarrhea. Myshkovsky had vivid recollections of that  illness:
he'd  done his  share of running back and  forth  to the  latrine. The plump
officer had grown  hoarse,  drops of sweat  trickled from beneath the cap he
wore under the helmet,  but he continued to rant at the soldier, calling him
a thief, a looter, a  robber, that bastards like him are a blot on the honor
of the Soviet internationalist soldier.
     A bloody political officer for sure, decided Myshkovsky.
     The lieutenant colonel spluttered on:
     "-here  in  Afghanistan people serve with a clear  conscience! They die
for  the revolution..!" he proclaimed as if he  were reading  a lecture to a
group  of  dumb  collective farm workers. He kept  trying to pin  Myshkovsky
against the armor, even though the soldier was quite hefty.
     The officer kept his eyes just above Myshkovsky's head, almost treading
on his toes.
     Sharagin and Zebrev were drinking tea from a thermos. They opened a tin
and poked fun at Pashkov. Pashkov had finished his cigarette  and  stuck his
hands into his pockets.
     "What are you doing with your hands?" queried Zebrev. "Playing billiard
     "Hey, sarge, are you planning to retire in Afghan?"
     "Give me a break-" Pashkov cleaned  his sunglasses with the  hem of his
shirt, blew on them and wiped them again.
     "Say, sarge, is "Zubrovka" vodka Montana?"
     "Zubrovka? You bet!"
     "What about "Pertsovka"?"
     "That's Montana, too!"
     "And pork belly?"
     Engineering marking and mine-clearing vehicles began to crawl past  the
ones that had stopped for a break, with their long arms and unwieldy scoops,
bullet-proof  cabins;  they  were  followed by a  tank without a cannon with
rotating huge "eggs" on top - mine crushers; then came sappers, riding a BTR
with  a  canopy rigged on top, accompanied by two  German shepard dogs,  dry
tongues hanging out.
     "What would be the first thing you'd do back home?"
     "Enough of that, comrade captain! I'm off for a piss!"
     "Remember Oleg, how they went to the latrine hand in hand"

     ... The love affair with the fat waitress was the talk of the regiment.
After  the appearance  of  this woman of  enormous  sizes, something  struck
Pashkov, he went around in a daze for a week.
     None of the officers would have dreamed that Pashkov would fall for the
waitress. When Sharagin and Zebrev first saw them going for a walk together,
they could not believe their eyes.
     At  first  they  thought  that  Pashkov  simply  wanted  a  woman,  but
afterwards the warrant officer declared that it was serious.
     "Real Montana!"
     Amid the  laughter  of the  officers, Morgultsev  recounted an anecdote
about  a  goat, which was kept  on  a ship instead of a  woman. The  captain
ordered the men to put a ruble in a moneybox every time they "used" the poor
animal in order to collect the sum that the goat had cost. After a while the
captain noticed that someone was not paying the set sum. It emerged that the
boatswain was the guilty party.
     "When pressed, the boatswain said exactly what you're saying, sarge. He
said: "I can't pay, comrade captain, we've got a serious relationship-!"
     Pashkov cast dark looks at Morgultsev for a week after  that,  but that
didn't stop  him from  shaving thoroughly every  morning and dousing himself
with eau-de-cologne, saying: "Eau-de-cologne - that's cultured. And yogurt's
     They made such an odd couple - wiry Pashkov and the fat waitress on her
short legs  - that the entire regiment watched the romance unfold with bated
breath.  It  was especially funny to see the lovebirds walking hand in  hand
and then  splitting up to go to the latrine - a low building,  separated  in
half. The waitress would  break off and head left, Pashkov - right, and then
a  few minutes later they would  reunite and  continue their stroll or go to
the barracks which housed female personnel.
     The romance lasted more than a month. Then clouds appeared in Paradise,
and Pashkov resorted to a three-litre jar for solace-

     "Something's going on with your guys," said Zebrev suddenly.
     "That's right," affirmed Pashkov. "Something's up. Not Montana!"
     "Can't  leave them alone for a moment!" grumbled Sharagin, turning  and
seeing the strange huddle of soldiers.
     The  corner of Myshkovsky's lip  jerked with a nervous tic. He bore the
abuse, held on to his composure and kept his mouth  shut. Mentally, however,
he put a few bullets into the lieutenant colonel's head.
     Finally running out of expletives,  the lieutenant colonel saw that the
soldier  was  wearing a  magnetic  bracelet on his  wrist: this  set him off
again, even more than  before, with  new force, as  though he had discovered
stolen property:
     "Aha! He's got  a bracelet! I'm an officer, and I can't afford anything
like that! "
     "Jackal," thought Myshkovsky. "can't  afford it, you sonofabitch.!  You
earn thirty times more than I do! All I'll be taking back home will  be this
bracelet, a briefcase and a shawl for my mother on my wages. As for you, you
rotten bastard,  you'll ship back  a whole container, fill your apartment to
bursting with Japanese gadgets!-And never expose your ass to gunfire-"
     "You're a thief!" shouted the  lieutenant colonel. "In sneakers, with a
bracelet! Sold  your rifle  already, hey?  Where's  your rifle? Where's your
bullet-proof vest?"
     That was too much, and the lieutenant colonel knew he had gone too far.
However, raised  as he was on  slogans and agitation jargon, he lost control
of himself when he had an audience, pushed his line and attacked the "enemy"
or the miscreant with due Party ferocity, seeing the "truth" only as he knew
it,  how it  appeared in his own head, giving out his own version of what he
had  heard from  people with more stars on  their shoulder-boards.  You  can
drive anyone up the wall with quotes and slogans.
     Myshkovsky  pulled  the bracelet  off, threw it  on the ground  at  the
lieutenant colonel's feet, turned around and stalked off.
     "Live, you sonofabitch," he muttered through clenched teeth.
     The lieutenant colonel was  clearly nonplussed  by such  insolence  and
made a move as if to seize Myshkovsky's shoulder, casting a regretful glance
at the bracelet (too many witnesses to pick it up) but at that moment he was
hailed from the BTR he'd jumped from five minutes ago:
     "Let's go, Borya! The column's moving!"
     The lieutenant colonel swore as though at all the surrounding  soldiery
and  hurried  off, clumsy  under his own weight and an excess of unnecessary
weapons  and  bullet-proof  vest, grabbed  someone's  extended hand, hung in
mid-air for a moment, helmet askew, then scrambled up on the armor.
     "What happened, Myshkovsky?" asked Sharagin.
     "Nothing much, comrade senior lieutenant. He didn't like my sneakers."
     "Mount up!"
     The army  moved on,  leaving evidence of  its rest in  the form of  oil
stains, tin cans, dry rations packs, puddles of urine and cigarette butts.
     Sharagin's platoon moved off in its turn, keeping a  sensible distance,
allowing the preceding vehicle  a fifty-meter clearance, so that the dust it
raised would settle a little.
     Myshkovsky turned away  from the others and smoked, hiding the tears of
frustration in his eyes. The lieutenant  colonel  had made it quite clear to
him that he was a louse, that he had no rights whatsoever,  just like a year
ago when he had been a newcomer to the platoon and junior sergeant Titov had
hazed  him mercilessly  day  and night. Myshkovsky had taken it all,  hadn't
given in, had not succumbed to self-pity,  had not complained, had not cried
from pain and  humiliation. Yet now he had let it  get at him;  just as well
nobody could see  these  tears of  someone with  no defense  in the  face of
stupidity, inhumanity, and base behavior of an officer to a soldier.
     Myshkovsky's unmoving,  stooped back  gave no clue to what had happened
and  whether  he was  upset by  it. He, a soldier,  would never  admit  that
someone had been  able to hurt  him. It's not done in the army for a soldier
to pour out his troubles to an officer.

     ...that's  our apprentice's lot in the army, you  have to grin and bear
it...the one with the most stars on his uniform is always right...

     As if breaching  a dam, the armored vehicles  poured out into a valley,
spreading out over a  wide field that  opened before  them, leaving no room,
filling  all  the available space like  a camouflage blanket; the army units
wound across the field like a thick snake coiling in upon itself; the battle
group was settling down as comfortably as it could for the night.
     The immense army scattered like wandering tribes over the field: tents,
armored vehicles, trucks, communication lines; more and more units arrived.
     Every branch of the army  contributed  men to this operation, a platoon
here, a battalion  there, a regiment -  all were gathered into the huge army
cauldron:  artillery,  paratroops,  reconnaissance,  airmen,  communications
staff,  medics.  This was  all to be directed at the  enemy,  to  crush  and
destroy him.
     A smell of diesel, fires, urine and feces hung in  the air,  permeating
tasteless combat rations,  and  only the Kabul-baked bread, which had become
stale during  the march, did  not absorb the odors  of the gigantic military
     The contours  of  upraised gun barrels, like masts at a ship graveyard,
rose against  the reddish copper  disc of the setting sun; trucks  displayed
their humps; helicopters,  blades drooping, settled  on the outskirts of the
force; darkness fell quickly, the tired army prepared for sleep.

     At  different spots  of this  maelstrom of men  and  machines,  general
Sorokin and senior lieutenant Sharagin sat  and smoked. The  silhouettes  of
armored vehicles were all around.

     ...everything  repeats  itself-that time  there  was  also  a  military
operation, the same mountains, spooks...

     Scattered memories beckoned into the past, varied, prickly, painful and
untimely recollections washed over him as he sat smoking.

     -The  fuel  truck had just moved away  from the last chopper,  rumbling
over the  airport metal. On command, the paras who  had been resting  beside
the airstrip, moved in single file, bulky with equipment, machine guns slung
across their  chests. They entered the chopper  one by one, settling  in and
staring out of the windows.
     The Mi-8 moved out on to the strip, bobbing  around a  bit, feeling the
air, like a boxer warming up before a  fight. They rolled forward, gathering
speed as if not  intending to leave the ground, then  rose and veered to the

     ... fields slipped by like  the squares on a chessboard which had  been
moved out of line for  some reason, upsetting  the  proper  order,  spots of
greenery flashed  by,  the  chopper's shadow  sped along underneath, growing
larger  or smaller, a village, a vineyard, a small river, the  chopper rose,
gaining altitude as it neared the foothills...

     ...  and the Mi-8 chopper, like a  big,  green  tadpole...which just  a
moment ago had been flying  on a parallel course, grim and ready for battle,
suddenly plummeted to earth...

     ...they took it out in full flight, like a duck shot at dawn...

     ...flare! There was an explosion and a burst of flame!..

     Blackened  corpses,  scattered  throughout the  smoking remains of  the

     ...the sweet smell of human flesh...

     They burned alive. Nobody survived.

     ...there'll  be  many  who  won't  come  back from  this  operation-and
somebody will draw  up  figures: so many killed, so many wounded-and nothing
will change in the world...and some stupid  lieutenant will come  up  to the
fire and ask about the number of losses...

     He had  come up to the fire then,  that  lieutenant  from the motorized
infantry,  started chattering about the heroic feats of the Bagram division,
then asked:
     "What are your losses?"
     "Five from the regiment today."
     "That's nothing!" responded the lieutenant proudly. "We've already  got
seventeen dead! Six went up on a mine only yesterday!"
     It was unclear, what he  had  been expecting.  Possibly he thought that
everyone  would think that his unit really knew  how to fight,  so  had been
sent into the very thick of the combat.
     Nobody said anything.

     After that mission  Sharagin bought  a bottle of  vodka in Kabul,  they
steamed themselves for  about  three hours, sweating out  tiredness  and bad
     "Sell your  last pants, but  have a drink after washing,"  said Zebrev,
slashing  Sharagin's already red back with a bunch of twigs. "Ulyu-ulyu! Who
was it said that? Peter the Great, that's who!"
     When  they raised  the traditional third toast, Sharagin caught himself
thinking that the "portrait gallery" of the dead had increased. The first in
the "gallery" was sergeant  Panasyuk, on whose bed an enlarged and therefore
murky  photograph had been  kept put up  a long time-the  last-The  last had

     ...Nikolai- how did that happen? -why him?..

     And Sharagin answered himself:

     ...his number came up...

     The faces of the dead rose in his mind's eye - soldiers who had not had
time to become men, faces  of lieutenants, still  partly boys, faces of grim
captains - faces which formed the foundation, the backbone of the army.
     The  army lived at  the cost of soldiers, lieutenants and captains, and
sometimes even won. It was they who  bore the  weight of  the  army on their
     If  not  for  these  lieutenants, captains  and  simple  village  lads,
battered by the anxiety and unstable army life, by vodka, by the war itself,

     -unpolished ignoramuses,  nothing in their heads, simple as the whistle
of a train-

     if not for them- the Soviet Army would have ceased to exist long ago-

     Sharagin  stepped  on his cigarette butt, went  off  to  sleep. It  was
already totally dark.

     ...all that's in the past-shouldn't have come to mind-

     He crawled  into his  sleeping  bag and  dropped  off to sleep quickly,
despite the  stirrings  of  the men all around, the far and close by noises,
the  swearing and  shouts,  which  seemed  to breathe  life  into  the camp,
creating  the  illusion  of  a  big  city, far  from the  war and  therefore
     The general  was  not at all  tired and was  afraid that  he would have
trouble  getting to  sleep  and probably  for this  reason  drew  out  time,
questioned the soldier who acted as his driver in a kind and fatherly manner
about where he  was from, as though the general really cared, how  much time
he had left to serve, did he go on missions often? The soldier kept his eyes
lowered and pretended that he was touched  by the general's interest, though
experience showed that generals  often  have these moods, maybe because they
feel  guilty before  soldiers, maybe because they want to  seem better  than
they really are.
     The  soldier  knew that generals never  remember the  men's faces, that
there was  nothing to be expected from this passing general, that it did not
necessarily bode  well if someone suddenly started treating you like a human
being, especially generals or  other officers.  It is  better to answer them
clearly and concisely, stay on your guard because today a general or colonel
may be chatty and friendly, and the next morning let you have it in the neck
so you won't know what hit you.

     The valley became crowded. Crammed with people and weapons, it breathed
heavily on the threshold of battle. Maybe not everyone awoke that morning in
a fighting mood. Some were shaken by doubts - would fate be merciful or not,
but there was nothing  to  be done: a decision  had been made up top, orders
were  issued,  passed along  the  web  of command like a flock  of  sparrows
gathering  around  a  handful  of  crumbs,  orders  to brigades,  regiments,
companies, platoons.
     There  was no way back: someone omnipotent had thought up a battle, and
the men of war  went  out towards the unknown, just  as gladiators  had done
thousands of years ago in order to amuse a select public.
     The  air  forces  had roared  by. The aircraft  dropped their loads  of
dozens of bombs and returned to base, making way for the artillery. The guns
gave voice, methodically shelling quadrants as  if preparing a  potato field
for planting, turning, turning the earth over.
     The  officers in  the  command  supervisory  point,  including  general
Sorokin, saw a compelling  picture through  their  binoculars:  nose  dive -
explosion, another round - another explosion; pillars of dirt and smoke shot
skywards. It was frightening to imagine how the enemy must feel under such a
barrage; probably it was like being in hell; everything living or  inanimate
that was ringed on battle maps was being fragmented and destroyed, sentenced
to death by the movement of blue pencils wielded by headquarters staff.
     It was the artillery's  task to work over all the slopes,  villages and
patches of greenery, to hit and kill, so that nobody would survive, to strip
the  valley and beat down the tops  of the chain  of hills, iron them out so
that they  would  finally allow  the alien infantry unresisting passage  and
accept the hand of a new master.
     Sorokin recalled the recent  words of the  commander: "The troops won't
advance until the air  force and the artillery  don't wipe everyone  out  -I
don't need extra losses-"
     Everyone says that, thought Sorokin with a sigh, until there's pressure
from the top. It  is always worse if someone from the Moscow brass turns up.
They invariably demand quick results. So they can return all the  sooner and
give a  good  account. If  the  Minister  of  Defense arrives,  then  losses
increase several  times over.  That happened in  Pandjshir, in Kandaghar. In
this  case,  things weren't  going too  badly, "daddy"  was  conducting  the
operation  well, exerting no pressure on the  commander, everything had been
worked out in advance and the operation  was going to  plan.  Unfortunately,
thought Sorokin looking at the scene of  activity through his binoculars, it
is never possible to kill absolutely everyone. The spooks would go to ground
in caves, irrigation tunnels and sit out the bombardment, even vacuum  bombs
wouldn't affect them. There will be losses, inevitably there will be losses.
War is never without victims-
     The troops moved forward towards the foe. Like spawning trout, choppers
spread out  all over the place, disgorging handfuls of  men here and  there.
The  army  machine  began  to move,  rotate,  crawl in the  direction of the
spooks' fortified area, unit after unit.
     It  was always like  this in war since times immemorial; someone waited
in the train for the outcome of the battle, someone watched from  a distance
and someone fought and died. Senior lieutenant Sharagin figured among  those
who fought - his platoon  was  to be dropped into  the hills under  cover of
darkness, last preparations were being made, among the observers was general
Sorokin and a clutch of headquarters political  staff who were all bored but
managed  to   hide   their   inactivity  by   looking  important,   serious,
     A rotund  lieutenant  colonel was doing an especially good job  of this
subterfuge. He leafed through an exercise book, made notes from time to time
and,  in  order  to  impress  general  Sorokin, occasionally  turned to  his
colleagues and read out bits from some book  or other about the manners  and
mores of  the Pashtun  tribes, against whom  this whole  operation  had been
     "Brass on  the way!" cried a lean lieutenant colonel bounding up to the
observers, and then blanched slightly. "Sorry, comrade general, but a member
of the Military Council is on his way over here with a camera crew-"

     Many  generals like  to see everything snap into  action and  hear loud
commands the  moment they  appear  on  the horizon, otherwise they feel that
their high position is not  being recognized sufficiently. The member of the
Military  Council   belonged  to  this  type  of  generals.  Sorokin  seemed
relatively unaffected by such fussing.
     While the  television  people  were  recording  an interview  with  the
Military Council ace, Sorokin noted  that the  journalist was breathing very
heavily. In  the  newscasts on "Vremya" this  always seemed very impressive,
introducing a  note of urgency  as  though the  journalist had accompanied a
reconnaissance  patrol  up  the  mountainside  and  remained  alongside  the
outstanding fighters of the Limited Contingent in battle.
     I feel  like  I  want  to  be  in  the  picture, too,  thought  Sorokin
fleetingly.  The other  officers  probably got  in, fussing  around  in  the
background and unfolding maps,  pretending to  draw lines  on them,  holding
their  binoculars to  their eyes  and  turning this way and that.  The whole
country will see them.
     "Finished?" asked the Military Council general, running a hand over his
hair.  The  wind had not affected  his  hairdo during the interview. "Did it
come out well?"
     "You described everything perfectly," nodded the journalist.
     "So, what now?"
     "I'd like to get some footage of a platoon of paratroopers, remember we
talked about it? The last hours before battle, that sort of thing."
     "Hmmm-"  pondered  the member of  the  Military Council. The lieutenant
colonel  with  bushy  eyebrows looked eagerly  at  the  Mililtary Counselor,
trying  to  catch  his  eye,  his  whole  demeanor  expressing  devotion. He
succeeded. "Boris Alexandrovich, contact the paras. Who's in command there?"
     "I've just been speaking with Bogdanov."
     "Is he all set?"
     "Boris  Alexandrovich will  escort  you. Once you're  through  filming,
we'll have dinner. I hope you'll join us too, Alexei Glebovich."
     "Yes, of course," assured the journalist.
     Sorokin inclined his head gratefully: "Thank you."
     The group of political officers returned to discussing the military and
political situation in the province  with  serious faces, putting on  a good
show for the general, analyzing the circumstances aloud.
     Pashtuns,  Tadjiks,  Khazars,  Uzbeks, Parcham,  Khalk,  Amin,  Taraki,
Babrak  Karmal,  Akhmad  Shah  Masood,  Gulbeddin  - everyone and their aunt
Ermyntrude's  here, thought  Sorokin,  what  a  devil's  brew!  Everything's
hopelessly  mixed up. How many memorandums had  been written, how  much he'd
read both in Moscow and here at the residence, but how on earth could you be
expected to remember it all?
     In any event, it's  a rather futile occupation to sit around discussing
the customs of tribes which have just been bombed.
     On  his way  to wash and have  a rest, the general spotted bare-chested
medics, bellies hanging over  their belts, playing  backgammon between  some
army  vehicles.  Soldiers  incapacitated  by  heat stroke lay  on stretchers
behind  them.  The  general  passed  by  without  stopping at this temporary
medical  point, or he would have seen how one of the medics finished a game,
went over to  the bodies on  the stretchers and dribbled a  thin trickle  of
water  on the  slack faces  of the  unconscious young soldiers, then hurried
back to the game to recoup his losses.

     - Andersen is here, the  great storyteller-if  only you'd say the truth
for  once!  Back  in the Union  people watch  his  reports, believing  every
word-fables,  utter garbage! Hans Christian  Andersen would have envied your
ability to fantasize!-

     The  officer  looked  suitably solemn as  he  shook  the  hand  of  the
journalist who was as fat as himself:
     "Lieutenant colonel Bogdanov."
     "Pleasure." The journalist threw a beady eye over the small parachutes,
which decorated the experimental uniform, as if making sure that the officer
was from  the  paratroops and not a substitute, then clapped  the lieutenant
colonel on  the shoulder. "Let's have a look at your  lot."  The  journalist
addressed generals with the official "you", but he didn't stand any ceremony
with colonels and lieutenant colonels, not considering them his  equals. The
familiar "thou" would do for them. "Where are your eagles, then?"

     -Got to  get out  of  this-all I need  is to be  forced to make  stupid
comments for the whole country to hear-I'll be a laughing-stock-

     "Comrade senior lieutenant!" called Bogdanov.
     Sharagin cursed silently.
     "No, his  face is too Slavic,"  pronounced  the journalist  decisively.
"And he's an officer. I'd like you to gather a group of ordinary soldiers of
various nationalities, to  show friendship of the  peoples, so to speak.  An
Armenian with an Azeri, say, someone from  one of the Baltic States, someone
from Central Asia."
     "Senior lieutenant Sharagin reporting as ordered!"
     "No, you can go," Bogdanov waved dismissal. "Where the hell can we find
so many  different faces? We  do  have  one Armenian.  Is  that right? And a
Lithuanian. Or is he a Latvian?"
     "A Latvian, comrade lieutenant colonel!"
     "What  if we  ask among the  neighboring  units? Or  do  you  need only
paratroopers?"  interrupted the  beetle-browed lieutenant  colonel escorting
the journalist.
     "Fine,  see  to  it!" agreed the journalist. "You'll sit in  the middle
with  your  paras," he instructed Bogdanov, pointing to  the spot  where  he
wanted him. "Make sure  we can see their  striped  undershirts. The "chocks"
can sit over here-.

     - whew!-

     sighed Sharagin.

     - it's bad luck to be  photographed before  battle.  -and more so to be
filmed -even though Lena would have liked to see me on television.. but then
she would worry even more -

     Sorokin enjoyed a  hearty  meal; they finished off a bottle  of  vodka,
exchanged courtesies with the television reporter  and  set off  for  a  few
hours'  rest.  After-dinner laziness  is inexorable. He  recalled fleetingly
that the  camera must have  caught him in  the background several times  and
thought how nice it would be for the family  to  see him on the evening news
even so. On this  thought he drifted off to sleep. When he woke up, he began
a mental comparison of the current operation and those which had taken place
at the start of the  Afghan  epic. For  some reason  this particular tour of
duty  in  Afghanistan, a short visit to the war,  kept turning  his thoughts
back to  the time Soviet troops first entered Afghanistan. He kept wondering
if there would  be anyone  to tell the tale  of the  40th Army, or would its
history remain classified as "top secret" forever? It hurt. Nobody would  be
able to recreate all the  events, all the  battles, he told himself. Because
there are so  many  untruths in the  papers  written and  sent to  Kabul and
Moscow. Just out of interest, he  decided, I'll read  up the reports on this
operation when I get back to Kabul and compare them with what I've seen with
my own eyes. For sure there'll be discrepancies.
     Had the reports sent to command from the division he had served in been
all  that much  different?  The  distortions began at company  and battalion
level. Reports were so often a far cry  from reality!  And the further,  the
worse. An account sent from the  division to army  headquarters it  would be
stated that  so  many rebels had been killed, so many  heavy-caliber machine
guns had been taken, so many rifles, a recoilless, but the physical trophies
presented would  be about  five rusty rifles which  looked suspiciously like
those taken a few months ago. Deception? By the looks of  it,  yes. Why seek
any  further  for  evidence  when  he,  Sorokin,  had  personally  witnessed
straight-out farces of this kind?  Yesterday a sharp lieutenant colonel, one
Bogdanov, had staged an attack and battle, reporting in against the sound of
the voices of his subordinates, laced with swear-words: "They're having a go
at  us!" He was even commended  by the divisional commander and  the overall
commander,  because he immediately ordered  return fire and claimed that his
lads had  taken out all the rebel firing positions, emerged without a single
loss from a  spook ambush and taken the positions they were aiming for right
on  time. But  only this morning,  Sorokin  heard  about  all  this from  an
eyewitness  from  that column.  It  emerged  that  nothing of  the  kind had
happened. No  spooks,  no ambush-So most likely nobody would ever write  the
truth about this  war.  And  if later anyone were  to attempt an analysis of
this operation,  they  would  come  across  an  incident  which  never  even

     Several days  into  the operation, Sorokin was  summoned back to Kabul.
The  general was already  in the helicopter when an order came through  from
the  Military  Counselor to delay  the  flight. They  took  off  later  than
planned,  which annoyed the general intensely. The hospitable Counselor  had
spent all  this time plying  the  journalist with  food and drink, and  this
caused an hour's delay on departure.
     Two  people  loaded  "Andersen"  into the chopper  with difficulty.  He
reeked of alcohol. He was in no condition to think or even recognize anyone.
     "Greetings  to our  valiant officers! Let's go!" he managed to say, and
promptly began to snore.

     The shuravi moved deeper and deeper into the Afghan meat-grinder;

     - we're hordes and hordes and hordes -

     It  turned them over,  squashed  them, killed  them;  insatiable  death
demanded new victims; people resisted, but not always with success.

     After  debilitating  combat,  seizure  of  the heights  and  pursuit of
scattered spook groups, the battalion was moving  towards the  main camp, to
the armed group. Sharagin's platoon brought up the rear.

     -only our soldiers can go scrambling around these mountains loaded down
with weapons  and rations for some  idea and ten coupons a month, fight like
hell  and  die  with  a  feeling  of  "duty   discharged"   in  this  damned
Afghanistan!- is  this  a platoon?  -a handful!- what's this for a  platoon,
fuck it?!  Twelve men-.the slopes  of  that  mountain look like an  unshaved
chin, scattered with bushes-I need a shave, too-

     Sharagin  took the rifle off his shoulder into his hands. Now his short
shadow was armed, too, just in case.

     - twelve  men  in  the platoon-so what?-it's been  worse-that's  right,
there were times when we'd scale these mountains and laugh with  joy that we
were at least ten-as  for now - a whole twelve!-we'll do a bit more fighting
yet!-an hour more,  and we should be out of here-fucking mountains! Time for
you to go home, Sharagin-

     He wiped his forehead  and eyebrows with filthy hands. His hat had been
saturated  with sweat, but had now dried out and drooped sadly, white traces
of salt all over it.  The hat held back the sweat,  but trickles would still
get through and roll down sunburned face and neck.

     -it's hard going, the  lungs can't handle it, and my troops  are tired,
like  dried fish-mouth dry, throat scratchy-we  can't stop, we've got to get
out of here-I don't like the feel of this ridge -

     He cast a look at his men - they were moving along in file, still game.

     -Savatyev's tired  of  lugging  that machine gun-.he carried a  wounded
comrade exactly  like that  once-Burkov's limping, probably rubbed his  feet
raw-Well, Gerasimov, this is  all a bit different to writing combat  reports
for  the   political  officer,   isn't  it?-Myshkovsky's  keeping   everyone
moving-hmmmm, wonder if it's mined here? Too late  now if it is, should have
thought  of  that sooner-now we'll  just have  to take our  chances-.but no,
nobody's been here-I hope-

     Two walking in  front of him. Rear view of heads and backs. Dried sweat
stains  on the shirts. So what, he doesn't need to see their faces. He knows
all his men even from the back.

     - you can see Sychev's cheeks sticking out even from the back, he'll be
a fatso in ten years' time, for  sure-Chirikov's pants are  flapping around,
he's round-shouldered and  sway-backed-"never  mind  my sunken chest, take a
look at the bend in my back"-

     - a shower, a good shower, that's what I need, a glass  of water  after
the  bath-house-I  don't  like  this  gorge-I'll  spend an  hour  under  the
shower-clean clothes-.there's got to  be  one of our positions somewhere, up
on that  crest, I think-quit  worrying,  there aren't any spooks here! There
can't be.  There shouldn't be,  what would spooks be doing  here?-we've left
them all behind-we killed all the spooks-we'll get down to the riverbed, and
it won't be far after that-I'm dying for a smoke-

     -damned sun's  broiling-hang in there, pal!-everything behind me  is in
order,  in front, too-I'm tired,  everyone's tired-.prickly  nervous  faces,
sour, drooping-.replacement, replacement soon-don't think about that!-a bare
ridge to  the left, I don't like  that ridge-where's  the promised  outpost?
-it's too  quiet-where  are our people?-I'll  buy a double  cassette player,
just  like Zebrev's-just as well  I've bought just about everything  for  my
girls-must  make a  trip into  town after  the  operation-what's he  talking
about, a break!-

     "No stopping! Keep moving! Look lively!"

     -  the sun, this blasted sun,  cold and snow would  be better than this
heat, and when you sleep in the mountains at night you freeze  and  wish  it
was warm, can't wait for the sun to rise-.

     -the  faster  we're out  of  here the better, away from trouble, rotten
place, none of our positions to be seen, we've got to get out of here-clouds
over the sun, the sun's gone- cloud shadow over the whole gorge-

     More than  two kilometers away, company  commander  Zebrev stood in the
shelter  and through his  binoculars  saw small  figures  with matted greasy
beards. At this distance, they looked like toys.  Sure-footed men in turbans
and  Pashtun  hats  swarmed  over  the  crest  and  scattered  in  different
directions, taking  up  positions  behind huge boulders and waiting  for the
tail  platoon  to  appear;  Zebrev saw  Sharagin's platoon  walking into the
ambush, but there was nothing he could do-

     Machine  guns  chattered, the paras  fell like tin soldiers which a boy
playing at war tips over one after another, crying  out: "Bang-bang!  You're
dead! Lie there and don't move! And you're wounded!"
     Sharagin  fell  after the first shot and explosion.  He breathed in the
bitter taste  of the  explosion,  lost  his  hearing,  but  rallied quickly,
swallowed the bitterness and breathed deeply, as if surfacing after a  dive,
"sobered up."
     The flash of the explosion nearby  seemed to spear  through  his  eyes,
penetrate  his  brain,  pierce  his consciousness  more  painfully  than  an
injection, and receded just as quickly.
     He  thought that he had jumped himself, hiding from the streams of fire
raining down the slope, and it was partly true, he struck the sand and  felt
himself soaked in blood.
     However, he could not tell for sure how much time passed since he heard
the shots and  explosion,  when he became wounded,  threw  his backpack  and
sleeping bag off and saw  the  streams of  blood as he tried  to aim at  the
     The ambush struck him off course, snapped some inner regular mechanism,
time went out of kilter and began  to contract and expand in some mysterious

     -Someone omnipotent  threw the dice and HIS, Sharagin's number came up.
But  that same  omnipotent  being seemed to hesitate at the last  moment, as
though distracted, or maybe the dice  fell  on their ribs and  remained like
that for a while before rolling over on the table, and this gave a few extra
moments of life, nothing compared to infinity-

     He evaluated  the situation at  once:  they'd made their move well, the
spooks, the entire platoon was  exposed. Sharagin tried to estimate how long
they  could hold out, how far  off  was the battalion, would they be able to
establish  contact with them  quickly over the  radio, and wondered bitterly
where the hell the supposed shelter really was.
     Junior sergeant Myshkovsky was the first to spot that the commander was
wounded. He ran, and Sharagin  could  see spurts of dust under the soldier's
feet. He did  not  recognize his own  voice, it was  as if someone else  was
shouting over the noise of the battle:
     "Back! Go back!"
     Myshkovsky stopped suddenly, as though he heard the order, jerked, spun
on the  spot and froze for a moment, unnaturally,  as if he was about to run
back,  away from the ambush, but then  changed his mind  and crashed to  the
     He fell face-forward on the sharp fangs of stones, one of which pierced
his eye; an outside  observer would have thought that it must be  unbearably
painful to fall face down on stones and lose an eye that way. But Myshkovsky
had felt nothing,  he was already dead on  his feet when a volley of bullets
stitched accurately, like a machine seam, through his heart and lungs.
     The panama fell  off his head and rolled away with its red star, hammer
and sickle.
     The  dead face, turned  towards his commanding officer,  seemed somehow
child-like, naively surprised, and at the same time seemed to be waiting for
a last order,  because his commander  had called something  to  him a moment
ago. Myshkovsky's remaining eye was frozen in the reflection of death.

     - death chose him, I'm next-

     As soon as Sharagin took his hand away from his neck, a thick stream of
blood, broad as a  finger,  spurted out  into  the dust, dyeing  surrounding
small  stones. He  licked his palm  as  if to make sure that  it was  really
blood,  and tasted its warm saltiness in  his mouth. He spat. Overcoming the
pain, which constricted his neck and burned, Sharagin  managed to take cover
from the spooks behind a rock.

     - I need bandaging as quickly as possible -

     He tore open a pack of dressing, but realized that he could not bandage
himself properly. Turning on his other side he called:
     "Sychev! Sychev!"
     Sychev could neither see nor hear the commander.

     - my shoes are wet-why are they wet?-boots full of blood, I can move my
toes, but it's  slurping inside-my shirt's  all wet, sticky-the wound has to
be plugged!-

     The  soldier  was busy  reloading but finally  noticed that the platoon
leader was wounded, crawled up crabwise, keeping a frantic eye on the crest,
saw his friend lying behind Sharagin.
     "He's dead," husked Sharagin in order not to lose time.
     "Sons of  bitches!" yelled  Sychev. He grabbed  his assault  rifle, but
Sharagin restrained him.
     "Right, comrade senior lieutenant, we'll have you bandaged in no time-"
     He tore the  rubber packaging of the dressing with his teeth, and began
bandaging Sharagin's throat. The dressings,  absorbing  blood like a sponge,
stuck together, allowing thin red trickles to pass through.
     'We've had it," said Sychev fearfully as a grenade exploded nearby, but
Sharagin's eyes snapped him back.
     He was about to say something when the sky above them seemed to quiver,
keel over sideways and turn upside-down-

     -  if  the jugular  vein's  ripped,  it's  curtains, I'll be  dead in a

     The bleeding won't stop!" yelled the soldier, cringing away from flying
bullets. "It's not stopping!" he shouted straight into Sharagin's ear.
     "The wrapping!  Plug it with  the bandage wrapping-"  guessed Sharagin.
The result was a huge bulge on his neck. The bleeding stopped. He turned his
head, and blood began to trickle again.
     Sychev listened to  Sharagin's rasping voice and passed on his  orders.
Did the other soldiers on the slope hear them?
     "Don't  waste ammunition!" cried Sychev at the top of his  voice.  "Hit
the crest  with  the heavy fire! Cover  the left flank!-Single  shots!-Don't
waste ammunition!-"
     Sharagin rolled over on  his stomach.  He  could  clearly  see  a spook
coming down the slope.

     - about the same age as me -

     He kept the  spook in his  sights. He had such a good aim that it would
be disappointing if someone else beat him to it and shot his "prey."

     - time -

     The  bullets  hit their  mark.  The spook fell, but  Sharagin  kept his
finger on the trigger because spook heads  were poking up to left and  right
from  behind  rocks. He had  used up  most of  his magazine  when his  rifle
jammed. Almost at the same moment, everything went black.

     - this is it-I won't let them take me  alive, I'll wait until it quiets
down and then I'll blow myself up, when the spooks come closer I'll get them

     He pulled  a grenade out  of his vest,  clutching  it  in his hand like
something  infinitely precious, something that  would  bring instant release
from suffering and the horror of being taken prisoner.
     His  eyesight  returned. At  first everything  looked  foggy, but  then
cleared. He could see Sychev not far from himself. The  only thing he  could
not understand was  why  had  everyone  stopped shooting?  Could  they  have
possibly driven off the spooks?

     -I  must be  deaf! It can't  have finished  just  like this-such things
don't happen-

     In fact,  the  battle  had  not stopped, it was  just that  the  senior
lieutenant couldn't  hear a thing. He  saw  Sychev's  face twisting, saw his
rifle move, cartridge cases falling to the ground, but he could hear neither
voices nor shots.
     The soft whiskers on the grenade straightened  out. Sharagin pressed it
to his heart with his right hand.

     - pain, I didn't notice it immediately -

     Pain. It took possession timidly,

     - like a fellow-passenger in a crowded bus-

     Crept up  carefully, as if wanting  to nestle up: only later, acquiring
strength,  it  changed  into  something brighter,  anxiety-provoking -  into
crimson, the color of blood  issuing from a wound; it deepened, it took full
control, became unbearable and wiped away,

     -the way unnecessary words are wiped off a blackboard-

     wiped  away  the  bright  colors  and  thoughts, feelings,  diving into
infinity, filling every moment with blindingly burning light-.
     "We need contact," husked  Sharagin. "Call up the artillery-Get them to
fire on us!"

     The first shell fell accurately on the crest. Sharagin did not hear the
explosion,  but  felt the  earth shudder. He peered out from  his concealing
rock in  order to check  where  the hit had been made. The fire was precise,
one shell after another neatly, as if someone was adjusting each one.

     -  luck!-we  called them to fire on us, but they messed up as usual-but
how did  they manage  to  establish  contact  and pass on the coordinates so
quickly? I must have blacked out for a while-.did I?

     Sharagin had no way  of knowing that the company commander had followed
the entire  battle  through his field glasses. The position had been put up,
but it was  at least  two kilometers away. Therefore it was  Zebrev who gave
the coordinates  and corrected the trajectories.  He  saw the  spooks coming
down the left slope.  They would have gone around  the  platoon soon and hit
them directly.
     Sharagin heard the last explosions on the crest and volleys of gunfire:
his hearing returned as suddenly as it had disappeared. He felt as though  a
tidal wave had  washed  over  him,  returning him  to  the world of familiar
     While the men dealt with the dead and wounded, Sharagin put the grenade
back in  his vest and began  to check out the rifle, which had failed him so
badly. He became immersed in this task, as if there was nothing better to do
than get it in working order, as though he was not wounded, as though  there
were no waves of pain which rose and receded.
     "Comrade senior lieutenant, Myshkovsky and  Chirikov  are dead-five men
wounded, Savateyev and Burkov heavily," reported someone.

     - yes, yes-sonafabitch, why did you let me down like that?-

     "Comrade senior lieutenant-"

     Sharagin jerked the breech of the rifle. With every jerk, the  dressing
on his  neck slipped  and  blood began to run. He grabbed a rock and hit the
breech with all his strength. The breech moved. Blood flowed faster. He felt
warm streams of it running down his body under his shirt.
     "Comrade senior lieutenant-"
     Sharagin choked on a cough, saw sparks in his eyes.
     "Oleg!" called Zebrev. "Can you hear me?"

     - this is really it, I'm going -

     He must have  been lying without movement  for  a long  time. Blood ran
from his  ears  and nose. Soldiers surrounded  him, almost  blocking out the
     He understood  that he was dead, that they knew it  too and were saying
farewell to their commander.
     The deep sky  seemed to draw him, race to meet him,  persuading  him to
break away from all earthly cares, to  soar into the endless heavenly  space
and dissolve in it forever.
     And the last thing he was to see before he died was a plane high above,
and  he felt  glad that  it  was an Il-76, which was possibly carrying  away
people who had survived the war.

     - somebody was lucky-

     Or perhaps it was returning from Tashkent, filled with new recruits and
men coming back from leave.
     But  at the last moment he  hesitated,  because  looking  at the  plane
intently he saw that it was a "Black Tulip."

     - what a prosaic end!-

     However, something held the spirit of life fast inside him, brought him
back to the moment when Zebrev came up. Or did it just seem to Sharagin that
he was alive?

     - people don't come back from the  next world-it's a delusion-.how much
time has passed?-

     "Hang on, don't move!" said Zebrev. "We'll carry you!"
     "I can mange alone! Help me up!"
     "Move  out!"  ordered  Zebrev,  and  the  soldiers   from  the  platoon
accompanying him began to gather up the dead and wounded.
     Sharagin found his balance, pushed helping hands aside:
     "I can manage!"

     -I  have  to  walk,  but  there's no  strength  left-like  a  half-dead
cockroach-legs shaking-cough-

     Only now did Sharagin feel that the bullet

     - or a fragment -

     was lodged in his throat.

     -like a foreign body inside, a tiny lump of lead-

     "Comrade  senior  lieutenant,  let me  give  you  a shot  of Promedol,"
offered Sychev.

     - they give me a shot, I'll start to drift-

     "Give it to the wounded."
     Somehow remaining on his  feet, leaning heavily  on his rifle, Sharagin
descended to the stream. There was a flat area ahead, where a chopper  could
     He walked  more than a kilometer, second  to last in the line. In front
of him,  soldiers  dragged two corpses  in  ground  sheets  and  the moaning
     He stopped several times, asked  for his flask to  be  filled, greedily
drinking the icy water of  the mountain  stream. It was  like  water from  a
sacred spring - it gave strength and froze and numbed the pain in his neck.
     At one  stage he staggered,  but  managed  to regain  his  balance  and
stopped. He wanted to jump into  the water, let it  carry him  away into the
unknown, escape from the tragedy, which had occurred.

     -if only I can hang on, not  black out, not lose consciousness, not  to
succumb to self-pity-I'll walk to the end-I've got to get the platoon out of

     "If I fall, catch me," he said to a soldier next to  him. He could  not
see the soldier's face through the murk in his eyes.

     Stinging  particles  of dust  whipped up by the  chopper's  blades flew
everywhere, scratching  and biting  Sharagin's face, which  was  already raw
from  a week in the mountains.  Probably his sunburned skin  could be peeled
away from his face like a sock.
     They carried Myshkovsky past, one remaining eye staring.

     -an empty,  dead look on a cold, immobile face-when  a fish lies in the
bottom of a boat and flaps its tail helplessly, its glazing eye sees the sky
above, and it probably thinks that it is seeing the deep blue of the sea-you
spend a day  fishing, looking at your catch  from time  to  time-and feel no
pity,  no  fellow-suffering-what's  happening  to me?-the sun dries out  the
fish's scales, the fish becomes hard, wooden-

     "Take them into the tail section!"
     Chirikov followed Myshkovsky. While  the bodies were being dragged into
the chopper, legs first, the  canvas fell back, exposing the dead  soldier's
fair head and blood-caked face.  Sharagin surged forward,  pulled the canvas
     "Now the wounded!"
     "That's it!" called Zebrev, helping  Sharagin clamber inside. "Hang on,
Oleg!  Here,  take these." A  string of lapis-lazuli worry  beads lay on his
palm. "One of the spooks dropped these. He won't be needing them any more-"
     Exhausted,  furious,  half-deaf, Sharagin settled  on  the  floor, back
against  the  wall of the fuselage. Pain swelled to the volume  of a roaring
chopper, even more, perhaps, and filled  all  the  available space, seen and
     The blades dragged the chopper up into the air.
     A pilot poked his head out from the cockpit:
     "Hey, guys!  Somebody man the  machine gun! This is bad territory! Pray
God we can get out!"

     -Where's my rifle? How will I be able to shoot back?

     "Tighten my tourniquet, comrade senior lieu-" groaned private Burkov.
     Sharagin  shook  himself  and got  on  to  his  knees  to  tighten  the
tourniquet around Burkov's machine  gun smashed leg.  And  immediately  felt
that he was choking. Not enough oxygen at this altitude. The bandages seemed
to constrict his throat. He fell forward on Burkov.
     The darkness that engulfed him immediately was not frightening. He gave
way to it effortlessly, knowing that he could not resist. He had no strength
to fight it.

     -and     then-to     sleep,     perchance     to     dream-who     said
that?-Shakespeare?-can't  remember-it would be a fine thing to go to Heaven,
but my sins won't let me-

     He  wanted  desperately to  understand  what was  going  on,  what  was
happening  with his mind,  but  he  could find nothing to cling to,  nothing
certain to stop him from sliding into the chasm; the past disappeared all at
once, he  did not dare suspect a future,  while the present was  filled with
silence - not a rustle, not a sound, not even a distant hint of life.
     Then after a million years of all-pervading silence, something  came to
life, and he could have sworn that there was now a  presence in the silence,
probably  the presence of  Death,  which  was  feeling around,  seeking  the
bleeding, pain-wracked human being who huddled  in  a  damp corner,  hiding,
unprepared, unwilling to die.

     -that's all-the end-

     A tidal wave  of noise  seemed to  engulf  him, a universe of  terrible
noise; he tumbled into those dark  depths deeper and deeper,  then hung, got
stuck,  unable  to distinguish separate sounds: there  was just a monotonous
roar drilling through his skull.  Sharagin did not  know whether he had gone
blind,  or just had his  eyes  shut, or  whether the spark of  hope that had
still  glimmered  a  second, a minute,  an  hour  ago  that  he would  live,
flickered out and left him  here, in the empty darkness, in the waiting room
of Death.

Популярность: 3, Last-modified: Wed, 02 Mar 2005 11:50:07 GMT