MOSCOW — They were the last soldiers of the cold war, fighting in a conflict that hastened the demise of their country.
Sasha Kartava, Pasha Panin, and Misha Fominykh served in Afghanistan, in a Soviet Army brigade during the 1980s.
It was a war that isolated the USSR, quashed dtente with the West, and depleted an economically exhausted country. It was the Soviet Union's Vietnam.
But for these three men, that war experience elevated their expectations and their social status.
When it all crashed, a disenchantment set in that helps explain much of Russian life today.
Living in the Soviet Union back then was like living in a windowless skyscraper. The people had maps that roughly pinpointed where they'd end up in the structure, and most lives unfolded according to these directions.
Perestroika, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of restructuring and democratization, scrambled everything inside. But the people's maps remained the same.
Military academy graduates faced a fairly bright future in the dreary Soviet landscape. Theirs was the country's most important industry. It paid well, provided perks, and commanded respect from the population.
Mr. Fominykh's father had a secondary education, but did not serve in the military. "I never got anywhere because I lacked that icing," the father once told his teenage son in the middle of the night. "Don't let the same thing happen to you."
Fominykh got the icing, but found as his first posting the dreaded Transbaikal circuit - a town in Siberia soaked in boredom. "Comrade lieutenant, I order you not to drink for three months," was his first order. Afghanistan was his chance to flee: "I saw people who'd spent their whole lives [in Siberia] and I was willing to take any route to escape their fate."
For Mr. Panin, son of a military man, serving was an honorable profession. War provided valuable experience: "As an officer, you need experience in live battle."
For Mr. Kartava, the Army "was a good place, where they fed you, clothed you, and did your thinking for you. All you had to do was serve your two years for your homeland and then you were free."
Afghanistan offered all that. A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Stepping off a plane in the Afghan city of Jalalabad was like falling into a tub of cotton, so hot and humid was the air. The military base sat on a riverbank surrounded by orange and mandarin groves. The aroma from eucalyptus trees mixed with the smell of dust that always hung in the air.
It was, in a way, a blissful existence. Life, defined by fighting anticommunist Afghan guerrillas, had a purpose: "They were the bad guys, we knew what to do," Kartava says.
The purpose blended with the sweet simplicity of day-to-day existence. Mundane, ordinary, fleeting moments - stumbling onto an ice-cream vendor in the city - turned into reservoirs of savored memories. Years later, they still remained with the men.
"Those were the best years of my life," Fominykh says.
Except there was the killing. Nearly 14,000 Soviets died in the decade-long conflict to protect a communist Afghan regime. Afghan veterans' groups say this official number is too low and claim casualties number thousands more.
During violent sortie encounters, men saw their friends die yards away. They couldn't get the sights and sounds of those battles out of their heads.
Those are the memories these men - among a half million veterans - hid away and rarely took out.
At the end of a two-year tour, some didn't want to leave.
"I'd found myself. I was respected there, I had responsibility. I did my job well," says Fominykh.
"People listened to me, took my advice, found it valuable," says Kartava. "I knew that I was useful."
"Things were more simple. If you were dirt, it showed in your first battle," Panin says.
AFTER THE COLLAPSE
The veterans of the war were, in a sense, the people least prepared to handle changes brought by the USSR's collapse in 1991. If ordinary citizens were accustomed to structure, military men were doubly so. They had no reason to think life wouldn't unfold according to the original plan.
As hoped, Fominykh escaped the Transbaikal circuit; his next posting was in tiny Lithuania on the Baltic.
In war, he commanded a company of more than 80 men. In peace, he had a handful of soldiers in his charge; their duties alternated between shuffling papers and tinkering with machinery at a deserted base. "At first, it was good to relax from the war," he says. Then he began to see the Army's future growing dim.
Funding was drying up and the uniform now evoked jeers, especially in an independence-minded republic like Lithuania.
After quitting in 1992, Fominykh was by turns a merchant, driver, and security guard. None brought much money or satisfaction. After his divorce last year, he came to Moscow, slept on his brother's couch, and paced nights away as a warehouse guard.
"I thought that if I'd done my duty, paid my dues, that advancement would happen by itself, and that I shouldn't expend too much energy toward it," he says.
Kartava bounced around in Ukraine: He'd get a job at a factory and it would close. He became a carpenter and the currency collapsed and house orders vanished.
Then Panin showed up. Panin didn't bounce after the war. He slid.
Panin liked the art of war. He wasn't bloodthirsty - he simply performed well in and liked the feeling of extreme situations. He liked the chess-like mental calisthenics that reconnaissance work required.
His enthusiasm in his Urals posting - training recon soldiers - crashed into indifference: Neither the soldiers nor the commanders cared.
To ease the frustration, Panin frequented bars. The outings inevitably led to brawls that he sometimes extended to his wife. After one such "pogrom," Panin returned and found the house empty. When his commander learned of the incident, Panin was discharged.
A few months later, after another bar brawl left a man dead, Panin went into hiding and came to Moscow to join a friend who was a trader.
In Moscow's business circles at the time, often compared to Chicago in the 1920s, military skills were handy. Panin went to Ukraine to enlist Kartava in the venture. Eventually, the partnership split up.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, its residents, for the most part, cheered. After 70-plus years of dank, stale halls, the fresh air felt good, even if a little scary. The air buzzed with enthusiasm.
There is no such energy today. Eight years of stumbling through rubble has left everyone exhausted. Few harbor hope for days ahead, many are angry and some want the old well-ordered skyscraper back.
'I DON'T NEED THIS DEMOCRACY'
Kartava drives a gypsy cab in Moscow and barely controls his bitterness. Life was a contract. He did his share. The payoff, though, has yet to come.
"I don't feel there is a country behind me," he says. "I don't need this democracy, because it's led the country to complete instability. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, I don't care under what kind of government - democrats, communists, or what. Under the communists, sure, we lived a grayer life, but there was stability."
Fominykh does not blame fate, or anyone. He is just trying to figure out what to do. "Since Afghanistan - it'll be 13 years since I've come back - there are no accomplishments. But who are you going to blame? It's no fun blaming yourself - and what's the use of blaming others?
"I guess the collapse of the country really rolled over me.... I suspected what awaited me when I returned from Afghanistan ... that your abilities and your accomplishments are not needed here, that no one cares about them ... but I didn't expect to end up like this ... that at 37 years, I wouldn't know which direction to turn."
He adds, "If we didn't serve, life would be easier, because then we'd be like everyone else."
But they did serve - and tasted an existence where they were needed. Postwar life didn't need their skills at all.
For years, Panin couldn't accept this reality. He has always been a rebel without a cause - an above-average intellect with an artist's inner torment, powered by excessive energy. Afghanistan provided an outlet for the latter; post-Soviet Russia did not.
He has begun climbing from the bottom - he hasn't had a drink in a year and is no longer on the run from the law because charges against him were dropped. And he is working.
Panin remarried and has a seven-year-old son whom he encourages to become anything but a soldier. "Daddy has fought enough for a few generations," he tells him.
Panin says he and others like him have decided to make the best of living in Russia: "We might as well make it better, at least for the sake of our kids. It's important for me that my children live better than us."
This is one Red Army officer who sounds anything but Soviet. "Everything depends on the individual," he says. "Each person has a responsibility toward history.
"I have a specific goal - that my family lives better. Then I can start worrying about other things."
As he says this, his green eyes twinkle. "Life is just beginning."