Soviet soldiers returning from Afghanistan may be suffering much of the same alienation and bitterness felt by their American counterparts coming home from Vietnam a generation ago. Letters in the Soviet press have hinted at the problem before. But now, a long, detailed article in the official newspaper of the Young Communist League, Komso- molskaya Pravda, indicates that it may be widespread and persistent, affecting significant numbers of returning servicemen.
These veterans, known as ``Afghanyets,'' meet to discuss their wartime experiences and seek support from one another in the face of an indifferent and sometimes hostile society.
Having been told that they were being sent to Afghanistan to ``defend the motherland,'' some returning veterans find that while they have faced privations in Afghanistan, others have been thriving back home. What often follows is a sense of injustice and resentment, that spawns a host of problems that would be instantly recognizable to many Americans who lived through the Vietnam era.
Some ``Afghanyets'' question the reason for the country's involvement in a far-away conflict. Others have extreme difficulty readjusting to civilian life. And so deep is the alienation of some veterans, that they have even formed vigilante gangs to mete out a form of rough justice to those civilians they deem unworthy of the sacrifices being made in Afghanistan.
An archetype of these embittered veterans, perhaps, is Anatoly. His estrangement from Soviet society was portrayed in a letter to Komsomolskaya Pravda from a Soviet prosecutor, Alexander Drobotov. Mr. Drobotov had not expected to encounter Anatoly. The brawny young man appeared in his office after Drobotov had investigated charges against an alleged embezzler, and decided not to prosecute him.
Anatoly demanded to know why this ``money-grabbing. . .Contra'' was being set free. (``Contra,'' a Russian term meaning ``counter-revolutionary,'' is used to describe those who oppose communist rule, including Afghan rebels.) He warned that a group of ex-veterans would ``deal with him ourselves,'' a threat that seems to have been carried out, since, according to the prosecutor, the alleged embezzler fled town ``for good.''
Dobrotov learned that Anatoly, after 18 months of military service in Afghanistan, had returned to a ``routine, complacent'' society into which he no longer fit. His sleep was troubled by thoughts of the warn-torn country where he had lost a friend, and had himself been wounded.
Meanwhile, his former friends in civilian life seemed to have changed, too. They were, said Anatoly, preoccupied with acquiring new clothes and the latest recordings -- concerns that were unspeakably trivial compared to the life-and-death conflict underway in Afghanistan.
``What did my friend die for?'' asked Anatoly. ``Was it really for these speculators? These complacent and self-satisfied scroungers? And what is the battle there going on for?''
Those are, of course, powerful questions in a society schooled not to question the authorities that send men to war, nor the reasons for going. That they should be printed in a leading Soviet newspaper perhaps hints at the depth of disaffection with Afghanistan that lies just below the surface of this society.
Privately, some Soviet citizens admit they do not understand the Afghanistan conflict, and do not see why Soviet troops should be there. Some men admit they have resorted to questionable measures -- including bribing senior officers -- to avoid a posting there. And many mothers heave a quiet sigh of relief when their sons are posted to duty elsewhere.
Komsomolskaya Pravda concluded that much has been done to help returning veterans of Afghanistan readjust to civilian life. Among the measures we are ``providing a job for some, a hospital and doctors for others.''
But, the article concluded, ``it is not easy to step from a battlefield into peaceful life.''
``Some,'' it said, ``never manage it.''