Russia's veterans of Afghan war reinvent themselves

A unit of vet security guards has traded its Kalashnikov assault rifles for nightsticks.

As captain of a Soviet tank battalion in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Valery Guskov knows the flavor of war - and the bitter taste of defeat.

"It was very difficult for most of us to come back to civilized life, and in Afghanistan my view of the world changed," he says, his three gold front teeth flashing.

Since the Soviet Union's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the subsequent neglect of veterans within society has often led to alcoholism, drug abuse, and organized crime.

One million Soviet soldiers rotated through Afghanistan. But when they returned home, the country they fought for collapsed, and the economy began falling apart. And so by choice or by circumstance, many vets turned to criminal activities.

But Mr. Guskov and some other Afghan veterans are determined to change that reputation. He now heads a unit of 30 vet security guards who monitor an apartment complex in Moscow's Sokolniki district - trading Kalashnikovs for nightsticks and blue uniforms.

Guskov wants to reverse the stereotype perpetuated by post-Soviet movies of Afghan vets as bad guys and mafia bosses.

"People believe we are professional soldiers with high moral qualities," he contends, "and that we are honest, not careless. They know our experience dealing with explosives."

The guards from Herat, an Afghan veterans group, began work here after a string of apartment-building blasts across Russia last year left more than 300 people dead. They are paid by the municipality to monitor 400 apartment-building entrances. The guards patrol in vehicles and have a radio network directly linked to the local police station.

"It's good that they are here to protect us," says Yevgenia Medviedeva, an elderly woman standing on the steps of her building. "They are well trained, well behaved, and have experience - not like those other boys [police] who used to be here."

This is music to the ears of veterans like Guskov. Herat fields about 200 security guards, who are also responsible for guarding Botkin Hospital, one of the biggest in the capital, and the office of DHL couriers. They sometimes accompany special packages across Russia.

But other security operations are more dubious. At one location, a parking lot for foreign residents in Moscow, guards reap $100 a month for each car - a hefty sum in this very expensive city where 52 percent live below the poverty line. In previous years, some car owners who declined to pay the fee found their tires slashed.

Such cash turnover dwarfs the few official veterans benefits, such as free public transport, that survived the collapse of the Soviet system. Herat, named after a city in western Afghanistan, is one of the five largest Afghan veteran groups in Russia, and provides everything from cash for families who lost sons and fathers to rest homes for disabled vets.

Soviet veterans of World War II - called here the Great Patriotic War - receive recognition and benefits. But it wasn't until a special decree in 1994 that Afghanistan veterans were granted equal status.

The problem? Most Russians think as negatively about the Afghanistan War as many Americans do about Vietnam. So on both sides of the cold war divide, veterans were treated with callous disrespect.

"They are absolutely neglected by the state, and the result is 'Afghanski syndrome,' just like 'Vietnam syndrome,' " says Maj. Gen. (ret.) Vladimir Kosarev, head of the Military News Agency in Moscow.

"Most of the population does not know why that war was fought. Soldiers did their best, were heroes sometimes, and thought they were doing something needed by their nation," General Kosarev says. "But when they came back, they found they were abandoned by society, and that their acts were not needed by anybody."

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's declaration in 1990 that the war was a "mistake," Kosarev says, "crushed all of their illusions." The suicide rate among veterans of the Afghan conflict is far higher than in the rest of the demoralized armed forces, and military experts estimate that some 70 percent have psychological problems.

Veterans from the two Chechnya conflicts have been aided by mothers groups who fight for their rights. But vets of the Afghan war say it is incredibly difficult to cope with the pressures of rejoining Russian society.

"A lot of Afghan vets were recruited at 18, and know only war," says Alexander Kudelkin, head of the Herat's security section. "They can do nothing else. The war defined their lives, so they go for security."

That is not all they have gone for. Organized crime is rampant in Russia, and Afghan vets - bringing to bear a battle-hardened toughness and military mindset that also makes them good security guards - have played a key and sometimes bloody role.

Their influence ballooned after December 1993, when former President Boris Yeltsin sought to give disabled Afghanistan veterans relief from shrinking state benefits by allowing them to import alcohol and cigarettes duty-free. The Russian Orthodox Church, the society for the deaf, and the National Sports Foundation - as charities - all received the same privilege.

But criminal gangs soon began tapping in to - in some cases taking over - the lucrative operations. In 1995 alone, the Afghan invalid fund reportedly made $200 million. Then, factional disputes between Afghan-fund groups led to deadly turf wars.

The disputes culminated in a gangland-style bombing at a Moscow cemetery that killed 14 people in 1996 - one of the most grisly incidents of underworld violence since the end of the Communist era.

Abused by all - the church imported 10,000 tons of cigarettes, reportedly worth $75 million, duty-free as "humanitarian aid" in 1994 - those deals have since been abolished. Mainstream veterans' groups have since kept clear of them, too.

"It was a huge stream of money that became extremely attractive to criminal groups, but it did not go to the vets," says Kosarev.

"Many veterans did join the bandits, but most are absolutely normal," says Col. Alexander Oliynick, an Afghan veteran and correspondent for Red Star, the official Russian military newspaper. "When Afghan vets meet anywhere in the world, we kiss each other and cry."

But humiliations have been numerous. Guskov recalls that during the '80s, approved benefits were "state secrets" since the Afghanistan invasion was not recognized as a war, but as "provisional help."

"Bureaucrats used to say: 'We never sent you to that war,' " he says. "When soldiers used to wear their orders and awards, people taunted them."

Attitudes have changed in a decade. There are 21 Afghanistan veterans in the state Duma, the lower house of Parliament. But veterans are still fond of repeating a Russian proverb: "It is the job of a sinking person to save himself."

For Guskov and those like him, that means taking up the nightstick, to win hearts and minds of a different kind. In recent days at the Sokolniki complex, guard Viktor Grokhotov and his patrolling partner stopped a car-jacking, and alerted police to an abandoned thermos full of mercury, a toxic heavy metal.

The residents "know our faces and thank us very often," says Mr. Grokhotov, while driving his rounds. But not all are convinced of veterans' efforts to shed their bad-guy reputation.

"These guys are not inclined to make a contact of trust," says a man who gave his name as Georgi. "And in a criminalized city, it is very difficult to establish the line between a guard and a bandit."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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