Daily Archives: 19 November 2015

From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:

Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Islam, migration, military, USSR, war

Russian–Papuan First Encounter, 1871

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 17-20:

As I was approaching the hut I heard a rustle and, on glancing round in the direction from which it came, some paces away I saw a man standing as if rooted to the ground. He glanced for a second in my direction and then dashed into the bushes. I went after him, almost at a run, waving a piece of red cloth which I found in my pocket. Looking back, seeing that I was alone and completely unarmed, and that I was making signs to him to approach, he stopped. I slowly approached the savage, silently offering him the red cloth, which he took with obvious pleasure and bound round his head.

He was a Papuan of medium size, of a dark chocolate colour with dull black somewhat curly hair, short like a negro’s, with a broad flat nose, and eyes looking out from under overhanging brow ridges, and a large mouth, almost, however, covered by a bristling moustache and beard. His entire costume consisted of a rag about 8 inches wide, tied firstly in a kind of girdle and drawn down between the legs and attached to the girdle from behind. Two lightly-bound bands of plaited dry grass were placed above the elbows. On one of these bands or bracelets was stuck a green leaf of Piper betel, in the other on the left side was a kind of knife, made of a smooth sharpened piece of bone (a cassowary bone, as I afterwards found out). The savage was well-built, and with a well-built musculature. The facial expression of this, the first of my new acquaintances, seemed quite engaging. I somehow thought that he would obey me, and I took him by the hand, and not without some resistance led him back to the village. At the open space I found my servants Ohlsen and Boy, who were looking for me, and were at a loss as to where I had gone. Ohlsen presented my Papuan with a piece of tobacco—which, however, be did not know what to do with—and silently taking it he thrust it behind the bracelet on his right arm, beside the betel leaf.

Whilst we were standing in the middle of the village, from amongst the trees and bushes, savages began to appear, uncertain whether to approach, and ready at any minute to turn in flight. They were silent and stationary, remaining at a respectful distance but closely watching our movements. Since they would not move, I had to take each one separately by the hand and, in the full sense of the word, drag them into our circle. Finally, having gathered them all in one place, tired out, I sat down among them on a stone, and proceeded to distribute various trifles—beads, nails, fish hooks, and strips of red cloth. They obviously did not know the significance of the nails and hooks, but not one of them refused to accept them.

Around me were gathered eight Papuans. They were of varying sire and showed some, although very insignificant, differences. The colour of the skin did not vary much. The sharpest contrast with the type of my first acquaintance was a man, rather taller than the average size, lean, with a hook-shaped prominent nose and a very narrow forehead pressed in on the sides. His beard and moustache were shaved, and on his head towered a sort of hat of reddish-brown hair, from under which, hanging down on the neck, were twisted plaits of hair, exactly like the tube-shaped curls of the inhabitants of New Ireland. These curls hung behind the ears, down onto the shoulders. Two bamboo combs were sticking out of the hair, one of which, thrust into the back of his head, was decorated with some black and white feathers (cassowary and cockatoo) in the shape of a fan. Some large tortoise shell rings were inserted in his ears, and in the nasal partition a bamboo rod was inserted; the thickness of a very large pencil, it had a pattern carved on it. On his neck, in addition to the necklace of the teeth of dogs and other animals and shells, hung a small bag. On the left shoulder hung another bag reaching down to the waist and filled with various articles.

The upper part of the arm of this native, as of all those present, was tightly bound with plaited bracelets in which were thrust various objects, some of bone, others were leaves or flowers. Some of them had a stone axe slung on their shoulder, some were holding a bow in their hands of considerable size (almost the length of a man) and an arrow more than a metre long. Their hair styles were also different with different colours of the hair, some completely black, others decorated with red clay, some had the hair worn like a hat on the head, and others had it cropped short, while still others had the previously described ringlets hanging round their neck—but all were curly like a negro’s. The hair on the chin was wound in small spirals. There were minor differences in the skin colour. The younger were lighter than the old.

Of these eight Papuans of my first meeting, four appeared sick. Two had legs disfigured by elephantiasis, and one was an interesting case of psoriasis, which had spread over his entire body. The back and neck of the fourth was studded with boils, which formed large, hard protuberances and on his face were several scars, probably of previous such boils.

As the sun was already setting I decided, in spite of the interest of my first observations, to return to the corvette. The whole crowd accompanied me to the beach carrying presents; coconuts, bananas and two very wild piglets, whose legs were tightly bound and who squealed untiringly, all were placed in the boat. In the hope of more firmly strengthening the good relations with the natives and also with the idea of showing my new acquaintances to the officers of the corvette, I suggested to those surrounding me to accompany me to the corvette in their pirogues. After prolonged discussion five men got into two pirogues, the others remained and even, it seemed, strenuously tried to dissuade the courageous ones from their bold and risky undertaking. One of the pirogues I took in tow and we made towards the Vityaz. Halfway, however, the bolder ones had thought it over, and by signs indicated that they did not wish to go further and tried to release the tow rope. At the same time the other pirogue quickly turned back to the shore. One of the men sitting in the pirogue which we were towing behind us even tried to cut through the tow-line with his stone axe. It was only with extreme difficulty that we succeeded in dragging them on deck. Ohlsen and Boy took them up the ship’s ladder practically by force. On deck I took the “prisoners” by the arm and led them down to the quarter-deck. Their whole bodies trembled with fear, and it was only with my support that I could keep them on their legs, supposing, probably, that I was going to murder them. Meanwhile it had grown quite dark and lamps were brought and gradually the savages grew calm. They even brightened up when the officers brought them various objects and treated them to tea, which they drank up straight away. In spite of such a friendly reception they were obviously pleased to go, and went down the ladder with great haste to their pirogue, and quickly rowed back to the village.

On the corvette they told me that, in my absence, natives again appeared and brought with them two dogs, which they killed and whose carcasses they left as a kind of gift on the beach.

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