Category Archives: USSR

South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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The Karabakhi Soviet’s Domino Effect, 1988

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:

When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.

On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.

Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.

Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.

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Origins of the Soviet Ethnofederal System

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1329-1340, 1408-1429:

There has [been] much scholarly debate about the impact of the Bolsheviks’ decision to devise an “ethnofederal system” for the Soviet Union, which created autonomous territories on ethnic principles. In the Caucasus, scholars have observed, this preserved national divisions, which eventually fractured the Soviet state and turned into armed conflicts. It could be argued, however, that the Caucasus set the blueprint for the Soviet Union, not the other way round. In other words, the fragile situation in the Caucasus in 1921, still broken by numerous inter-ethnic conflicts, may have caused the Bolsheviks to invent the ethnofederal system under duress.

It was also a Caucasian, Stalin, who presided over this complex construction once it had been created. His approach was both ruthless and pragmatic. The primary aim appears to have been to build a system that would survive the shock of both internal and external threats. National interests were balanced out and could eventually be eliminated. Small nationalities would be modernized, with Russia the engine pulling them into the future. Lenin, who disapproved of Russian nationalism, might have been content to see Georgia detached from Russia, so long as it remained Bolshevik. Stalin believed that Russia, the center, and the Caucasus, the borderlands, needed one another. In 1920, he wrote, “Central Russia, the hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs.

The late 1920s were the heyday of what Terry Martin calls the “affirmative action empire,” with the implementation of the new ideology of korenizatsia (literally “rooting,” or “nativization”) sponsoring programs to modernize and assist the non-Russian Soviet nationalities. The Azeri, Abkhaz, Ossetian, and Lezgin written languages were all given a new progressive Roman alphabet. Huge numbers of people received an education for the first time in their native languages. The Communists declared that in the first ten years of Soviet rule in Georgia, half a million people had been taught to read and write. In 1940, Armenia claimed that the entire adult population was literate for the first time.

For years, scholars of the Soviet Union concentrated on its centralizing policies, and some called it the “prison-house of nations.” Only recently have scholars and commentators begun to analyze how, beginning with the korenizatsia program, the Soviet authorities actually defined and strengthened national identities. As the American Suny put it in 1993, “rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations.” The tsarist empire had categorized its people by religion, mother tongue, social class, and regional location. The Bolsheviks held that “nationality” was a useful transitional phase between the backward culture of small ethnic groups and an advanced state of socialism. But the national identities persisted, and the transnational socialist future never came. As Martin writes, “in order to implement affirmative action programs, monitor their success, delineate national territories, assign children to programs, the Soviet state constantly asked its citizens for their nationality.” So to be “Ossetian” or “Azerbaijani” acquired real meaning for the first time, and this category became a formal badge of identity when it was written into the first Soviet internal passports in 1932.

There was a hierarchy of nations. Two of the three main nationalities of the Transcaucasus, the Armenians and Georgians, were classified as “advanced” Western nationalities, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, while Azerbaijanis fell into the category of nations in formation, requiring developmental aid. In practice this meant that, as in tsarist Russia, Armenians and Georgians could advance quickly up the Soviet career ladder. Two Karabakh Armenians from village backgrounds were cases in point. One, Levon Mirzoyan, served as head of the Communist Party first in Azerbaijan and then in Kazakhstan, the other; Suren Sadunts, served as first Party secretary in Tajikistan in 1935–36. Both were shot in Stalin’s purges. It would have been impossible for a Kazakh or an Azerbaijani to be given an equivalent post in Armenia or Georgia.

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Who Incites Neighbors to Kill Each Other?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2010-2032:

All the wars of the South Caucasus are case studies of the strange phenomenon whereby neighbors who have coexisted peacefully for years can end up fighting one another. Karabakh is a striking example. One village named Tug in the south of Karabakh had been home to people of both communities, with only a small stream dividing them. At first, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis of Tug said that the dispute would not affect them; then they retreated to their own half of the village, with some families being broken up; finally, in 1991, the Azerbaijanis were driven out by force.

The problem can be described as “mutual insecurity.” In tsarist times, pogroms had broken out when the regime weakened. In Soviet times, order was maintained by a central “policeman,” but when that law enforcer withdrew, the two national groups turned to their own armed men to protect them. Then in 1991 the Soviet armed forces collapsed into indiscipline, arming both sides and providing hundreds of “guns for hire.” This helped elevate a low-intensity conflict into an all-out war fought with tanks and artillery.

Another answer to the puzzle of neighbors fighting one another is that generally it was not they who actually started the conflict. Many Armenians and Azerbaijanis, like the people of Tug, did their best to resist the slide toward war. In the spring of 1991, the revolutionary California-born Armenian warrior Monte Melkonian was sent on a commission down Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan to prepare villages for impending conflict. He got frustrated as villagers asked him and other would-be defenders to leave, saying they did not want to fight their Azerbaijani neighbors.

Moreover, although ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side, the views of their intellectual elites were sharply different. Each harbored memories of the wars of the tsarist era and subscribed to nationalist ideas, which had been boosted by the officially tolerated nationalism of the late Soviet period. In 1988, some intellectuals often played a negative role by disseminating narratives of hate. The Armenian writer Zori Balayan wrote that the Azerbaijanis were “Turks” who had no history of their own. The Azerbaijani historian Ziya Buniatov wrote an inflammatory pamphlet suggesting that the Armenians themselves had been behind the killing of Armenians in Sumgait.

After the intellectuals came the men of violence. As the Soviet security apparatus withered, the initiative was handed to people who have been called “entrepreneurs of violence.” They were people who were often marginal figures in society but willing or able to fight. Violence became self-fueling. In the later war in Abkhazia, much of the most brutal fighting would be done by people from outside Abkhazia itself—North Caucasians on the Abkhaz side, incoming Georgian paramilitaries on the Georgian side. These guns-for-hire would exact a tithe for their fighting in looting and plunder.

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Rise and Fall of Baku as Oil Capital

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2945-2989:

Oil was first exploited commercially in the mid-nineteenth century. The industry took off in 1871 when the Russian government allowed in private enterprise and the first wells were drilled. Two of the Swedish Nobel brothers, Robert and Ludwig, invested in the new industry and by the end of the decade had the biggest refinery in Baku and were shipping barrels of oil across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan in the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster. By the 1880s, oil fields such as Balakhany had sprouted hundreds of brick wells extracting the oil from the ground, and Baku’s new northern industrial suburb was nicknamed the Black Town because of the clouds of dark oil smoke hanging over it from two hundred refineries. In one generation, Baku turned from a forgotten desert citadel into a modern metropolis. The population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1863 to 206,000 forty years later. “Baku is greater than any other oil city in the world. If oil is king, Baku is its throne,” wrote the British author J. D. Henry in 1905. You could become a millionaire literally overnight if an “oil gusher” appeared on your land. One man who got lucky was Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiev, the illiterate son of a shoemaker, who turned into one of Baku’s most famous businessmen and benefactors after a gusher appeared on his land. Tagiev was unusual in being a native Azeri. Most of the businessmen were European, Russian, or Armenian. Tensions between Armenian bourgeoisie and Azeri workers were an underlying cause of the brutal “Tatar-Armenian” war in Baku in 1905 in which hundreds were killed and thousands of oil wells destroyed.

Henry asked rhetorically, “Why is Baku rich? The answer is simple—because it produces a commodity which has a market wider than the civilised world, for it is carried on camels into the innermost parts of the Asian Continent, and on yaks into the wild regions of the Himalayas.” But camels and yaks were insufficient to export a major new world community to the wider world. Baku faced the same problem as it would a century later—how to export the oil from the land-locked Caspian basin to consumers. In the 1870s, the geography of the Caucasus was such a barrier that Tiflis imported more American kerosene by ship than it did Baku oil. The Caspian Sea was stormy and dangerous for several months of the year, limiting how much could be sent to Russia. So in 1883 the new oilmen, with financing from the Rothschild family, built the first cross-Caucasian railway from Baku to Batum on the Black Sea. In 1906, Baku oil made another leap forward when the world’s longest “kerosene pipeline” was completed, running for 519 miles along the same route to Batum.

In the years 1914–21, oil wealth was a major factor in the international scramble for the Caucasus. In 1918, German commander Erich von Ludendorff saw Azerbaijani oil and its route via Georgia as a key reason to move into the South Caucasus. In the end, the British took control of Baku, and in 1919 British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour identified its oil as Britain’s major priority in the region. He said, “I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilizing a few people who do not want to be civilized. We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them and the pipe-line.” When the British had gone, the oil-starved Bolsheviks made Baku their first target in the Transcaucasus. Having captured the city in April 1920, Trotsky declared that the new oil resources would win the Reds the Civil War and would be “our hope for restoring the economy, for ensuring that old men and women and children do not die of cold in Moscow.”

Only in the late 1920s did Baku oil production climb back to its prewar levels, but in 1941 Baku was vital to Stalin’s war effort against Germany and produced around three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s oil. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans again identified Baku oil as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle for Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had the shape of the Caspian Sea in the middle. Film footage shows a delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters B-A-K-U written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it.

The debacle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of the Volga and the Urals. After the war, Russia’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields had dried up, and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields, a small town named Oily Rocks was built thirty miles out in the sea—reached across a causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. But increasingly, the existing expertise was not up to the challenge. By the time the Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3 percent of the Soviet oil output.

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South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 258-286:

The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.

By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. Von Haxthausen wrote, “In Tiflis, Europe and Asia may be said to meet, and the town has a divided aspect; but Erivan is a purely Asiatic city: everything is Oriental, except a few newly-built Russian houses, and occasionally Russian uniforms in the streets.” More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.

Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. A consolidation of national identity created a demographic pull such that Armenians moved to Armenia and Azerbaijanis to Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi became a strongly Georgian city for perhaps the first time in its history. The biggest losers were the smaller minority peoples of the Transcaucasus, who feared assimilation, even though their rights were nominally protected by Soviet law.

Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi. Officially, they number eighty thousand, but the Talysh themselves give much higher figures. Neither of these ethnic groups plays a political role in the country, although there are occasionally glimmers of discontent about their cultural rights.

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Soviet Veterans and PTSD

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 5393-5420:

Though there was no nationwide study, individual regions, local veterans’ organisations, and local newspapers began to set up their own websites about their young men who had served in Afghanistan. The newspaper Voronezhskaya Gazeta reported there were 5,200 Afghan veterans in Voronezh. By the summer of 1996 seventy-five had died, half as a result of accidents, one-third had been struck down by illness, and one in seven had committed suicide. Twelve years later, more than five hundred had died – one-tenth of all those who had returned from the war. The paper claimed that the young men died not so much because of what they had been through in Afghanistan, but because no provision had been made for their psychological rehabilitation, because they had been unable to afford proper medical treatment, because many of them had been unable to find work or a decent place to live.

But the amount of psychological rehabilitation available for the soldiers was limited partly by the lack of resources and partly because the concept of trauma was alien. If the soldiers who fought against Hitler could survive without going to the shrink, why should the Afgantsy be different? ‘Trauma’ was an alien, perhaps an American idea.

Nevertheless, a thin but native Russian tradition did exist. The first work on soldiers suffering from psychological trauma was done in Russia after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–5 by psychiatrists in the Academy of Military Medicine. The results were largely ignored in the Soviet period and the 40th Army took no psychiatrists with them when they went into Afghanistan. The first specialists went there in the mid-1980s. The symptoms they found among the Afgantsy were much the same as the Americans had identified after Vietnam: a sense of guilt at what they had done, a horror at what they had seen, the same self-reproach that they had survived while their comrades had died. Some specialists reckoned that as many as one in two Afghan veterans needed some sort of help. At first the symptoms were psychological: irritability, aggressiveness, insomnia, nightmares, thoughts of suicide. After five years many would be suffering from physical as well as psychological consequences: heart disease, ulcers, bronchial asthma, neurodermatitis.

The trouble was that, compared with the United States, there were nothing like the facilities available in Russia to treat the traumatised veterans. There were only six specialised rehabilitation centres for the whole of Russia, and these had to deal with people traumatised not only by Afghanistan, but by their experiences of dealing with the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, and by the fighting in Chechnya, and other places of violent conflict.

One of those who tried to explain the phenomenon scientifically was Professor Mikhail Reshetnikov, the Rector of the East European Institute for Psychoanalysis in St Petersburg. He had himself been a professional military medical officer from 1972 and was posted to Afghanistan in 1986. He sent a paper to the General Staff, based on interviews with two thousand soldiers, which set out the problems from which the 40th Army was suffering: from the inadequacy of the army’s supply system to the moral and psychological training of the soldiers. The report had no effect, and he was asked by his superiors why he had deliberately set out to gather facts which brought shame on the Soviet Army. From 1988 to 1993 he directed several programmes for the Ministry of Defence on the behaviour of people affected by local wars, and man-made and natural catastrophes. After retiring from the military he became a member of the Association of Afghan Veterans.

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