Afghanistan is the reason I play piano.
I started learning in the mid-1980s, and according to a theory popular at the time, a successful career in music could exempt one from military service – or at least get one assigned to a military band. So my parents enrolled me and my brother in music school at a very young age, hoping it would spare us the fate of Georgian men who were then fighting and dying in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.
It was admittedly a very long-shot way of tricking the system, but my parents were convinced that war in Afghanistan would continue forever and so would the Soviet Union. And so it was to the shaky, plaintive strains of my clarinet and the endless rat-a-tat of my fingers running up and down the piano scales that young men from across the USSR were packed off to Afghanistan and shipped back dead.
Afghanistan would eventually become to the Soviet Union what Vietnam was to the United States: a pile of bodies, PTSD, torn up young lives and, once the crumbling empire could not hide the truth about the war anymore, an inspiration for books and movies.
In the end, a whole generation of Russians, Georgians, Kazakhs and other former Soviet citizens would simply be referred to as Afghantsi, or the Afghans, a euphemism for someone messed up in war.
Few of these men even knew they would be sent to a war zone when they were conscripted, usually when they were 18.
“We had a big party at my village when I got called to service. My parents had no idea I was actually going to war, and neither did I,” recalled 60-year-old Pridon Kapanadze, who in 1981 was sent from his small Georgian hometown of Akhaltsikhe all the way to Jalalabad.
“I only realized it when they sent me for training in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan,” another veteran, Avtandil Shubikashvili, told me. After two months of training, which he describes as “a living hell,” he was airlifted to the Bagram Airfield, where he landed under a volley of fire.
It was there, 40 miles north of Kabul, where he was based for two years, serving in the 345th Airborne Regiment, commanded by the future defense minister of the USSR, Pavel Grachev. “For most of that time we were dirty, unbathed, full of lice, everyone had yellow illness [Hepatitis A], and we were constantly shot at,” Shubikashvili told me.
“We could not even tell our families what was really going on there. We were only allowed to write letters with greetings. They inspected every letter and every photo we sent home,” Shubikashvili said as he showed me those photos that had passed muster with military censors. “When someone was killed, they would send the body home in a sealed zinc coffin with a note saying the death was caused by an accident.”
When Shubikashvili's closest friend, Yuriy Mogilchenko, was killed, Grachev asked him to accompany Mogilchenko’s remains to his hometown of Voronezh, in Russia.
“The trip would offer me a break from the war, but it was [already] December 21 and I just could not bring myself to deliver Yuriy’s dead body to his parents on New Year’s Eve,” Shubikashvili said. “I shuddered when I imagined myself walking into their apartment, where his family was gathered around a New Year’s table, and telling them I brought their dead son. So I declined. ‘Unless it’s an order, I can’t do it,’ I said.”
Many Georgians, particularly reluctant citizens of the Soviet Union, felt they had no dog in that fight, in Moscow’s attempt to make a geopolitical point in a faraway desert. The arrival of the first zinc casket in Tbilisi and tales of a mutilated body inside only exacerbated the perception that Georgians were again becoming victims to Russia’s habit of waltzing its army into a foreign country. Terrified parents began going to great lengths – brought bribes and fake health certificates to the conscription centers, pulled strings with family connections, begged – to keep their sons out of military service. Or at the very least out of Afghanistan.
In my music lesson days, I remember a conversation between my mother and my music teacher, speaking in the mix of Georgian and Russian that was the only proper way for the Tbilisi intelligentsia to speak at the time: “When my son was called to service, I went straight to the military commissariat,” the teacher said. “I told them I was going to hang myself right outside their door if they sent my son to that slaughterhouse.”
Ultimately 128 Georgians died in Afghanistan, according to data from Georgia’s Defense Ministry, and many of those came from rural families without parents who could bribe or name-drop their sons out of Afghanistan. From the Soviet Union as a whole, officially almost 15,000 died and over 53,000 were wounded.
The son of a farmer, Kapanadze did not even speak Russian when he arrived in Jalalabad. “When an officer asked in Russian who would agree to work as a sapper, I volunteered – I thought sapper meant a cook,” he said. “I was startled when the officer came up to me, put his hand my shoulder and said that I was a hero. Before I knew it, I was groping for mines in a desert,” Kapanadze continued with a smile.
“Once I even had to wire a bomb on the body of a dead insurgent. We knew that the dushmani [a Soviet term for Afghan mujahedeen] always returned for the bodies of their dead, so they probably exploded when they touched that body.”
When Kapanadze returned to Georgia at the end of his service two years later – he had to find his own way home, as the military plane just dropped him off in Uzbekistan and nobody bothered to give him a plane ticket onward to Tbilisi – he was sporting so many medals and awards that the police arrested him on the assumption he was a thief. “I missed the bus to my village and I had to beg for random people to buy me a ticket,” he said. “When they finally realized that I was an actual decorated war hero, the police chief drove me to my village in his own car.”
Urban legend had it that the Soviet army particularly relied on the Caucasus peoples like Georgians and Armenians, as they could supposedly pass for Middle Easterners. Kapanadze says that was only partly true. “Most of the troops were Russian, but there were indeed a lot of Georgians in my regiment,” he said. “Caucasians and Central Asians were often relied upon during daytime operations because as southerners we could handle the heat better than the Russians, who were often fainting from sunstrokes and dehydration.”
Blowback from Afghanistan was beginning to shake the Soviet Union at its core as I was learning to play Russian military tunes in preparation for my future part in that military band. My favorite was Farewell of Slavyanka, a World War I-era march that was transformed into a World War II soundtrack and had good potential as the score for the latest war. My teacher would tap out the song’s rhythm in zesty staccatos on the piano as I carried the melody on the clarinet and the superpower was falling apart around us.
By the time I reached conscription age I was living in a different country. When I entered university in the late 1990s, the empire’s body was safely dismembered, charred with ethnic and colonial grudges. Georgia was forging ties with the United States fast and shedding Russian influence even faster. I was scratching my head in a dilapidated classroom, trying to locate the business end of a disassembled automatic rifle in a military training class at my university.
Taught by a nonagenarian war veteran who spent much of his teaching time retorting to my classmates’ taunts, the otherwise useless class offered us – a group of spoiled brats from professorial families – a way to skip mandatory military service in what was now Georgia’s independent armed forces. At the final exam at a shooting range, I could not get a single bullet into an almost comically massive target, but that did not prevent me from graduating the course with the rank of second lieutenant.
Afghanistan was largely forgotten at that stage, erased from Georgians’ memories by more recent civil and separatist wars closer to home. But that was about to change.
The fall semester had just begun when I came back from school one day to find my grandmother crying in front of a TV with CNN broadcasting images of a burning skyscraper in New York. “A plane accidently crashed into a building in America,” she told me; she could not properly understand English broadcasts. “Why are they building these enormous buildings? All these poor people…”
The U.S. went on to invade Afghanistan that year to start what became known as the “forever war.” Georgia joined in 2004, primarily to prove its worth as a prospective NATO member, but also to boost its own defense capabilities. This time around, serving in Afghanistan was a choice Georgia’s government made, and military service was no longer obligatory – so it was a deployment many Georgian soldiers welcomed.
Davit Bendiashvili, a man about my age from the coastal town of Batumi, went to train in the U.S. before he was deployed to Helmand. He speaks excitedly about that training, which was nothing like the experience Shubikashvili described from 30 years earlier – running through the mountains for a full day with no food or drink in the baking sun of the Fergana Valley.
“It was hard in Afghanistan, but I’m glad I did it. It taught me a lot professionally, and also on a personal level,” said Bendiashvili, who now lives in Lisbon, where he works as a merchant seaman.
“Every time we got out of the base, where we lived in tents surrounded by a wall of sandbags, we were proud to drive around in an armored vehicle with Georgian flags,” Bendiashvili recalled over a Facebook video call. “When we met local village elders, some asked us if we were crusaders [Georgia’s red-and-white, five-cross national flag bears some resemblance to a Crusader flag]. They spoke of the Crusades as if they had happened yesterday.”
He also found elders of the villages in his area of operations curious about Georgia’s shifting geopolitics. “’Didn’t you invade us together with the Russians back in the day? So now you are fighting against the Russians?’ – we would get asked these questions a lot,” he said.
Other things hadn’t changed. “I learned that if you get invited to an Afghan house, no harm can come to you as long as you are there. The guest is sacred to them, largely the same way it is to us Georgians,” Bendiashvili said.
I had heard the same explanation, nearly word for word, from both Kapanadze and Shubikashvili.
Despite being caught in shootouts many times, Bendiashvili said he would not change anything about the experience. “It’s just that when my military contract expired in 2012 – I was in Kabul then – I decided that I had had enough and it was time to move on. I spent 18 months in Afghanistan and 13 years in the military, and I think I’ve served my country well.”
Georgia pulled out its forces in June; a total of 32 soldiers had died in this war. The NATO-trained Georgian troops with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq are now regarded as elite troops. Many of them have risen in the ranks in the Georgian armed forces or returned to Afghanistan for lucrative gigs with private security companies. Several were even briefly stranded in Kabul during the chaotic American withdrawal in August.
Veterans of the Soviet war, meanwhile, are rarely remembered. In appreciation of their service to a country long gone, the Georgian state now pays them a paltry monthly pension of 22 lari ($7) and provides them free rides on public transportation. They always gather on February 15, the day Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
There are now two memorials in Georgia commemorating soldiers who fell in two different Afghan wars.
I recently tracked down the older, Soviet war memorial in the outskirts of Tbilisi, tucked away in a tiny park. The flame-shaped massive bronze slab with a life-size human figure is a bit rusty from long exposure to the elements. Looking at it, I found stuck in my head the bittersweet melody of Slavyanka, that wandering war song.