In a country full of grand military museums, Vladimir Kostyuchenko's is perhaps one of the humblest.
"The government doesn't help us very much," the 54-year-old retired colonel said as he showed a visitor his one-room museum devoted to the Soviet Union's bitter war in Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989, and set the stage for today's conflict between US-led coalition forces and the Taliban.
Gesturing towards a wall of black-and-white photographs of local Moscow soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Kostyuchenko noted that many of them perished in the same places where American soldiers are fighting Taliban insurgents today.
Despite the growing cost in American lives, US President Barack Obama was right to send tens of thousands more troops to battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda, asserted Kostyuchenko, a former Soviet helicopter pilot who served three tours in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “It would be a total mistake to withdraw forces," he said. "If forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan before normality is restored there, it will be a step backwards and the nest of terrorism will only grow.
“And next time they won't just be destroying buildings somewhere in the United States,” he continued. “They'll be setting off an atomic bomb, maybe in America, or maybe in Russia. And this will be tragic."
In the 1980s, Afghanistan was the site of the last great Cold War confrontation between Moscow and Washington: the CIA funded mujahedeen forces battling the Soviet military, supplying the Afghan resistance fighters with Stingers, the shoulder-held missiles that killed many of Kostyuchenko's fellow helicopter pilots.
Today, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan are in the odd position of cheering on their old enemies, the Americans, in the present-day struggle to contain Islamic extremism -- a mutual enemy that has targeted both Russia and United States.
But given their own painful experience fighting the mujahedeen and trying to prop up a weak government in Kabul, the veterans, known in Russian as Afgantsy, are also deeply pessimistic about US prospects in Afghanistan. "As a military man, I fully understand why the Americans had to send in troops and fight the Taliban, and I support them in this," said Franz Klintsevich, head of the Russian Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, an organization with more than 400,000 members throughout the country.
Still, the United States seems doomed to fail in Afghanistan, said Klintsevich, who is also a member of parliament from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party. "This is a situation with no exit," he said, seated in a leather chair at his office at the State Duma building in central Moscow. "That's a fact. Obama's steps are totally correct, but it's still a situation with no exit."
Klintsevich, 53, served in Afghanistan from 1986 to 1988 and had an unusual career for a Soviet officer. Before his deployment, he studied Dari, a language spoken by many Afghans, at a specialized military academy. On the ground, he held talks with mujahedeen factions, often risking his life to meet local resistance leaders in mud-walled homes and broker temporary truces.
It was an experience that gave him an unusually clear view of Afghan society -- and the daunting difficulties that the Soviets faced. "After roughly half a year, I understood that we would not achieve anything," Klintsevich said.
The Obama administration has ramped up troop levels and pledged to wage a major offensive against the Taliban before starting to draw down forces in July 2011. Although Obama's strategy has come under fire at home from both left and right, Klintsevich said he agreed with its basic logic. "You need to deliver a serious, incapacitating blow. And then, gradually, while strengthening the local authorities, you need to leave," he said.
Klintsevich argues that the United States and Russia are jointly responsible for the tragedy of Afghanistan, which has experienced near-constant strife since the Soviet invasion of 1979. While the Soviets triggered the war, he said, the Americans escalated it by lavishing funds on the mujahedeen, among whom were found future terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
Now the two former Cold War foes are stuck with the monster they created. "Over the 10 years that we were in Afghanistan, a generation of people grew up at war. This is an entire generation that learned nothing except how to hold a gun and shoot and get paid for it. They received this money, above all, from abroad," Klintsevich said.
"In 1979, thanks to our joint efforts, we let the genie out of the bottle, and putting him back in is impossible. We can only fight him. And we need to fight him together."
There is little about geopolitics in Vladimir Kostyuchenko's museum, which is located on the ground floor of an apartment building in southeast Moscow. Groups of children come here sometimes to see the exhibits, which include handmade papier-mâché mannequins of Soviet soldiers and a mujaheeden fighter. Other times, local veterans come here to socialize and reminisce.
Many Afgantsy suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and had trouble readjusting to society, especially in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. "A lot of them started drinking and drank themselves to death. … Or people took up crime. They knew how to shoot and fight, so they became killers," Kostyuchenko said.
The small gatherings in Kostychenko's museum help veterans get by. "It's a family," he said. "We come together and talk to each other and it makes us feel better."
Alexander Osipovich is a Moscow-based writer who specializes in regional affairs.