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Nikolay Egorychev’s Notes and the End of the Soviet-Afghan War

Vassily Klimentov

Dr. Vassily Klimentov of the University of Zurich explains how the notes of Soviet ambassador, Nikolay Egorychev, helped provide the inspiration for his new book, A Slow Reckoning: The USSR, the Afghan Communists, and Islam (Cornell University Press/Northern Illinois University Press, 2024).

Writing in late 1988, Nikolay Egorychev, the Soviet Ambassador in Kabul, reflected on the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. Ten years after the Saur (April) Revolution that had brought the communist People’s Democratic Party to power (PDPA) and eight years after the Soviets had militarily intervened to prop up their communist allies, Afghanistan was in ruins and the Soviets were on their way out. Afghanistan’s industrial modernization project had failed and communist land reforms had been abandoned. Preparing for after the Soviet withdrawal, the PDPA had splintered into multiple factions and the Mujahideen – the Afghan opposition – controlled 80% of Afghanistan’s territory. Egorychev, and others from the Soviet communist party, could not fathom how things had gone so wrong in Afghanistan.

Taking stock of the communist experiment in Afghanistan, Egorychev made two columns in his notes. On one hand, he listed the factors, he believed, still working for and against the Soviets; on the other, he listed what factors favored and hindered the Mujahideen. This unique document, available at the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History in Moscow, was the one to launch me into my research project, a recently published book titled A Slow Reckoning: The USSR, the Afghan Communists, and Islam.

Egorychev’s table summarizes the USSR’s difficulties in Afghanistan by 1988. On the Soviet “plus side,” the ambassador listed how the Soviets had learned to fight in a civil war and better understood the context; how the PDPA had recruited thousands of communists (many only becoming nominal party members, one might add); or how the Soviets controlled all Afghan provincial capitals and key roads. Yet the factors going for the Soviets were noticeably fewer than the ones for the Mujahideen.

In fact, in Egorychev’s assessment, the Soviet problems had endured throughout the conflict. On the “minus side,” he noted, how Afghanistan remained a “foreign country” for the Soviets; how the war was “hidden from the Soviet people;” how it was “misunderstood by [Soviet] soldiers;” how Afghanistan remained a country with mountainous terrain and a lack of roads; how the Mujahideen had a seemingly endless recruitment pool; and how they received help from abroad.

Perhaps most strikingly, Egorychev wrote “Islam. Infidel People” at the top of the column listing the factors going for the Mujahideen. To the Soviet Ambassador, religion had been the Soviet undoing in Afghanistan. Most Afghans saw the Soviets as infidel invaders. Placing such stress on religion was rare for a Soviet official, especially a staunch communist like Egorychev. Before being sidelined from the top of the Soviet communist party when his patron Aleksandr Shelepin lost the battle for Nikita Khrushchev’s succession to Leonid Brezhnev, Egorychev had been the party head in Moscow in the 1960s. To him, as to other hardliners, Islam was an archaism that Soviet-driven “progress” should have overcome in Afghanistan. Inspired by the apparent success achieved in Central Asia, Egorychev and other Soviets were persuaded that Afghanistan was bound to become a new Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Yet, after a brutal war that saw hundreds of thousands of Afghans killed, the opposite had proven true. Communism had been no match for the strength of Islam.

This was also the legacy of Soviet and Afghan communist mismanagement of religion. The PDPA, led by its radical Khalq faction, had fought against Islam in Afghanistan in the first two years after the Saur Revolution. Even though the PDPA, now led by the rival Parcham faction, tamed its anti-Islamic drive after 1980, and even more so after 1986, most Afghans continued to see the Afghan communists as atheists. Whatever the PDPA and the Soviets did by 1988, Islam had crystalized as the dividing line between communists and Mujahideen, invaders and “freedom fighters.”

After the Soviets left in 1989, remaining Afghan communists desperately tried to further co-opt Islam into the regime to build political legitimacy, encountering moderate success as they blamed past failures and abuses on Moscow. This modest success was also because Islam had, meanwhile, led to rifts among the Mujahideen. (Radical) Islamist leaders had competed for leadership with traditional Muslim leaders, often linked to Sufism, since the early 1980s. As Arab “foreign fighters” moved into Afghanistan in the late 1980s while the Soviets withdrew, these rifts became more pronounced. In the 1990s, they would lead to a civil war after the fall of the last Afghan (neo)communist government.

For Moscow, the arrival of foreign Islamists raised the prospect of an Islamist contagion flowing from Afghanistan into Soviet Central Asia. To people like Egorychev, the rise of Islamism in the USSR remained unthinkable. Soviet Muslims had been educated in Soviet schools and gone through collectivization and industrialization since the 1920s. There was no doubt they were true communists. Yet, as decision-makers in Moscow soon realized, Islam also remained strong in Central Asia, notably in the private sphere, and the Soviet model there looked very different from Moscow. 

The Afghan experience thus led Soviet decision-makers to rethink the situation at home, discovering, for example, that some syncretism had developed between communism and Islam among Soviet Muslims. By the late 1980s during Gorbachev’s perestroika, this realization tied into the re-assessment of the Soviet model. Of course, Islamism as a force of political contestation would only consolidate in Central Asia and the North Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

About the Author

Vassily Klimentov

Vassily Klimentov

Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence

Vassily Klimentov is a SNSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence and a Research Associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development & Peacebuilding at the Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID)

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