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Book Review February 6, 2002
The Hidden Lust
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Book Cover

The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan

by Artyom Borovik
Grove Press 2001
(originally published in Russian in 1990)

I begin this review with a confession of ignorance and a plea for help. The confession: I don't know of any great memoirs of the Afghan war by Soviet Army veterans. They must be out there; war generates more stories than any other human activity. It's the oldest plot of all, and even the dullest narrators become interesting when telling stories punctuated with blood. But where are the Afghan War memoirs? I've asked hyperliterate Russians, who invariably grimace and change the subject. It seems to be a distasteful topic for them.

Is it the experience of defeat by a Soviet Army which had never before been beaten which makes them so reticent? -- Yet America's defeat in Vietnam hasn't stopped every American who ever shopped at the Saigon PX from publishing a memoir. Perhaps the Afghan experience is harder for Russians to recount because it formed a part of total defeat -- the complete collapse of the USSR. But male vanity is a constant, even in cases of utter defeat, and it's usually more than sufficient to generate war stories even in the context of utter disaster. The South has never shut up about the Civil War -- Ashcroft still refights Gettysburg every time he's had a few too many bourbons -- and it's hard to imagine a more thorough (or well-deserved) stomping than they got.

But if it's not defeat, then what has shut the mouths of Soviet veterans of Afghanistan? I suspect it's the dismal familiarity all Russian men feel toward the military. American men salivate for war because they've rarely been close to it. Until very recently, you couldn't even SEE the US military in its homeland, unless you lived in those parts of the country populated largely by tarantulas and bigamists. The US military likes to be heard and not seen, and undertook its post-WTC high-visibility airspace and airport duties with marked distaste. (Notice how quickly the USAF moved to end its urban patrols?)

An elusive military retains its mystique; those thousands of Vietnam memoirs were the favored porn of Babyboomer college boys who dodged the draft, never went near an M-16. Soviet men didn't have the option; deferments were a lot harder to come by in the USSR, so every Russian male not grotesquely deformed had to do his time in the Army -- and those years of kasha, rape and belt-buckle beatings by Blackasses seem to have cured Russians of ever wanting to see, hear or talk about the SA again.

Still, if a peacetime army is the worst job in the world -- sort of like high-school PE all day every day for years -- then a wartime army is one of the most exciting -- a Big Game all day every day for the Duration. Surely there should've been thousands of Afghan vets as eager to talk about their combat exploits as Al Bundy about his great day at Polk High. So perhaps there ARE great first-person accounts of the war in circulation in Russia, unknown to English-speaking readers.

Hence the plea: if you know of any such accounts, published or unpublished, email me and tell me about them. I'll do my best to help get any good ones published in English.

As you may have guessed, this is a roundabout way of saying that Artyom Borovik's The Hidden War isn't that elusive great Afghan War memoir. In fact, The Hidden War isn't a war memoir at all, but a pastiche cobbled together of the articles Borovik wrote as a war correspondent. Borovik, a fine writer and an honest man, admits this plainly in his introduction. (Borovik has since paid the big price for his integrity: he died in 2000, in one of those suspicious small-plane crashes, after annoying the Kremlin once too often.) And, honest to the end, Borovik chose to leave the book as it is, an all-too-clear juxtaposition of incompatible stances toward the war:

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Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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Everybody complains about celebrities, but nobody does anything about them. People, it’s time to stop fretting about whether we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture—we are, we have been, we’re going to be—and instead take practical steps to clean up the celebrity-obsessed culture we’ve got...


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