(1965 – 2014)
Vladislav Tamarov (St. Petersburg, Russia [formerly Leningrad, Soviet Union], 1965 – Nevada, USA, December 26, 2014) was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1984, at age 19, and served on the front lines in Afghanistan as a member of the Soviet Union’s Airborne Assault Force, as part of a minesweeping team; all in all, for 621 days of war and 217 days of combat missions. He secretly kept a diary and potographic record, chronicling his experience and impressions. After his 1986 return to Russia, Tamarov traveled to the United States, met with Vietnam veterans, and paid his respects at the Wall on the Mall in Washington, D.C., sharing with his new acquaintances “something which others cannot understand.” He later moved to the United States, where he published his memoirs in book form. His photographs were exhibited in over 15 one man photo exhibitions in the United States and two such exhibitions in Russia, and were published in the U.S., Finland, Greece, Australia, France, Russia, Japan, [then-]Czechoslovakia, and Great Britain. Having initially worked, for a year after his return from the war, as a professional break-dancer and mime, he later became a freelance photographer, a writer, and an organizer of the Afghanistan Veterans. Affected by the physical consequences and the psychological trauma of his war experiences for the entire rest of his life, Tamarov died in Nevada on December 26, 2014, not even 50 years of age.
- Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam (1992)
– Republished in 2001 as Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier’s Story
A Selection of Quotes and Photos:
“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?” Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.
During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone …
At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time …
Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan … We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission.”
“On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen – the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.
And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn’t contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights … A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.”
“October 1984, Macedonian Column: The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, ‘One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.’ This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.”
“This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number. If I’d been in the mountains, I circled the number. Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there. Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.”
“Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second …”
May 1985, Djalalabad, from left to right: Oleg (3 shell shocks from explosions) Renat (over 200 days in combat) Alexandr (killed in action 11 hours later) Vladimir (killed in action in June 1986) Sergej (killed in action in June 1985, 6 weeks after this picture was taken).
“We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on. But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever. At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water. We didn’t yet know anything …”
“There’s nothing I can do to erase the shadow of misery and despair from the eyes looking back at me from the photos.”
“Sasha was my friend … Like me, he was 19. But he didn’t come home. He was killed 12 hours after this photo was taken.”
“Autumn 1985 Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan: These two soldiers are from my platoon: A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you. We didn’t invent this law.
But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them. You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you – you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.”
“I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember where he was from. I remember that our climb into the mountains was grueling, and we were exhausted. He was new. This was one of his first battles and I wanted to encourage him, to cheer him up.”
“September 1985, Charikar: These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp. Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over. But it wasn’t always like this …”
“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”
“He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger. The second kick was to his face. It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me. Another bullet whistled by right next to me. Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me. I saw how his hands were trembling. I noticed the horror in his eyes. “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.”
“I never sat like this, in such an open and vulnerable position. I just liked the view from this cliff, and I decided to take this shot especially for my parents: to show how peaceful it was in Afghanistan … but within two seconds I wasn’t anywhere near that rock.”
“The photos I took in Afghanistan are lying in front of me. I peer into the faces of those who were with me there and who are so far away from me now, into the faces of those who were dying right next to me and those who were hiding behind my back. I can make these photos larger or smaller, darker or lighter. But what I can’t do is bring back those who are gone forever.”
“We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.”
“When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible.”
“Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.”
“When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College … my pictures won first prize. I began to ask myself what I was doing, and why. A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.”
“This picture – me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier – was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit. For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.”
“I am asked if I think the war was a just war…how can I answer? I was a boy born and raised in beautiful Leningrad, a boy who loved his parents and went obediently to school. A boy who was yanked out of that life and dumped in a strange land where life followed different rules.”
“By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.”
Find more quotes by Vladislav Tamarov on Goodreads.
- Photos and excerpts from “Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam”
- More photos and excerpts from “Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam”
- Vladislav Tamarov’s interview on NPR (December 1, 2001)
- Portrait of Vladislav Tamarov on samoyeddogs
- Profile of Vladislav Tamarov and “Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam” on the Humanities and Social Sciences Network Online (H-Net)
- “U.S. and Soviet Veterans Share Pain of War” (Richard Severo, The New York Times, June 10, 1989)
- Reviews and blog posts related to Vladislav Tamarov on this blog, Lioness at Large