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Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States - Research Notes (3)

A Muslim Woman Officer in the Soviet Army During the Soviet-Afghan War. A Soviet “Anti-Hero”

Anne Ducloux

Résumé

This research note based on an anthropological fieldwork retraces the life of Mamura, an Uzbek woman who became a hero among her peers, Afghan war veterans. Born in the 1960s in Southern Uzbekistan, into the Muslim faith, Mamura was a Komsomol and volunteered for Afghanistan, where she served in particular as an army censor. She became a legend, albeit not for her military deeds, but thanks to her love story with a Russian officer. Mamura’s story casts a special light on several aspects of Uzbek history and society: gender and family relations, the place of Uzbek soldiers among Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, but also the situation of Afghan war veterans in Uzbekistan.

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Pipss.org is grateful to Shaun Long who edited this research note

  • 1 Temur tobyt in Tadjik and in Uzbek, tsinkovyi grob "zinc coffin" in Russian. Cf. S. Alexievich, Zin (...)

1I am not an historian but an anthropologist, and it is as an anthropologist that I took an interest in the Afghanistan War. I was initially interested in how traditional funeral customs were changed when the bodies of dead soldiers were returned home in “zinc coffins1”. However, from April to September 2013, I gathered testimony from around fifteen veterans in the Samarkand region.

2In 1978, the USSR decided to intervene in Afghanistan and set up a friendly regime in order to avoid losing the influence it had built up in the country through a long period of complex relations. Yet an uprising in Herat in March 1979 led to a build-up of Soviet troops stationed on the Soviet-Afghan border, including a battalion of Muslim soldiers. This battalion was created specifically to form the 40th Army. On Brezhnev's order, the Soviet invasion began on the night of 25 December 1979, but Muslim soldiers from the Caucasus were soon suspected of being unreliable and were replaced with troops from Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, etc. Muslim troops from Central Asia – including a large Uzbek contingent made up of conscripts, reservists and volunteers, mostly fervent communists – remained at their posts. With hindsight, these Muslim troops are considered to have fought with courage. Only in February 1988 did riots break out in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as the population could no longer tolerate seeing their sons brought home in “zinc coffins”.

  • 2 Only the President and the members of the Council of the Union of Proud Internationalist Combatants (...)

3While there are no official figures, the Council of the Union of Proud Internationalist Combatants in Afghanistan, a veterans’ group in Uzbekistan estimates that nearly one hundred thousand Uzbek soldiers fought in Afghanistan. Over ten years, one thousand five hundred and thirty two Uzbek soldiers were killed and around fifteen thousand were injured, but no women are listed in the small book entitled Khotirа (“Memory”) that the Union of Internationalist Combatants published somewhat secretly in Tashkent in 1993. The Union carried out a two-year investigation throughout Uzbekistan to prepare the book, as no military archives were accessible2.

4In the seventies, in Uzbekistan, draftees without university degrees were called up for military service at age 18. They were assigned as “drivers” or scouts in mixed combat units of Slavs, Balts and Central Asians after three months of boot camp in Kushka (present-day Gushgi in Turkmenistan), the southernmost Soviet town on the Afghan border.

5In the same period, male students in Soviet universities were required to attend a weekly military training course and spend a month every summer in military training camps (learning to handle weapons and studying military and political theories). Female students took courses in anatomy, first-aid for the wounded, etc. At the end of their studies, after an exam, the men became reserve officers and the women received a nursing diploma.

6In 1979, many Uzbek university students, all of them Komsomol members, signed up to fight. These men were heavily influenced by the memory of the “Great Patriotic War” and the Soviet victory of 1945, emphasised at length in their political classes. Called up as reservists, dreaming of heroic feats, they each wrote a zaiavlenie, the patriotic declaration asking to serve their homeland. They were sent to the front and took their oath with pride, swearing to serve their country, the USSR.

7These reservists or contingent conscripts were born into the Muslim tradition, but declared themselves to be “communist and atheist”. They wanted to help progressive Afghans threatened by obscurantist forces supported by the United States. In fact, in January 1980, the United Nations condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and beginning in 1986, the Dushman – “enemies” in Persian – began to fire Stinger surface-to-air missiles at Russian helicopters.

8In the Samarkand region, people speak Tajik, which is a Persian dialect, like the Afghan language, Dari. In addition, reserve officers from Samarkand often held degrees in Persian philology, so they were naturally appointed as interpreters for the KGB’s propaganda units. Some of them even ended their thirty-two months of service with the rank of “major”, in charge of propaganda regiments.

9At the same time, in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, around forty young women from communist families signed up for the Red Army’s civilian auxiliary corps as doctors, nurses, secretaries, canteen workers or telegraph workers. Some of them were looked upon as if they were prostitutes, but it is now politically incorrect to mention this piece of malicious gossip in Uzbekistan.

10However, one woman – and only one – served as an officer in an internationalist unit of the Red Army, in Herat in 1985-1986 and I will present here the unusual story of this young komsomolka, relying in particular on an interview with her. A legend in the very closed circle of Uzbek veterans, she did not fire a single shot, and her popularity is based on something very different from military feats in a country where the myth of the Soviet “hero” is still very much alive in people’s minds.

A Muslim woman, Lieutenant in the Soviet Army, and a Soviet “anti-hero”

11Mamura was born in 1965 in Urgut, a city in southern Uzbekistan, in an Ishon family, local Sufi shaykhs which the Bolsheviks either failed or did not want to eradicate during the Soviet Union. Having lost her father, Mamura’s paternal uncle held parental authority over her. This uncle was president of a kolkhoz and… a mullah; not officially, of course, but he knew the Quran and secretly officiated in the families of the kolkhoz. Mamura’s grandmother held the title of Hofiz because she knew the Quran by heart, while her mother was a bikhalfa, a teacher of the Quran who secretly officiated in feminine rituals while also working as the kolkhoz bookkeeper. In 1983, at the start of the last and quite severe antireligious campaign of the Soviet Union, Mamura’s mother was denounced for her “subversive religious” activities. But she was a strong woman and an excellent accountant, and what’s more, she was honest – something the country was sorely lacking. So, when she was called to the district headquarters she roundly insulted the apparatchiks questioning her. They were afraid that she would reveal their convenient little arrangements, so they dropped the procedure to exclude her from the Communist Party.

12Mamura is a small, quiet, ordinary woman, dressed “like a peasant”. Since childhood, she had dreamt of being an officer in the Red Army. The uniform and especially the wide hat of the Soviet officers that she had seen marching on Moscow’s Red Square set her dreaming.

13In the seventies, she was a good pupil and was admitted to the law faculty in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital and the gateway to Central Asia. After two years of studies, barely twenty years old and despite earning high marks, she stopped her studies and returned to Urgut, where, as the secretary of the Komsomol of the “district”, she became the chief of staff for the military committee because she spoke enough Russian, and then head of the “defence secrets” department of the regional committee. She told me that she felt both communist and Muslim, but she never spoke of religion in her working life or with her Communist Party comrades.

14Mamura had already planned to join the Red Army: at the University of Tashkent, instead of taking the nursing training with the other women, she had taken the two years of military training intended for the men. None of the instructors raised any objections because, from 1983 to 1985, the war mobilised more than one hundred thousand men per annum in Afghanistan, and there were no longer enough volunteers – especially university-educated ones. She told me that the instructors treated her no differently from the other male students, because she was skilled at assembling and stripping down a Kalashnikov. Likewise, when she presented her zaiavlenie, the declaration asking to serve her country, the commander of the Urgut military district showed no reaction. She was sent to Kushka where she received three months of additional training. Then she was sent to Herat, around eighty kilometres away, in north-western Afghanistan.

Her functions in Herat: censor and ideologue

15She was immediately assigned to the mail, checking and censoring letters, because the commanding officer at this large military base did not want a woman serving in a combat unit. Her task consisted of reading correspondence written in Russian or in Uzbek in Cyrillic script. Her role was to censor the letters as needed and to alert her superiors.

16Letters from the front were rare because many combatants spent weeks or months far ahead on the front lines, far from any mail service, and especially because they were too “busy”. In fact, they knew the rules: no information, no complaints would be tolerated. In the vast majority of cases, these rules were respected.

  • 3 The first surah of Quran.

17Conversely, letters from families were more numerous, and Mamura told me that she tried to censor them as little as possible. She had to cut out full lines with scissors or blacken them out with black ink when they mentioned restrictions back home and, of course, any religious expressions. Lastly, she acknowledges that she was sometimes not very zealous and did not inspect some of the letters that she considered harmless. She remembers that once she did not cut out the first two verses of the Fatiha3 written in tiny letters in the corner of the page, as she thought that the soldier would carry this letter with him, like a talisman.

18In addition, her work consisted of “visiting” communist Afghan families living in the city of Herat in order to kindle their socialist enthusiasm, or as she says, to “open up their minds”.

19For the first six months of her assignment, like everyone else, Mamura lived in the garrison, ate in the mess hall, and slept in a women’s dormitory, until one day she met Vladimir, a Russian lieutenant from the western Ural town of Kirov, and a former Komsomol member with a degree in chemistry. Vladimir had been serving on the front for two years in a scout regiment in a section specialised in explosives. After being wounded, he had become a tank driving instructor at Herat. They fell in love and did not hide their relationship. “The Russian commanding officer at the base was strict”, according to Volodia, “but he soon let us live together so long as it did not interfere with our respective tasks.” They were given authorisation to build a zemlianka, a sort of half-buried tent where they lived the life of an “ordinary” couple in this vast high-security camp built on the outskirts of the city and far from the Afghan population. After the “office”, Mamura cooked, did laundry for both of them, and cleaned the shelter, “just like at home”. But after a year, Volodia was eligible for a discharge, so he left for Tashkent while Mamura still had one more year of service. She kept her zemlianka and completed her thirty months of service at the same place, although she missed Vladimir. She dreamt of marrying her merry and humorous Russian officer, but how could such a fairy-tale ending be expected when you look like an Uzbek peasant? In Uzbekistan, it is virtually unimaginable that a young Uzbek woman could marry a Russian man, especially in a small provincial town.

20Nevertheless, she became a legend.

To be a legend without being a hero of the Soviet Union

21Yet once back in Soviet Uzbekistan, Volodia did not return directly to the Urals. He went to Urgut, where he met Mamura’s uncle, the mullah/kolkhoz president. Volodia had carefully memorised a few Quranic surahs, determined to ask for the young woman’s hand in marriage. But Mamura’s brothers were violently opposed to such a match. The uncle was more hesitant, as he was rather flattered that a young Russian would be interested in his niece and could recite a few surahs, certainly more than his own sons could do. Vladimir left disappointed and went back to Russia.

22When she was free from her military obligations, Mamura landed in Tashkent and went to join Volodia directly in the Urals. They spent two months with his family, which readily accepted the young woman, seeing no reason why Vladimir should not marry a Muslim. When they left together for Urgut in early 1988, Vladimir decided to convert to Islam before becoming the town’s imam khatib (“preacher”) in 1994. He also chose to become an Uzbek citizen in 1992, after independence, and took a Muslim name, Abdu-Vohid, but everyone in Urgut still calls him Volodia today.

23In 1988, Mamura’s uncle gave his consent for their marriage, against the wishes of the other men of the family. The young couple refused a traditional ceremony, arranging what was called a “red wedding”, only signing the act of civil marriage in front of the ZAGS (the marriage service). Now they have three children and four grandchildren. Mamura still speaks Russian with a strong Uzbek accent, while Volodia, in his own words, speaks only street Uzbek. Both have retired from the Army, live in a one-room flat provided by the Uzbek State and are active members of the association of Internationalist Veterans of Afghanistan.

24However, like all “Afghans”, they do not enjoy any recognition from the current Uzbek government, which is cutting back on their veterans’ benefits. Even the most disabled veterans – those who lost an arm or a leg in combat – now receive a tiny disability pension. “We weren’t the ones who sent you there, you shouldn’t have gone”, the Uzbek authorities insist. As if they had had any choice… Moreover, some veterans refuse to take the pension that the Uzbek State pays them, a “pittance” paid out irregularly that they must “beg for”. The veterans also enjoy free public transport and healthcare, but the Uzbek health system is in such a dilapidated state that it cannot really be considered “medical care”.

25In fact, aside from war veterans, nobody is interested in this war anymore. “That’s part of the past! It was the Soviet Union back then” are the most frequent comments, though the Afgantsy (the name by which the Afghanistan veterans are known) are all under continuous surveillance by the SNB (the former KGB). They all know each other thanks to the association, and Mamura is an emblematic person thanks to her love story. Not for her military career or her unique background. They all spoke of her with emotion: “Think if it! A Muslim woman marrying a Russian officer of the Red Army! And they lived together like husband and wife! And that Russian converted to Islam for her beautiful eyes!”

26Likewise, my (female) neighbours and colleagues, uninterested in my questions about the Soviet-Afghan War, asked me several times to tell them Mamura’s story as soon as I had first met her in Urgut. All of these women, tenderly, even with tears in their eyes, remembered only this: the love story of a Muslim woman, her love affair and her marriage with a Russian, and Volodia converting to Islam and becoming the town’s imam…

Conclusion

27Following a fairly traditional topos in Central Asia, a woman is made remarkable only by her love story. This is especially true in a country like Uzbekistan, where arranged marriages are the rule and love is considered a disorder. Then, a woman army officer is not distinguished by her military career but by her private life, because she transgressed the traditional rules of matrimony and lived a real love story. That this happened in Herat during the Soviet-Afghan War does not seem to be the most important fact. Conversely, beautiful love stories still make people dream. The only Uzbek woman officer of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan will be remembered for reasons that have nothing to do with battle.

28The Afghanistan veterans are seen in a poor light by the nomenklatura of independent Uzbekistan and everybody forgot them. So it is unsurprising to see that, among these former “Afghans”, women are even more “invisible”. When asked about these doctors, nurses or canteen workers that served in Afghanistan, Uzbeks speak of them as “aliens” or equate them to “prostitutes”. Mamura is the only one to escape this pattern and to be still visible. However she is not like those Soviet women, who were made “heroes” after the Great Patriotic War, marching in Victory Day parades on the 9th of May with their uniforms covered in medals. In fact, Mamura is quite the Soviet “anti-hero”; but it doesn't matter because nowadays nobody remembers or wants to remember that “dirty war”, as the veterans themselves call it.

29Volodia had the last word: “I am the imam of Urgut now, and I have no regrets because in this town not far from the Afghan border, when our government is trembling with fear because the Westerners are leaving Afghanistan, I can show the Uzbeks what a peaceful form of Islam looks like. The Taliban may invade us, but they won’t be able to change anything".

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Notes

1 Temur tobyt in Tadjik and in Uzbek, tsinkovyi grob "zinc coffin" in Russian. Cf. S. Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

2 Only the President and the members of the Council of the Union of Proud Internationalist Combatants in Afghanistan living in Samarkand knew; they lent me two books about the Soviet-Afghan War : Abdurashid Nurmurodov, Krovavaya Pelena [The bloody veil], (translated from uzbek to Russian by Aktama Safarova) Tashkent, 1993 (daily war stories of a dozen Uzbek veterans, now not found in Uzbek bookstores) and, in Uzbek, G. Fazliy, Qon sachragan lolalar [The bloody tulips], Tashkent, 2013 (obituaries of the eleven dead soldiers born in the town of Urgut).

3 The first surah of Quran.

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Anne Ducloux, « A Muslim Woman Officer in the Soviet Army During the Soviet-Afghan War. A Soviet “Anti-Hero” », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [En ligne], Issue 17 | 2016, mis en ligne le 06 décembre 2015, consulté le 19 août 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/4157

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Anne Ducloux

CETOBAC, EHESS

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