Zinky Boys Book Review
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
By Svetlana Alexievich
Softcover, 197 pages
Published by Norton, 1997
Dimensions: 6.0 x 0.6 x 9.0 inches
This is the second book from author Svetlana Alexievich which I have read, the first being the Unwomanly Face of War. Like her other work, this book is comprised of several individual narratives. This book is noteworthy because is exposed the experiences of individual Soviet soldiers sent to Afghanistan at a time when the official Party line was to minimize the scope of the Russian presence there. Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her works.
The title Zinky Boys is derived from the practice of sending casualties home in sealed Zinc coffins. Many of the anecdotes are those of wives or mothers whose men were returned to them this way. Other stories are of soldiers who were wounded, some who lost legs due to mines or IEDs. All the interviews are sad in some way, and there are portions which are gruesome.
There are a few themes which struck me as odd products of Soviet society in the 1980s. One is the shortage of consumer goods which we take for granted in the West, items such as tape recorders, cassette players, blue jeans, and make-up are mentioned in several accounts. Many of the soldiers bartered for these in Afghanistan to take back home when their tours were over. Rampant corruption often separated these treasured items from soldiers either through confiscation or as a means of bribing officials for transportation home. The practice of abuse from the soldiers near the end of their tours towards the new arrivals was widely practiced and goes far beyond anything we would describe as hazing in the West. Also, the lack of material support was appalling, especially in the area of medical supplies, some of which had been in storage since the Great Patriotic War.
In many ways this book is a commentary of Soviet society at the time. Unfortunately, there are also parallels to the previous American experience in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan after. Those looking for a military history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan should look elsewhere, this book is a narrative collection of individual stories which exposed a secret the Soviet leadership would have preferred to have kept hidden. This is an important work, but a tragic story.