'How do you shoot people?': Remembering Afghanistan, 40 years on

Aleksandr Silantjev, veteran of the 1979-1989 Soviet Afghan War, played an integral role in the conflict's opening action.
Aleksandr Silantjev, veteran of the 1979-1989 Soviet Afghan War, played an integral role in the conflict's opening action. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

December 27 marks the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the nine-year Soviet-Afghanistan war. ERR's Toomas Sildam met one of that war's Estonian veterans, who recalled the opening salvo of what was supposed to be a short operation, just three days later on December 27, with the assault on the Tajbeg Palace, near the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the assassination, after more than one previous failed attempt, of the Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, who the Soviet Union had lulled into a false sense of security but who was suspected of being a United States spy.

The order of December 27, 1979 was simple: "If you are shot at, shoot them."

When asking how you shoot others, Narva native Aleksandr Silantjev was met with the response: "Yes", from his commander, Lt. Valeri Vostrotin.

Then-Afghan head of state Hafizullah Amin was at the Tajbeg Palace, the former home of the royal family in that country, and was the primary target for Sijantjev and his comrades.

Silantjev was then 18 years old; Lt. Vostrotin nine years his senior.

"How do I shoot people? In Kabul, they smile at us, waving. 'Jolki-palki', we were told we were coming here to Afghanistan to build socialism, and now this is the real story."

Silantjev, who had been working at the Baltijets factory in Narva for eight months and was forced into military service in the Soviet Army, did not understand anything about what was going on.

Aleksandr Silantjev during his Red Army days. Source: Author's personal collection.

No one explained to young Soviet paratroopers 40 years ago that, "look, boys, on December 12, 1979, the people of the Soviet hierarchy – the names read almost like a Soviet who's-who at the time – gathered at then-leader Leonid Brezhnev's dacha near Moscow: Head of the KGB, and later Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, defence minister Dmitry Ustinov and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

They group made the final decision to organize a coup in Afghanistan, which bordered the Soviet Union, to assassinate its leader, Amin, to install Kremlin loyalist Babrak Karmal in his stead, and to deploy close to 100,000 troops, known as the 40th Army, in the country.

Of this ultra-secret decision, which triggered a nearly 10-year war, only a handwritten paper by another Politburo heavyweight, Konstantin Chernenko, head of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, entitled: "Situation in [country]" A," with the "A" representing Afghanistan, emerged.

Reports vary on the ensuing fatalities, but up to two million Afghans were killed during the course of war, mostly civilians (Mujahideen losses are put at a little under 60,000 killed, according to most sources) over 15,000 Soviet soldiers officially lost their lives, and more than 35,000 were wounded. There are those who claim the real figures are higher.

Aleksandr Silantjev (left) together with two comrades. Source: Author's personal collection

And between 1979 and 1989, Estonians served too, since the country was under Soviet occupation at the time - 1,652 Estonian conscripts served in the war; 36 of them fell.

No one at the meeting at Brezhnev's Dacha had anticipated any of this of course. 

"Let's have a go in Afghanistan, put a new man in power, deploy the troops for a bit, help suppress the opposition, give economic and military aid, then withdraw the troops and all will be well," - that was about the size of it so far as the discussions went.

In actuality, a devastating civil war followed, whose after-shocks affect Afghanistan even today.

"There was effectively a feudal order [there], people went barefoot, and yet we were told we were doing our international duty and helping to build socialism. Jolki-Palki!".

In Russian, "Jolki-Palki" is a [negative] exclamation of shock and surprise, along the lines of "God damnit" in English (or "no, kurat küll" in Estonian).

Aleksandr Silantjev is still just as surprised today as he was 40 years ago when, as a conscript, he was flown to Afghanistan, from the Fergana training center, in eastern Uzbekistan, then also part of the Soviet Union.

All he really knew was that he was going to a country called Afghanistan, that somewhere in Asia there was a country called Afghanistan.

And then the evening of December 27 came. A special KGB unit blew up an underground communications unit in central Kabul, which cut through important Afghan communications lines and cut off the capital, Kabul, from the rest of the world. 

This was the signal for the start of Operation Baikal 79, aimed at the capture of all key Afghan government agencies and military units in the capital. 

Taking out Amin at his palace (where he was in fact advised to remain by his KGB advisers-ed.) required a more precision operation, dubbed Storm 333; the Afghan leader had evaded previous KGB attempts to kill him, both by bullet and poison, the latter just a couple of weeks before the attack. This time he was not so lucky, however. The exact details of his death - whether he was summarily executed, killed in a hail of gunfire, or died after being wounded or even suffering convulsions after withdrawal from the treatment for the botched poisoning attempt, but he certainly died that night.

It is now known that over 500 personnel were involved in the Storm 333 action: KGB special groups "Grom" and "Zenit", the GRU, and Lt, Vostrotin's 9th parade of paratroopers, with its 87 conscripts. 

Among them, Aleksandr Silantjev, the boy from Narva, who was a radio operator, from whom the action was kept a complete secret until the last moment.

On the evening of December 27, the men from Silantjev's unit formed up as usual to go to dinner. Suddenly the command came: "Let's go! Get to the vehicles!", meaning that the pilaf (stew) in the military canteen would have to be left to cool down.

The paratroopers were tasked with preventing units loyal to Amin from reaching the Tajbeg Palace when it came under attack from KGB and GRU units.

"Bullets were flying everywhere, as if we were caught in a mincer," Silantjev recalls. 

"The Afghans in a nearby tank unit were running here and there, but none of them came out of the gates. If they had, we would have had to open fire on them."

One Mikhail, from Barnaul, in the Altai Krai region of southern Siberia, with whom Silantjev served in a liaison group, was hit by a bullet in the fight. As yet, Silantjev did not know it, but Andrei Yakushev, a 23-year-old from Estonia, had fallen a few hundred meters away, in the assault on the Tajbeg. 

Yushchev was born in Russia and moved to Tallinn in the late 1960s with his parents, graduating from the Institute of Oriental Languages at Moscow State University, and specializing in Persian, leading him to be recruited by the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate and becoming an interpreter for the Grom unit involved in the assault on Amin's palace. 

Yushchev was killed either by grenade fragments when he reached the palace wall, or by "friendly" machine gun fire when he was already inside the palace - there are different recollections of what happened. 

The Tajbeg Palace near Kabul, on December 27, 1979. Source: Andrei Abramov/Wikimedia Commons

Candles are still often lit at Yushchev's grave in the EDF cemetery in Tallinn.

"Everything was destroyed, smashed up," says Silantjev.

"There was blood, a lot of blood. The corpses of Afghan soldiers we had to take away. But how, as 18-year-olds, we did not know what the face of death looked like. And so the wives or mothers of these soldiers came to take away the bodies of their relatives, crying unceasingly."

Silantjev is reluctant to recall more details.

Later on, the officers explained that Amin had been recruited by the Americans and wanted to bring U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but: "We were on the way a day or two ahead of them and so the Americans couldn't reach our borders." 

There was also talk going round concerning rare minerals that the Americans apparently wanted to get hold of.

TASS, the Soviet Union's official news agency reported the incident as being another stage of the [international communist] revolution taking place in Afghanistan, and overthrowing the Amin clique.

Lieutenant Vostrotin's troops knew well which units had taken Amin's palace and shot the leader. They weren't members of the new Afghan government, who at the time waited under the protection of the KGB as events unfolded, only later to make public appearances as victors.

Silantjev served a year-and-a-half longer in Afghanistan, returning home to Narva on June 13, 1981.

"The war sucks you in, and many at home couldn't get used back to normal life. This happened to me too. When I joined the army, I didn't smoke or drink. I came back ... and then my mother just kept crying, son why are you drinking. In October [1981] I cracked. Then I reverted to being a normal person."

Silantjev did not tell his mother what he had experienced in Afghanistan, nor did he tell his wife. Those who have not seen it themselves would not understand or could not understand. Those who have seen it will never be free from the memories. After all, the war lasted a lot longer than the initial question: "How do you shoot people?"

Two years ago, Alexander Silantjev, along with his friends from the Bastion society of Afghanistan veterans in Narva, organized a memorial for the victims of the Afghan wars. This has two dates – 1979-1989, and 2004-2014, for all boys from Estonia, both free and under Soviet occupation, who were killed or wounded there. 

Aleksandr Silantjev today, at the Narva memorial to both Afghan wars in which Estonians have fallen. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Aivar Simson, who made the memorial stone, is himself a Soviet Afghanistan veteran, which features two used bullet cartridges representing the two wars, placed on a black stone, symbolizing the dark nights of the south (see picture). The war is over, you could say.

Silantjev's own son, Roman, served in the EDF at Tapa base, and at the end of his compulsory military service he was offered the chance to remain on as a professional soldier and volunteer for a mission ... to Afghanistan.

"I said, 'don't even think about it'," says Silantjev.

"No one has been able to conquer Afghanistan, but if you go there, something will happen. No way!'," he told his son.

Roman never did go to Afghanistan.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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