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Afghanistan and the Soviet Withdrawal 1989
20 Years Later





Evening with summer school lecturers, September 2007

Alexander Antonovich Lyakhovsky rose to the rank of Major General in the Soviet army, and in retirement became an eminent military historian and the leading Russian authority on the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  During the war, he worked in the General Staff of the USSR Armed Forces, and in 1987-1989 he served as personal aide to General of the Army Valentin Varennikov, the head of the USSR Defense Ministry Operations Group in Afghanistan and President Najibullah’s top military adviser.   General Lyakhovsky’s position provided him with unique insight into Soviet military decision-making and operations in Afghanistan.

For the past 20 years, Alexander Lyakhovsky conducted pioneering research in the archives of the Russian Defense Ministry, the Archive of the General Staff, and the Russian Military Archive, and published his findings and original documents in multiple scholarly and popular media.  His books included Tragediya I Doblest Afgana (Afghan Tragedy and Valor, 1995), Plamya Afgana (Afghan Fire, 1999), Chechenskaya Tragediya Rossii (Russia’s Chechen Tragedy, 2002), Zacharovanye Svobodoi:  Tainy Kavkazskih Voin, (Charmed with Freedom:  Secrets of the Wars in the Caucasus, 2006), and Grazhdanin, Politik, Voin: Pamyati Shakha Masuda (Citizen, Politician, Fighter: In Memory of Shah Masoud, 2007).

 In the audience, Septmeber 2007

General Lyakhovsky’s scholarly work represents the most comprehensive attempt to document and analyze the Soviet narrative of the war in Afghanistan.  His books and articles published hundreds of primary sources that had never before been available to scholars, including reports of Soviet representatives of the USSR Defense Ministry, the KGB, and Soviet military commanders.  The books also included extensive interviews with Soviet military officers and representatives of secret services.  Among the subjects he covered in detail were the Soviet efforts to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan in 1980 while keeping the mission limited to the protection of government buildings and main installations, the expansion of the mission to include combat operations, the emergence of the Mujahadeen resistance, and Soviet efforts secretly to negotiate with the rebel leaders, most notably, with the legendary Ahmad Shah Masoud.

Alexander Antonovich worked in partnership with the National Security Archive for nearly 15 years to open the secret history of the Afghan war and to bring scholarly scrutiny to Soviet military history.  He actively participated in the Carter-Brezhnev Project (organized by Jim Blight and janet Lang of Brown University’s Watson Institute, together with the Archive) starting with the Oslo conference co-sponsored with the Norwegian Nobel Institute in September 1995, and in the conference “Toward an International History of the War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989,” organized by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, with the Archive, in April 2002

 On the Black Sea, September 2007

General Lyakhovsky was an invaluable participant in the program of the summer schools for Russian regional faculty and graduate students held by the Archive annually for five years from 2002 to 2007 in Gelendzhik, Russia, in partnership with Kuban State University.  At the summer school and in the conferences, Alexander Antonovich was always the soul of the group with his insightful analysis and characteristic openness, and his larger-than-life personality especially marked the evenings, when he sang his extraordinary soldiers’ songs about Afghanistan, told stories and jokes and enveloped everybody around him in his unique personal warmth and wonderful sense of humor.  He shared his books and documents and stories with summer school students who followed him everywhere.  All of us who had the great privilege of working with him will always remember his broad warm smile, his enormous generosity, and his room-filling voice, that also filled our hearts.


Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite’s Tribute to Lyakhovsky

Summer school 2007

Aleksandr Lyakhovsky, who died on 3 February, was a most generous man, a most generous scholar, and a universally respected expert on the political and military history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. I first met him in 2006, when I was beginning research on that subject for a book. Knowing very little about me, he nevertheless introduced me to a great many veterans of the war, some now in very senior positions. His massive history of the war in Afghanistan, The Tragedy and the Glory of the Afghan War, became my constant guide and point of reference. It is an encyclopaedic account, which he continually revised as new documents became available, often as a result of his efforts to make public things which otherwise would not have seen the light of day. No doubt new documents will become available, which will shed more light on the details of Soviet decisionmaking before and during the war. But no future scholar will be able to ignore Aleksandr Lyakhovsky’s groundbreaking work.

 Summer school, September 2007

Lyakhovsky served in Afghanistan for a number of years, and as a professional soldier he naturally reflected the point of view of the army, both in his writing and in private conversation. Like many other honorable Soviet officers, he felt that the army had been given an impossible task by the politicians who sent it into Afghanistan in 1979, and that those same politicians shamefully failed to recognize the army’s achievements and sufferings when it finally withdrew. But though he expressed these feelings with passion, they never affected the objectivity of his historical analysis. 

I did not know Aleksandr Lyakhovsky long enough to presume to call him a friend. But he was a vivid personality, and I feel his loss keenly. He had a great deal more to give both the people around him and the cause of historical truth and justice to which he had devoted himself.

-Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador to Moscow, 1988-1992

Video1:Lyakhovsky signing Russian songs1

Video 2:Lyakhovsky singing Russian songs

 With summer school students




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