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Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War Paperback – Deckle Edge, September 30, 1992
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““[Alexievich’s] voice is much more than the sum of [her subject’s] voices . . . [making] that war as all-encompassingly present and personal―as real―as any fictional account ever did for any other war.”
- Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
“For the past 30 or 40 years [Alexievich has] been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual, but [her work is] not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions―what she’s offering us is really an emotional world, . . . a history of the soul.”
- Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy
“A masterpiece of reportage, probably her best book.”
- Timothy Snyder, The New York Review of Books
From the Back Cover
From 1979 to 1989 a million Soviet troops engaged in a devastating war in Afghanistan that claimed 50,000 casualties - and the youth and humanity of many tens of thousands more. In Zinky Boys journalist Svetlana Alexievich gives voice to the tragic history of the Afghanistan War. What emerges is a story that is shocking in its brutality and revelatory in its similarities to the American experience in Vietnam - a resemblance that Larry Heinemann describes movingly in his introduction to the book, providing American readers with an often uncomfortably intimate connection to a war that may have seemed very remote to us. The Soviet dead were shipped back in sealed zinc coffins (hence the term "Zinky Boys"), while the state denied the very existence of the conflict; even today the radically altered Soviet society continues to reject the memory of the "Soviet Vietnam". Creating controversy and outrage when it was first published in the USSR - it was called by reviewers there a "slanderous piece of fantasy" and part of a "hysterical chorus of malign attacks" - Zinky Boys presents the candid and affecting testimony of the officers and grunts, nurses and prostitutes, mothers, sons, and daughters who describe the war and its lasting effects. Svetlana Alexievich has snatched from the memory hole the truth of the Afghanistan War: the beauty of the country and the savage Army bullying, the killing and the mutilation, the profusion of Western goods, the shame and shattered lives of returned veterans. Zinky Boys offers a unique, harrowing, and unforgettably powerful insight into the realities of war and the turbulence of Soviet life today.
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This excellent book is very hard to read. Just like our Vietnamese adventure, The Soviet Union organized stupid deaths in a stupid war that accomplished nothing but pain and loss for everyone involved and left the world a worse place afterwards. Except that the Soviets were even more callous, cruel, effed-up, and ineffectual than we were in Vietnam. This book, in the style of Studs Terkel, tells, in their own words, the stories of those from the Soviet Union, both the soldiers and their wives and mothers, who suffered in in that cruel and unnecessary war, and who still bear the scars of it. Svetlana Alexievich is a passionate and compassionate reporter who brings the futile and hubristic stupidity into vivid focus. Anyone who remembers Vietnam will recognize these stories. Many of them could have been ours.
There may be more Boys in zinc ahead for Russia in their adventures in the Donbas and Syria. I note that just recently a Soviet tank commander of Central Asian ethnicity, who defected in Afghanistan and joined the Haqqani network was killed on the Afghani-Pakistan border. The chickens from the Soviet Union's last great adventure are still coming home to roost.
One segment of respondents which surprised me here were the women who served in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, people you hear little about. The doctors and nurses who tended the wounded and watched so many young men die. And there were also women who were perhaps no more than 'camp followers,' who went under the guise of librarians and clerks, but quickly set up shop on the side to 'service' the staff bureaucrats, officers and men. But the stories that were perhaps the most heartbreaking and wrenching to read were from the young wives and mothers of soldiers killed 'over there,' who were never really told exactly what happened to these 'boys' who were returned home in sealed zinc containers (hence the title, "Zinky Boys"). Some of these women were driven nearly mad with grief.
The Introduction to this edition by Larry Heinemann (author of PACO'S STORY, winner of the NBA for fiction) draws the inevitable parallels to the Vietnam War, fought by an earlier generation of Americans. The deceit, the national furor over the war, the lack of welcome for returning veterans, the lasting physical and emotional wounds and traumas - all of these things were equally true of the Soviet-Afghan war.
ZINKY BOYS is a difficult book to read. There is so much pain and anger and grief expressed in these pages, you are forced to turn away from it periodically. There are no real conclusions to be drawn, other than the old cliché that 'war is hell,' perhaps. And this war, like Vietnam, was fought mainly by very young men, between the ages of 18 and 20 - barely more than boys. Tough truths abound here. I don't really know what to say, except that Alexievich has recorded some very important stories here. She is to be commended. Very highly recommended, especially for students of military history.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
Most recent customer reviews
Some of these stories are almost unreadable. I'd read a few poorly translated tales from Soviet guys coming back from Afghanistan years ago, and...Read more