It was published bit by bit in a Soviet newspaper and, as mentioned earlier, caused a huge scandal – looking back now, Felix says it was even surprising how much of a displacing force it was. It wasn't that people hadn't already started questioning the official narrative, but Alexievich's chapters were quite damning (less of the soldiers themselves than of the state sending them over). He describes it as the first real, public engagement with the war, and she asked the major questions we're asking in this summer school: what is heroism? What doe sit mean to fight? What kind of glory exists for people caught in a quagmire? And how can they be used afterwards?
So, Felix asks us, how did people remember the Afghan war in the former Soviet countries, and in what ways might it have been impacted by the wider cultural task of remembering the Great Patriotic War?
The Afghantsy, as well as the forces that politicized them, faced another crisis when the soldiers returned home: the fall of the Soviet Union. While veterans of the Great Victory in 1945 were celebrated on the streets, the Afghantsy were isolated members in a society that found itself being politically disintegrated. They found themselves citizens of countries that didn't technically start the war and ended up having fought for a nation that had ceased to exist.
The cultural traumas of the 90's followed that, with economic crisis, civil wars and political maneouvering – the task of contextualizing the Afghantsy was nearly impossible without help from the new political powers. And said powers were likely to use them in seeking their own interests. Felix mentions two interesting examples that, like Alexievich's book, came out of Belarus.
One of them is a monument complex called the Island of Tears, and it was built right in the middle of Minsk (the Belarusian capital – some say that it was partially meant to be a kind of revenge on Alexievich, but this is a bit gossipy). There was a chapel in the middle with various statues and fountains around it, and the initiative to create it didn't some from the gov't itself. It was originally the work of an initiative formed by mothers of fallen soldiers in the late 80's.
In a story that probably deserves it's own story, these mothers managed to gather enough support (and symbolic capital) to push Lukashenko, the President of Belarus since '94, to launch its construction. And so, in the first year of his regime, he signed off on the complex and gave the mothers a place to mourn their sons.
But obviously it wasn't as simple as that. While the mothers may have been comforted by a space that expressed their grief, the architects used the memorials as another way to express a new Belarusian identity, distinct from that of the USSR. Which is strange, as the whole war effort was a Soviet project from the start. But by having things written in the Belarusian language (often dominated by Russian in domestic/international politics) and using an inclusive religious language (that invited use by Belarusian Catholic and Orthodox believers), Lukashenko effectively took a moment of Soviet shame and converted it, using language/architecture straight from WWII, to a pagent of Belarusian glory.