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Two Steps from Heaven

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    English translation

Mikhail Evstafiev. Two Steps From Heaven

  • Mikhail Evstafiev. The Afghan wind blows again
  • About the author
  • x x x
  • Chapter One. The Paras
  • x x x
  • Chapter Two. Disease
  • Chapter Three. Panasyuk
  • Chapter Four. Chistyakov
  • x x x
  • Chapter Five. Yepimakhov
  • Chapter Six. The Agitprop Brigade
  • Chapter Seven. Morgultsev
  • Chapter Eight. The General
  • Chapter Nine. The Operation
  • Chapter Ten. Ambush

  •       (С) Copyright Mikhail Evstafiev
          (С) Translated by Mikhail Evstafiev and Alyona Kozhevnikova

          Email the author:


          Date: 22 Feb 2002

          Author's guestbook

    About the author

    Mikhail Evstafiev graduated from the Moscow State University in 1985 with a Master's degree in International Journalism, worked for two years as a reporter for a news agency before volunteering to serve in Afghanistan. During his two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan he took part in combat operations, worked as editor of a joint Soviet-Afghan radio station and wrote for various Soviet magazines. He spent as much time amongst the 'grunts' of war, out in the firing line, as with the generals. Besides Afghanistan, he worked in different war zones including Bosnia, Tajikistan, Nagorny-Karabakh, Georgia, Trans-Dniestria and Chechnya, covered the break-up of he Soviet Union and two coup attempts in Moscow.
          His work has been published in several books.

    x x x

    The first 10 chapters of the novel

          Because sentence against an evil work is not executed
          speedily, therefor the heart of the sons of men is fully
          set in them to do evil.
          Ecclesiastes, 8:11

          For God shall bring every work into judgment, with
          every secret thing, whether it be good or it be evil.
          Ecclesiastes, 12:14

          Head muffled in a blanket, Sayeed Mohammed shivered in the snow, touched his frostbitten feet with frozen fingers and whined like a forlorn pup. It had been several days since he left the bomb-devastated village. It was amazing that he was still alive, that he had not frozen to death during the past night, which had been a particularly cold one. It must be the will of Allah!
          His cracked lips whispered: "In the name of Allah the merciful and charitable. The "Lion of Panjsher", the wise Ahmad Shah Massoud has been right, you should never believe the shuravi. The Russians had promised to leave Afghanistan for good. Ahmad Shah opened the road to the north, go ahead, "buru bahai!" Go back to where you came from! The mujaheddin won't fire a single shot! Not touch a single infidel. Then why had the Russians proceeded to bomb and shell poor Afghanistan after that? Why had they killed so many people for nothing?
          Sayeed had been caught by the air strike, too, he had not stayed with his unit but headed for his native village to visit his family.
          Finally he saw two kerosene lamps. Two specks of light. The one to the left shone through the window of their house. The other one was their neighbor's. Other families did not waste money on kerosene. He had lain unconscious the whole night. And just as well that he did not regain his senses earlier. If he had, he would have heard the cries and moans under the ruined houses, including the voice of his youngest sister, crushed by clay and rocks. When he came to, a noise like a roaring mountain torrent filled his ears and its icy water crackled and rang, drowning out weak, dying human voices. Semi-conscious and slightly disoriented, he remained alone with the mountains and clouds that flowed across the sky like that phantom river, not knowing what had happened to the village.
          By evening, the moans ceased. There was no need to bury anyone. The Russians had buried them all. Alive. Unsteady on his legs, Sayeed wandered around the village which had been transformed into a large graveyard, hoping at first to find at least someone alive, to dig them out, save them. Useless. He recalled whose house had stood where, then sat for a long time by the spot where his family had lived, crying beside the smoldering timbers, which looked like small islands in the surrounding snow. There was no sense in staying in the ruined village any longer.
          Sayeed picked up a frozen flatcake, bit off a piece leaving the rest for later, and hobbled down the beaten path, which led to the road. He turned around and looked. The first time he had left here, people had stood outside houses which were built in ascending tiers on the mountain slope, children were on the flat roofs, all of them watching him, seeing him off to war. Nobody would come looking for him. Nobody would even remember him. In any case, who would believe that anybody could have survived such a terrible scourging? Even the mountains and cliffs of Afghanistan cannot always withstand such onslaught but crumble, fall, and shudder from the bombs raining from the skies! What chance for mere mortals? And who would think that the air strike would catch Sayeed Mohammed on the approach to the village, that the shockwave would hurl the youth back some twenty meters and that he would fall into a deep snowdrift, missing the sharp rocks? The Kalashnikov and a full magazine were undamaged, Allah be praised. But Sayeed did not dare to shoot himself. He hoped for a miracle. He hoped to encounter some mujaheddin, get to a village or, should the worst come to the worst, find some shuravi and attack them in order to avenge his family. But where were they now, those Russians? His feet would not obey him, Sayeed fell many times, crawled in the snow. He would freeze to death in the mountains and his clan would come to an end, unavenged. What a stupid death. Why had he not fallen in the last battle, why had he not gone straight to Paradise? Sayeed Mohammed is an upstanding Muslim, he obeys the Koran, he prays five times a day, he fights against the infidels, he knows that a mujahideen has nothing to fear, that the holy war - jihad - is a direct road to Paradise. That is what his older brother Ali had always said.
          Ali had come back from Pakistan a completely different person. No longer an impoverished, cowering village lad in galoshes, but confident, wearing leather shoes with laces, in new clothes, with a submachine gun, a wad of afghanis and a string of lazuli worry-beads in his hands. Oh, those beads! It seemed as though the smoothly polished mineral absorbed all the blueness of the Afghan skies. Ali nibbled a sugar cube, sipped tea and clicking the beads spoke about Pakistan, about the jihad, about Ahmad Shah Massoud, about the bloody regime in Kabul, about the hated shuravi who wanted to enslave Afghanistan.
          In time, Ali headed a whole unit, he was respected and somewhat feared. Ali had made a lot of trouble for the infidel before being killed, sent many Russian soldiers to their death. Ali had died like a real hero, in battle. He slipped away from the Russians, brought his squad out of encirclement and even managed to send the Russians a last greeting from Allah by cutting off a whole group and giving them one hell of a pounding. He would have killed them all if Russian reinforcements had not arrived. Ali became a martyr, and that meant his soul went straight to Paradise, easily and painlessly, not like those of other people, it just broke away from his body and flew off, and now he was there, above the leaden sky, where it is always warm, where it never snows, where there is a bounty of fruits and flowers, where everyone drinks wine and loves beautiful women. In Paradise, a Muslim is allowed all that was forbidden on earth. And Sayeed Mohammed would follow Ali, he would not live to see his fifteenth birthday.
          War is good. What would life be without war? He would never see anything except his native village, toil all day, be hungry and sick. The war had brought Afghanistan much grief, but it also made Sayeed one of the mujaheddin, a warrior of Allah! Now all that was in the past. ....

          The submachine gun pained his shoulder. How can a child's hands manage it! It is not easy to compete with adults. His bullets did not reach the mark, fell into the dust. Shame! Shameful enough to bring tears. They would all laugh at him. Was it possible that this time, too, he would not kill anyone? There they are, Russian soldiers, so close! They aren't shooting back any more. They're out of ammunition. They're retreating from the village. The mujaheddin are shooting accurately from all sides. One down, now another. The third would be dead any moment now, and that would be all, the fun would be over. He must hurry! Sayeed Mohammed braced himself, targeted the third shuravi, pulled the trigger and wounded him in the left leg. Finally! Yes, it was his bullet that found the soldier. No doubt about it! The soldier fell, looked back, got up and lurched away. At Ali's command the mujaheddin ceased fire, leaving the soldier to Sayeed Mohammed. He's your game! He won't get far. Finish him off! The mujaheddin rose to their feet from concealment, squealing with delight like children. Isn't it fun to shoot at a moving target! To kill one of the infidels is a sacred task
          "Aim at his back," advised Ali. "Got him! Good lad!" It looked as though the fleeing soldier had received an invisible whiplash across his back. The next shot made the soldier clasp his right arm against his body, the bullet must have gone clean through. Sayeed Mohammed aimed again and again, firing one shot after another, the shuravi was a tough one, he simply wouldn't die. Fell, got up, went on. Another bullet struck, the soldier kept crawling, they'd got him, he was squirming in agony. The final shot, and it was over, the soldier lay motionless. "Let's go!" cried Sayeed Mohammed, eyes shining with elation, slung the rifle over his shoulder proudly and marched obediently after his brother. The soldier lay on his stomach. Blood flowed from his nostrils. His face, his curly black hair, his tanned skin and blood-spattered sweatshirt were powdered with dust.
          "You shot well," praised his brother and took the dead man's submachine gun. Sayeed Mohammed saw the approving glances of the other mujaheddin. "Cut off a finger," said his brother, handing him a big knife. "He's your first shuravi."
          Sayeed Mohammed walked around the dead soldier, squatted by his head, lifted the limp left hand, spread out the fingers, chose the index as the easiest to cut off, laid the knife against the center, pressed down and sliced through skin. The tip of the knife sank into the ground. He didn't have enough strength. Sayeed Mohammed pressed down again, harder, a bone snapped ...

          Fog descended on the mountain pass a blizzard began to blow. His camel-hair hat and blanket were covered in snow. Snowflakes lay on his thick dark brows and long eyelashes and on his barely visible first trace of a mustache. In an hour or so the snow would bury him and he would have no strength to withstand the cold. He would never get up again, he would soon freeze completely, fall asleep, stop thinking and hoping for rescue, he was already no longer remembering his family, his older brother. No, Ali would always be beside him, he would wait for him, take him by the hand and lead him into Paradise. He had always followed his older brother.
          Another sound joined the wailing of the snowstorm. Fear held Sayeed Mohammed rigid more than the cold and snow. A helicopter! Was it possible that the Russians had returned to finish off those who had remained alive after the bombing? Could they possibly know that he was still alive? How? Why did the shuravi hate the Afghans so much? Why had they come to Afghanistan? Why had they been killing innocent Afghan people for so many years? He would never surrender, he knew what the Russians do with prisoners!
          ...A few years ago Sayeed Mohammed had pulled his head between his shoulders, like now, closed his eyes and shuddered at the growing sound of approaching choppers. From a distance they had looked like a flock of black birds, noisy, frightening and merciless to the mujaheddin. He prepared to run and save himself, hide, dig in, disappear. Ali had taken his hand and they hid in a dry watercourse. Peering out at the terrifying choppers that filled the sky they saw, through a pair of binoculars, how the shuravi landed behind the village, how they ran out and took up defensive positions.
          The village elders approached the senior shuravi, a tall, heavily-built and not very young general in camouflage uniform, which looked like the green and brown patterns on the choppers. The elders behaved as if the general were a king or God, bowing and scraping before him and, after parlaying, surrendered the bodies of three Soviet advisors and the mujaheddin who had killed them into the bargain. Everything had turned out just as Ali predicted. Yet what else could they do? The shuravi had threatened a storming bomb attack on the entire district otherwise.
          "Look!" commanded Ali, and said the word that made all the mujaheddin shudder: "Spetsnaz." Sayeed stared through the binoculars. The soldiers looked like any other soldiers? Perhaps a bit more lithe and agile. Certainly nothing ferocious. They had same assault rifles, the same light brown hair. Why do the mujaheddin fear and hate this "Spetsnaz" so much? While they waited for the general, the soldiers unbound the hands of one of the mujaheddin and laid a loaded submachine gun before him.
          "Pick it up, you bastard!"
          Sayeed and his brother were too far away to hear what the Spetsnaz guy was saying, and they would not have understood his foreign tongue even if they had been closer. They saw only the officer's contemptuously twisted mouth. He was lean, wearing sneakers, beige trousers and beige battle jacket with sleeves rolled up and with tattoos on his forearms. He stepped back, pointing at the submachine gun.
          "I've only got a knife, and even that's not real." The Spetsnaz man flexed his muscles, showing a Bowie knife tattooed on his skin. "Take it!" He shoved the gun closer to the prisoner with his foot. "Shit yourself, eh?" The Afghan crouched, his eyes fixed on the Kalashnikov. A last chance, he had been given a last chance to fight back. He looked sideways at the shuravi, baring uneven yellow teeth in a grin and then, when the officer turned away casually, as though he had forgotten all about the weapon offered to the prisoner and seemed to be more interested in the chopper patrolling in circles overhead, the prisoner made his decision. But the men in Spetsnaz are not stupid enough to let themselves be tricked by some dumb Afghan peasant! The officer gave a satisfied snort when a soldier standing ready at the Afghan's back brought his rifle butt down on the head of the prisoner as he lunged forward.
          "Thought you could escape, spook?" The officer flung himself toward the Afghan who was struggling to his feet and knocked him out.
          "Stop that!"
          "He was trying to escape, comrade major," said the tattooed Russian, justifying himself before a senior officer in dark glasses.
          "Move out!"
          The blades of the choppers sliced through the hot air, the choppers rose one after another and flew off. Sayeed Mohammed and Ali got up, shook themselves and, without a word, startled in unison when a figure of a man detached itself from the chopper flying a little to the right, and fell to earth like a stone...

          A helicopter circled beside Sayeed Mohammed, frighteningly close. He flung the blanket away, snapped off the safety catch. "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet!" Here it was, the heaven-sent trial! A chance to avenge his brother, his relatives, himself. The roar increased. It seemed to him that everything around him shook, as though there were an earthquake. The chopper had clearly gone off course, gotten lost, and was searching and circling in the growing darkness. Obviously, the chopper wanted to be saved, just like Sayeed Mohammed. The chopper flew toward him, above him, to his right and to his left. If only it would come closer! Sayeed Mohammed prayed that Allah should send the helicopter right at him! Then he would not die alone, for nothing! He was ready for battle! He had a trusty friend - the Kalashnikov. He would avenge his brother! Sayeed Mohammed laid a frozen finger, like a hook, around the trigger, raised himself a little and when something dark seemed to appear very close, and that dark blob started to crawl over him like a monster wanting to swallow the pitiful, freezing victim and he could see the blur of the pilot's face through the glass canopy, he shuddered as the Kalashnikov released a string of bullets and cried: "Allah akbar!!" rejoicing at his victory over the Russians in the moment before death....

    Chapter One. The Paras

          Planes appeared out of nowhere. They simply swelled like white drops in the sky and slid down, like oblique streaks of rain on a window; and probably because these planes were hurrying to land, afraid of being shot down by an invisible but omnipresent enemy, in their haste they scattered gleaming flares that sparkled like Bengal lights and burned out quickly, leaving a brief reminder of themselves as white trails of smoke above Kabul.
          The soldiers messing around in the repair park, and those who were cleaning their weapons and enjoying the warm sun bared to the waist or in undershirts, and those who were drilling in the square, and those who were washing down military vehicles looked up from time to time, expecting to see these heavy transport planes, nicknamed "cattle carriers"; they waited for them the way people wait for a ship from the mainland, which they are unlikely to board this time, but catch at least a distant glimpse of the ship docking, and indulge in unlimited dreams.
          The early morning arrival of the IL-76s had become a daily routine. The passage of these airborne mediators between the USSR and Afghanistan could be seen from practically every Soviet garrison and, if the flights were canceled for some reason , everyone felt sad and deprived, as though maybe, back there in the Motherland, the "limited contingent" sent to Afghanistan had been forgotten.
          Those who had carried out a long tour of duty watched the planes in anticipation of their imminent demobilization, and dreamed up sweet fantasies of civilian life. Those only half way through their service would sigh, all they could hope for was a letter from home. Those who were new in the service still had vivid memories of the flight in the belly of such a transport aircraft and that awful feeling of impending doom when the plane, packed with people like brainless cattle, exhausted by the night-time flight, indefinite lengthy delays, customs control and border crossing had just begun to catnap when they were snapped back into awareness, barely an hour after takeoff, by the steep plunge of the plane from a height of some seven thousand or more meters, as if it had hit a sudden air-pocket or had been struck by an enemy rocket, a "Stinger" missile or some such. In fact the plane, shooting out dozens of heat emanating decoy targets, was making a steep, spiraling descent in order to land.
          When the plane taxied down the landing strip, the ramp would open, letting in a rush of unfamiliar Afghan mountain air and the sight of an alien, and therefore alarming, mountainous landscape. From this moment on, the countdown began, measuring the fated time in Afghanistan for the new arrivals, a time which, for some, meant the last months of their life.
          The newly-arrived soldiers, officers and non-coms, including women, obviously felt awkward, and stared around in barely concealed curiosity and unease, squinting in the strong mountain sunshine. Those who were returning from leave, or military business, or medical treatment could be spotted immediately: they knew why they had come here and which way to head from the landing strip. They were returning to a place that had become familiar, home. The soldiers arriving at the Kabul airdrome had identical haircuts, were equally puzzled, equally without rights, wearing identical uniforms, and depersonalized by this sameness; in long, often badly fitting greatcoats, heavy, uncomfortable "shit-squasher" boots" and similar kit-bags, they all looked the same from a distance. They were delivered here like ammunition: like little missiles in the guise of soldiers if you did not look too closely, expendable material, which differed only in size and caliber.
          Hardly anyone throughout the breadth of the great and mighty Soviet Union took the lives of the soldiers, officers, non-coms, lieutenants, first lieutenants and captains seriously. Insignificant units of humanity, of whom there was still an endless supply! So there was nothing to feel sorry about.
          The soldiers arriving in Kabul were faceless, just like thousands of other young men dragged in for two years, torn out of their usual lives in order to learn suffering, patience and survival until such time as the Motherland would consider that they had paid in full for the care and happy childhood she had lavished on them, and sent them replacements which had grown up in the meantime.

    x x x

          "They're flying, comrade senior lieutenant. Two flights have landed," reported junior sergeant Titov to the officer who lay on his bunk in hopeless and dreary anticipation of his replacement's arrival. Dressed correctly in uniform, he was watching the progress of the flies crawling on the ceiling and turned an irritated eye on his junior.
          "So what, Titov?"
          "I wouldn't know, comrade senior lieutenant..."
          "I said, so what that they're flying?"
          " told me to report when any planes land ... So I'm reporting..."
          "What does that tone of voice mean? Hey? Bloody homo stallion! " The officer turned his head and stared Titov in the face. "Who the hell do you think you're talking to? Dismissed, Titov! Close the door!"
          "Close the door on your way out! And don't bother me again! Straighten up, you lump! Wake me only for two reasons: when my replacement arrives, or if the Soviet forces pull out of Afghanistan! Got that?"
          "Get lost!"
          Titov, a hulk far superior in strength and size than the officer, bent obediently, like a lackey reprimanded by a demanding master and backed out of the room. Knowing the senior lieutenant's fiery temper, and having had his liver and kidneys bashed, like all the other soldiers, when the lieutenant was in a bad mood for some reason or no reason at all, he decided that discretion was better than pre-demobilization impudence. He closed the door quietly behind him, straightened his shoulders and, like a werewolf under a full moon, immediately became a merciless "grandpa" the severe boss of the barracks.
          Venting his spleen for the humiliation he had just endured - the offensive words had carried clearly to the young soldiers on duty, Titov kicked the slow and inefficient private Myshkovsky, who was swabbing the floor with a mop:
          "You fucking leaky rubber! When were you supposed to finish cleaning?!"
          The pail fell over with a clatter and murky water spread in a pool on the plywood floor of the barracks.
          "I'll make you lick the latrines clean with your tongue, Myshara! Useless turd!" yelled Titov at the top of his voice, so that everyone would hear.
          "Junior sergeant Titov!" The commander's voice cut across Titov's railing.
          "Do you understand, worm?" continued Titov regardless. "Down on the ground and do ten pushups! Fast! Fast! I'm warning you, Myshara!" He pressed the soldier's head down with his boot, and added in a slightly lower voice: "I'll finish you off!"
          "!" came the commander's voice again..
          "What's the MPF, Myshara?" Titov pressed own even harder with his boot.
          "The Military Paratroop Forces ..."
          "The MPF are the shield of the Motherland, greenhorn! And you don't deserve to be a rivet in that shield! "
          Myshkovsky continued to lie prone in fear. The boots of the all-powerful "grandpa" stamped off in the direction of the common room.
          "Junior sergeant Titov reporting as ordered" he stated with barely concealed insolence, addressing lieutenant Sharagin, who was having his head shaved bald. Legs crossed, he sat immobile on a small bedside chest. His shoulders were draped with a bedsheet bearing the stamp of the Ministry of Defense - a purple star. A uniform with the red armband of the officer responsible for the company lay on a nearby shelf.
          Lieutenant Sharagin was studying his new appearance in a small, cracked mirror. The mirror reflected gray-blue eyes, a clean-shaven chin with a fresh razor nick, a straight nose, a thick mustache. There were only a few patches of hair remaining on his head to be scraped off by the barber's blade wielded by sergeant Panasyuk. The white skin exposed was in sharp contrast with the deep mountain tan and seemed to be stretched tightly over his cranium, like the skin of a drum.
          That was exactly how Sharagin wanted to see himself - with a shaved head.
          Mother Nature had slacked a little when working on the lieutenant's face, giving him unremarkable, standard features, devoid of any individuality, a kind of Russian universality.
          Still watching his own reflection, Sharagin maintained a theatrical pause before asking casually:
          "What's with senior lieutenant Chistyakov?"
          Titov stood behind him, leaning against the door frame and twirling a bunch of keys on a chain:
          "The comrade senior lieutenant ordered that nobody should wake him."
          "We're just about done," said the sergeant who was carrying out the responsible duty of barber.
          "What a waste of talent!" said Titov, poking fun at his comrade. "Instead of exposing your ass to enemy fire, you would have been better off as company barber, eh Panas?"
          "Fuck off, Tit! I apologize for the bad language, comrade lieutenant, but Tit doesn't understand anything else, otherwise he'll fucking drive you into the ground, the way Pol Pot did with Kampuchea. Ha, ha, ha!..."
          "Pay attention, comrade sergeant," snapped lieutenant Sharagin, "Be careful when you're shaving your commanding officer!"
          Unlike the large, dull and brutish junior sergeant Titov, Sharagin detected traces of humanity in Panasyuk, which had not all faded during his term of service. Panasyuk was from the Altai region, skinny as a Belorussian peasant , tall as a flagpole, wiry and hardy. Panasyuk liked to joke, smoked like a chimney, suffered paroxysms of smoker's cough, swore after every second word, and when he laughed, deep and untimely wrinkles appeared on his forehead and under his eyes. He usually spoke in a long, drawling voice, like a Catholic priest's intonation: "Whatcha worrying for, comrade lieutenant? Leave it to me - everything'll be hunky-dory."
          "Somebody cleaned out the food store last night," said Sharagin, catching Titov's shifty eyes in the mirror. "It better not be anyone from our company - I'll beat their brains out!"
          "Everyone was asleep last night, comrade lieutenant, Titov responded earnestly.
          Sergeant Panasyuk confirmed that it wasn't anyone from their company, and wiped Sharagin's neck with a thin cotton towel:
          Another thing lieutenant Sharagin appreciated in Panasyuk was that although the sergeant was hard on the men, he never mocked them deliberately, did not turn their service into a nightmare and, most importantly, restrained the other "grandpas" to the best of his ability.

          ... especially louts like Titov...

          thought Sharagin. "Initiation" rites such as, for instance, "registration" during which the new recruits were beaten on their bare backsides with leather slippers so hard that the next day they were unable to sit down and only rub their black-and-blue buttocks, were held in deepest secrecy. This was part of the unspoken soldiers' ritual, and with all the will in the world the commanding officers would not be able to spot or prevent it. So Sharagin did not waste any regrets on that score. It was beyond his power to break the long-standing "youth-"finch"-"dipper"-"grandpa" tradition of relations in the ranks. There was no changing the unchangeable.
          Unreasoning impulsive cruelty, anger alongside a childish naivete, sentimentality, unexpected kindness, pity, valor, sympathy which turns easily into hatred (though not for long) - all these traits existed side by side, from times immemorial, in officers and soldiers of the Russian army and, probably, any Russian man.
          "Mother fuckers!" cried lieutenant Chistyakov suddenly in ringing tones.
          This cry of the officer's heart had resounded regularly over the past few weeks, a heart that was longing for home, and was addressed to everyone at large: the army, Afghanistan, and soldiers on duty.
          Junior sergeant Titov went off and hid in the store-room just in case. Titov knew that if Chistyakov had left his room and was in a foul mood, it was better to stay out of his way.
          "Shaved your head, eh? Good for you!" Chistyakov ran a hand over his friend's smooth skull.
          "Well, what do you think?" asked Sharagin, pleased with his new look.
          "Fine, we've been through that. Get the fuck out of here!" he yelled at a soldier who had looked into the room. "Can't stand the sight of their stupid mugs! I don't envy you! Our "graduates" are real tigers, of course, but when they're gone, who'll we have left to fight with? Am I right, Panasyuk?" asked the senior lieutenant turning suddenly and for no real reason , but just (as he liked to say) to keep everyone on their toes, punched Panasyuk hard in the stomach.
          Panasyuk doubled over, gasping with pain:
          "'re right about them being tigers, comrade senior lieutenant," he squeezed out after a moment's pause while his head cleared. He smiled waveringly at Chistyakov, appreciating the compliment.
          The silence of the barracks was shattered by the arrival of a horde of the men, who filled the air with stamping, swearing, laughter and threats:
          "Where d'you think you're putting that rifle, asshole!"
          "What are you standing there for, move over!"
          " what, a rifle..."
          "Here, take mine and put it there too, I'm off to wash..."
          "Put it there, stupid! Won't you morons ever learn!..."
          "Sych! Look how you've made up my bunk!"
          "Cat got your tongue?"
          "I'll remake it..."
          "Lazy sonofabitch! See my fist? What's it smell of? Your death, that's what..."
          "Company ten-hut!" yelled the soldier on barracks duty, saluting the company captain, who had just entered. "Ready to report!"
          "At ease," responded the lanky captain leisurely and sniffed loudly. "Thirty degrees outside, and I've caught a cold! Who'd believe it?"
          "It's the air-conditioning, captain," interjected senior warrant officer Pashkov. He walked behind captain Morgultsev.
          "What's that got to do with it?" retorted Morgultsev, pulling out a handkerchief and blowing his nose loudly.
          "Those air conditioners can kill you. They'll give you pneumonia before you know it. What's so funny? Nothing. Air conditioners are death to your lungs."
          "You'd die even faster here without the conditioners!" argued Chistyakov.
          "My God!" exclaimed Morgultsev, spotting the clean-shaven head of the platoon leader. "The appearance of Taras Bulba to the people! No other way to describe it."
          "Yakshi Montana!" cried Pashkov, flinging up his arms.
          Sharagin was somewhat embarrassed, scratched his bald pate, donned his cap and reported with all due ceremony:
          "Comrade captain! Nothing to report in your absence!"
          "Shitheads! Hell!" growled the captain, and pronounced one of his carefully thought out in advance quips: "The human body needs a good shake-up sometimes. On that day, I don't drink..."
          "Don't worry," Chistyakov winked at Sharagin. "He's been to HQ. Bogdanov probably tore a strip off him."

          Senior lieutenant Nemilov had no gift for retelling political studies materials in his own words. He droned out passages he had underlined in various pamphlets or the "Armed Forces Communist" magazine. He was easily distracted if, for example, he noticed that someone was not wearing a Komsomol badge. It would have been naive to expect that any of the men would remember anything out of what they heard during political studies, so Nemilov made them write out certain sentences he dictated. Should there be a sudden inspection, every soldier had a notebook with suitable entries.
          "Now! Write this down: the democratic Republic of Afghanistan."
          "Sounds familiar," sniggered PFC Prokhorov. "I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before."
          "Never mind clowning! You don't know the history of the country you're in. Right! The official languages are Pashtu and Dari. The population numbers ...who the hell knows what their population is now? Don't write that down!!! And now - a bit of history. Write this: Britain's attempts to subjugate Afghanistan in the 19th century failed. Due to the support granted by Soviet Russia, the next Anglo-Afghan war in May-June 1919 ended with victory for Afghanistan. In 1919..."
          "What year?"
          "For the benefits of the morons in this room, I repeat: in 1919, Afghanistan declared independence., you don't need this..." Nemilov turned a page. "Here we are: the USSR and Afghanistan have been bound by ties of friendship for a very long time. After the April 1978 revolution, these ties have become truly fraternal and an example of revolutionary solidarity. On the basis of the Agreement of Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Co-operation, the government of Afghanistan has addressed numerous appeals for military aid to the USSR. The government of the USSR decided to offer such assistance and sent the "Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces" to help the fledgling republic defend itself against the forces of global imperialism and domestic reactionary circles. New paragraph! Soviet soldiers have proved themselves true friends of the Afghan people and carry out their international duty in Afghanistan with honor. New paragraph! The April revolution was a turning point in Afghanistan's development, the outcome of many centuries of struggle against ignorance, poverty, repression and for the triumph of justice. Panasyuk, why aren't you writing?"
          In fact, the sergeant had started on a letter home, but after the first two sentences ("How are you all? I'm fine") had run out of ideas and sat staring at a Lenin quote on the wall which asserted that a revolution is worthy only if it can defend itself. Even an idiot knows that, thought Panasyuk and cast an oblique glance at the "iconostasis" of the Politburo members. The Lenin Room, existed in every subdivision and its walls were covered, church-like, with images of the most celebrated party-angels beside the "holy trinity" of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The men were supposed to come here in their free time - to play chess, write home, watch television, all under the vigilant gaze of the leaders of the world's proletariat.
          "I'm thinking, comrade senior lieutenant."
          "You're not here to think, Panasyuk! You're here to listen and write down!"
          "Yessir!" Inspiration visited the sergeant briefly once more and he added another two lines to his missive: "It's very warm here. Summer will be coming soon."
          "Experience has shown - don't write this down! - " continued Nemilov, "that Afghan citizens often ask Soviet soldiers to tell them about the USSR, how Soviet people live, the history of the revolutionary struggle of the USSR. Sychev! I said don't write this down! Are you deaf?"
          Private Sychev, looking hunted, pulled his head into his shoulders.
          "Nobody's ever asked me," drawled Prokhorov provocatively.
          "They will, Prokhorov, they will!"
          "So how the hell will I know what they want if I don't understand their lingo?"
          "You will! Through an interpreter..." Nemilov broke off. There was no point in responding to stupid questions. They were just playing for time. "You must always be prepared to converse with our Afghan comrades."
          "They should all be shot, that's what! They're all spooks!" burst out Panasyuk. What the shit do we need to talk to them for?!"
          "As you were! Resume writing! Without Soviet aid, the forces of imperialism and internal counter-revolution would have stifled the April revolution..."
          Junior sergeant Titov rapped on the glass door.
          "Comrade senior lieutenant?"
          "Two men needed for kitchen duty..."
          "Take them and get out! ...Now, where were we? " Nemilov opened the 'Memorandum for the Soviet Soldier-Internationalist.' Write this down! The Afghan people are naturally trusting, receptive of new information, have a fine sense of good and evil." A wave of laughter rolled through the room. "That's enough of that! In particular, the Afghans appreciate courtesy toward children, women and old people. That's very important! While in the DRA, observe all customary Soviet moral values, manners and laws, show tolerance of the customs and mores of the Afghans. Write it down! Write it down!!! Always be friendly, humane fair and honorable in your dealings with the workers of Afghanistan."
          The men wrote laboriously, with numerous spelling mistakes, missing out entire sentences. The "grandpas" only pretended to write.
          "Chirikov, I want all that in my notebook by tomorrow morning," said PFC Prokhorov, busily ruling up a sheet of paper to play "Battleships."
          "Don't write just yet! I'll tell you when to write! You all have to be able to give specific examples to illustrate the honorable behavior of Soviet soldiers towards the local population. Who can name a few examples? Nobody! Wonderful! You should read the newspapers. Why do we keep files of them in this room? So that brainless idiots like you should read them, that's why! Everyone's got to know at least two examples for next time. I'll be testing you!"

          "He who eats meat, suffers frequent colds," pronounced warrant officer Pashkov with a sly look in Sharagin's direction. "If a man eats meat, then something starts to stir during the night, rises up and lifts the blanket, bares his legs, and all the time the air conditioner is pumping out cold air - that's where colds come from."
          Sharagin laughed good-naturedly.
          Senior Lieutenant Chistyakov grabbed a parachute canopy out of the cupboard in the officers' room and shoved it into a bag. He had taken to warming himself in the sun at this time of day behind the huts, well out of sight of the senior staff.
          "Line up!" hollered the soldier on duty, for all the world like a village rooster.
          "Listen up, rooster face!" Chistyakov dragged the soldier off his stool and clamped a hand around his throat: "Why are you yelling in my ear?! I'm enjoying my well-earned rest. Got that? Don't bother me with trifles. Anything important happens, lieutenant Sharagin will know where to find me."

    Chapter Two. Disease

          With the coming of the hot weather, the company was hit by diarrhea, everyone running to the can day and night. The path leading from the camp to the latrines was trodden hard as asphalt. Every half hour or less, someone would race from the command barracks to the latrine like a bat out of hell. The rookies, more seasoned soldiers and the grandpas were reduced to a common level by their plight as they sat side by side in the latrine.
          There were not enough newspapers. The bound volume of "Red Star" disappeared from the Lenin Room. Nemilov was furious, branding the unknown thieves saboteurs, threatened an investigation by the Third Section but removed the bound volume of "Pravda" just in case. The Political Officer was known for his fastidiousness, washed his hands about seventeen and a half times a day, tried not to touch anything. His thin, pale lips twisted in disgust at the sight of the diarrhea-drained soldiers, his face mirrored distaste toward the illnesses which broke out in the company, his evenly-parted hair, clean fingernails and flawlessly white collars spoke eloquently of his disapproval of the common soldiers and certain non-too-clean officers.
          Formerly tanned lads, bursting with rude health would quickly become listless, thin, their faces a greenish hue when they succumbed to amebic dysentery or some other local bug. They lost weight visibly, dehydrated by the dysentery.
          Reveille-toilet-physical exercises-toilet-breakfast-toilet-lineup-toilet-political studies-toilet-weapons cleaning-toilet-lunch-toilet-duties-toilet-dinner-toilet-lights out - toilet round the clock kept everyone chained to the vicinity of the latrine, even the sick did not venture from this vital object to a distance from which it would not be possible to reach the latrine faster than a spook's bullet.
          The troops forgot everything on earth, took no pleasure in anything. Even the grandpas were so exhausted by constant "shit hemorrhages" that they stopped harassing the rookies. Junior sergeant Titov, who liked to pump lead, flexing his ready for demobilization biceps and triceps, and gunlayer-operator PFC Prokhorov - a bark and troublemaker, and sergeant Panasyuk, spent their days sitting glumly in the smoking room, because it was closest to the latrine. All in all, though, suffering diarrhea was preferable to turning yellow and being shunted off to hospital with hepatitis.
          The only officers in the company who did not catch the bug were Chistyakov and Morgultsev. Zhenka was certain that God was looking after him and keeping him safe from illness and death in battle, because he had been carrying a small icon in his pocket for two years now. His mother had sneaked the icon into his case just before he left home. Zhenka discovered the icon en route, did not throw it away but secreted it just in case, with his documents, and thus managed to carry it through customs and across the border unnoticed. Nemilov once caught Zhenka with the icon, read him a homily, but refrained from reporting him. Actually, the God who was supposedly looking after Zhenka slipped up once; Zhenka ate a jar of home-made jam, sharing the same spoon with a KGB officer who hailed from the same parts as he. The KGB man succumbed first, went all yellow, the hepatitis gathered strength, and a week later Zhenka followed him into the infectious diseases hospital. In fact, Zhenka was a dyed-in-the wool atheist, and cursed by God and His Mother so frequently, that the ears of the Holy Family must have burned so much it was a miracle that the wrath of God did not descend on the senior lieutenant's unit.
          Morgultsev, company captain, considered himself a total unbeliever. He had never stepped across the threshold of a church and did not believe in miracles. He kept himself safe with garlic. He would eat a whole head of garlic before lunch. Zhenka had nothing against a bit of insurance on the side through garlic, but that made forays into the goods depot a problem. Zhenka went there whenever he could in order to entertain members of the female sex in the Soviet Army. He would play the guitar and sing. Amorous interludes would follow later. He would swear that this was true love, but that he could not stay behind even for her, beautiful though she was. Before going to sleep he would sigh: "A blonde....and not for money, but for real love, with me..."
          They never did find out who brought the infection into the company.
          "The fuck you'll sort it out," said captain Morgultsev dourly, sweepingly classifying the drooping "elephants" as malingerers.
          Any commanding officer would be at his wits' end in such a situation. Is this a company, or what? Are these paratroopers, or what? The troops were issued tablets, some were packed off to hospital.
          The strange appellation "elephants" caught on among the troops long ago and for a rather unusual reason. It arose from their training in case of chemical warfare, before Afghanistan. The officer would shout: "Masks!" and the men would drag gas masks out of the green bags on their backs, shove them over shaven and unshaven heads: their eyes would stare out from behind the glass, which would soon mist over, and long tubes extended like trunks from the masks to the filter in the bag. Very soon, a joke started doing the rounds about a commander of unit X whose small, capricious daughter demanded that Daddy show her some elephants running around outside, otherwise she won't go to sleep, or eat, and stood there stamping her tiny feet angrily. Anything for peace! So Daddy issued an order: "Company, ten-hut! Gas masks! On the double!" And the "elephants" had to run around and work up a sweat, choking and cursing everything on earth until ordered to stand down.
          Maybe someone picked up the bug in the mess hall, or drank unboiled water, or ate an unwashed fruit from the town. Or maybe the disease had come from the nearby village, brought in by flies, or a cloud of dust, which would hang in the air for a long time after the passage of any vehicle.
          The regiment had long shielded itself from the Afghans and anything connected with them. Fenced itself off with barbed wire, minefields, trip-wires, flares, machine gun nests, trenches, parapets, watchtowers, tank armor, mortar and artillery positions. Sentries kept a sharp lookout to ensure that the enemy or some Afghan from the neighboring village could not come close. But the enemy did not come, made no move to attack the regiment. Dysentery, hepatitis, amebic dysentery and typhoid struck instead.
          "Go take a rope and hang yourself!" joked the company commander watching senior warrant officer Pashkov's diarrhea-induced sufferings. "At least you'll die like a man and not a shit fountain!"
          Pashkov was the first to fall ill, and for some time it was suspected that he had been the vector. However, it turned out that three soldiers from the last contingent of newcomers had been afflicted for several days now. Rookies Myshkovsky, Sychev and Chirikov had simply kept their mouths shut out of military stupidity and ignorance of local diseases.
          From their arrival in Fergana, efforts were made to instill elementary rules of basic personal hygiene into the thick workers-and-peasant skulls of the recruits but as a rule, with meager results. Only after having gone through the furnace of hepatitis, typhoid and dysentery does the rookie understand that hands must be washed with soap, and not just once a day, that only boiled water should be drunk - and if that's not available, it is better to remain thirsty. That it is not advisable to use someone else's spoon, that mess tins should be scrubbed until they shine, that if an Afghan fly settles on your miserable portion of yellow, runny butter, you should think a dozen times before sticking it down your throat, that you should not eat anything that comes to hand however hungry you might be. Young soldiers are always hungry. They will gape at the fruits and vegetables displayed on Afghan stalls, they will pick up a fallen unripe tomato from a puddle and eat it after a cursory wipe against their sleeve, eat their fill of free water-melon, they will drink from a mountain stream without a second thought if they're thirsty.
          PFC Prokhorov saw private Chirikov hanging around near the latrine, and called him over:
          "Hey! 'Buchenwald strongman'! Come here!"
          "What?" asked Chirikov listlessly.
          "Not 'what', but report properly!"
          "Comrade PFC, private Chirikov reporting as ordered."
          "Go get me a bottle of soda."
          "What about money?"
          "Don't you have any of your own?! What are you gaping at?! I'll square up with you later." Prokhorov was a small man, but very agile. He took up a karate stance and landed Chirikov a shrewd blow on the neck with the edge of his palm. Chirikov yelped and shuffled off in the direction of the store. Junior sergeant Titov gave a snort of laughter.
          "Think you're a regular Bruce Lee, don't you?"
          "If I wasn't sick, I'd show you the meaning of sparring!"
          "You already have." Titov waved dismissively. "While you're flinging your fucking feet around in the air, I'll give you such a whack on the head you won't know what hit you."
          Myshkovsky and Sychev emerged from the latrine. Myshkovsky had been nicknamed "Virgin" because his parents had conceived him somewhere in the steppes of Kazakhstan, while they were turning up its virgin soil. They must have been overcome with joy at their own inhuman efforts. The mother died soon after giving birth, and the father took to drink. So Myshkovsky had been called "the orphan" in his time, but eventually "Myshara" was the nickname that stuck. The other one, Sychev, freckle-faced and with prominent ears, gloried in the nickname "Odessa" in honor of the fine Black Sea city in which he was born.
          "Myshara! Odessa! Get your asses over here! Going to the can a bit too often, aren't you?" Hounding the youngsters was a favorite pastime of Prokhorov's. He used Chirikov as a target for his karate tricks, but did not try that with Sychev, who was strongly built and quite up to taking on Titov. However, there was nothing to stop Prokhorov from having his fun verbally. "What the hell do you do in there? Read the papers?"
          "What does everyone usually do there?" snarled Sychev.
          "Jerking off?!"
          "No!" chorused the recruits indignantly.
          "Don't wait for policemen in the night!" quoted Prokhorov aggressively. "How does the rest of the rhyme go?"
          "Jerking off you'll feel all right," replied Myshkovsky and Sychev obediently. "Dismissed!" Prokhorov ended the lesson - warrant officer Pashkov was trotting purposefully toward the latrine.
          Like any warrant officer, Pashkov was convinced that he was craftier than everyone else. His craftiness was expressed in his refusal to accept medical methods of treatment. Having done his share of dashes to the latrine, Pashkov realized that the microbe would not just go away but had taken up firm residence in his guts. So Pashkov acquired a three-litre jar of pure alcohol, locked himself in the store-room and did not emerge for three whole days. Drinking himself stupid, he would snore like a pig, whistling, snorting and grunting.
          Nobody dreamed of bothering him, simply every so often they would knock on the door and offer to bring him some tea. True, some of the soldiers maintained, and lieutenant Sharagin personally attested that, at night, when everyone else was asleep, Pashkov would emerge from the seclusion of the store-room and wander around the camp like the ghost from "Hamlet", heading in the general direction of the latrine. He didn't recognize or even seem to see anybody, did not react to human speech, and bore no resemblance to the real senior warrant officer Pashkov, the terror of the troops.
          Everybody felt sorry for Pashkov except the company commander. Morgultsev knew Pashkov from service back home, so when lieutenant Sharagin, suffering dysentery himself, remarked that it was a pity about poor old Pashkov, looks as though the bug could kill him and wasn't it time for him to be shipped off to hospital, Morgultsev snapped:
          "The fuck he's sick! He's just gone on a bender with the booze! Happens with him regularly, once every quarter! " Calming down, he added:
          "Still, it happens even more frequently with some of the warrant officers - just like women's monthlies..." Morgultsev left Pashkov alone - he knew that he would come around and cure himself soon. Just like a wounded animal going off alone to hide in the forest, Pashkov had hidden himself on the store-room and closed himself off from anyone, fighting the illness or depression.
          On the third day, an explosion shook the store-room. The explosion was not all that big, it sounded rather like the detonation of a fuse, but the whole company took fright, thinking that maybe Pashkov had gone off his head from too much drink and had decided to finish off not just the germs in his intestines or the depression which tortured his mysterious Russian soul, but himself as well.
          The door was broken down. Inside they found the senior warrant officer in the grip of dementia tremens and an empty three-litre jar.
          Pashkov was half-sitting, half-lying on a pile of kit-bags and greatcoats, whiskers quivering and his eyes rolling around madly. He was pointing at a small crack in the floor from which, he maintained, scorpions, phalanges and snakes were crawling out to get him, and that he had disposed of some of them by throwing a lighted grenade fuse down the hole. Just in case, he was gripping a Makarov pistol in his hands to shoot down any "creeping bastards" that might venture near him.
          "Take the gun away, and get him out of here! Cured himself, has, he, stupid moron!" rapped out Morgultsev.
          By some miraculous means the raw alcohol helped Pashkov get rid of the Afghan bug and depression, so that a week later he was vainly trying to convince his commanding officer that he had not been malingering, that he really had been ill and -God forbid! - should comrade captain succumb to the same curse he, Pashkov, bore no ill will and would help and explain, as a specialist in the field, how and where to get a three-litre jar of the necessary medicine. A smaller dose, according to him, was insufficient to kill the offending microbes.
          Unlike Pashkov, lieutenant Sharagin suffered longer, but resorted to tablets instead of downing spirit. As an educated man, he did not believe that the disease could be expunged by alcohol alone. Rising for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night, sweating and sleepy, he hurried outside.
          Trying to breathe as infrequently as possible he studied a scrap of "Red Star", then crushed it up in order to soften it a little. The central Soviet press and the regional paper "Frunzevets" were frequently read in the regiment, and not only during painful sessions in the latrine. They read about events in the capitalist world, in countries where socialism reigned triumphant, about Party and Komsomol congresses, laughed at the writers of reports on Afghanistan. But should any outsider say the same, they would all rise up as one in defense and swear that every word written about international help was God's truth, and how, for example, that APC got blown up because the lieutenant spared the Afghans' crops because he remembered his own collective farm and the fields of home, the hard labor of the peasants, how he had once dreamed of becoming a tractor driver but went to military school instead, knowing that there is such a profession as the defense of one's motherland: recalling all this, the lieutenant chose to travel along the road rather than across fields, a road which the spooks had mined, of course....
          In any case, if you look at things squarely, it's not right to criticize the Soviet Army; any story, any garbage in the press, any feat of courage, be it true or invented, raises morale.

          ...let the inventions continue to appear in the press...let people remember that there is a war on... thought Sharagin.

          ... one must pretend that the concoctions in the papers are true ... reporters come here on tours of duty in order to make a name for themselves ... like that one, what's his name? Lobanov ... some writer! ... made up a truckload of malarkey ... made himself famous but mentioned us paratroopers, too...

          The night, dressed in a myriad of spiky stars, unfolded itself above the regiment. The paras slept quietly, if you did not count the humming of the diesel generators located on the edge of the camp, and to which everyone had grown accustomed.
          Sharagin stopped to clear his lungs of the acrid smell of human excrement and lit a cigarette, enjoying the silky moon and the scattered multitude of stars. His insides squirmed, he felt like a limp dish rag which had been thoroughly wrung, no strength at all, he felt weakness filling him. From time to time, tracers would rise into the sky - one of the sentries must be relieving the boredom of standing watch.

 the overburdened souls of people who were sick of war, the tracers shot silently skyward in order to lose themselves in the skies above Kabul, hoping to flee this city and this country...

          It also seemed as if

          ...the distant stars were fragments of broken souls, scattered throughout the cosmos; winking in the moonlight, still hoping for something...

          Back in the command barracks, he spent a long time turning from side to side, bed springs creaking. When drowsiness finally began to muddle his thoughts about family and slide into sleep, a shot sounded practically under the window and broken glass seemed to cry out.
          Zhenka Chistyakov was off his bunk and on the floor even before the bullet which smashed the window became embedded in the wall.
          Guessing at once that this was no enemy shot and that there would be no more, he raced outside as he was, in sateen drawers, hastily shoving his feet into sneakers.
          "Bastards!" he yelled. "They want to kill me!"
          By the time Sharagin and the other officers emerged and a mob of soldiers, also awakened by the shot gathered nearby, Zhenka had managed to give the sentry a good thrashing. The unsuccessful suicide did nothing to shield himself from the blows. Dressed in helmet and bullet-proof vest, he tried to explain between punches that it had been an accident, he hadn't been intending to fire, but simply tripped. He lied, sweated, and tried to justify himself.

          ...probably decided to shoot himself in the hand, then got scared at the last moment...

          Muddled thought reflected on the army-tried features of the soldier.
          "Far as I'm concerned, it would be better if you'd killed yourself!" grated Chistyakov, continuing to beat up the soldier. "Only quietly and further from the barracks. But no, you had to go and do it under my window, you sonofabitch! `'

          ...the "grandpas" must have really gotten at him...or he doesn't want to serve in Afghanistan...

          thought Sharagin, yawning.

          ...hope they don't drive Myshkovsky over the line ... I'll have to answer for him, after all...

          whispered a voice in his head.

          The sentry looked very much like Myshkovsky, and Sharagin experienced an ambivalent feeling of pity and irritation. The soldier looked awkward, was obviously not too bright and clumsy.
          The helmet had fallen off his head, and his ears stuck out funnily - like two halves of a broken plate, which someone had pasted to his head. He wore his uniform badly, but then nothing would have looked a good fit on a body like that.

          ...anger arises from a desire to gain revenge ... the weaker the man, the more he is oppressed, and when one who has been slighted gets a chance to rise, he takes his revenge on the new boys - a vicious circle...

          ... time to sleep ... let others sort out this mess... after all, he's not from our company...

          "Let's go back to bed, Zhenka," suggested Sharagin after they both smoked a cigarette,
          "How can anyone sleep after that?"
          He could understand Chistyakov. Afghanistan has made him so harsh and fiery.

          ... who can say what I'll be like at the end ...

          Chistyakov had served twenty three months in Afghanistan and for the past eight weeks had been hanging around waiting to be replaced.
          He had stopped going to the mess hall and lived off canned food, bread and tea. From time to time the girls in the goods depot would give him a snack out of gratitude for his songs and attentions, especially the mysterious blonde nobody had ever seen but who, according to Zhenka, was crazy about him.
          "She though I was going to marry her," confided Zhenka to his friends.
          "How's that?" queried Sharagin. "You've already got a family,"
          "That's right. That's what I told her, if I didn't have a family, I'd take you to the ends of the earth.
          "And what did she say?" chipped in Pashkov.
          "She kept crying, damn it..."
          "That's a bad sign," warned Morgultsev. "We'll be going into combat soon, and women in war bring bad luck..."
          Chistyakov spent the entire following day lying on his bunk. He even refused to go into town when the opportunity came up, just lay there in silence.
          "Where's senior lieutenant Chistyakov?" demanded the commander, running his eyes over the troops.
          "His lordship's resting.." replied Pashkov, smoothing his luxuriant whiskers.
          I see, down for safe keeping..." The captain knew this mood well. This was the state of many awaiting replacements. The Lord helps those who help themselves . Should the spooks start shelling, even the most seasoned and brave soldiers would race for cover without a second thought. Who wants to be killed a few days before going back home?
          "Fuck! Where the hell is he?" moaned Chistyakov. "Where is that fucking son of a no-good bitch?"
          "Enjoying his leave," replied Pashkov, fueling the flames. "Or maybe he's drunk as a skunk in Tashkent. Putting down one beer after another..."
          "Just wait and see," prophesied the commander. "Right now Chistyakov's cursing his replacement with every name he can think of, but the moment the guy arrives he'll treat him like a china doll. We've been through all that..."
          Chistyakov did not go to dinner. He threw a tin can against the floor with all his strength:
          "... so the microbes inside will drop dead!" Then he polished off a 0.75 bottle of vodka and sat at the table, smoking, blowing smoke through his nostrils and confiding bitterly to the sardines floating in the tin can. Finally, after baring his soul, he declared: "... a cow stands on a bridge and shits, and man lives and dies just like that..." When Sharagin turned up Zhenka, quite drunk, said: "Look, you like writing down all sorts of crap. So I'll tell you the paradox of the Russian soul: steal a crate of vodka, sell it, and then spend the money on drink."
          "Lay off." Sharagin stretched out on his bunk, thinking about writing a few lines home.
          "What's the date today, Zhenka?"
          "The forty-fourth of April."
          "There's no such thing."
          "Yes there is."
          "In April," retorted Sharagin who had not touched a drop of alcohol either yesterday or today, "there are thirty days."
          "I was supposed to be replaced in April. And until my replacement arrives, it'll stay fucking April!"

          Despite his bad mood and the vodka, despite his avoidance of duty and short-distance sorties from the camp, Chistyakov was the first when it came to combat duty, and infected others with his attitude. Ready for war.
          "Now that everyone's run out of shit, it's time to get down to business, " he barked at the "elephants." 'And I don't want to hear another fucking word about someone not feeling well," he bellowed left and right.
          Zhenka shone like a lamp in anticipation of battle, the risk, the fury of combat. It's not frightening for an officer to die in battle. What is frightening or, rather, it would be a shame, to catch a bullet or shell fragment from some stupid act.
          The soldiers' lot was no bowl of cherries, either. They waited to be demobbed no less keenly, they'd spent a year and a half plugging away without discharge or leave, but, unlike the officers, they had no choice and could not show their displeasure. Chistyakov barked at everyone, testing the livers of the "elephants" with his fist.
          "A whack on the liver is as good as a mug of beer!"
          Chistyakov was all afire to go to war, went around as if in a haze, forgot all about his replacement, cleaned his rifle, got his gear together, honed his combat knife.
          "I sure don't envy the spooks," remarked Pashkov, shaking his head. "Where'd he suddenly get all that energy?" He was checking out the fixings of the machine gun on the turret of an armored vehicle.
          "Why are you so glum, Sharagin?"
          "I had a bad dream..."

    Chapter Three. Panasyuk

          Army service consists of discipline, petty tyrannies, humiliations, details, eating, digesting, sleep and expectation -- expectation of orders, expectation of leave, expectation of returning home, expectation of freedom from the power of highly placed fools and scoundrels, expectation of the decrees of Fate. If an army is at war, service also includes expectation of death: be it in the name of obeying orders, serving the interests of the Motherland, or simply because on that day, at that moment, a specific number comes up, YOUR number. Someone must be sacrificed, after all.
          Such choices of Fate are subsequently and most frequently described as heroism and fulfillment of duty, less frequently as sheer bad luck, while those who stood side by side with death, later find some explanation for that particular stroke of fortune, even though everyone knows exactly why and how it came to pass.
          But people tied to the army conceal from each other that their survival so far in this inscrutable lottery has been due to blind luck, no more; and only in the deepest recesses of their minds, mostly subconsciously, do they render thanks to that hand, which did not draw THEIR number...

          Rebellious Afghan tribes that had refused to swear allegiance to the new regime had taken refuge on the plain between high mountains. The troops took up positions on the dominant heights above the plain, presiding above villages and wooded patches -- "greenery" -- which lay below silently, like a predator gone to earth. The troops knew that victory would be theirs, that the greenery would fall before them, but they also knew the price they would have to pay.
          Those who had planned the battle and were ready to order its start had already estimated the costs of the operation, because war is a science, and science demands precision and calculation. War does not excuse weakness, war knows no mercy, and therefore people who decide to make war never allow themselves to be guided by such feelings. They deliberately distance themselves from the epicenter of battle in order not to see the soldiers they are sending off to be slaughtered, in order not to look into their eyes. Instead, they content themselves with sending them rousing messages and promising medals and titles. They are well aware that after victory the number of the fallen will not be a determining factor, because those who died will automatically become heroes, while the maimed and wounded shall be whisked away from the theatre of war to specially devised hospitals and military medical installations, so the sight of them will not upset their former comrades in arms and newly arrived reinforcements.

          Sharagin's platoon soon took possession of the hill overlooking the road, making a nest for itself at the top. Like the company, the whole battalion, and all the units assigned to this particular military operation, the platoon lived in daily expectation of orders, meanwhile the soldiers slept under canvas awnings erected on the slope and under armoured cars, dreamt of home in the stillness of afternoons and nights, ate dry rations and relieved themselves in the immediate vicinity.
          Lieutenant Sharagin worried that this relaxed atmosphere could prove fatal if it were to last a few more days, but there was little he could do about it but hope for speedy orders to advance.

          .... we're surrounded by mountains... when the sun goes down,
          and darkness falls, and the first stars appear like sentinels in
          the heavens, the sun still lights up the other side of the
          mountain range, making it look as though it is still daylight
          over there, and they look flat ... as though some giant has
          made cardboard cutouts of ancient warriors, heads bent, and
          tired horsemen, and the peaks and contours look like their
          heads, lowered in exhaustion, who have struck camp, backs and
          shoulders slumped, and their horses' heads ... the giant has glued
          them carefully and disposed them like immense decorations,
          gifting the sleeping valley with a certain coziness ... the
          valley that we shall take soon...

          The atmosphere of tedium and lyrical musing was heightened by the effects of the dry, hot, all-pervasive and heavy wind known as the "afghan," which descended out of nowhere and blew unrelentingly all day.
          The "afghan" was fierce, as though angered by the platoon and all the troops that had come to the valley. It drove myriad grains of sand against the canvas of the tents, stung faces, covered those who had taken refuge behind rocks with sand and dust and harried the sentries who crouched in dug-outs and waited to be replaced.
          But the relief sentries never arrived punctually. The "grand-dads" slept, unconcerned by the problems of the youngsters, and those who were scheduled for duty strung out the time as long as possible to shorten their own stint on guard.
          The wind danced up and down the valley, blotting out the sky and mountains with an impenetrable shroud of dust. Stubborn, capricious and merciless, the "afghan" spun at liberty, feeling its power and impunity.

          ... what was that bit in the Bible? How apt it was!...

          Sharagin racked his brains, trying to remember those words out of Ecclesiastes, which he had read so long ago, before military school:

          "The wind blows to the South and goes around to the North; round and round goes the wind and on its circuits the wind returns."

          ... it was as if the prophet was talking about the "afghan"...
          I'll have to read it again when I get back home....

          It was easier to tolerate the "afghan" in company, but depression was just as great, the desire to go home was always there, and because home was far away, the next best thing was to get drunk.
          The sand raised by the "afghan" penetrated everywhere, filtering through every crack, every hole. People spat, rubbed their eyes and noses, but the sand filled their hair and crept down their backs. The wind carried a hidden premonition of disaster.
          Toward evening the "afghan" finally tired of making mischief, and took itself off. It had not exhausted itself, no, that was not why the wind died down. Most likely it got bored with this place, and sped off to wreak havoc and bother people elsewhere, after a few parting sand whirls.
          It was completely quiet again, cold and distant stars filled the sky, but in the morning torture by the sun resumed. The soldiers, usually so talkative and noisy, were silent.
          Sharagin inspected the positions once more. Two soldiers snored in the shade of a canvas awning. One of them -- Savateyev -- was swiping at a fly on his face in his sleep, frowning and scratching his cheeks. When his hand brushed against the top of his head, the lice he dislodged leapt nimbly to the head of the soldier sleeping next to him.

          ... I'll order their heads shaved, every last one of them!...

          Sharagin saw junior sergeant Titov wandering around clad in nothing but a pair of sateen drawers, rolled up to look like bathing trunks, absently scratching his crotch. Sergeant Panasyuk, his face sunburnt a fiery red, sprawled on a greatcoat on the ground. Nearby, private Sychev, in correct uniform, was squeezing festering pimples on the back of a "grand-dad" of the Soviet Army, Prokhorov.

          ... disgusting ...

          By certain unwritten laws, only the so-called grand-dads had the right to go around undressed. In principle, the grand-dads were not supposed to do so either, but any officer in his right mind turned a blind eye to such liberties, provided they remained within reason. The grand-dads knew what they were about, they knew that they could allow themselves a measure of insolence with any commanding officer, and if they did not go too far, if they did not overdo things, no conflict would ensue. One only needed to know exactly where to draw the line. Sharagin glanced sideways at Panasyuk, Titov and Prokhorov, all in their satin underwear, threw a second glance on his way to relieve himself, and when he passed by a third time, the grand-dads were all getting dressed. They took the squad leader's hint. Once dressed, they went off to harry the younger personnel, because there was nothing else to do that day.
          It did not take long for Panasyuk to adopt some of the squad leader's mannerisms and expressions. Aping Sharagin, he took to addressing the lower ranks with the polite "you" instead of the familiar "thou," but with an air of paternal superiority; at combat training he would urge them on with one of the new commanding officer's aphorisms: "At first, a soldier marches as long as he can, and after that, as long as necessary." Panasyuk's stubbornness and persistence earned him the nickname of "the mountain brake of communism." Combat vehicles of the commando forces are all equipped with a so-called mountain brake with a catch. Once this is engaged, the motor will continue to roar and strain, but the vehicle will not budge an inch. It was due to his unwillingness to give one iota that Panasyuk lost a front tooth during his first months of service.
          The people on the hilltop wilted from the burning sun and inactivity, becoming dull and stupid. In this kind of heat, anybody's thoughts become scattered. Even in the shade you toss around as in a fever, sweating out every drop of moisture and waking up stupefied by the stifling heat, with spittle on your lips, your head like a chunk of lead, sticky with sweat and mind fogged with fragments of restless dreams.
          ... Sharagin wove around in his half-dreams, and although his thoughts remained perfectly clear and consistent, coordination disappeared: the men would run out to line up, and all Oleg could do was mumble something, drunkenly trying to pull on a pair of socks which, for some reason, were two sizes too small, so the heel was too far down and the sock wouldn't fit; he hopped around on one bare foot, lost balance and tumbled backwards, luckily onto his bunk, avoiding injury ... Soldiers' voices reached his ears through a thin, silken veil of slumber: "...took fright, that greenhorn!...shit himself when the shooting started!...well, it's true, isn't it?", "a rocket exploded just five meters off, and not a single splinter hit us, would you believe?", "and fuck me dead if I didn't kill three spooks right then and there," "I'd rather walk into someone else's shit instead of going up there on the slope. We already had one stupid bastard who went out into the field for a crap ... we found his arse about twenty meters away, ha, ha, ha..." , "remember that warrant officer, Kosyakevich, how he rolled around on the ground when that, well, when them spooks had us holed up in a ravine and opened up with a fucking heavy machine gun? Kosyakevich copped it in the stomach... the first aid instructor bandaged him up, but we knew that it was curtains for the poor sod!", "death's a bugger, always catches you unawares..."; and in his dreams Oleg also heard the soldiers bitching about their details, and the lousy rations, and that "you always have to put down your own cash to get a decent bite of something," and the curses the soldiers aimed at the merciless sun of Afghanistan.
          Finally Sharagin could not stand this monotonous and stupid chatter, which would not let him sleep properly, and barked: "Stop that fucking noise!" to shut them up. Then he took a gulp of water from his canteen and turned over, hoping to fall asleep until dinner time.
          One lot of voices was replaced by another, distracting him from his attempts to sleep, and, if truth be told, Sharagin didn't really want to sleep, and all kinds of thoughts went round and round in the lieutenant's head.

          ... when you get down to it, soldiers are nothing but rabble, the
          dregs of our society, they're ... hell, how quickly they've become
          an uncontrollable wave away from home! ... nothing but trivial,
          idiotic thoughts in practically every head that's why they
          talk such rubbish ... but if our soldier is so dumb and useless,
          what about the "diesel-heads"? All the mototrised infantry are

          "I tell you, those flies weren't fucking!" cried someone, as though in confirmation of Sharagin's thoughts.
          "Everyone's a psycho!" yelled someone else.

          ... grown-up idiots, the whole bleeding lot...

          The lives of sons of bitches like Prokhorov, slobs and mean bastards like Titov, hounded juniors like Myshkovsky, Sychev and Chirikov, clowns like Panasyuk and similar typical and untypical persons and non-persons of the latest and intervening call-ups belonged to Sharagin. Rather, he was assigned to this motley crew known as a platoon, and it was up to him to make the platoon combat-worthy, it was his job to think about the platoon, these people, every hour, minute and second, to worry and make decisions as a result of which the soldiers would return home alive from Afghanistan, or not.

          One could spend eternity cursing these young men, drafted from all ends of the Land of the Soviets to active military service,

          ... brainless "elephants"...

          but right now Sharagin cursed them to himself, just as he did aloud, for errors and for trifles about which the soldiers didn't give a damn, but which could prove fatal in war. He cursed them, but at the same time he sympathised with each one individually, and was saddened each time when the hardened youngsters left his squad, in the USSR or here in Afghanistan, after their two-year stint. Sharagin truly valued that inexplicable and unique phenomenon that is called a Soviet, Russian soldier.

          ... where does the Soviet soldier's frequent total disregard of death arise, his endless courage and desperate feats? ... an Afghan soldier is nothing like that, just try telling him that he has to go from Kabul to Kandahar: he won't, not for any money, each one of those 'afghanoids' thinks only of saving his own skin, while we guard their peace, do their dirty work for them, slave our guts out ... because they're all cowards, and our lads can't wait to get into battle ... what is it, excessive romanticism? no, they've seen it all, and still strain at the leash ... are they stupid? but they're not such fools as to throw life away needlessly ... duty? no, that's for the newspapers, empty words ... Russian recklessness? partly ... nobody can really understand it ... just as nobody can solve the riddle of the Russian soul, nobody ... huge, deep, like our country ... untractable, unpredictable ... only the Russian soul can encompass unbelievable breadth, sincerity, openness and sentimentality alongside such traits as villainy, boot-licking, baseness, servility, selfless love of others and total disregard for human life ... especially for those on top, human life loses all value, especially in Moscow, among those bastards who wear out the seats of their pants in HQ offices ... they do not see us as individuals, but as battalions, companies and divisions ...

          ... that's enough philosophizing, Sharagin, time to get back to business, the war, and not sit around meditating ... what did I start with? oh, yes - the boundless courage of Russian soldiers...

          No matter how hard Sharagin tried to get away from philosophical musings, he kept plunging back into thought. He turned over and started to examine the peeling green paint of the APC, the dried mud plastering its body, the thick layer of dust that covered it just as it lined his lungs.
          Soviet people in Afghanistan choked on dust and spat it out in thick gobs of yellow, pus-like spittle.
          Unexpectedly it came to him that glorification of war, romantic perception of battle begins in childhood, when a child encounters a veritable landslide of literature on the subject, when his mind is barely able to digest heroic films in which the soldier is always victorious, and where death of the enemy is a great feat.

          ... kids barely out of the cradle run around with wooden machine guns: bang-bang, you're dead! ... nobody ever told us what real war is like, not a single book explained that by its nature, war is an abomination ... the Great Patriotic War was idealized, made into a fetish ... yes, we won, but at what price! ... I learnt a lot from my grandfather ... but this is something that will never be published in a single book or newspaper! ... so it looks as though the loss of ten million lives is justified, and instead of condemning such monstrous losses, instead of condemning those who couldn't give a damn whether thirty or forty millions perish in the name of victory, we eulogise martial success and prepare another generation hooked on self-sacrifice ... my generation was well prepared, that's why we're here, that's why our Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan perform miracles of heroism ....

          Saturated with specious, sweet, superficial and erroneous images of war, boys with wooden guns dream of battle, dream of going to war, no matter where or what.

          ... sadly, most of them never shed these childish illusions as they grow up ... stop! cancel that! it looks as though we can't live without violent emotion, without heroics, we always need an enemy who must be destroyed ... so were we all, our whole country, only waiting for yet another war, like this one in Afghanistan? ...

          As soon as the sun was past the zenith, the soldiers, who had quieted down for a while, came back to life, rubbing their eyes, yawning, crawling out of their holes. With returned vigour came jokes, laughter, swearing, shouts.
          The day before, when the squad was moving out to its assigned position, the lads pulled a fast number to get additional food, which they hid from their commander while they were digging in and sheltering from the "afghan."
          The armoured military vehicles, BMPs, met a herd of goats on a narrow mountain road. The older herdsman, a sturdy man who struck Sharagin as highly suspicious,

          ... he's a "spook," for sure ... and he'll remain in our rear, the bastard ...

          and a young boy, were driving the herd toward them. The Afghans were afraid that the shuravi would run down their goats and began to mill about and fuss. Sharagin signalled a halt. At the same moment, lance-corporal Prokhorov, the wiry and daring gunner in the first BMP, opened the rear hatch and seized a young kid.
          Sharagin didn't notice anything, all he heard was a dull thud as the hatch slammed shut, and turned around in surprise to see a female goat butting the BMP's armour:

          ... stupid animal ... what on earth possessed it? ...

          The kid traveled on with the squad, quietly chewing into a sack of potatoes. Halfway through, it almost started on some sticks of TNT that were kept to help in digging trenches. Prokhorov and Panasyuk caught the kid devouring the short-supply potatoes and dragged it out of the vehicle, swearing profusely, to the encouraging shouts of their comrades.
          The poor, frightened animal plunged wildly amid a forest of legs and shadows cast by surrounding soldiery until Titov felled it to earth and slit its throat with his bayonet.
          Naturally, there was not enough fresh meat to go around. The younger men had to make do with boiled pearl barley, but the youngsters devoured it greedily, chomping and belching, licking their spoons and mess tins clean in their hurry to fill their bellies before their older comrades could intervene.
          They watched from a respectful distance how the old hands savoured their meat, sucking the bones clean and helping themselves to baked potatoes: first they would poke around in the hot ashes with a twig, roll out a potato, pull off the blackened peel, pop the white inside into their mouths, and take another bite of goat meat.
          "A drop of whaddya call it, port, would go down a treat now, eh Panas?" Asked lance-corporal Prokhorov, licking his greasy fingers.
          "Stop breaking my heart. When we get back to the Union, then we'll pull out all the stops and celebrate! As much port and vodka as you can hold!"
          "Shit yes, that'll be really something!"
          "When we get back to the company, fuck me if I get up off my bunk for anything. I won't move a finger until I'm demobbed!" Panansyuk took a bite of potato. "If it wasn't for this assignment, we'd be getting ready to go back right now..."
          The youngsters chewed on dry crackers, listening enviously to the old hands' fantasies.
          "Hey, Chiri, why are you resting your balls by that fire? Where's the tea, boy?" shouted Prokhorov. "Damn greenhorns! You'll be jerking off for a long time yet before you can think of demob!" He laughed loudly. "But the grand-daddies of the Soviet Army will be getting up to God knows what in a month's time. Lock up your daughters, people! I told you, remember, how we've got this whole female hostel right next door, a new slit every night," he went on, making things up on the spur of the moment, and believing his own lies. "I remember Panas, see, how you'd come every night to a dance, pick up a chick, and on the way back to the hostel, naturally, you'd get her into a clinch somewhere in the bushes, then take her home, and another one would be waving out the window at you, like, hell, come and hop into my cot, soldier-boy! Just think, fuck it, what a life we had!"
          "Who d'you think you're shitting, Prokhor?" jeered Titov. "One and a half years I've known you, and all you've done is bullshit on about that hostel, and I bet before that you hadn't so much as squeezed a tit!"
          "Bullshit yourself, I didn't!" roared Prokhorov, though he clearly realized that any moment now he'd be pinned down for outright lying.
          "With a willy like yours, even if you got to climb up on a woman she wouldn't feel a thing! It'd be like a pencil in a glass!" said Titov, quashing his friend even further.
          "How would you know?" challenged Prokhorov sourly.
          "Well, it's no great military secret, is it? We've been in the bath-house together, haven't we?"
          "Chiri, you mother-fucker!" Shouted lance-corporal Prokhorov, glaring at a soldier sitting nearby. "How long are we going to wait for that tea, eh? It's ready? Well, bring it here, bugger it, before I have to get up! I'll count to three ... fucking one ... fucking two ..."
          Thin, fair-haired Chirikov grabbed up the hot mugs with his bare hands, and just made it on the count of three.
          "And where's the jam, worm?" Demanded Prokhorov, pinning the hapless soldier with a merciless glare.
          " ? "
          "I'll count to one and a half! Starting now! One..."
          "Come off it," interrupted Panasyuk. "Dismissed, Chiri!" After the soldier retreated, he added: "You've driven the poor sod into the ground. He's just come off duty. Give him a break. Otherwise, he'll goof off on duty, fall asleep, and that will be that."
          "Fuck the lot of you!" Retorted Prokhorov, offended, and stumped off with his mug, muttering as he went: "Fine friends, bugger them! If I hadn't swiped that fucking goat, you'd all be sitting around sucking your balls!"
          "Hold it!" Shouted Panansyuk.
          "Let him go," interposed Titov, waving dismissively. "Five minutes, and he'll be back to normal."
          They sat around, slurping thick black tea, which had been overboiled on an improvised grill made out of a zinc cartridge box. The subject under discussion was how to make a cake out of biscuits and condensed milk. It was imperative to make their own demob cake. Tradition. Sweet dreams of demobilisation reflected on the faces of Panasyuk and Titov, while Prokhorov, miffed by his friends' digs, wandered around the post, sipping his tea, burning his mouth on the hot aluminum mug, and shouting at the younger soldiers.
          Sharagin, relaxing with an after-dinner cigarette, heard a single shot.
          "Find out who that was, and report back," he ordered private Myshkovsky, who had jumped at the shot, and again at the harsh tone of his commanding officer's voice.

          ... you'd swear someone dropped him flat on his face on some asphalt in childhood ... he's put up with the grand-dads, month after month ... never mind, Myshkovsky, we'll make a paratrooper out of you yet ...

          "It was lance-corporal Prokhorov shooting, comrade lieutenant," reported Myshkovsky breathlessly when he got back. "He said it was so the spooks in the village wouldn't stick their noses out. Remedial shot, he said."
          Prokhorov had taken up a position with a sniper's rifle, and turned to the cowed sentry:
          "Burkov, fuck you! Get over to the sergeant and tell him to come here."
          "But I'm on duty, I can't leave my post ..."
          "Whaaat? Lost your marbles in attack, or something? On your way -- one foot here, the other one there!"
          At first, they just fooled around to shape up, aiming at rocks and bushes from the top of the hill. However, this pastime soon palled. Panasyuk offered a bet to make things more interesting:
          "For five chits, all right? Prokhor, let's see which one of us can hit that donkey over there."
          Prokhorov missed, which made him even more angry. Panasyuk got the donkey with his first shot, leaned back against a rock and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, while the unlucky grand-dad, boiling with frustration, studied the village through the rifle sights, hoping that something live would appear, a domestic animal, say, or an Afghan, so that he could renew the bet and win back his five chits -- a whole FIVE -- from Panasyuk.
          Sharagin went for a piss after his tea and saw the grand-dads messing around with the rifle. He saw Prokhorov, pop-eyed and red-faced, pull money out of his pocket and give it to the sergeant. Buttoning up his fly as he went, Sharagin wandered over to the shooters. He wouldn't mind doing a bit of shooting himself.
          "Hey, Prokhor, look! An old woman's come out! No, no, a bit further to the right," prompted the sergeant.
          "Same conditions as before?" Asked Prokhorov, just to be sure.
          "Yep. There's a war on, she's got no business roaming the streets. Right, comrade lieutenant?"
          "I guess so."
          "One fucking spook about to bite the dust!" Cried Prokhorov gleefully.
          The sun was already low, and the veiled woman cast a long shadow, which dragged behind her along a wall, as if trying to hold her back from inevitable disaster.
          A 7.62 whooshed toward the village.
          The old woman stopped, as if struck by a sudden thought, then slid slowly to the ground, fell on her side and lay motionless.
          "Never cross the road on a red light," quipped one of the men who had gathered to watch the show.
          "Want a go, comrade lieutenant?" Offered Panansyuk. "I'll load it up with an exploding head, if you like." He retreated a few steps behind the beaming Prokhorov and returned the five chits. They stood there watching as their commanding officer settled down on a sleeping bag, and adjusted the rifle sights.
          "Look, look, comrade lieutenant, over on the left by the wall!" Prompted Titov, eyes glued to a pair of binoculars. "There's a spook there, see him?"
          "Yes, I see him..."
          He did not dampen the grand-dads' exhilaration, consenting silently that the village belonged to the spooks and was thus doomed to destruction, so there was no point in wasting pity on its inhabitants. He had agreed, so he, too, was now part of this "game." He lay cradling the rifle and looking through its sights at an old man who peered out from behind a wall from time to time.

          ... Prokhorov's right: there's a war on, they've no business showing themselves outside ... there's a war on, so it's either them or us ... all these so-called peaceful civilians, old and young, hate our guts, and given the chance, they'll wind our gizzards around a pitchfork and put them out for all to see ... they help the spooks, the bastards, going back and forth as if they're tending their fields, but at the same time, the sons of bitches are setting out trip-wires ... "

          Sharagin took aim, but at the same moment decided not to kill the old man, just shoot over his head, and tightened his finger on the trigger. In training, he had been the best shot in his group. It would be easy to hit the target at this range -- too easy.

          ... live, old man ....

          "Bet you he'll miss," came a whisper from behind.
          " ....."
          "No guts?"
          "No ... Bet you ten chits." That was Panasyuk.
          Sharagin aimed again. A drop of sweat trickled from his hairline past his ear, down his cheek and fell on the rifle butt. He held his breath. He couldn't understand why he had suddenly given way to doubts. His fingers felt the stiffness of the trigger, as though it was resisting him.
          "... taking too long to aim, fuck it, he'll miss for sure!" needled Prokhorov's voice.
          The shot boomed out. The old man fell away from the wall, staggered forward a few steps and fell.
          "Ha! Gotcha!" whooped Panasyuk.
          "Class shot! Right in the brain box!" Confirmed Titov, still glued to the binoculars. "Head's gone like it was never there. Just his jawbone hanging on his neck!"

          The armoured vehicles were like pincers around the village; moving inward, the paratroopers began combing through the village. Groups of soldiers dispersed along its dusty, crooked streets.

          ... the village is empty, definitely empty ... and the artillery pounded the hell out of it ... everyone must be long gone ... but, then, who knows? ...

          A dead donkey lay beside the last hut, distended from the heat like a barrel to which someone had tied four legs for fun. A suffocating stench of decaying flesh hung in the air for several dozen meters around.
          Suppressing the urge to vomit, the soldiers tried to keep as far away from it as possible, as if fearing that the rock-hard hide of the dead animal, bloated to its limits, might burst and douse them with stinking, rotten matter.
          Armed men filed through the winding streets, which were not wide enough for their vehicles: a BMP was bound to get stuck and become a sitting target.
          The new boys gazed around fearfully, creeping sideways along the walls in momentary expectation of attack, delaying the others as they pressed their backs to the blind walls of houses. Lacking experience, borne along only by the fear and excitement arising out of terror of the unknown, they could only count on the speed of their reaction, the ability to fire at once, emptying the entire magazine.
          The more experienced soldiers were like predators: listening, constantly evaluating their position in relation to a possible enemy, estimating the best and closest cover to dive into at the first sound of a shot. Intuitively, they sought the temper of the village, tried to catch its breath, and moved confidently ever deeper, to complete the combing and get out of this silent, malevolent and alien kingdom.
          The men advanced quickly but quietly, fearful of mines and trip-wires. Their eyes searched the ground. The labyrinths under the houses led to the very heart of the village.
          Part of the village was destroyed by artillery fire: some roofs and grey mud walls had collapsed, shattered windows were black holes in the walls of houses. Here and there, on houses that were still standing, there were small Chinese-manufactured padlocks -- a sure sign that the inhabitants had fled, expecting the worst, but hoped to return at some later time.
          "Check 'em out!"
          A door was rammed in.
          "Sychev, follow me!" Ordered Sharagin. "Titov, Myshkovsky! Check opposite, in the yard!"
          "All clear!"
          "The spooks have fucked off!..."

          Captain Morgultsev took off his hat, wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve, and unfolded a map on the armour.
          "Combing through the "greenery" is like chasing lice out of your hair with a bloody fine-tooth comb ... All right ...The Afghan units will move in from here, and here. Our orders are to move along here." He poked a finger at a green-shaded section on the map, criss-crossed by roads, like so many veins.
          "To hell and gone with that fucking greenery!" Chistyakov hawked and spat through his teeth, then rubbed the spittle into the ground with the toe of his boot. "Can't we do without those bloody Afghans? They'll scare off the spooks for miles around!"

          ... wants to take a last drink of blood, and there aren't any spooks about, nobody to kill ...

          guessed Sharagin.
          "Comrade senior lieutenant!" squeaked the political officer. "Enough of your fu ... '' he cut himself off. ''Enough of these emotional outbursts! They're our military allies!"
          Chistyakov bit his lip, scowled at Nemilov and burst out:
          "What do you fucking well want, more than anyone else?"
          "Bloody hell, will you stop that?!" interrupted Morgultsev. He gave the platoon leaders their instructions and ordered them to their vehicles.
          "I won't leave it at that," fumed the political officer. "I don't care if he's due for replacement! What kind of an example is he setting others?"
          "Leave him alone," advised Morgultsev.

          Sharagin's BMP bounced across a trench, the armour slicing through a corner of a house, and raced away from the village.
          They penetrated deeper into the valley and the "greenery", breathing in the unhealthy, greasy dust of deserted houses, the treads of BMPs churning up the spooks' former land holdings, driving them away and pursuing; their advance drove the spooks back from their bolt-holes, squeezed them out of the valley, pointing them toward other hunters, even though they knew that once the operation was over and the companies went back to base, the spooks who had managed to break through would return and bring others with them, return and take up residence once more, and revolutionary power would never be established in these parts.
          Unruly and defiant, condemned as treacherous or subversive, at times due to errors inevitable in war time, the villages were methodically pounded by Soviet air power and artillery. Heavy arms fire felled and destroyed Muslim gravestones, flags fluttering in the wind. Shells disemboweled cemeteries and homes of the heathen, cleared Afghan mountains, plains and deserts of the spooks, of the unclean, making way for the builders of a new, bright future. The shuravi hoped the time would come when they would finally wipe all treacherous villages from the face of the earth. Villages fell, burned, disintegrated, but for some reason never disappeared completely. Like scabbed-over sores they lay on mountain slopes, in the "greenery" and along roadsides -- a blind reproach, malignant and unforgiving of what was done to them, ready to wreak revenge for the cruelty with which, free from doubt and hesitation, the people from the North, the shuravi, who always did whatever they wanted, had dealt with them.

          A lone, stunted tree stuck out above a long, partially ruined wall, chunks missing from it like bites from an apple. The tree had lost its crown in the shelling, but it still lived. It looked out fearfully at the surrounding world after the artillery storm.

          ... just like that old man behind the house ...

          The familiar, relatively safe passage of life, accompanied by the roar of diesel engines and shuddering armour, suddenly broke off. A grenade launcher opened up on the first BMP from behind the wall.

          ... like a fireball ...

          it flew from the shelter of the wall, beside the tree, and a moment later the armour under Oleg jumped. The shell hit the vehicle's tread, blasting it off.
          Whee, whee, whee! Screamed wayward spook bullets on all sides. Soldiers fell flat, pressing themselves against the ground, into the dust, dived under vehicles. Everyone took whatever shelter they could.
          A machine gun chattered in fury and hatred, striving to kill off as many as it could of these suddenly vulnerable people, jumping off the armour to the ground.
          Sergeant Panasyuk was caught in mid-leap. He bounded up and fell like a sack on his back; his helmet rolled away, and his hand clenched his gun.
          The sergeant had no time to even shout, he just grunted almost inaudibly, as if to himself, before his long, bony body struck the ground. In the all-embracing silence before death, the sergeant was quiet and relaxed for the first time in one and a half years of war, as if he had returned home and wrapped himself in a blanket, hid his head and went to sleep.
          Hefty Titov crawled up and dragged him behind the BMP, pulled off his bullet-proof vest, and only then saw the reddish-brown spot on Panasyuk's shirt.
          The battle cut off the squad from the rest of the world, deafened it with shell-fire, blinded it with explosions; lead whizzed all around.
          Sharagin emptied his second magazine, replaced it and turned, wondering why the BMPs were not firing. The cannon of the nearest one was swiveling back and forth. Prokhorov, staggering, as if drunk, could not figure out where the fire was coming from and where the spooks had taken up their position. Finally he fired by guess: Kaboom! Kaboom! Kaboom!
          Kaboom! Kaboom! Came belated fire from the second BMP.

          ... serve the bastards right! ... give them another one! ...

          Ah, that was better. Now all guns were firing.

          Shattered by explosions, the village fell silent. The spooks must be retreating. But the infuriated soldiers kept raking the area with every available weapon. Eventually the barrage ceased, hot barrels cooling one after another.
          Death, which seemed to have come from nowhere and almost won, fell back in the face of the soldiers' desperate resistance, taking sergeant Panasyuk with it.
          He lay there with an expression of faint chagrin or disappointment on his face, his legs bent and doubled over like a snapped branch, pitiful, frail, shot through the side just in the spot left exposed by the bullet-proof vest.
          Sharagin railed, swore at the radio operator, who spluttered desperately, trying to summon a helicopter. There was not a single cloud in the sky, and not a single chopper. Time was passing, flying away uncontrolled, and together with it, with those speeding minutes that replaced one another on the liquid crystal display of the black, quartz watch in a plastic thick casing on the sergeant's wrist, hope faded.
          "Where the hell are they, the swine!" Shouted Sharagin, but there was nothing anyone could say. "I've got a man dying here!" He yelled into the silent airwaves.
          Titov, Prokhorov and others stared at the distant pass, hoping to catch sight of the choppers, then looked back at Panasyuk, seeing how he was slipping away, without a word of farewell, into another world, giving up, cornered and unable to find anything to grasp and hold on to life. The younger soldiers gaped at their dying comrade in terror, as though they could no longer recognize him, so helpless and no longer in charge of them.
          The men wandered around, smoking, chewing dry rations, talking in muted voices, and each one was thinking: fuck, what lousy luck ...
          Unable to do anything, the squad leader went through moments of despair. When the sergeant opened his eyes slightly for the last time, Sharagin thought:

          ... it'll be all right ... hang on, just don't die ...

          Even though it was obvious that the sergeant wouldn't pull through: and in that moment, in some distant corner of his mind, a hint of his own death raised its head, a hint he immediately and naturally brushed aside, unable to agree or accept such an eventuality, but at the same time, he wished that his own end would be quick and without suffering.
          Panasyuk died fifteen minutes before the choppers arrived. Lieutenant Sharagin sat beside the dead sergeant, exhausted, drained, for the first time in his service in Afghanistan cursing the war, cursing himself, suffering as though he could have stopped those bullets that penetrate human bodies, or dissipate the fog at the other end of the pass, so the helicopters could come sooner and get the sergeant to the hospital on time.

    Chapter Four. Chistyakov

          He saw Yepimakhov for the first time when he returned to the regiment after conducting the column, and was dragging his tired body to the barracks, thinking only of two things - to have a bath and down a glass of vodka. Zhenka had stopped in town and bought a couple of bottles. Almost as if he knew they would be needed.
          The new man with a lieutenant's shoulder boards was being escorted toward regimental headquarters by a soldier. He was dressed in a "Union" uniform, which nobody in Afghanistan had worn for a long time as it had been superseded by the special so-called "experimental" uniform, supposedly tailored to new field conditions. The soldier was lugging a suitcase, bending under its weight, and a carrier bag. The lieutenant, natty in a tailored military jacket with a high collar, carried a greatcoat over his left arm.

          .... must be Zhenka's replacement at last ....

          Sharagin unlocked the Chinese padlock which hung on two bent nails after they had lost the only key to the dead lock on the door and stepped into the tiny entry hall. He leaned his rifle against the wall, dropped his rucksack on the floor, gave a tired yank at his bootlaces, too lazy to undo them completely, and got his boots off by pushing the heel of one with the toe of the other foot. He flung back the curtain separating the entrance, and stepped into the main room. The platoon leaders and sergeant lived here, surrounded by family photographs and cuttings out of the "Ogonyok" magazine pinned to the walls. Standard iron bunks lined the walls, and a doorless clothes cupboard leaned crookedly. A heating pipe ran under the window with a thin, flat radiator which leaked frequently and was therefore rusted through. Wooden pegs were stuck into the radiator here and there, where the leaks were strongest. They all froze in winter, wrapped themselves in their greatcoats. Home-made heaters made no difference. A lone, naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. Greatcoats hung on nails hammered into the walls. A twin-cassette player stood on the table, surrounded by old newspapers and an ashtray made out of half of a can of imported "Si-Si" soda.

          ... towel, soap, clean underwear...that's all ...

          The burner by the bath-house was silent, cooling down.

          ... too damn late...

          Usually the gas burner hissed, throwing out a tongue of flame, heating up the steam room. Sharagin threw off his stiff uniform and underwear, which stank of sweat and diesel and which he had not changed for some time, and his socks which had a big hole on one toe and also smelled terrible and stuck to his road-weary feet. He did not throw away the socks, but washed them with the rest of his clothing. The trickle of water from the shower was lukewarm, but he gloried in it nonetheless. He stood under it for at least five minutes as if trying to soak himself through and through, rubbing his body briskly with a sponge to get rid of the accumulated dirt, simultaneously shedding the fatigue and nervousness brought on by combat, washed his cropped hair.

          ... maybe I should shave my head bald once more? No, once was enough ...

          He scraped his cheeks under the now cold shower, swore at the cheap blade which lost its edge straight after contact with the stubble of many days.

          ... the unit had not noticed the loss of a soldier ... they had not even had time to deal with the enemy properly ... this particular lot of spooks was very crafty, retreating from battle along mountain tracks, underground tunnels ... But Chistyakov got his way, did some shooting later ... battalion reconnaissance took three prisoners... one spook was bumped off on the way ...

          All these days, the simplicity and unexpectedness of Panasyuk's death haunted Sharagin and the war, which had previously given special color to the imagination, a whole spectrum of exhilarating shades and fascinating variety of sounds, now seemed bleak and almost monochrome. Earlier the war had enticed and beckoned with unlimited shooting, frightened from afar with shell explosions, warned against hidden peril with triggered mines which concussed but did not kill. Now, for the first time, war had struck a vital blow, which was serious and extremely painful. War had descended suddenly on all sides, grim, real, merciless. From now on, Death kept a sharp eye on every individual, walked in step and whispered something, its breath cold on the back of the neck.
          The bath-house was fast becoming cold. Sharagin splashed a few dippers on the stones, climbed on to the top bench, stretched himself, closed his eyes and relaxed. He almost fell asleep. Once something similar happened to Pashkov, who had drunk a lot, set out for a steam bath and went to sleep on the top bench. If it were not for the soldier who stood guard at the bath-house, Pashkov would have been broiled like a lobster. When he was shaken awake, he could barely move his whiskers and had no idea about where he was. He drank nothing but mineral water for a whole week after that. When Sharagin had soaked enough and washed himself clean, he felt fresh in mind and body

          ... like a newborn baby...

          He went out into the dressing room and was already standing on the plank floor, barefoot and in his underpants, when he suddenly felt a sharp surge of desire twist him up inside. Male need.
          In order not to embarrass himself before other officers, he bent over quickly, sat on a bench and pulled on his trousers.
          He had forgotten all about that in the last few months, but now, after the bath, he needed a woman. Badly. So much that he ground his teeth.

          ... you couldn't bend it using both hands...

          The meager handful of women in the company were all accounted for. Paired off, living with senior officers, no way you could approach them.
          Sharagin went out and lit a cigarette.

          ... it's easier for the "elephants" ... those who are more shy, masturbate in secret, on sentry duty, when else is a soldier alone? or in the latrine, surrounded by the stink of shit...but what am I to do? I don't know how to do it for money ... guzzling vodka is all that's left!... Zhenka manages much better, straight into battle with reconnaissance and claims victory over the latest girl...and forgets about it the next day...

          ... what does a man really need in wartime?..

          he wondered, returning from the bath-house.

          -"food, medals, vodka and dames!" according to Morgultsev ....well, the food situation is bearable, there are never enough medals to go around, nor enough vodka, either, but especially women ... you'd think they'd bring in enough for everyone, so you wouldn't have to think about it! ... good thing the replacement's arrived, it will mean a drink or two! ..

          The orderly on duty pulled himself to attention and reported that Chistyakov's replacement had arrived , and that the company had gone off to eat.
          Sharagin hung out his washing, lay down on his bunk and turned his head to the wall, facing the photograph of Lena and Nastyusha. The gray cardboard was cut unevenly around the edges to palm size, because for some time he carried the photo in his pocket. Wife and daughter were frozen in unnatural, tense poses before the camera, having taken inordinate pains to look as good as possible.
          The tasteless provincial hairdresser had given Lena a "stylish" hairdo, hiding her beautiful long hair. For some reason she had colored her lips and eyelashes with something. Her wide-spaced, usually bright and warm eyes, high forehead and clear, touching face were immobile, as though they had frozen Lena, enchained her, frightened her. Meek and helpless, but strong in her love for him, and fearful for him, she seemed to look into the camera lens as though trying to catch a glimpse of the future, the day when he would receive this photo, in order to tell him of her love, her anxiety, about all that surrounds a woman who is left for a long time without the husband who has gone off to war. Nastyusha had huge bows of ribbon on both sides of her head, making her look like a funny toy.

          ... it would have been better to take the photo at home ...

          At the moment when "the birdie" flew out they, naturally, were thinking of Daddy, who was serving in a distant country, and their fears were involuntarily captured on film.
          He had never known the pulling power of photographs before. That a glance at a photograph is like a voyage in time: a moment of human life is permanently fixed on a card, so tiny that the person probably did not even notice it or attach any significance to it, it's like a trip into the past, a projection into another dimension.

          He closed his eyes and imagined the hairdresser's they usually went to - on the corner near the railway station, possibly the only one in town. Then - how they stood in line holding the receipt until their time came, probably going to the mirror a few times to check how they looked, tried to tune themselves up to smile and then headed back home, dressed in their Sunday best, along the pitted, dirty streets.

          ... I bet it was Mother's idea to have that photo taken ...

          He did not lie alone for long. Solitude is a great luxury in the army. The door squeaked open, and senior lieutenant Ivan Zebrev, commander of the 1st platoon entered and, in joyful anticipation of the imminent drinking spree, announced:
          "Chistyakov's replacement has arrived.!" and added his favorite "Ulyu-ulyu!"
          "I know, I saw him."
          "Zhenka's beside himself with joy. He's making sure not a speck of dust settles on him. You could die laughing. He even missed going to the bath-house, but took the lieutenant by the elbow and steered him off somewhere. Listen - this is what we'll do. My "elephants" - harrumph! - are on kitchen duty today, so they'll set up everything, and we'll all make tracks there after lights out. We'll have a wow of a time. It's been a long time since we got drunk. What's that you said? You sick or something?"
          "Just tired. Is there anything to drink right now?"
          "Harrumph!.." Zebrev dived under Chistyakov's bunk and emerged with a bottle in his hands. "How much d'you want?"
          "About a hundred grams..."
          It was hard to force down the industrial alcohol. Even if drunk half and half with juice or water, it gave off a tang of either kerosene or rubber, seemed to stop in your throat and, after drinking a bottle of that garbage some people broke out in red spots.
          "Going to eat?"
          "No thanks, Ivan, I won't bother if we're going to be eating later."
          "Right. I'm off for a wash, and then to feed my face."
          "There's almost no water left."
          "See you!"
          For a while longer Oleg remained alone. Relaxed by the alcohol, he pulled out and re-read his wife's last letters. Lena never complained and never would complain about any difficulties, especially in a letter. She wrote only about good things, even if they were a tiny drop once a month. She wrote that she loved him and was waiting for him. She described all the new and funny things Nastya had said, how quickly she was changing, how fascinating it is to watch a child's reactions to the surrounding world, and did not fail to mention that Nastya loves her Daddy very much and misses him.
          He really ought to sit down and write, but he couldn't get into the right mood. The words written down on paper became generalized, even if warm and sufficiently understandable to someone close who was far away and suffering anxiety. As a rule the tone of his letters was restrained, brief, from a desire to save the really important words for his return home.

          ... Lena will understand. Lena will forgive ...

          Distrust of the army postal service precluded putting anything secretly sentimental in a letter. Letters from home were sometimes a week late, and on the back of the envelope he had twice seen the stamp "Letter received in damaged condition." That meant that the letter had been opened, checked, possibly read. Sometimes letters did not arrive at all. It was assumed, in such cases, that some swine of a soldier on duty at the post office had opened the letter in search of money - cash was often enclosed - and then thrown the letter away instead of resealing the envelope.
          Suspicion also fell on the KGB personnel, and he did not want some KGB sneak finding out the thoughts of lieutenant Sharagin.
          In the barracks, everything went haywire whenever senior lieutenant Chistyakov appeared on the threshold. The men would report glibly, one after another. Chistyakov had trained them well, had them running on a string.
          Zhenka was a bit "under the weather", his face red

          ... he's already had a drop or two...

          thrusting the lieutenant in the "Union" uniform into the room. "Olly! Fuck it, why are you lying around? Reveille! It's my big day today! Look who's here - my replacement!"
          "Pleased to meet you. I'm Nikolai Yepimakhov, " said the newcomer, standing uncertainly between the doorframe and his big suitcase.
          "Come in, come in," urged Chistyakov, dragging him forward. "Take a seat, you'll soon be at home here. "
          "On this chair. We need some more glasses," fussed Zhenka. He fished under his bunk for the bottle and was surprised to find it had been opened. "Shit, you're gone for half an hour, and some sonofabitch takes advantage!"
          "What's the matter?" asked Oleg, not understanding.
          "Someone's been at my vodka!"
          "Actually, I took a swig."
          "Oh.. well, in that case, all right," replied Chistyakov approvingly. "Right, mate, we'll drink later. Meantime, let's go get you some cotton clothes. It won't do to be wandering around the regiment in Union uniform.!"
          Chistyakov's farewell party made Oleg feel sad. Zhenka had been part of his first months of service, Zhenka had taught him how to survive in Afghanistan.
          However, Sharagin liked the look of the new lieutenant, and this helped lessen the gloom.
          There was something child-like in Nikolai Yepimakhov that immediately appealed, something clean and naive - in his eyes, his long eyelashes, in his unfeigned enthusiasm, mixed with a measure of shyness, in the way he would spread a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread and top it off with home-made jam or sweetened condensed milk from additional rations, sipping tea into which he put at least six lumps of sugar.

          ... interesting, how did he get into the army at all? ..

          Yepimakhov changed his uniform for the "experimental" rig and now held himself proudly, trying not to crease his imperfectly ironed new outfit. His uniform stood out in its bright greenish-yellow markings and smell of dust from the quartermaster's shelves. The clothing of the other officers in the room was faded from numerous washings, almost colorless.
          "Fabulous uniform!" enthused the lieutenant. Like a child, he played with the Velcro stickers on the pockets. "It's really comfortable, and all these pockets...!"
          "Sure," interjected Ivan Zebrev, "only for some reason you're cold in it in winter, and boil to death in summer..."
          Zhenka Chistyakov, as hero of the day, poured the drinks. He also offered a toast: "To replacements! I've been a long time waiting for you, baby!"

          ... we drink the first seventeen toasts quickly, and another forty nine

          That was how such parties usually went.
          In the short breaks between toasts, everyone questioned the newcomer about news from home, and where had he served and with whom.
          Paratroops means a school in Ryazan and a few air-borne divisions and storm brigades for the entire Soviet Union. Its like being on a small island, on which it is hard to land and even harder to leave, where everyone knows everything about each other: either they studied together, either they served together, or from hearsay. A closed circuit. Being a paratrooper means belonging to a caste, the elite among the armed services, great pride and amazing chauvinism with regard to the other branches of the armed forces.

          ... paratroopers are like mythical beasts, descending from the skies ... there's nobody to equal us! ... the paras strike unexpectedly, like the wrath of God, they are as unpredictable as Judgment Day...

          'Where'd you guys buy vodka?" asked Yepimakhov in his turn.

          "From the locals," replied Sharagin.
          "Wha-a-t?" Yepimakhov glanced warily at his glass, and tried again. "I've heard that they often sell poisoned stuff..."
          "Hey, you don't want it, don't drink it!" retorted Pashkov. "Personally, I've become im-mu-ne (he stressed the word deliberately, don't teach granny to suck eggs, boy!) to it."
          "Quit scaring him," protested Sharagin. "They'd never dare sell poisoned vodka in Kabul, and everyone knows where they bought their supply."
          "If need be, we'll shell the shop," explained Zhenka Chistyakov.
          They were nearing the end of the third bottle when captain Morgultsev arrived together with captain Osipov from Reconnaissance.
          The entrance door flew open, and somebody coughed loudly. It was clear that the arrivals were friends, so everyone continued eating and drinking as though nothing had happened except for lieutenant Yepimakhov, who shifted uneasily and put aside his glass, obviously afraid of being caught drinking on his first day.
          Yepimakhov did not know that any appearance by one of the regimental or battalion brass within fifty meters of the barracks would be spotted immediately by some of the juniors, who had been taught to stand guard, and who would warn the officers in time to avoid being punished for drinking just because some damn sonofabitch in the political section had insomnia.
          Captain Morgultsev was worried about something, and therefore sounded aggressive:
          "Bloody hell! Why are you giving me this thimble? Pour me a proper glass - right, right, half is enough. Got another glass?" Warrant officer Pashkov trotted over to the hand-basin, rinsed out a mug and placed it in front of captain Osipov. "Right men, your health! To you, Chistyakov!"
          "When are you off?" asked Osipov.
          "No need to hurry now."
          "I thought you'd be off first thing tomorrow."
          "I have to get rid of the hangover tomorrow, tidy up any loose ends..."
          "Any loose ends are already in the hands of the military prosecutors," joked Pashkov, who was on the jump, opening new cans and clearing things from the table.
          "...get a good sleep, get my gear together," continued Chistyakov, oblivious of Pashkov's attempt at humor. "Then I have to go around and say good-bye to everyone..."
          "And get roaring drunk again in the evening. Ha-ha-ha!" needled Pashkov with a braying laugh that shook the barracks.
          "By the way, Sharagin, take a good look through your idiots' stuff. I feel it in my bones that they got some hash when you went out on combat duty. Damn their eyes," said Morgultsev angrily. "They'll smoke themselves silly on shit ... You know full well that our sergeant does bugger all about it," he indicated Pashkov. "All he can do is chuck grenades at scorpions..."
          Everyone laughed except Pashkov.
          "Sorry, comrade captain, but that's unfair. Everything in our unit's tip-top..."
          "Nobody's asking you, warrant officer!" snapped Morgultsev. "Never mind shoving your fucking nose into officers' discussions!"
          "Senior warrant officer, " corrected Pashkov.
          "Same shit," retorted his commander.
          Pashkov never took umbrage. He was not young and very cunning, like all warrant officers. Morgultsev once remarked, that "being a warrant officer is a state of the soul" and that "the world is divided into people who can become warrant officers, and those who cannot." The company commander was fond of Pashkov, but yelled at him in public, chewed him out like a raw recruit and accused him of all the deadly sins. Pashkov drank in one gulp, not eating anything afterwards. He was older than the other officers in the company, but the alcohol which he consumed in inordinate amounts seemed to rejuvenate him. Amazingly, nobody ever noticed in the mornings that Pashkov was suffering from a hangover.
          "Solid bone," declared Morgultsev, rapping Pashkov on the forehead. "Nothing there to hurt." Pashkov was always first for physical exercises after any drunken spree. "A bottomless pit," the commander would say jokingly. "Don't give him any more, it's a waste of a precious product. If it's free of charge he'll drink a full jerrican of vodka in three days."
          After an "introductory" amount, Pashkov's cheeks would redden as if he'd been out in the sow, he would perk up and become full of energy, like a car which had just received a tankful of gas. And if he had been ordered to do so at that moment, Pashkov would have scaled the peak of the highest mountain in Afghanistan, dragging a mortar on his back, taken on ten spooks and beaten them!
          Pashkov's favorite word was "Montana." He applied it universally - from the brand of jeans so popular in the Soviet Union, to delight, understanding, agreement with an interlocutor, happiness and joy. If he did not like something he would say: "That's not Montana!" He savored today's vodka very much, real, not some cheap substitute, and he repeated over and over, wiping a hand across his whiskers:
          "Montana, real Montana!"
          Pashkov took a bite of ham, spread a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread.
          "Yakshi Montana! Dukan, baksheesh, hanoum, buru!" This was the sum total of the senior warrant officer's knowledge of the local tongue.
          "What did you say?" asked Yepimakhov.
          "It's an old Afghan saying," replied Pashkov sagely.
          "Literally: shop, gift, woman, get out of here!" translated Morgultsev. "Don't give him any more to drink!"
          "Why's that?"
          "Because every time I hear that idiotic phrase, you go on a drinking bout!"
          Ivan Zebrev winced when he drank vodka, so his face always looked worn and tired.
          "How the hell do the Bolsheviks drink this shit?" he would say every time.
          To which Morgultsev's usual reply was:
          "Yes, it's as strong as Soviet power!"
          Some nights Zebrev, swearing profusely, would command in battle, waking Sharagin, Chistyakov and Pashkov; without saying a word, they all tacitly agreed that Zebrev, if he didn't get killed in the meantime, would be the next company commander. Because inside this medium-built, unprepossessing and grayish man there was a stubborn, conscientious officer who, through his ability and application and devotion to the army would climb the career ladder to the height of battalion commander. People like that are born so that in due time they will occupy their proper place in the armed forces. Ivan Zebrev was born to command a battalion, and by all laws he would be a battalion commander at thirty, and forty, and go on pension with the battalion commander still alive inside him. At this stage, Zebrev dreamed of captain's shoulder boards because, as he often stressed and repeated tonight for Yepimakhov's benefit:
          "Captain's boards have more stars on them than any others."
          Zhenka Chistyakov always took a sip of pickled gherkin brine after drinking vodka. Waving aside a can opener, he pushed the lid in with his elbow, prized it up with his thumbs, speared out all the gherkins with a fork as if they were fish in a pond and put them on a plate. The can with the brine he put by his own plate and wouldn't let anyone else touch it.
          The deputy commander of the company's political section, senior lieutenant Nemilov, never drank his entire glass, always left a little at the bottom. Neither the officers nor the men liked Nemilov, he didn't fit in. From the very first day he was disliked for his small, cunning, deep-set eyes, which seemed to lurk inside his skull. It was obvious that he had come to Afghanistan out of career considerations and personal ambitions, that he couldn't care less about his colleagues and despised everyone. Even if he had been a teetotaler, as was implied by some of his fiery speeches at meetings, the others would have treated him with a measure of distrust, but would have forgiven what they considered sheer nonsense. But because Nemilov only acted the part of a high-principled communist, obeying the instructions of the Party and the new secretary-general comrade Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who had declared war on drunkenness and alcoholism and even ordered that there should be no champagne at weddings, the officers and men turned their noses up at the political officer.
          However, despite his superciliousness, high-handedness and sententious pronouncements, senior lieutenant Nemilov did not miss any opportunity to have a drink with or without good reason, because everyone in Afghanistan wanted to drink vodka, but not everyone was willing to spend their own money on it. Moreover, Nemilov did not say much in company, and this fueled further suspicions.
          Nikolai Yepimakhov prepared to down his vodka after every toast with great care: first he would breathe out, tip the drink down with difficulty, and it was clear that although he was unaccustomed to drinking in such quantities, he was doing his best to keep up. The new boy became visibly drunker by the minute.
          Morgultsev, whose lower jaw tended to stick out, and who was often the butt of jokes to the effect that he must get a mouthful of water every time it rains, followed each draught with a gherkin, crunching them in evident enjoyment. He had a prominent forehead, and was the author of many snappy phrases and sayings such as: "An officer has a head not to eat porridge, but to wear a cap."
          This was his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He never talked about the first months after Soviet forces entered Afghanistan in 1979.
          Captain Osipov was an unexpected guest, but the legendary "regimental scout" was greeted enthusiastically, despite the old Russian saying: "An unbidden guest is worse than a Tatar."
          "An unbidden guest is better than a Tatar," quipped Chistyakov when he saw Osipov.
          Osipov drank vodka as though it was ordinary water, occasionally sniffing an onion. His reconnaissance company had recently caught a caravan carrying a large consignment of weapons, so a medal for past accomplishments arrived right on cue. For some days, he had been "watering" his award. Osipov was of medium height, sturdily built, a tough nut with wiry hair cropped short, with a prickly mustache and a hard stare, the stare of a lone wolf. Even drunk, his eyes never lost that hardness, his gaze did not become blurred but seemed even more penetrating.
          "Fuck it, Vasili, show us the medal!" Zhenka Chistyakov held out his hand. Somewhat reluctantly, captain Osipov parted with his trophy. Zhenka had no intention of examining the "piece of tin", he had one exactly like it himself. Chistyakov just wanted to test his friend, so he said: "Shall we 'water' it again?"
          "What?" asked Osipov.
          "One more time," proceeded Chistyakov, putting the medal in a glass and filling it to the brim with vodka. "Can you handle it?"
          "Sure thing!"
          "O, my replacement," said Chistyakov, slapping Yepimakhov on the back and pointing at captain Osipov: "Remember captain Osipov, he'll go far. A regimental legend! Not just the regiment - the division! A famous scout!"
          "Come off it!"
          "This man will soon be awarded the Hero's Star. Fuck it, I heard with my own ears how the commander said: "I'll give the Hero to whoever gets the first Stinger from the spooks!" So when are you going to get a Stinger, Vasili?"
          "We're working on it."
          "There you go!" Chistyakov held out the glass and slopping out some of the vodka. "Drink it down, Vasili. God grant you'll be given the Hero. But that'll be without me. I'm fucking off out of here. .. Enough, I've fought enough. It's impossible to kill all the Afghans. The bastards breed faster than we can kill them!"
          Captain Osipov stared into the glass as if he were preparing to dive off a bridge into the river, but couldn't decide at the last moment whether he should remove his shoes, or the hell with them? He gathered himself and took the plunge .... Choked, but kept drinking. His short hair seemed to stand on end, his Adam's apple bobbed up and down like the breech of a rifle, forcing down the vodka. The glass rose to a steeper angle, now it was vertical, now the medal slid down the side. Captain Osipov seized it in his teeth and sat there beaming and looking for all the world like a satisfied walrus. He took the medal out of his mouth, put it back into his pocket, cleared his throat and took a bite out of a chunk of ham, which had been cut the way men cut - in thick slices.
          "Basta! " said Osipov when Zhenka began to pour for the next toast. "I've had my litre for today ... one should practice moderation, my fellow gentlemen-officers!"

          "That's what I'm always saying," added Morgultsev. "Drink your norm, and into bed."
          A few months ago Morgultsev had behaved differently, more simply and comradely, and would not have left until the last drop had been drunk. Now that he was aiming to become battalion commander, he kept his distance from his subordinates. Furthermore, the captain felt that the newly-arrived lieutenant should begin his service in strict observance of discipline, and not a drunken spree. However, there was no way he could forbid Zhenka's farewell evening.
          Morgultsev reluctantly stayed another strained quarter of an hour, but managed to drink quite a lot in that time. Finally he rose from the table, pleading pressure of work and collected Osipov, who was dead drunk. Nemilov began taking his leave as well.

          ... it's way over time...

          Morgultsev poured a final glass, breathed out with all his might and downed it with a single gulp, belched loudly and grabbed the last gherkin:
          "I'm off, guys. Make sure you keep order here, dammit! Sharagin, you're the least drunk. I'm making you responsible!"
          "Don't worry, Volodya, everything will be fine," promised Chistyakov.
          "Bye, Volodya," intoned lieutenant Yepimakhov, completely drunk and barely able to move his tongue, without realizing that Morgultsev had not left yet. "He's a first class guy, our commander! And all you guys are all first class..."
          "On your feet, comrade lieutenant!" bellowed Morgultsev, forging back into the room. "Attention! Who the hell do you think you are, comrade lieutenant? You go teach your granny to piss through a straw first! I'm not your kith and kin for you to use the familiar form of address to me! Do you understand that, comrade lieutenant?"
          Lieutenant Yepimakhov stood rocking slightly and trying to find an answer. Instead of that, he suddenly gave a loud hiccup.
          All the officers burst out laughing, and the tension dissipated.
          "What's so funny?" asked Pashkov plaintively.
          After Morgultsev left, everyone took a turn at imitating Yepimakhov. He sat there, embarrassed and magically sober, blushing like a schoolgirl.
          Everyone in the room was drunk.

          ... when you're drunk, you want it even more, I'd smother anyone I could drag into bed right now ...

          Sharagin drank all evening without cheating, taking little part in the conversation and watching Chistyakov and Yepimakhov.
          The lieutenant choked but forced himself to drink vodka in order not to shame himself before his new comrades. He listened avidly to stories about the Panjsher Valley, twiddling his wheat-colored mustache and poking at it with his tongue. In spite of the drink, his eyes glistened with interest.
          Chistyakov was not as tall as Yepimakhov, but more solidly built, more muscular. His hair had started to thin and hung down onto his forehead in stringy wisps, his eyes either went around the room slowly, softly, then seeming to stop, die. When he looked at his neighbor with that colorless gaze, it was impossible to tell whether Chistyakov felt anything about what he was telling, or not.
          Drunk Chistyakov was remembering how he was wounded and had to pick out fragments which had entered his body in different places. Pointing at a deep cleft a centimeter from his eye, he explained:
          "Just a fraction over, and I could have played the leading part in a film about general Kutuzov. "
          Zhenka knew dozens of stories about the spooks and took pleasure in regaling his replacement with them, so that the new boy would realize that there was a real war on here, fuck it, that they weren't playing pick-up-sticks.
          Chistyakov called the Afghans "monkeys" and repeated constantly that if he had his way, they would all be exterminated, root and branch.
          "But why all of them?" protested Yepimakhov. "Are the simple peasants guilty of anything?"

          ...O, God, another truth-seeker ...

          "Why?" exploded Chistyakov. "Why? Because your fucking peasants finish off our wounded with pitchforks! And hang out severed heads in the marketplace! Animals!"

          ... poor naive kid ...

          Yepimakhov wriggled around uneasily in his chair while Zhenka informed him how he had shot a captive spook, and Sharagin remembered, because he had been there, how Chistyakov had emptied a whole magazine into that spook. The Afghan lay without breathing

          Yepimakhov wriggled around uneasily in his chair while Zhenka informed him how he had shot a captive spook, and Sharagin remembered, because he had been there, how Chistyakov had emptied a whole magazine into that spook. The Afghan lay dead, his body jerking as it was riddled by bullets.

          ...Zhenka laughed, then spat in the spook's face ...

          The new lieutenant was fascinated by stories about the real war, no doubt about it, it was all new and rather strange, rather frightening. Not frightening because combat officers could casually discuss with panache how to kill someone, and not from the realistic descriptions, but out of fear that something like that would happen to him, the way it had with the platoon commander Chistyakov had mentioned - the one who got blown up on his first sortie. As for any normal person, something quaked inside Yepimakhov at the thought that there were two more years he would have to spend at war, that anything at all could happen to him, that he might stop a bullet from a "Boer" at the very beginning of his service.
          "That's an old rifle, dates back to the start of the century, " explained Chistyakov. "The spooks can hit you in the head from a distance of three kilometers. The rifles were left here by the English. The Afghans beat the shit out of the English. Killed half the expeditionary corps, the other half dies from hepatitis..."
          The vodka helped in overcoming bad premonitions and Yepimakhov listened, spellbound. They filled him to the brim with stories and drink.
          That evening he had only one real hero, one truly combat-hardened officer - senior lieutenant Chistyakov, who would be leaving Afghanistan in a few days time with a combat medal.
          Sharagin reacted quite differently to his friend's tales. He was genuinely fond of Zhenka, pitied him but acknowledged that he feared him a bit at times because Zhenka was not quite right in the head, just like many who had served a full term in Afghanistan, not sitting in HQ, but taking a big and real part in the fighting.
          It was said that Zhenka had changed noticeably in two years. He came to Afghanistan voluntarily, like his brother Andrei.

          ... probably came here just as green and naive as lieutenant Yepimakhov ...

          There was no more cheerful officer in the regiment or, indeed, the battalion than Chistyakov He lived easily, served diligently, fought well and bravely, so he was put up for a medal in a few months' time. The battalion commander thought the world of Zhenka.
          Then once Zhenka wandered in to visit the regimental Counter Intelligence officer - they were practically neighbors back home - and saw a pile of specially selected photos of "brutalities committed by the spooks." The Counter Intelligence officer kept them mainly as an object lesson for the common soldiers. Once you see photos like that, you'll think twice about venturing beyond the gates of the compound, trade with the Afghans at the post or on sortie, stay within twenty meters of your position and not take a step outside the guard post.
          "See this soldier with the star cut on his back - he left the post to go for a swim," the Counter Intelligence officer would say in confidential tones, steering a soldier into a separate room. Then he would apply pressure: "That's what will happen to you, too, but the whole band of spooks will fuck your ass first and tear it apart into the shape of a swastika. Never been fucked in your ass before? No? Good, that means you're not a queer. The spooks will make one out of you, though! Then they'll cut your balls off!"
          The Counter Intelligence officer worked on the newcomers who, according to his information, had been driven to the edge of desperation by the violence in the ranks and were contemplating whether to make a run for it, or hang themselves.
          He would scare them, shove the photos under their noses:
          "Is this what you want, you idiot? No, don't turn away! Look at me!"
          If a soldier shot himself, that was no big deal, it could be swept under the rug, write it off as careless handling of weapons or some such thing. In a case like that, let his direct commander find a way out. But if a soldier driven to despair were to run off into the mountains - that would be something the Counter Intelligence officer would have to answer for.
          Someone knocked on the door.
          "Pour yourself a cup of tea, help yourself to some jam. I'll only be a moment." The Counter Intelligence officer slid out into the corridor.
          Chistyakov scooped a spoonful of jam, licked the spoon. Delicious! Raspberry jam. Just like mother used to make. He put a spoonful of jam into his tea, reached out and picked up the half-open file. Sipping tea, he leafed through it dispassionately: torn bellies, guts scattered around everywhere, eyes put out, probably prized out of their sockets with knives, a cut off penis thrust into a mouth like a gag, severed heads. Nothing special. Back home Zhenka would have been horrified by such sights, but here it was run-of-the-mill, he'd seen just about the lot.
          "Hey, let me put that away, said his host when he returned. "That's for special occur..."
          He stopped in mid-word in the center of the room, because Zhenka suddenly jerked, went pale. He thought he'd recognized his brother on one of the photos. He took a closer look. Yes! It was him! Andrei! Rather, he recognized a severed head, lying next to a body.
          Andrei Chistyakov had served in the "Spetsnaz", their group had been ambushed and nobody survived. Zhenka went to his brother's funeral back home, but it had proved impossible to find out the details of what had happened. The authorities were evasive. They kept silent about what the spooks did with wounded Russians, how they desecrated the bodies of the dead. The spooks did not dent themselves anything with prisoners. Some were skinned alive, and the skins were hung out to dry in the sun in the market place for all to see. The men taken prisoner died terrible deaths.
          "You knew all the time, you bastard! You knew it was my brother! And showed these photos to the men as a teaching aid! You fucking sonofabitch!" yelled Zhenka in fury.
          The Counter Intelligence officer was perturbed, demanded the photo back, threatened with dire consequences.
          "You rotten swine! And a fellow-countryman at that! All you Counter Intelligence bitches are the same, dirt! Don't you come near me!" Zhenka picked up a chair and swung it warningly. He clutched the photo, then thrust it into his pocket.
          They really went at it, a genuine fight, Zhenka almost gouged out the man's eyes. He was totally beside himself:
          "Just try and take it away, I'll shoot you, you bastard!"
          It was when he found out about his brother that Zhenka went slightly crazy. He became vicious and retreated into himself. And for the rest of his term, he wreaked revenge for his brother, showing the spooks no mercy.

          ...Their parents had been afraid that the older brother would one day land in jail, he kept bad company from his early years, got into fights, all sorts of mischief, carried a prison-made blade, dreamed of using it on some "deal", even had his arms tattooed.
          yet after all, he had turned into a fine officer, a brave commander, and his nature helped.
          He stopped drinking, took up sport, entered the Ryazan military school. He found himself when he joined the army.
          Andrei never went around minefields, but plunged across regardless. He got a charge out of it. He proved an ace in capturing caravans, came out without losses of life from the most incredible situations. If rumors could be believed, the spooks set a price on the head of "commander Andrei" to the sum of 100.000 afghanis or more.
          There was just one unexplained episode. No one could say what had really occurred. The fact of the matter was that some general became infuriated and almost sent Andrei before a military tribunal. "What the hell, they were one spook short!" fumed Zhenka. Andrei's early recommendation for a medal was withdrawn, and he had been under a cloud for a long time. The general had a long memory. When Andrei's group was finally killed in ambush, he was recommended by his captain for a posthumous award of Hero, but the recommendation was turned back, all Andrei got was a Red Banner order.
          Andrei was shipped home in a zinc coffin without a small glass window. As if he's been canned. There was no way of opening the coffin for a last look. The coffin stood on a table in their apartment, alien and cold; their mother tore at the coffin with her fingernails in grief, pleading for a look; she never came to believe, not having seen with her own eyes, that her son was dead. She moaned, holding a photo of Andrei to her cheek, his graduation photo from military school.
          "Leave her be," their father said to Zhenka. "Let her cry herself out."

          Zhenka worked out a reflex for spotting spooks, just like Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate on cue. He could tell them at a glance, or so he thought, thrusting any doubt aside, and later it would be too late to check, and why bother? Usually he finished them off on the spot, straight after battle, taking no prisoners.

          ... paying bloody barbarians in their own coin ...

          and nobody could stop him, even Morgultsev. He just pretended that he knew nothing. Nemilov tried once, when one of the men tattled to him, tried to threaten Zhenka with Court Marshals, and then wished he hadn't opened his mouth.

          ...Zhenka warned him: "you're either with us, or against us"...

          However, despite his hatred of the Afghans, Zhenka did not let his men go too far and forbade any brutalities against spooks taken prisoner, just as he never allowed any marauding in the platoon, any theft, and punished all violators with all severity.
          He was the sole judge, avenger and executioner.

          ... and if Zhenka's brother had not died in such tragic circumstances, if his body had not been desecrated by the spooks, Zhenka would not have turned into a blood-soaked avenger ... that's for sure! ..

          Nobody tried to stop Chistyakov because everyone knew the reason, understood that he was wreaking vengeance on the Afghans for his brother, and sympathized.

          ... who hasn't been changed by Afghanistan? ..

          It usually started when one heard about the cruelties of war; this was topped of by personal experiences and impressions, which followed one another like pieces of good, juicy meat on a skewer; and then, without consciously realizing it, a man would move further and further away from the values he knew back home, the norms of behavior, and become infected by the local, temporary Afghan morality, rough mores;

          ... just like the times of the Golden Horde ...might becomes right ..

          that which seemed barbaric back home, somehow became natural in Afghanistan, everyday, customary, like the passage of day into night, like reveille and lights out.
          Incredible sufferings and grief for lost friends, the difficulties of semi-nomadic existence essentially incomprehensible life in a strange land, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away from home, physical deprivation, encounter with medieval barbarity and cruelty, horrors endured - all this dulled the senses, drained pity, sapped the good nature so common to Russians, reawakened long forgotten, lost in the mists of time crudeness and inhumanity inherited by one's ancestors from the times of the two-hundred year reign of the Mongols over Russia.

          ... Zhenka will come home and everything will change, all the bad things will be forgotten, be left behind, forever in the past ... or am I kidding myself? ..

          In order to break the silence which descended on the room, Zhenka Chistyakov began a casual account of the last raid, stressing that everything had gone well:
          "... as far as carrying out my socialist obligations in the matter of collecting "ears." Well, I collected a bagful. They've already dried out quite nicely... I'm going to give them away as presents. I've put them on a string, like beads. I'll give you a couple if you want, kid! How about that? For luck!" offered Chistyakov sincerely, smiling at his replacement for the first time that evening and dipping a hand into one of his pockets.
          Lieutenant Yepimakhov grinned uncertainly, probably thinking this was some kind of joke invented by his new friends. When the truth finally penetrated his alcohol-dulled brain as to what was being offered as an Afghan souvenir he paled and stared as if hypnotized at the little rag Chistyakov had unfolded in the palm of his hand. It contained a small cluster of shriveled brownish-black human ears.
          "There you go, kid, they don't bite," urged Chistyakov, thrusting the ears at Yepimakhov.
          "Get them out of sight, fuck you!" said Sharagin angrily. "He'll spew all over the table if you don't...Everyone's fed up with those ears..."
          Zhenka did not seem to take offense: he gave a snort of laughter, shrugged, wrapped up his trophies again and put them back in his pocket.

    x x x

          Chistyakov flew back to the Soviet Union, having said his farewells. With his departure, the company suffered a tangible loss, everything became quiet and dull. The newcomers slouched around the barracks, making Sharagin feel bleak. He studied their sleepy, inexpressive faces, having trouble remembering their names, surnames, recognizing the new recruits by their snub noses, freckles, prominent ears, watched their awkward movements with distaste, was annoyed by their hesitation in handling weapons and machinery, but nonetheless, saw potential in several of them.
          Gradually, he got a picture of the replacements. Asked a few of them in passing about their lives prior to being drafted, about their families. He learned about some of them from their personal dossiers; a whole host of small, seemingly insignificant details, made a mental note of them for the future. He wanted to have a clear idea, and quickly found out, what determined the mind-set of this or that soldier, whether they were all suitable for duty in Afghanistan, what sort of news from home upset each young man before going out on a sortie.
          It was still too soon to try and guess who was capable of what, because only the war can put things into proper perspective. As captain Morgultsev liked to say on such occasions: "Only the spring thaw will show who shit where..."

    Chapter Five. Yepimakhov

          That first evening, Sharagin had not noticed that lieutenant Yepimakhov was one of those people towards whom, after you have spoken with them, you begin to feel sympathy and even a degree of pity when you spot a far-off, as yet unplayed tragedy behind his indestructible or incredibly youthful interest and enthusiasm. Yepimakhov turned out to be well-read and educated above army level. Paratrooper in the bone and a dreamer at heart.
          After a few weeks, Sharagin realized Yepimakhov's leadership potential and grinned dourly:
          "A brain like that shouldn't be confined by straps and belts. That would be criminal! Let's go out and catch a breath of fresh air, Nikolai"
          "Did you do well at school?" asked Sharagin casually, dragging on his cigarette.
          "Reasonably well, I suppose," replied Yepimakhov modestly.
          "D'you remember everything?"
          "Well, forget all that crap!"
          Yepimakhov proved to be an obedient, attentive and grateful pupil; he absorbed advice like a thirsty sponge, and did not hesitate to ask questions: what does one do in such a situation? what if it happens like this? He went into everything in the finest details.
          Only he was more inclined to talk about other things. Like a kid (and he was little more than that - almost a contemporary of the long service soldiers!) Yepimakhov swallowed all that he was told here and there about the war, all that was heroic and tragic; about the war which lived next door, somewhere beyond the fencing of the camp, and everyone had seen it except him.
          He was impatient, a typical trait for a newcomer. Yepimakhov wanted to try, prove himself in battle, under fire, he probably imagined medals and all sorts of feats of valor.
          And in those blue eyes, as yet unshadowed by the war, Sharagin saw the unspoken question, to the point but not quite: "Have you killed many people? What did you feel then?" The question shimmered in the air, then disappeared - lieutenant Yepimakhov could not bring himself to ask outright about such things, even though they had become friends.
          Furthermore, he had burned his fingers in those first weeks, had become more cautious and restrained. Firstly, he had been put in his place in no uncertain manner when he had used the familiar "thou" form of address to captain Morgultsev, being drunk at the time, and then being told to go fuck himself when he had interrupted someone else's story about something.
          "We're not interested in your philosophy, lieutenant," another officer had said. "You're a snotty-nosed newcomer, and you're shoving your oar in! We don't need your clever quotes out of books, we graduated from other universities!" And an even more telling blow: "Your philosophy starts with dinner, and ends up in the latrine!"
          There was no need to ask Zhenka Chistyakov whether he had killed. Just count the ears he kept as trophies, but Sharagin was different. He knew how to listen, he read if he had the time. He was the only one to appreciate the books Yepimakhov had brought. The others were still laughing, and would probably be laughing still when he ended his service.
          "What have you got that's so heavy?" asked senior warrant officer Pashkov with that rehearsed respect for officers and ill-disguised hope of a freebie, when he first met Yepimakhov and hefted his suitcase. "Bet you've got some beer in here! I could murder for a beer right now!"
          "Sausage? Smoked fat?" ventured the slightly disillusioned Pashkov, still hoping for a miracle.
          "No, just personal stuff and books and journals."
          "Wha-a-at?" asked Pashkov in disbelief. "You brought books here? You crazy or something?" he burst out at this unexpected turn, shifting in amazement from the formal 'thou' to the informal 'you.' "What the hell do you need them for?"
          The newly-baked lieutenant felt a bit miffed at being addressed in such a manner, but Pashkov's age and the fact that he had been here for a long time did not allow Yepimakhov to show his chagrin. Anyway, there was nobody else in the room at the time.
          Yepimakhov tried to see Pashkov as simply nice but stupid, a man twice his own age, especially as Pashkov really was kind, something you could read in his face at once, no matter how he puffed himself up.
          "To read. I think I've brought enough for the first year. Actually, there are some very interesting books there, a good detective story, for instance ... I'll show it to you later."
          "Good Lord, what have we come to? Bringing books into the war zone. Don't tell anyone else."
          "Don't tell what?"
          "That you dragged books across the border. There's got to be about ten kilos of paper here." Pashkov kicked a dismissive toe at the bag. "Have you brought the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, or the complete works of Karl Marx?"
          "Why shouldn't I tell anyone?" persisted Yepimakhov.
          "They won't understand..."
          Sharagin was the only one who understood. Yepimakhov was sure of him immediately. He was different from the other officers. He put on a stern appearance to the men, but apart from that he was friendly, open, refined and cynical in reasonable measure. Who else would have spoken confidentially to a newcomer:
          "You think you'll come face to face with the enemy immediately? If so, I don't envy you, if you have to look into their eyes while they're alive. You take a look, and it means you've come too close. It's not likely you'll live to tell the tale. It's better to look at dead spooks after battle... And don't think, never think that you're smarter than them. The spooks can watch you from cover all day, and when they find your weak spot, that's where they'll strike... And another thing - Don't be afraid of being demanding and meticulous with the men. If you nursemaid them, they'll be on your back in a flash. If you can't control them through strictness - use force! A good fight in wartime is good practice, insurance against losses. If you see that the "elephants" are getting out of hand - beat the shit out of them! So that they won't loosen up after Chistyakov. You have to keep a constant eye on those slobs. See that they don't sell fuel to the spooks, that they're wearing their bullet-proof vests when you go out on combat duty. If one of them catches a bullet, you're the one who's going to have to drag his body. If anyone disobeys you - pow! Straight in the kisser! All they understand is force! They behaved themselves beautifully under Zhenka. And Zhenka kept them safe. Now they're grateful that he beat some sense into them and they're still alive..."
          "But you don't hit them, like Chistyakov..." demurred Yepimakhov.
          "When you've served six months here, you can decide whether to bash a soldier in the liver, or address him formally... As a matter of fact, you haven't seen me working out, but if need be, I can hurt them more than Zhenka could, if they deserve it..."
          "Know something?" asked Yepimakhov, looking like a mischievous small boy. "Yesterday, after lights out, there was this stamping on the roof. I thought it was a whole herd of mice running to the other end of the barracks to feed, racing each other to the table, so to speak. Claws scratching on the wood. You know what the men thought up? They've already killed about a hundred mice, put out traps for them."
          "That was a favorite pastime of Zhenka's."
          "...then last night I heard: snap! Everyone ran to see. A mouse! Honestly, everyone was so happy! They were squealing like children."
          "They are children..."
          "They put this mouse into an empty pail, sprayed it with petrol - I thought there'd be a fire, but there wasn't - and threw in a lighted match. You should have seen it! The mouse went up in flames, it must have hurt terribly, it was all aflame and running around the bottom of the pail like crazy. Everyone was laughing! It was just like a living torch!"
          "Check out that everything's all right in there," said Sharagin, indicating the barracks, "and let's go eat. I'm starved."
          In the smoking room near the mess hall, hungry officers milled around under a canopy of camouflage netting. Lieutenant-colonel Bogdanov, who was temporarily in command of the regiment, was strutting past headquarters, shoulders back and chest forward, like some hero from a folk tale. Warily, they eyed this officer, with fists like basketballs. It was said that he once killed a spook with a mere blow of his fist....

          ...there is an unpleasant look in his eye, that lieutenant-colonel...makes your skin crawl...the 'grandpas' straighten their belts and backs at the sight of him....they're afraid of him....they respect him .... Bogdanov is strict beyond the call of duty...and rarely fair ....a petty tyrant ... if he's appointed permanent commander, it'll be curtains for us all... commanders like that only think about ranks and titles...

          "...what in hell do you want with Yugoslavia, Petrovich?" demanded a warrant officer. "What will you do there?"
          "They sell these cans of cherries from Yugoslavia in the quartermaster's store. What does it say on the cans? Yugotutun or something. "
          "I want to go to that factory in Yugoslavia and see how they take the stones out of the cherries."
          "There's probably a machine that does it," suggested captain Osipov. "That's really interesting - can't say it ever occurred to me before."
          "Or they sit there and remove them by hand."
          "Nah, by hand? That many cans? Can't be done."
          "Why not? Easy as anything. D'you know how many potatoes a platoon can peel in an hour?"
          "About five sacks."
          "Five? Ten! You just have to clout them hard and often enough."
          "A few tons in a night," was the general agreement.
          "So in Yugoslavia they've got soldiers pitting those cherries. So what?"
          "Wheeee!" the eyes of all the officers senior and junior followed a very plump young woman who was heading for the mess hall.
          "A new waitress!"
          "Hey, Yakimchuk, look at that ass! All that fat! You'd never manage to eat that much in a year!" said someone.
          Then it was a free-for-all:
          "That's some workbench! Enough for a whole platoon!"
          "Yes, man, that's a delayed action sex bomb..."
          "Nah, she's not my type..."
          "Who's asking you?
          "In Afghanistan, pal, you don't have much choice. You take what's available..."
          "Spending winter with a woman like that would be easy. She'd keep the whole barracks warm."
          "Where the hell did they find her?"
          "She's instead of Luska..."
          "What Luska?"
          "Remember, the one with the big tits?"
          "Oh yeah, I remember her..."
          "She didn't work long before she got herself under Bogdanov."
          "He's a real one for the ladies, that's true. A stallion!"
          "He didn't have much time to ride her, though. She got herself in with a general from headquarters while Bogdanov was away on combat duty. The general had her transferred closer to him. Maybe it's a lie, but I've heard that the general recommended her for a medal."
          "Well, well: "Ivan gets a poke up the ass for being in the attack, and Masha gets a Red Star award for her cunt..."
          "That's what I'm saying: this new one will be under some colonel soon enough."
          "Who'd want a fat slob like that?"
          "They could have sent someone a bit thinner. I went to pick up the "elephants" last week, and you should have seen the dames that arrive! Make your eyes pop. And what do we get? We have to look at that fat ass every day in the mess hall! She'll never squeeze between the tables! Makes you sick... I'm not going to the mess any more."
          "So who's forcing you?"
          "You lads have got it all wrong," chided a gray-haired warrant officer after the doors into the mess hall slammed shut behind the new waitress. "You're laughing, but there's a man for every woman here. Not a single one will be left with nothing to do. This one will find her match, too..."
          "Maybe it will be you, Petrovich?" suggested someone. Everybody laughed. "In that case, all the parachute silk in the regiment will have to be used up for her knickers! ..."
          Butts were thrown into the shell case that served as an ashtray, the smokers headed for the mess. Only two remained in the smoking hut - Sharagin and Yepimakhov. Oleg had wanted to draw his friend away, but the other was obviously interested in the neighboring conversation, even though he pretended he was not listening and sat with his back turned.
          "Take my family, now, Petrovich," said one of the warrant officers. "My wife doesn't work. Two kids. A third was born last year. D'you know what she gets from the state? Thirty five rubles a month! Thirty five! If anything happens to me here..."
          "Nothing'll happen to you, you're in the rear, damn it!"
          "No, I'm serious. If anything happens to me, how will she live? I wouldn't walk to the fucking checkpoint for thirty five rubles! "
          "You will, what can you do?" insisted the gray-haired warrant officer. "If you're ordered, you'll go."
          "No I won't! As a matter of principle! But you tell me, how can anyone live on that? And they want me not to steal!"
          "All right, let's go," said Oleg rising, bored with this chatter. "No wonder their character reports say that warrant officers are "thoughtful" and "have staying power"...."
          "In what way?"

          ... this kid's really from another world...

          " shall I put it to be fair? I don't mean all warrant officers. Our Pashkov won his medal fair and square. But those two - they're quartermaster's rats. They're not equal to Pashkov. So they're "thoughtful" and "have staying power" because they sit around in their store jerking off until dinner time, thinking and thinking, and after dinner they need staying power to carry away all that they've stolen. When you go into town, you'll see that all the shops are full of our products. You and I are supposed to be fed normally, but these sons of bitches sell off everything right and left, while we Soviet officers are left with fuck all!"
          "When do you think there'll be a chance to go into town, Oleg?" asked Yepimakhov once they were in the mess hall.
          "Been here five minutes, and he's already wanting to go into town," commented Nemilov sarcastically.
          "But it would be interesting to take a look..."
          "Save up your chits first," advised Zebrev across the table.
          "Everything in its own time," winked Sharagin.
          Spooning soup from a plastic bowl, Sharagin remembered his first clandestine visit into town. Together with Ivan Zebrev, who was going on leave and had to buy up as much as possible, they had taken their chances and gone around the shops. Unfortunately for them, an order had been issued forbidding anyone going into town for security reasons. You could leave your unit only with written permission from headquarters, so the MPs were having a field day rounding up everyone from the shops.
          They dressed in "civvies" and gave a bottle of "Stolichnaya" to be taken out of the camp in a BMP, worrying all the way that something would happen and their absence would be noticed. Nemilov might report them. They dodged patrols. Sharagin almost fainted the first time he entered a shop and saw the abundance of imported goods: jeans, all sorts of cloth, shoes, folding sunglasses, quartz watches, cigarette lighters of different kinds. He suddenly felt offended on behalf of Lena and Nastyusha, who were back there in the Soviet Union and would never see anything like this.

          ... how wonderful it would be if Lena could choose whatever she wanted!...I'd give her all my chits - let her enjoy herself...and the children's things! why are all our children so gray and unattractive? why can't we make decent clothing for them?!..

          Oh, what a chewing out they got from Morgultsev later! He treated them like naughty children! He almost burst with indignation when he found he'd been fooled by his lieutenants, he'd shouted and shouted, about twenty minutes, turned red as a beet, and ended by saying:

          "You have been formally reprimanded, and it will go on your records!"
          That meant that they would have to give the commander a half litre to get his nerves back in shape.

          ...of course, we're used to him and don't react or take particular offense, he is what he is ....on edge, easily wound up, shouts a lot, but usually without real anger ... he cools down soon, so we forgive him his quick temper ... you resent it when he yells and yells, but once he quietens down you feel sorry for him, because you know that he's not mean, that he cares about us, his company, his officers, the "elephants"...

          Shall we go?" asked Yepimakhov, interrupting Sharagin's reminiscent train of thought.
          "You go. I'll stay and have some tea..."
          Almost everyone had finished eating. Sharagin sat alone in the empty mess hall. A soldier went around lazily swiping crumbs off the tables with a towel, two waitresses were exchanging confidences near the kitchen. A soldier without a belt was mopping the floor. Oleg dipped sugar cubes in his tea and sucked them lazily, holding them in two fingers. The sugar changed color, fell apart, melted in his mouth. He ate a slice of bread with butter that smelled rancid. The day they had made their illicit sortie to the shops, he had been indescribably happy. Together with Zebrev, he sent his first presents home for Lena and Nastyusha - a musical postcard and a tin of tea...

          ... with bergamot oil...not just any old Georgian tea, or that Indian one with three elephants! they'll love it!..

          Zebrev had taken the trouble of going to the Sharagins, stayed a while and told Lena that they were living and working well, comforted her by saying there was virtually no danger, there were only rare clashes somewhere near the border, far away from the regiment. "Unusual woman, your wife, " he commented. "Harrumph! - Quiet and meek. Wish mine was like that. I took out the parcel from my bag, and she just put it on the couch without opening it. I barely managed to talk her into unwrapping your presents. You have to make sure everything fits, I told her. How many chits did you spend? Actually, you did the right thing. I was too stingy in that shop. She particularly liked that blue dress. I thought she'd rush out and try it on, but she's a strange woman, she just sat down by the table and burst into tears. I asked her why she was crying, and she said she'd never had such beautiful things in her life. How do you like that! I felt really awkward. My wife did nothing but bitch and criticize everything I brought. That dress will be just right for your wife, don't worry, she's very slim. Then she sorted the children's things and dressed up your daughter. Then she sat down again and started asking about you. What could I say to her? - Harrumph! - I can just see her now, sitting on the edge of the chair, pale as anything. Is she sick or something? Very fragile, she is....

          ... like a cup from a Chinese tea service... Pashkov bought himself one
          like that...

          ...So there I am, talking all sorts of crap, and she sits there listening, smiling and crying. Silly little thing...."

          Sharagin picked up a tin of aubergine caviar, thanked the waitresses smoking at a corner table and went back to the company.
          Morgultsev looked annoyed..
          "Get yourself ready!" he ordered without preamble. "You'll be going out tomorrow."
          "Again? Where?"
          "Who the fuck knows? They called from the political section . They've got some production brigade, or musical brigade or propaganda brigade on their hands. Damn it! I couldn't make head or tail of it, so don't ask me! Don't rile me up, Sharagin, I'm in a bad mood today, so be warned! ...What are you standing around for?"
          "I'm waiting for more detailed instructions."
          "Wash your ears, Sharagin, I said you're going out tomorrow!"
          "Where are we going exactly?"
          "How the hell would I know? ...The task is a simple one. They want an escort, see, to drive around the villages and teach the fucking spooks to play the balalaika or some such shit!"
          "How can I know?! The vehicles are falling to pieces, we've got no spare parts, it's time to write them off and not barge around playing amateur theatricals! I said to them: "The company's not ready to go!" And what did they say to me? "Obey orders, fuck it!" So - you're off tomorrow. We pull out at zero four hundred hours..."

    Chapter Six. The Agitprop Brigade

          The paratroop company rumbled through a still sleeping Kabul, as if by waking the hated Afghans would give them a measure of revenge for the troops' early start. The tracks of the BMPs grated over the asphalt, powerful motor roared, headlights swung here and there throwing light on stone walls and the few people up and about at this early hour. It was only after the company had left the city behind that mullahs left their beds and the first cries of "Allah is great" screeched out of the loudspeaker in the minaret.
          They had to wait for three hours at the last checkpoint before the mysterious agitprop brigade put in an appearance.
          Morgultsev cursed, calling headquarters to find out where those damned "artists" were. Meantime, the men dozed.
          "What a screw-up! Damn them all to hell!"
          Dawn broke. The drivers who had been sleeping in their vehicles at the checkpoint woke up and went off to wash, clean their teeth and eat breakfast. Finally, their transport column moved off toward Salang under BMP escort.
          All traffic stopped along the roads with the coming of darkness. A temporary exchange of power was taking place in Afghanistan. By day, the roads belonged to the Soviets, and night was the time of the spooks. Lieutenant Yepimakhov, looking very serious, sat on the turret of a BMP wearing an earphone helmet, new pea jacket and did not let go of his machine gun for an instant.

          ... let him take an excursion, we'll spend a few days in the fresh air, and then it's
          back to the regiment ...

          The agitprop brigade arrived at last. Those officers and drivers who had alpine or motorbike goggles put them on to keep the dust out of their eyes. Sharagin nodded to his friend. Yepimakhov raised a thumb in acknowledgment as if to say - this is just great!
          The company reformed into battle positions, all the trucks taking their places between the BMPs.
          They topped a hill. A breath-taking panorama opened before them: a beautiful valley lay below, bisected by a concrete road. In the depth of the valley Afghan houses clustered among the "greenery" and along its edges, like mushrooms on a tree stump, forming tiny clusters on the cliffs - sort of tiny oasis amid the trees.
          "This is zero three, this is Zero three! Can you hear me? Over and out!" came Zebrev's voice through the earphones.
          "This is zero one! I hear you loud and clear" Roger!" replied Morgultsev.
          "Column's moving OK," reported Zebrev to his commander. His vehicles were at the end of the convoy, covering the rear.
          If it were not for the danger, it would have been interesting to watch the column weave its way along the concrete: armored cars, then a couple of Kamaz trucks, the agitprop's armored personnel carrier (APC), a jeep with a red cross, another APC, a fuel truck, a BMP, a "Zil" truck and another armored vehicle to close the line.
          "Attention on the left!" barked Morgultsev. The BMP cannons rotated to the left. They were passing a bomb-blasted village, which meant "be on your guard!". A line of Afghan passenger buses and trucks were coming towards them. The column went through the Soviet and Afghan posts along the road and past piles of the rusty remains of destroyed combat vehicles, lonely monument to fallen Soviet soldiers.
          They stopped for a while in the regional center, while the forthcoming operation was discussed with the Afghans. Yepimakhov smiled amiably at the Afghans and nodded to the urchins who clustered around, begging.
          "Don't mistake those animal grins for friendly smiles!" cautioned Morgultsev as he passed by.
          "What do you mean? They're only children!"
          "Sons of bitches," corrected Morgultsev.
          Several Afghans, unarmed but dressed in army uniform climbed on to the first BMP to show the way to the village. As bad luck would have it, the selected village lay a fair distance from the main road. It was not comfortable going so far. The officers and men traded silent looks of inquiry: were they heading into a trap?
          "Should've posted sentries first, and then go into this godforsaken hole!" muttered Morgultsev.
          The company spread out over the village, taking up defensive positions. The vehicles were parked as close as possible to the houses, waiting.
          "What they're doing isn't worth a tinker's damn, but we've got to cover them!" commented Morgultsev angrily. "Going along any country road without sappers!"
          Only Yepimakhov, who did not yet understand all the dangers of this window-dressing venture into an isolated village, who had not yet smelled gunfire and knew nothing of the treachery of the Afghans, was inspired by the situation. He was gripped by revolutionary fervor. Even the officers of the agitprop group kept a wary eye on the surrounding hillsides, at the armed men who mingled with the crowd of locals.
          "Who's that with a machine-gun and worry-beads?" asked Yepimakhov, suddenly feeling a stab of unease. "Is that a spook?"
          The skinny Uzbek who was the agitprop interpreter, a small man who looked like a ruffled sparrow, glanced at him with narrowed eyes:
          "Don't use that word. It means "enemy." That man over there, ' he indicated the armed Afghan with a jerk of his head, "belongs to the self-defense unit."
          "Oh...I see...."
          "You new here?"
          "Yes... My name's Nikolai." Yepimakhov held out his hand.
          "Tulkun." The interpreter's hand was small and limp.
          "Look Tulkun, could you tell me a couple of phrases that I could say to these people?"
          "What phrases?" asked the Uzbek, still eyeing him distrustfully.
          "Well, something like 'how are you doing? or 'is everything in order?"', that type of thing'"
          The Afghans usually say: "Djurasti, cheturasti?'"
          Yepimakhov wrote this down in a small notebook, then repeated the words aloud. The armed Afghan from the self-defense brigade beamed at him.
          "Djurasti, cheturasti, grow your dick until your old age-sti, chopper-sti will come here-sti, and that will be fuck-all-sti for you-sti!" mocked senior warrant officer Pashkov.
          "I would advise you," said the interpreter when Pashkov was out of earshot, "to learn some verses from the Koran."
          "They could come in useful.
          Yepimakhov dutifully wrote out a long sentence dictated by the interpreter:
          "And what does this all mean?"
          "It means that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. " The interpreter took Yepimakhov by the arm, lowering his voice confidentially. "If you get captured, keep saying that over and over. The spooks won't kill you then... Excuse me, I have to go and help the doctor. We can talk later."
          "Capture?" repeated Yepimakhov, stunned. "I've no intention of being captured by the bandits! I'd never plead for mercy like that Uzbek!..."
          Sharagin felt strange, taking part in this charitable agitprop venture. He sat on the sun-warmed armor and smoked, eyes roving over the surrounding slopes, the armed Afghans, the activities of the agitprop brigade staff.

          ... Morgultsev is right when he says that "the only good Afghan is a dead one" ... all these Afghan villages are hazardous ... you have to keep your eyes peeled every second with these bearded bastards ... turn your back, and you'll get a knife in it before you know it ...

          ... that's how we screwed up over Afghanistan! Instead of bombing the shit out of them, they play Mister Nice Guy with them, thinking that a sack of grain's enough to make an Afghan our friend! ... What utter crap! ... Dream on!..."

          He was used to fighting the Afghans, not visiting their villages and playing namby-pamby. Just look!

          ... Doctor Dolittle in a nice white coat giving them a medical check-up. It's enough to make you die laughing. He's lucky he's got an armed soldier beside him, you can never know what to expect from these monkeys. They say 'this village supports the people's power regime' ... the hell it does! Simply the men have all gone off into the mountains or to Pakistan, where they're being trained to lay mines, what else can they do? There's no work for them, and they've forgotten how to work the land!... then the men will return, and the village will belong to the spooks again...look at that old guy all covered with sores and skin ulcer's pushing his way through to the table with the medicines ... back home he wouldn't be allowed inside a hospital, but would be packed off to a leper colony ... and you, old man, probably go out into the fields every day ... Dolittle there puts some lotion on a piece of cotton-wool and swabs down the sores, not afraid of infection" "there you go," he tells the oldster through the interpreter. "There you go. Next!"... dekhkane, what a word - sounds similar to our Russian 'workers and peasants'! Dekh-kane-ne! Whole village is turning out by the looks of it, they believe that this is all it takes - a swab of something or a pill, and all their ills will be cured! Blessed are those who have faith! That junior lieutenant who's the interpreter can barely keep up translating their babble: hepatitis, ulcers, blood pressure, diarrhea, the clap ....good for you, Grandpa! Says he's got the clap, but I bet his soldier still stands at attention, otherwise why would he bother looking to be cured, probably has a nice new young bride lined up, polygamy's not a problem here ... Bravo, Dolittle! Nothing you can't handle! Calm and collected, helps all the natives, gives one a packet of powder, breaks a pill in half for the other and tells him that one half's for the diarrhea, and the other half for headaches.

          ...the spooks are pleased the Russian doctor's cured them, gave them three tablets and made them well...that nurse they've got with them is something, though! I wouldn't mind traveling around villages for weeks just for her... she's examining the local women ... shoving a stethoscope under a raised burqa... I can imagine the filth underneath! Probably hasn't washed since the day she was born ... you can't see her face...probably she's uglier than a hundred Chinese... the nurse is monitoring her heartbeats: tick-tock, tick-tock... can't tell the woman's age - could be anything from twenty five to sixty five... they all have equally shriveled hands, and the rest is under those robes...

          ... hey, nursie, you'd be better off monitoring my heart! ... there they go over by the truck, sacks of grain going one after the other, and just watch the spooks grabbing those free galoshes... not everyone back home's got shoes, and we've been living without decent roads for centuries! dirt everywhere, any town you name, it'd be better if they gave out free galoshes to our own Soviet citizens: here you are, instead of asphalt on the roads! a pair of galoshes for every Soviet family!... like hell! the Afghans need them more, you see... the friendly Afghan people! we're helping the revolution ...if we didn't throw everything away to these so-called allies in the socialist camp and in our struggle, we'd have a chance to live like normal human beings ... hey, the natives have started a fight, what do they call them? saksauls? aksakals? elders? going at each other like angry roosters, give them a chance and they'll work up a real Waterloo! grain being issued by the sack-load, all free of charge!.. ah, they've put on a movie... what in hell's the point? a Russian movie at that, a classical masterpiece ... 'Anna Karenina' isn't it? dubbed of course, but are these creeps likely to have any idea about what's being shown on the screen? ... hey, they've shown only one part, and are wrapping up...some agitation and propaganda exercise! ...and over there, they've got native songs blasting out over a loudspeaker and are handing out leaflets ... it'd be better if they printed more books back home instead of these leaflets, you can only get proper books with special cards, and the amount of paper they've wasted on these leaflets would be enough to print the entire works of Dumas, I bet!... tell me, what use are these leaflets for the natives? they're all illiterate, anyway! They haven't even learned to wipe their asses with paper! they squat for just a piss!....

          ... the lieutenant who was interpreting for Doctor Dolittle's talking to the elders now ... why don't we bring out a piano-accordion, sing some songs do a little dance for them, maybe then they won't start shooting at our backs when we leave this bloody village! we'll all get ourselves killed with this idiotic agitprop do-gooding!...

          "Show's finally over," said Morgultsev, not hiding his relief.
          They crawled back towards the surfaced main road and returned to the regional center. The commanding officers of the agitprop brigade retreated to confer with Afghan activists in a one-storey barracks.

          ... bet they've gone off to eat pilaf ... and we have to sit around and wait, like beggars on the threshold...

          Impudent, pestering natives began sneaking around the army vehicles like flies. Some of them were fluent in Russian swear-words. Weaving around, prying, staring, they try to sell something to the Russians: two offering wares, four hanging around looking out for something to steal.

          ... blink an eyelid, and they'll dismantle the BMP in five minutes flat ...

          ... that sonofabitch isn't as high as the vehicle wheel, but he's ready to try and lug it off on his back ...

          "I'll show you baksheesh in a moment!" roared private Chirikov, and rattled a grenade menacingly.

          ... those bastards aren't even a little bit scared, they know that nobody'll shoot them here ...

          A red and white civilian bus pulled up on the other side of the road from Sharagin's vehicle. A few minutes later it drove off, leaving an old Afghan with a girl aged four or five sitting on his back, her arms around his neck. Bending his trembling knees, the old man set the girl down and stood there, looking around and seeming at a total loss. To the right, a group of Indian traders sat in a group drinking tea, on the left - bearded men with machine guns were exchanging greetings, hugging one another and touching cheeks.

          ... either they're spooks that are observing a cease-fire agreement, or they're so-called people's militia, who are also spooks , but today they're for the Kabul regime, and tomorrow against it ...

          Hesitantly, bowing like a slave and cringing, the old man approached the traders, paused beside them and mumbled something, indicating the little girl with his hand. The traders eyed him contemptuously and shrugged. They turned away from him, but the old man did not go away. He milled around indecisively, turning his head this way and that, finally stopping a passer-by. The passer-by did not want to listen.

          ... that child looks sick ... or maybe she's sleepy ... Nastyushka, I wonder what my little Nastyushka's doing right now?

          He imagined her romping around in the grass in little white knickers, surrounded by butterflies, while Lena lay nearby on a blanket, reading and enjoying the sunshine ....
          Sharagin watched the confused old man, who disappeared and reappeared through passing traffic. He shifted from one foot to another on the spot and glancing at the little girl, who was leaning over at a strange angle towards the traders.

          ... what if that were my Nastyusha?..

          "Run down and get me an interpreter from the agitprop brigade. Not that Uzbek, though, there's a Russian junior lieutenant there. Tell him to find out from the old man ... Which one? That one that's crossing the road! Tell him to find out what's wrong with that little girl. Got that? On the double! Savatyev and Sychev - you come with me. You keep a watch here," he added to Yepimakhov, who had just come up.
          Had anyone asked Sharagin right then why he was concerning himself with the old man's problems, he would probably have been unable to answer, it was just that at this specific time, he thought of nothing else and, moreover, it looked as though the child was crying.
          The old Afghan replied with a torrent of words, gesticulating wildly with typical peasant incoherence.
          "His grand-daughter's been wounded. Got a bullet in the shoulder. She needs a doctor," translated the junior lieutenant.
          The soldiers carried the child across the road and put her down near the BMP and the vehicles of the agitprop people.
          "Find the doctor!"
          Sharagin turned back to the interpreter and explained, as if justifying himself:
          "I thought she might have got travel-sick on the bus. Then I saw her keeling over...."
          Chirikov returned alone.
          "Where's that Dolittle?" demanded Sharagin in displeased tones.
          "He's over there, comrade lieutenant, having dinner with the Afghans ... Says he'll come soon..."
          A crowd of some thirty curious Afghans gathered around in a circle, pushing to get a look, clambering on to each other's shoulders.
          "Chase 'em off!" ordered Sharagin.
          Private Burkov aimed his gun at the Afghans, snapped the bolt. The kids jumped back, but were unafraid. They mocked the Russian soldiers.
          The girl sat there, crying quietly. The doctor arrived finally, rolled up the torn sleeve and took a cursory look at the thin arm bandaged with dirty rags covered with dried spots of blood.
          It looked as though the bullet entered the shoulder and was lodged below the shoulder-blade. The interpreter repeated the old man's account of what had happened:
          "She was working in the fields in the topmost village. The spooks often fire on the Russian outpost, the Russians fire back, and the civilians get the worst of it. This was a stray bullet. The field's right in the middle of the crossfire... She was hit about three hours ago."

          - poor little thing, in pain for three hours ...

          The doctor put on a new dressing, gave the child a painkiller injection, and told the interpreter to tell the old man that the girl must be taken to hospital at once, and have an operation.
          "Tell him that the bullet may have grazed one of her lungs, and there's damage to the blood vessels. Tell him to hurry. That wound could turn septic."
          "I don't know how to say that ..."
          "Well, tell him simply that she's got to have an urgent operation. Tell him to take her to Kabul. Otherwise she'll die!"
          "He says he's got no money."
          "Oh, shit!" spat the doctor. "What's it got to do with me? Am I a doctor, or a taxi driver? Am I supposed to operate on her here with my bayonet knife?!"
          "Hang on," interrupted Sharagin. "Are there any sacks of grain left?"
          "Probably," nodded the interpreter.
          "Give him a sack. Any car will take him to Kabul in exchange for that."
          "That should be discussed with the commander..."
          "What's there to discuss? How many bags did you give away to the spooks in that village?! I'll go and speak to your commander myself. Where is he?
          "Here he comes now. Captain Nenashev. "
          The commander of the agitprop unit needed no persuasion, turned out to be a right kind of guy. He understood what was happening at once and ordered a bag of grain unloaded.
          In the time it took to flag down a car, haggle with the driver and bring a sack of grain from the truck, the doctor scribbled something on a scrap of paper which he handed to the interpreter:
          "Tell him to go to the Soviet hospital in Kabul and give them this note. I've written down what's necessary..."

    Chapter Seven. Morgultsev

          In the morning, the agitprop commander decided to visit some more villages in order to "get rid of" the remaining humanitarian aid in the trucks, then return to Kabul with a glowing report about the latest successful propaganda action.
          Once again, nobody asked the paratroopers whether they wanted to trek from village to village, or not. They were assigned to guard and were under the orders of the political workers, so they were bored and had nothing to do from early morning onwards.
          They pitched camp in a field behind the Soviet checkpoint.
          Lieutenant Yepimakhov was becoming used to life on the armor, and had by now a close look at the Afghans. He placed the troops in position quite confidently and fairly sensibly, assigned sentries for the night. There was a definitely commanding note in his voice now, even though it was still a bit overdone and too loud, imitative, but even that was not bad. The main thing was to keep the troops on their toes and respect the voice of their commanding officer.

 that they'll hear his voice in their dreams alongside their mothers'...

          The "elephants" were nobody's fools, either, if they should notice a blind spot or a hint of indecisiveness, it would be the end for that officer's authority, the old-timers would be on his back in a flash. They know their own worth, move around sloppily, know how to avoid duty and are masters of kibitzing.
          At first they traded knowing winks, why show initiative? We'll wait until we get orders, let the "finch" jump around for a bit, sweat some, realize that he's nothing without us; was the attitude of the "grandpas" toward the new commander.
          Yepimakhov was not confused. He issued a string of orders, did not take offense at silly questions and jibes, pretended not to notice them and showed a strict face. His expression seemed to indicate that he was very displeased with the men, but was holding back. Still, the implication was clear that he would have no hesitation in giving someone a punch in the face if he decided to do so. The "grandpas" had not seen him like this before, decided that it wasn't worth pushing their luck and, like king Solomon, settled on a compromise solution: they stripped to the waist and, snapping their braces, loudly repeated Yepimakhov's orders to the finches and dippers. Those, in turn, bared their torsos, spat on their hands and started shoveling, breathing in the aroma of freshly-turned earth. These lowest of the low had no way of understanding the likes of their new commander in any case, nor did they have the time - pick up shovels and dig! put your backs into it! get it all done before dark

          The first missile landed about one hundred meters from the camp. Yepimakhov turned and saw a pillar of smoke. Five seconds later a second surface-to-surface missile came closer. First he heard its whistling approach and decided, for some strange reason, that the next one would hit the camp squarely and he would be killed.
          Yepimakhov was dumbfounded, milled around and shouted to the men to take cover, even though most of them had already done so. He looked around frantically for a safe place. The third missile hit the ground about fifty meters away, the earth shuddered, and its movement under his feet filled Yepimakhov with terror.
          The following hits were scattered in the field behind the camp.
          As soon as it formed, fear, deep, animal fear, engulfed the lieutenant's heart, mixed up his thoughts, drained all resolve and assumed confidence. He fought the all-pervading fear, with the natural impulse to hide, to flee from danger. He shook all over, knees buckling, but stood his ground, repeating over and over: "You're an officer, you don't have the right to be afraid, you're an officer, you don't have the right to be afraid."
          All in all, only seven missiles came over the hill. Sharagin counted the explosions. Taking cover, just in case, behind the armored bulk of the BMP, he and the officers of the agitprop group tried to estimate where the missiles were coming from.
          The spooks were clearly shooting at random. Most likely they had spotted the Soviet convoy traveling and then breaking camp from some vantage point, and decided to have a go.
          There was another explosion further away, somewhere behind them on the road leading to Kabul. Really alarmed this time, Sharagin and the agitprop officers spun around as if on command. For a moment they wondered if the spooks were coming at them from two different directions. There was a chatter of machine gun fire from the road. It was comforting to know that there was a Soviet outpost nearby, a reliable shield on one flank at least.
          Captain Morgultsev became nervous, lit a cigarette and went off to contact Zebrev's platoon. Returning, he gestured Sharagin aside:
          "Zebrev's lost a "box"...
          "On the road."
          "Shall we go there now? Any losses?" asked Sharagin, getting ready to move fast.
          "Calm down, everything's all right," said Morgultsev in hushed, conspiratorial tones. "No losses. But one vehicle's burned out. I'll go and sort it out myself."
          When the firing stopped and it was quiet again, Yepimakhov peered out from behind the armor, and realized at once, to his profound embarrassment, that there was no point in celebrating victory over fear after such cowardice.
          He looked around covertly, had anyone noticed his confusion? He had no doubt that he looked pathetic and lost. But nobody seemed to be laughing. However, this did not make things any better. Deep contempt seared the proud heart of the would-be hero.
          "Our boys will have their firing point targeted by now and will give the spooks a nice dose of artillery," Yepimakhov heard someone say in the group of officers standing nearby.
          "You don't say? Optimistic, aren't you?" Sharagin lit a cigarette from someone else's and glanced briefly at Yepimakhov. He could guess why the lieutenant did not look too happy, but showed no trace either by word or gesture. "They came from behind that hill," he went on casually. "Do you think anyone's still there? Those spooks would have jumped into a waiting Toyota and disappeared. Talk about chasing ghosts in a fog...!"

          Yepimakhov sat beside Sharagin immersed in his own thoughts, poking his rice pudding with a fork.

          ... nothing surprising in that the kid got scared ... it would be stranger if he hadn't ... if you're afraid, it means you're no fool ... he'll get used to it ... people get used to everything ... I read somewhere that the Irish say you can even get used to being hanged ...

          An APC was approaching the camp rapidly along the deeply worn ruts in the road. A major in an earphone helmet, the battalion commander of the nearest outpost jumped down. He looked like a native of Turkmenistan.
          "Where's the company commander?" he shouted furiously. "Ah, there you are! sitting here drinking tea while one of your BMPs is on fire!"
          "Why are you yelling at me?" demanded captain Morgultsev, getting to his feet. "I know all about that BMP, I've just got back from there. The spooks hit it with a grenade launcher. Got it right in the oil tank!"
          "What fucking rocket launcher! What fucking spooks!" continued the outpost commander, raising his voice even higher. "Over the past months, the spooks haven't hit a single column, a single vehicle! I've got an agreement with the leader of the local gang! So don't give me any crap, captain! I drove past your three BMPs and saw for myself that the last one had broken down, the men were trying to repair it ... You set it on fire yourselves!"
          "Don't say that comrade major," replied Morgultsev, speaking very deliberately. "There's no call to slander my officers like that," he went on with growing irritation, his face turning red. "Everyone heard that shot from the grenade launcher! "
          The major was not ready to back down - "Where are your wounded? Eh? No answer, captain? It's impossible that someone isn't at least shell-shocked after that!"
          The war of words continued. The major and captain were no longer the only combatants, they were looking for supporters among the surrounding officers and agitprop personnel: who had the more convincing argument?
          The major pulled off his helmet, exposing a cleanly shaven head.

          ... there was time when I went around bald, just like that ...

          grinned Sharagin.

          ... looks like the head of a prick! ...

          The outpost commander kept shoving his hands in his pockets and then pulling them out again, gesticulated, poking a finger at Morgultsev, and then in the direction of the burning BMP, which could not be seen from that spot.
          "What are you smiling about, captain? Admit that you simply wanted to write off a faulty vehicle as destroyed in battle! It won't work, youngster. Where have you ever seen anyone attack a BMP that way?!"
          "Comrade major," said Morgultsev unpleasantly. "This is my second term of service in Afghanistan, It's happened to me three times..."
          "If you needed to write off that BMP," interrupted the major, "you could have said so to me. I'd have shown you where to drive it over a mine, there's a whole shitload of them around!"
          Explosions were heard from somewhere beyond the outpost, about one and a half kilometers away from the camp. It was the explosives in the burning BMP going up. The major spat in disgust:
          "I had a meeting with the head of the gang only yesterday. We agreed that the spooks wouldn't hit anything along my stretch of the road."
          "Does that mean you'd rather believe a spook than a Soviet officer?"
          "Listen," whispered Sharagin, "sic our political officer on to him. Let him give this jerk a brainwashing."
          "The hell with him," replied Morgultsev with a dismissing wave.
          "Captain, I can hardly believe my eyes, " continued the major, cooling down visibly. "First there's a broken down BMP on the road, and then it's attacked by spooks. And no losses at all! Everyone's alive and well! Congratulations, captain! Tell me, have you thought about what happens next? This is an emergency! What am I to say to the leader of the gang? Fucking rangers, damn your eyes! Foraging out to taste a bit of combat, do a bit of shooting, and I have to pick up the pieces! You'll be off to Kabul tomorrow, but I have to stay on here..."
          Little by little, he lost steam having shouted himself out. Breathing heavily, the major turned to the officers present, as though seeking their support:
          "I come driving up, but they've already taken up positions and opened fire on several villages. I asked them who they were shooting at, and they said that there must be spooks behind the walls. They thought someone had fired on them, you see! So here I am, walking around without a bullet-proof vest and trying to get those fucking rangers to stop! Their senior lieutenant, what's his name ...
          "Senior lieutenant Zebrev," prompted Morgultsev.
          "That's right, Zebrev. The fusillade he started, you wouldn't believe! And what if one of your rangers killed or wounded some villagers, hey captain? That means the whole gang will come down to the road tomorrow and hit a whole column in revenge! What then?!"
          "Come with me, comrade major," said Morgultsev, drawing the outpost commander away from unnecessary witnesses. They wandered around the camp, arguing, for about five minutes. The major remained stubborn:
          "No, I'll report that the vehicle went up in flames for unknown reasons. Let a commission come and investigate the matter. And I'll put a guard around the BMP so that none of your rangers can take a shot at it from a grenade launcher."
          The incident was not discussed in the company. Everyone kept quiet

          ... just like inside a tank ...

          It was clear to all what had happened to the BMP. A routine occurrence in war. Why wag your tongue for nothing?
          Only Yepimakhov, through naivete and lack of knowledge of the realities, entertained suspicions all evening, and, when night descended on the camp, protest burst forth from the breast of the young internationalist. He wanted to sort things out, discuss what had happened with his friend:
          " I simply can't understand it, "he confided in a low voice. "On one hand, if the spooks really hit the BMP, then everyone's a hero, right? They could be put up for medals! But if the major's right - and you and I both saw on our way back that Zebrev and his platoon stayed on the road and began poking around in the BMP's engine, well that would be sabotage, wouldn't it, it could mean prison. That would mean we're ruining our own equipment, right? Can you imagine the scandal for the whole regiment!..."
          "It's not that simple," replied Sharagin thoughtfully. "The whole affair will be swept under the carpet, you'll see."

          - who wants to go into combat with defective equipment! ... you can't fix it, you can't write it off - get rid of it! otherwise it will fail you in battle ...

          "But if there were no spooks about, then it's dishonest ... unfair ...I never thought Morgultsev could do something like that!..."
          "You're still new here. Don't judge people. You can talk about what's fair or unfair back home... when the war's over..."
          Captain Morgultsev was equally troubled. He walked around the camp, stopping here and there, smoking one cigarette after another.
          "I sure hit a snag, damn it all to hell! Screw that obstinate Turkmeni asshole! "
          That was the story of Mogultsev's life - medals, then reprimands! From king to peasant!

          He was a lieutenant when he arrived in Afghanistan for the first time. Nobody was asked whether they wanted to go there or not. The Motherland made that decision for one and all.
          Shortly before departure, in December '79, they spent more than a week training in the forests of Belorussia. The cold was intense, you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. It was cold like this that beat the Germans and the French in their times. Only the Russians could take it, and even so, a few soldiers would be out every day with frostbitten fingers, toes or ears.
          The officers felt intuitively that this training was not just like that, there was something brewing. They spent the evenings discussing their suppositions, exchanging views. Afghanistan was never mentioned, nobody had any idea about this country then. Iran was mentioned frequently as it was there, out of all the countries bordering on the Soviet Union, that there was unrest. The thought of Iran cheered everyone up. They joked that it wouldn't be bad to fly south for the winter.
          Time passed. The men began to talk of home. Time to get the tree decorated for New Year!
          "Even if we miss out on New Year, we'll celebrate on the 23rd of February," sighed the officers.
          Fate decreed otherwise.
          The AN-12 gathered height and set course for the Urals. Lieutenant Morgultsev worked this out easily by looking at the stars. After a five hour flight they landed in Shadrinsk. The pilots were taken off for a meal while the paratroopers made do with dry rations with the temperature at minus 30. They took off again, and arrived in Andizhan some four hours later, where they remained on the airstrip for one and a half days.
          By this time, there were no secrets - commanders were issued orders, ammunition and maps ...of the Afghan capital.
          The regimental HQ commander pronounced: "..Your task is to help a friendly country, protect it from reactionary forces ... The situation is extremely dangerous. Bands of insurgents have seized the airdrome ..."
          After these words, the pilots flatly refused to fly. Flying is out of the question in such circumstances, they said. A parachute drop - OK, but as for landing on a strip held by insurgents - no way! Whoever heard of such a thing! No commander would issue an order like that!
          "Look, guys," squirmed the HQ commander, "I only said that to scare the men a bit ... the airdrome is safe, everything's in our hands!"
          They landed in Kabul at dawn. A strike force prepared for a lightning victory, but there was no enemy to conquer. The enemy had gone to ground. What was the enemy planning, how did he intend to outwit them?
          Plane after plane came in, disgorging men and materiel.
          A very serious operation was under way.
          "So much for southern climes," grunted Morgultsev, rubbing his frozen hands.
          The Soviet units dug in, slept in their vehicles under jackets and greatcoats. The day brought wet snow, moods slumped because of the driving wind and a depressing feeling of uncertainty.
          A cat, unusually striped in three colors, came up to Morgultsev on frozen paws and rubbed against his muddy boots, mewing pitifully. Trying the traditional "here kitty-kitty-kitty" routine, Morgultsev tried to pick up the cat, but it sprang back in fear.
          "Don't understand Russian, hey? Well, I don't speak your language. Still, you're a living creature. Come on, I'll get you something to eat!"
          He took an almost empty tin of canned meat from the soldiers. Shivering, the cat flung itself on the food, frantically licking out the sides of the can. She did not leave, but remained with the paratroopers.
          "First contact with the locals accomplished!" laughed the lieutenant, then immersed himself in rosy dreams: - We'll be through here in a week or two, go home, and take this Afghan Murka with us! I've got to bring home at least one souvenir!
          After breakfast, he was summoned to headquarters. A real live general was there. Morgultsev was given a military advisor who worked in Kabul, and a map of object No.14, which his platoon was to seize.
          This object turned out to be the Pul-i-Charkhi prison, a name the senior officers had trouble pronouncing.
          "Your task is to take object 14 and free political prisoners! According to our information there are about 120 guards. Comrade Korobeynikov will instruct you about the object. He's familiar with the layout. Comrade Korobeynikov will deal with the political prisoners himself. Any questions?"
          "No sir!"
          "That hireling of American imperialism, Amin, wanted to destroy all the prisoners in Pul-i-Charkhi," added the head of the Political Section. "The prison's being guarded by troops loyal to him. They could start executing the prisoners at any moment. The lives of thousands of people are in danger!"
          "If you fail, it's the military tribunal for you," promised the dour general in parting. He fixed Morgultsev with a gimlet eye, as though not trusting, doubting the lieutenant.
          Donning medics' white coats, Morgultsev and the advisor set of on a reconnaissance trip in an ambulance. They passed by the prison, checked out the territory and returned to the airdrome.
          Uncle Fedya - that was the soldiers' nickname for the snub-nosed, round-faced advisor - unfolded a detailed plan of the prison, they bent over it and discussed various tactics. Gradually, matters became clearer. In any case, Morgultsev had seen the prison from the air when his plane was coming in to land in Kabul. From above it resembled a wheel which had come off a giant cart and rolled away. That was what he had thought at the time.
          They warmed themselves by the fire and thrashed out the details of the operation. The soldiers were ordered to pay close attention and remember everything.
          "You can fire at will once we're in," said Uncle Fedya. There was a moment of silence as he looked hard at all the men, so they would realize this was not an exercise. "No limits! Any disobedience, any doubts - shoot on the spot. There won't be time for questions!"
          "One hundred and twenty guards," calculated Morgultsev. "That's no pushover. And we're just one platoon. Still, we're paras, we've got the machines and we've got the guts!"
          They moved out in total darkness. The road was blocked by a portable checkpoint with a makeshift boom, situated in the village closest to Pul-i-Charkhi. The column stopped. The leading vehicle trained its spotlight on an Afghan soldier who pointed a bayonet and screamed "Dry-y-y-sh!" at the top of his lungs.
          "Where the fuck did he come from?" ground Uncle Fedya through clenched teeth. "Light out! Don't shoot! Knife him!..."
          "Why's he squealing like a stuck pig?"
          "He's shouting 'Halt!' C'mon, lieutenant, do it!"
          Morgultsev jumped down and approached the Afghan, extending a friendly hand:
          "We're on the same side, pal! How are things, slob? What are you gaping at?" He clapped the Afghan on the shoulder: "Come with me! Come on, let's get off the middle of the road!"
          He twisted the soldier's arm up his back with a practiced move, put the knife to his throat:
          "Look, brother, get the shit out of here. I don't want your death on my conscience, get it? Beat it!"
          The soldier fell to his knees, opened his mouth wide in terror, then scrambled back to his feet and ran.
          At Pul-i-Charkhi the road was blocked by an Afghan armored vehicle. It was quickly knocked out of action when machine gun fire shredded its tires. There was no return fire. Maybe the Afghans were out of ammunition.
          "Get those watchtower lights," ordered Uncle Fedya, and the men did so promptly with a hail of bullets.
          "Everybody mount up!"
          The day before, Morgultsev had coaxed a mobile SU-85 installation from the regimental commander. He meant to use it to break down the massive prison gates with no loss of time. "We could hardly do that with an armored vehicle," he argued, "the 'plywood shield of the Motherland' would never do that job!"
          And then what happened? A fool lieutenant went off the road, panicked and opened fire with solid anti-tank shots. With no orders to do so, the "Sushka" hit the watchtowers.
          "Stop that!" yelled Morgultsev over the radio.
          "Yessir!" replied the lieutenant, but thirty seconds later recommenced firing.
          "Idiot!" swore Morgultsev, and turned to the driver-mechanic: "Wreck those gates!"
          The armored vehicle did it! So much for the slur "plywood shield of the Motherland"! They broke into the prison compound.
          "Reverse! Faster!" commanded Morgultsev. He and Uncle Fedya had it all worked out: they reversed and crushed the wooden structure which served as the guardhouse.
          "Full forward!"
          They had to ram another pair of gates in front of the building where the political prisoners were confined. Bullets flew everywhere, the atmosphere was total chaos. Luckily, dawn had broken. Through the triplex glass, Morgultsev could see armed men running hither and thither. Bullets spattered against the armor like a downpour on a tin roof.
          "Start the carousel!"
          The armored vehicle spun around, all barrels blazing.
          "Time to go," said Morgultsev, touching Uncle Fedya on the shoulder.
          They opened the hatch and leapt out.
          The soldiers hesitated. Shooting continued, but who was shooting at whom and where was unclear. Uncle Fedya urged them on:
          "We're losing time! Get moving! " and ran towards the entrance of the building, jumping over corpses.
          "Two men stay here!"
          The babble of an unknown tongue could be heard in the depths of the corridor. They flattened themselves against the wall and when steps approached, Uncle Fedya fired a volley of shots holding his machine gun at waist level. Someone cried out in the dark, there was the sound of a body falling.
          "Chuck a grenade!"
          As soon as the smoke cleared a little, they raced for the far end of the corridor. Blankets hung across doorways on both sides of the corridor. One blanket seemed to bulge so Motgultsev pressed the trigger. An old man, covered in blood and grasping a string of worry-beads fell out into the corridor.
          "Go! Go!" shouted Uncle Fedya. He himself paused for a moment to jam a new magazine into his gun. "Cover me!"
          It must have been even more frightening for the Afghans. How could they know how many Soviets had stormed the prison, how many were still outside, what forces were involved in the operation and, in general, what was happening in Kabul? That was why they did not resist for long. Overall, they amounted to two hundred plus guards. The paras had killed a small part of them, the rest surrendered willingly. The Afghans had no intention of fighting to the last drop of blood.
          Hundreds of hands protruded from the bars of the cells, someone waved a long piece of cloth - an unrolled turban, someone managed to reach a window and stick out his hand.
          Morgultsev should have felt himself a victor or, to be more precise, a liberator, someone who had saved thousands of human lives. However, he felt nothing of the kind. On the contrary, he was suddenly scared: swarthy, bearded strangers watched the Soviet officer from behind bars. Morgultsev shivered.
          They'd saved them! Freed them! But who were these people? Against whom had they rebelled? What were they punished for? Maybe they were real criminals? How can anyone tell? Their language is incomprehensible and they all look suspicious. We've saved and freed them, but what now? No question of fraternizing with them! Damn it, what kind of friends were they, anyway? No, let them stay locked up for the time being. It will be safer that way. Let those who are in the know sort it out and decide which ones to release and which ones to keep in the slammer! It's not my job. We've done what we were ordered. If something like this had happened back home - if, for instance, revolutionaries had to be rescued from prison ... well, that would be another mater. That would be a sacred duty! But here ...
          "Don't let anyone out!" he warned his men. "Are any of our people wounded?"
          "Not in our unit, comrade lieutenant.
          "Where's the third unit?"
          "No idea, comrade lieutenant," shrugged the soldier.
          The third unit had plunged into a sewage pit. When they drove into the prison yard, the second armored vehicle had veered sharply to the right and, not knowing where to go in the dark and general confusion, landed straight into the evil-smelling muck. The exhaust fumes fed back into the cabin and the men started to choke. They were discovered by chance and just in time. Someone saw the turret protruding from the pit.
          "Shitheads!" railed Morgultsev. "Not paratroopers, but real shitheads!"
          The taking of Pul-i-Charkhi lasted less than one hour - 54 minutes, in fact. Morgultsev had marked the time on his "commander's" watch.
          "Object 14 secured," he reported by radio.
          Uncle Fedya went off to Kabul, came back with Afghan "comrades" and began sorting out the prisoners.
          Morgultsev's platoon received orders by radio from headquarters: "Stay and guard the object. You'll be brought food and ammunition."
          They posted sentries, took over the warmest building which was heated by an oil stove as their quarters and draped blankets over the broken windows.
          Morgultsev warmed himself in the sun, the first he had seen since arrival, drew on a cigarette.
          "Comrade lieutenant! There's a whole bunch of journalists arrived, they say they're from Soviet television. Should we let them in?"
          "Sure, why not?"
          "There's a whole lot of Afghans, too."
          "What Afghans?"
          "About three hundred of them by the looks of it."
          "So-o-o," drawled Morgultsev. "What do they want here, I wonder?"
          He refused flatly to admit anyone into the prison, contacted headquarters and waited a long time for explanations. Better be safe than sorry!
          "I'm not going to accept the responsibility. Send someone from HQ! Then I'll let them in."
          "The television crew has to film the taking of Pul-i-Charkhi," said the colonel who arrived eventually.
          "No problem. I'll go whistle up my guys."
          "You don't understand, comrade lieutenant. The prison was taken by Afghan soldiers from units that rose against the bloody regime of that traitor Amin."
          "What do you mean, comrade colonel?"
          "I think I've made myself quite clear, lieutenant!"
          They made Morgultsev come down from the watchtower he had climbed to watch the filming - there should be no accidental appearance of a Soviet officer in the film. He sent a couple of soldiers for the armchair out of the prison governor's office and had himself a front row view of the proceedings.
          "Just try convincing someone that we took Pul-i-Charkhi after this," said one of the men in bitter disappointment. "Nobody will believe it for a moment!"
          "Too fucking right!" agreed Morgultsev, equally put out.
          They never saw Uncle Fedya again. It was said that he was killed several months later. Where? Under what circumstances? Nobody knew for sure. Maybe they're lying and maybe he really was killed. He's a KGB man, after all. You'll never get the truth out of them.... decided Morgultsev.
          In the first years of the war, asking questions was dangerous, people were afraid of everything. Once, when Morgultsev was in hospital after being wounded, he sat drinking spirit with a captain. A black-haired, swarthy Tatar or Tadjik. He remembered that the captain had a very long nose which was broken in several places.
          They drank a lot. With alcohol-induced frankness, they swapped information about where they had been, what they had done in Afghanistan. Fate had landed them both in Kabul in December 1979. After a bit of beating about the bush, they agreed tacitly not to hold back.
          "I took Pul-i-Charkhi prison," confided Morgultsev. "What about you?"
          "I took the palace..."
          "Amin's palace?!" Morgultsev almost choked. He glanced at the captain who sat there, head bowed and staring at the floor. He didn't even look up when he affirmed: "Exactly."
          There were all sorts of rumors about Amin's palace. It was said that the Ninth company of the Vitebsk division stormed the palace, others said the KGB had sent a special task force.
          They shared the last of the spirit, clinked glasses: "Cheers!", then breathed out almost simultaneously, tossed down their drinks and sniffed black bread as a follow-up.
          "I was in the Muslim battalion," continued the captain. "Ever heard of it?"
          "Sure," lied Mogultsev. He decided not to ask for details. It was probably some kind of special unit. "And you saw Amin himself?"
          "Yes ... only he was dead..."
          The captain remained silent, weighing the pros and cons of saying any more.
          "He was lying on the floor in just his undershirt and shorts, there was a large red spot over his heart. We had to make sure he was really dead. But when we tugged his left arm, it came off..."
          Morgultsev broke out in a cold sweat. "Why is he telling me this? Why did I tell him about the prison? I should have kept my stupid trap shut!"
          He could not fall asleep, the words of the captain from the "Muslim battalion" were very frightening:
          "It was like we were on a platter in front of them during the storming, they could have shot us to pieces with no trouble. It was a miracle we broke through, especially when we realized what had happened. After all, we'd killed a head of state! They loaded us into a plane, we thought we were done for. Who knows what they might decided to do with us?...They could simply poison the lot of us. Why leave witnesses? The unit was dissolved and we were all assigned to different places..."
          Over breakfast Morgultsev felt as if his head would burst at any moment, his eyes refused to stay open. Morgultsev greeted the captain, but he turned away and pretended not to recognize him. "Talked too much!" Morgultsev decided that from now on he would keep his tongue on a padlock. There was no need to boast and brag about the prison!
          Morgultsev was put up for the "Red Banner" order for his part in the taking of Pul-i-Charkhi. He was promoted to senior lieutenant ahead of time. Then it seemed as though someone had jinxed him! Everything started falling apart in his hitherto quite successfully unfolding life, as if he had slipped on the top of a hill and rolled down the slope. First, his wife left him. She had found someone else while Morgultsev was serving in Afghanistan. Not someone from the unit, but a civilian who took her away from Vitebsk.
          Morgultsev started drinking heavily, received frequent reprimands from the battalion commander, found no pleasure in his work. The Political Section subjected him to psychological pressure, pestering him to mend his ways.
          He was young and hot-tempered, telling people where to go in no uncertain terms, was too quick to resort to fisticuffs before considering whom he was telling to fuck off or whose nose he was punching. Then he landed in real trouble: the "grandpas" beat him up within an inch of his life.
          It took a few years for things to improve. He married again, had a daughter. Then he asked to be posted back to Afghanistan.
          He never discussed his family problems, but everyone knew anyway. Who got divorced or married, who had remarried, who had children and where - there are no secrets in the army.
          Morgultsev had a picture drawn by the son of his first marriage pinned to the wall in his room. Once a month he sent the boy short letters and asked officers going on leave to post the boy a small package of presents once they were in the Soviet Union. The drawing was full of birdlike airplanes dropping icicle-bombs, burning tiny tanks with swastikas on their armor which were being crushed by tanks bearing red stars, and people with machine guns ran between them. In the right hand corner Morgultsev's son had written: "I drew this myself Dad plees send me chooing gum" ....

          + + +

          The days flew by unnoticed, running into weeks and months. Raids, combat, injury and death of soldiers and officers - he adapted himself to the Afghan rhythm which turned every severed life into something prosaic; death could be tragic, accidental, heroic, but it no longer horrified Sharagin as it had in the early months; death became a routine occurrence and was accepted as one of the inevitabilities of war.
          Sharagin fished out two new stars from a glass of vodka when they were "washing down" his promotion to senior lieutenant. He was due for a reward. Morgultsev signed the orders, glanced slyly at Sharagin and asked off-handedly:
          "Do you like sweaty women and warm vodka?"
          "Are you kidding?!"
          "Then you'll be going on leave in winter."
          "Why winter?" protested Sharagin, disappointed. "Come on...!"
          "Someone's got to go. Zebrev's already been. It's too early for Yepimakhov, he's still got to get into the swing of things here. So you'll have to be the one. It's your turn..."
          "Can't we make it a bit later? Like closer to spring?"
          "Later-shmater! Dismissed, comrade senior lieutenant!"
          "In that case, I'm going into town tomorrow!"

          ... what else? I can't go home empty-handed!.

          "I don't want to know anything about that," answered Morgultsev, covering his ass just in case.

          Once over the border, back in the USSR, Sharagin fell into conversation with an officer in a jeans outfit as they waited by the military ticket office. Sharagin had spotted him as an "Afghan" from afar.

          ...stone-washed jeans like that are sold only in Afghanistan ...One look
          at his face and you can tell straight away that he's an army man ...

          To an outside observer, the officer and Sharagin looked like twins. Oleg had bought his first-ever pair of jeans.
          The officer was hoping to get on the same plane. They were lucky enough to be admitted on the next flight. Sharagin followed his companion's advice and decided to do the unthinkable: draw money off his bank account and take his family to the seaside.
          He and Lena had so much catching up to do, all the feelings that could not be fully expressed in letters, the anxieties, the warmth - all this they would relive. It would be better to do all this by the sea rather than in the parents' apartment. Afterwards, there would be time to visit relatives, spend a week or two with his mother and father, go fishing with his grandfather. He had almost a month and a half - plenty of time for everything!
          "You'll always find a place to stay. If push comes to shove, you can rent a room. The main thing is to have money!" urged the jeans-clad officer over a beer.
          Lena had never been on vacation by the sea. For that matter, neither had he. As for Nastyushka, all she had seen was a stream in the village.
          "The sea is like hundreds of rivers," Oleg told her in an effort to explain.
          "Wike two or free livers?"
          "More. Lots and lots of rivers. And you can't see the other side."
          The money seemed to melt like snow. He had to overpay for their tickets. It was not the vacation season, nobody flew south at this time of year, but there was a ticket shortage nonetheless!

          ... it could only happen in our country! ...

          Taxi to the airport, taxi from the airport - just as well he was earning double all those months in Afghanistan. He'd never dreamed of anything like that before!

          ... why regret the expense? I'll earn as much again!..

          For the first time in his life, Oleg felt himself a free man.

          ...because you can't earn a lot back home ... If someone has a lot of
          money, he'll start to feel independent and go his own way ...

          Previously, Oleg had always felt dependent and without any rights.

          ... "I know no such other country," a drunken captain had sung once, parodying the Soviet national anthem, "where a man can be so ease! attention! eyes right!"

          The money gave an illusion of freedom, the chance to choose, inspired confidence.
          Admittedly, they were turned away from the hotel because they had no prior reservation. Oleg tried to offer a bribe, but he did not have the knack and it didn't work. Moreover, the hotel manager turned out to be a very self-righteous citizen and reacted to the offer of money as to a personal affront. Lena and Nastya hovered outside - the uniformed porter would not let them into the vestibule.
          "You picked the most expensive hotel, of course they don't have any free rooms," comforted Lena, searching for some justification. "Why, only foreign tourists live here!"
          "To hell with them! We'll try the private sector!" Sharagin flagged down a passing cab.
          "Take us along the waterfront, chief. I'll pay double! If there's a good restaurant on the way, we'll stop there for lunch. And we need to find a room, too, but it's got to have a sea view."
          "You're on, boss!"
          They breezed along and chose the most expensive restaurant. Lena gasped when she saw the check: all that money, and for what? But Oleg was beaming with pleasure as he counted out the money and added a bit on top.
          Lena could not contain herself any longer:
          "Why did you give him more? He overcharged us by about three times anyway!" She was unaccustomed to throwing money around, she was more used to stretching every penny from payday to payday. When they were first married they could barely make ends meet, had to borrow ten rubles here and there at times, yet here was Oleg now, behaving like a millionaire.
          "That was a tip," explained Oleg expansively. Seeing that Lena was upset by such profligacy he gave her a hug: "Sweetheart, don't think about the money, we'll have this much again! We'll have everything! We've got our whole future to look forward to!"
          Nastyusha woke first, rousing Mummy and Daddy who lay entwined in sleep. Oleg held Lena clasped close to him all night.
          "Daddy, le's go to the liver!" entreated Nastyusha. The sea foamed and stormed, dark clouds scudded across the sky, blotting out the sun and the few people out and about cast curious glances at the unseasonably tanned man accompanied by a pale-skinned woman and child.
          For some reason, Oleg recalled a childhood episode:
          Oh, to cross the river clinging to his father's shoulders! Nothing is frightening when you're with Dad! If only his father were always like this! Vital, happy, joking and laughing. Not only when he'd had a bit to drink. He and his friends drank a lot. They were lying on the grass surrounded by sliced vegetables, sausage and lots of bottles. Some of the men were accompanied by their wives, some were alone. The officers were relaxing. Oleg sat nearby fishing, but seeing everything and listening to the adults. Mama hinted tactfully that maybe it was time to stop drinking, that the men had overdone things a little, all of them unsteady on their feet, speech slurred. Mama was upset when the men decided to go for a swim: the water's not at all warm, you'll catch colds, and why take the child with you?! Never mind. A future officer needs toughening up. They threw off their clothes and plunged into the water as though on command, splashing and laughing. One dived under water and the others guffawed: "He's gone down to spawn!" They say that a drunk thinks the ocean is no more than knee-deep. The water's not all that cold, honest, Mum! Oleg, jump on! His father squatted down. Climb on so you'll be comfortable. Someone broke into song: "From the taiga to the British seas/ the Red Army can whip anyone at all!" Dad slicing through the water like a torpedo boat. We'll make it across, hey son? You're not scared? No? Then off we go! But it was not easy to swim with his son on his back. Father trod on the bottom, standing on tip-toe, the water already up to his chin. The current pulled strongly to the right. Oleg shone with happiness. Mama's worrying over nothing! Wave to her! We're perfectly all right! The others had climbed out and were wringing their shorts in the bushes, jumping about on one leg, unable to get the other one in, trying to warm up because the breeze was quite stiff. They waved their arms around, lit cigarettes, downed a shot of vodka. Dad kept moving forward stubbornly, then suddenly went under! Oleg slid off his back, plunged under water, began thrashing about because he was not yet able to swim properly. Mama shouted from the river bank, someone ran into the water, swam out to help.

          ... if only I don't drown!..

          And Dad, where was Dad? Oleg was caught by the current and swept along. Dad was choking and no longer swimming. His face was strangely twisted and he seemed to be moaning. Cramp...Oleg floundered like a puppy, barely managing to keep his head above water. He swallowed a lungful of water and began coughing convulsively. But rescue was near. Somebody reached him, began pulling him back to shore. And Dad made it back somehow...
          Everything's fine! The boy's safe! No tears, please! It wasn't anybody's fault! These things happen. Who could know that there was a deep spot which couldn't be crossed on foot? Like dropping into a pit ... Pour the man a penalty glass and give the boy a good rubdown...

          ... I must teach Nastyushka to swim! next vacation!..

          As bad luck would have it, it began to rain. They ate in a cafe, bought some fruit at the market. It seemed to Lena that Oleg forgot himself again, he didn't even haggle over the prices, as if he felt ashamed of chaffering over one ruble, he just flung money around without a thought! Yet a ruble here and a ruble there added up to a tidy sum in the end! The traders can tell at a glance, who has money and who hasn't, and set their prices accordingly. Lena kept her peace, understanding that Oleg was doing this for her, for Nastyusha, that he enjoyed giving them a treat, and if she were to protest that he was throwing away money needlessly, she would only ruin his pleasure. He would come to his senses soon enough. In a few days' time he would see what was in his pocket and stop spending carelessly. He would realize that at this rate, they would be left without funds for the return journey. Still, they had been to the seaside! Who could say when they would do this again?
          The first home leave in wartime flashes by before you know it. The heart of an officer fluctuates too much between home and duty, there are too few victories at his back and too many future expectations. Sharagin felt torn. Moreover, he had not expected to see his family quite so soon. His parents were equally amazed, nobody had been expecting him earlier than in a year's time, if not more, after his departure for Afghanistan.
          Naturally, they were overjoyed, but they - both his parents an Lena - had their own estimates of possible times and had prepared to wait accordingly. Then suddenly - Oleg phones to say that he's in Tashkent and will be flying out in two hours' time.
          The presents Oleg brought home! Tell me how you've all been without me? We're managing, son, don't worry about anything, dearest. Father could have kept his mouth shut, though: who asked him to try and put Oleg "in the know" when they found themselves alone:
          "You have a word with her."
          "What about?"
          "About that guy who's been hanging around her..."
          It was like an unexpected slap in the face. He felt dirty. It was not like him to doubt Lena, but he couldn't bring himself to ask her directly in case she took offense. Until he spoke to his mother. Mother explained everything with feminine simplicity. Yes, there was this lieutenant, not a local but just passing through, and there's absolutely no cause for concern and Lena is completely blameless. The lieutenant saw her and fell in love at first sight. Then he showed up after a while with a bunch of flowers. Lena only felt sorry for him. Who could blame him? These boys sit around for months on duty at the rocket launching site, there's nothing else to think about, so in order not to go crazy, the lieutenant imagined himself in love with her. Lena had a serious talk with him, and he had not been back since.
          After a week by the sea, Nastyusha began to sniff and sneeze, then Lena caught the cold, then Oleg.

          ... some home leave!..

          "We forgot to throw a coin into the sea!" exclaimed Lena. They went back to the beach, put down their suitcases and went to the water's edge. Seagulls mewled dismally under the darkening sky.
          "This is so we'll come back again," explained Oleg to his daughter. He put a twenty kopeck coin into her little hand. "Go on, throw it in. There's a belief like that."
          The coin rattled against the pebbles...

          + + +

          A new "son of the regiment" had appeared in Oleg's absence. In fact, Sharagin never got to see him, as everything was over by the time he returned. The pup had been adopted by Yepimakhov on a mission, a mixture of boxer and German shepherd by the looks of him. You couldn't tell straight away. A gift from the "road brigade". The pup was noisy, naive, funny, trusting and good-natured. He absolutely oozed affection. Whenever someone came near or stroked him, he would start to wag his tail like the blades of a chopper and try to lick them from head to foot. The man dubbed him "son of the regiment" or just "Son." The puppy rode the armored vehicles like a born paratrooper. In no time at all, he learned to yap at the Afghans. But what was to be done with him? It was winter. He'd perish alone. Then again, he could hardly stay with the platoon. They weren't manning an outpost, but living within the regiment. The rules here were different. The trained dogs belonging to the sappers were a different breed, but the "son of the regiment" was a ragamuffin mongrel.
          If Bogdanov got to hear about him, everyone would get it in the neck.
          They brought Son into the regiment anyway. Now what? He couldn't be taken into the barracks, and you could hardly build him a kennel out of a box in the depths of the vehicle park. They put an old trench-coat inside for warmth and took turns bringing him food. The most assiduous benefactors were Myshkovsky and Yepimakhov.
          Morgultsev, as was to be expected, frowned and fumed. However, he was spotted feeding the pup secretly. A soldier told Yepimakhov that the commander had brought Son a mixture of porridge and canned meat, and tried teaching him the "Sit!" and "Lie down!" commands. However, the pup was till too young, so all he did was mess up the commander's uniform with dirty paws and cover him with saliva in attempts to lick Morgultsev's nose.
          We'll keep him for a bit, reasoned Yepimakhov, feed him up and on our next sortie, we'll find a place for him, fix him up at an outpost.
          All would have been well if Son had not been spotted by Bogdanov. Myshkovsky had time to hide behind a BMP, but Son was unaccustomed to hiding on what he plainly considered to be his territory. And home territory must be protected. In fact, it was not that Bogdanov spotted him, but Son got under his feet. Son knew no distinctions between an ordinary soldier, a lieutenant or a lieutenant-colonel. And there was no way he could tell a general from a captain.
          The puppy bounded out from under the BMP, guarding the equipment entrusted to him, and started yapping furiously. Not the way he would at an Afghan - he was good at distinguishing smells. He was just giving a warning as if to say - careful! I'm here to keep watch and am awaiting further orders! Bogdanov, meanwhile, had been talking to someone and, taken aback, stepped on Son's paw with a heavy boot.
          Oh, the squeals of pain! Myshkovsky poked his head out but did not dare come forward and dived back behind the BMP. Bogdanov had offended Son deeply, and Son did not forget. That boot had really hurt his paw badly. And for what reason?
          Bogdanov cursed fluently and demanded to know who had brought a dog into the regiment. Morgultsev had a strip torn off for turning the vehicle park into a zoo. Bogdanov ordered that all stray dogs be removed from the territory forthwith.
          In his turn, Morgultsev chewed out Yepimakhov, yelled at him and ordered him to get rid of Son. Yepimakhov pleaded for a few days' grace to find Son a good home.
          Two days later, Son was found dead in the vehicle yard. Someone had shot him with a pistol.
          By tacit consent, nobody discussed the incident, but individually the men were all upset. Yepimakhov and Myshkovsky vowed to find out who shot Son. Everything pointed at Bogdanov, but how could you prove it? And even if you did, what would that change? It was not as though a human being had been killed. Even when a soldier or an officer dies, you can't always get to the bottom of all the circumstances surrounding the death, and in this instance, the victim is only a mongrel.
          A sentry confided to Myshkovsky that Bogdanov had come to the park to check personally that the dog had been removed. "Did you hear a shot?" No, the sentry had heard nothing, and refused to say any more. So the pup was gone - big deal! Tell Myshkovsky that you'd heard a shot and he might go and shoot the lieutenant-colonel. Then there would really be hell to pay! Everyone would be drawn in, the Special Section, the Prosecutors...

          + + +

          Nothing in the regiment had changed over the one and a half months Sharagin had been away. When he was leaving, he had worried that there might be battles. What if he were to miss out on something really big? How would they go off without him?

          ...that's no good ... unfair...

          On the whole, he had not missed much, just a couple of sorties.

          ... as if I hadn't been on leave .. as if I'd never left.. .

          Yepimakhov seemed to have been scorched under fire several times, bullets whizzing by his ears, but he was all right. The lieutenant held his head proudly now.

          ... as though he's just had his first woman ...

          Like any conscientious and proud young officer, in the best sense of those words. Yepimakhov had had to be restrained by the scruff of the neck at first, until he understood the difference between the romance of victory and genuine combat. Invariably, someone needed to cool down the ardor of the new boy to fling himself into battle so that he would not share the fate of so many half-baked lieutenants arriving in Afghanistan and not living to see their first home leave. In this one instance, nobody had been looking out for Yepimakhov. He was simply lucky.
          "I've been told that I'm safe from bullets," he said to Sharagin when Oleg came back.
          "Who told you that crap?"
          "A gypsy."
          "Go on, spit! That's better. And touch wood..."
          The newcomer was gradually adapting to military life. He learned to kill, swear like the proverbial trooper, accept death. His personal possessions increased: he'd saved up his chits, haggled over wares in the shops, spent some money in the army trade depot, bought odds and ends - jeans, souvenirs, knickknacks - in other words, acquired the standard baggage of a Soviet officer in Afghanistan.
          He also found a reliable friend - vodka, that age-proven Russian remedy for numerous misfortunes and doubts, from sadness and spiritual desolation. He had expended his youthful enthusiasm, become slightly cynical, disillusionment ousted his former belief in the saving role of the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
          He did not share his feelings with anyone, Sharagin was the only one in whom he would confide to any extent when they went outside for a smoke, especially after a good intake of vodka, when thoughts and tongues become more eloquent.
          They talked about the country in which they had been born, grew up and which they served.
          They talked about the war, which had brought such dissimilar people together. They agonized over the frequently stupid, uncaring and useless ways

          ... that the strength of Russia was being misused...

          battalions and regiments are expended, that nobody gave a damn about the soldiers or the army.

          There was only one topic that was never discussed - the return home.

          If it is not admissible, in wartime, when you surrender your life temporarily into the hands of fate, when a situation may make you sacrifice yourself for a friend, an aim, a principle, to plan and map out a distant future left behind in another world, with other values. At least not out loud, because you could be wrong so easily, or just jinx your hopes.

    Chapter Eight. The General

          The 40th army or the "Limited Contingent of Soviet forces in Afghanistan" was yet another illegitimate offspring of the enormous empire under the name of the Soviet Union. Its parents - the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Ministry of Defense - did all they could to hide their transgression, and for this reason, most likely, forbade the Soviet people to mention the child as if it had done something unworthy, criminal, something that cast a shadow over the entire family.
          Millions of the country's citizens did not know, were not interested and did not care that there was a war for almost ten years on its southern boundaries. As for those who served in the Limited Contingent, especially on the first years after the forces were brought into Afghanistan - they did not dare tell even their nearest and dearest about what they had been through and seen, they feared to broach the subject.
          Parents of other illegitimate children who did as they wished in more fortunate and not war-torn countries - Hungary, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Mongolia, Czechoslovakia - were more benevolently inclined.
          The 40th army was dispatched to a strange land at the end of 1979 and it tried, over many years, to win the love and good will of its ageing and slightly mad parents. The army was sent to an alien place to preserve order, increase the prestige and might of the empire, work for the growth and fortune of already endless, immense territories. But because the empire was not quite ordinary, and actually the last empire of the 20th century, things were always turning out opposite to plan.
          Instead of receiving profit from its subject lands, the empire gave away its life-blood, shared its last crust, and its strength diminished accordingly.
          The subjects of the great empire did not know why they had to live so badly, what had happened to the plenty promised them a long, long time ago, at the dawn of the Soviet power; they believed genuinely in the gods which thought up and created the empire; the subjects were romantics, naive people, they liked hearing promises, believed in miracles and in their hearts believed that that the miracle could occur at any moment, like in the fairy-tale about the goldfish that promised to grant the fisherman's three wishes in return for release.
          However, they did not really have much choice. They had nothing with which to compare their empire.

          "If you've never watched a Japanese television set, you'll go on believing that Soviet-made ones are the best in the world," once said captain Morgultsev bitterly after a walk around the shops.

          ... he also liked to repeat that "the Soviet wrist-watches are the
          fastest in the world, and Soviet paralysis - the most progressive"...

          The great empire's army which, in actual fact, had not engaged in any large-scale military actions for more than 35 years, suddenly decided to flex its muscles and test its abilities in reality, assure itself that all the weapons manufactured in recent years worked properly, try out new technology, field test the commanders' knowledge of the tactical theories they had studied in military schools and academies; the Soviet army needed a foe, but as the foe did not attack, it was necessary to think up something themselves, organize a lengthy march into a far away land, moreover as the ideologists had, by that time, concluded work on the latest chapter about global revolution. That chapter was entitled Afghanistan. Convincingly and simply as always, it maintained that in exceptional cases, to transform a feudal country into a socialist one without an intermediate capitalist stage of development.
          Muscles tend to stiffen after a long ride on the armor - similarly, the Army and the Ideology got tired of sitting around with nothing to do, like a dog on a chain becomes sick of waiting.
          Pride forbade apology or retreat - the empire admitted to no mistakes. So from the first days of its existence, the life of the 40th army went haywire.

 was the decision about Afghanistan really reached? No chance of finding that out! if they goofed - its a damned shame...they shouldn't take us for such fools! we fought for a couple of years, it became clear that things were going wrong, so why not change tactics? you can't be blind stubborn, you have to weasel around .. or stop pussyfooting around and pit all our strength against them...

          ... we all understand geopolitics too, even at the level of a platoon
          leader, we're not babies... that's what the army's for, that's what the
          paratroopers are for - to guard the Motherland from external enemies, to
          strike first, preventively, so to speak, to be able to foresee what the
          enemy has in mind and put a stop to it! even a moron could see that two
          ideologies collided head-on in little Afghanistan, locked horns and will
          fight unto death ... the more you see, the further you look - nothing is
          all that simple here... we don't know everything .. there are all sorts of
          underwater reefs in this place ... so, all in all, it's better not to argue
          ... better not to resist, not to indulge in masochism ... if you don't know
          everything ... you get your orders - forward ... we'll analyze it all when
          we're old, retired ... by that time things will become clear ... I hope ...
          as for today, the task is simple - never mind discoursing about the global
          revolution, just kill the spooks ...

          ... nobody argues, we're just spent cartridges from a small calibre
          weapon by comparison with those who call the tune in big time politics -
          with the heavy artillery ... for me, everything falls within the framework
          of the company, I can't even visualize the whole division even if I try,
          but for them - why, they have to see to the whole country, all the military
          areas, industry, know what's going on out there, across the border, keep
          their eyes peeled and their noses to the wind, to get ahead of the yanks,
          not to lose face they see all this? they must! have they taken
          everything into account? they have to! then there shouldn't be any
          questions! if you must, you must! give us the picture, we'll understand!
          and win! we won't retreat! only keep faith with us and don't go revising
          things later -, opinions and views, let's remain united to the end!
          international duty - well, let it be international duty! half-heartedness
          is the most dread thing of all! the most painful, when someone starts
          backing down! then the accomplishments and rewards of the Russian soldier
          will not be worth a penny ... if you don't think you can stick it out,
          don't get into a fight! ...

          In the evenings, the enervating heat eased. The air freshened, especially in the tree-lined avenues on the territory of the army HQ located in Amin's former palace, a three-floor edifice with columns, standing on a high hill on the outskirts of the city and housing the senior command of the 40th army. The daily fuss around HQ died down until sunrise and people became more relaxed in behavior and dress.
          The palace suffered heavy damage in December 1979 when the empire ordered the liquidation of Hafizullah Amin, the leader of Afghanistan at that time. Ironically Amin, who had urged the Soviet Union to bring its forces into his country, was killed by those very forces in their first strike.
          As the years passed, numerous military installations grew up on the territory adjacent to the palace. A compound covered several square kilometers. It was guarded assiduously against the Afghans and, as was to be expected, Soviet power reigned supreme in that one specific part of Kabul.
          Feature films were shown in an open-air cinema behind the officers' quarters so scraps of dialogue floated above the heads of the few couples strolling down the avenues.
          A red "Lada" raced past, bearing some visiting Soviet advisor back to town.
          Four soldiers in bullet-proof vests and helmets, rifles slung over their shoulders, emerged from the dusk. They were led by a sergeant who was supervising the changing of the guards. One of the soldiers concealed a cigarette in his hand, drawing on it surreptitiously from time to time and blowing out the smoke downwards, over his chin. The men paused outside the commissary for half a minute, eyes right, gazing at the imported goodies in the brightly lit, empty interior: shoes, track suits, Japanese tape-recorders, all inaccessible to them price-wise.
          A soldier could hardly gain access to the store in day time, it's not for the soldiers to roam around shopping, nobody will give them permission to leave their unit and, in any case, common soldiers have no money to spend: all they can do is sneak a glance at the imported plenty. Anyone can wish for a better life, even a common soldier.
          "What a brand!"
          "To a man in 'Adidas'/Any girl will give her ass!"
          "Come on you Siberian hick, keep moving," ordered the sergeant.

          After dinner in a circle of fellow-generals and a game of billiards in the Military Council hotel built at the foot of the palace, Sorokin took his leave. The meal had been excellent, real home cooking. All the products were specially supplied and superb meals preceded by hors d'oeuvres were separately prepared. The waitresses at the Military Council were selected carefully: friendly, pleasant and easy on the eye.
          Sorokin had declined various invitations to visit, having decided to take a break from sitting around tables and drinking. He wanted to check his gear and have an early night in order to go on tomorrow's mission with a clear head. The general donned a track suit and went out into the street, lit a cigarette and set off for a walk. He relaxed, putting everyday problems out of his head.
          Nobody recognized him, nobody saluted or greeted him, and the general enjoyed this because it meant that he was here only temporarily, without any regular duties, unencumbered by responsibilities for day to day matters of military administration or the troops. At the same time he was immensely proud of the fact that he was endowed with special powers and responsibilities, which were known and understood by a very small circle within the military command in Kabul and Moscow. His responsibilities concerned party and political issues, and therefore extended to one and all.
          Army generals were always divided into categories - popular or unpopular, known or unknown, important or unimportant. The generals were also differentiated by the positions they held, by their temperaments and by the way they had attained their rank and duties.
          Sorokin was one of those who came by his shoulder boards due to Afghanistan. He had experienced the true meaning of war on his own skin, earned his colonel's rank under fire and not behind a desk in the Chief Military Political Administration. The next promotion resulted from his participation in the war because in the 1980s "afghan" officers were the driving force of the Soviet Army, they were granted precedence and the main emphasis was on them.
          Walking around the HQ territory, Sorokin noted how substantially the compound had been built and recalled that he had seen figures recently which estimated the worth of army property in Afghanistan at some hundreds of millions of rubles. He compared the present conditions with life under canvas in the first years of the war.
          ...An entire battalion had become infested with lice. The pests had come from the division and then - Mamma mia! - all the soldiers, filthy and unwashed as they were, began scratching furiously. Sorokin had set a day for them all to go to the bath house, ordered their uniforms burnt, tents shaken out and bed linen boiled. As for the men - a bath day is a holiday. The commanders, however, panicked and cursed, because how could they disobey and order from divisional superiors, especially an order from the head of the political section? To whom does one complain about a political officer? Nobody. Sorokin phoned divisional headquarters, reporting that here we are, we've reached rock bottom, the men are living like pigs; send us new uniforms, the unit is not combat worthy otherwise. The divisional commander shouted that Sorokin had gone off his head, that he was a saboteur and would find himself facing a military tribunal. Sorokin stood his ground: there was no way back in any case, because piles of shirts and pants were already burning merrily. This scandal rocked the entire army. However, Sorokin got what he wanted, new uniforms were duly delivered. What else?! That was the way Sorokin cared for the men in those trying years, fought for justice, pressed his point. Not every political officer would have had the guts to do that!..
          Now everything had changed. Naturally, Sorokin was glad that today's soldiers were well-equipped with decent housing, air conditioners, bath houses, shops, cinemas, laundries, bakeries, cafes and barbers. At the same time, he felt pity for those who had huddled freezing under their trench-coats in that first bitter winter after the entry into Afghanistan, those ill-equipped officers and men who were ordered "across the river" to render international assistance. He felt sorry for himself in the first place, because he had experienced it all personally.
          He was proud that he had been one of the trailblazers. Prior to this trip to Kabul, he had even fancied that his past record would raise his standing in the eyes of other officers, but was quickly disillusioned. Sorokin saw that nobody was interested in hearing about the hardships faced back in 1980. For the colonels and generals he encountered in Kabul now, Afghanistan existed in the present, occasionally - in the future, as from time to time people did wonder about what would happen later, was Moscow likely to order the withdrawal of the Limited Contingent, but nobody cared much about the past.
          Sorokin passed the officers' quarters in front of which stood a lonely and incongruous small statue of Lenin on a pedestal, then proceeded past the stone buildings of command staff apartments. A stream of movie-goers straggled towards him.
          There was another covert reason for this evening walk, known only to himself. Somewhere deep inside he hoped - who knows their luck? - to meet some attractive member of the opposite sex, of whom there were plenty in the army cantonment.
          Sorokin had spent the previous day smoothing over a certain unpleasant incident. A Spetsnaz group that had been conducting an aerial survey of the approaches to Kabul in search of spook caravans had stopped a bus. They had fired a warning volley from the air, landed to conduct a search, but when the men disembarked from the chopper, the bus suddenly drove off. The men leapt back into the chopper and set off in pursuit, opening fire and turning the bus into a colander. Blood streamed from the door and they discovered fourteen corpses of allegedly peaceful civilians inside. Passengers who had remained alive were herded behind a hillock by the group leader, and shot with a silenced pistol. They did not finish off the driver, though. His jaw was slack, and they decided that he was already dead. It was too late to do anything when it emerged that the driver had only been wounded and was now an eye-witness in the matter. Otherwise, they could have blamed everything on the spooks.
          Sorokin was pleased with the way he had handled this very awkward situation. His tactic was to defuse it by a number of diplomatic moves at a meeting with members of the Afghan Central Committee and their advisors, attributing everything to the known unreliability of the spook-infested area where the incident had occurred and asserted that their own Afghan intelligence service expected a caravan carrying surface-to-surface missiles to pass through on that day. To cap it all, Sorokin remarked pensively that it might be best to stop all aerial reconnaissance by the Spetsnaz. The Afghan to whom he said this took fright and, unwilling to accept the responsibility for any such decision, agreed that the whole incident was due to an unfortunate misunderstanding and that everyone was fully aware of the need for reconnaissance and the Spetsnaz.
          Sorokin regretted what had happened, but worse things can occur in war. Why, whole villages had been reduced to rubble by mistake, sometimes wrongly-given coordinates brought down fire on their own units. It happens. War is war.
          When he returned to the hotel, a new receptionist - a young, striking brunette - was seated in front of the television set. Soviet programs came through to Kabul loud and clear.
          "Good night," said Sorokin, straightening his back and pulling in his very slightly incipient belly.
          "Good night to you too," she replied with a flutter of painted eyelashes and turned back to the screen - it was not part of her job to flirt with transient generals.
          Back in his room, Sorokin indulged in a lengthy telephone conversation over SAC - secret automatic connection - with a friend in the Chief Military Political Administration in Moscow, from whom he hoped to learn the latest news and what the weather was like back in the capital. The friend, however, had more practical matters on his mind:
          "I'm going to be down your way soon," he informed Sorokin. The voice at the other end sounded stifled, as if somebody had gripped the speaker in a vise and was squeezing out every word with pain. "I want to buy a video recorder. And a track suit. I've been told that 'Adidas' stuff is available in Kabul."
          "True. You can buy the suits with coupons. There's a colonel at HQ who's chairman of the party committee and who's in charge of distribution. All our operating group was supplied by him. There aren't many VCRs, but the track suits's no problem."
          "Alexei, try to get them to set aside a VCR for me, would you? I'll be flying in next week."
          "I'll do my best. I want to ask you something, too. I'm going on a combat mission tomorrow. Phone my folks, give them my love. Tell them I'm fine."
          As a rule, senior ranking officers, especially the political ones, could not survive a day without long discussions with distant headquarters, districts and staff offices. To an outsider, not versed in the ways of the senior military, it could seem that SAC had been invented specially for generals, so that they could contact their friends and relatives at any moment to hear the latest gossip, exchange rumors, suppositions, find out about the weather and what the fishing was like in this or that corner of the immense land of the Soviets.
          In the morning, while Sorokin was breakfasting, his white "Volga" drew up outside the hotel. The staff car was equipped with Afghan number plates and had curtains on the rear window. Sashka, the driver, parked between two UAZ jeeps. He was in good spirits, as he had finally repaired the car to his satisfaction. His predecessor had almost ruined the vehicle because he was waiting for demobilization and did not give a damn about the car, didn't want to get his hands dirty. Sashka had had to strip the gearbox, regulate all the valves, change the head gasket, adjust the suspension and jump through hoops to get the necessary spare parts. Nobody gives away something for nothing. His "Volga" was not the only general's car around, there were plenty of others and they were all in demand by people of no lesser rank.
          Bringing the car up to scratch had taken a lot of time, Sashka slaved over it in the motor pool even at night. If the car was at all mobile, it was in use during the day so he had no choice.
          Sashka was listening to the music which issued loudly and squeakily from the cassette player between the seats. He had no idea who was singing about what as the song was in English, but he liked the catchy tune and the refrain, which mentioned some Mary Magdalene or other. Sashka listened and his simple, uncomplicated soldier's head was full of dreams about his return home to his obscure village in the Arkhangelsk region where he would stride around in a pair of "Montana" jeans which he had not yet purchased but which were the most popular although not cheap for a soldier, and sport a smart pen and a quartz watch. The pen was already bought. All his friends would die of envy!
          Dreams of civilian life were interrupted when a black "Volga" pulled up by the hotel. The driver climbed out and crooked a lazy finger at Sashka: come here! Sashka switched off the player. He hated that short-legged Moldavian who was to be demobbed soon, and therefore considered it his right to steal whatever he could from the motor pool. He and his pals were expert at disposing of the stolen goods.
          Sashka's position was very unenviable, a soldier still a long way from the end of his term of service and thus with no choice but to obey a "grandpa." The Moldavian clapped him on the shoulder:
          "Where's your guy going today?"
          "To the airport," replied Sashka cautiously, expecting some kind of set-up.
          "I've slipped a little something into the boot of your car."
          "Why? I've told you - I can't-" pleaded Sashka miserably.
          "Yes, you can," said the Moldavian threateningly. "I'm a step away from going home, fuck it, it's time I started doing my shopping. Can a "grandpa" run any risks? Nobody will dream of suspecting you. You're an honest lad. If you don't sell the stuff - don't bother coming back. You'd be better off with the spooks."
          Sashka did not know how to steal, how to lie, and had no desire to take part in any machinations. Before he'd been assigned a driver, he had been free of problems. He knew and saw that the long-servers and even men from his own call-up who were more daring and enterprising than himself stole spare parts and took them into town for sale. There was word that the previous week three entire air conditioners had been spirited away. What if the Moldavian had put an air conditioner in the boot of the "Volga"? Or a stolen machine gun or ammunition?
          "You go to Kitabula, you know where his workshop is, give him the goods."
          " ? "
          "I'm not going to argue with you peasant! Stupid Arkhangelsk asshole!"
          "But they'll stop me at the checkpoint-" began Sashka, but before he had time to finish, the Moldavian struck him on the ear with a clenched fist, strongly enough for Sashka to see stars for a moment.
          "They won't stop you with a general in the car" - the Moldavian headed back towards his own vehicle, "here he comes now."
          Sorokin, as a member of the small but all-powerful group of Soviet military men who called the shots in Afghanistan, differed markedly from his divisional and staff peers. Firstly, he bore himself very independently, knowing that he had only a handful of direct superiors. With these, he behaved almost as an equal, or deliberately demonstrated devotion and respect if that particular individual was close to a marshal's stars. The general's clothing stood out, too: he liked to sport camouflage which, although meant for the field, nevertheless looked good on him, reminiscent of summer kit, was better cut, and had gold shoulder boards and narrow red stripes down the trouser-legs.
          Sorokin paused briefly on the hotel steps, discussing something with two other generals, then each went to his own car to start the day's work.
          Sashka's hands were shaking, so he gripped the steering wheel as hard as he could. How the hell did he get into this mess? There was nothing he could do. Starting a conflict with the "grandpas" in the motor pool was out of the question. Yet if he were to do what the Moldavian wanted, he's be loaded with stolen goods the next day, too. He would have no respite until he found himself in deep trouble. Why, oh why had they put him behind the wheel of this car!
          "Morning, Sasha," said Sorokin, climbing into the back. He had gathered a small bag of stuff to take with him. It was his long-standing habit to address drivers by their first name, and not by their surnames. "We'll go to HQ first."
          "Good morning, comrade general," replied Sashka, rubbing his ear.
          "What's the matter with your ear?"
          "Some bug or other bit me-"
          "Oh- well, let's go!"
          An unhealthy-looking, thin captain was on duty outside the office of the head of the Political Section of the army and member of the Military Council. The captain was flicking through the latest reports in the logbook. His attention was caught by a report from the Kandahar brigade, that a certain commander had punished a soldier by putting him in a fuel drum for half a day in an outside temperature of plus 50 degrees, after which everyone had forgotten all about the miscreant. Twenty four hours later, the soldier died. In another unit, a soldier had hung himself in the store room. The report gave the soldiers name, date of birth and stated that no factors concerning harassment were discovered in connection with the suicide, that he had not earned the respect of his peers. The report concluded with the names and addresses of the parents of the deceased.
          The captain read these reports in order to be aware of what was happening in other units, for his own information and out of curiosity, so that when he went off duty he would have something to tell his pals, especially stories like the one about the soldier in the fuel drum. Some sauna! Fancy the commander forgetting all about him!
          He opened a newspaper, yawned from boredom, then saw a drably clad, plump middle aged woman coming down the corridor:
          "Excuse me, but who are you? " he asked phlegmatically and cracked his knuckles.
          "Actually, I need to see the head of the Military Council-"
          "He's very busy right now. Actually, why do you need to see him?"
          "I'm a milkmaid."
          "I understand that you're from the "Milkmaid" retorted the captain snidely, thinking about the call signal from headquarters of the garrison stationed at Pul-i-Khumri in the north of Afghanistan. "But what do you want to see him about?"
          "I'm a milkmaid," repeated the woman, standing uncertainly and somewhat guiltily by the captain's desk.
          "Yes, I know, I've only just been speaking to the duty officer at "Milkmaid." It must have taken you a long time to get here. The convoys to Kabul take a while," continued the captain with unpleasant, false commiseration.
          "What convoy?" Heavens, I walked here, it's just a step. I'm from the residence," she explained. "From the army general's residence, I'm a milkmaid. There."
          The captain was at a total loss. From the residence? A milkmaid?
          "We've got a cow there, you see, to have fresh milk for Fyodor Konstantinovich. He likes everything to be very fresh, you see, he's on this strict diet, and the doctor says that Fyodor Konstantinovich can eat only fresh food, boiled meat, fresh milk, you see. So the thing is, you see, I promised to bring your general here some milk, you see-"
          The captain burst out laughing.
          "A milkmaid! And here I was wondering what brought you here?!"
          "Yes, I'm a milkmaid, you see."
          At that moment the door opened and the general himself came out, accompanied by Sorokin and a man wearing the uniform of an Afghan advisor.
          The captain sprang to his feet.
          "Well, Alexei Glebovich," said the general to Sorokin, "I wish you a successful trip. I'll be off on combat mission myself in a few days, we'll meet up there. All the best. And to you, too," he added shaking hands with the advisor in Afghan uniform. "You're off to see the commander now? Good, good. Drop by, give me a call any time. Always at your service-Yes? You want to see me?"
          "I've come about the milk-"
          "Ah! Excellent!"

          "I'm absolutely exhausted," confided the advisor as he and Sorokin descended the winding staircase.
          The general couldn't quite see why the advisor was complaining of tiredness. He certainly didn't smell of alcohol. And at this early hour, too.
          "Time to go on leave," continued the advisor. "The only pleasure I have is coming here - to see my army buddies, have a dip in the swimming pool, spend some time in the sauna - and everything here is fine as far as the fair sex is concerned. You military men are lucky. It's absolute Paradise here!"
          "Yes, it might look like that-But the workload is enormous. Saunas are saunas, but there's no time to rest," replied Sorokin, bending the truth. "I've only been to the sauna once since I got here. You know how it is - a quick shower before bed, and that's it."
          "Well, let's go now."
          "Sorry, but as you heard the general say, I'm off on a combat mission," said Sorokin with excessive pride.
          "Next time, then-. I wanted to drop in on the commander. Do you know him?"
          "Very well indeed. We fought together back in '80."
          "Of course, you told me last time. Why not go and see him together? A courtesy visit," winked the advisor.
          Whatever rank one serves in, one has a master at that level. And it is not the Minister of Defense, as some may think, who is the lord and master of the Armed Forces. In the army, the boss is the commander. For a common soldier, it's the platoon or company commander, for a platoon leader or a company commander it's the commander of the battalion, the commander of the battalion is subservient to the commander of the regiment, and the latter - to the commander of the division. Then comes the commander of the army.
          Commanders of the 40th army changed every couple of years. Therefore it would be wrong to single out any particular individual. One brought in troops, another took them out, yet another built and fought and so on. Each had his own pluses and minuses, but irrespective of anything, every commander was the viceroy of the distant great power, the master of an estate on which, beyond any doubt, Soviet directives and laws were in force. The viceroy was assisted by party and political structures that kept an eagle eye on the men to ensure that everyone prayed to one God only - the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that not a shadow of doubt crossed their minds concerning the correctness of the choice made by their grandparents.
          For some of the men the horizon is determined by the battalion, for others - the regiment, others think within the framework of a division, and very few who serve in headquarters think in terms of an army comprised of hundreds of thousands. For those close to headquarters, the commander was always a mere mortal.
          The lower army ranks had no time to wonder or discuss where this or that general lives, with whom he lives, what car he uses to drive to work, what he eats for dinner and which bath house he patronizes. For them, the level of the commander is inaccessible.
          The people at the bottom of the ladder, whose feet supported the weight of the entire army machine, know that it is not done to criticize their commanders, - history would laugh at them later if they were inadequate or foolish, - these people at the top of the iceberg must be cared for and nurtured, they must be objects of pride, because their resonant names were more likely to go down in history than the names of those who served in the same battalion, and some five or ten years later it would be nice to recall that one served under such and such a commander, stress that he would visit once, regiment frequently, that we knew him, saw him in combat more than once and that he was one hell of a guy!
          The commander of the 40th army had returned from the battle command center where he had taken early morning reports, and was now engaged on urgent matters concerning the imminent large operation. He was concluding a telephone conversation with someone and gestured the advisor and the general to come in and sit down.
          Sorokin made a mental note that the commander was once again acting in a not too friendly manner, for all that they used the familiar "you" form of address. Furthermore, twice in the past few days the commander had not called Sorokin "Alyosha", but "Alexei Glebovich" indicating clearly that no particular buddy stuff was to be expected. His rise had been too swift in recent years, he had become too far removed from his old comrades in arms. Still, Sorokin hoped that during his stay in Kabul there would be a chance to share a bottle, just the two of them, and indulge in some nostalgic reminiscences about those early years. Then everything would get back to normal.
          "Over here, please," said the commander, wanting to get rid of his visitors as quickly as possible. "Viktor Konstantinovich, and you too, Alexei Glebovich. Come and take a look."
          He led them over to the window and pulled back the white tulle curtains, allowing a view of a summer house with a pointed roof. Right behind it was a swimming pool with sky-blue water, covered completely by camouflage netting. Some home-made deckchairs stood to the left, behind the pine trees. A fat man in striped trunks lay sunning himself, while a second man swam in the pool, pushing himself strongly away from the sides. A small table was covered with various kinds of bottles.
          "Don't lose any time, Viktor Konstantinovich, go down to the pool, I'll have my adjutant escort you there. I'm really sorry, but there's no way I can go there myself today. I'm absolutely snowed under with work."
          After saying his good-byes to the commander and the advisor, Sorokin made his way to the party commission chairman and went inside.
          "Alexei Glebovich! Do sit down! I want to copy some Afghan songs. I could make you a copy too, if you like?"
          "Why not?"
          The stout colonel who issued coupons for imported technology and 'Adidas' track suits unsealed a block of "Sony" tapes purchased in an Afghan shop, and began to put stickers on every cassette to indicate sides A and B, and on which one could write the name of the content.
          "Yes, I'll certainly manage that!"
          It was impossible to refuse a request for coupons from a general, let alone a general from an operative group of the Ministry of Defense, but the chairman, sly fox that he was, managed to give the conversation such a turn that Sorokin found himself in the role of a supplicant.
          "Come in any time, comrade general. Always happy to be of service," invited the chairman in parting.
          Ask a trifling favor, and find yourself indebted, thought Sorokin angrily. That sonofabitch will call in the favor, you can bet on that.

          "There goes the younger generation," said the duty officer in the main vestibule to his partner, following Sorokin with his eyes. "Some sharp dresser! Thinks a lot of himself." He waited until the general got into his car. "Before, generals were all five minutes to their retirement date. Nowadays it's all different, Yura. They barely have time to put on their colonel's shoulder boards before placing an order for those of a general. That's all due to Afghanistan, pal. If it weren't for the war, where would the army get new blood? You have to think here, run risks, but those old farts at the top couldn't handle it, this is no office job, or paper shuffling or spending a weekend with the grandchildren at their dacha. You mark my words, Yura, those elders in the Kremlin will soon feel the pressure of new forces, they're already being squeezed with perestroikas and accelerations. How can they speed themselves up?

          There were two roads leading to Kabul from staff headquarters. The first was meant for the higher ranks and served as a kind of parade entrance to the HQ of the 40th. It started from the front of the Amin palace, passed the residence where the operative group of the Ministry of Defense worked and where Fyodor Konstantinovich, the personal representative of the Minister of Defense and for whom a cow plus a milkmaid had been flown in on a special freight run, lived.
          The road came to an asphalt-surfaced square surrounding the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Another road came out on this square, too, one that was virtually unknown to the army brass because generals, like lords and masters of old, did not like to travel along dusty, uneven roads, they did not look at the rear entrance which was designated for lesser beings, the insignificant, the servants.
          However, the general opted for this particular road, which began between the officers' houses, the commissary and the cafe, and was manned by two checkpoints.
          They passed the first checkpoint, the thin chimneys of the boiler house which protruded like matches above the single-storey barrackss, the sports field, then the second checkpoint and took the downward slope, leaving behind the shoddy museum of the Afghan armed forces, filled with obsolete, disintegrating Soviet military technology, covered with a thick layer of green paint. A sort of crossroads popularly referred to simply as "the cross" was directly behind the museum. To the left of it lay a road leading to two regiments - the paratroops and the motorized infantry - and the goods depot with its enormous storage hangars. A long line of military vehicles had passed through here early in the morning. Now they were replaced by numerous Kamaz trucks, which raised clouds of dust in their wake.
          A swarm of bare-legged urchins "attacked" the trucks. The more agile would seize the tailboards, pull back the canvas cover and throw out everything they could reach. Others ran behind the truck, catching whatever they could and disappearing into alleyways.
          "Just look at them! Look what they're doing, the rotten little beggars!" cried Sorokin. "The cheek!-"
          Such pirate raids by Afghan kids were carried out frequently on Soviet columns, and were accomplished so swiftly that the truck drivers did not have time to react in most cases.
          Sashka couldn't care less at the moment, even though he dutifully made noises indicating agreement. Sashka was thinking his own soldier's thoughts about the load hidden in the boot and caught himself on the thought that those kids must be making a bundle and maybe he, since he had already been dragged into this shady matter, should demand a cut, even a tiny one, for the risk he was running, instead of a mere "thanks!" You can't spread "thanks" on a piece of bread, after all.
          A handful of modest container-shops on wheels clustered around the "cross" selling the traditional selection of shawls, "stone-washed" jeans outfits, pens to suit every taste, sunglasses and "biters", nail clippers which were a favorite gift back home; you could buy a bottle of vodka at the "cross" at any time of the day or night. The shops were decorated with notices in mutilated Russian such as "Mischa-empori-shope", posters depicting black-browed Indian beauties or heroes of American action movies such as Rambo, with mountainous biceps, streamlined torsos and cartridge belts slung across their chests.
          Several more container shops stood behind the Coca-Cola factory with its yard full of hundreds of cases of empty bottles. The road at this point was particularly bad, the general's car and the trucks bouncing along the uneven surface. They slowed down in order not to wreck their suspension, crawling past the military traffic police post lurking behind a wall. It was here that the dust they had raised caught up with the trucks and hung in a thick pall inside their cabins.
          From time to time the shop owners would come out with shovels and throw some water on the road from surrounding puddles in an effort to damp down the yellow, choking dust.
          The general's "Volga" came out by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, drove around its perimeter and sped along the tree-lined Dar-ul-Aman, the lengthy strip of asphalt leading to the center of Kabul.
          Various ministries and other official buildings, schools, shops and bakeries and private villas flashed by.
          Sashka glanced at the general in the rear view mirror from time to time.
          Sorokin looked about forty years of age. He was in good shape, but had aged early, gray-haired and with red veins on and around his nose.
          The general was puffing on a cigarette and speaking in a slightly hoarse voice, more to himself than the river:
          "There's another road parallel to this one, a bit narrower, that leads to the Institute of Polytechnics. .. ever driven down it?"
          "Of course I know it, comrade general, " replied Sashka. "It's called "the 'spooker'. We're not allowed to use it."
          "-.'spooker,, hmmm-we almost got burned alive there in '80-"
          They passed the fork where soldiers from the Tsarandoi, the Afghan militia, stopped and searched vehicles. One soldier made a move to flag down the "Volga", but noticed the uniformed Soviet driver behind the wheel just in time.
          They drove past villas, then the Soviet embassy with its two-meter high walls. A lone ancient armored car with the hood up stood in a vacant lot near the embassy - Afghan soldiers on guard duty.
          There were some shops to the left of the embassy, and Sashka caught a few glimpses of jeans hung out for sale.
          They passed the bridge over the small Kabul River, which crossed the capital in a murky, brownish-green stream. Local women washed clothing along the banks of the half-dry riverbed, bathed children, rinsed dishes, people cleaned cars and if the natives had refrained from urinating in the river, it would certainly have dried completely by now.
          At the end of the street, where it entered the city square, a huge portrait-poster of the start of the century Afghan king, Amanullah Khan, was prominently displayed. He had luxuriant whiskers, was dressed in a field jacket with red tabs. Soviet military men and civilians working in Kabul would argue as to who it was really - hero of the Russian civil war Blucher or Beria, and were honestly puzzled why the Afghans had such a reverent attitude to Soviet leaders of the Stalin era. By the end of the discussion they usually agreed that the Afghan people, just like Soviet citizens, respect strong personalities and an iron hand, and sadly miss those times when order reigned supreme.
          Sorokin smoked all the way to the airport, immersed in recollections about the introduction of the armed forces, about a lieutenant-colonel's life.
          ...They had been pushing a division down long wintry roads through the tunnel towards the Salang pass, choking from diesel and petrol fumes. The winding road was made even narrower by snowdrifts along its sides, the vehicles skidded on the icy surface. The column of tanks and APCs got stuck. They pushed a broken down truck off the road into the precipice.
          Sorokin remembered how he had been driving through unfamiliar Kabul and wanted nothing so much as to eat some mandarins. On every corner there were rough wooden two-wheeled carts full of crates of mandarins. He told the driver of the APC to stop, hopped out and approached one of the vendors. All he had in his pocket were Soviet rubles. He offered the man five rubles. The vendor turned the unknown blue note around in his hands, handed it back. Sorokin offered ten rubles, with the same result. Damn you, he thought, pulling out a twenty five ruble note from the bottom of his pocket. The seller shook his head again .
          Then there was that time when he had gone into town in a new UAZ jeep, and was stopped by a crowd of girls, several hundred of them, near Kabul University. They dragged him out of the jeep, smeared him and his driver with some kind of paint and threw rotten tomatoes and eggs at them.
          When you talked about it, everything was crystal clear: international aid, defense of the southern borders. The party said one thing, but the reality was quite different, and one had to live with this ambiguity.
          Almost got burned alive- It was in February, on the eve of Soviet Army Day. He was then a member of the Military Council and had been in conference. They were returning late to the division, it was already dark, and they decided to take a short cut along the 'spooker' as Sashka called it: straight for the Institute of Polytechnics, then left to the grain silo and down, along the fringes of Kabul and straight to the division, the "Teply Stan" (Warm Haven) district as it had been named by the Soviets.
          The 'spooker' was quite empty, not a single oncoming car. All the streets were empty, the shops closed even though at that time they were usually open, and shafts of light from kerosene lamps speared out into the dark street.
          Sorokin rode the armor, legs dangling down into the open hatch, eyes half-shut against the bitter wind. The APC took a sharp bend and began to brake - ahead of them, about a hundred meters away, a crowd of Afghans blocked the road.
          "Is it some holiday of theirs, or what?" called Sorokin down the hatch to the lieutenant who sat in the command seat inside the APC. "Slow down as much as possible, easy does it. They'll move!"
          The crowd engulfed the APC and would not let it pass any further. What an idiotic situation! For a few moments, Sorokin lost his composure. He tried to smile in a friendly manner, waved his hand, but the response was frankly hostile. Suddenly, the crowd boiled into motion, like a stormy sea, roaring its hatred of the Soviet military.
          "Allah akbar! Allah akbar!" screamed the crowd. Sorokin seized the machine gun hanging on the open hatch, slipped off the safety catch, pulled the breech and fired a shot in the air. Something struck him on the back of the head, felt like a stick, just as well he was wearing a fur hat, it absorbed the blow. Rocks flew. He fired a few more warning shots into the air. The crowd continued to press in on the APC. Quickly and therefore clumsily, Sorokin scrambled down into the vehicle - for a moment he panicked, thinking he was stuck - to hide from the rocks and seal the hatch. Noses pressed to the triplex, they waited tensely. Dull blows sounded all around. The crowd was attacking the APC with stones, shovels, hoes. Someone jumped on top of the vehicle, pounding his heel against the closed hatch. The homogenous, infuriated mob, faces distorted with hate, ringed the APC on all sides.
          About five minutes went by. The lieutenant was first of the three to break the silence:
          "They're coming with torches!"
          Someone from the mob threw a bottle of either kerosene or petrol at the APC, then the flaming torch. The armor burst into flame on top, the fire running swiftly along the streaks of inflammable liquid. The mob retreated from the vehicle.
          A smell of smoke penetrated the cabin. The lieutenant awaited orders. Rivulets of sweat ran down the lieutenant-colonel's face.
          "We'll burn, comrade colonel," warned the lieutenant finally
          "Take your choice, son," said Sorokin to the driver mechanic. "Either we roast alive, or we go forward."
          Wisps of smoke appeared in the cabin. The lieutenant began to cough.
          The engine roared into life and the APC lurched forward. There was a shout, then another and another. The vehicle gathered speed and velocity, bouncing over human bodies like ruts on a country road.
          About two hundred meters further along they broke out and raced full speed, banging into and overturning oncoming cars, through the dark city.
          Once on the territory of the division, the soldier driver clambered out of the cabin and made his way directly to the barracks, forgetting to switch off the engine. It seemed to Sorokin that the young man had gone gray all of a sudden-.

          The "Volga" stopped on one of the central streets, making way for an open-bodied "Toyota." The car was filled to the brim with chunks of butchered camels. A Khazara boy aged about nine lay on the mountain of bloody carcasses. He was incredibly dirty and clad in a much-mended blue nylon jacket. The meat must have still been warm, and he laughed happily, waving at passers-by and calling out something.
          Choppers filled the air above the landing strip, affording cover to a descending Il-76. The plane was spiraling down, weaving through the sky and leaving a trail of curlicues behind it - trails of decoys, like the ones being released from the choppers.
          The guard on the gates of the airport looked questioningly at the "Volga" with its Afghan number plates. One of the paratroopers remained standing by the gates with their welded-on red star, the other approached the car lazily and peered in from under his helmet.
          "What's taking you so long?" barked Sashka.
          'Where's the car from?"
          " It's general Sorokin's car from army HQ. C'mon, open those gates-"
          "I can't admit a car with Afghan plates."
          "See this pass?" demanded Sashka, thrusting a cardboard square under the guard's nose.
          "Another one's needed for entry to the airdrome."
          "Will you quit stalling?!"
          "Wait a moment, I'll have to report -"
          "Idiots!" muttered Sashka, who was accustomed to more respect from guards.
          "I'm sorry, comrade general," said the guard returning from his post, "but I can't let the car through."
          "Never mind." Sorokin got out of the car. "I'll let you know when to pick me up, I think I'll be back in three or four days. See you then! Take care!"
          "Don't worry comrade general, Alexei Glebovich, everything will be in order. I'll go straight back to HQ now." Sashka did not look at the general when he uttered those final words. He had trouble with barefaced lying.
          What if they catch me? Worried Sashka. I'll go to the shop, and what if there's a patrol nearby, or the Afghans report on me? What will I tell the general? He trusts me. All right, he decided finally. I'll go just this once, never again. Just deliver this stuff. But if they make me take stolen goods from HQ again-.No, let them take me off driving duty, let them beat me up, but I'm not taking anything again. And I don't need any money!
          Sorokin made his way towards a single-storey wooden building next to landing place.
          "Comrade general, we take off in twenty minutes."
          While he waited, another two Il-76s landed, rolled forward to park on the concrete apron and disgorged their passengers.
          Two UAZ jeeps carrying senior officers drew up. The officers saluted the general respectfully and came up to greet him. They stood there smoking.
          "We were coming back from Jalalabad once," said a colonel, "and had a monkey with us for the divisional commander. A birthday present. We had it in a bag, but it managed to get out somehow. Well, I thought, there's nowhere it can go, the doors are shut. We took off, and that damned monkey shot off and got through to the pilot's cabin. There it was, over the pilots' heads, grabbing everything in sight and flipping switches. Can you imagine it? There you are, flying along, and this blasted ape goes and switches off the engines or something. Mind you, the first pilot kept his head, grabbed the monkey and tossed it to hell and gone out of the window.
          Two more choppers were brought up, Sorokin entered the first and took a soft seat by the window.
          The senior pilot greeted Sorokin, saluted smartly and introduced himself as major Mitrofanov.
          Sorokin nodded.
          "Put on your parachute, please, general."
          "I fly without a parachute. If they knock us down, it's not likely to help."
          "Sorry, sir, but otherwise we can't take off."
          "Very well, then," agreed Sorokin, fumbling with the straps. "Show me how to get this thing on!"

          The choppers passed over the villages clinging to the outskirts of Kabul, swept above the hills. A couple of Mi-24s flew in front, providing cover, greenish-brown-gray camouflaged "crocodiles." They soon caught up with the column, followed the road. Peering out of the window, the general watched the rails snaking through the valley, interrupted in places by groups of cars. Everything reminded him of those first years in Afghanistan, but at the same time, it all looked different, somehow more orderly and better planned.
          Its a good army, thought the general, only you need to get everything properly organized. We had it a hundred times harder because when we came in there was nothing. Yes, today's 40th is completely different. Strong, experienced, with sound rear services. Look at the way they equip operations now, they know everything, reconnaissance is reliable, the Spetsnaz is active, there is cooperation with Afghan special structures, all is taken into account. We've certainly learned a lot! The only bad thing is that the political situation hasn't changed, it's getting worse. The rebels have grown in strength in these years, too. If the West wasn't helping them with arms, money and military advisors, we would have crushed this blasted counter-revolution long ago with our strength! The way it works out is that victory seems to be a mere step away, but you still can't see the end of the war. How long is it going to take? We've learned to fight them in the mountains, too, but can we be certain of a final victory? So a year, two, three will pass. Then what? Then the Afghans will have to learn to defend their revolution themselves. We'll help them build up a strong army, and then let them go at it! It looks as though we'll have to pull out anyway. We can't stay here forever! This isn't Germany, or Poland or Hungary
          The general's thoughts turned to inadequacies. Specifically inadequacies. There were and could be no problems in the Soviet Army. Sorokin realized this as soon as he was promoted to colonel. If you've got problems, you're no good as a political officer. There were problems in companies, battalions, regiments. It was permissible now to discuss only matters that still needed perfecting.
          Why do we worry most about the men's outward appearance, the neatness of the paths in the compound, bright tents with portraits of Lenin and quotes from party congresses instead of the essence of the matter, wondered the general.
          However, despite knowing the deficiencies of the army, occasionally criticizing them in his own mind or in a circle of very close friends, the general had no intention - and he did not conceal this - of trying to right any wrongs, stupidities and window-dressing. He hadn't worked his way up to general only to wreck his career by an open display of dissatisfaction.
          He criticized mentally, noted numerous lapses, and was proud that he, unlike the aging generals back home, understood and was concerned by the fact that not everything was ideal in the Soviet army. He comforted himself with the hope that the time would come when he would climb a bit higher up the hierarchical ladder, and then get down to the business of putting things to rights.
          In fact, though, the general contradicted his own thoughts on the spot, has there ever been a time when EVERYTHING we had was ideal? Is it possible to correct EVERYTHING? That takes a great deal of time and effort. If I were, say, head of the Chief Political Directorate, maybe I could try to improve EVERYTHING, or at least a great deal. And anyway, not EVERYTHING is all that bad even now.

          The officers at the command post looked like fantastic spotted creatures flecked by rings of sunlight under the canopy of the camouflage netting. Sorokin was told that the column from Kabul was making good time, more than twenty vehicles had broken down on the way, two soldiers died in an accident - their APC fell into a precipice - and a major was almost crushed by two APCs when he stood smoking between them: he had been taken to hospital in a critical condition. It was also reported that the main force was expected to arrive by evening.
          There were still a few days to go before the operation: all the forces committed to it had to be brought up, concentrated in the necessary areas according to the approved plans, regrouped if need be, reconnaissance data had to be studied and analyzed, the area had to be worked over politically and when the critical mass was ready, when all was set out like pieces on a chess-board, then the game could begin.

    Chapter Nine. The Operation

          The "crocodiles" rose above the hillocks, slicing the grayish-blue morning air with their blades, dropped altitude closer to the road along which army vehicles wove like a steel streamlet; then, some three kilometers further, the choppers veered to the left, and flying almost at zero altitude, examined a ruined village by the road, sniffing it out as if it were a rotting carcass in the heat, then slid like predators into the depths of the valley.
          Senior lieutenant Sharagin noticed them from afar, when he turned to get some matches from the men; and while he tried to strike one, cupping his hands around it against the wind, he noticed the choppers as he made the first few drags. They were pretty sure of themselves, he thought, as he watched them fly under the cover of the "blocks" on the sides of the road - BMPs with guns aimed towards the mountains and soldiers who had dug in, lying belly up, on their sides, on their stomachs. The choppers circled the dead village and swooped away. Sharagin, who had automatically been watching the walls and a stand of trees relaxed after the survey by the choppers and looked ahead, over the column where it disappeared from sight in the foothills.

          ... hostile soil, the territory of war...

          He knew the spooks wouldn't dare attack the army on the march; a solitary column - yes, a string of "fillers" - petrol tankers carrying fuel to distant garrisons or a company hemmed in by mountains - that they'd go for, but an army was more than they could handle. However, writing off the possibility of danger would be wrong and criminal, and in any case, the dangers were all very different in this war. If something happened to just one of the men, it would be a mote of dust for the army, a mark in the daily tally of losses, but for Oleg it would be a real person.
          Lots of men died or got hurt on any march, not necessarily through being shot or ambushed, but through their own carelessness or stupidity.
          Larger-bodied choppers with windows - Mi-8s - followed the "crocodiles" as though trying to catch up with them, looking for all the world like tadpoles.
          "Probably delivering the brass, hey comrade senior lieutenant?" asked private Sychev for the sake of saying something, following the choppers with his eyes. Actually, he did not so much say as shout in order that the commander could hear him through the noise of engines and the earphones. He crouched on the tower of the BMP with the cannon protruding between his legs, which gave him the appearance of a sexual giant. "Maybe they've got the commander of the division on board?"
          "In that case, snap to attention and salute him, Sychev," replied Sharagin ironically. "And stay that way until we arrive. You just might get a medal."
          "Yeah, the Order of saint Fucker with a twirl on the back," guffawed junior sergeant Myshkovsky.

          ... jokers! A year ago they were all milksops - was a time when I called their whole contingent that, yet now they're grandpas: Myshak, Sych, Chiri-they've grown, straightened their backs, matured, the sons of bitches, they've become the backbone of my army - a soldier remains blinkered only until his first taste of combat, then he starts to think about how to survive, starts using his head and making the little gray cells do their job....

          It was expected that their division commander would arrive to watch how the paratroops battalions would move out of Kabul. That was why that morning the paratroopers went out as if on parade, cleaning, tidying and enhancing themselves until the last minute. They traveled the first kilometers feeling tense - expecting the division commander, although as soon as the main army column spread out on the road behind the large, dusty field after the infectious diseases hospital, all tidiness vanished in the fumes and dust that swirled around the vehicles and settled on freshly-laundered uniforms, columns and undershirts.
          The Soviet warriors saddled their armored steeds, and moved out; motorized infantry and paratroops, artillery and communications, sappers and medics; all were clad differently: faded camouflage fatigues, mountain outfits, "sands", tattered camouflage cloaks. Regulation footwear mingled with brown "trophy" spook boots, and a scattering of "Kimry," the best of the worst sneakers created towards the end of the century by domestic industry.
          Engines roared into life, the column moved forward, the wind whipped the men's faces. A long journey faced the men on the armor and in the trucks with bulletproof vests draped over their windows. All that day, they would be swallowing greasy diesel fumes and dust whipped up by the passage of the first vehicles, covering them from head to foot and getting into clothes and eyes.
          Earlier on, recalled Sharagin, the regimental leadership fussed unnecessarily, afraid that the division commander would descend with a lightning inspection on the eve of the pullout. Because of this, all the preparations for the operation were nervous, tense, and all directives, orders and comments were accompanied by shouts and fists, which would supposedly teach sloppy youngsters, toughen up and discipline lazy soldiers. The fist of the grandpas was pitiless, felling and numbing, that of the commanders - hard, sharp and usually timely and fair.
          Preparations for the operation began well in advance. The orders came a week earlier, but even so it had been clear that fighting would soon be inevitable, that an operation against the spooks was being planned. Everyone in the regiment, from the commander to the waitresses in the mess hall talked about it. Even the shopkeepers in Kabul, warming food on primus stoves, would ask shopping officers for how long they would be going into the mountains, and wished them well, expressing sympathy. The transports stood ready, patched up as much as possible, weapons had been cleaned at least sixteen times, ammunition was loaded and political instruction carried out. The officers, who traditionally "wet the head" of forthcoming combat operations had recovered from their hangovers; the men had stocked up on cookies, juices and jam from the regimental commissary and stolen bread and sandwich spread from the kitchen or the commissary, depending on who had friends where; they had already secreted sacks of potatoes, written off and stolen spare parts and anything else that wasn't nailed down for exchange or sale to the Afghans - a small but appreciated bit of extra cash.
          It would be nice to get a bit of sleep and rest before going out on combat mission, but no: instead of that, you have the officers making you run around. Darkness outside, the stars are still bright, then the alarm sounds and the regiment has to leap to its feet. The men rush out in full kit, scramble into the vehicles, then sit there like idiots for one hour, two: during the day the sun melts the asphalt - the company commander decided that it was necessary to hold a drill session: "Le-- -- e-f' face! Left! Left! Left, right, left! Start singing!"
          Those new to the war - privates or fresh lieutenants - find it hard to understand why this stupid square-bashing is required. You'd think they weren't in Afghanistan but some showcase garrison in the Union, as though they weren't going into combat in a day or two, but simply had to drive "boxes" through Red Square.
          It is no secret that the commander determines what one's service shall be like. If the commander's a fool, then his foolishness will affect the entire regiment, until he's replaced, or killed (not very likely), or promoted; if he's fussy, nobody will have a moment's peace; if they send an idiot - it's curtains; if they send a great guy - that's marvelous, praise and glory be to all, the smart "Cap", and those who sent him, and the fate that brought you to this regiment.
          The regimental commander is like a father, or a stepfather - if he decides to have the regiment line up in the middle of the night, it will be done in minutes; if he can't sleep, then why should anybody else, he's got a bee in his bonnet that the commander of the division will stage a lightning inspection. So he'll drive the men to exhaustion, sound the alarm once an hour and make them drill twenty-four hours a day, just in case the big brass turns up. So it's no easy task to earn praise in the Paratroops, you can slip up at any moment and, if you do, don't expect mercy, it's a small world, a narrow one, closed in on itself, everyone knows everyone-.
          The long-servers stopped asking "why?" and "what for?" ages ago. They adapted to the flow of the local version of meaningful army stupidity and learned to act on reflex level. They know it's no use bashing your head against a brick wall, so nothing can dampen their spirits, their thoughts are of tomorrow: there's combat ahead, but at the moment it's like being on holiday, a lethally dangerous one, to be sure, but still a break from endless drills, boring political studies and in any case, they had been sitting around idle for too long, it was time to get some action, do some shooting, they had barely poked their noses outside the base gates for more than a month as there had been nothing serious to deal with. Orders would come soon, it would be time to start getting your demobilization uniform together, but only a few could boast of a bit of tin to pin to their chest: those who had been wounded and sent to hospital had probably been recommended for medals, but the others still had to try, had to catch their moment, fight a bit more and then - who knows? - you might even get a medal, they're not always posthumous; moreover, when you're out on combat mission, there's always a chance to get your hands on something by shaking down the spooks.
          The further the column got from Kabul, the more chaotic it became. Like an over-stretched spring, the vehicles tried to get themselves back into some semblance of order.
          Sharagin's platoon encountered more and more breakdowns: the radiator of an "Ural" went on the boil like a kettle, clouds of steam pouring from under its bonnet, like a smokescreen, infantrymen struggled to get the tracks back on a BMP, further ahead one armored car was towing another with great difficulty.

          "Go on, Degtyarenko, pass them!" Sharagin ordered his driver-mechanic. Degtyarenko had veered to the left a few times, but decided against trying to pass. Come on! Come on!
          "Pissing his pants," commented junior sergeant Myshkovsky, displeased by Degtyarev's shilly-shallying. "Scared of that heap of junk!"
          They caught up with the BMP on a tow cable, then the one towing, driving alongside and forcing oncoming brightly painted Afghan trucks to the sides

          ... they look like Palekh boxes, Afghan-style...

          One Afghan truck keeled over on the side of the road, while the paratroopers proceeded onwards like kings along the wrong side of the road, passing the "Kamazes" with their torn canvas covers fluttering in the wind, with headlamps like bulging eyes.
          They caught up with the first platoon and fell in behind.
          The sun became kinder, warmed the armor and the men clinging to it like bees in a hive. The day was just beginning, but the men, who had been on their feet since the crack of dawn tended to doze off. Those who had managed to get a comfortable spot lay on mattresses, others on trench coats, eyes drooping.

          ... it's always been like this in the army: reveille at two in the morning, breakfast at four, final preparations at six, pull out at eight, and there's nothing you can do about it...

          The mountain pass slowed down the pace of the advance. The road began to wind steeply. The vehicles slowed to a crawl, engines whining, as if complaining about the load they were carrying, but not giving up.
          At a bend in the road, beside a steep precipice, two machine-gun carrying dark-haired soldiers stood beside a trailer, arms hanging helplessly. They looked like Central Asians, Tadjiks most likely. From his perch on the armor Sharagin saw what the problem was without having to ask: a mobile "Acacia" installation had come off its mounting and fallen into the chasm.
          The men cheered up at the sight of someone else's misfortune, their comments even rousing the old-timers who had dozed off to the familiar rumble of the engines.
          "Greasers!" uttered Myshkovsky contemptuously.
          "Shit soldiers!" agreed Sychev, who had been napping nearby.
          As they wound through the pass, Sharagin's platoon tried to outwit the sun, traveling when possible in the shade of the cliffs. The vehicles dived into the stone galleries occasionally, re-emerging into the bright sunlight on the road.
          It took a while, but the platoon finally reached the top of the pass. Oleg looked back down the winding road and saw, where the cliffs did not obscure the view, the endless column of trucks, APCs, BTRs all moving upwards and seemingly without end, heading towards the war, and who knew where the end was, maybe only just leaving Kabul?
          Closer to midday, when the road worsened perceptibly, pitted with ruts and holes, forcing the vehicles to drive around fallen rocks, Sharagin noticed that his driver was nodding off.
          The BMP veered to the right, toward a steep slope, its nose swung up and the vehicle began to tip.

          ... he's fallen asleep - we're going to overturn!...

          Just a bit more, and they would have rolled over like a tortoise on its back, a fifteen-ton juggernaut that would have crushed the life out of everyone riding on its armor. Sharagin, who keeled over backwards and to the side managed to right himself with difficulty, and rammed his boot into the head of the driver, as if stamping on the brakes. The driver bashed his face against the edge of the hatch, the taste of blood in his mouth and pain snapping him back to reality. Shaken and disoriented he seemed not to know who he was and where he was, he veered sharply to the left, blocking the road and jamming on the brakes. Sharagin bit his tongue painfully.

          ... damn you, idiot! Now my tongue's going to hurt the rest of the day...

          Sharagin leapt to the nose of the BMP and punched the soldier's dust covered face twice:
          "I'll juggle your brains!"
          The clouded eyes of the driver cleared. He found no reply or, more likely, realized it was better to keep his mouth shut

          "Keep moving! Go!"
          The soldier tried to wipe his face with filthy, oil-smeared hands covered in scabies, with cracked skin and hangnails, but all he succeeded in doing was to make himself even dirtier.

          ...some luck! How do you fight with morons like that to back you?-every third man in the platoon is a milksop who's never been under fire!-Never mind, this one won't fall asleep again...

          But for form's sake, he landed another blow on the driver's earphone helmet:
          "Just you try falling asleep again, Degtyarenko!"
          Struggling to regain his calm, Sharagin chewed on a cigarette and studied the surrounding countryside.
          The stone monolith that had once cracked and given passage to the aquamarine torrent and serpentine pass, was replaced by a valley. After the oppressive feeling of the pass, the new vista gladdened a Russian's eye, accustomed as it was to flat plains stretching into the distance as far as one could see. He saw reeds, water-plains, something that for a moment seemed almost familiar.

          ... if only one could see a habitual horizon, edged with trees...

          He stared at the river which flowed more gently now, having broken through the grip of the mountains, tried to find a familiar line of trees, but his eye came up against a cluster of adobe dwellings and the illusion vanished - Russia was a long way off.

          ... the village at the foot of the mountain belongs to the spooks-last year our reconnaissance people got a nasty surprise there-.everything was mined to the hilt-and over there is where we combed through the hills ourselves, I think -mountains, just mountains-we're surrounded by mountains...

          The towering, virginal peaks of the mountains seemed to gaze down disparagingly at the fuss and insignificance of human problems, while between them lay streams and fields, scattered villages, and alien hordes, speeding towards victory and death.
          Huge cloud masses seemed jammed between the mountain peaks, no smaller in size but floating like feathers. It was as if the ancient mountaintops envied the lightness of the clouds, their ability to fly further without thoughts or regrets. The snowy peaks reached up towards infinity, as if wishing for freedom, wishing for the chance to break away from this world and hide somewhere up above, as though tired of the world's foolishness, cruelty, as if choking on air saturated with hatred, injustice, blood and suffering.

          ... the mountains are always beside you in Afghanistan-sometimes behind your back, like a person who stands there and stands there, you go to sleep - and he stands there, you wake up - and he's still there-standing there immobile and not going away-or the mountains rise before you like an unimaginably high wall, so that nobody will ever be able to flee -Nature didn't dream them up for nothing -if there were no mountains, who would separate peoples who hate one another, who would shield them from death, pursuit, vengeance-they would all slaughter their fellow beings on open plains, would all come together in a mighty clash and perish in short order, for people have not yet learned to live in accord, without envy and violence-that's what mountains are for, and mighty forests, and deserts and seas-these mountains protected Afghanistan for many years -It would appear that we, Russians, as a people significant in history, have been endowed by someone with extraordinary powers-history has scattered us over immense territories, and maybe that's why we decided that we can influence the fates of other peoples, not numerous by comparison with us, and therefore, not as strong-.People whose bad luck it is to live next door to Russia-we never took their plans into account, we decreed, we were intoxicated by our own might-we colluded with evil, the devil, took part in his nefarious plans-the devil's proving ground is here, in Afghanistan-sounds too mystical, somehow-we got used to it gradually, the lust for power entered into our blood - we must have some gene, just like the Americans, which is infected by an illusory sense of being omnipotent-as if the fate of the rest of humanity depends on us-.actually, that's partially right-if we want, we can destroy the rest of the world in the fight against capitalism -however, my friend, that's ideology-ideology is a temporary thing

          - as for the Russian soul, that's eternal-who gifted us with this mysterious soul, and why? -we will never have peace because of it-but enough of that, it's not the time and place for such thoughts....

          The ability to sense danger had never yet let Sharagin down. And if the thought of spooks filled his head, it was not for nothing. That meant that the spooks were really there, hidden, watching. Yet despite the sense of spooks nearby, other thoughts flitted through his mind.

          ... they're right when they say: if you've got no erection, leave the woman be!- we can't and don't know how to fight, we can't bring a dump like Afghanistan to its knees all these years-so we should admit outright: we failed, broke our back and spilled our guts-we keep imagining that we're the strongest army in the world-yes, the paras did their job, so what else can you ask of them? We're supposed to jump with parachutes, we're creatures of the air, but they've driven us down into the dirt, we're ordered into columns and driven like greasers to the ends of the earth, they've scattered us over checkpoints and roadblocks, this isn't what we're supposed to be doing, let the greasers from the infantry handle it!...

          Sharagin turned and cast a look at his soldiers. Their dust-covered faces expressed nothing.

          ...stupid blockheads-but the best soldier in the world is our soldier, the Soviet soldier!...he isn't overly literate, he's not pampered, he will bear anything, he'll die, he'll perish, but he'll never give up! Our soldiers aren't spoiled American boys in Vietnam, who had special deliveries of beer!...

          Our soldier is the best! He'll break his back, but get to where he's been ordered... and our officers - especially the lower ranks, say up to the rank of major, or maybe inclusive, are all in top form, they can withstand anything, they're not just ordinary people, they're supermen ... and then what? What next? We're staying afloat on heroism of this kind, but it can't last forever-so wouldn't it be better for us all to put our heads together and work out where we went wrong?...

          ... he-e-ey! Mountains all around, it's just beautiful! If it wasn't for the war, for those Afghans, it would be so great here!..

          The Afghan landscape held numerous beauties for a northern man, and at the same time frightened those who had not had time to become accustomed to its alien contours.
          At times it was hard to enjoy breathtaking panoramas objectively. Not always and not everyone could separate the vision of snowy peaks and copper-velvet slopes, plains covered with the lush green of vineyards, the profusion of blood-red poppies spreading like a carpet woven by skilled masters, from the image of a treacherous mujahideen, an evil character out of some Eastern tale, a bandit clutching a knife.
          The image of the mujahideen produced a feeling of danger: this feeling of danger grew into fear, and fear generated hatred and distrust of the mountains: one could enjoy the alien landscape only after conquering fear.
          It took years to accept, to fit into and understand this place, come to love it and learn to stop fearing it.

          ...the mistiness of Andromeda, the Milky Way, Solaris...we have come from another galaxy, bloody cosmonauts... how did we get here? ..piled up armored vehicles... disturbed the Afghan anthill...

          And even if the surrounding landscape opened its secrets, became understandable, no matter how slowly and reluctantly, the Afghans themselves remained an enigma.

          ...why are we here? What can we have in common with this wild, backward country? What fraternization can there be? Damn it, how can they possibly be our friends?! This place should be declared a reservation...the Stone Age...

          The Afghans had to be kept at a safe distance, any fool could see that. Wrapped in an alien prayer, the life of the Afghans ran its course, in the distant 14th century by the Muslim calendar, behind blind walls in accordance with laws passed down from fathers and grandfathers. In any case, the distance between the Afghans and the shuravi was measured in centuries. Sometimes the distance would narrow to the counter of a shop. But even then, there could be no full understanding. Devoured by suspicion, excessive caution, the Soviets would retreat quickly, buying a few things on the run. More often than not, the distance between the Afghans and the Soviets was measured by a burst of machine gun fire.
          And because they did not understand and did not wish to understand the Afghans, because they guessed subconsciously that the war would not be long and was totally useless, nobody tried to like the land and its people. That was probably why every Afghan, be he one of the mujahideen, or a farmer tending his field, a smiling driver waving from a bus, an unwashed barefoot urchin, a newly-drafted recruit into the Afghan army, clad in the sack-like uniform of an army propped up by the tanks of the "limited contingent" - they were all perceived as spooks, bandits, enemies, so you could trust only yourself and depend on yourself, or on those like you, shuravi like yourself, Soviets; and a man felt safe and secure only inside the garrison, surrounded by barbed wire, tanks and machine guns; fate had strewn Soviet military divisions all over Afghanistan, they were like islands in an ocean, lonely, far from the mainland.

          ... "mountains, dust and hepatitis- free additions to the international duty," grumbled captain Morgultsev... those bald mountains up ahead seem to be crouching silently, waiting for their we still have to crawl and crawl before we reach the foot of those mountains-we move and they stand still, we will fight, we'll all die here, while the mountains will continue to stand there indestructible and immobile, totally indifferent to our sufferings, our joys, we're alien to them, our troubles,

          bent turret, like an impotent's penis ...dozens of machine gun holes and larger ones from grenades, remnants of fuel carriers, an empty "Kamaz" cabin with smashed front and side windows...a huge garbage dump, the waste products of unequal they got the better of us...the truck found its mine, and it destroyed its front end, so now it looks like a drunk with smashed lips, a broken nose and a dislocated jaw..."

          A burned out BTR reminded Sharagin of a gigantic turtle. He had never actually seen a giant turtle, only small ones, but in his imagination these huge denizens of the ocean kingdom left the water as immense creatures securely protected by an impenetrable shell, which hid a wise, wrinkled head.
          As if driven by some irresistible instinct, infantry combat vehicle turtles and BMP turtles, whole armies of deep-water inhabitants had left their domain and come to war.

          Once in childhood Oleg had stopped a boy who was running and waving an ax, like a Red Indian. In his hand he held a tortoise.
          "Where are you off to?" asked Oleg, stopping the boy who was about three years younger than he was.
          "I'm going to smash the shell and pull that creature out!"
          "Give it here!"
          "No, I won't," the youngster replied sullenly.
          "I told you - give it here!"
          He took away the tortoise, took it to the river and let it go. Finding itself free, the tortoise stuck out its head and began to move over the grass. The next day Oleg encountered the younger boy again.
          "What are you grinning for?" asked Oleg suspiciously. The lad stuck out his tongue, pulled a face and ran off.

          ... he must have followed me and found that tortoise... And finished it...

          The burned BTR looked like a tortoise that had been subjected to lengthy assault with an ax, blows inflicted with fury and shouts, until it split.
          Closer to the village lay a tank turret, flung far by a mine and bent like a paralyzed figure. Two Afghan boys sat on it, watching the passing column of Soviet military might with black, beady eyes.
          A deeply tanned and wrinkled Afghan with a mangy beard walked along the roadside, leading a heavily laden donkey. He looked askance at the passing column and caught the eyes of a fair-haired, bewhiskered Soviet officer; the Afghan muttered something to himself, barely moving his lips which exposed greenish teeth; the old man's face expressed neither pleasure nor dislike. In that moment or just afterwards, Sharagin experienced a sense of deja-vu.

          ... this has all happened before, but where? When?..

          The answer surfaced fairly soon.

          ...a movie about the Great Patriotic War ...from of our men is driving along in a hay cart, and German tanks rumble past him. Tanned young men, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, smoking and shouting something in their own German tongue...the man turns his head, and the camera captures the hidden, unwilling fear in thy eyes of those fascists, a fear of the Russian who is presently unarmed, in principle poses no threat at the given moment, who hasn't said a word, but who silently watches the German army vehicles heading across the field in the direction of the village...every Soviet viewer would have felt, after that shot, that no matter how gay and carefree the fascists seemed, in their heart of hearts they feared our people, especially the partisans-and fear had probably found a place deep in the hearts of the fascists, because the more death, grief and destruction they wreak on our Motherland, the more fear they experience because they cannot know that the day of reckoning will come...

          Such thoughts and associations were fleeting, lasting only a few seconds, and in order not to let them grow into something bigger, press on his psyche, he pushed them away quickly, to the back of his mind, for later.

          ... we're not invaders-we're carrying out orders-.we came to help the Afghans, even though some of them don't want our help...

          All that was asked of Sharagin was that he obey orders, make sure that the unit entrusted to his care - a tiny part of the machine called the Army - functioned smoothly. And that he, as a man genuinely devoted to the Army, try to carry out his duty as platoon leader to the best of his ability, thrusting aside any heart-burning doubts which, especially towards the end of the term of service, tried to surface and demand answers and conclusions.
          Sometimes he envied his friends who lacked the ability to reason, and were thus calm and carefree.

          ... their faces have never been disfigured by thought...and they have no trouble going to sleep...

 captain Morgultsev says: "An officer shouldn't think why he receives a certain order from the Motherland, the more so some Ivan-the-platoon-leader!"-we are paid not for our rank or duties, but for devotion to the Motherland, which has the right, when she so wishes, to demand the life of an officer who has sworn allegiance to her...

          On the way to the operation Sharagin repeatedly recalled the first months of service in Afghanistan, his first sharp impressions of the war and the people involved in it. Some of those people served in the platoon today, riding neighboring BMPs, part had gone home, others had not lived to be replaced but found their final resting place in the mountains, the sands and the greeneries of Afghanistan.

          ...somewhere in the dust storms are the souls of our men, borne away by the 'afghan' wind, people who were close, and then perished. ..all our people are somewhere close foot here, the other one back home...

          This was what the senior lieutenant usually told himself whenever he sighted yet another cairn - out of stones, shell-cases, tires - with a name and surname, and dates of birth and death - short stretches of time, from twenty to twenty five years.

          The leading vehicles stopped, so there was something like a short break: those who had lagged needed a chance to catch up. And the men could grab a quick bite of something, relieve themselves and stretch their legs.
          The drivers took advantage of the unscheduled break and with tacit consent delved in the motors of their vehicles; the army didn't dismount for long, and only the front ranks, the rest had long ago lost the general rhythm of the march, like the tail of an immense lizard had become delayed, broken down, lost miles far behind.
          Sharagin's platoon, occupying its place in the general "thread" of the company, came to a halt some two hundred meters from an Afghan checkpoint, a squat clay fortification to the side of the road, surrounded by some sparse trees and a proudly waving flag.
          Children from the nearest village were already swarming over the military vehicles.
          "Nobody move away from the vehicles!" ordered Sharagin. "I'm off to see captain Zebrev."
          "What if we need a crap, comrade senior lieutenant?" cried Myshkovsky with exaggerated pathos, theatrically clamping his arms around his stomach.
          "Worry not, Myshkovsky, crap into your partner's hand!"

          ... never would have thought that weed would turn into a real para...

          "Hey, commander, how's things?" panted a barefooted Afghan kid, running towards Sharagin.
          He was carrying mandarins, chewing gum and postcards of Indian film stars in a torn paper bag.
          "Buru, bacha! Buru!" snapped Sharagin at the youth weaving around underfoot.
          "Hey, friend! How are things?" said the lad to the soldier sitting on the nose of the BMP, who had just been kidding about a bellyache and was about to jump down to the ground. "Got goods? What you sell?"
          Junior sergeant Myshkovsky stretched himself, sighed deeply and squinted in the sunlight.
          "Nothing, bacha. We've earned nothing yet."
          "Yet!" repeated Sychev in minatory tones, raising his index finger.
          The young Afghan, sensing an interest, did not retreat but kept offering mandarins, fanned out the postcards.
          "Give us a look at those," said Sychev. "Shuravi control, bacha!"
          The lad extended the photos.
          "Here, take them back! Now, if only they were wearing swimsuits-"
          The Afghan remained where he was.
          "Got no money, understand? No paysa. Nist paysa! Want to exchange?" Myshkovsky offered a pack of "Donskiye", the worst possible cigarettes without filters that were issued to the soldiers. "You give me some mandarins." The bacha understood and agreed. "Only remember, bacha, don't die from cigarettes! One costs three years of life!"
          The other soldiers laughed.
          Myshkovsky climbed down and began to peel the mandarins and would have finished them quietly and driven on, only it was his bad luck that a chubby lieutenant colonel appeared on the scene. Cheeks like a chipmunk, eyebrows - a spitting image of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.
          The lieutenant colonel looked ludicrous in a helmet, because nobody ever wore a helmet on the march, especially during a rest break. A machine gun with paired magazines was slung across his chest, a cartridge case stuck out from his side like an enlarged liver, grenade pins protruded from the breast pocket of his bullet-proof vest - indeed, it appeared as though he was ready to take on an entire band of spooks single-handed.
          The lieutenant colonel fastened on to Myshkovsky, yelling as though he'd been just let loose off a chain.
          The officer was infuriated by the fact that a soldier had entered into an exchange with an Afghan, cigarettes for mandarins.
          "So what's wrong with that?" asked Myshkovsky, unperturbed.
          He was no newcomer to Afghanistan, he kept his cool. But the lieutenant colonel, judging by his extravagant equipment, was a new arrival, and was probably a political officer who'd never been under fire to boot, decided Myshkovsky, even though he wore a striped undershirt.
          "They were my cigarettes, we swapped-"
          "By what right?" yelled the officer. "What's your name? Where's your commanding officer? What company?-"
          Not waiting to hear the answer, the lieutenant colonel became even more angry when he saw the soldier was not dressed in regulation kit: Myshkovsky was wearing "Kimry" sneakers instead of boots.
          Political officer for sure, decided Myshkovsky. Bloody headquarters rat!
          The well-fed lieutenant colonel, who had gone on this battle assignment like a walk in order to earn another merit mark which would count later when it came time to receive a medal, had no understanding of an ordinary soldier's cunning: in the mountains, the regulation boots were heavy and awkward, little better than the domestic "shit-squashers." And in any case, it did not matter what you wear in combat and what your have on your feet when you get killed.
          And so they stood there face to face.
          The lieutenant colonel saw an insolent, rotten creature of a soldier, who eats mandarins on the march, who has acquired freedom, who has been over-indulged by his commanding officer, and who must be punished because he stands there in the middle of the road without a machine gun, without a bullet-proof vest and wears sneakers.
          The soldier, in his turn, thought that all officers are, by and large, animals, blood-suckers, and this particular lieutenant colonel is a pig who doesn't really care about anything except his own hide and career-
          The soldiers and junior officers drawn by the lieutenant colonel's shouts stood around in silence and, as is customary in the army, did not interfere.
          Accustomed to frequently unwise displays of emotion, high-handedness and sheer rudeness from senior officers, they watched this unexpected nonsense in silence; none of them had the right to contradict a senior officer. Everyone understood that the lieutenant colonel was an idiot, that he had been born that way and would never change, and also realized, because that is always obvious, that the lieutenant colonel had no genuine commander's anger in him, only a passing outburst, a stupidity far removed from matters of principle or discipline, the stupidity of a man who had never assumed command and therefore had nobody to vent his spleen on for a long time.
          In the army - you yell, and get it off your chest. As for the one you yelled at, he'll yell at or insult somebody else, you can't bottle emotions up indefinitely, after all, or you'll go mad.
          So that's how it comes to pass that the armed forces of the Soviet Union are daily shaken by yelling, the chain of slights extends from the top to the very bottom of the scale, to the soldiers, and they have their own conflicts-
          Undeserved offensive words poured from the lieutenant colonel's lips, like amoebic diarrhea. Myshkovsky had vivid recollections of that illness: he'd done his share of running back and forth to the latrine. The plump officer had grown hoarse, drops of sweat trickled from beneath the cap he wore under the helmet, but he continued to rant at the soldier, calling him a thief, a looter, a robber, that bastards like him are a blot on the honor of the Soviet internationalist soldier.
          A bloody political officer for sure, decided Myshkovsky.
          The lieutenant colonel spluttered on:
          "-here in Afghanistan people serve with a clear conscience! They die for the revolution..!" he proclaimed as if he were reading a lecture to a group of dumb collective farm workers. He kept trying to pin Myshkovsky against the armor, even though the soldier was quite hefty.
          The officer kept his eyes just above Myshkovsky's head, almost treading on his toes.
          Sharagin and Zebrev were drinking tea from a thermos. They opened a tin and poked fun at Pashkov. Pashkov had finished his cigarette and stuck his hands into his pockets.
          "What are you doing with your hands?" queried Zebrev. "Playing billiard balls?"
          "Hey, sarge, are you planning to retire in Afghan?"
          "Give me a break-" Pashkov cleaned his sunglasses with the hem of his shirt, blew on them and wiped them again.
          "Say, sarge, is "Zubrovka" vodka Montana?"
          "Zubrovka? You bet!"
          "What about "Pertsovka"?"
          "That's Montana, too!"
          "And pork belly?"
          Engineering marking and mine-clearing vehicles began to crawl past the ones that had stopped for a break, with their long arms and unwieldy scoops, bullet-proof cabins; they were followed by a tank without a cannon with rotating huge "eggs" on top - mine crushers; then came sappers, riding a BTR with a canopy rigged on top, accompanied by two German shepard dogs, dry tongues hanging out.
          "What would be the first thing you'd do back home?"
          "Enough of that, comrade captain! I'm off for a piss!"
          "Remember Oleg, how they went to the latrine hand in hand"

          ... The love affair with the fat waitress was the talk of the regiment. After the appearance of this woman of enormous sizes, something struck Pashkov, he went around in a daze for a week.
          None of the officers would have dreamed that Pashkov would fall for the waitress. When Sharagin and Zebrev first saw them going for a walk together, they could not believe their eyes.
          At first they thought that Pashkov simply wanted a woman, but afterwards the warrant officer declared that it was serious.
          "Real Montana!"
          Amid the laughter of the officers, Morgultsev recounted an anecdote about a goat, which was kept on a ship instead of a woman. The captain ordered the men to put a ruble in a moneybox every time they "used" the poor animal in order to collect the sum that the goat had cost. After a while the captain noticed that someone was not paying the set sum. It emerged that the boatswain was the guilty party.
          "When pressed, the boatswain said exactly what you're saying, sarge. He said: "I can't pay, comrade captain, we've got a serious relationship-!"
          Pashkov cast dark looks at Morgultsev for a week after that, but that didn't stop him from shaving thoroughly every morning and dousing himself with eau-de-cologne, saying: "Eau-de-cologne - that's cultured. And yogurt's healthy."
          They made such an odd couple - wiry Pashkov and the fat waitress on her short legs - that the entire regiment watched the romance unfold with bated breath. It was especially funny to see the lovebirds walking hand in hand and then splitting up to go to the latrine - a low building, separated in half. The waitress would break off and head left, Pashkov - right, and then a few minutes later they would reunite and continue their stroll or go to the barracks which housed female personnel.
          The romance lasted more than a month. Then clouds appeared in Paradise, and Pashkov resorted to a three-litre jar for solace-

          "Something's going on with your guys," said Zebrev suddenly.
          "That's right," affirmed Pashkov. "Something's up. Not Montana!"
          "Can't leave them alone for a moment!" grumbled Sharagin, turning and seeing the strange huddle of soldiers.
          The corner of Myshkovsky's lip jerked with a nervous tic. He bore the abuse, held on to his composure and kept his mouth shut. Mentally, however, he put a few bullets into the lieutenant colonel's head.
          Finally running out of expletives, the lieutenant colonel saw that the soldier was wearing a magnetic bracelet on his wrist: this set him off again, even more than before, with new force, as though he had discovered stolen property:
          "Aha! He's got a bracelet! I'm an officer, and I can't afford anything like that! "
          "Jackal," thought Myshkovsky. "can't afford it, you sonofabitch.! You earn thirty times more than I do! All I'll be taking back home will be this bracelet, a briefcase and a shawl for my mother on my wages. As for you, you rotten bastard, you'll ship back a whole container, fill your apartment to bursting with Japanese gadgets!-And never expose your ass to gunfire-"
          "You're a thief!" shouted the lieutenant colonel. "In sneakers, with a bracelet! Sold your rifle already, hey? Where's your rifle? Where's your bullet-proof vest?"
          That was too much, and the lieutenant colonel knew he had gone too far. However, raised as he was on slogans and agitation jargon, he lost control of himself when he had an audience, pushed his line and attacked the "enemy" or the miscreant with due Party ferocity, seeing the "truth" only as he knew it, how it appeared in his own head, giving out his own version of what he had heard from people with more stars on their shoulder-boards. You can drive anyone up the wall with quotes and slogans.
          Myshkovsky pulled the bracelet off, threw it on the ground at the lieutenant colonel's feet, turned around and stalked off.
          "Live, you sonofabitch," he muttered through clenched teeth.
          The lieutenant colonel was clearly nonplussed by such insolence and made a move as if to seize Myshkovsky's shoulder, casting a regretful glance at the bracelet (too many witnesses to pick it up) but at that moment he was hailed from the BTR he'd jumped from five minutes ago:
          "Let's go, Borya! The column's moving!"
          The lieutenant colonel swore as though at all the surrounding soldiery and hurried off, clumsy under his own weight and an excess of unnecessary weapons and bullet-proof vest, grabbed someone's extended hand, hung in mid-air for a moment, helmet askew, then scrambled up on the armor.
          "What happened, Myshkovsky?" asked Sharagin.
          "Nothing much, comrade senior lieutenant. He didn't like my sneakers."
          "Mount up!"
          The army moved on, leaving evidence of its rest in the form of oil stains, tin cans, dry rations packs, puddles of urine and cigarette butts.
          Sharagin's platoon moved off in its turn, keeping a sensible distance, allowing the preceding vehicle a fifty-meter clearance, so that the dust it raised would settle a little.
          Myshkovsky turned away from the others and smoked, hiding the tears of frustration in his eyes. The lieutenant colonel had made it quite clear to him that he was a louse, that he had no rights whatsoever, just like a year ago when he had been a newcomer to the platoon and junior sergeant Titov had hazed him mercilessly day and night. Myshkovsky had taken it all, hadn't given in, had not succumbed to self-pity, had not complained, had not cried from pain and humiliation. Yet now he had let it get at him; just as well nobody could see these tears of someone with no defense in the face of stupidity, inhumanity, and base behavior of an officer to a soldier.
          Myshkovsky's unmoving, stooped back gave no clue to what had happened and whether he was upset by it. He, a soldier, would never admit that someone had been able to hurt him. It's not done in the army for a soldier to pour out his troubles to an officer.

          ...that's our apprentice's lot in the army, you have to grin and bear it...the one with the most stars on his uniform is always right...

          As if breaching a dam, the armored vehicles poured out into a valley, spreading out over a wide field that opened before them, leaving no room, filling all the available space like a camouflage blanket; the army units wound across the field like a thick snake coiling in upon itself; the battle group was settling down as comfortably as it could for the night.
          The immense army scattered like wandering tribes over the field: tents, armored vehicles, trucks, communication lines; more and more units arrived.
          Every branch of the army contributed men to this operation, a platoon here, a battalion there, a regiment - all were gathered into the huge army cauldron: artillery, paratroops, reconnaissance, airmen, communications staff, medics. This was all to be directed at the enemy, to crush and destroy him.
          A smell of diesel, fires, urine and feces hung in the air, permeating tasteless combat rations, and only the Kabul-baked bread, which had become stale during the march, did not absorb the odors of the gigantic military force.
          The contours of upraised gun barrels, like masts at a ship graveyard, rose against the reddish copper disc of the setting sun; trucks displayed their humps; helicopters, blades drooping, settled on the outskirts of the force; darkness fell quickly, the tired army prepared for sleep.

          At different spots of this maelstrom of men and machines, general Sorokin and senior lieutenant Sharagin sat and smoked. The silhouettes of armored vehicles were all around.

          ...everything repeats itself-that time there was also a military operation, the same mountains, spooks...

          Scattered memories beckoned into the past, varied, prickly, painful and untimely recollections washed over him as he sat smoking.

          -The fuel truck had just moved away from the last chopper, rumbling over the airport metal. On command, the paras who had been resting beside the airstrip, moved in single file, bulky with equipment, machine guns slung across their chests. They entered the chopper one by one, settling in and staring out of the windows.
          The Mi-8 moved out on to the strip, bobbing around a bit, feeling the air, like a boxer warming up before a fight. They rolled forward, gathering speed as if not intending to leave the ground, then rose and veered to the left.

          ... fields slipped by like the squares on a chessboard which had been moved out of line for some reason, upsetting the proper order, spots of greenery flashed by, the chopper's shadow sped along underneath, growing larger or smaller, a village, a vineyard, a small river, the chopper rose, gaining altitude as it neared the foothills...

          ... and the Mi-8 chopper, like a big, green tadpole...which just a moment ago had been flying on a parallel course, grim and ready for battle, suddenly plummeted to earth...

          ...they took it out in full flight, like a duck shot at dawn...

          ...flare! There was an explosion and a burst of flame!..

          Blackened corpses, scattered throughout the smoking remains of the chopper.

          ...the sweet smell of human flesh...

          They burned alive. Nobody survived.

          ...there'll be many who won't come back from this operation-and somebody will draw up figures: so many killed, so many wounded-and nothing will change in the world...and some stupid lieutenant will come up to the fire and ask about the number of losses...

          He had come up to the fire then, that lieutenant from the motorized infantry, started chattering about the heroic feats of the Bagram division, then asked:
          "What are your losses?"
          "Five from the regiment today."
          "That's nothing!" responded the lieutenant proudly. "We've already got seventeen dead! Six went up on a mine only yesterday!"
          It was unclear, what he had been expecting. Possibly he thought that everyone would think that his unit really knew how to fight, so had been sent into the very thick of the combat.
          Nobody said anything.

          After that mission Sharagin bought a bottle of vodka in Kabul, they steamed themselves for about three hours, sweating out tiredness and bad thoughts.
          "Sell your last pants, but have a drink after washing," said Zebrev, slashing Sharagin's already red back with a bunch of twigs. "Ulyu-ulyu! Who was it said that? Peter the Great, that's who!"
          When they raised the traditional third toast, Sharagin caught himself thinking that the "portrait gallery" of the dead had increased. The first in the "gallery" was sergeant Panasyuk, on whose bed an enlarged and therefore murky photograph had been kept put up a long time-the last-The last had been-

          ...Nikolai- how did that happen? -why him?..

          And Sharagin answered himself:

          ...his number came up...

          The faces of the dead rose in his mind's eye - soldiers who had not had time to become men, faces of lieutenants, still partly boys, faces of grim captains - faces which formed the foundation, the backbone of the army.
          The army lived at the cost of soldiers, lieutenants and captains, and sometimes even won. It was they who bore the weight of the army on their shoulders.
          If not for these lieutenants, captains and simple village lads, battered by the anxiety and unstable army life, by vodka, by the war itself,

          -unpolished ignoramuses, nothing in their heads, simple as the whistle of a train-

          if not for them- the Soviet Army would have ceased to exist long ago-

          Sharagin stepped on his cigarette butt, went off to sleep. It was already totally dark.

          ...all that's in the past-shouldn't have come to mind-

          He crawled into his sleeping bag and dropped off to sleep quickly, despite the stirrings of the men all around, the far and close by noises, the swearing and shouts, which seemed to breathe life into the camp, creating the illusion of a big city, far from the war and therefore comforting.
          The general was not at all tired and was afraid that he would have trouble getting to sleep and probably for this reason drew out time, questioned the soldier who acted as his driver in a kind and fatherly manner about where he was from, as though the general really cared, how much time he had left to serve, did he go on missions often? The soldier kept his eyes lowered and pretended that he was touched by the general's interest, though experience showed that generals often have these moods, maybe because they feel guilty before soldiers, maybe because they want to seem better than they really are.
          The soldier knew that generals never remember the men's faces, that there was nothing to be expected from this passing general, that it did not necessarily bode well if someone suddenly started treating you like a human being, especially generals or other officers. It is better to answer them clearly and concisely, stay on your guard because today a general or colonel may be chatty and friendly, and the next morning let you have it in the neck so you won't know what hit you.

    Chapter Ten. Ambush

          The valley became crowded. Crammed with people and weapons, it breathed heavily on the threshold of battle. Maybe not everyone awoke that morning in a fighting mood. Some were shaken by doubts - would fate be merciful or not, but there was nothing to be done: a decision had been made up top, orders were issued, passed along the web of command like a flock of sparrows gathering around a handful of crumbs, orders to brigades, regiments, companies, platoons.
          There was no way back: someone omnipotent had thought up a battle, and the men of war went out towards the unknown, just as gladiators had done thousands of years ago in order to amuse a select public.
          The air forces had roared by. The aircraft dropped their loads of dozens of bombs and returned to base, making way for the artillery. The guns gave voice, methodically shelling quadrants as if preparing a potato field for planting, turning, turning the earth over.
          The officers in the command supervisory point, including general Sorokin, saw a compelling picture through their binoculars: nose dive - explosion, another round - another explosion; pillars of dirt and smoke shot skywards. It was frightening to imagine how the enemy must feel under such a barrage; probably it was like being in hell; everything living or inanimate that was ringed on battle maps was being fragmented and destroyed, sentenced to death by the movement of blue pencils wielded by headquarters staff.
          It was the artillery's task to work over all the slopes, villages and patches of greenery, to hit and kill, so that nobody would survive, to strip the valley and beat down the tops of the chain of hills, iron them out so that they would finally allow the alien infantry unresisting passage and accept the hand of a new master.
          Sorokin recalled the recent words of the commander: "The troops won't advance until the air force and the artillery don't wipe everyone out -I don't need extra losses-"
          Everyone says that, thought Sorokin with a sigh, until there's pressure from the top. It is always worse if someone from the Moscow brass turns up. They invariably demand quick results. So they can return all the sooner and give a good account. If the Minister of Defense arrives, then losses increase several times over. That happened in Pandjshir, in Kandaghar. In this case, things weren't going too badly, "daddy" was conducting the operation well, exerting no pressure on the commander, everything had been worked out in advance and the operation was going to plan. Unfortunately, thought Sorokin looking at the scene of activity through his binoculars, it is never possible to kill absolutely everyone. The spooks would go to ground in caves, irrigation tunnels and sit out the bombardment, even vacuum bombs wouldn't affect them. There will be losses, inevitably there will be losses. War is never without victims-
          The troops moved forward towards the foe. Like spawning trout, choppers spread out all over the place, disgorging handfuls of men here and there. The army machine began to move, rotate, crawl in the direction of the spooks' fortified area, unit after unit.
          It was always like this in war since times immemorial; someone waited in the train for the outcome of the battle, someone watched from a distance and someone fought and died. Senior lieutenant Sharagin figured among those who fought - his platoon was to be dropped into the hills under cover of darkness, last preparations were being made, among the observers was general Sorokin and a clutch of headquarters political staff who were all bored but managed to hide their inactivity by looking important, serious, indispensable.
          A rotund lieutenant colonel was doing an especially good job of this subterfuge. He leafed through an exercise book, made notes from time to time and, in order to impress general Sorokin, occasionally turned to his colleagues and read out bits from some book or other about the manners and mores of the Pashtun tribes, against whom this whole operation had been planned.
          "Brass on the way!" cried a lean lieutenant colonel bounding up to the observers, and then blanched slightly. "Sorry, comrade general, but a member of the Military Council is on his way over here with a camera crew-"

          Many generals like to see everything snap into action and hear loud commands the moment they appear on the horizon, otherwise they feel that their high position is not being recognized sufficiently. The member of the Military Council belonged to this type of generals. Sorokin seemed relatively unaffected by such fussing.
          While the television people were recording an interview with the Military Council ace, Sorokin noted that the journalist was breathing very heavily. In the newscasts on "Vremya" this always seemed very impressive, introducing a note of urgency as though the journalist had accompanied a reconnaissance patrol up the mountainside and remained alongside the outstanding fighters of the Limited Contingent in battle.
          I feel like I want to be in the picture, too, thought Sorokin fleetingly. The other officers probably got in, fussing around in the background and unfolding maps, pretending to draw lines on them, holding their binoculars to their eyes and turning this way and that. The whole country will see them.
          "Finished?" asked the Military Council general, running a hand over his hair. The wind had not affected his hairdo during the interview. "Did it come out well?"
          "You described everything perfectly," nodded the journalist.
          "So, what now?"
          "I'd like to get some footage of a platoon of paratroopers, remember we talked about it? The last hours before battle, that sort of thing."
          "Hmmm-" pondered the member of the Military Council. The lieutenant colonel with bushy eyebrows looked eagerly at the Mililtary Counselor, trying to catch his eye, his whole demeanor expressing devotion. He succeeded. "Boris Alexandrovich, contact the paras. Who's in command there?"
          "I've just been speaking with Bogdanov."
          "Is he all set?"
          "Boris Alexandrovich will escort you. Once you're through filming, we'll have dinner. I hope you'll join us too, Alexei Glebovich."
          "Yes, of course," assured the journalist.
          Sorokin inclined his head gratefully: "Thank you."
          The group of political officers returned to discussing the military and political situation in the province with serious faces, putting on a good show for the general, analyzing the circumstances aloud.
          Pashtuns, Tadjiks, Khazars, Uzbeks, Parcham, Khalk, Amin, Taraki, Babrak Karmal, Akhmad Shah Masood, Gulbeddin - everyone and their aunt Ermyntrude's here, thought Sorokin, what a devil's brew! Everything's hopelessly mixed up. How many memorandums had been written, how much he'd read both in Moscow and here at the residence, but how on earth could you be expected to remember it all?
          In any event, it's a rather futile occupation to sit around discussing the customs of tribes which have just been bombed.
          On his way to wash and have a rest, the general spotted bare-chested medics, bellies hanging over their belts, playing backgammon between some army vehicles. Soldiers incapacitated by heat stroke lay on stretchers behind them. The general passed by without stopping at this temporary medical point, or he would have seen how one of the medics finished a game, went over to the bodies on the stretchers and dribbled a thin trickle of water on the slack faces of the unconscious young soldiers, then hurried back to the game to recoup his losses.

          - Andersen is here, the great storyteller-if only you'd say the truth for once! Back in the Union people watch his reports, believing every word-fables, utter garbage! Hans Christian Andersen would have envied your ability to fantasize!-

          The officer looked suitably solemn as he shook the hand of the journalist who was as fat as himself:
          "Lieutenant colonel Bogdanov."
          "Pleasure." The journalist threw a beady eye over the small parachutes, which decorated the experimental uniform, as if making sure that the officer was from the paratroops and not a substitute, then clapped the lieutenant colonel on the shoulder. "Let's have a look at your lot." The journalist addressed generals with the official "you", but he didn't stand any ceremony with colonels and lieutenant colonels, not considering them his equals. The familiar "thou" would do for them. "Where are your eagles, then?"

          -Got to get out of this-all I need is to be forced to make stupid comments for the whole country to hear-I'll be a laughing-stock-

          "Comrade senior lieutenant!" called Bogdanov.
          Sharagin cursed silently.
          "No, his face is too Slavic," pronounced the journalist decisively. "And he's an officer. I'd like you to gather a group of ordinary soldiers of various nationalities, to show friendship of the peoples, so to speak. An Armenian with an Azeri, say, someone from one of the Baltic States, someone from Central Asia."
          "Senior lieutenant Sharagin reporting as ordered!"
          "No, you can go," Bogdanov waved dismissal. "Where the hell can we find so many different faces? We do have one Armenian. Is that right? And a Lithuanian. Or is he a Latvian?"
          "A Latvian, comrade lieutenant colonel!"
          "What if we ask among the neighboring units? Or do you need only paratroopers?" interrupted the beetle-browed lieutenant colonel escorting the journalist.
          "Fine, see to it!" agreed the journalist. "You'll sit in the middle with your paras," he instructed Bogdanov, pointing to the spot where he wanted him. "Make sure we can see their striped undershirts. The "chocks" can sit over here-.

          - whew!-

          sighed Sharagin.

          - it's bad luck to be photographed before battle. -and more so to be filmed -even though Lena would have liked to see me on television.. but then she would worry even more -

          Sorokin enjoyed a hearty meal; they finished off a bottle of vodka, exchanged courtesies with the television reporter and set off for a few hours' rest. After-dinner laziness is inexorable. He recalled fleetingly that the camera must have caught him in the background several times and thought how nice it would be for the family to see him on the evening news even so. On this thought he drifted off to sleep. When he woke up, he began a mental comparison of the current operation and those which had taken place at the start of the Afghan epic. For some reason this particular tour of duty in Afghanistan, a short visit to the war, kept turning his thoughts back to the time Soviet troops first entered Afghanistan. He kept wondering if there would be anyone to tell the tale of the 40th Army, or would its history remain classified as "top secret" forever? It hurt. Nobody would be able to recreate all the events, all the battles, he told himself. Because there are so many untruths in the papers written and sent to Kabul and Moscow. Just out of interest, he decided, I'll read up the reports on this operation when I get back to Kabul and compare them with what I've seen with my own eyes. For sure there'll be discrepancies.
          Had the reports sent to command from the division he had served in been all that much different? The distortions began at company and battalion level. Reports were so often a far cry from reality! And the further, the worse. An account sent from the division to army headquarters it would be stated that so many rebels had been killed, so many heavy-caliber machine guns had been taken, so many rifles, a recoilless, but the physical trophies presented would be about five rusty rifles which looked suspiciously like those taken a few months ago. Deception? By the looks of it, yes. Why seek any further for evidence when he, Sorokin, had personally witnessed straight-out farces of this kind? Yesterday a sharp lieutenant colonel, one Bogdanov, had staged an attack and battle, reporting in against the sound of the voices of his subordinates, laced with swear-words: "They're having a go at us!" He was even commended by the divisional commander and the overall commander, because he immediately ordered return fire and claimed that his lads had taken out all the rebel firing positions, emerged without a single loss from a spook ambush and taken the positions they were aiming for right on time. But only this morning, Sorokin heard about all this from an eyewitness from that column. It emerged that nothing of the kind had happened. No spooks, no ambush-So most likely nobody would ever write the truth about this war. And if later anyone were to attempt an analysis of this operation, they would come across an incident which never even occurred.

          Several days into the operation, Sorokin was summoned back to Kabul. The general was already in the helicopter when an order came through from the Military Counselor to delay the flight. They took off later than planned, which annoyed the general intensely. The hospitable Counselor had spent all this time plying the journalist with food and drink, and this caused an hour's delay on departure.
          Two people loaded "Andersen" into the chopper with difficulty. He reeked of alcohol. He was in no condition to think or even recognize anyone.
          "Greetings to our valiant officers! Let's go!" he managed to say, and promptly began to snore.

          The shuravi moved deeper and deeper into the Afghan meat-grinder;

          - we're hordes and hordes and hordes -

          It turned them over, squashed them, killed them; insatiable death demanded new victims; people resisted, but not always with success.

          After debilitating combat, seizure of the heights and pursuit of scattered spook groups, the battalion was moving towards the main camp, to the armed group. Sharagin's platoon brought up the rear.

          -only our soldiers can go scrambling around these mountains loaded down with weapons and rations for some idea and ten coupons a month, fight like hell and die with a feeling of "duty discharged" in this damned Afghanistan!- is this a platoon? -a handful!- what's this for a platoon, fuck it?! Twelve men-.the slopes of that mountain look like an unshaved chin, scattered with bushes-I need a shave, too-

          Sharagin took the rifle off his shoulder into his hands. Now his short shadow was armed, too, just in case.

          - twelve men in the platoon-so what?-it's been worse-that's right, there were times when we'd scale these mountains and laugh with joy that we were at least ten-as for now - a whole twelve!-we'll do a bit more fighting yet!-an hour more, and we should be out of here-fucking mountains! Time for you to go home, Sharagin-

          He wiped his forehead and eyebrows with filthy hands. His hat had been saturated with sweat, but had now dried out and drooped sadly, white traces of salt all over it. The hat held back the sweat, but trickles would still get through and roll down sunburned face and neck.

          -it's hard going, the lungs can't handle it, and my troops are tired, like dried fish-mouth dry, throat scratchy-we can't stop, we've got to get out of here-I don't like the feel of this ridge -

          He cast a look at his men - they were moving along in file, still game.

          -Savatyev's tired of lugging that machine gun-.he carried a wounded comrade exactly like that once-Burkov's limping, probably rubbed his feet raw-Well, Gerasimov, this is all a bit different to writing combat reports for the political officer, isn't it?-Myshkovsky's keeping everyone moving-hmmmm, wonder if it's mined here? Too late now if it is, should have thought of that sooner-now we'll just have to take our chances-.but no, nobody's been here-I hope-

          Two walking in front of him. Rear view of heads and backs. Dried sweat stains on the shirts. So what, he doesn't need to see their faces. He knows all his men even from the back.

          - you can see Sychev's cheeks sticking out even from the back, he'll be a fatso in ten years' time, for sure-Chirikov's pants are flapping around, he's round-shouldered and sway-backed-"never mind my sunken chest, take a look at the bend in my back"-

          - a shower, a good shower, that's what I need, a glass of water after the bath-house-I don't like this gorge-I'll spend an hour under the shower-clean clothes-.there's got to be one of our positions somewhere, up on that crest, I think-quit worrying, there aren't any spooks here! There can't be. There shouldn't be, what would spooks be doing here?-we've left them all behind-we killed all the spooks-we'll get down to the riverbed, and it won't be far after that-I'm dying for a smoke-

          -damned sun's broiling-hang in there, pal!-everything behind me is in order, in front, too-I'm tired, everyone's tired-.prickly nervous faces, sour, drooping-.replacement, replacement soon-don't think about that!-a bare ridge to the left, I don't like that ridge-where's the promised outpost? -it's too quiet-where are our people?-I'll buy a double cassette player, just like Zebrev's-just as well I've bought just about everything for my girls-must make a trip into town after the operation-what's he talking about, a break!-

          "No stopping! Keep moving! Look lively!"

          - the sun, this blasted sun, cold and snow would be better than this heat, and when you sleep in the mountains at night you freeze and wish it was warm, can't wait for the sun to rise-.

          -the faster we're out of here the better, away from trouble, rotten place, none of our positions to be seen, we've got to get out of here-clouds over the sun, the sun's gone- cloud shadow over the whole gorge-

          More than two kilometers away, company commander Zebrev stood in the shelter and through his binoculars saw small figures with matted greasy beards. At this distance, they looked like toys. Sure-footed men in turbans and Pashtun hats swarmed over the crest and scattered in different directions, taking up positions behind huge boulders and waiting for the tail platoon to appear; Zebrev saw Sharagin's platoon walking into the ambush, but there was nothing he could do-

          Machine guns chattered, the paras fell like tin soldiers which a boy playing at war tips over one after another, crying out: "Bang-bang! You're dead! Lie there and don't move! And you're wounded!"
          Sharagin fell after the first shot and explosion. He breathed in the bitter taste of the explosion, lost his hearing, but rallied quickly, swallowed the bitterness and breathed deeply, as if surfacing after a dive, "sobered up."
          The flash of the explosion nearby seemed to spear through his eyes, penetrate his brain, pierce his consciousness more painfully than an injection, and receded just as quickly.
          He thought that he had jumped himself, hiding from the streams of fire raining down the slope, and it was partly true, he struck the sand and felt himself soaked in blood.
          However, he could not tell for sure how much time passed since he heard the shots and explosion, when he became wounded, threw his backpack and sleeping bag off and saw the streams of blood as he tried to aim at the crest.
          The ambush struck him off course, snapped some inner regular mechanism, time went out of kilter and began to contract and expand in some mysterious way.

          -Someone omnipotent threw the dice and HIS, Sharagin's number came up. But that same omnipotent being seemed to hesitate at the last moment, as though distracted, or maybe the dice fell on their ribs and remained like that for a while before rolling over on the table, and this gave a few extra moments of life, nothing compared to infinity-

          He evaluated the situation at once: they'd made their move well, the spooks, the entire platoon was exposed. Sharagin tried to estimate how long they could hold out, how far off was the battalion, would they be able to establish contact with them quickly over the radio, and wondered bitterly where the hell the supposed shelter really was.
          Junior sergeant Myshkovsky was the first to spot that the commander was wounded. He ran, and Sharagin could see spurts of dust under the soldier's feet. He did not recognize his own voice, it was as if someone else was shouting over the noise of the battle:
          "Back! Go back!"
          Myshkovsky stopped suddenly, as though he heard the order, jerked, spun on the spot and froze for a moment, unnaturally, as if he was about to run back, away from the ambush, but then changed his mind and crashed to the ground.
          He fell face-forward on the sharp fangs of stones, one of which pierced his eye; an outside observer would have thought that it must be unbearably painful to fall face down on stones and lose an eye that way. But Myshkovsky had felt nothing, he was already dead on his feet when a volley of bullets stitched accurately, like a machine seam, through his heart and lungs.
          The panama fell off his head and rolled away with its red star, hammer and sickle.
          The dead face, turned towards his commanding officer, seemed somehow child-like, naively surprised, and at the same time seemed to be waiting for a last order, because his commander had called something to him a moment ago. Myshkovsky's remaining eye was frozen in the reflection of death.

          - death chose him, I'm next-

          As soon as Sharagin took his hand away from his neck, a thick stream of blood, broad as a finger, spurted out into the dust, dyeing surrounding small stones. He licked his palm as if to make sure that it was really blood, and tasted its warm saltiness in his mouth. He spat. Overcoming the pain, which constricted his neck and burned, Sharagin managed to take cover from the spooks behind a rock.

          - I need bandaging as quickly as possible -

          He tore open a pack of dressing, but realized that he could not bandage himself properly. Turning on his other side he called:
          "Sychev! Sychev!"
          Sychev could neither see nor hear the commander.

          - my shoes are wet-why are they wet?-boots full of blood, I can move my toes, but it's slurping inside-my shirt's all wet, sticky-the wound has to be plugged!-

          The soldier was busy reloading but finally noticed that the platoon leader was wounded, crawled up crabwise, keeping a frantic eye on the crest, saw his friend lying behind Sharagin.
          "He's dead," husked Sharagin in order not to lose time.
          "Sons of bitches!" yelled Sychev. He grabbed his assault rifle, but Sharagin restrained him.
          "Right, comrade senior lieutenant, we'll have you bandaged in no time-"
          He tore the rubber packaging of the dressing with his teeth, and began bandaging Sharagin's throat. The dressings, absorbing blood like a sponge, stuck together, allowing thin red trickles to pass through.
          'We've had it," said Sychev fearfully as a grenade exploded nearby, but Sharagin's eyes snapped him back.
          He was about to say something when the sky above them seemed to quiver, keel over sideways and turn upside-down-

          - if the jugular vein's ripped, it's curtains, I'll be dead in a minute-

          The bleeding won't stop!" yelled the soldier, cringing away from flying bullets. "It's not stopping!" he shouted straight into Sharagin's ear.
          "The wrapping! Plug it with the bandage wrapping-" guessed Sharagin. The result was a huge bulge on his neck. The bleeding stopped. He turned his head, and blood began to trickle again.
          Sychev listened to Sharagin's rasping voice and passed on his orders. Did the other soldiers on the slope hear them?
          "Don't waste ammunition!" cried Sychev at the top of his voice. "Hit the crest with the heavy fire! Cover the left flank!-Single shots!-Don't waste ammunition!-"
          Sharagin rolled over on his stomach. He could clearly see a spook coming down the slope.

          - about the same age as me -

          He kept the spook in his sights. He had such a good aim that it would be disappointing if someone else beat him to it and shot his "prey."

          - time -

          The bullets hit their mark. The spook fell, but Sharagin kept his finger on the trigger because spook heads were poking up to left and right from behind rocks. He had used up most of his magazine when his rifle jammed. Almost at the same moment, everything went black.

          - this is it-I won't let them take me alive, I'll wait until it quiets down and then I'll blow myself up, when the spooks come closer I'll get them too-

          He pulled a grenade out of his vest, clutching it in his hand like something infinitely precious, something that would bring instant release from suffering and the horror of being taken prisoner.
          His eyesight returned. At first everything looked foggy, but then cleared. He could see Sychev not far from himself. The only thing he could not understand was why had everyone stopped shooting? Could they have possibly driven off the spooks?

          -I must be deaf! It can't have finished just like this-such things don't happen-

          In fact, the battle had not stopped, it was just that the senior lieutenant couldn't hear a thing. He saw Sychev's face twisting, saw his rifle move, cartridge cases falling to the ground, but he could hear neither voices nor shots.
          The soft whiskers on the grenade straightened out. Sharagin pressed it to his heart with his right hand.

          - pain, I didn't notice it immediately -

          Pain. It took possession timidly,

          - like a fellow-passenger in a crowded bus-

          Crept up carefully, as if wanting to nestle up: only later, acquiring strength, it changed into something brighter, anxiety-provoking - into crimson, the color of blood issuing from a wound; it deepened, it took full control, became unbearable and wiped away,

          -the way unnecessary words are wiped off a blackboard-

          wiped away the bright colors and thoughts, feelings, diving into infinity, filling every moment with blindingly burning light-.
          "We need contact," husked Sharagin. "Call up the artillery-Get them to fire on us!"

          The first shell fell accurately on the crest. Sharagin did not hear the explosion, but felt the earth shudder. He peered out from his concealing rock in order to check where the hit had been made. The fire was precise, one shell after another neatly, as if someone was adjusting each one.

          - luck!-we called them to fire on us, but they messed up as usual-but how did they manage to establish contact and pass on the coordinates so quickly? I must have blacked out for a while-.did I?

          Sharagin had no way of knowing that the company commander had followed the entire battle through his field glasses. The position had been put up, but it was at least two kilometers away. Therefore it was Zebrev who gave the coordinates and corrected the trajectories. He saw the spooks coming down the left slope. They would have gone around the platoon soon and hit them directly.
          Sharagin heard the last explosions on the crest and volleys of gunfire: his hearing returned as suddenly as it had disappeared. He felt as though a tidal wave had washed over him, returning him to the world of familiar sounds.
          While the men dealt with the dead and wounded, Sharagin put the grenade back in his vest and began to check out the rifle, which had failed him so badly. He became immersed in this task, as if there was nothing better to do than get it in working order, as though he was not wounded, as though there were no waves of pain which rose and receded.
          "Comrade senior lieutenant, Myshkovsky and Chirikov are dead-five men wounded, Savateyev and Burkov heavily," reported someone.

          - yes, yes-sonafabitch, why did you let me down like that?-

          "Comrade senior lieutenant-"

          Sharagin jerked the breech of the rifle. With every jerk, the dressing on his neck slipped and blood began to run. He grabbed a rock and hit the breech with all his strength. The breech moved. Blood flowed faster. He felt warm streams of it running down his body under his shirt.
          "Comrade senior lieutenant-"
          Sharagin choked on a cough, saw sparks in his eyes.
          "Oleg!" called Zebrev. "Can you hear me?"

          - this is really it, I'm going -

          He must have been lying without movement for a long time. Blood ran from his ears and nose. Soldiers surrounded him, almost blocking out the sky.
          He understood that he was dead, that they knew it too and were saying farewell to their commander.
          The deep sky seemed to draw him, race to meet him, persuading him to break away from all earthly cares, to soar into the endless heavenly space and dissolve in it forever.
          And the last thing he was to see before he died was a plane high above, and he felt glad that it was an Il-76, which was possibly carrying away people who had survived the war.

          - somebody was lucky-

          Or perhaps it was returning from Tashkent, filled with new recruits and men coming back from leave.
          But at the last moment he hesitated, because looking at the plane intently he saw that it was a "Black Tulip."

          - what a prosaic end!-

          However, something held the spirit of life fast inside him, brought him back to the moment when Zebrev came up. Or did it just seem to Sharagin that he was alive?

          - people don't come back from the next world-it's a much time has passed?-

          "Hang on, don't move!" said Zebrev. "We'll carry you!"
          "I can mange alone! Help me up!"
          "Move out!" ordered Zebrev, and the soldiers from the platoon accompanying him began to gather up the dead and wounded.
          Sharagin found his balance, pushed helping hands aside:
          "I can manage!"

          -I have to walk, but there's no strength left-like a half-dead cockroach-legs shaking-cough-

          Only now did Sharagin feel that the bullet

          - or a fragment -

          was lodged in his throat.

          -like a foreign body inside, a tiny lump of lead-

          "Comrade senior lieutenant, let me give you a shot of Promedol," offered Sychev.

          - they give me a shot, I'll start to drift-

          "Give it to the wounded."
          Somehow remaining on his feet, leaning heavily on his rifle, Sharagin descended to the stream. There was a flat area ahead, where a chopper could land.
          He walked more than a kilometer, second to last in the line. In front of him, soldiers dragged two corpses in ground sheets and the moaning Burkov.
          He stopped several times, asked for his flask to be filled, greedily drinking the icy water of the mountain stream. It was like water from a sacred spring - it gave strength and froze and numbed the pain in his neck.
          At one stage he staggered, but managed to regain his balance and stopped. He wanted to jump into the water, let it carry him away into the unknown, escape from the tragedy, which had occurred.

          -if only I can hang on, not black out, not lose consciousness, not to succumb to self-pity-I'll walk to the end-I've got to get the platoon out of here!-

          "If I fall, catch me," he said to a soldier next to him. He could not see the soldier's face through the murk in his eyes.

          Stinging particles of dust whipped up by the chopper's blades flew everywhere, scratching and biting Sharagin's face, which was already raw from a week in the mountains. Probably his sunburned skin could be peeled away from his face like a sock.
          They carried Myshkovsky past, one remaining eye staring.

          -an empty, dead look on a cold, immobile face-when a fish lies in the bottom of a boat and flaps its tail helplessly, its glazing eye sees the sky above, and it probably thinks that it is seeing the deep blue of the sea-you spend a day fishing, looking at your catch from time to time-and feel no pity, no fellow-suffering-what's happening to me?-the sun dries out the fish's scales, the fish becomes hard, wooden-

          "Take them into the tail section!"
          Chirikov followed Myshkovsky. While the bodies were being dragged into the chopper, legs first, the canvas fell back, exposing the dead soldier's fair head and blood-caked face. Sharagin surged forward, pulled the canvas shut.
          "Now the wounded!"
          "That's it!" called Zebrev, helping Sharagin clamber inside. "Hang on, Oleg! Here, take these." A string of lapis-lazuli worry beads lay on his palm. "One of the spooks dropped these. He won't be needing them any more-"
          Exhausted, furious, half-deaf, Sharagin settled on the floor, back against the wall of the fuselage. Pain swelled to the volume of a roaring chopper, even more, perhaps, and filled all the available space, seen and unseen.
          The blades dragged the chopper up into the air.
          A pilot poked his head out from the cockpit:
          "Hey, guys! Somebody man the machine gun! This is bad territory! Pray God we can get out!"

          -Where's my rifle? How will I be able to shoot back?

          "Tighten my tourniquet, comrade senior lieu-" groaned private Burkov.
          Sharagin shook himself and got on to his knees to tighten the tourniquet around Burkov's machine gun smashed leg. And immediately felt that he was choking. Not enough oxygen at this altitude. The bandages seemed to constrict his throat. He fell forward on Burkov.
          The darkness that engulfed him immediately was not frightening. He gave way to it effortlessly, knowing that he could not resist. He had no strength to fight it.

          -and then-to sleep, perchance to dream-who said that?-Shakespeare?-can't remember-it would be a fine thing to go to Heaven, but my sins won't let me-

          He wanted desperately to understand what was going on, what was happening with his mind, but he could find nothing to cling to, nothing certain to stop him from sliding into the chasm; the past disappeared all at once, he did not dare suspect a future, while the present was filled with silence - not a rustle, not a sound, not even a distant hint of life.
          Then after a million years of all-pervading silence, something came to life, and he could have sworn that there was now a presence in the silence, probably the presence of Death, which was feeling around, seeking the bleeding, pain-wracked human being who huddled in a damp corner, hiding, unprepared, unwilling to die.

          -that's all-the end-

          A tidal wave of noise seemed to engulf him, a universe of terrible noise; he tumbled into those dark depths deeper and deeper, then hung, got stuck, unable to distinguish separate sounds: there was just a monotonous roar drilling through his skull. Sharagin did not know whether he had gone blind, or just had his eyes shut, or whether the spark of hope that had still glimmered a second, a minute, an hour ago that he would live, flickered out and left him here, in the empty darkness, in the waiting room of Death.


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