Growing up in Germany and learning about World War II in school and from my parents and grandparents, among the things that impressed me most – that I just couldn't get out of my mind – were the pictures of those boys drafted into Adolf Hitler's "Volkssturm" (literally: "People's Storm"); the pictures of those 16-, 18- and 19-year-old boys torn out of school before they had even had a chance to graduate, and turned into cannon fodder; the pictures of those eyes staring out of faces grown old long before their time. I have now seen those same eyes and those same faces again in Vladislav Tamarov's photo-journalistic report on his experiences as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan, subtitled simply "A Russian Soldier's Story."
There is, for example, Sergei, the author's best friend in Afghanistan, who had his leg shattered by an exploding bullet – and so much more than just his leg was shattered with it. Then there is Sasha, who wanted to be a pilot and asked his friend Vlad, who was from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), whether his parents could enquire for him about the application procedures for the city's flight school – and who didn't even live to receive his answer. There is Aleksei, who walked into a minefield because somebody misread a map. There is Aleksandr, who got killed covering his commanding officer's body with his chest and who was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's highest medal – which was given to his mother, to take the place of her dead son. There is Kravchenko, who went out to check a road with a couple of newcomers and was blown up by a mine – only weeks before he was scheduled to return home. There is Volodya, who couldn't look into the eyes of other minesweepers returning to camp if he hadn't gone out with them – and who was also killed only months before his time in Afghanistan was supposed to be over. There is the group picture of Oleg, Renat, Aleksandr, Vladimir and Sergei, taken while they are resting somewhere under a tree – only 14 hours before one of them would be killed by an ambush, 46 days before two more of them would be seriously injured and another one killed, and one year before the last of them would also be killed. And there is Vladislav Tamarov himself, who in 1984, like so many others, suddenly found himself in a boot camp, being trained for a two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan because the Supreme Soviet had proclaimed seven years earlier in the country's revised constitution that "[t]o serve in the Soviet army is the honorable duty of Soviet citizens" – and ever since the Communist party leaders' 1979 decision to yield to the "call for help" issued by the communist satellite government in Kabul, that "honorable duty" consisted in "supporting the Afghan revolution." And so Tamarov was pulled out of university, learned to put on a parachute and jump into the abyss below his plane (a completely useless skill in Afghanistan), learned to kill boys as young as himself in order to survive, was made a minesweeper without any prior training at all; and as a minesweeper, quickly learned that you make a mistake only once – it's between you and that mine, and there is no second chance. Not ever.