Nikolai Lanine’s Interview In Full

War Veteran Draws Comparisons Between The Soviet Union and Canada

The Link: Canada’s stated objectives for its Afghanistan mission include security, humanitarian assistance and reconciliation. Can you compare those to Russia’s objectives during the Soviet-Afghan war?

Nikolai Lanine: The Soviet Union and Canada’s claimed objectives are similar, although there are some differences mainly due to the different international situations of the Cold War and today.

Canadians were told we’re in Afghanistan because of “self-defence” and because “helping Afghanistan will protect Canada”. The USSR claimed that by sending troops to Afghanistan it was preventing “threat to the security of [the Soviet] southern boarders” from Islamic fundamentalists. The invasion was also seen as self-defense to prevent a “neighboring country with a shared Soviet-Afghan border… [from turning] into a bridgehead for… [Western] aggression against the Soviet state”.

The USSR was claiming it was protecting security of Afghanistan itself from external interference from Pakistan and Iran. Currently, Canada/NATO claims that improving security in Afghanistan will prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

The Taliban is often portrayed as a foreign proxy force that is invading Afghanistan from Pakistan. This is similar to how the Soviet media described the situation in Afghanistan: US and Pakistani-trained Islamists crossing into Afghanistan and threatening its security. The Soviet goal was “to prevent the establishment of… a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilizing the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression.”

The USSR saw its actions as protection from radicals who were threatening to destabilise Soviet Central Asian republics and exporting their fundamentalist struggle across the region “’under the green banner of Jihad’, to the territory of the Soviet Central-Asian republics.”

Humanitarian assistance was also one of the claimed Soviet objectives in Afghanistan. Just like Canadians believe that “this mission is about Canadians helping Afghans,” Soviets were saying that they were “helping friendly [Afghan] nation.”

Like today, Soviets claimed they had to provide security for any kind of development, and fighting insurgency was portrayed as protecting the population from Islamic radicals who targeted anyone associated with Afghan government and Soviets: teachers, geologists, civil and agricultural engineers, medical personnel, various advisors.

So Soviet fighting was presented as a protection of peaceful Afghan population to normalize life for Afghans and “to help the hapless Afghan people to defend their freedom [and] their future.”

Like today, Soviet economic development and humanitarian aid were limited to cities and areas under army control. It was often done by combat units, who, like my regiment, were delivering fuel, food, blankets, clothing, school supplies etc. to the population.

Such efforts were portrayed in Soviet media with images of Soviet troops distributing aid, building schools and houses, or Soviet doctors treating Afghans. However, the media was not giving voices to Afghans who were opposing the Soviet invasion or victims of Soviet bombings.

Reconciliation became an objective for both Canada and the USSR later in war. The initial Soviet approach was similar to Canada’s in 2006, during fighting around Kandahar, when the Canadian government claimed it was “not negotiating with terrorists”.

Later, Canada acknowledged the Afghan government’s negotiations with “moderate Taliban”. Likewise, Soviets changed their approach in 1987, after the Afghan government declared the “policy of national reconciliation”. On the ground, I witnessed a lot of talks with locals and insurgents, and I can see some of the dynamics and sentiments of those days replaying now.

The Link: According to your research there are strong similarities between the Western media’s coverage of the war and the Soviet media’s coverage. Can you explain your comparison and say why you think a free press can come to resemble a state-controlled one?

Lanine: I was not comparing the freedom of the press. I focused on the framework and outcomes of media coverage. Just like we compare public and private health care, or Soviet and Canadian hockey teams focusing on performance, not the ideological background. I was simply looking at what the media covered and how it covered it.

Of course, there are some differences in coverage. Soviet coverage in the first years of war was almost incomprehensible. However, during Gorbachev’s semi-liberal reforms coverage improved. I went through old Soviet articles, particularly from the last couple years of war, and looked at the framework of coverage and the language used.

For example, I looked at how much the media focused on positive stories of Soviet soldiers vs. negative stories on insurgency; or how often and why the media was critical of the Soviet role in Afghanistan.

What I found was that Soviet coverage of the last years of war was compatible to that of Canadian coverage in 2006-07. There are differences, of course: for example, the Soviets didn’t report casualties in the beginning at all and even, at the height of the media’s freedom, coverage of Soviet casualties was not as complete as Canadian coverage now.

Another example, Canadian media does mention Afghans killed by us, although rather superficially, while Soviets didn’t mention them until the end of war. However, the overall framework of coverage is very similar: we are doing the right thing by fighting in Afghanistan for our own security and a better future for Afghans, with media focusing heavily on our military and reconstruction.

The media’s images have a lot of similarities too. Naturally, 30-year old b/w photos from Pravda look bleak compared to modern high quality images, but if you look at what messages those images communicate it’s hard to ignore similarities.

Like Canadian media now, Soviet media showed images of reconstruction projects, girls attending schools, a soldier holding a smiling Afghan child, women working equally to men, Soviet-built hospitals, smiling Afghans and soviet soldiers shaking hands, Soviet medics treating Afghans.

Images also portrayed hardships of Soviet soldiers in combat or a disabled veteran learning how to walk with prosthetic legs. The themes were very similar to what I see in the Canadian media today.

I think another reason is kind of subconscious self-censorship. Like any people, both Soviet and Canadian journalists are humans and products of their societies, raised to be proud of their countries and their values, and not to challenge self-narratives.

And their reporting reflects that. Both Canadian and Soviet journalists reported forming a bond with soldiers they went on missions with in Afghanistan. It’s incredibly hard – almost impossible – for a person to witness the agony of a fallen soldier’s family and then write an article questioning if the soldier died for a right cause or if he was supposed to be at that war in the first place.

It’s only human to gravitate to stay within the accepted moral and ideological boundaries of one’s society.

Free press resembles a state-controlled one when it stops challenging the status quo. In Canada, the media goes more or less with the government’s version of events in Afghanistan. Most coverage is done by journalists embedded with troops and focused on the personalities of our soldiers and our Afghan allies and the benefits of our presence in Afghanistan.

One gets only a one-sided picture. One can hear about the sacrifices our troops are making, how they believe in their mission while serving in harsh and dangerous conditions, confronting an elusive and ruthless enemy. Media would tell us stories about a successful Canadian reconstruction project; soldiers coping with deaths around them and believing that their friends didn’t die in vain; a wounded Afghan saved by our medics; a distinguished or fallen soldier; a disabled veteran’s struggle to rebuild his life; soldiers’ challenges of coping with PTSD and difficult transitions back into society.

These are true and important stories. However, they are only a part of the larger picture. And they happen to be exactly the kind of stories that the Soviet media was telling. In 1980s, the Canadian and Western media were covering the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of Afghans, including, ironically, the radicals we are fighting now.

The West justifiably ridiculed the Soviet media for not challenging the Soviet government, for presenting a one-sided picture of war and leaving out the narrative of Afghans. With few exceptions, I don’t see Canadian media doing a much better job now.

The Link: How would you respond to those who would say that your comparison is unfair because Western media operates in an open society with a free press whereas the Soviet media was state controlled?

Lanine: The extent of media freedom is irrelevant here. I noticed that for Canadians, the shock of comparing Canadian and Soviet media comes from a conventional wisdom that everything in the USSR was bad by definition and journalists were dishonest. Soviet soldiers often expressed anger with the Soviet media for telling only half-the truth about the war.

While collaborating with the British “Media Lens” on on-line article “Invasion – a comparison of Soviet and Western media performance”, I researched and interviewed some Soviet journalists who covered Afghanistan in the 1980s. I also occasionally speak to Canadian journalists here. Apart from different cultures, I didn’t find any differences between Russians and Canadians.

Yes, they functioned within different systems and it’s reflected in their writings, but this is as far as the differences go. A Canadian journalist told me that getting embedded with troops meant that journalists would see only what the military wanted them to see. Even if you write honestly, coverage would be limited and one-sided. It was different with Soviet journalists: some of them saw a lot, but it didn’t matter, because they had to write what they were ordered to. And even if they wrote the truth, it couldn’t get through the censorship anyway, so coverage ended up being one-sided too. Different systems, similar outcomes. You have to ask: did the Canadian media go out of its way to challenge the government and our assumption that we have the right to fight in Afghanistan?

Did it challenge the status quo and ask unpopular question about the war? In this sense, I don’t think it performed much better than the Soviet media did. The right of the Canadian media to challenge the government is protected by law. Soviet journalists were taking tremendous risks even by hinting at criticism of Soviet policies in Afghanistan. The few who dared to do that lost their jobs or were persecuted.

Of course, Western media is free in ways that the Soviet media never was; nobody can dispute that. In fact, Soviet media didn’t have any freedom at all until Gorbachev relaxed censorship in the late 1980s.

As I said above, I was not comparing degrees of media independence, but rather the outcomes of media coverage. Judging by what people say, Canadians are not necessarily better informed by free media about the current war in Afghanistan than Soviet citizens were by a state-controlled one in the 1980s.

The depth of understanding is roughly the same from what I can see around me. And this is when Canadians have almost unlimited access to information while Soviet citizens didn’t. Yes, it is an unfair comparison in a sense that the Soviet media didn’t have the freedom and advantages that Canadian media has, and you can’t even compare working conditions for Soviet and Canadian journalists.

And precisely because of that, a comparison of war coverage in Afghanistan is not in favour of the free Canadian media, because outcomes are compatible to the state-controlled Soviet one. I spent almost 1.5 years in Afghanistan and have been following events there since the 1980s, so I have some understanding of the place and I am able to connect the dots most of the time, but I can’t get an accurate picture of the situation there from the Canadian media. I have to search alternative sources to understand what’s happening in Afghanistan.

The Canadian media doesn’t give me a full picture, just as the Soviet media didn’t.

“The Canadian media doesn’t give me a full picture, just as the Soviet media didn’t.” – Nikolai Lanine

The Link: In a previous interview you said that the Soviet Union got caught up in the “idea of [its] own goodness” and that you were surprised to see the same thing happening in Canada? Can you explain what you meant by that?

Lanine: Like Canadians today, Soviets believed that they went to Afghanistan out of good intentions to help Afghans to get rid of an oppressive regime and Islamic fundamentalists and to provide Afghans with a better future.

Once we believe this self-created narrative, we start seeing war through the prism of self-righteousness, and our actions as unquestionably good. We see ourselves as a positive force doing the right thing and making big sacrifices for the benefit of others (Afghans). We collectively fall in love with this righteous self-image, celebrate ourselves and don’t stop to examine our actions.

When Soviets were talking about the cost or war, it usually implied losses by Soviet and Afghan troops. The focus of the Soviet media and public were on the Soviet blood and sacrifices, not Afghan ones. These attitudes are not that different in Canada today.

We keep asking the same question: “does it cost Canada too much to be in Afghanistan?” forgetting Afghans. It looks like we simply can’t imagine that that we might be doing something wrong. So when in 2006, the Canadian debate on Afghanistan started resembling a Soviet one, it came to me as a shocking surprise.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.