Graveyard of Empires – The disastrous Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: by Andrew Grant

Soviet Sniper in Afghanistan during Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan; Unknown year, potentially 1979.

Introduction: The Graveyard of Empires
Afghanistan has often been called the “graveyard of empires”, throughout its long history, many invaders have attempted to conquer the land, but been repelled and driven back. Even when they were conquered, they resisted and tossed out the invaders. Its mountainous terrain has been a great tool, which made it hard to conquer, much less pacify. The Brits, the Tsars, and many dreamed of adding Afghanistan to their empire but never saw that dream come to fruition. The Soviets were one of many invaders, and despite having gained control of the cities and population centers of the country, the resistance in the countryside, and the heavy loss of life, forcing them to draw back in humiliation. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, at the request of the local Communist government to help squash unrest, a bloody decade-long conflict would ensue, and would be seen by many as the “Afghan Quagmire.”

Brenzhnev’s Foreign Policy: Brotherhood in Socialism
Brenzhnev during the era pursued building socialism in the third world and in developing countries, particularly in recently decolonized nations in Africa and Asia. Brenzhnev pursued a policy of detente with the West. During the period of Brenzhnev many agreements were signed with the United States limiting nuclear arms building and decreasing their stockpiles. Eventually near the end of the decade, old animosities with the West would start to reemerge, particularly with regards to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The West did not react kindly to the invasion of Afghanistan and as such the United States would back Islamist dissidents in Afghanistan, arming and training them to fight back the “Bolsheviks Hordes” (Freeze 445-446).

Brenzhnev intervened in Afghanistan at the request of the socialist government in Kabul. He saw it as an opportunity to further Soviet influence in the region and to strengthen a potential partner in a strategically vital region. The Soviets had just a year before the invasion signed a friendship pact with the Afghan government in 1978. The Afghan government, dealing with massive dissent from religious Afghans and rural workers, asked the Soviets to help them. The Soviets justified their intervention in the name of “defending the gains of the revolution” (von Geldern). The Soviets were also worried about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, which had taken hold in Iran, which could cause dissent and issues in their own Islamic lands.

The “Jihad” against Bolshevism, Islamic resistance to Invasion
Similar to how many in the German Reich in the Second World War framed their war against the Soviets as a “crusade” against Marxism, even going so far to name their invasion after Barbarossa the German Crusader King, Friedrich Barbarossa, many Islamic Fundamentalists, would portray their fight in a similar religious fashion. They would portray it as a “holy war”, against Marxist “atheism.” Many from across the Islamic world would join the Afghan fighters, in their fight against the Soviet Union. They saw it as a struggle for the survival of their faith in Afghanistan, which was under threat from the highly anti-religious policies of the Afghan regime. Pakistan and the US, fearing the implications of a successful Soviet invasion, backed Islamic “freedom fighters” in their struggle against the Soviet Union.

In January 1980, 35 Islamic countries met in Islamabad, Pakistan to join together in condemnation of the Soviet invasion that had started the previous month. They urged all Islamic countries to not recognize the Communist regime in Afghanistan. These condemnations did not deter the Soviet Union though and they largely faded in memory, until the US started organizing a “great Jihad against the Soviets.” In 1979, Jimmy Carter feared looking weak in the face of Soviet Aggression, and took to harsh measures, boycotting the Moscow Olympics, withdrawing from arms treaties, and funded Islamic partisans, the Mujaradeen (freedom fighters) against the Soviets. The Mujahadeen was armed with American arms, rocket launchers, assault rifles, etc., they would recruit from across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Pakistan, Islamists would volunteer to fight against the “Soviet Menace” (Hoodbhoy)

Soviet Sniper: Primary Source Image in Context
We can see in the first image, a Red Army sniper in Afganistan. Snipers used the terrain to their advantage, to pick off resistance from afar. He has the scope to his eye to search out his target and to pick off the enemy. The terrain and the guerrila-based fighting that the Red Army encountered in Afghanistan made pitched battles, next to impossible. Almost all of it was small scale, fights. We can see the sniper is not near anyone, he is by himself. Pitched battles and conventional styles of warfare were not possible in this environment.

The beginning of the end: Implications of the Afghan Quagmire for the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union had entered the war, with arrogance, believing it would be a quick campaign, but would be greatly disappointed and shocked at the amount of resistance they would face in the country. The Soviet press in 1980 had reported that “life in Afghanistan’s capital is proceeding normally. Radio Kabul reports that calm has been established everywhere and that the Afghan Army is in complete control of the situation in the country” (“Decisions of the Afghan Government”). The fight would grind into a bloody attritional war, that would cost 10’s of thousands of Soviet lives, drive the Soviet economy into the ground, and give way to domestic opposition, all factors that would lead to the eventual far of the Soviet Union a mere 12 years after the invasion began. The Afghan war was a complete disaster, the Taliban gained control in the country, destroy the Soviet Union’s international standing, and even lead to Islamic extremism within Russia itself (“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979”).


“Decisions of the Afghan Government” Current Digest of the Russian Press, 6 Feb. 1980,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009. pg. 445-446

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. “Afghanistan and the Genesis of Global Jihad.” Peace Research, vol. 37, no. 1, 2005, pp. 15–30. JSTOR,

“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979.” Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, by David C. Gompert et al., RAND Corporation, 2014, pp. 129–138. JSTOR,

von Geldern, James. “Invasion of Afghanistan.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University, 18 June 2017,

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 – International and Domestic Implications of de-Stalinization; By Andrew Grant

Revolutionaries demonstrating in front of the Parliament building in Pest, October 1956,
photo by Keystone Press ;

In 1953, Stalin, the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union, who had been in power since 1925, perished. The Soviet Union, and the entire Warsaw Bloc, experienced many changes in the aftermath of his passing. This article will attempt to explore many of these changes, discussing the changes in Soviet and Eastern European Society, will outline the process of De-Stalinization analyzing the international and domestic implications of the policy particularly focusing on the Hungarian Revolution, discussing Krushev era reforms, and the perils and promises of reform in the post-Stalin Era in both Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Hungarian Revolution (Historical Background)
In 1956 many major events occurred within the Warsaw Pact. In 1956 Krushev denounced Stalin in a speech to the Soviet Congress. Stalin once had a “cult of his personality” surrounding his person, this was one of the first jabs at the mythical deity-like status he had established around himself. The speech marked a major change in Soviet policy and marked the shift towards reform and changes in society. That same year Polish workers revolted due to the poor wages and the failure of communist officials to answer to their complaints. Poland and Hungary both had largely unpopular communist regimes, they were imposed on them after the Second World War, and were largely fragile. The Hungarian Revolution had its origins in many of the developments within that year, and many of the same factors that led to the Polish unrest of that year were shared. The Poles had successfully gotten some of their demands for more liberalization answered, and a more liberal figure was put into power, which fueled Hungarian aspirations for more liberty and liberalism in their own country.

Hungary, similar to the Soviet Union, in 1953, started shifting away from its hardline path, and Imre Nagy took the reigns of power from a hardliner Stalinist, Matyas Rakosi’. Imre Nagy took Hungary in a path towards increasing liberalization and openness. In 1955, the popular Nagy, was removed from power by Rakosi’s supporters, and Matyas Rakosi’ reassumed power in Hungary. Rakosi’s hardline leadership was not popular, and economic hardships and political unrest followed. The revolt had its origins in both popular discontent towards his rule as well as the revolts that occurred in the neighboring Warsaw Pact country of Poland, a historical friend of Hungary. Hungarian students took to the streets, similar to what happened in Poland, and sang patriotic songs and demanded change, the government of Rakosi responded through violent force, but this action greatly enhanced public sympathy with the protests, and the protestors turned militant and actively worked for change. Nagy was brought back to power, but the unrests were still ongoing, he negotiated with the protestors, allowing for more free and open elections, and allowed parties outside of the Communist party to operate freely. The ground was set for the Hungarian crisis and the inevitable international response to it, a new government had assumed power and had distanced itself from the more hardline policies of the past. (Siegelbaum)

Soviet Response to Hungarian Uprising in the context of De-Stalinization
The initial Soviet response, similar to their response to the Polish unrest, was non-violent. They decided to patiently wait and see where the course of the protests would be taken. In Poland, they had a more liberal communist government as a result of the uprising, which the Soviet Government came to accept, as they still maintained their relations with the Soviet Union and maintain Communism in Poland. The Soviet Union was not eager to stamp down on the revolt, at first, fearing its international ramifications. The Soviet Union at the time was involved in the Suez Crisis, supporting the Egyptians and their attempts to nationalize the canal, against the objections of Britain and France. The Soviets were busy in another crisis and did not want to further antagonize the Western powers, and were worried about their international perception if they brutally “stamped down” on the Hungarian Revolt. They were attempting to present themselves through the Suez Crisis as the “vanguard against Western Imperialism”, they feared the ramifications of what would be seen as an “imperialist action”, stamping down on liberty in foreign countries, that this action would make them appear hypocritical. The Soviets had taken a more reformist approach to government, themselves, and wanted to distance themselves from the legacy of Stalin and his brutal suppression of reformers and critics across Eastern Europe. Thus, because of the negative implications, that would result from a military response, the Soviets initially waited to see how the events in Hungary would progress.

As the protestors went further and further with their demands, and the Hungarian government of Nagy, kept acquiescing to those demands, the Soviets feared for the future of Communism in Hungary and their membership in the Warsaw Pact. The Hungarians eventually motioned to leave the Warsaw Pact, which mitigated a response. The Soviets had hoped the Hungarian protests would turn out like those in Poland and had shown flexibility to their protests, it is very likely the Soviets would have responded differently had the latter events of the revolution not occurred. The Soviets believed that the Hungarians were turning against them, and thus, responded with brutal military force. The Soviets feared looking “weak”, in the eyes of the international community, and took a strong approach towards the threat. They brutally crushed the revolt, had executed many of the ringleaders and had put a more pro-Soviet hardliner in place. (Kramer)

The aftermath of the revolt saw hardliner rule restored in Hungary. The Soviets, from that point on, until the period of Gorbachev, responded with brutal force to protestors who demanded reform, and had stamped down any threat they saw in the Warsaw Pact, like they did in the 1960’s in Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring. The Soviets had seen the unrest as “counter-revolutionary sentiments”, despite the pro-Communist leanings of many of the Protestors. They had also scapegoated “Western imperialists” for the uprising, despite the lack of any official Western response towards the crisis in Hungary, ignoring the legitimate grievances of the Hungarian populace that had led to the crisis. In one source they quoted:
“One must not underrate the responsibility of the West for the development of events in Hungary. The rebels were sure that the Western powers, primarily the U.S.A., would not leave them helpless. The crystallization of the extreme right-wing elements around Cardinal Mindszenty was a very important phase of the Hungarian drama” (Ratiani).

Soviet tanks crushing the Hungarian uprising in Budapest, November, 1956.This was part of a 2,500 tank, 120.000 man, invading force sent in by Russian leader Khrushchev to Hungary to put down the revolt.

The Perils and Promises of Reform in Post-Stalinist Eastern Europe (with regards to the Hungarian Revolution)
The death of Stalin and the period of De-Stalinization that followed afterward offered many new opportunities for reform and hope for a better and more free future for the people of Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, and in other countries across Eastern Europe, the tyrannical stranglehold and the fear that had existed, had partially subsided.
Nikita Krushev offered new hope, he relaxed many of the restrictions on artistic expression, relaxed state censorship, and moved the economy in a more “Leninist direction”, away from the Stalinist model that had dominated Soviet society and the economy for a generation. Similar changes started seeing fruition across Eastern Europe, Poland liberalized as a result of the uprisings in 1956, but not all turned out well for the nations of Eastern Europe. (“Khruschev’s Reforms”)

In Hungary, the death of Stalin opened up the way towards Nagy, and towards increasing liberalization. There were initial hopes for change, but they were quickly dashed when Rakosi was brought back to power. The violent revolution followed, and it was brutally crushed. Much of the hopes of reform and liberalization, were reversed. Hopes for liberalization across much of Eastern Europe were dashed over the next 4 decades, as the Soviets sought to increase and maintain their stranglehold over Eastern Europe.


“Khruschev’s Reforms.”, School History UK, Accessed 19 Apr. 2020

Kramer, Mark. “The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessments and New Findings.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 33, no. 2, 1998, pp. 163–214. JSTOR, 

Ratiani, G. “Imperialist Reaction bears responsibility for Counter-Revolutionary action in Hungary” Current Digest of the Russian Press, 26 Dec. 1956,

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Hungarian Crisis.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University , 21 May 2017,

Soviet Industrialization and the Building of the Great Fergana Canal (1939) by Andrew Grant

1930’s in the Soviet Union: The Historical Background the Canal was built in
The Soviets during the 30’s underwent many drastic changes, increased industrialization and great progress was achieved, but at a great cost of human lives. One of the great achievements of this era, was the construction of the Great Fergana Canal, it became a testament to efficiency and the scale of Soviet industrialization that was achieved during the era. Despite the many obstacles to the vast construction projects conducted in this era, such as famines and widespread disease outbreaks, these projects were completed and reforged the Soviet Union into an industrial power that could begin to start competing with the capitalist nations of the West and with the new Fascist nations that posed an increasingly threat. The Soviet Union in this Stalinist era not only went many changes in regards to its industry, but we could see a move in its foreign policy towards “socialism in one country” and a change in domestic policy towards a more conservative family oriented society.

Building Socialism one block at a time : Background of Soviet Massive Construction Projects and the building of the Canal
In the 1930’s, unlike the Capitalist nations of the West, the Soviet Union was experiencing rapid economic growth, in large part due to the vast construction projects conducted during the era. The 30’s marked the implementation of the Second Five Year Plan, it was focused on pursuing technological innovation to keep up, construction had been the focus of the first, the second attempted to master efficiency through harsh discipline and seek ways for more effective management of labor. There was a shift in the cultural outlook as well, Stalin wanted to alter society to make it effective and disciplined, he thus pursued a more traditionalist society, one that encouraged growth and discipline, the traditional family was encouraged, legalized abortions and homosexuality, and other progressive reforms of the Lenin era, were repealed, in the aim of achieving an effective, disciplined, and homogenous worker’s society (Freeze 358-361).

The Soviets inherited the backwards and agrarian society that had dominated Russia for centuries before them, they attempted to drastically alter society and the economy and gear it towards industrialization, urbanization, and collectivized farming. All the lands of the Soviet Union started seeing drastic changes, even in the remote and sparsely populated areas of the Steppes of Central Asia. The Great Fergana Canal was built to supply water to the locals in Central Asia, in turn to help make new arable regions for growing cotton, necessary for the growing textile industries in the Western “heartland” of the Soviet Union. The goal was ultimately to bring about more self-sufficiency with industry, by growing the cotton in the Soviet Union itself, instead of needing to import it from the western capitalist nations like the US or Britain

In a source by Paul Stronski on the growth of the Soviet city of Tashkent from the 1930’s to 1966 he documented the importance of the Canal by bringing up how “On September 17, 1939,Pravda Vostoka declared that the construction of the Great Fergana Canal fulfilled the ‘centuries-long’ dream of supplying the people of Central Asia with water. The Soviet government’s investment in the region, the expansion of the local transportation infrastructure, and the ‘voluntary’ and ‘heroic’ efforts of thousands of ordinary Uzbek Soviet citizens transformed a former Russian colony into a ‘flowering garden’ and the center of Soviet life in Asia”(Stronski).

A photograph of Uzbek collective farmers watching the first waters of the Syr-Darya river entering the sluices of the great Fergana canal which they helped to build, taken in the 30’s or 40’s, by an unknown photographer:

Building the Canal: A testament to newfound Soviet efficiency and Industrialization
The canal was 270 kilometers, and was completed within 45 days. The project, unlike many others large construction projects conducted during the era was conducted by local workers, not through forced gulag labor (Siegelbaum). The construction was done in 1939, it finished right near the beginning of the Second World War. Over 160,000 Laborers, from the collective farms in the region, were involved in the construction (Encylopedia). The canal, a massive project built in such a short time, although not extremely well known, services as an example to the ability of Soviet engineeering and to the efficiency of their modernization. They managed in this period to go from a backwater, to one of the preemminent industrial powers of the world. In the 40’s they were producing Tanks and Ammunition on levels comparable to the US, a production-level.

The Primary Source Image (at the beginning of the blog) of the Construction; what is happening in it and what does it showcase?
The image showcased at the front of my blog is an image of the construction of the project. We can see in the image many Uzbek workers. They are working in large numbers, on the canal, there were over 100,000 workers employed in the construction of the canal. We can see that there is no standardized uniform for the workers, they are farmers wearing whatever clothes they had, it appears, from the image, that some of the workers are shirtless, due to the heat and arid nature of the region in which they were conducting their work. They are agrarian peasants, who worked at collective farms, they were poor and worked in rather miserable conditions. The giant horns are seemingly announcing a new workday, we can see hundreds of workers, walking in masses off to work, digging ditches to build up the canal system.

Cultural and Economic Shifts brought about by Canal Construction
The construction of the canal brought irrigation to a previously arid region in the Steppes of Asia, and thus not only dramatically altered the climate of the region but the society and the work in the region. Much of the region had previously had small scale farms, which became increasingly collectivized. New industries like textiles started emerging in the area, and soon the Fergana valley became one of the densest areas in the Central Asian region. (“Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal”).

The society, as a result, was forever changed. Farming transitioned to a more collectivized model and the region transitioned from small-scale agriculture to industrial-scale agricultural production and to a new manufacturing hub. The canals became a political symbol as well, many Uzbeki communists were purged during the period, and the canal started to emerge as a symbol of nationalism for them (Siegelbaum).


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009. pg. 358-361

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Great Fergana Canal.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University, 3 Oct. 2015,

“Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal.” Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal | Environment & Society Portal, Environment and Society,

Stronski, Paul. “INTRODUCTION.” Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930–1966, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa, 2010, pp. 1–15. JSTOR,

Bashkir Switchman – Railroads in an Industrializing Imperial Russia : by Andrew Grant

Bashkir Switch Operator guarding the Samara-Zlatoust Railroad (a part of the Trans-Siberian railroad) near Ust-Katav taken by the Russian photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, in 1910.

Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century was experiencing numerous societal and economic changes, Russia had historically been viewed as “backwards”, and during this time period attempted to modernize to catch up to other great European powers like Germany and Britain. This need for modernization was shown through their defeat at the hands of modernized Western Europeans in the Crimean War, and through their defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905, in the Russo-Japanese War, which was the first time that a European colonial power was defeated by non-Europeans in that era. Russia suffering many great humiliations in the 19th century from their complacency and arrogance in their military doctrines, worked to achieve some degrees of modernization.

The image above perfectly displays Russia during this time period, having a backwards traditional and agrarian society, that was working to achieve modernization. The modernization brought about societal changes, many new occupations became available as traditional agrarian jobs were being replaced by manufacturing and service jobs. The man shown, in the image above, was a guard on the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was a native Bashkir wearing a felt hat, and traditional styled clothing. His job was to operate the switches and protect the railroad from bandits. This man was born into an ethnicity in a more sparsely populated part of the Russian Empire, the rail brought his people and many tribal peoples throughout Russia more into contact with the metropole, and brought many new employment opportunities borne of “modernization” and the new rail network being built to connect Russia.

The Trans-Siberian railroad traversed a vast distance of the Russian wilderness, and guards were posited along the lines to protect and to operate the switches. The railroad, when this photo was taken, was still under construction. It was built with the intention to connect the major population centers of Russia in the West to the Far East. The railroad was one of Russia’s major attempts at modernization, building infrastructure to connect its sprawling and vast empire. This particular portion of the railroad was built in a sparsely populated area, in the background we can see cliff-faces, mountains, and sprawling wilderness. Much of the railroad extended through areas like these, as much of the Russian interior had not been fully tamed and civilized.

The railroad was intended to connect newer possessions in the far east and fully integrate them within Russia. Shipping and transportation within Russia, could take many months, the railroad would rapidly decrease the time required for travel. The Far-East was rich and offered many resources, and the railroad could connect the riches of the East with the metropole of Russia in the West. The railroad had not only a great consumer potential, but offered great military potential, allowing soldiers to be transported to the Far East to protect the Russian possessions there. Russia in the 19th century had greatly expanded to become one of the largest empires in history. It had acquired the Steppes of Asia, Outer-Manchuria, the Caucuses, and many new regions. The rail was constructed to connect Russia’s empire from the Baltic to the Pacific. (Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railroad pg. 308-309)

By 1904 much of the main rail had been completed. At that time it was a single line, that connected the East and West. That year a war erupted between Japan and Russia over their competing spheres of influence in the Far East. The importance of railroads in furthering military aims in the Far East was demonstrated in the war. The war was fought in Japan’s backyard, most of Russia’s troops were in Europe, there was few in the Far East, Japan waged a war attempting to overwhelm the Russians stationed in Manchuria and ensure a quick victory. Russia’s rails were not yet fully completed, there was only the one line, transportation of the vast number of troops required to fight the Japanese would take many months. Russia lost horrifically against the Japanese in the initial stages, if the war had been longer, mobilized men from the West could have turned the tide, but domestic troubles brewing at home like the 1905 revolution had distracted from the war effort and the crippling defeat of the outdated Russian navy at Tsushima had forced Russia to the negotiation table (The Russo-Japanese War pg. 434). The war showed the importance and continued need for modernization. Russia needed a more extensive rail-line and needed more industry to compete against modernized nations like Japan. The war also showed the need of the Russian fleet to modernize, building a new fleet, largely from scratch.


Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.” Scientific American, vol. 90, no. 16, 1904, pp. 308–309. JSTOR, 31 Jan. 2020

“The Russo-Japanese War.” Pacific Strife, by Kees Van Dijk, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2015, pp. 417–438. JSTOR, 1 Feb. 2020

Hello I’m Andrew Grant

Hello there, I’m Andrew Grant and this is my Soviet History Blog. I am a History major with a Russian Area studies minor. This is a class that I aim to enhance and showcase my knowledge of Soviet history. I have a particular interest into Soviet guns and tanks, and the Great Patriotic War. With this blog I aim to focus on the story and heroism of the Soviet people in their fight against the Germans in the Second World War.