HOLY MOTHER RUSSIA
Jan 12, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 17 • By DAVID AIKMAN
One thing the reader can't fail to learn from this remarkable autobiography by former Russian Major General Alexander Lebed is that military life in the Soviet Union was a school of very hard knocks.
Lebed tells some hard-knock stories from even before he joined the Red Army. At fourteen, he had a broken collarbone so badly set that (rather than live with one arm two inches shorter than the other) he had the bone surgically rebroken and recast: "It was while I was recovering that I decided to be a military aviator -- so I'd have to stand the pain," he writes, almost gleefully. "And stand it I did." At sixteen, he broke his nose in a fistfight, and looking back on the incident, he comments, "I was no girl. I knew a man needed to be only slightly better looking than an ape, and that a man's true worth isn't defined by the prettiness of his face."
But once he entered the military, the knocks started in earnest. Denied entry into pilot school, Lebed opted for airborne training. On his first parachute jump he landed on his tailbone, seriously damaging his back and severing tendons in his arm. A few years later, after he injured his hand, his smashed and dislocated fingers were set without anesthetic by a drunken physician whose sense of orthopedic accuracy was apparently acquired by carefully observing the pain he evoked in his patients.
He could dish the knocks out as well as take them. A major in Afghanistan in 1981 and 1982, Lebed found himself commanding troops who seemed to spend much of their spare time, such as it was, beating each other up: "Broken noses, cracked jaws and black eyes became the norm." After ten Soviet soldiers tortured another by rigging his body parts to the electric crank of a field telephone, Lebed lined them up and, one by one, smashed them to the floor with his fists. A few pages before he relates this incident, Lebed declares that "an officer should never let his fists do the talking." And in fact, he tells us, his conscience did bother him a little: "My long-held theories of how to handle men had fallen apart in practice," he says ruefully. But then he adds: "But the next morning, there was not one black eye. The fighting had stopped. I was no longer a softy."
Born in 1950 and an officer cadet in the airborne by age twenty, Lebed is probably the best sort of man we have any right to expect the Soviet military machine to create. Pugnacious, very tough, but imbued apparently with a strong sense of fairness and human dignity, he was popular with his troops (working hard to improve their often desperate living conditions) and he climbed the Soviet officer ladder in the face of wrenching corruption and mismanagement.
But it was only in Afghanistan that the corruption and incompetence finally came to disgust him. "No one ever saw the children of high-ranking Soviet officials in uniform in Afghanistan," he writes, and as for the senior commanders, they "were all slippery characters." "Afghanistan can mean anything you like," Lebed writes, "but not shame. It was the politicians who made the decisions: some wise, others less so; some expedient, others not. For the unwise decisions, soldiers paid with their blood."
If "Afghanistan" were replaced by "Vietnam," this anguished reflection on a mismanaged war could have come from scores, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. army officers. But the resemblance ends there, for what Lebed faced in the late 1980s was the collapse of his national government's power at home and the decay of the Kremlin's influence on the peripheries of the Soviet empire. From Tbilisi in 1989 to Baku in 1990, Lebed commanded elite units called in by a desperate politburo in Moscow to suppress almost infinite varieties of ethnic and ideological separatism. In Baku, he coolly drew his pistol in front of an arrogant Azeri city apparatchik who had deliberately turned the electricity off in an Armenian sector of the city. "Can you fly?" Lebed demanded; "If I threw you off the balcony right now, would you fly up or down?" The electricity was swiftly restored.