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A Tajik translator among Soviet advisers in Afghanistan

An excerpt from Khudoinazar Asozoda, Afghonistoni inqilobi. (Dushanbe: Devashtich, 2003).

H. Asozoda (1941-2014) was a prominent literary historian and educator who served two tours as an interpreter in Afghanistan. This is the second of H. Asozoda's Afghanistan memoirs, covering the author's service as an interpreter after the Saur Revolution (April 1978) until 1981. The book discusses interactions with other interpreters, advisors, and officers, relations with Afghanistanis, daily life among Soviets working in Afghanistan, and prominent political figures like Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki. The book also provides insights into the key political developments of those years as seen by an in interpreter.

Among the group of advisers, of whom there were more than 150, were representatives of the entire Soviet Union. Each adviser brought to Kabul dozens of scholarly books and instruction manuals from their field. The goals of this group were to reorganize ministries and government committees in a socialist manner. The law on the distribution of land was the responsibility of A. Kakhorov[1] and M.Boboev and one of the deputy Ministers of Agriculture from Uzbekistan.  They executed the decrees on land that had been used in Central Asia of the 1920s and 1930s in Afghanistan. This meant that the Saur Revolution began to resemble the October Revolution.

            One time, Nurmuhammad Taraki[2] placed the Saur revolution above the October revolution. “The revolution that we are building,” said Taraki, “no one else has carried out.” Those that wanted to flatter him compared him to Lenin. They proclaimed his genius.

            Economic advisers tended to use documents and orders from 1930s Central Asia. They did not take into account the environment, psychology, and geography of Afghanistan. Everything that they tried to build they did blindly and without recourse to scientific knowledge. There was not a single institution which did not have a Soviet adviser. Even for garbage disposal they sent an adviser from Georgia.

            Taraki’s cook was also from the Soviet Union. Muhammadjon [one of the Tajik translators] sometimes translated for this chef. Even for cooking Afghan cuisine there were dozens of talented cooks from the USSR. Of course, the presence of Soviet representatives in all of these fields in Afghanistan had another purpose. Despite this, the Sovietization of the new government of Afghanistan went beyond all bounds. And so specialists were blinded by their own lack of knowledge. A minister would not take one action without agreement from his adviser. It got to the point that dismissal of an employee also required the involvement of a minister’s adviser.  

            The group of advisers to which I was attached worked with the Ministry of Finance. The Minister was Abulqarim Misoq, who I mentioned in my previous book. Misoq was a Hazara, he was a member of Khalq almost from the beginning and stayed true to [the faction] and was highly trusted by N. Taraki. Therefore he always dealt with the party’s financial questions and also took on the role of Minister of Finance. In the Central Committee he was the third most important after Taraqi and Amin[3]. One of his advantages was that he spoke Russian and could converse with Russian advisers on many issues without an interpreter. There were Soviets but they were all under observation by Amin’s people. Amin did not like Misoq and his ultimate goal with regard to the ministry was well known, but he could not express it openly. (16)


            The main interpreter who worked with Zotov was a young Armenian named Sarkis Badalian. He was considered an expert in his field. He had worked in Afghanistan for many years. Although his Russian was poor, his Farsi was strong. There were three interpreters from Tajikistan: Habib, Olimjon [and myself]; we understood each other and usually were together at work and at home. Habib had a number of advantages over me and Olimjon. For example, his Russian was better, he was born in a city, and his education and family were more European.

            The group of interpreters was subordinated directly to Moscow. Moscow’s representative was a well-known person from Moscow, Grechin, from the GEKES,[4] who was based at the embassy. Once a month we would gather in the marble hall of the embassy. The groups would report on their work. The group’s salaries were higher than that of specialists who worked there before the Saur revolution. Soviet institutions also saw the group as more important. We were people who worked at the top of ministries, building the new Afghanistan. Each adviser had access to a car. The advisers worked day and night, writing documents and discussing them, and then turning them over to the translators for translation into Farsi. The group of translators was charged with turning Afghanistan into a new socialist Republic. At the same time they were training new specialists for Afghanistan. Over several years they were supposed to prepare new [Afghanistani] specialists.

            In the course of everyday work one could often see that at the Ministry of Finance all of the officials worked very hard. Sometimes they did not listen to the advisers. They knew the environment better than the advisers. Their [specialist] knowledge was weaker, but by degrees it became stronger. Afghanistan’s specialists did not always agree with the Soviets’ views on economic questions. Finance operated on a German and American model. They insisted that switching to a Soviet model would not bring any benefit. You could see that after many hours of disagreement each side would consider itself the winner. Whatever the two sides gave to me I would translate. …  (18)

            In this way, the group of advisers became the eyes and ears of the Soviet government across all of Afghanistan. Dozens of instruction manuals and volumes and volumes of books on specialist subjects were written to make Afghanistan a socialist republic. On the whole the advisers were not able to accomplish anything memorable, but with their intervention they pushed local specialists away and the reputation of the Soviets grew worse. In this way Amin, with the help of those loyal to him, tried to make sure that the Soviets did not have success in any field. While saying he agreed [with the advisers] he would do what he could to sabotage what they were trying to do so that no instruction from the Soviet advisers could be put into practice. Each year that the group worked there it was impossible to achieve victory. Millions of Soviet rubles were wasted. Of course, this was the fault of those in Moscow, who without properly analyzing the Saur revolution, took such initiatives. [19]   


-Translated and annotated by A.M. Kalinovsky

[1] Abdullahad Kakhorov (1913-1984) was a Tajik politician and chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Tajik SSR from 1961 to 1974.

[2] Nurmuhammad Taraki (1917-1979) was a founder of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and leader of the Khalq faction. He emerged as a leader after the April 1978 coup (Saur revolution) that brought the PDPA to power, but was arrested and executed on the orders of his one time protegee Hafizullah Amin in September 1979- events that helped precipitate the Soviet intervention in December.

[3] Hafizullah Amin (1929-1979) joined the Khalq faction of the PDPA soon after its creation, and served a term in parliament in the 1970s. After the Saur revolution he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Council of Ministers before turning on his one-time mentor, having him jailed and executed, and taking power for himself. He was killed by Soviet special forces at the start of the Soviet invasion on December 27. 

[4] The State Committee on Economic Ties (GKES) was the main Soviet organ for economic aid abroad.