Skip to navigation – Site map
Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project - Testimonies
Soviet-Afghan War & Transnistrian War

Interview with Olga Capatina, - Physiotherapist and GRU Operative (Soviet-Afghan War) & Double Agent (Transnistrian War) -, Conducted in Paris, France, 25 September 2015 (EN)

Cloé Drieu and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

Abstract

Olga Capatina was born in Lencauti, Ocnita in Moldavia in May 1955. She graduated in philology, psychology and was trained as a nurse. After a career in journalism and due to a divorce that left her with two young children, she joined a military Commissariat where she was guaranteed a decent salary. In July 1987, she was sent to Afghanistan as a physiotherapist. A year later in July 1988, she joined the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) and took part in several GRU operations until the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989.

Top of page

Editor's notes

This interview was conducted in the framework of the project "War Veteran Testimonies - Soviet & Post-Soviet Conflicts" funded by the Laboratory of Excellence Tepsis (EHESS) under the reference ANR-11-LABX-0067. The interview was translated into English by Daria Gorbunova.

Author's notes

This interview is the full translation of a video interview available in Russian in PIPSS 17th issue (2016) "Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States" at https://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4196.

Full text

Chronology

130 May 1955: Birth in Lencauti, Ocnita (Moldavia)
1972-1979: Studies philology, psychology and nursing school
23 March 1976: Birth of her first child
7 July 1979: Birth of her second child
1979-1983: Works in a kindergarden in the North of Moldavia
1983-1987: Works as journalist in the North of Moldavia
January 1987: Works in a Military Commissariat, Moldavia
July 1987: Departure to Kabul. Transfer to Shindand: 8 months training in physiotherapy in the Central hospital.
July 1988: Kabul - Chief of the physiotherapy practice in the Clinic for Senior Officers in Kabul
October 1988 - February 1989: Joins the GRU and performs special missions
February 1989: Withdrawal from Afghanistan through Kushka
March 1989: Joins the 14th Army in Tiraspol (Transnistria - Moldavia)
End of 1989-1990: Sent to Kamtchatka (Russia)
November 1991: Joins the Moldavian Ministry of Security (MS)
Spring 1995: Back to Chisinau, leaves the secret services
March 1995 - June 1996: Joins the Ministry of Justice (of which 6 months in hospital due to an operation after an accident in a previous field operation for the MS)
2004: Arrival in France and stay
2013: Publication of Afghanistan, mon rayon de soleil sauvage [Afghanistan, My Wild Ray of Sunshine], book & e-book, 7ecrit Editions. 

Part I

  • 1 Boris Gromov is a Russian senior officer who, during the Soviet-Afghan war, did three tours of duty (...)

My name is Olga Capatina. I was born in Moldova, in the North, on the banks of the Dniestr. My parents were also Moldavian. In fact, they were Romanians before WWII, but after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Moldova became part of the USSR. My father worked on the railroads; my mother stayed home with us – I was one of four sisters. I finished school in my native village, Lencauti, which is in Ocnita. I studied at the Balti Pedagogical Institute, obtaining a degree in Moldavian language and literature in the Faculty of Philology. After that I did a degree in psychology and education. At first, whilst my children were young, I worked in a kindergarten in Ocnita. Then, I worked as a journalist for the state TV and radio broadcaster. I worked on the radio, first in Ocnita, reporting from the North of Moldavia. I then transferred to Moldavia’s central radio service. I read the news. That was until I decided to join the army. Why did I do that? Because I got divorced, I had two children, and although being a radio presenter was a very prestigious job, but it was extremely poorly paid. Thus I had to work another 2-3 jobs at the same time in order to be able to take care of my children. When I was offered a position at the military recruitment office, I said yes, because the salary was double the amount I was getting for my radio work. That’s how I ended up in the army. I started out as deputy head of the 2nd division. My work focused on those who hadn’t been drafted yet and the young men wanting to enroll in the military academy. I travelled to schools telling young men about the army, about the military recruitment office; I invited young men to join military academies. The fact that I had a degree in psychology was of paramount importance for this job. But beyond that, the reason why I liked this job was that I met many young men, boys who were smart, intelligent, but who hadn’t gotten into university – in the USSR there were few tertiary institutions in Moldavia and many candidates vying for each spot. So, I suggested to these boys that they should send applications to the military academy in the spring, but not to actually enroll, because the decision was taken in June, then there were exams in July. Meanwhile, at the civilian universities they were in August. And I really wanted these boys to get into university! That way, they had one more chance to get into university before the autumn recruitment drive. It was a trick. I didn’t want these nice, smart boys going into the army; it would be better for them to go to university. I worked there until I was sent to Afghanistan in 1987. When I finished my philology degree, in the first and second years women had to undergo medical training. This was while the boys underwent military training alongside their studies. All male students had to do military training. Meanwhile, we girls were trained in medicine, that’s how I qualified as a nurse. When I was sent to Afghanistan, my first appointment was in the medical and sanitation battalion at the Central Military Hospital in Kabul. I did a physiotherapy course and was then appointed head of the physiotherapy unit in Shindand, within the medical and sanitation battalion at the aerodrome. The SU-17 regiment was stationed there; there were also helicopter pilots, as well as all the other military units servicing the aerodrome. I served there for some time, after which I was transferred to Kabul, to outpatient clinic N° 73 of the military command. The high command of the 14th army army received treatment there; that’s where I met a commander by the name of Gromov1 and all the others. I then asked for permission to leave the military’s medical service, to be transferred elsewhere. I was then sent on intelligence training. For the remainder of my military service I worked for a unit that answered to GRU (Glavnoe Razvedyvatel'noe Upravlenie), the Main Intelligence Directorate. So, the last place where I served in the Soviet military was on Kamchatka, there was a military settlement there, Dolinovka; from there I was transferred to Tiraspol. I served in the 14th army. When I left that post, when I left the 14th army I held the rank of senior officer in the information gathering and processing group at the command and intelligence center. After that I moved to Kishinev. I served in Kishinev for a little while longer. At the age of 40 I retired and then took up journalism again, working for various publications as a freelancer.

What was Known About Afghanistan Prior to the Departure

I told you a little bit about where I worked and what I did; I will now go back to my time in Afghanistan. Yes, I had heard about what was going on in Afghanistan, although they certainly didn’t advertise what was going on, they tried not to say anything. All they said was that we were helping a friendly nation, Afghanistan: building roads, houses. If anyone had died there, they said, it wasn’t because of the war; it was an accident. Back when I lived in Ocnita, I had some friends whose son died. The mother was very combative, she didn’t listen to all those urging her not to open her son’s coffin, she managed to have the coffin opened and saw that her son had died of a firearms injury. Of course, the whole town attended the funeral. It was something extraordinary, very frightening. I knew that people were dying there. I had two kids and I was very scared to leave them, because I had never been apart from my boys before. When I went to Afghanistan my children stayed with my parents. My older sister also helped out.

I remember getting on a plane in Kishinev very well. We flew to Tashkent. But something happened and we landed in Grozny and had to spend the night in Grozny airport. There wasn’t any space for us. The airport was jam-packed with people. Something had happened, all the planes were sent to Grozny first, then on to Tashkent. After we got to Tashkent, there was a base where all the new arrivals waited for a plane to Kabul, to Shindand; it depended on where you’d been assigned. The planes were Il-76s; everyone took those cargo planes to Afghanistan. About three days later I was sent to Kabul. There was a transit point in Kabul and the military unit was stationed near the aerodrome. We waited for three or four days there before we were sent to the place where we would be serving.

As I already said, I was sent to the central military hospital, I spent six to eight weeks there, I can’t remember exactly how long. I had a diploma in nursing. Then I did a physiotherapy course. I learnt how use all the equipment, the quartz machines and all the others that used for treatment. Massages and all the rest of it. There were small towns there; wooden houses with bunk beds in every room. In the women’s quarters where I was, there were very narrow two-person rooms with a bunk bed in each one. All the patients were very ill. Some were brought in to be operated on. At the military hospital operations were conducted all day long, well into the night. Some patients were then sent to the USSR for treatment. Or we sent so-called cargo number 200 (gruz 200) – those were coffins. So, all in all I don’t have very fond memories of that time, because that was the very beginning, I wasn’t getting any letters from home yet, I had a hard time, I really missed my children, they were 11 and 9 back then and I had never been separated from them before then, not for a night, not for a day. It was very painful for me, frightful. Also, seeing so many young men injured everyday; that left an impression.

Shindand

After that course, almost two months later, I was sent to Shindand. Shindand was considered to be a peaceful town because the airport where the military unit was based, where we were stationed, was far from the mountains. So even if there was shelling, it never reached the airport, it never reached our unit. However, Kandahar was nearby. Artillery raids were common there; it was very scary in Kandahar, much scarier that in Shindand.

Olga Capatina in Afghanistan in 1987

Olga Capatina in Afghanistan in 1987

Being a Woman in the Soviet Army

So, let me tell you about what really struck me as a woman, the things that surprised me. You see, ever since I was a little girl, I have been an avid reader. The books I read were all about the valiant army, the USSR, the Revolution, heroes. We read all about that. I was convinced that Soviet officers were upstanding soldiers, heroic; that those coming back from Afghanistan were veterans, deserving of accolades, glory, medals, military honors and all that. Whilst I served in the military recruitment office I thought that the officers working there were not proper officers since they were not living in a military settlement, they spent a lot of time at home, with civilians. They were part military officers, part civilians. Also, the fact that many were dishonest, well, they were like that was because they weren’t proper officers. Then I went to Afghanistan, where there were few women and many men. I was 30 years old, I had two kids; I was divorced. I was actually 31 in fact. What surprised me was their insolence; they were dishonest. Yes, it’s true that they were predominantly Russian. They wanted to have it all and to have it right there and then, because they might die in battle the very next day. They wanted to drink, to eat well. And to have their way with any woman that happened to be there. If a woman rejects you, they thought, you have to exert pressure on her, to exact revenge. If she didn’t give in, you had to do everything to make sure that she did. And if she still didn’t, you would make her life a nightmare. Sometimes the helicopter pilots got so drunk that they came home at night and threw smoke bombs into the women’s quarters so that the women would run out. Just imagine, smoke everywhere! The men could grab any of the women in the confusion of it all, it didn’t matter which one they got. I ran into serious problems with the commander I answered to, he was in charge of the aerodrome services battalion, lieutenant colonel F. He started making advances, inviting me over. One night I tricked him into leaving and so on and so forth, I caused a fuss, you know. He told all the others to watch my every move; no one was supposed to talk to me… So, there was a vacuum, everyone was afraid to approach me, to talk to me, even to sit at the same table as me in the cafeteria. At the military base there were shops, anyone could go there to buy sweets, drinks, food and clothing. Orders were given not to sell me anything without the permission of the secretary of the Communist Party committee. Just imagine the set up – there were the regular officers and then there was the political commissar. Without his approval, nothing was distributed; absolutely nothing was granted or given. Major K. was his name. So, in short, I ran into trouble. No one would talk to me. However, I wasn’t a teenager so this wasn’t a real tragedy for me, the fact that no one spoke to me or whatever. Was it unpleasant? Yes, it was. But it wasn’t the end of the world. What was very important for me was for the postal planes to come in on time, to receive letters from my children, parents and sisters. That was very important for me.

I shared a room with a woman; she was the lover of the man who was head of headquarters. He seemed alright. Sometimes he would come over and ask me, what do you care? It’s not so bad – if you sleep with a commander you will get anything you want. But I didn’t need that, I just wanted to be left alone, you know? In such cases, if you show any weakness, they’ll always… Imagine, you start a relationship with a commander, then his term of service ends, he leaves. He can pass you on to someone else, he can say here, take her, as if I were an object. He can say I had her, now I am leaving, so somebody else can take her. Therefore, you had to stand your ground, to do everything just as well as the men did: shoot, all the physical training and all the rest of it.

What really struck me was the swearing. I cannot begin to get across just how awful it was. Every word was a swear word. I did not come from the intelligentsia. My father graduated from a technical college, he was a foreman on the railroad; he was not a manual laborer. But not once in my whole life did I hear my father swear. In the Soviet army, it was frightful. Every time that these horrid words were used I felt as if I had been slapped. It was very difficult to learn to listed to that, and also to pick out the information you needed from the stream of words, to cast aside all of the swear words.

Daily Routine in the Military Hospital

It was just like any other hospital. We had a lot of patients, but we didn’t have any that were wounded. Because there was no fighting at that point, none of that. But they did drink a lot. The regiment’s engineer drank so much that he became delirious and shot himself. He was sent home a hero so as to protect his family; he was awarded the Order of the Red Star. They said he had died in combat, but there was no fighting: a soldier was standing guard, the engineer grabbed his weapon and shot himself. There were many similar cases in our military unit. In principle, I couldn’t really say that there was anything that happened that was… You see, everyone was far away from family; it was sweltering hot. There rest was just in like any other military unit.

Dedovshchina (Hazing) and Smuggling

Yes, there was always hazing, everywhere. But it took on different forms. There it was rather calm, everything was alright. But the sergeants, the hazers (dedy) sent the newcomers (novobrantsy) to get drugs for them, to get alcohol and all that. If the newcomers didn’t deliver, they could be beaten. The soldiers traded a great with the Afghans. Anything and everything. Spare tires, car parts. They hid canned stewed meat, stole anything they could get their hands on in the storage rooms and traded it with the Afghans. They took whatever they could get in return. First and foremost drugs. Since there was an aerodrome, there was, of course, industrial ethanol. The engineers had that industrial ethanol, but, somehow, they managed to get it, to steal it. They drank the stuff! Just imagine! Not champagne, not wine, no, industrial ethanol! That’s what they drank. They drank a great deal. Industrial alcohol is used on vehicles, all the precision instruments in the airplanes are cleaned using technical alcohol, you see. As there were lots of planes, lots of helicopters, naturally there was plenty of ethanol there. And that’s what they drank.

Military Operations

In Shindand, sometimes they would establish these groups. For instance, a group that would travel from Shindand to, say, Jalalabad. Or maybe not Jalalabad, that’s too far, maybe to Kandahar. The group had to transport something somewhere, flour or food. In such instances, groups were set up, bringing together people from different military units. As I told you, I had encountered some problems, so once I was sent to transport something to another town as part of one of these groups. We were attacked. It was very frightening. It was just like in the books, the stories I had read; it was the same, word for word. When I came back I was never sent to do anything like that again. However, this one time I myself requested to leave the base; perhaps I wanted a hit of adrenalin. There were four or five cars, always one armored personnel carrier in front and one in the back. I was in a car with all the medication and the orderlies; we were there to help the injured, if there were any. Women were rarely sent on such missions, only as punishment. Although it must be said that if a woman was serving in the military she had to follow orders, no questions asked. Nonetheless, it wasn’t common practice.

Joining the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate)

Then I was transferred to Kabul. In Kabul I worked at the polyclinic of 73rd garrison. It was at that point that I was sent on that course. We were taught to do everything. Parachuting, wading through rivers, trekking through the mountains with 20kg bags on our backs and little water; we were taught to survive on a liter of water for several days… Again, not many women were taken on; I actually asked to be, I found it all very interesting. It was difficult for me as a woman, for instance, to break away from the group to go to the bathroom. But in principle I was no different from the others, I had always been very strong, assertive. After that I had a job intercepting radio communications at the GRU. The GRU is the Main Intelligence Directorate. So, I started working there. For example, a plane is shot down. We need to find our pilots, our boys who are down. In addition, there were many soldier kidnappings. Fighting breaks out, afterwards some soldiers don’t come back. For such cases there are specially trained people, we look for our soldiers and we bring them back. We would be at headquarters; then we would hear that planes have been shot down. We would then try to get there as fast as we could, to get everything we wanted out of the planes, to get out any of our boys who were still alive. Those were the kinds of groups we had. They were all part of the Main Intelligence Directorate. I sent a request asking to be transferred from the polyclinic. I had been forced to study medicine. I didn’t like it. Later it so happened that in France I actually worked as a nursing auxiliary for cancer patients. It just worked out that way. In France I had to do this because I didn’t have another trade, but back then I had been forced, force-fed all of this. They had asked: do you have this diploma, this qualification? If so, they said, then you must follow these orders, you must work. Although I must say, the sight of blood, all of that, that’s not my thing. I didn’t like that, being forced to do things.

National Solidarities & Relations with the Locals

After my time at the polyclinic, serving in the military unit was easy. I liked it because I met Moldavian officers. Volodia F. – we are still close friends, we are like brother and sister. When I go to Kishinev he meets me at the airport! His family, his children, everyone knows that we’re like brother and sister. Perhaps our bond is actually stronger than that. After all, God gives you brothers and sisters, but we actually chose to be friends. There was also Svetlana A., a Moldavian. We are still great friends. So, there were more Moldavians and we really bonded. We cooked Moldavian food. Volodia would sometimes get an armored personnel carrier, some soldiers and would help us to do our shopping. After all, when we were going back home it was only natural for us to buy presents for our sisters, our children. So, we went to the dukan, that’s shop in Afghan. Volodia and the other guys are there with their machine guns, so no one would dare touch us. We are in there doing our shopping. Some locals said to Volodia: sell me that hanum, that woman! We asked them what they were after. They asked Volodia to sell them the hanum. There were two other women there with me. Volodia asked why they were after only one of us. The man answered: the others are too dark, we already have women like that, but we don’t have white ones. Sell us that hanum, that’s what he said!

There were lots of Uzbeks, Turkmens. All the nationalities. There were few people from the Baltics. I don’t know why. No Jews. I met only one Jewish officer. But aside from that, I don’t know. I think Jews either went into tertiary education to avoid military service, or they paid a bribe to get out of it; after all, everyone was for sale, including the military recruitment officers. There were lots of Uzbeks, many, many Turkmens. They took them on because they spoke the local language. But their command of Russian was poor. However, they knew the Afghan language, Dari and so on.

We didn’t have contact with the Afghans, only rarely. Once, fighting broke out and our soldiers caught an Afghan man. An ordinary man, a peasant. They started taunting him, saying he was a spy; that he was spying on us. They beat him badly, humiliated him. I tried to stand up for him. It has always been very painful for me to watch someone getting beaten. Cruelty for me is… I don’t know. But if the locals caught Russian soldiers, they would dismember them, gouge their eyes out and throw them over the fence, onto the territory of the base. Do you know the prayer? According to Christian teaching, if they beat you, you should turn the other cheek. Then there will be peace. Because cruelty always begets cruelty. Well, there was none of that. Yes, our men were killed, but we also went there and killed. Every time the Afghans killed one of ours, our soldiers would always go to the local village and kill everyone in sight, rape, humiliate people. Sometimes, the commanders didn’t know about it. That was very scary. This cruelty! This senseless cruelty!

Part II

The Policy of Laisser-Faire

They would beat and insult everyone who had so-called slanted eyes. Uzbeks, Turkmens, even their own! Russians, Russians who allowed others to abuse them – the others would see that they were not assertive; they didn’t stand up for themselves. Others were beaten simply because they were newcomers, because they were supposed to serve the elders. Sometimes an officer would come in, put things in order… But even the officers in the company knew very well who was the leader in the group, who was doing the beating. All they would say is make sure you don’t go too far, make sure you don’t kill or maim anyone. The higher-ranking men would come in, the sergeants, they would say that they will be away for a bit, and that in their absence, there must be order. What kind of order, they didn’t care. There might be beatings, they might be woken up at some ungodly hour; humiliated. I had thought that it would be different in Afghanistan – after all, there was a war going on. But no, in fact it was even more frightening than in the USSR. Because in the USSR the new recruits would be sent to get vodka (where you could still get it), in Afghanistan they were sent out to find drugs.

It wasn’t religion as such. When flying, they didn’t like having thirteen people, including one woman, on board. They didn’t like that. We did wear crosses. Many of us wore crosses. We had paper icons. Because the USSR notwithstanding, when things get tough, all you think is “God help me!” My father was very devout. He was a very strict man. He had four daughters. He didn’t let us go out. Just look at that photograph of him – his facial expression embodies his character. He was an honorable man, very much so, he never argued with anyone. He never spoke ill of anyone. He helped many people. But he was very strict with us. I didn’t like him. I might have loved him, but I was expecting my father to take me in his arms, to say something nice… But it wasn’t like that. Especially when he came home in a bad mood. He had a concussion. Sometimes, if he got stressed out it was better to run off and hide somewhere, to wait it out – otherwise he might hit you. He would pray before meals, after meals, before bed, he would wake up and say the Our Father prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. Because my father was religious, I tried to stay away from religion, because I didn’t like him, and by extension I didn’t like anything he was into. But when I was in Afghanistan I was taken very ill, for several days I had a temperature of over 40°C. The girls in my ward said oh, you are so religious, you recite all these prayers. And I said maybe, but I don’t really know these prayers, not even the Lord’s Prayer! But I guess subconsciously, the prayers I had been hearing for seventeen years – Our Father, Hallowed be Thy Name – at some point, if you hear it everyday, you take it in, whether you like it or not. So perhaps without realizing it, I did say all these prayers. Because that’s God – there’s something inside each one of us. Much later, after Transnistria, I had been wounded, I had trouble walking after the operation, I was walking in central Kishinev and I fell. When I looked up, I realized that I had fallen on the church steps. I went into the church. It was empty. It had just been renovated. You see, all of the churches had been used as storehouses or for other purposes, simply to prevent them from being used as churches. It was very hot outside. I went in, fell to my knees and cried and cried. I am not exaggerating! After that incident I started to get better. Every Saturday I got a taxi or got someone to drive me to that church so I that could pray.

The Withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan

We left Shindand; we drove out in fact. I didn’t fly out by plane; we all drove out together. We went to via Toraghundi, from there we went to the Southernmost point of the USSR: Kushka (Turkmenistan). From Toraghundi we went to Kushka. It was very difficult, it was February, driving through the mountains, the roads were slippery, we had to pull the cars out ourselves when they got stuck; some cars fell down into the abyss. I don’t know who decided it was a good idea to leave in February via mountain roads; that was very, very difficult. We got to Kushka. We camped. In winter. It was hot, I mean it seemed relatively warm, but we were in the mountains, in tents in subzero temperatures. We were then assigned in the tank unit, the women worked in the library, the men worked too. What was most interesting was that when we arrived, we all sat on our suitcases because everyone stole from each other! When we finally got to Kushka my perfume was stolen, my best bags! For the first time in my life I had managed to buy French perfume, Madame Rocher it was called I think, but it was stolen; those Russian officers stole so many things. I got home, I was crying. My mum asked, why are you crying – you’ve just got home? I told her: the one time I buy French perfume and it gets stolen. She said I was being silly, that I should be happy to be back safe and sound. She told me to forget about the perfume – you don’t need it, she said – just look at all the flowers growing outside.

It was very difficult to get plane tickets. That’s because in Tashkent they too had learnt to ask for money, for gifts. They would say there weren’t any tickets, and if you wanted one you not only had to pay the price of the ticket, but extra for them selling it to you. The ticket seller saw my bracelet. She said that if I gave her the bracelet, she’d sell me a ticket. There was no one to complain to. I was one of thousands. So, I gave her the bracelet and got a ticket to Kishinev. I heard a woman on the plane saying that she had been awarded the Order of the Red Star, on top of all these other honors… We both got to Kishinev. She lived in Balti, also in Northern Moldavia, I lived in Ocnita, further away. We got a taxi together that night. I was there with my two bags. She asked where the rest of my luggage was. I said that was all I had. She had lots of bags; she had to put them in the boot, on the roof of the car. Then she told me that she had been the lover of the deputy head of the rearguard and supplies. He’s the one that got her the Order of the Red Star as well as permission for her to get a car – you couldn’t just buy a car in the USSR, you could only do it if you were granted permission to buy one. In short, she told me that you could sleep with a commander and have it all! If you didn’t, then you would come back home with just two bags, without any honors, nothing. She was sent to serve in Balti. The most interesting part came ten to fifteen… seven years later. At the military hospital I met Tatiana again. She was in a terrible state, unhappy. She had crashed the car. She had married a young man and he had stolen everything she had.

By that time, the times of mass surveillance were over. I remember that they read our letters. I didn’t put much in mine. I just wrote about going to work, how everything fine, how it was hot, how I missed everyone, that sort of thing. The suicides, the alcoholism, I didn’t write about that. When we were going home… Maybe when your tour of duty is up and there is just a single plane flying out, maybe then they did check what people took with them. But when all the military units were leaving at once they didn’t have the chance to take our diaries, many people took weapons and all sorts of other things home with them. For instance, in Shindand, in our unit, they didn’t take the military vehicles. But the passenger cars they wrote off; they said that the cars had been shelled and then took them home for their own personal use in Il-76 planes.

In Afghanistan Japanese electronics were plentiful in the shops – TVs, stereos. They never let regular officers take them; it was only the senior officers who got their hands on them. It was just like that woman, Tatiana, had told me – the head of the rearguard and supplies, the deputy political commissar, the head of military headquarters, the commanders of military units, they took all of those electronics, they sold them in Tashkent and sent their earnings to their families.

It was also said that they shipped drugs out in coffins and then sold them on; I don’t know whether that was the case. I didn’t have anything to do with that, so I don’t know.

That woman told me about the electronics. She said her lover would take the goods to Tashkent, stereos and TV sets; sell them off swiftly and send part of the money to his wife, the rest to that woman’s mother.

Falling in Love During the Soviet Afghan War and Post-Soviet Outcome

There was a man with whom I fell madly in love; he also loved me dearly, but it so happened that I was transferred to a different unit, and then to Kabul. But I flew to see him and we saw each other often. During the year, - it lasted almost a year -, that I was in Afghanistan we had this romance. It was very dramatic because I was transferred, because we didn’t see each other often, we mainly had to talk on the phone and write letters. After Afghanistan, we continued seeing each other. But he went back to Russia and I back went to Moldavia. I didn’t want to go to Russia; he couldn’t find work in Moldavia. He got married in Russia. I stayed in Moldavia with my children. About a year ago he got in touch with me via mutual friends. I was in Romania and I got a call from a girl who was staying at my place. She said that a colonel by the name of A. was looking for me. She said she didn’t give him my number and told him to call back. I told her she absolutely had to give him my number next time he called. I came back; he called me a couple more times. He told me about his life; he hadn’t expected for me to be in France, he thought I was still back in Kishinev. Nowadays, you have the internet and all that. Nonetheless, he told me about the fact he already had a grandchild; he had kids… I said that our relationship was in the past and should remain there. First of all, because I could never be with a married man. That’s not my thing. I have my principles, my morals. Also, too much time has gone by. You see, when I was in Transnistria he was convinced that I would get involved in the war; he knew about my love for Moldavia, my love for everything that was Moldavian. He was right in thinking I would get involved in the war. He went to great lengths to be sent there as part of the peacekeeping force that was sent in in August 1992. It was supposed to be a quadripartite force, Romania and Moldavia on one side and Russia and Transnistria on the other. But the Russians pushed out the Romanians; the Russians were basically there on their own. But they weren’t there to stop the war; only to support the pro-Russians, the Transnistrians during and after the war. So, he came, he was in the so-called safe zone. Of course, we saw each other. But shortly after that he was sent back. He understood, well… I explained to him what I thought about the war, my perspective on the war. He thought that it was the peacekeepers’ job to stop it all. He stopped a vehicle carrying Transnistrian weapons. You see, they had taken weapons from a Russian military base and were taking them to the Transnistrian military base. He stopped that vehicle and demanded for the Moldavian representatives of the peacekeeping force to come in order to restore justice. He was called in by the Russian army and asked: what in the world are you doing!? They reminded him on whose side he was serving. That night they beat him; they thought he was dead so they threw him into the Dniestr. He survived because he was in excellent health; he was taken to hospital, then to Moscow, to a place near Moscow where he served. Later he had a heart attack, he was very unwell and he was dismissed from the army. So, he was left alive, but in a terrible state.

When I moved to Kishinev he also managed to find me somehow, he came to Kishinev. But you see, the thing is, time changes things. I had known him back when he was strong and proud. But when he came to see me, he had given up. He had started drinking. He said he couldn’t live in Moldavia; he said that I wouldn’t want to live in Russia. What were we to do? I called a taxi for him and told him to go home. I told him that he was right – there wasn’t anything for him in Moldavia. You see, ever since the Transnistria war, I cannot stand anything that’s Russian. So that was the end of it. It was, of course, a big drama.

Working in the Russian 14th Army in the Service of the Moldavian State

The Transnistrian War

The Republic of Transnistria or the "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic", as it was first named, split from the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic after its Russian-speaking population refused to be part of the Republic of Moldova founded on 23 June 1990. It proclaimed independence as the "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic" on 2 September 1990 and in December 1991 confirmed its independence by referendum. Violence first broke out in November 1991 in Dubăsari/Dubossari during an operation involving pro-Moldovan forces (troops and police) and the Transnistrian Republican Guard, militia and Cossack units. After a period of calm, negotiations failed and several officers of the 14th Army based in Transnistria were placed under arrest. Fighting resumed in March 1992. on a larger scale, supported by the Russian forces of the 14th Army under the command of General Aleksandr Lebed. The 14th Army clashed with the Moldovan Armed Forces on the banks of the Dniestr, around the towns of Bendery/Tighina and Dubăsari. Several hundred people were killed on both sides.

The Transnistrian area is of major strategic importance to Russia: it gives it access to the Danube and the Balkans by bypassing Ukraine; 40% of the country's industrial companies (as part of the USSR military industrial complex) were concentrated in the region during the Soviet era; and it includes a major rail hub for the transport of raw materials.

After a ceasefire was negotiated in July 1992, the United Nations oversaw an agreement with Moldova to leave Transnistria as Russia's area of influence. The ceasefire would be imposed by the peacekeeping force from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that succeeded the USSR. A UN resolution calling for the full and unconditional withdrawal of foreign military forces from the territory of the Republic of Moldova was adopted on 22 June 2018, but was non-binding and Russian peacekeeping forces remain in Transnistria to this day. Although it has acquired the attributes of a sovereign state and bears its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, Transnistria is not recognized by any UN member state. After a ceasefire was negotiated in July 1992, the United Nations oversaw an agreement with Moldova to leave Transnistria as Russia's area of influence. The ceasefire would be imposed by the peacekeeping force from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that succeeded the USSR. A UN resolution calling for the full and unconditional withdrawal of foreign military forces from the territory of the Republic of Moldova was adopted on 22 June 2018, but was non-binding and Russian peacekeeping forces remain in Transnistria to this day. Although it has acquired the attributes of a sovereign state and bears its own currency, the Transnistrian rouble, Transnistria is not recognized by any UN member state.

  • 2 Lieutenant General Alexander Ivanovich Lebed (Russian: 20 April 1950 – 28 April 2002) was a Russian (...)

I went to Tiraspol to serve, to gather information for the Ministry of State Security of Moldavia. I went there on purpose because the head of the guard there was Ch., and I knew him from our time in Afghanistan. He was the deputy head of headquarters of the 40th army in Kabul. When he became head of the guard in Tiraspol… You see, there is not a single army in the world that doesn’t have its own intelligence operatives, call them spies if you like. I volunteered to go there. I was so… Some have called me a nationalist; I’ve been called many things. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to love your nation. But that wasn’t really the point. I was very unhappy with Russia’s policy, them treading on Moldova. So, I went to serve there. I easily got a spot. After my time in the guard, Lebed2 took me into his unit, they even had a fight over me – because I knew Romanian very well. They didn’t have any experts who could read the Latin alphabet – the Moldavian language was written using the Cyrillic alphabet back then. But then after 1992 in Moldavia they transitioned to the Latin alphabet, like the Romanian language, to the way things were before in 1944. And they didn’t have anyone specializing in that, whereas I knew all that. My mother always wrote to me using the Latin alphabet, she never wrote in Russian, in fact she didn’t know Russian, nor did any of her relatives. My dad knew Russian because he had served in the Soviet army, because of his job. My mother didn’t speak any Russian throughout her whole life.

So Lebed requested the guard to transfer me to the 14th army – I didn’t ask for that; they transferred me. I was appointed to the same position. When they saw my file, they saw that I had served in the Main Intelligence Directorate. Thus, I served in the intelligence service, in the group for collecting and processing information, that’s the official title. I worked as a major, although I held the rank of senior lieutenant. I gathered all sorts of information: about the social situation, the political situation. Every day I sent Lebed all of these bulletins and he sent them on to Moscow. I was often sent to Kishinev (Chișinău) to see what was going on, to translate the newspapers… And, of course, I met with my case manager from the Ministry of State Security.

After 5 Years of Duty, She leaves the Service and Returns to Civilian Life

Then in 1995 I said that I couldn’t go on, that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I arrived there in November 1991 and from then on until 1995 I had been living on a knife edge. I met with my case manager from the Ministry of State Security and I told him that I couldn’t go on, I had to go back. I was having a very hard time. I was very stressed, I had to go and be with my children. I said that I couldn’t go on. I felt that if I stayed, my cover might be blown. So, I left, I went to Kishinev. For some reason I had thought that… It would have made sense that someone who had been working for the system for five years, risking their life, that afterwards they would be given a job, a flat. There was none of that. In fact, there was a new Minister of State Security who was very, very pro-Russian. To this day, I am very surprised that they let me live, that they didn’t kill me. That really does surprise me. But they simply waved their hand and said, oh well, it doesn’t matter.

So, I managed to get out. Although to this day I still have very bad pain in my spine. It’s hard to me to sit, to lie down or just to walk around. That was during the war in Transnistria, there was heavy shelling. There were trenches. There were grapevines supported by wooden poles, and these poles were used to cover the trenches where we hid. There was heavy shelling and the poles all fell on my back. I endured the pain while the war was still raging. Then, in 1995, I went to Kishinev and the pain became more acute. I had an operation on my spine.

They didn’t take me back into the army; they wouldn’t take me anywhere in fact. My friends helped me get a job at the Ministry of Justice. But then all of my injuries and wounds started hurting, I had an operation, I spent over six months in hospital. I was then made to retire. Retirement was very difficult for me because I didn’t have a flat –I had nothing. They gave me a room in student housing. Down a long corridor there was just one kitchen, one toilet and one shower for the whole floor. That’s what happened. That’s when I decided to go into politics.

At first, I went to the Union of Afghan War Veterans. I said that I wanted to write a book in memory of all those who died in Afghanistan. They said that people like me were a dime a dozen, but no one actually wrote a book. But I went ahead and did it. Then I wrote a book in memory of those who had perished in Transnistria. I set up the Association of Soldiers’ Mothers. When I started making a lot of public statements, they asked me to support a political party. I had always backed the right, and they took me on as an adviser to the Mayor-General. So, I rose through the ranks and it so happened that I earned a bit of money and bought my own flat.

When I wrote those books, first about those who died in Afghanistan, then about those who died in Transnistria. The process was worse that the war itself. Asking questions, talking to parents, the mothers of fallen soldiers telling all these stories, that was frightful.

It was very difficult after we were shelled, trying to pack soldiers into coffins and in fact sometimes there was nothing left to put in there. Unless you actually gathered up the intestines hanging off tree branches. Some bodies were identified by their shoulder marks, some thanks to tattoos on their arms. If they hit one of our vehicles right on target, if they hit an armored personnel vehicle; that was very scary. When I was writing the book in memory of those who had died in Afghanistan, I crisscrossed the entire country; I talked to parents, collected photographs. There was this one family that had to bury their son. At night they went to open the coffin. They weren’t supposed to, but they didn’t believe it was their son in there. When they opened the coffin, they found an elderly man in civilian clothes; he had slanted eyes, meaning he was an Uzbek or something like that. They took photographs, they sent lots of letters out; nonetheless, they never managed to find out where their son was buried.

I went to help out at the Union of Afghans Veterans. The Union’s chairman received a lot of money from various organizations, money intended to help veterans, the disabled and so on. Over a short period of time he stole colossal amounts of money, he bought a house, a car, he had a regular Zhiguli before, then he got a Mercedes. I was trying to tell all the veterans that he was a crook. So, he ousted me, he got guards to make sure I didn’t come in, because I had seen all the paperwork. He designated me an enemy of the people, just to make sure that no one else would find out. That’s when I established the Association of Soldiers’ Mothers, because when I was writing the book, I met many mothers of the fallen. So, I started organizing charity events for these mothers.

I was very afraid of being taken prisoner. Because of that fear I had a lot of dreams of running away, being chased, hearing the thunder of footsteps hot on my heels. Then I would wake up and think oh, Afghanistan again, it’s just a dream, go back to sleep. So, I would, and I would dream that same dream again. I must say, when I was working with cancer patients here in France, five or six years later I started having dreams in which I had cancer, in which my stomach would swell up, I would lie down, fall asleep and dream of all that again.

Three or four years after I left Afghanistan I was still having a hard time, I couldn’t get used to civilian life, I listened to tapes of Afghan music over and over again, I read and re-read A.’s letters. Then I understood that something was wrong, that I was struggling to go back to ordinary life. So, I burnt it all – the letters, the cassette tapes, the lot of it. I said that was a stage of my life that was in the past; I told myself that I had moved on, I had my children to focus on. That’s how I got over Afghanistan.

Olga Capatina's Bibliography

Olga Capatina, În memoria ostaşilor căzuţi în războiul din Afghanistan, Chişinău, Tipo grafia Centrală, 1997.

Olga Capatina, Colind afghan, Chişinău, Pontos, 2002.

Olga Capatina, Afghanistan, mon rayon de soleil sauvage, Paris, 7écrit, 2012.

Olga Capatina, Dobrenii, Bucarest, 2018.

Olga Capatina, Agent Dublu, Bucarest, 2018.

Olga Capatina, La fiancée de Kaboul, Maison d'édition ARC, Chisinau, 2019,

Ольга Капацина, Невеста из Кабула, Москва, Forthcoming.

Top of page

Notes

1 Boris Gromov is a Russian senior officer who, during the Soviet-Afghan war, did three tours of duty. He is known to have been the last Commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan.

2 Lieutenant General Alexander Ivanovich Lebed (Russian: 20 April 1950 – 28 April 2002) was a Russian military officer and politician who held senior positions in the Airborne Troops before running for president in the 1996 Russian presidential election. He was not elected. Lebed later served as the Secretary of the Security Council in the Yeltsin administration, and eventually became the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, the second largest Russian region. He served four years in the latter position, until his death following a Mi-8 helicopter crash. He participated in most of Russia's military conflicts in the final decade of the Soviet Union, including the Soviet–Afghan War. From 1988 until 1991, General Lebed served as the commander of the 106th Guards Airborne Division, and later became the deputy head of the Russian Airborne Troops. The general also played a key role in ending the military phase of the conflict in Moldova between Transnistrian separatists and the Moldovan government in 1992, as the commander of the Russian 14th Army. (Source: Wikipedia).

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Cloé Drieu and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, « Interview with Olga Capatina, - Physiotherapist and GRU Operative (Soviet-Afghan War) & Double Agent (Transnistrian War) -, Conducted in Paris, France, 25 September 2015 (EN) », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 28 October 2019, connection on 15 July 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4564 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/pipss.4564

Top of page

About the authors

Cloé Drieu

CNRS-EHESS

By this author

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

PIPSS & EHESS

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Top of page