Soviet soldier found in Afghanistan, 33 years later

When I was younger, I remember hearing potentially apocryphal stories from time to time about US MIA soldiers still living in Southeast Asia. The Russians have faced the same stories about their troops possibly being left behind in Afghanistan, 30+ years after their invasion of that country.

And they’ve just found one.

For Vietnam, the stories varied from those who survived and chose to stay in the jungle, to those who were being held against their will. Whether any US POW/MIA soldiers were left in Vietnam after the war remained (and for some, still remains) a hotly-debated subject.

As for the Russians, they have an organization devoted to finding Soviet soldiers who were left behind after the war in Afghanistan. Today they have 263 soldiers on their list that they are trying to locate. Many will never be found, and may have died leaving no remains behind.  Having said that, they’ve been able to find 29 missing Soviet soldiers.

It’s amazing to see how much success the Russians have had locating their former comrades in Afghanistan. The Guardian has reported on this but the English version of a Russian site has more details.

Since its inception, the committee has discovered 29 missing Soviet soldiers alive in Afghanistan. Seven of them chose to stay, while the others returned home when given the option, Aushev’s deputy, Alexander Lavrentyev, also an Afghan veteran, said at the press conference.

Khakimov is the eighth. He suffered severe head trauma during fighting in Shindand 33 years ago, when he was still a 20-year-old draftee, but was nursed back to health by a local village elder. The now-deceased Afghani, who made a living as a healer, adopted the native of the ancient Uzbek city of Samarkand and taught him the trade, Lavrentyev said.

Khakimov, who still has a nervous tic from the injury, forgot whatever Russian he knew and never tried to contact his relatives after being captured. “He was just happy he survived,” said Lavrentyev, who personally met with Khakimov in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan in late February.

Reading this, and seeing that in fact Soviets soldiers were left behind in Afghanistan, it does make you wonder how many American soldiers may have been left behind after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

US soldiers would generally have been taller and heavier than the normal local populations, and unless they were Asian-American, they probably would have stood out a lot more compared to a Russian with a beard blending in with the Afghanistan population.  Thus it might have been harder to hide an American in Asia, making it less credible that any are still there.

Still, judging by the Russians’ success, the idea of finding “lost POWs” is no longer as crazy as it may have once seemed.


An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/samella.williams Samella Williams

    I never thought that it was a crazy idea that Americans were left behind in SE Asia after VN. We just never made a concerted effort to find them.
    And remember, anytime a relative brought up the idea that their missing soldier might still be alive, they were shot down, especially by John McCain, who blocked any attempt to track down the missing missing soldiers.
    And guess who were very careful NOT to question McCain on his efforts to prevent this country from locating missing POWs?
    If you guessed the excuses that pass for media in this country, you would be correct.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Uzbekistan (the soldier’s homeland) and Afghanistan share a border, so this story wouldn’t seem to offer much in the way of parallels to US soldiers in Southeast Asia, but it’s interesting anyway.

  • Zorba

    He was an Uzbek, not an ethnic Russian. He probably grew up speaking Uzbeki, a Turkic language, and Russian was his second language.
    Oh and, BTW, Uzbeki and Turkman, both Turkic languages, are not at all unknown in Afghnistan.

  • Asterix

    Again, the article identifies him as “Soviet”, not “Russian”. He could have been from any one of several non-Russian-speaking areas. My Lithuanian grandfather fought with the Russian White troops (he was conscripted). He only knew a few Russian phrases; just enough to get by on.

  • Asterix

    You bring up an important point–that “Soviet” does not imply “Russian” and that Soviet peoples came in all races and sizes and spanned the globe from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. I’m reminded of this when I encountered a Gliere work, “March of the Buryat-Mongolian ASSR”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/redoaks.dogpark RedOaks DogPark

    Difference here is that these Russian soldiers were ethnically closer to the Afghans than to the white Russians in Moscow. It is also likely that this soldier was born into a Muslim family.

  • Alex

    Chances are he knew very little Russian to begin with. While everybody in the USSR knew Russian to some degree, those who lived in the Central Asia oftentimes had very limited mastery of the Russian. Add to that the fact that the Uzbek language is rather common in Afghanistan, and it’s no wonder he lost the ability to speak any Russian.

  • HKAnders

    Khakimov, who still has a nervous tic from the injury, forgot whatever Russian he knew and never tried to contact his relatives after being captured.

    He forgot how to speak Russian? I wonder, was that the result of his head injury? That’s the only thing that I imagine would explain forgetting your native tongue, having spoken it into adulthood.
    What an amazing story.

  • Naja pallida

    At least it seems he basically started a new life, and wasn’t like the Japanese soldiers from WW2 that were still being found well into the 1970s, who thought they were still at war.

  • George Tull

    I’m very sure we still have Americans left behind in Vietnam. Finding a soldier 33 years later is amazing.

    George

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