Russian culture and language are making a comeback in Afghanistan, where the Soviets fought a disastrous decade-long war, as Moscow vies to regain influence ahead of the planned withdrawal of Nato troops.
Bulldozers are clearing the way for a sparkling Russian cultural centre in Kabul, to replace its massive Soviet-era predecessor, which for many people came to symbolise Moscow’s war and its humiliating 1989 defeat that cost 15,000 Soviet lives.
“We are here in the region, and we will be in the future. And to have good, friendly, neighbourly relations you must have some cultural component to it,” Andrey Avetisyan, Russia’s envoy to Kabul, said of the decision to rebuild the centre.
Moscow fears the exit of most Nato-led troops by the end of 2014 will lead to a power vacuum south of ex-Soviet Central Asia’s borders, threatening Russia’s security and allowing for a larger influx of heroin.
The new centre will teach Russian language, singing, dancing and handicrafts and will boast a concert hall, similar to the one built in 1983.
The rebuilding project is reminiscent of Soviet influence in Afghanistan before the 1979 invasion, when Russia heavily supported education and the arts.
It also coincides with renewed interest by Afghans in the Russian language, seeing it as increasingly useful amid the emergence of new regional powers.
“Demand for the Russian language is growing. It is more widely spoken in Afghanistan than five years ago,” Mr Avetisyan said yesterday. He added: “Foreign advisers and experts are not going to be here forever. Nato, the European Union, they will all go.”
When asked when the new centre would open, he chuckled and said: “Everything is about the year 2014.”
The centre replaces a dilapidated, bullet-ridden shell of a building that became home to scores of heroin addicts before the Russians finally demolished it several months ago at the behest of Kabul authorities, who complained it “ruined the skyline”, Mr Avetisyan said.
Russian engineers will oversee the project, which has been contracted by the Russian government. It will employ Afghan construction firms.
Though Afghanistan was devastated by the war with the Soviet Union, which by some estimates killed millions of people and destroyed the country’s once-thriving agriculture, both sides have begun to take a more upbeat view of their relationship, helping Moscow gain influence.
At the sprawling and leafy Kabul University, demand is growing for degrees in Russian language and literature.
Mohammad Rahim Banaizada, one of six professors in the Russian department, said: “Our students are too young to worry about the past. Instead, they see Russian as a bridge to social and economic opportunities.”
Around 220 students are currently studying for four-year degrees in Russian, almost double that of five years ago, Prof Banaizada said, who spoke while standing beside framed pictures of Russian president Vladimir Putin with the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai.
They hung next to copies of typed Cyrillic letters from Afghan King Amanullah Khan in 1919 to Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, affirming the countries’ friendly ties two years after the Bolsheviks swept to power.
Sharifullah, 22, a student, said: “Russia is our neighbour with a culture we love. Things were good when they were here.”
The cultural centre is the first of a series of ambitious Russian construction projects in Afghanistan. Most are aimed at reinforcing stability in a country where Russia believes the US is at risk of repeating its own mistakes.
After the Soviets left, financial aid dried up and the Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to infighting between warlords and a civil war that paved the way for the Taleban’s rise to power in 1996.