KABUL, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Russian culture and language are
making a surprising comeback in Afghanistan, where the Soviets
fought a disastrous decade-long war, as Moscow vies to regain
influence ahead of the planned withdrawal of foreign troops.
Bulldozers are clearing the way for a sparkling Russian
cultural centre in Kabul, to replace its behemoth, Soviet-era
predecessor which for many 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," Russia's envoy to Kabul, Andrey
Avetisyan, told Reuters 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 dangerous power vacuum south of ex-Soviet
Central Asia's borders, threatening its own 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.
Its rebuild is reminiscent of Soviet influence in
Afghanistan before the 1979 invasion, when they heavily
supported education and the arts.
It also coincides with renewed interest by Afghans in the
Russian language, who see it as increasingly useful in their
country's changing landscape amid the emergence of new regional
"Demand for the Russian language is growing. It is more
widely spoken in Afghanistan than five years ago," Avetisyan
said, adding: "Foreign advisers and experts are not going to be
here forever. NATO, the European Union, they will all go".
When asked when it 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",
Russian engineers from state company Spetstroi Rossii will
oversee the project, which has been contracted by the Russian
government. It will employ Afghan construction firms.
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Though Afghanistan was devastated by the Soviet Union's war
here, which by some estimates killed millions and destroyed its
once-thriving agriculture, both sides have started to take a
more upbeat view of their relationship, helping Moscow gain a
At the sprawling and leafy Kabul University, the country's
largest, demand is growing for degrees in Russian language and
"Our students are too young to worry about the past. Instead
they see Russian as a bridge to social and economic
opportunities," said Mohammad Rahim Banaizada, one of six
professors in its Russian department.
Around 220 students are currently studying for four year
degrees in Russian, almost double that of five years ago,
Banaizada told Reuters 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.
"Russia is our neighbour with a culture we love. Things were
good when they were here," said third-year student Sharifullah,
22, who gave only his first name.
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
Washington is at risk of repeating its own mistakes.
After the Soviets rushed out, financial aid dried up and the
Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to infighting
between warlords and a vicious civil war that paved the way for
the Taliban's rise to power in 1996.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)