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1988 - Soviet withdrawal

Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan - after years of grueling conflict the Soviet army pulls out from Afghanistan, leaving the war-torn country in a precarious position as Mujhadeen guerrilla forces challenge the government for control

On February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier crossed the Afghan-Soviet border marking the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts ever fought in Afghanistan’s history. Notably, the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan from May 1988 to February 1989 was not a rout. Rather, it was a well-executed and carefully planned disengagement operation that would allow the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) to survive for another three years after the end of the Soviet occupation.

It all began in November 1986 when the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev made the decision to withdraw all Soviet combat troops by the end of 1988 from the country. Afghanistan had become “a bleeding wound” in the words of Gorbachev. Throughout 1985, the Soviets attempted to force a military solution—the year became the bloodiest in the history of the war—but ultimately failed to break the insurgency’s back.

As a result, Gorbachev summoned key members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) including its new General Secretary, Muhammad Najibullah, to Moscow in late 1986 and informed the Afghan communists that they had two years to prepare for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and to implement a policy of national reconciliation backed up by massive Soviet economic, financial, and military aid.

The signing of the so-called Geneva Accords, on April 14, 1988, between Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States as guarantors, finally paved the way for the Soviet withdrawal from the Hindukush, while it also boosted Moscow’s hope for the future existence of a friendly, neutral government in Kabul under the leadership of Muhammad Najibullah.

In April 1988, the Soviet 40th Army consisted of around 100,000 men. Most of the Soviet military was deployed in the larger cities, along major roads and airfields with the majority of forces stationed in the Eastern provinces of Afghanistan. In the first phase of the retreat, 50,000 soldiers were withdrawn from 10 major garrisons. The 40th Army handed over to the Afghan military all the bases in the cities of Jalalabad, Ghazni, Gardez, Faizabad, Farahrud, Lashkargah, Kunduz, and Kandahar.

In order to protect the retreating troops, the Soviets deployed additional tank and artillery units as well as round-the-clock close-air-support along the routes. The 40th Army also deployed a SCUD missile battalion, a weapon particularly feared by the Mujahedeen. In addition, the Soviets—to the dismay of the Najibullah regime—also negotiated local ceasefires and paid off insurgents not to attack them. This proved very effective and there were only limited attempts from different Mujahedeen groups to interfere with the Soviet retreat.

Nonetheless, while not focusing on the Soviets, the Mujahedeen were launching massive attacks on DRA forces, which had taken over former Soviet garrisons throughout the country. As a result, Najibullah urged the Soviets not to withdraw all troops from the Western corridor.

The Soviets eventually withdrew all of the remaining 50,000 soldiers during late January and early February 1989. The last Soviet aircraft left Bagram Airfield on February 3. On February 4, the last ground troops left Kabul. Herat was abandoned and handed over to DRA forces on February 8.  The last major Soviet troop contingent crossed the border into the Soviet Union from February 11-14, with the commanding officer of the 40th Army, General Boris Gromov, crossing the border on February 15.

While the withdrawal was professionally conducted with minimum loss of life and material on the Soviet side, the announcement of an official timetable with the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1988 forced the Soviets to hand over authority in certain provinces prematurely, which created vacuums that could not be filled by the overstretched DRA military and substantially contributed to the insurgents controlling ever larger chunks of terrain, particularly in Eastern Afghanistan.


Further Reading


Moscow Times - Remembering the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Al Jazeera'The Victory Was So Strong': Afghans Celebrate Soviet Pullout

Middle East Policy Council - Lessons of the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

1988 - Soviet Beaty Pageant

'Miss Soviet Union' beauty contest - the first of a short-lived beauty pageant featuring the best looking women from the Soviet territories.

Beauty pageants (a mainstay in Western culture, particular America) were banned in the Soviet Union since 1959 – no scantily clad ladies, no cheeky fashion, no celebration of beauty and poise. However, the landscape changed in 1985 with the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev who became the youngest General Secretary of the communist Party. His appointment ushered in a new era of social freedom for the citizens of the USSR – including the removal of the ban on beauty pageants.



Three years later the first official USSR beauty contest ‘Moscow Beauty 1988’ was held in the Luzhniki Palace of Sports in Soviet Moscow and became a real sensation for the world community. The contest was sponsored by the up-market German fashion magazine Burda Moden, whose owner and editor Mrs. Burda was an honorable member of the jury. Promoters of the event refused all the standards and let girls with any figure take a part in the contest.


Attractive Russian girls found immediate admirers among film producers, fashion photographers, foreign investors, fashion designers and so on. To participate in a beauty contest at that time to a large extent meant to go against the still-prevailing public opinion that only indecent and disgraceful girls took part; girls who did not mind being seen by millions of TV viewers in swimming costumes marching on stage, girls whose moral values were well below public standards; girls who were more associated with prostitutes than beauty queens.

In the end, a schoolgirl Masha Kalinina won the competition. It wasn’t until the 2nd installment a year later that the winner would be crowned “Miss USSR”. It was a title that remain in place for a further 3 years until the Soviet empire crumbled and the USSR dissolved and faded into the annuls of history.


Further Reading


Russia Beyond - How the First Soviet Beauty Contest was Staged

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