PuliCharki Prison

The Communist Revolution

Communism was a foreign idea, but it was Afghans themselves and not foreigners who implemented it. They believed the ideology would transform their country. And coming to power the new Communist president, Nur Mohammad Taraki announced a manifesto of staggering ambition. Secular education, equality for women and with wild optimism he predicted the mosques would be empty within a year.

In Kabul, I’ve come to meet Hamidullah Tarzi, who was a minister in these first Afghan Communist cabinets. And I wanted to talk to him about the wisdom and the speed of some of these extraordinary reforms.

Nur Mohammad Taraki
Nur Mohammad Taraki

Hamidullah Tarzi “The women in those days were emancipated. They would be able to go on television… They would go out. And so there was a complete change for women in general.”

And education for woman and literacy?

Hamidullah Tarzi “Education was very pronounced… Education was given to them.”

Why did people resist them? Why was there a resistance?

Hamidullah Tarzi “The people resisted them because, you see their problem was that they were… Not very religious. They didn’t say prayers… They didn’t, you know, respect Islam. It went very hard and, you know… Roughshod over the mullahs. They were very much against the mullahs things went down, down, down…”

When people tried to resist the revolution, the Afghan Communists responded with terror, brutally driving through their reforms. And nothing symbolises the horror of their rule more than this, the PuliCharki prison.

PuliCharki Prison Yard
PuliCharki Prison Yard

It almost feels inappropriate to be here. I have a friend in Kabul who had 71 members of his family executed in the courtyard adjoining this building. The few months after the Afghan Communists came to power, 12,000 Afghans had been arrested, put in Kabul prisons and were then executed.

PuliCharki Prison contained, at one time, 15,000 prisoners, many of them political prisoners. The contrast between this brutal, rigid concrete prison, and the reality of rural Afghanistan, the mud houses, the villages, in the centre of which this sat, some great modern horror. It’s the brutal arrival of a modern state trying to impose its ideology on a country.

By 1979, the Afghan Communists were facing growing unrest, particularly in the more conservative, religious countryside outside Kabul. Their followers were beginning to mutiny and they were losing control. Finally, the Afghan president, the Mohammad Taraki, flew to Moscow to see his friend and ally, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and he plead with the Soviets to send troops to Afghanistan to prop up and secure this Communist revolution. But the reaction was not what you might expect.

PuliCharki Prison
PuliCharki Prison

You would have thought that the revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 would have been a great moment for the Soviet Union. Suddenly, a new Communist country had emerged in the late 1970s. The Cold War, you would have thought, was swimming in their direction. But, actually, the reaction that came from the Kremlin was not one of celebration, not one of popping champagne corks, but profound nervousness and trepidation about what Afghanistan had got itself into, and what this would mean for the Soviet Union.

And the historical records of the Politburo have now been released, confirming just how bewildered and anxious the Russians were. Again and again, the documents show the Foreign Minister, the intelligence Minister and the Defence Minister saying that if the Soviet Union got involved, it would first spark Muslim resentment. It would turn the Afghan government into a puppet. And it would destroy the Soviet Union’s reputation around the world. And yet, in the end, despite all these fears, Brezhnev considered invasion.

A man who saw Russia’s interaction with Afghanistan firsthand was Rodric Braithwaite later Britain’s ambassador to Moscow.

Rodric Braithwaite
Rodric Braithwaite

Rodric Braithwaite “The crucial incident was when Taraki, the new president, who was a sort of favourite of Brezhnev’s, the then Soviet leader, was assassinated by his number two, Amin. And Brezhnev took that very personally, he had vowed to protect this guy, this guy ended up dead. Amin was out of control.”

Valeri Ivanov “Amin was simply exterminating people and advisers came and told me about this. They would appear at night, round people up, no judge, no jury no nothing, into a trench and then fill it in with bulldozers.”

Rodric Braithwaite “A decision was taken absolutely at the last minute. There was a great outcry that the CIA had failed to predict it, but they, they couldn’t predict something that the Russians themselves hadn’t yet decided to do. ”

At this point, a Russian invasion seemed inevitable.


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