Afghanistan didn't just defeat the Soviet army. It reached out and corrupted and corroded the Soviet Union's faith in itself. Above all it destroyed what was left of the dream that communism was the future universal model for the world.

The fascinating question now is whether Afghanistan is beginning to do the same to us in the West. Bit by bit, as we accept torture, corruption and rigged democracy, is our faith in the universalism of our European idea of democracy beginning to falter? And with it our power.

This is the story of two individuals who tried to save their countries from terrible crises caused by their involvement in Afghanistan. They did this through radical extreme projects that they were convinced would change the course of history. But their actions were to have the most unexpected and terrible consequences. They would find themselves still haunted by Afghanistan, and both would die sad, untimely deaths.

Both were children of powerful dynasties who had shaped the destinies of their countries.

One is Yegor Gaidar who was the architect of Shock Therapy in Russia. The other is Benazir Bhutto who helped to create the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yegor Gaidar's grandfather was one of the heroes of the Russian Revolution. He was called Arkady Gaidar. In private he was haunted by the terrible memories of how at the age of 14 in the Red Army he had brutally killed people in the civil war as he suppressed anti-communist rebels. He wrote in his diary:

"I dream about the people I killed when I was young, in the war"

So he decided to write children's books.

His most famous was called "Timur and his Squad". It is about Timur who gathers a group of children who come to help familes whose fathers have gone off to war. Arkady wrote it at the end of the 1930s - convinced that another terrible war was coming. Here are some pages and a photo of Arkady Gaidar.

In 1941, Arkady Gaidar volunteered to fight the Nazis. But he was killed in the first few weeks. "Timur and his Squad" became the most popular children's book in the Soviet Union ever.

Arkady's son was called Timur. He grew up as part of the revolutionary aristocracy. Timur Gaidar was taught that he was part of an elite who were transfoming the world - they could create a new kind of future. Here is a bit from a Soviet promotional film of the 1950s. It gives a sense of that optimistic vision, but it also has a mood of the strange and artificial feeling of life in the Soviet Union during that time - as young men and women at a New Years Eve dance in Omsk in 1960 are watched through a two-way mirror.

Timur became a defence correspondent for Pravda. He reported on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1962. Yegor grew up travelling the world with his father and meeting all sorts of famous people.

Yegor believed in the Soviet system. It was good to him and his family. But then the Gaidars became friends with the Strugatsky brothers. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russia's most famous Science Fiction writers.

Although James Cameron denies it, many Russians believe that much of the story and many of the ideas in Avatar are taken from the Strugatskys' "Noon Universe" sequence of novels that they wrote in the 1960s. Even down to the planet name - Pandora - and the humanoid race called the Naves.

But the novel that fascinated Yegor Gaidar was "Roadside Picnic" written by Arkady Strugatsky. It is about a strange and enormous place called The Zone. It is a magical area that has been created on earth by an alien visitation. Inside the Zone among the ruins are alien artifacts that have dangerous powers - and daring individuals called Stalkers go into the zone to get the artefacts.

The Zone is ambiguous. On the one hand it is coded criticism of the Soviet experiment - a ruined empty world that no one understands any longer. And it opened Yegor Gaidar's eyes to a new and critical way of looking at the world around him.

But on the other - somewhere at the centre of The Zone - is a Golden Sphere which if found will grant the deepest desires of the person who discovers it.

Roadside Picnic was turned into a film - Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Pakistan's most famous and charismatic politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In 1967 Bhutto formed the Pakistan Peoples Party. He challenged the military who ruled Pakistan and their slavishness to America. He wanted to create a new kind of socialist society.

His slogan was "Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people."

Here is Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the UN in 1971. You can get a sense of his power and charisma. He is trying to stop the UN recognising the breakaway East Pakistan as an independent Bangladesh.

In 1971 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became President and set out to transform Pakistan into a planned socialist society. And Benazir became an international princess.

And behind her was the power and confidence of one of the great feudal dyansties of the Sindh province. This is her grandfather Sir Shahnawaz .
But then it went wrong. Many of Bhutto's reforms failed. His government was riddled with corruption. To hang on to power Bhutto rigged the next election, and amid mass violence his favourite general, General Zia, took power in a coup.

Zia then sentenced Bhutto to death. And Benazir Bhutto began to change. Here she is describing the moments before her father was hanged. It is followed by the moment her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - come out of her family house early in the morning to announce their father has been hanged.

The Bhutto family vowed revenge. Benazir stayed in Pakistan and was held under house arrest. Her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - fled to Kabul. The communist regime in Afghanistan gave them one of the old Royal Palaces. Murtaza put a sign outside saying "Pakistan Peoples Liberation Army" - although he and his brother, three of their friends, and Murtaza's alsatian dog called Wolf were the only members.

Here is Murtaza and his sisters, Sanam and Benazir on a plane in happier times.

Then Murtaza created a terrorist wing called Al Zulfikar. They let off some bombs in Karachi, and in March 1981 they managed to hi-jack a PIA plane (only because the X-Ray machines weren't working at Karachi airport). The plane landed at Kabul when everyone was away in Moscow at the 26th Communist Party Conference in Moscow.

The plane sat on the runway. Murtaza played the passengers a cassette tape of "revolutionary songs". One of the other hi-jackers described the effect.

'I can't express to you what effect these 'revolutionary songs' had on the passengers. Forget the passengers, I myself developed a headache after listening to them. In all my life, I've never heard such crude, unmusical, off-beat, mindless drivel. All of us had to undergo this tuneless torture day after day. At the end of the hijacking I asked Murtaza where these cassettes had come from, but he refused to answer'

The songs had in reality been written and recorded by his brother - Shahnawaz.

Here is a fragment taken over a satellite feed of the hi-jack

Finally Murtaza gave up waiting and ordered a young Pakistani officer on the plane to be shot. General Zia then released some political prisoners and the hi-jack ended. But the Afghan government were fed up with the Bhutto brothers and asked them to leave. They were also fed up with Murtaza because when Wolf went missing he demanded that the whole Afghan intelligence service search the Kabul area for him.

Murtaza and Shanawaz left Afghanistan with two new wives. They were sisters, daughters of a member of the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

The leadership of the struggle against Zia passed to Benazir. Here is part of an interview with her in 1981. She has not only become radicalised, but she can also see clearly how General Zia's support of the mujaheddin resistance in Afghanistan was going to corrupt Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto is looking into the future and seeing the terrible dangers that were coming - the danger of allying with America and the Islamists, in the name of democracy, in their struggle with the Soviet Union.

As Benazir spoke, and Murtaza looked for Wolf in the streets of Kabul, Timur Gaidar was also in Afghanistan. He was the leading reporter for Pravda, and he was reporting on the Red Army's struggle.

Yegor Gaidar is quiet in his memoirs about his father's role in Afghanistan. Whatever he thought politically, Timur believed in the Red Army. By all accounts he wrote pieces announcing the Red Armies "successes" against the insurgent Islamists. Like his father, Arkady, and millions of other Russians Timur saw the Red Army as the guardian not only of the people but of the noble ideals of the revolution.

And the Soviets, as well as fighting the mujahedin, were trying to transform Afghanistan into a version of that revolutionary dream that had begun in Russia. Here are some extracts from a brillant film made in Afghanistan in the mid 80s. It is shot by a man I consider a genius. He is called Erik Durschmied. He has a wonderful eye and in my opinion is the best cameraman the BBC ever had. It begins with the Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, visiting a factory. Watch his face - and know that within a year the Soviets would remove him.

But as Timur Gaidar faithfully reported the Red Army "victories" against the mujahedin, his son, Yegor Gaidar, was becoming radicalised. He was turning against the Soviet system.

Yegor had studied economics in the 1970s at Moscow University. Then he met again the daughter of Arkady Strugatsky, the science fiction writer. They fell in love and married. And as the caption says above the photo in Gaidar's memoir - it was one of the happiest marriages ever.

But Yegor had decided that all of Russia and its empire had now become The Zone.

It is difficult to convey just how weird and alien-like the Soviet system had become by the mid-80s. Nothing was real. Brezhnev would take foreign leaders on fishing trips while underneath the boat Soviet frogmen would place already captured fish on their leader's fishhook. At the same time the giant economic plan had created an absurd and fictitious world. Here is a bit from a film I made for the series "Pandora's Box" just as the plan was collapsing in 1991. It begins with one of the heads of GOSPLAN, the central control for the whole Soviet Plan, showing us round the HQ in Moscow. Within months of the filming it was going to be closed down - in part by the actions of Yegor Gaidar

In the face of this many of the children of the communist elite retreated from the absurdity that political ideology had created. They tried to create worlds that were free of politics.

Here are two extracts from a series called "Comrades" made in 1985. Its about a group of experimental musicians grouped around the noise artist Sergey Kuryokhin. I think the noise that Kuryokhin creates is wonderful. Here is a bit of him conducting his band called "Mechanical Pop". You can see where Beyonce stole many of her moves from.

And here is Kuryokhin playing with a friend's band. They are children of the Soviet elites playing in a house that had been given to one of their familes personally by Lenin. It is Prodigy before Prodigy - and just wonderful, especially the song "Exterminator"

As one of them says - people both in Russia and the West try and force music to have something to do with politics. I don't think music has anything to do with politics he says.

Kuryokhin was going to become one of the central figures in the new Russia in the early 90s. As was Yegor Gaidar.

And like Kuryokhin, Gaidar was also retreating from politics. He was beginning to dream of a new type of economic system that would function efficiently and automatically - free from the corruption of power.

In the early 80s Gaidar joined the All Union Institute for Systems Research. It was modelled on the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, and it was full of young technocrats who sensed that a giant crisis was coming - and were trying to create a radical new idea to save Russia.

Here are a couple of shots of Yegor in the 80s - along with his fried Anatoly Chubais, who was also going to become central to the Shock Therapy project.

At the same time Shahnawaz Bhutto was found dead in his apartment in Cannes on the Riviera. It was where he and his Afghan wife Rehana Fasihudin had gone after being thrown out of Kabul.

Here is Benazir arriving in Cannes for the Coroner's hearing.

Rehana said Shanawaz had committed suicide by eating a cynaide pill left over from his terrorist operation. But Benazir Bhutto didn't believe her. According to Benazir there were signs of violence and his papers had been searched and Rehana seemed to have done nothing to help him. Benazir was convinced he had been assassinated and she speculated that Rehana might actually be an agent for the Pakistan Secret Intelligence Agency, the ISI.

Three months later Murtaza divorced Rehana's sister Fauzia and moved to Damascus with his young daughter Fatima.

A few months later Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan. She sensed that Zia's power was weakening. It was an extraordinary arrival. Millions came out to see her - and she promised Pakistanis a new kind of democracy. Here is the extraordinary journey she made in 1986 - from Bradford to the streets of Lahore.

Then, in 1988, General Zia's plane mysteriously crashed and in the election that followed Benazir was elected Prime Minister. But to be a politician she had to be married. So she accepted the Zardari family's offer of an arranged marriage with their son Asif.

Here is Benazir at the wedding. The music is from Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt.

Benazir came to power in a country whose political system and large parts of its society had been completely corrupted by the war in Afghanistan. Senior members of the army were smuggling heroin. The country was awash with weapons. And much of Pakistan's foreign policy was now in the hands of the mysterious intellgence agency, the ISI who along with the Americans had backed the Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But something else had happened which few people noticed at the time.

General Zia had brought in an Islamic tax - a Zakat. It was a levy to help the poor - and large amounts went to fund religious schools across the country. They were the madrassas - run by the Deobandi movement - and by the late 1980s there were thousands of these schools producing masses of students - many of them Afghan refugees - for whom the pashto word is "talib".

Most "terror experts" conflate Islamists like bin Laden with the Taliban. That is completely wrong. The Deobandi ulemas who ran the madrassas were traditionalists and believed that modern Islamism was a dangerous corruption of Islam and they condemned it.

The founders of modern Islamism, Qutb and Mawdudi, had tried to fuse Islam with modern politics to create a new kind of modern, revolutionary society. The ulemas in the Pakistan madrassas wanted to do the very opposite - to go back into the past. They wanted to retreat completely from the corruption of politics and create an idealized version of an old Islamic society.

Then in 1988 the Soviets gave up and left Afghanistan. As they watched the Islamist mujahedin groups tear each other apart, the young Taliban leaders realized their teachers had been right about the corruption of power.

As the Red Army came home the revolution they had protected and guaranteed collapsed. The Soviet Union was destroyed. And in 1991 Yegor Gaidar was given the task of producing a new reform plan by President Yeltsin. He realised this was his chance to create a new world.

Gaidar gathered a group of idealists around him and they set out to create a utopia that would also be completely free of politics. But his was like a science fiction vision of the future. He was going to create his Zone - a pure and idealised version of American capitalism but without any state or political control. Every state control was going to be removed and the system would find its own order.

Many of the left argue that the 1990s reforms were brought into Russia by Western free-marketeers, and that people like Gaidar were simply western puppets. Whilst it is true that Western bankers, accountants and politicians did all pile in, the more you look into the roots of the shock therapy project it is clear that much ot its strange, innocent simplicity came from Gaidar and the other young idealists.

It was their utopian dream that they created inside the isolated bubble of the decaying Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Here is Gaidar at a press conference announcing the start of his plan. All price controls would be removed overnight. And all state enterprises woud be privatized. It is followed by a bit from an interview with Gaidar the day the scheme began. He is aware of the irony that he and Yeltsin were going to use harsh political powers in order to destroy the power of politics in Russia.

Here are some extracts from a brilliant series called Russian Wonderland that recorded Russia during that time in wonderful detail. These extracts give a sense of Gaidar's vision as it began to spread. I really want to know what happened to the young girl.

And Afghanistan was about to get its own utopian experiment.

In 1990 Benazir Bhutto was forced out of power by the army. But in 1993 she returned triumphantly to power. To do this though she had done a deal that was going to change the fate of the world.

She had allied her father's party, the PPP, with another party called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. They represented the Deobandis. Although the Deobandis hated politics they still knew they needed to be represented - and this deal brought them into the corridors of power.

Benazir Bhutto then decided to use her new allies to bring order to Afghanistan. Many of the Deobandi students were Pashtuns and Bhutto was convinced she could create a new force that would bring order to the country. It would also restore Pashtun power.

At the end of 1994 she and her interior minister, General Babar, unleashed the Taliban, backed by vast amounts of Pakistani arms and money. Within months the "students" had taken Kandahar and were advancing on Herat.

And as the Taliban took control of the cities they began their experiment. All they cared about was morality so the only organisation they created was called - "The Organisation for the Commanding of Good and the Hunting Down of Evil". Otherwise they had no interest in any social or political institutions. They just got rid of them all.

And as they did so the Taliban experiment began to look strangely like Gaidar's utopian experiment further north. Because by removing all state control the Taliban allowed the purest and most basic form of commerce and capitalism to emerge. And as it did so merchants, dealers, and transporters in the old bazaars became rich, uncontrolled by any taxes or regulations.

Here is some footage from rushes directed by the brilliant producer Tom Giles in 1996 as the Taliban approached Kabul. First driving from Kabul towards the Taliban lines. And then some long hand held shots on the streets of Herat as the Taliban take over. Holding it long really gives you a sense of the tense and strange mood of that time.

The music is from Stalker.

But things weren't going to work out the way either Bhutto or Gaidar thought.

The force that Benazir Bhutto had helped create would mutate and in the end kill her. While Gaidar would find himself haunted by the political force that had been defeated in Afghanistan - the Red Army. It had defined his family's life for 80 years and it would return to destroy his dream.


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  • Comment number 37. Posted by U14623168

    on 5 Dec 2010 17:50

    All this user's posts have been removed. Why?

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by Luk333

    on 3 Aug 2010 12:13

    Glad to see another Nine Inch Nails song in one of your videos. For anyone that is curious, in the fragment where Benazir Bhutto travels "from Bradford to the streets of Lahore", the music is "2 Ghosts I" from the NIN album Ghosts I-IV.

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by Simon of the Fens

    on 3 May 2010 17:39

    Sorry to lower the tone of the discussion, but Stalker has also been re-made into a computer game. The difference being that 'the zone' is a vast area around the ruins of Chernobyl

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Haydn

    on 2 May 2010 10:32

    Adam, I was wondering how you would justify the idea that the UK has a European idea of democracy:
    "Bit by bit, as we accept torture, corruption and rigged democracy, is our faith in the universalism of our European idea of democracy beginning to falter? And with it our power."

    The UK's sense of moral superiority, which is still influenced by WWII, has taken it in a different direction from the European idea of democracy.

    European democracy is a tough one to define (part statist, technocratic, idealistic, prone to obvious failures of competence, compromising national identities); the British is elitist, newly technocratic, driven by no long term vision of the state, the people, renewal, or fairness or by an ideology we can sit down and break apart for analysis.

    It seems though to continue a belief that elites will bring some kind of universal benefit (even as the social fabric has morphed into something quite grotesque- read 16 year olds have children who have children at 16).

    If I was asked to define British moral or political ideology it would be "a belief in the beneficial power of freeforming and traditional elites"). If I was asked to define the European political and moral ideology it would be something like "attempting to redefine the role of the state but stuck with a functionary view of what the state is."

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by Juan

    on 2 Apr 2010 00:01

    An update to this strange story:

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by orangegodd

    on 13 Mar 2010 13:26

    Another fantastic article and some wonderful stuff here. Especially liked the From Bradford to Lahore piece. Wonderfuly emotive film making. Keep up the good work...

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by nofil naqvi

    on 9 Mar 2010 21:49

    Mr. Curtis

    I'm a documentary filmmaker from Pakistan and a big fan of yours. The other day I was watching The Power of Nightmares, and as you spoke of how the establishments supported Islamic militant groups that were carrying out attacks on civilians in Algeria and Egypt, just to turn public opinion against them, I realised that is exactly what they're doing in Pakistan. Not that it is not practically common knowledge that Islamic militants are backed by the Military and the ISI, but now I suspect part of the game is to support such attacks as an exercise in sabotage against the groups themselves that has already cost hundreds of lives. I have also been noticing that many of the attacks have been carried out with military vehicles, and some of the senior militants being 'captured' have military vehicles in their possession. I thought you would be interested in all of this... I hope to make something out of it soon.

    Thanks for being an inspiration.

    Nofil Naqvi

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by Juan

    on 10 Feb 2010 01:21

    Just came on here to congratulate you on the piece that you produced on the latest Newswipe, it was excellent. Just some thoughts: did Jenkins really achieve all he did because he was an "elitist"? I don't think he necessarily had a low of view of those "below" him, although maybe that's because I'm using the modern definition of "elitism". The impression I got from your short piece of him is that he was an elitist because he was somebody who was part of an elite who was not afraid to use to his imagination in order to bring on the change that he thought the masses needed, instead of giving them what they wanted (which seems to be the popular approach these days).

    Also, you report on the various scandals that peppered public life following the breaking of the dam that was Watergate. Some of it you attribute to journalism's increasing hunger for a foil to fight against, but I wonder: why did the elites become corrupted in the first place? The chaos of the seventies and the scandals that subsequently fed the press would seem to indicate that the patrician elites were becoming ever more clueless in managing the affairs of the state. Yet this is the same elite where Roy Jenkins sprang from, and from which he was able to bring about the change that we "needed". So are elites good or bad? You left it all very ambiguous, which I suppose is a good thing but it doesn't give me the answer that I need at twenty past one in the morning. ;)

    Final thought: I love how you skewer both the Left and the Right with your analysis of what I guess can only be called the "conspiracy theory" mindset. You provided one of the best analysis I've seen as to how and why this mood of fear deeloped, which is a tad ironic considering how many times you have been accused of being a "conspiracy theorist" by intellectual wonks. This peculiar ideology seems to trascend, and from now on I'll think of it as "Nixonian conservatism" thanks to your program. ;)

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Lee Ravitz

    on 6 Feb 2010 21:41

    Interesting stuff about the music, Alex. I made the assumption that the singer was certainly talking about music in the USSR being politically dominated - and making the point that his group wished to revel in music made for the sake of the sound only. I know nothing about Soviet era 'popular music' in the USSR (and whether there really was any such thing much before the 80's - I know certain other 'Soviet bloc' countries were able to -just- gain access to Western modes of music), but I would assume that the majority of widely available music at a popular level was state sanctioned and essentially propogandistic in nature.

    I'm not sure that the point being made by the singer was that music is, by its nature, a-political - surely he and his band mates must have been aware, even if all their music expressed was anger at the system, or surreal poetry deliberately contesting the assumptions of the Communist state, that there was a 'political' slant to their emphases - but, in a more general sense, that their songs are not directly about politics, and, more importantly, they are not conditioned by prevailing assumptions and viewpoints. That, in fact, was what I took the meaning to be - that the new style of music was breaking away from the state sanctioned, and so 'acceptable' form of music making, and, instead, taking Western models as its inspiration. One of the most interesting aspects of the 'sound collage' (and perhaps why Adam chose to include it) was the use of the sounds of the foundry, alongside orchestration, to make a kind of (literally) 'industrial' sound - which I thought was a fascinating subversion of the obsessions of the state. And I couldn't help thinking that both the programme makers and Adam C. felt there was a delicious irony that all this subversion was going on amongst the grandchildren of Lenin's one time elite cadres.

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by the art teacher

    on 6 Feb 2010 16:14

    I'll come back to make another comment, just watched the Kuryokhin music for the first time.

    The singer is very Prodigy, not sure about the song generally. Also what song is 'Exterminator'? I thought the first one would be called 'Experimentor'!!

    The second one reminds me of lots of things; Jerry Lee Lewis/Big Bopper style rock and roll, but the way someone like Roxy Music did it, or Sensational Alex Harvey Band or someone.

    The lyrics to the first song are unbelievably appropriate for this blog. I'm not sure we hear enough from the musician to tell, but it doesn't sound like he's fingering the West for making music about politics at all, seems to me he's talking about the USSR, which would make sense. I also think he's saying that music has 'hardly anything to do with politics' rather that nothing at all. Hate to be a pedant. I think he's
    wrong either way actually. I think pop music can reflect, and potentially influence, its time in lots of ways.

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