KABUL, Afghanistan » As poignant in its imperial ambition as in its otherworldliness, the Soviet-era swimming pool atop Swimming Pool Hill here is as good a symbol as any of the doubtful legacy of empires.
Dug 30 years ago, it was barely ever used by Kabul’s swimmers, as the hill became entangled in barbed wire, first a gun placement for the Soviets and then the Taliban, before the whole area was bombarded by Western firepower in the 2001 invasion.
Now restored, its five diving boards hang pointlessly above an empty pool and an indifferent city stretched out below that is consumed with yet another stage of Afghanistan’s precarious history, the pending withdrawal of more recent foreign occupiers — the United States and its allies.
Like the pool, Kabul holds many glimpses of its Soviet past hidden in plain sight around its jumbled hillsides: a polytechnic school built in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union and the United States jostled for Cold War influence in Afghanistan by building big infrastructure projects; or a car factory expanded after 1979, when the Soviet Army marched in to wrench this nation more forcefully into the Kremlin’s sphere of power and way of thinking.
The Soviets retreated in 1989, leaving Afghanistan to a civil war that swept up the Soviet-constructed edifices in the conflagration. However improbably, a few of these are still inhabited, like an engineering school, the Auto Mechanic Institute, where a second-year student in a green T-shirt picked his way one recent afternoon from the ghostly wreckage of bombed-out classrooms.
Others are simply wrecks, prowled only by the homeless, drug addicts and dogs — sobering artifacts that confront the United States and its allies as they begin pondering what their own legacy might be.
"The Soviets came in believing they could re-engineer other people’s societies, releasing Afghans from their medieval backwardness," said Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow whose book "Afgantsy" is about the Soviet occupation. "They didn’t transform Afghan society any more than we are going to."
In 1980s Kabul, the Soviet Embassy on Darulaman Road, bustling with technicians and ideologues, was the locus of power, just as the U.S. Embassy across town is today.
The current Russian ambassador, Andrey Avetisyan, 51, worked here as a young diplomat during the 1980s. He was here, too, when things became dicey in the early 1990s: He spent 16 days hiding in a bomb shelter as the mujahedeen divided up Kabul, and he was one of the last Russians to flee Afghanistan, in August 1992.
An urbane man in a smart dark suit, Avetisyan cuts something of an isolated figure in the echoing halls of the reconstructed Russian Embassy, a third of its former size. The grounds were home to donkeys and nomads during the Taliban years, but they are now hidden from the highway behind a curtain of metal blast walls.
He has a plan to restore 150 of the Soviet-era infrastructure projects, starting with a housing construction factory on the outskirts of Kabul near the airport.
"These were projects that were kind of the basis of the Afghan economy," Avetisyan said. "Now it is difficult for me to see the state they are in."
The starkest illustration of thwarted imperial ambition is the Soviet House of Science and Culture, near the Russian Embassy and the Kabul zoo. It is a modern, angular, concrete hulk where Soviets and Afghans gathered for lectures, films and the propagation of modernizing ideas that for a while refashioned Kabul, including a time when women could work outside the home in Western clothing.
But during the civil war of 1992-96, the House of Science and Culture was occupied by one faction and wrecked as another lobbed shells down from a nearby hill. Today, the auditoriums are littered with rubble; cold air comes in through rocket holes; and once-bold Soviet murals of men and women, Afghans and Russians, are hidden in the squalid darkness near cartoon images depicting a Taliban fighter instructing children to become suicide bombers.
"This used to be very luxurious," said Mohammad Elyas, a heavy man with a big smile who was more intent on parking cars on the waste ground outside for 20 Afghanis each (about 40 cents) than contemplating the cultural center. "It is nothing now."
Not every legacy bequeathed by the Soviets is lost. The Silo, an industrial bakery, fed the national Afghan Army and police. During the civil war, fighters threw their enemies from its rooftops. But its grimy yellow towers are once again turning out so-called silo bread for hospitals and schools.
The most enduring physical presence might be the Mikrorayon, gray apartment blocks originally built for Soviet administrators and the Afghan elite that stand amid the central suburbs of Kabul.
Also bearing the bullet and shell marks of the battles of the 1990s, they are cramped, run-down and patched, with clothing lines stretching haphazardly from windows to nearby trees. But the Mikrorayon are still some of the most prized homes for Kabul’s educated and wealthier middle class — a fact reflected in the loud street billboards for cellphones and private schools, and in the presence of young women walking the sidewalks in leg-hugging jeans unencumbered by the traditional dress.
"It is a safe place," said Shir Mohammad Basheer, 50, a school principal who was fixing his car outside the four-room apartment that he shares with his wife and six children. "We have running water. We have electricity. We have central heating."
"To be honest, Russia did this great work for Afghanistan," he said. "We have not seen anything big built by the international coalition."
Many Afghans’ remembrance of the Soviet years is colored by this rosy nostalgia. But the grounds of a museum near the main stadium hold reminders of a bloodier legacy: mines, shells, rockets, helicopters and other tools the Soviets employed to suppress their own insurgency, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, a ghastlier toll than the coalition’s, if these things can be compared.
Still, Abdul Wahid Taqat, a KGB-trained intelligence officer during the Soviet years and now a military analyst who lives in an apartment near the Mikrorayon, said that he believed a powerful army and a muscular government were a valuable legacy. They allowed President Muhammad Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed leader, to withstand the mujahedeen alone for three years after 1989 before Moscow finally cut off oil and other supplies.
Then, of course, Najibullah was beaten, shot and hanged from a traffic light by the Taliban in Kabul in 1996.
"They left a strong Afghanistan behind, but today’s government will not last as long," Taqat said, referring to the Soviets.
Up on Swimming Pool Hill one recent evening, five police officers in blue uniforms took time off from their duties, dancing in a circle near the swimming pool, their outstretched arms swaying to Tajik music floating from the window of their Toyota Land Cruiser.
Watching them, another Afghan taking in the air, Harun Merzad, 34, who was jobless and wearing a black hat and a G-Star Raw jacket, spoke of the Americans’ impending departure, and of the Soviets’ before it, with indifference — as if it was inevitable that once again Afghanistan would revert to what it always had been.
"I don’t have anything bad to say," he said of the Russians with a shrug. "Except they were infidels."