MOSCOW — When Latif Bahand first read Russia’s literary classics, his heart ached.
But it wasn’t out of sympathy for the characters as they wrestled with the slippery questions of human existence. It was because the works did not exist in his native language, Pashto.
“Here were these masterpieces, this golden age of Russian literature, and my people couldn’t read any of it,” said the 62-year-old Afghan academic and diplomat, who earlier this year became Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia.
When Bahand is not navigating his country’s changing relationship with Moscow, he is translating.
Currently, he is buried deep in “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s monumental novel questioning morality and compassion at a time of great social change.
Once completed, the Pashto-language edition will form part of a growing collection of Russian classics translated for the first time into Pashto — all by Bahand.
Ambassadors around the globe are in the spotlight following the recent shock at the resignation of Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, after leaked cables in which the envoy described the Trump administration as inept. President Trump, refusing to let the matter go, denounced Darroch as a “pompous fool.”
Others take up more idiosyncratic pursuits.
“I want to enrich Afghans’ lives,” Bahand said in a gilded reception room in the Afghan embassy, an Art Nouveau mansion personally gifted to the newly independent Afghan state by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin in the early 1920s.
Bahand’s appointment comes at a crucial time in ties between Moscow and Kabul, as the Kremlin jostles for a new era of influence in the country.
Historically, Russia has been an important player in Afghanistan, from the Great Game between Russia and Britain in the 19th century to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion. In the past year, Russia has hosted peace talks between Afghan power brokers and Taliban militants.
Bahand’s lifelong love affair with Russian literature began as a student in Kabul, when he first read the classics in Farsi, before moving to them in their original Russian during a stint in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Unlike Farsi — versions of which are spoken across Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — the Pashto language is spoken mostly by ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has fewer speakers and only a fraction of global literature translated in its language.
Translating the parts about women is the hardest, Bahand said.
“Afghan writers are not allowed to describe women’s bodies in detail or talk about how they look,” he said. “I didn’t hide the language, but it took longer to get the ideas across.”
There was also a shortage of words to work with. Russian has around 150,000 words in current usage; Pashto has around 100,000. “It’s like taking a vase of water and trying to fit it into a teacup.”
Then came the issue of the natural world around us. Tolstoy’s characters often immerse themselves in the countryside where they observe, with great detail, the change in the seasons.
Bahand gives away his translated books free to universities and libraries. They are particularly popular in Kandahar, the southern Afghan province where the Taliban formed in the 1990s.
“Why shouldn’t the Taliban read these books?” he said. “They are also Afghans. They are also educated people.”