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The influence of Soviets in Africa and other worlds

Published Jun 19, 2022



The general consensus among experts and students of international relations is that a country’s foreign policy is an expression of and seeks to benefit its domestic policy. Marxist analysts often add that it is the interests of the elites that are served by any foreign policy.

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Many have argued, for instance, that all the interventions by Western countries in most African, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries are purely for the control of natural resources – oil, minerals, gas, cocoa, opium, coca, and many others.

If these are the real interests of the many wars and coups that we have seen in our lifetime being perpetrated by Western countries, what then do we make of the interventions, past and present, that we have seen non-Western countries, such as Russia, making in the affairs of other countries?

What were the interests of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989? What interests were being served with the Soviet Union’s support for Cuba?

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Some of these questions are worth revisiting in the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. For some, Russia had no choice but to invade right-wing-led Ukraine in order to ‘push back’ Nato’s encroachment.

Liberal and conservative analysts argue that we are seeing the repeat of Soviet ‘social imperialism’. Some left-leaning commentators argue that Russia’s actions are reminiscent of pre-Soviet imperial Tsarist Russia.

In Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975, Natalia Telepneva revisits the complexities of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the liberation movements in Portuguese colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.

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A multi-layered analysis unfolds as Telepneva presents previously unknown facts and unexplored considerations. These are important not only because of our shared history with Angola and Mozambique but also because the Soviet Union was involved in assisting the liberation movements in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and a section of the liberation movement here at home.

What was behind this assistance in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique? What was the context within which this assistance was provided? Who were the players? What were their interests? These are the four questions that can be said to be the focus of this book.

Telepneva argues that the post-Lenin Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin did not have a defined interest in Africa. Stalin had his focus on Europe and was also preoccupied with his differences with China.

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He insisted on European Communist Parties toeing the line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At the same time, he was frustrated by the Chinese Communist Party's refusal to adopt the Soviet ideological line and development model.

The orientation of the Soviet Union changed following Stalin’s death in 1953, with Nikita Khrushchev changing the CPSU’s interests during the 1950s to also focus on Africa and Latin America. For Khruschev, the main interest was an attempt to project an independent image away from Stalin’s shadow. Second, forming alliances with newly independent African countries and providing assistance to liberation movements with real prospects of achieving independence meant that the Soviet Union could gain a global footprint, in a geopolitical sense, against Western imperialism as led by the United States.

A Soviet Union that either controlled or had an influence on a vast and strategic geopolitical space, such as Africa, and Latin America (where the successful Cuban revolution provided great geopolitical potential), as well as some parts of the Middle East, such as Syria, meant that the Western Empire would only be left with little global geopolitical footprint.

Soviet Union assistance to the liberation movements in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique took the form of supply of weapons for guerilla war against a weak Portuguese regime, which was finding it difficult to maintain colonies while fending off domestic rebellion by left-wing movements. Indeed, as Vladimir Lenin wrote in a 1915 booklet titled The Collapse of the Second International, a revolution (which may lead to the collapse of a disliked regime) happens in part “when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes'', a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth”.

The internal troubles of the ruling class in Portugal, which led to the popular coup against the authoritarian Estado Novo regime in April 1974, meant that Portugal’s interests in Africa began to lose focus.

The liberation movements in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique took advantage of the situation in Portugal to escalate their fight and press for independence. Thus, as for context and the reasons for supporting the liberation movement, the internal leadership within the Soviet Union and its quest for geopolitical advantage against Western imperialism, on the one hand and Portugal’s internal turmoil strengthened the Soviet position.

It was not simply the interests of the Soviet elites nor the weaknesses and collapse of the Portuguese ruling class that was a positive impetus to the liberation struggles in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.

The erudition of the African liberation struggle leaders and the genuine ideological passion of middle-level Soviet officials were critical and laid the ground for genuine solidarity between the peoples of the Soviet Union and Africans.

In one of his memorial sayings in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon wrote: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”. Indeed, the generation of African students who went to study overseas, most of them ironically in Portugal itself – Amilcar Cabrala from Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, Mário de Andrade from Angola, Marcelino dos Santos from Mozambique, and many others – were able to influence Soviet policy towards Africa.

A powerful point made by Telepneva and one that dispels myths of charitable Africans is that these and many activists from Africa and Latin America, including the Cubans, were able to push the Soviet Union to adopt progressive positions on what we now call the Global South (formerly so-called Third World), often taking advantage of the moral weakness of the West and the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union, in particular.

The strong networks and respectability that these African activists enjoyed amongst some left-wing circles in Europe meant that they were also able to establish genuine solidarity with middle-level Soviet officials whose interests were shaped by the Marxist dictum of international working class solidarity, as espoused in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848).

The Soviet elites were, therefore, provided with policy motivations for their own geopolitical interests by their middle-level officials, who were, in turn, doing so out of genuine international solidarity with their comrades. Those comrades, the leaders of the liberation movements, were not passive charity cases but articulate and resourceful players in their own right.

The analysis provided by Telepneva brings fresh insights as well as dispelling long-held views about African activists being pliable recipients of Soviet assistance. It is this agency and genuine solidarity that is sorely missed in today’s global geopolitical configurations.

Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975 is published by the University of North Carolina Press. It retails for R496 and is obtainable from online outlets. A free downloadable copy is also available from the website of the publisher.