Thousands of Ethiopian prisoner of War, including three of their Russian advisors.
(From left to Right, Lieutenant Covaldin Alexander Victrovich, Colonel Kalistrov Yuri Petrovich and Colonel Churayef Yevigniew Nicolayevich)
The African continent became a factor in Russian foreign policy for the first time at the end of the nineteenth century during two wars, the Italo-Ethiopian War (1895–1896) and the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). In both cases, a strong anti-British sentiment among the public and a cautious but obvious anti-British stand of the government made the Russians consider first Ethiopia, and then the Boer republics, as potential allies against their common powerful enemy, Britain.
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the young Soviet state perceived Africa, as well as other parts of the colonized world, as its natural ally in its struggle for survival and social progress because of the revolutionary potential of the colonized peoples, and their presumed ability to undermine and disrupt the capitalist world. The Communist (Third) International (Comintern), a union of communist parties of the world founded in 1919 in Moscow and to a large extent expressing its interests, was deeply involved in the ideological debate on the “national and colonial problem,” in spreading socialist— and with it Soviet—propaganda, and in preparation of cadres for both national and social revolutions. In 1928, the Red International of Labor Unions, which acted under the auspices of the Comintern, created the International Trade Union Committee of Working Negroes, which played an important role in Moscow’s African connection. Several future leaders of anticolonialism in Africa were educated in the Comintern’s schools, Jomo Kenyatta and George Padmore among them.
South Africa occupied the central place in Comintern’s African policy for it was the only country in Africa south of the Sahara that had a well-developed working class, a well organized labor movement, and a vibrant and vociferous communist party. The Communist Party of South Africa gave the Comintern its only direct link to politics in the region but it was mainly the Comintern’s rigid control over the party that led to the latter’s demise in the 1930s.
In 1943 the Comintern was disbanded, because during World War II the Soviet Union was more interested in maintaining relations with its Western allies than with the communist movement. In Africa this new line found a reflection in the opening of Soviet consulates in South Africa which existed from 1943 until 1956.
The Comintern’s greatest contribution to the cause of African liberation may have been its slogan of the “independent native republic,” its official goal for South Africa from the late 1920s until 1935. However, until the 1950s the Soviet stand against colonialism was inconsistent. The USSR rejected the mandate system of the League of Nations, but it did join this organization despite the fact that it condoned colonialism. The Soviet Union was the only big European power to denounce Italian aggression against Ethiopia in 1935–1936, but even after the war it explored possibilities of territorial acquisitions in Africa for itself.
After the war, from the mid-1950s on, the center of attention of the Soviet government in Africa moved from South Africa to other African countries. Soviet strategists and policy makers saw them as allies in the struggle against its opponents in the Cold War and as potential members of the socialist camp because, one after another, they declared their desire to be socialist or “to build socialism” after proclaiming their independence. This new approach led to an upsurge of direct Soviet involvement in Africa during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.
The most important aspect of Soviet policy at that time was its assistance to liberation movements. The Soviet Union initiated the Declaration of Independence of Colonial Countries and Nations, which was passed by the United Nations in 1960, and championed every case of anticolonial struggle on the international arena. It provided liberation movements with funds, consumables, vehicles, air tickets and stationery, and granted scholarships for the study in Soviet tertiary institutions. From the 1960s on it became instrumental in providing military assistance: arms, advisers, and relocation of guerrilla forces. This was particularly significant in the case of the MPLA, Frelimo, SWAPO, and the African National Congress. In the context of the Cold War, assistance and support were always offered to a particular allied party as a measure against the influence of other power—first and foremost the United States and China, which often led to fragmentation of nationalist movements.
The spirit of the Cold War dominated Soviet relations with independent African countries as well, first of all in the sense that the USSR attempted to create a chain of allies in Africa, as it did elsewhere in the world. Countries that embarked on the program of reforms that Soviet authorities considered to be directed at building socialism, or just expressed their wish to do so, as well as those that did none of these but had tried to cut their ties with the West were pronounced “countries of noncapitalist development” (or, later, “countries of socialist orientation”) and put into the category of “revolutionary democracies” (as distinct from the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe). At different periods different countries fell into this category including Ghana, Mali, French Guinea, People’s Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Somalia. Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique enjoyed special attention and received the most in economic and military aid from the USSR.
There is little doubt that, both before and after World War II, Soviet policy in Africa was to a large extent dictated and motivated by the interests of the Soviet state itself. It is equally obvious, however, that Soviet assistance and its confrontation with the West where Africa’s colonial powers belonged did make a difference for the outcome of Africa’s struggle for independence. Soviet aid, on the other hand, did not help to alleviate economic problems of independent African countries and in some cases exacerbated them, and its ideologized approach and virtually unlimited supply of arms contributed to internal conflicts.
After the end of the Cold War, the center of Soviet interests in Africa moved to southern Africa once again. Due to its leverage in the wake of the Cold War and its involvement in Angola and Mozambique, the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation were able to play an active role in the Namibian settlement and in South Africa’s peaceful transition to the majority rule. However, from the beginning of the 1990s on, Russia’s interest in Africa and its role on the continent began to decrease.
Further Reading Cassen, R. (ed.). Soviet Interests in the Third World. London: Sage/RIIA, 1985. Golan, G. The Soviet Union and the National Liberation Movements in the Third World. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988. Kempton, D. Soviet Strategy toward Southern Africa. New York: Praeger, 1989. Nation, R. C. and M. V. Kauppi. The Soviet Impact on Africa. Lexington Books, 1984. Somerville, K. Southern Africa and the Soviet Union: From Communist International to Commonwealth of Independent States. London: Macmillan, 1993.