Africa’s drive for independence came to a head by the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. It was seen by the Soviet Union as an opportunity to spread socialism to developing countries, build a sphere of influence and create a bloc in opposition to the West. While Americans feared a communist takeover of the continent, the relationships the USSR forged in Africa did not last long. Hasty and careless evaluation of potential socialist states, emphasis on the military leading violent insurrections, and inadequate aid all prevented the Soviet Union from developing anything more than, at best, friendly associations with countries that would eventually align themselves with the West.
To understand how this happened, this paper will draw upon historical perspectives of Soviet and African thinkers of the time period as primary sources. We shall see that while Soviet historians largely blamed the fragmentation of African societies and the lasting effects of colonialism, African historians pointed to the lack of Soviet interest to help African countries when it did not benefit the Soviet Union. By studying how the situation was viewed from both sides, one can better understand exactly why and how the relationship failed.
In addition to examining the general history of Soviet-African relations, this paper will focus on relations with Angola as a case study. Many African countries cut off economic and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union during the period from 1965 to 1974, seeing relations with Western Europe and the United States as more advantageous. However, Angola, having received Soviet military support in its struggle for independence from Portugal, was one of its closest allies in the developing world during this time period. Yet even this strongest and most enduring relationship between the USSR and an African state eventually failed, and Angola ended its socialist reforms.
The Rise and Fall of Soviet-African Relations
Part of the reason why the Soviets experienced such difficulty transforming African countries into socialist states was that the Soviets largely lacked an understanding of the continent. Until the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union had almost no relations with the then-African colonies. Dominated by Western countries, Africans were considered by the Soviets to be part of the capitalist system. Joseph Stalin maintained a strict, ideological focus in terms of the international socialist revolution and did not believe that the time was right for Africa to make the transition to socialism. He elected to focus on domestic policies until other parts of the world were ready for revolution. Stalin was also wary of further agitating national self-determination movements, as this might embolden similar movements that he felt threatened the domestic stability of the USSR. He felt that, in time, support for nationalist movements would subside and the implementation of international socialism would be possible.
Active Soviet-African relations began when Nikita Khrushchev came to power following the death of Stalin in 1953, which coincided with the beginnings of Africa’s independence movements. In 1955, the Soviet Union made its first major arms transfer to an African country, Egypt. Within ten years, the Soviets had established diplomatic ties with newly-independent Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Morocco and Libya. These Soviet allies, referred to as the “Casablanca Bloc” after they had held their first summit in Casablanca, Morocco, were invited to attend the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow in 1961.
At that meeting, Khrushchev announced his doctrine of the “National Democratic State.” He outlined two steps that would allow developing African countries to bypass capitalism and advance straight to socialism: the national-democratic phase and the revolutionary-democratic phase. In the first phase, a country simply had to be “anti-imperialist.” In the second phase, the country would have to make a commitment to socialism in the socio-economic and political realms. More specifically, a “revolutionary-democratic” country had to have industrialized and nationalized its economy, experienced a cultural revolution that led to a better appreciation of international socialism, and established a vanguard state party in alliance with countries of similar political ideology.
The Soviets under Khrushchev did not get the results they had hoped for. Social fragmentation, weak economies, and violent political rivalries created political instability that prevented African governments from transitioning to socialism. Soviet diplomats largely blamed this political instability on Western interference. However, the Soviet failure was, in large part, a result of errors in Soviet policy and diplomacy. For example, failed Soviet attempts to incite revolution in Egypt, Ghana, Mali and Sudan, which had been allies with or at least friendly toward the USSR, naturally alienated the leaders of those countries and created credibility issues for the USSR in Africa. The military coups in Algeria (1965), Ghana (1966), and Mali (1968) that overthrew pro-Soviet leaders were the final blow to the “Casablanca Bloc” and, in large part, ended the Soviets’ legitimacy in Africa. After seeing all the potential socialist states side with the capitalists by mid-decade, Soviet analysts were forced to acknowledge that their goals for Africa had been unrealistic.
The Soviet Union also sought to expand its influence abroad by means other than diplomacy. The Peoples’ Friendship University of Moscow, founded in 1960 and renamed after Patrice Lumumba after his assassination in 1961, granted scholarships and degrees to thousands of students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East while indoctrinating them with communist ideology. Although the Soviet state declared itself against racism, these foreign students, primarily those from Africa, faced racism by members of Soviet state institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. African students and African-American residents in the Soviet Union found that opportunities for economic and spatial mobility were extremely racialized and that racial slurs were often used outside official antiracism discourse. Soviet racism faced by Africans partially explains why the Soviets lacked a great understanding of the African peoples.
From 1954 to 1964, the Soviet Union provided a number of African countries with economic aid, primarily in the form of technical assistance in developing infrastructure. However, when an alarming number of these countries began pursuing a capitalist path of development in the mid-1960s, the Soviets under Leonid Brezhnev revisited their strategy for the region and concluded in the late 1960s that economic aid was a limited policy tool and that Africa’s transition to socialism would take longer than initially expected.
After 1967, Soviet economic relations with African countries were aimed at commercially benefiting the USSR and establishing greater Soviet influence abroad. By the early 1970s, the Soviets had developed friendly relations with Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, most of which were European colonies fighting for independence. In the mid-1970s, these countries either gained independence with the help of Soviet military assistance or were led by revolutionary leaders and were allies of the Soviet Union.
After observing the stagnation of African economies in the 1970s, it was decided under Brezhnev that a stage of capitalism was needed before socialism could successfully be implemented. The Soviets borrowed ideas from V.I. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and applied them to Africa, becoming more tolerant of trade between African and capitalist countries and even encouraging the adoption of some capitalist economic methods. Lenin’s NEP proposed that sometimes it was necessary to establish capitalism in a country, industrialize it and initiate trade with other capitalist countries, if only to prepare it for socialism.
However, even this more liberal policy, developed with the benefit of several years of experience interacting with African countries, would also eventually fail. A case study of Angola reveals many of the reasons why this happened.
In the struggle for independence against imperialist Portugal lasting from 1961 to 1975, three major revolutionary groups emerged in Angola: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The Soviet Union provided military support to the MPLA, which identified itself as a socialist group, while the FNLA and the UNITA were backed by South Africa and the United States. The Soviets sent military advisers and supported contingencies of Cuban soldiers to the MPLA in its fight for independence and in years after.
The Alvor Agreement, which granted Angola independence from Portugal, established a coalition government among the MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA with Agostinho Neto, the leader of the MPLA, serving as the first president of Angola. However, this government quickly disintegrated, as each of the three organizations sought absolute control of the state. As a result, a civil war broke out in Angola, one that would last over a quarter of a century.
The USSR continued to support the MPLA with military assistance amidst the political instability in Angola. Despite the continuing war, by the end of the 1970s, Angola had become the focus of the Soviets’ efforts to spread socialism in Africa. From that point until the end of the 1980s, Soviet diplomats pursued economic and diplomatic relations in a manner that they hoped would promote a less hasty, more comprehensive transition to socialism. However, the civil war would continue until the end of the twentieth century.
After the failures of the Khrushchev era, Soviet leadership put more thought into which countries were most suited to socialism. The criteria that needed to be met by Angola in order to qualify for Soviet aid were similar to, though stricter than, those outlined in the “National Democracy” doctrine. In order to receive Soviet aid, the Angolan government had to have shown significant progress in industrializing its economy, nationalized its industries, instituted land ownership reforms, developed readiness among its people to support a cultural revolution, and established a vanguard party in alliance with countries of similar political ideology. Considering the political instability of Angola at the time, military assistance constituted a large majority of Soviet aid sent to the country.
The Soviets used the experience and knowledge of the area gained in the 1960s to redefine their strategy in the 1970s. This second approach proved more realistic than the first. However, the Soviet Union failed to establish a socialist government in Angola. This failure, along with the Soviet Union’s own political and economic instability at the end of the 1980s, eventually led the Soviets to withdraw from Africa altogether. The reasons for this are complex, and the next two sections of this study will examine these issues from both sides of the African-Soviet relationship in order to better understand them.
The Soviet Historical Perspective
Among Soviet historians writing from the 1960s onward, there were two schools of thought regarding the future of socialism in African countries. The first school held that Russians and Africans were united in their struggle against imperialist oppression, trying to overcome the damaging effects of capitalism, and that both societies were in the midst of a class struggle. Thus, these writers concluded, the Soviet mission was to help Africans realize that the only cure for their social, economic and political problems was the unification of a working class against the bourgeois, Western capitalists; the Soviet duty was to help the continent, whose economy relied almost entirely on agriculture, to develop its industrial sector.  These historians believed that African countries were faced with two choices, capitalism or socialism, and that because of their long, devastating experience with imperialism, they would choose the social and economic benefits of socialism.
The second school, emerging later than the first (around 1970), had more knowledge of Soviet-African relations and was less ideological. Members of this school understood the difficulties of establishing a socialist government abroad and found obstacles within African societies that prevented the socialist revolution from taking place. In particular, their analysis pointed to the negative role of the military in developing countries. Aid to Africa was centered on strengthening the military rather than stimulating the economy. These historians argued that the army could not take the place of a political party in mobilizing a country’s population and preparing it for socio-economic progress. While the army was instrumental in gaining political independence from European colonial powers, these historians held that the military was not capable of leading its country after independence.
One major theme in the Soviet historical perspective is the reference to a general policy for all African countries. Throughout their works, Soviet historians were concerned with the African continent as a whole, but did not mention specific policies for specific countries or regions. They believed that decades of exploitation during colonial rule had severely damaged the continent socially, economically and politically, and the rapid transition to independence had created an African society without differentiated national identities.
Vasily Solodovnikov, a leading scholar at the Africa Institute in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and part of the first school of thought, pointed to the progressive revolutions already taking place in the 1960s as undeniable proof that Africa’s socialist transformation was inevitable. Moreover, it was the struggle against imperialism and its aftermath and the desire for socio-economic development that brought Africans and Soviets closer together. He stated, “Soviet scientists, Africanists, and African scientists have one common aim: to contribute by their research to the growth of national consciousness of African peoples.” He further wrote, “The main target is to secure […] the complete liberation of the African continent from all forms of racial, political, economic, and social enslavement and from all consequences and remnants of such enslavement.” Only by carrying out a socialist revolution could African countries escape their enslavement to Western capitalists. At a time when the anti-imperialist revolution was gaining momentum, as Solodovnikov observed, the promotion of socialism in Africa brought the aims of African and Soviet scholars closer together.
Another Soviet historian of the first school of thought, Valery Kudryavtsev, stated that the legacy of colonialism had created a society that lacked a united working class. As was evident from the single crop agriculture developed during the colonial period, African economies were designed to benefit other countries rather than their own. He also associated the lack of industrialization, along with social and economic instability, with the African people’s inability to relate to the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois, Western capitalists. However, once this class consciousness had been realized, socio-economic development and socialist revolution would follow.
Seeing that African economies were being exploited by other countries, Kudryavtsev advocated that African countries following a non-capitalist path should rely on their own capital rather than on foreign capital. By mobilizing internal resources and nationalizing banks, foreign trade, and key branches of industry and communication, these countries could prevent their further exploitation by capitalist economies. Kudryavtsev believed that future socialist states in Africa should be measured by how the average citizen lived, his part in society and his independence from colonial influence. Although Kudryavtsev realized the importance of African countries’ political independence from European colonial powers, he was still concerned with the West’s attempt to establish economic imperialism in Africa.
Georgy Mirsky, a specialist in developing world politics and part of the second school, illustrated how the army was a potential problem. He held that the military was the leader of the socialist revolution in its beginning stages, but if leadership of the revolution was not eventually taken over by the government, the military would develop interests of its own and no longer represent the people. For the time being, the army had taken the initiative of leading the revolutionary struggle because the working class, which should have fulfilled this role, was not present in African society. The absence of a working class united against the bourgeoisie was concerning, but, in time, class struggle in Africa would develop, according to Mirsky.
Mirsky held that ethnic conflict, the largest contributor to social turmoil in Africa, was a lingering effect of imperialism. However, he did not think its impact on society was as significant as class struggle. Mirsky observed that the army had taken the place of nationalism, and possibly even socialism, in the effect it had on unifying a nation’s people. Angola was similar to most other African countries in terms of the social turmoil that had arisen in different parts of the country. The political boundaries set during the colonial period placed members of different ethnic and communal groups in the same country. The three major military factions in post-colonial Angola—the MPLA, the FNLA, and the UNITA—were supported by different ethnic groups in the country. The MPLA represented the interests of the Mbundu people, who resided around the capital, Luanda; but the FNLA and the UNITA were supported by the Kongo and Ovimundu ethnic groups respectively, which resided in less-populated areas of Angola. As a result of civil war between these factions, inhabitants of rural areas in Angola continued to live without any contact with the capital.
Akhmed Iskenderov, also part of the second school, believed that the military was an effective leader of the socialist revolutions in developing countries. Yet Iskenderov speculated that, if left in the hands of the military, the revolution might take another direction, diverging from the interests of the Soviet Union and the African people. Iskenderov believed that the only way to establish an effective socialist government was to involve the masses. He stated that the army must serve the interests of its nation’s people, determine its own place in society and guide economic, social and political development. Although Iskenderov was not very critical of the strategy of using the military to transition to socialism, his work separated itself from other writings of that time period because it was skeptical of the path socialism was taking in Africa.
The Soviet historical and ideological perspective explains the failures of their strategy by pointing to the military for not properly guiding the socialist revolution and African society for not having developed a strong bourgeoisie or proletariat class. What Solodovnikov and others did not foresee is that the Angolan people would have trouble relating to the socialist ideas of class struggle and industrialization. The Soviets were preaching class consciousness at a time when ethnic tension was dividing people more than class and when agriculture, not industry, was the country’s largest economic sector. Angola’s post-colonial troubles remained even after years of receiving Soviet aid and assistance. The focus on strengthening the military did bring about immediate and radical change, but in the long run, it did not help the socialist cause.
Soviet historians also failed to understand that, by categorizing African countries as either capitalists or socialists, the Soviet Union unintentionally followed a strategy that gave no flexibility to countries that wanted to pursue a neutral stance. During the first phase of Khrushchev’s strategy in the 1960s, African countries that hoped to receive Soviet aid were required to end diplomatic relations with Western countries. The Soviet Union’s attempt to deter contact with the West, despite the fact that Angola needed more aid than the USSR was giving, showed that the interests of the Angolan people were not always a top Soviet priority.
The African Historical Perspective
Compared to the Soviet historical perspective, African historians tended to focus more on the problems created by Soviet leadership pursuing its own interests while disregarding the needs of developing African states. One trend present in the African historical reasoning for the Soviet Union’s presence in Angola is that Soviet policies were solely opportunistic, operating on a realistic, rather than idealistic, basis. African historians were critical of Soviet leaders, claiming that their lack of initiative in improving the military and economic situation in Angola hindered the revolutionary process. While the USSR supplied weapons and military advisers, it left military unrest to be settled through proxy warfare. The insufficient financial aid given to Angola forced that country to seek financial aid from the West.
Oye Ogunbadejo, a scholar of Sub-Saharan Africa and its political and economic relations with the Soviet Union, makes the argument that neither Soviet nor Angolan leaders were deeply invested in developing a strong alliance with each other. Rather than focusing on political ideology, each side was concerned with the interests of its own country. He points out that the Soviets played an important role in the Angolan independence movement by arming and instructing the MPLA so then, after gaining independence, the Angolan government perhaps felt that it owed something back to the Soviet Union. Beyond that, he says, both sides put pragmatism and national interest ahead of ideology and, as Ogunbadejo points out, this became more apparent the longer the Soviet Union and Angola interacted with each other. Governmental leadership in Angola was interested in consolidating power through relations with the Soviet Union, rather than transitioning to a socialist state.
Although Angola accepted only Soviet economic aid for much of the 1970s, the Angolan economy, already devastated from years of war, continued to suffer. In 1979, Agostinho Neto, the first president of Angola, declared that the country needed to take steps toward capitalism before ideal conditions for socialism could be created, invoking the help of Western countries to aid Angola’s economy. The Soviets allowed Angola to receive economic aid from the West, agreeing with Neto that this minor capitalist step was necessary on the path to socialism. Interestingly, Ogunbadejo implies that this was just an excuse not to grant more aid to Angola without acknowledging the fact that, in the late 1970s, the Soviets were also suffering economically. While Angola appeased the Soviet Union by continuing to declare itself a socialist country, it was non-aligned in economic matters, open to receiving aid from both the USSR and the United States. Ogunbadejo writes, “what [President Neto’s] country needed most was not ideological puritanism, but the capability to solve the problems of the people.”
Ogunbadejo also asserts that, while the Soviet Union and Angola developed a strong military alliance, the Soviets’ effort to transform Angola into a socialist country was hindered by focusing too much on military assistance. The Soviet Union never issued any hard currency as part of economic aid to African countries, only offering weaponry and industrial equipment. Regardless, Neto’s government was quick to accept Soviet military assistance in order to suppress insurrections in Angola.
Sam Nolutshungu, an expert on Southern African politics, agreed that both Soviet and Angolan leadership were factors in the failed socialist transformation. He points out that, even though the Soviets had supposedly developed a friendly alliance with Angola, they did not take action when there was aggression by the South African military. When military action was necessary, they sent weapons and military advisers and supported Cuban regiments, rather than sending Soviet troops. As Nolutshungu states, “Moscow sent advisers […] but the Soviet Union did not show the slightest willingness either to undertake an active military involvement […] or to commit itself to defend, or guarantee the security of, its treaty partners.” Further, Nolutshungu wrote that President Neto continued to act out of his country’s own interests, accepting Soviet aid under the guise of a country committed to socialism but also working with the West to stimulate the Angolan economy.
Discussing the withdrawal of the USSR from Africa, Nolutshungu states that there was no advantage in creating a Soviet bloc in Africa that was ideologically opposed to capitalism, since financial aid from the West was being sent to Angola and the Soviet Union’s other socialist-oriented allies. Reluctant to continue operating in Angola, the Soviets began deescalating relations with Angola during the war in Afghanistan and further during the 1980s, when East-West tensions increased during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Nolutshungu believes that multiple economic crises in the 1970s and 1980s showed Africa’s dependence on the West and the Soviet Union’s inability to effectively aid African countries’ economies. As a result, Moscow focused more on domestic problems and matters of foreign policy that were of higher priority. Nolutshungu, in short, characterizes Soviet relations with Angola in the 1980s as being passive but optimistic for improvement in the future.
The general theme of the African historical perspective is that efforts by Angolan and Soviet leaders to implement socialism were hindered by economic and political instability. The Soviets’ military presence was welcomed by the Angolan government because it helped the leadership remain in power amidst insurrection. However, the fact that the Soviets only provided equipment, Soviet weapons, and Cuban contingencies prolonged the problem of political turmoil that had to be resolved after the Soviet Union withdrew its support for revolutionary regimes in underdeveloped Africa. These African historians claim that the Soviet Union was manipulating smaller, vulnerable states in Africa to create a front against the West. However, Soviet military support and economic aid were not sufficient to maintain political stability or to develop African economies in the long run.
As Soviet diplomats realized in the mid-1980s that their efforts to transform Angola into a socialist state had been futile, they began to withdraw from the continent. Soviet leadership conceded that socio-economic conditions had not been developed for the implementation of socialism. Gorbachev even admitted that he had underestimated the benefits of capitalism for Africa. After decades of attempting to teach Angolans the principles of socialism, Soviet diplomats finally understood that class struggle was not the most important struggle for Africa and even advised African states to develop close relations with the West. The economic problems in the Soviet Union and the international conflicts in which it was involved were adding up; it had to prioritize its resources toward goals other than African socialism. Although the Soviet Union continued to support the Angolan government with military assistance, it was clear that by the end of the 1980s, Soviet diplomats had given up on the strategy to transform Angola into a socialist state.
Three main reasons for the failure of the Soviet strategy of implementing socialism in Angola are present in the Soviet and African historical perspectives: the overemphasis on the military, the relatively small amount of Soviet economic aid and the fact that socialist theory could not be applied directly to Angolan society.
The overemphasis on the military to lead the socialist revolution in developing Angola, as described by African historians, led to militarization in states that were already experiencing civil war and political instability. Increased political instability made it extremely difficult for the Soviets to establish a socialist government in Angola. African historians also point out how the relatively small amount of Soviet aid in comparison to Western aid caused several African countries that were struggling economically to abandon socialism and align themselves with the West. Finally, the Soviet historical perspective, particularly the second school, explains the failure of the Soviet strategy in Angola by looking at the Soviets’ inability to apply socialist principles to Angolan society. Both sides eventually came to the conclusion that efforts to spread socialism to Angola were futile since the primary concern of socialism, class struggle, was not present in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviet strategy attempted to force African countries to side with either capitalist or socialist thought, but a resounding majority of these countries eventually sided with the former.
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