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Technology, Ideology and Culture: Legacies of Soviet-African Relations

Historians and anthropologists discuss the impacts and legacies of Soviet-African relations of the 20th century.

On Friday, October 13, the Jordan Center hosted a conference entitled, “Africa and the Soviet Union: Technology, Ideology and Culture.” The conference brought together historians and anthropologists from different intellectual backgrounds – in both geography and theme – to explore the contemporary significance, direct impacts, and legacies of Soviet-African relations.  The event was moderated by Robyn d’Avignon, Assistant Professor of History at NYU and Betty Banks, Ph.D. candidate in the NYU Department of History, and was co-sponsored by the NYU Department of History, the NYU Center for the Humanities, and the NYU Africa House.

Anti-imperialism was a critical component of socialist ideology from the beginning, and the Soviet Union’s foreign policy stance consistently argued for national determination for the European possessions. From the 1950s onwards the Soviet Union invested in technical aid, economic development, military assistance, political and academic education, cultural and diplomatic ties with the developing world, including with Africa. At the same time, many Africans saw the USSR as a source of expertise and political inspiration for their emerging states. Yet analysis of these critical connections—as well as their political and material afterlives—remains nascent. Institutional and political divisions, coupled with the practical difficulties of mastering the languages and visas required for multi-sited research have largely prevented scholars trained in the study of Russia and Africa from convening and shaping collaborative research agendas. Deliberately bridging academic centers and combining scholars from different communities, this conference sought to create an environment in which these myriad relations could be brought into view and establish networks for future work, including a potential journal special issue based on the conference.

Taken together, the conference papers discussed cameras, radios, nuclear physics, varied collective work traditions, diplomatic visits, schemes of knowledge, political activism, development aid, and language policies, among other things, and make clear the breadth of activities taking place in this transnational or international space. As a group we ask how Soviet-African connections (or their limits) contributed to, reshaped and/or disrupted many of the large global processes that dominated the second half of the last century: decolonization, the growth of technical expertise, shifting political imaginations, the “fall” of socialism, the rise of international organizations, development and corresponding changes in global political economy.

The first panel, “Ideology as Worldview”, brought together the works of Hilary Lynd of UC Berkeley, Andrew Ivaska of Concordia University and Steffi Marung of Leipzig University. The panel discussant was Pedro Monaville of NYU. Lynd’s paper discussed the changing relationship between Soviet Africanists and the South African National Party from one of suspicion and mistrust during the bulk of the Cold War, while the South African government pursued apartheid, to one fostering open discussion about the common goals of anti-communism and ethnically-defined homelands for a brief period in the late 1980s. The panel members emphasized the question of ideology in this dynamic Soviet-African relationship or, as Lynd characterized it, “a shared ideology of ‘anti-ideology.’” A central question of Lynd’s work concerns how states can successfully organize unity and diversity within their own borders.  Ivaska’s paper investigated the activist hub of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in the 1960s and the role that the Soviet Union played in the everyday practices of anti-colonial movements in the region. Ivaska characterized his work as “ground level historical ethnography” that sheds light on “comrade life” of these movements. Thus, ideology was useful but not central to these practices. Finally, Marung’s paper looked at the work of Soviet Africanists to fully grasp the nature of African societies in order to reshape their notion of Soviet socialism to fit the African context. Marung noted that within this context, socialism became a form of “claim-making” and gained flexible meanings depending on the actors involved. A question presented by all three papers – and the workshop as a whole – was whether or not using the Cold War as an analytical lens is productive or problematic in assessing Soviet-Africa relations during this period.

The second panel, “Ideology in Practice”, combined the works of Rachel Applebaum of Tufts, Nana Osei-Opare of UCLA and Betty Banks of NYU. Brandon Schecter of NYU was the panel discussant. Applebaum’s project focused on the Soviet government’s promotion of the Russian language in Africa in the early 1960s as a means to spread political influence. She considers the promotion of Russian as a global language (and as ideology) to have been a “self-conscious Soviet project” during the Cold War; Africa, moreover, represented a new linguistic front within the context of this period. Osei-Opare’s work investigated the development of Soviet-Ghanaian relations from 1957-1966, focusing on the Ghanaian perspective at local and government levels. The author argues that the Ghanaian state largely created its own diplomatic and ideological path during the Cold War, in spite of pressure from international forces. Black liberationist and black socialist thought played significant roles in shaping political attitudes in Ghana during this period. Finally, Banks’s paper serves to refute the idea that Soviet-Mozambican relations had failed by the 1980s, using the examples of trade, aid, economic development and political rhetoric to illuminate successes in international relations according to the measures most important at the time. Banks’s work as a whole rejects the concept of failure as an overarching explanatory concept for the state socialist projects of the late twentieth century, suggesting that instead it is useful to investigate the nature of specific claims and actions in these relations.

After lunch, the participants were treated to a screening of “Atomic Junction: The Road to Nuclear Power,” a documentary film by Abena Dove Osseo-Asare from UT Austin. This film explores the lives of Ghanaians living near a nuclear research facility that was the intended site for a Soviet nuclear reactor that in fact, has never been installed. The vibrancy of the communities and networks – of scientists, students, transport routes, and traders – that have build up around the absence of the nuclear reactor invited all to consider what Soviet-African connections have created, even when their ostensible main goal - the nuclear reactor – is missing.

The third panel, “Technology, Aid and Development,” featured the papers of Thomas Zuber of Columbia University, Alessandro Iandolo of Oxford University and Laura-Ann Twigara of Wesleyan University. The panel discussant was Elidor Mehilli of Hunter College. Zuber’s paper investigated Soviet diplomacy and aid provided to Upper-Volta/Burkina Faso from 1967-1987, as a result of a perceived kinship that the Soviet Union attributed to similar hardships experienced by the two regions. Mehilli wondered if such elitist ideas and the resulting behavior by the Soviet Union wasn’t perhaps a kind of hubris, and if so, where exactly did it stem from? Iandolo’s paper explored trade relations between the Soviet Union, Ghana, and Mali during the first half of the 1960 and argued that such relations were built around political motives, rather than a desire to obtain raw materials. The Soviet Union engaged in economic activities with these African regions in order to promote a Soviet model of development, even when this ran counter to any commercial logic. Finally, Twigara’s paper discussed women’s experiences of state-run collective labor in Mali during the 1960s. She noted this system’s similarities to the Soviet socialist model and emphasized the multi-faceted ways in which many female workers look back on this period of collectivization with nostalgia. Twigara demonstrates that from the perspective of local participants, this period of Soviet-style state-sponsored collective work is seen as a precursor to the development practices of current-day international NGOs and women’s groups.  Common threads throughout these papers include the question of what the Soviet model of socialism had to offer to African societies as well as whether or not to analyze socialism in the failure/non-failure dichotomy. One response from Twigara suggested that “moments of success” can perhaps be a point of consideration rather than the grand success/failure framework.

The fourth panel, “Technology as Connection,” brought together the works of Kristin Roth-Ey of UCL, Asif Siddiqi of Fordham University and Michael Ralph of NYU. The panel discussant was Gregory Mann of Columbia University. Roth-Ey’s paper discussed the data gathered through listener surveys conducted by Radio Moscow broadcasters starting in the late 60s, which illuminated the nature of radio audiences. Roth-Ey considered such airwaves to be representative of a kind of “social space” of the Cold War. In her analysis, she considered the social meanings of radio to be more significant than its content and emphasized the “imagined relationship” that Radio Moscow established with African people, and vice versa. Siddiqi’s paper investigated the cameras and radars that were positioned by Soviet astronomers in Somalia, Chad, Mali and Senegal during the late 1960s in order to collect scientific data and determine the precise shape and size of the Earth. Siddiqi focused his analysis on two main components: 1) the idea of an African “space” as defined by the intersection of politics and geography and 2) the triangulation existing between geography, the production of knowledge and post-coloniality. While the power to acquire knowledge is distributed unevenly in different sociopolitical contexts, in this case, the physical position of African scientists endowed them with critical importance on a world scale. Finally, Ralph’s paper evaluated the role of cycling in understanding the identity of post-1991 Eritrea, a former colony of Ethiopia. Ralph argued that even in its independent state, Eritrea’s government could be considered a form of “humane authoritarianism.” Cycling, however, represents a unique form of mobility for Eritreans and a way to reinforce sovereignty at the individual level. These papers demonstrate that technology can serve many functions, whether acting as a liberating force, or as a powerful connector that establishes a kind of “internationalism”, whether in a scientific or social sense.

The day ended with a lively reception and dinner at the Africa House, where Offiong Aqua, a professor in NYU’s Steinhardt school gave a short address about his experiences living, studying, working and enjoying his youth while Nigerian medical student at Moscow’s People’s Friendship University in the 1980s. Aqua provided a personal story to complement the discussions that had continued throughout the day, and at least one presenter made plans to interview him in the future.





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