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Soviets on safari

While its films are fascinating, an exhibition about Communist involvement in Africa fails to tell the whole story

Julia Lovell | February 23rd 2016

“Things Fall Apart”, the highlight of the “Red Africa” season at Calvert 22 Foundation in Shoreditch, London, takes visitors on a journey through time, back to a place barely imaginable to those not old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a world in which the cold war still seemed wide open, and in which international communism triumphantly proclaimed its creation of a better, post-imperial way of life. 

The first room of the exhibition, which explores Communist interventions in decolonised Africa, is dominated by a montage of Soviet propaganda films publicising the bountiful impact of the USSR. A beaming Leonid Brezhnev tours the continent, embracing his African counterparts and pouring aid into medicine, farming and industry. “The Soviet Union has many friends in the world,” booms the voiceover. “Long live the freedom of the peoples of Africa! Reaching out to a people in distress is the Soviet Union’s sacred duty.” An extended sequence advertises the ecstasies of being an African student in the Soviet Union: the cutting-edge facilities, the sleigh-rides with balalaikas, the comradely ballroom-dancing at “Friendship Evenings”. 

Soviet poster from 1932

This glorious portrait of Soviet activities conceals the murkier realities of the cold war’s “scramble for Africa”, which was often more about great-power competition for resources and influence than “reaching out to a people in distress”. Karen Brutents, first deputy-chief of the Soviet Union’s International Department (the powerful organisation that succeeded the Comintern in 1943), was more honest when he proclaimed that, in Soviet eyes, the Third World was “a hunting ground. A wide-open hunting ground.” 

Much American interference in Africa during the cold war is viewed with horror: CIA collusion in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, say, or Ronald Reagan’s bromance with Jonas Savimbi, the brutal leader of Angola’s UNITA. Some historians are similarly critical of Soviet involvement, accusing (in Robert Grey’s paraphrase) the USSR of acting as a “hyena, eager to take advantage of the troubles of others”. African scholars, in particular, accuse the Soviet Union of destabilising the continent by supplying weapons to warring factions, and of skimping on economic reconstruction, thereby forcing states to turn to the West for development aid. The USSR also came to view its African ventures with bitterness, claiming that opportunistic Third World politicians exploited Soviet generosity for their own power-hungry ends. In 1974, a Soviet ambassador in west Africa “sweated with fear” as a local potentate declared his conversion to Marxism-Leninism and, in the next breath, asked for Soviet help to build his army.

Another film in the exhibition provides a more sceptical view, exposing the personal and pragmatic considerations that often drove intervention in Africa by Communist powers. Instead of concentrating on the Soviet Union, the best-known global exporter of communism, “Mansudae Master Class” (2015) outlines the strange history of North Korea’s ventures into Africa. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Kim Il-Sung went shopping for influence on the continent: he financed insurgency in Angola, built gymnasiums in Madagascar, and treated the president of Togo to a ginseng sauna. Kim enjoyed particularly warm relations with Robert Mugabe (once presenting him with a gun as a gift) and with Guinea, which sycophantically declared Kim the “leader of the Third World”. In the early 1980s, Mugabe commissioned the North Koreans to train up an elite force, the Fifth Brigade, which he deployed to crush Zimbabwean opponents. Today, North Korean art maintains a curiously high profile across the continent. Since the 1970s, Mansudae Art Studio – the branch of North Korea’s propaganda department founded to create godlike images of Kim Il-Sung – has won a stream of lucrative commissions for African national monuments (unmistakably in the socialist realist mold, all rippling muscles and heroic poses): the Tiglachin Monument in Ethiopia, the African Renaissance in Senegal (pictured), Heroes’ Acre in Zimbabwe, the Statue of the Unknown Soldier in Namibia. These commissions have probably helped fund North Korea’s nuclear programme: some of these projects generated tens of millions of dollars. 

The exhibition as a whole lacks a clear narrative about international communism in Africa, and omits large sections of the story. Beyond its two highly revealing films, the collection consists mainly of fragmentary references by contemporary photo-artists to the cultural traces of cold war socialism on the continent. The crucial story of Maoist China’s activities in Africa, which transformed the course of the cold war, goes untold. Fidel Castro, who in 1965 began a 26-year odyssey of military aid to Africa, appears only in a photograph of a spectrally faded mural from Angola. But the exhibition collages together enough fascinating images and footage to engage visitors with this surprising, important history and its legacies for Africa’s present.

Things Fall Apart is at Calvert 22 Foundation until April 3rd

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