Transcript: Soviet Intelligence and African National Liberation

This week’s podcast is an interview with Natalia Telepneva as part of the series “Spying, Archiving, Reporting: Information in Eastern Europe” in the Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. 

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Natalia Telepneva is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick specializing the history of Soviet foreign policy with a particular interest in Warsaw Pact interactions with African elites. She’s finishing a book tentatively titled “Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the End of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1976.” Her most recent articles are ‘Saving Ghana’s Revolution: The Demise of Kwame Nkrumah and The Evolution of Soviet Policy in Africa, 1966-1970’, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, Fall 2018 and “Mediators of Liberation: Eastern Bloc Officials, Mozambican Diplomacy and the Origins of Soviet Support for FRELIMO 1958-1965,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 43, Issue 1, 2017.

Your work focuses on Soviet and Warsaw Pact involvement in African national liberation, and I thought a good place to start is to have you give us some general context about Africa in the early Cold War. What is the general situation in Africa in the 1950s?

The most important thing to remember about Africa in the 1950s is that it’s a moment of tremendous transformation on the continent because of the decolonization. At the end of the Second World War, European colonial powers, the British, the French, the Belgians, did not want to give up colonial control in Africa. But by the end of the 1950s, that changes because the costs are too high. There are many reasons why they change their policy. And, by the early 1960s, most African countries move towards independence. There are negotiated settlements that are being discussed at the time. By the mid-1960s, most of African countries are basically free.

It’s also important to note that decolonization doesn’t happen evenly. It’s not a peaceful process. In Kenya, the British are stuck in a very brutal war against the Mau Mau. In Algeria, the French are involved in a very violent conflict as well. But, nonetheless, the trend is towards the break up of European colonial empires.

The main exception to this trend is Portugal, which still has control over its colonies in Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and Cape Verde. The reason Portugal doesn’t want to give up its control over its colonies has to do with the nature of its regime. At the time, it was controlled by an ultra-conservative dictator, Antonio Salazar, who really believed that empire was fundamental to Portugal’s place in the world, both politically and economically. By the early 1960s, Portugal starts fighting colonial wars against the so-called national liberation movements.

But just coming back to your question about the Cold War, I think it’s still debatable to what extent the Cold War influenced this process of decolonization.

On one hand, of course, European colonial powers reacted with a lot of suspicion toward Marxist groups that sprung up in Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War. Of course, socialist ideas are very popular and influential, including in Africa. They really do clamp down on these Marxist reading groups and really on any groups that seem to be influenced by European communist parties.

But at the same time, I think that the Cold War, in general, doesn’t make much of a difference to the process of decolonization because the Soviet Union and the United States are not particularly interested in the continent until the late 1950s. So, I would say that the colonial powers still call the shots.

How do African national liberation movements and their leaders understand the Cold War?

In general, third world leaders, and I think Africa is not an exception, see the Cold War competition, this increasingly violent and potentially nuclear competition between the two super powers, in very negative terms. They obviously didn’t want to be part of a potential conflict. They don’t want their population to be subject to, potentially, a nuclear holocaust. So, they, of course, see the Cold War very negatively and come up with creative solutions for a new world order.

One of the most famous examples is the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, which really kicks off with the Belgrade Conference in 1961.

That said, many African leaders and leaders of liberation movements also often see the Cold War as an opportunity to gain support, to gain developmental aid, to gain cash, arms, and so on. So, quite a few of them start to play sort of Cold War politics and use Cold War rhetoric to gain international support, but also to defeat local rivals.

This is not to diminish the importance of the ideas of many of these African leaders and liberation movements. Many of them, at the time, are very much inspired by socialist ideas and Marxist thought. And many believe that basically socialism provides a way for true national liberation.

Your work focuses on the role of Soviet and Warsaw Pact intelligence services in aiding African liberation movements. Can you paint a picture of the larger context of Soviet intelligence in this period?

It’s really important to understand that there is no Soviet intelligence presence in Sub-Saharan Africa until the 1960s, at least that we know of. This is a really important point to make. Before the 1960s, there is quite an active rezidentura, or KGB station in Cairo which actively reports on events surrounding the Suez Crisis and so on, but there is very little presence elsewhere. This is important in the context of Soviet policy in Africa, because there is very little Soviet expertise on the African continent. Very few people speak any African languages, with the exception of a group of experts at Leningrad State University. So, there is very little expertise and very little presence.

This starts to change in 1960. This had to do with the Congo Crisis and with events in South Africa when the African National Congress is banned after Sharpeville.

The Congo Crisis really changes the situation. In 1960, the head of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin, who is at the time a rising star in the Party, realizes that, “Oh no, we don’t have much presence in Sub-Saharan Africa.” So he starts to expand the Africa desk at the KGB’s First Directorate, and in 1960 a small group of intelligence services go to the Congo to support Patrice Lumumba and the Congolese government.

But again, we cannot speak of any large Soviet intelligence presence at the time because there are only a handful of people who go there. This starts to change in the 1960s as more and more Soviet embassies are opened in Sub-Saharan Africa. And I argue that, in a way, the Soviets used secret intelligence as a cheap weapon to fight the Cold War. It’s really, a Cold War on the cheap.

Let’s just take the Congo story as an example. So, the Congo, of course, is a really important country in this period. And it’s there that you have an important crisis in 1960, which becomes internationalized very quickly. So, the Soviet intelligence team, first come in to support Patrice Lumumba. But, they are quickly kicked out of the country because of the coup that overthrows Lumumba. But they continue to use secret intelligence to try to help those who support Lumumba.

I think this is a weapon of the weak, in a way, because the Soviets and Khrushchev in particular, quickly realize that there is very little they can do to help Lumumba and his followers, and they do not want to risk a global war over the situation. They continue to use secret intelligence to try to influence the situation in the country, ultimately, unsuccessfully. But I think it is really a weapon of the weak.

When it comes to the Cold War and Soviet support for national liberation struggles, we tend to only think about the Soviet Union. But you focus on the role of Warsaw Pact states. What was their role in all of this?

I think their role was really important. The Warsaw Pact states really become involved in the Third World in the 1950s. This partly had to do with this transformational moment in the Soviet Union when Khrushchev turns towards the Third World, but also when he tries to reshape the relationship with communist parties in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev wants his Warsaw Pact allies to become more involved in the Third World more generally. But, at the same time, many Warsaw Pact states are quite eager to take him on this offer because they are also interested in a much more active policy in the Third World for their own reasons. For economic reasons, for political reasons, for prestige, and so on.

And again, in the same way that the Soviet Union has a few cadres who are former Comintern officials, in Eastern Europe, you’ve also got a few people who have this awareness and this history engaging with the Comintern.

They become quite actively involved in the Third World. But, of course, this varies from country to country. I look a lot at Czechoslovakia, which becomes an important and significant player in Africa supplying weapons, training, etc., to the liberation movements and to African leaders. Warsaw Pact countries do play a really important role and it’s been somewhat underestimated.

Talk about one example: the role of Czech intelligence in Ghana during Kwame Nkrumah’s rule. What specific things did Czech intelligence involve themselves in around Nkrumah, and after he was overthrown?

This is a very peculiar story that’s been hidden from us in the archives until recently. And the context here is the collapse of Kwame Nkrumah, who is overthrown in 1966. And, what we didn’t know then and know now, is that the Czechoslovak intelligence tries to sponsor a leftist, that’s the way they see it at least, counter-coup in Ghana after Nkrumah is overthrown.

It’s not clear exactly how much the Soviets are involved in the story, but the Czechoslovak side is known much better. But there is a sense that both the Soviets and the Czechoslovaks tried, at least initially, to restore Nkrumah, as they see it, to his rightful position as the President of Ghana after 1966. But, again, just to reiterate this point about African agency, it’s not necessarily the Czechoslovaks who come up with this big operation. They are, at first, approached by members of the local opposition with this proposal to support a counter-coup. And then, they quite eagerly start supporting this almost imaginary, I would say, coup. And again, they are completely unsuccessful in their attempts.

So again, I think the story shows that they are quite eager to engage in these so-called active operations in Africa and come up with very grand plans. But they are very often quite unsuccessful. And it’s really about local people on the ground and local politics that really matters.

What is the Soviet and Warsaw Pact relationship with Amilcar Cabral?

Amilcar Cabral, of course, is a highly celebrated figure. He is, I think rightly, considered to be one of the greatest African thinkers of the 20th Century. He is also, of course, the leader of African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which was the party for independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, which starts an armed struggle in Guinea-Bissau in 1963.

The importance of this relationship has to do with Cabral’s dilemma, and that is Guinea-Bissau is a small country in west Africa with very little significance in the Cold War. So, in a way, it’s not particularly interesting to anyone initially. He really uses his diplomatic skills to get supplies, cash and arms from the socialist countries. And a lot has been written about Cabral’s skill as a diplomat. But what I discovered was his special relationship with Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovak intelligence. Czechoslovakia is the first country, besides China, to give the PAIGC support, and substantial support in weapons, cash and military training.

This partly had to do with Cabral’s personality. The Czechoslovaks are very much taken with him, as are many others in the Eastern Bloc.

He’s a celebrity, a larger than life figure of the period.

Absolutely. And he is also seen to be a kind of Marxist, in his views, at least that’s how he’s perceived, and to have strong leftist ideas. But at the same time, what we did not previously know is that Czechoslovaks considered him to be a so-called clandestine contact of the Czechoslovak intelligence. So very early on, just after Cabral moves to Conakry, Guinea, he forges a quite close relationship with a member of the Czechoslovak intelligence services. He does not know that at that time and we don’t know what Cabral thought about it. But, a year or so later, this Czechoslovak intelligence officer proposes to recruit Cabral as an unofficial informant, as they described, a clandestine contact of the Czechoslovak intelligence.

This is the kind of relationship that’s very difficult to categorize. But although Cabral enters into this kind of relationship with the Czechoslovak intelligence because he needs the aid, he’s very much somebody who drives that relationship. He benefits more from Czechoslovak aid and support than the other way around. It also has to do with people’s jobs. How people’s jobs work. This person on the ground, this officer, he claims a big victory by recruiting Cabral. But, it’s much more complicated than that.

Finally, a lot of scholars are starting to look more at the Cold War from the periphery, and how players in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin American factored into this binary struggle. How has your understanding of the Cold War changed by looking at it from these two more peripheral perspectives?

I’m definitely of the school who puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of the peripheries of the Cold War. The periphery tends to acquire important significance very quickly. These liberation movements that are not that important for the Soviets are suddenly, say for example, in Angola when there’s a change in the situation, become really important and a hot spot in the Cold War. But I believe that it’s really important to integrate the role of so-called peripheral actors, both African actors, but also Warsaw Pact, smaller countries in Eastern Europe, into the story. By doing so, I think we can understand this relationship much better.