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The Russian Revolution and Africa's fate

November 7, 2017

Without the Bolshevik victory in 1917, decolonization across Africa may have played out in a much different fashion. Many liberation movements were inspired by the Russian Revolution.

A poster shows Antonio Agostinho Neto, who led the MPLA in Angola
Image: casacomum.org/Documentos Dalila Mateus

The Russian Revolution began on November 7, 1917, with the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace and seizing power. They declared the founding of the socialist Soviet republic, led by Vladimir Lenin.

News of their victory spread like wildfire, inspiring liberation movements elsewhere, particularly in Africa. Nationwide resistance to British colonial rule broke out in 1919 in Egypt, leading to its end.

In South Africa, the Russian Revolution became a source of inspiration for independence activists, explained Aboubacar Maiga, a professor at the University of Bamako in Mali."South Africa's repressed black population was already yearning for freedom and independence," he said.

Africa as Cold War proxy

Only later did the Russian Revolution sweep across other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, although the Soviet Union lent diplomatic, and later financial and military, support to liberation movements from the very beginning. News of Russia's revolution trickled into the region, Maiga said, especially in French- and Portuguese-speaking colonies. It was mainly the few African mercenaries fighting for the French, from Senegal for example, who had heard about the revolution and were inspired. "It gave them hope for such a struggle for freedom in their own countries," Maiga said.

After the allied victory in the Second World War, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin was at the height of his power, Africa became a focal point for bipolar geopolitics: The US and its NATO allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact countries on the other. Both were looking to dominate the southern hemisphere.

A Portuguese soldier during Mosambique' War of Independence
After FRELIMO guerillas won independence from Portugal in Mosambique, they introduced a one-party state based on Marxist principlesImage: casacomum.org/Arquivo Mário Soares

For many Africans, financial and military support for their respective liberation movements was more important than ideology, Maiga said. Many French- and Portuguese-speaking colonies won their independence with significant help from the communist bloc.

Ideological warfare in Angola

The Marxist-Leninist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) took power following Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975, with military support mostly from their socialist allies — the USSR, Cuba and East Germany.

For Angola's communists, non-communist independence movements were the ideological enemy and needed to be fought against, explained Jose Fragoso, who studied Marxist-Leninist ideology in East Germany in his youth. "We were convinced of that," he told DW. "We even engaged in a bloody civil war against other Angolan rebel movements."

Angola is one of many African countries where one-party communist rule was installed. Multiparty rule was only made possible largely in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Fragoso, November 7, 1917, has been a dark date in history for some time. As he sees it, the communist system that began with the Russian Revolution was then imposed on Africa. "The October Revolution wasn't good for Angola," he said.

Additional reporting by Sandrine Blanchard.