1 November 2017

Africa: How Russia's Revolution Shaped African History

The October Revolution had a knock-on effect on many African countries that were influenced by the Bolshevik victory to take up their own fight against colonialism.

November 7, 1917 [October 25 according to the Julian calendar]: Russia's October Revolution kicks off with the Bolshevik storming the Winter Palace and toppling the government.

They then proceed to proclaim the Socialist Soviet Republic lead by Vladimir Ilych Lenin.

The news of "the victory of the proletariat" spreads like wildfire, also in Africa: Encouraged by events in Russia, Egypt rises against British colonial rule in 1919.

The October Revolution also served as inspiration for South Africa's independence activists, says Aboubacar Maiga, a professor specialized on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the university in Mali's capital Bamako.

"South Africa's oppressed, black population already had the urge for freedom and independence back then," he told DW.

Soviets supported African independence movements

But the revolutionary spirit would arrive with a bit of a delay in most other African countries, even though the Soviets supported several independence movements in Africa - initially, in diplomatic ways, and later by providing financial and military means.

"Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the French- and Portuguese-speaking countries, only received very little information about the October Revolution", said Maiga.

It was first and foremost African mercenaries from countries like Senegal who heard about the revolution on the battle field from the French.

"The soldiers felt inspired by the Russian revolution. It gave them hope for their own struggle for freedom in their own countries," Maiga added.

After the Second World War, Stalin was at the height of his power. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact states were facing off against the US-dominated NATO during the Cold War. The African continent took center stage, since the world powers were also vying for influence in the southern hemisphere.

Less about ideology, more about independence

For most Africans it was less about ideology and more about financial and especially military support to help their independence movements, Maiga said. Most of the French and Portuguese colonies were able to become independent due to significant help by the Eastern Bloc, he added.

"In the Portuguese colonies, Marxist-Leninist parties took over power after independence in 1975," former freedom fighter Jose Fragoso told DW.

The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) came to power in Fragoso's home country Angola. The party received military support from the Soviet Union, Cuba and other Socialist countries, like the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Fragoso, who used to believe in communism when he was younger, studied at an elite school for Marxist-Leninist ideology in the GDR. Angolan communists regarded other, non-communist liberation movements, as ideological enemies that needed to be put down.

"We even risked a bloody war against other Angolan rebel movements," Fragoso said.

Brutal massacre in the name of Bolshevikism

The MPLA also had its fair share of ideological infighting. One of these fights led to a massacre in 1977 where the party aimed to purge members it deemed as persona non grata. It's estimated that 80,000 people were killed.

"It was about the ideological correct path to the dictatorship of the proletariat, to implement an ideology that had nothing to do with our real lives in Africa," Fragoso who barely survived the massacre said.

"The national cultures and religions were suppressed. The goal was to create a 'New Man' who matched the communist ideology," he explained.

Angola is only one of the many African countries that had communist one-party systems installed.

It was only in the 1990s - after the collapse of the Soviet Union - that multi-party systems emerged in many places.

For a long time, he'd treated November 7 as a "holy date", said Fragoso. But he says that's no longer the case.

The communist system started with the October Revolution and was then passed on to Africa. "For Angola, the October Revolution wasn't a good idea."

Sandrine Blanchard contributed to this report.

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