Life as a Russian diplomat in Africa
In 1975, after the Carnation Revolution spread through Portugal, ending in a military uprising which saw all of her African colonies achieve independence, the USSR took particular interest in Angola and its new emerging concept of socialism.
Date: 2010-11-02 14:53:28
By this time, I had already worked as a translator in the USSR’s embassy in Cuba for several years, and it was during the aftermath of Angola’s political turmoil that I received my first posting in Africa.
Since then, I have held a variety of different positions in the world’s second largest continent, remaining there for over thirty-five years. Initially, I was assigned to Angola as a Soviet diplomat, later remaining there as an academic, and finally pursuing a career in the private sector which, in itself, spanned over fifteen years.
I have gained a wealth of experiences and knowledge during my various African appointments, and I am very grateful for my time there. I do not, however, regret losing my diplomatic job when the USSR fell. Quite frankly, I believe I probably did more harm than good in my appointment as a “specialist on Africa”.
My role was to work in the ‘Soviet Representation for Economic Relationships in Angola’, managing projects related to multi-billion dollar grants donated to Angola by the USSR. We had strict instructions ordering us to spend every last cent of the funds within very stringent time limits.
To be honest, some of our projects were blatantly absurd. On one occasion, we built a mausoleum for the first president of the country, Agostinho Neto, spending over one billion dollars (in the eighties) on the venture, which included the embalming of the late president’s body. In order to build the mausoleum, a considerable residential area in the capital of Angola had to be demolished, outraging and further unsettling a country which was already ravaged by civil war.
In the early eighties, we received a visit from the USSR’s Minister of Economic External Affairs who instructed us to organize ‘kolhozy' - collective farming units manned by citizens of the Soviet Republic.
The Counsellor of External Economic Affairs at the Soviet embassy in Luanda was a resourceful character, claiming that these foundations had already been established and were functioning according to plan.
The “kolhozy” were then founded on abandoned cotton plantations and worked by citizens of the then Soviet State Uzbekistan. As specialists in socialist farming, the Uzbeks were supposed to share their experience on organizing collective farms with their new Angolan neighbours.
The ideal and the reality, however, were very different. As opposed to being under the control of the Angolan government, the area in which the plantations were located was mostly occupied by UNITA guerrilla factions. Despite this, neither the USSR nor the Angolan central government was willing to recognize the existence of anti-governmental guerrillas, with the official statement maintaining that any armed conflict on Angolan territory was provoked by the “South African regime of apartheid, a puppet of American imperialist expansion”. In fact, Moscow made a point of sending our “specialists” into this no man’s land to prove its safety and controlled governance.
Thus, the Uzbeks were left to fend for themselves, managing quite well under the circumstances. They grew vegetables, tended sheep, and hunted for a living. They were wise enough not to bother with cotton plantations and never tried to organize the local population for that task. Prior to Angola’s independence, work on cotton plantations was restricted to convicted criminals, causing the Angolans to regard this form of labour as a new kind of slavery.
The Uzbek colony received fertilizers, agricultural poisons and medicine from the USSR, which they shared with the UNITA guerrilla factions, who in turn ensured their safety.
The Angolans found a good use for the fertilizers and poisons meant to be employed on the imaginary cotton plantations, using them as a poison for hunting and fishing. We were very lucky that it never occurred to UNITA to use those toxins on Luanda’s water supplies.
Meanwhile, we naturally did our bit, and kept Moscow updated on the progress of the socialist’s transformation of Angolan agriculture.
Today, our exploits in Angola may well be labelled as ‘synergetic’. The Counsellor of the External Economic Affairs simply termed it a more ideologically potent term, a ‘kolhoz’. For his impressive work in this arena, he was later awarded a medal from the Soviet government.
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, I opted to remain in Africa and start a private business. As a result of this, I became acquainted with people to whom, whilst I was a bureaucrat, I had never paid much attention to. More specifically, I am referring to those who had established and run small and medium sized businesses.
Like myself, some of these businessmen originally went to Africa to further their career, others were born there. I even had the pleasure of knowing several European and Lebanese families who managed companies that were originally set up by their grandparents at the dawn of the last century. It is these SMEs that actually move to create employment in African communities, providing staff with much-needed in-work training, and, in fact act as the sole driving force for the building of what the USA and Europe term the ‘middle-class’.
Whilst my time in Africa is over, I can say with certainty that for any international aid organisation or foreign government looking to rebuild the African economy, the key to achieving this lays within Africa’s SME sector. Whether for political, practical and ideological reasons, it is clear that simply injecting communities with billions of dollars of humanitarian aid does not work.
Investments need to be made in local businesses, businesses that employ local workers and that give something back to their communities. Any plan to ‘rescue’ Africa’s economy needs to take this into consideration if it has any real hope of succeeding.
*Vladimir Kokorev has a PhD, is the author of over 100 articles and 10 books published in Russia, and is the former CEO of companies dedicated to public transportation, fishing and shipbuilding in Africa.