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  • Burden or Allies? Third World Students and Internationalist Duty through Soviet Eyes
  • Constantin Katsakioris (bio)

At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in October 1961, Nikita Khrushchev stated, “the CPSU considers the alliance with peoples that have cast off the colonial yoke as one of the cornerstones of its international policy.” He added, “our party deems it its internationalist duty to help peoples that are on the way to gaining and consolidating their national independence, all peoples fighting for the abolition of the colonial system.”1

From the mid-1950s onward, alliances with Third World countries became a major aim of the Soviet Union. Drawing on Lenin’s vision and a decade of Bolshevik ventures in the East (1917–27), this policy came into being in an era of tremendous change both within the USSR and in the global arena. Abroad, a new political geography was taking shape as a consequence of the end of European empires and the emergence of the Third World. The Bandung Conference in 1955 and the Suez crisis the following year had a powerful global resonance, fostering both nonalignment and anti-imperialism. Revolutions in Indochina, Algeria, Iraq, and Cuba and the transition to independence of most African countries by 1960 demonstrated the strength of national movements. Against this backdrop, the Soviet Union had also entered an era of change marked by Stalin’s death and the Thaw. While addressing citizens’ demands for better standards of living, the new [End Page 539] leadership also sought to relax international tensions and open channels through which people, ideas, and goods could circulate.2

As well as improving relations with the West, Moscow embarked on a campaign to promote friendship and cooperation with the South. Putting aside Iosif Stalin’s and Viacheslav Molotov’s dislike for Third World “bourgeois nationalists,” Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoian asserted Moscow’s willingness to support noncommunist anti-imperialist countries and anticolonial movements thirsty for independence, national sovereignty, and development; while suppressing the revolution in Hungary, they became champions of Third World aspirations. Confident in Soviet strength, they felt ready to lead the world revolutionary process. And this goal, contrary to peaceful coexistence and Cold War with the West, meant supporting their allies in the hot wars in the South. It also meant involvement at every level, from ideology to development to education, in a global struggle for supremacy against the United States and a fiercely antagonistic China.3

At the level of official rhetoric, Moscow’s support for the South was described as the internationalist duty of the Soviet people to assist the oppressed nations of the earth to fight imperialism. At the level of material aid, however, this policy was translated into various commitments. Apart from political and military support, Moscow launched a generous campaign of development diplomacy, granting Southern partners cheap loans, sending them professors and engineers, building hospitals and schools, and training thousands of specialists. The training of students in the USSR, with scholarships provided by the Soviet Union, which started in the late 1950s and continued throughout the Cold War, became a central component of Soviet aid (Table 1). Indeed, by the end of 1989, 39,675 students from Latin America, including 26,439 Cubans,4 39,223 from Arab countries, 21,615 from the rest of noncommunist Asia, and 36,146 from Sub-Saharan Africa had graduated from Soviet schools of higher (88 percent) and secondary technical (12 percent) education.5 [End Page 540]

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Table 1.

Foreign Students in the USSR in Selected Academic Years

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This article revisits the training of Third World students in the USSR and concentrates on the period from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. It examines the relationships between Soviet hosts and Third World guests and analyzes Soviet attitudes and opinions. Students from Sub-Saharan Africa, who often fell victim to verbal and physical attacks, are at the center of my inquiry. This is certainly not the first time that issues of racism and Soviet-African encounters have been examined. From Allison Blakely’s pathbreaking study to works by Maxim Matusevich and Meredith Roman, the importance of...