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Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: SPUTNIK/PAVEL BEDNYAKOV/POOL VIA REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: SPUTNIK/PAVEL BEDNYAKOV/POOL VIA REUTERS

Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war faulted Ukrainians for failing to express appropriate gratitude and fraternal loyalty to Russia. Bombing Ukrainian cities and targeting Ukrainian civilians is hardly a sound way to evoke thanks or brotherhood, but Putin aims to make the cost very high indeed for spurning Russia’s ostensible friendship. Is that the kind of friend SA needs?

Putin is not seeking to resurrect the Soviet Union, but to undo what he considers a foundational Soviet mistake: granting a limited degree of self-determination to Ukraine. In attacking Ukrainian sovereignty he expects support from Russia’s allies, including SA.

The Russian government’s ability to exert pressure on SA has much to do with financial ties, but the vocabulary used to solicit support is saturated with history and emotion. Russian generosity in the past, so the story goes, demands SA gratitude and co-operation in the present. It’s working. The SA government has been extremely reluctant to name or condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By now, you know the basics: in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, part of independent Ukraine, and began backing separatist paramilitaries in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. In a televised speech on February 21, Putin interpreted Ukrainian history as a series of lies and betrayals that weakened and manipulated Russia. On February 24, Russia launched air strikes in Kyiv as it initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Having taken Kherson on the Black Sea, Russian troops are now advancing on Odesa.

On the cusp of renewed crisis, on February 22, international relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor called for peaceful dialogue and moving “the process forward without accusing any party”. Her department's updated statement on February 24, which called for a withdrawal of Russian troops, nevertheless refused to identify Russian aggression, instead using the carefully actor-free phrase “escalation of conflict”.

“We call on all parties to resume diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the concerns raised by Russia.” Even that mild statement from Pandor’s ministry raised the ire of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC, who reportedly see it as too strongly condemning the attack on Ukraine. The ANC’s official position continues to endorse dialogue while a war rages. SA is to toe the Russian line.

SA-Russia history

But the past is more complicated than official Russian and SA statements suggest. The Soviet Union’s support for the ANC and SACP in exile is well known. The first black South African to visit the Soviet Union requesting assistance in fighting apartheid was Pandor’s father, Joe Mathews.

Reports in Russian archives document his numerous conversations with Soviet officials in the early 1960s. As Matthews later put it: “We looked at historical analogies and became convinced that you had to have some power or other backing you; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to launch a sustainable armed struggle.”

Between the early 1960s and the late 1980s the Soviet Union assisted the anti-apartheid struggle with money, arms, military training, education, weapons, diplomatic support, food, books, medical care, international transport and more.

Today it suits the current SA and Russian governments — now economic partners in Brics bloc — to view Soviet support for the ANC-SACP as basically Russian. Yet the Soviet Union was bigger than Russia. By the late Soviet period, only about half of the population was ethnically Russian.

Non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union played important roles in the anti-apartheid struggle as well, especially Ukraine. It was one of two Soviet republics to have its own representation at the UN (the other was Belarus). While the Permanent Mission of the Ukrainian SSR by no means had foreign policy independence, Ukraine prominently advocated for measures against the apartheid government.

In 1962, with a powerful declaration of support from the Ukrainian SSR, the UN General Assembly recommended stringent diplomatic, economic and military sanctions against the apartheid government. Year after year the Soviet Union supported draft resolutions recommending sanctions, and year after year Western powers vetoed those resolutions.

In 1985, the Ukrainian mission to the UN endorsed comprehensive sanctions against SA stating that “SA’s disregard of UN decisions, its illegal occupation of Namibia, its ceaseless acts of aggression, its state terrorism and threats against independent African states, the continual build-up of its military capacity and its plans to produce nuclear weapons, constitute a direct threat to international peace and security.”  If you have heard similar language recently, it’s almost certainly been used to describe Russia.

Studying in Ukraine

While ANC and SACP leaders went for specialised political training in Moscow, many outside the leadership studied in Ukraine. Beginning in the early 1960s several thousand African students came to the Soviet Union annually. More than 30% of them studied in Ukrainian institutions. The first cohort of ANC students to pursue university degrees in the Soviet Union began their studies in Kyiv in 1962. Several of them remained in Ukraine for four more years.

On his way to a degree in national economic planning, Sindiso Mfenyana performed choral harmonies to adoring Soviet audiences, took a boat cruise down the Dnipro River to the Black Sea, and organised informal discussions with students from other national liberation movements.

Students who lived in Kyiv took note of Ukrainian complaints about Moscow’s policies and attitudes. Mfenyana remembered that “Ukrainian students in class were quite vociferous about Ukraine being the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and yet the best of their produce was hardly visible in their shops, but was in abundance in the state capital, Moscow.”

Fanele Mbali was also in the first ANC group, studying national statistics in Kyiv. Mbali observed that though Ukraine “came second only to the Russian Republic ... relations between the Ukraine and Russia were somewhat strained” due to the proud nationalism of Ukrainian leaders and their sense that Ukraine was feeding the whole Soviet Union without benefiting Ukrainians.

Ordinary Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldiers who went to the Soviet Union mostly went to Ukraine. According to Russian historian Vladimir Shubin, between 1963 and 1965, 328 MK recruits received military training near Odesa, on the Black Sea coast in Ukraine. In the mid-1960s the Soviet Union opened a training centre for guerrilla fighters in Perevalne on the Crimean peninsula. In 1969, when Tanzania expelled MK, most of its members relocated to Crimea.

Many MK memoirs fondly remember the local women who cooked and cleaned for SA recruits, treating the young soldiers with hospitality and affection. Military trainees were significantly more removed from local society and usually did not learn much Russian. Many consequently made no distinction between Ukrainians and Russians, who were all Soviet white people speaking similarly unfamiliar Slavic languages.

The same Ukrainian nationalists who made an impression on Mfenyana and Mbali complained about how Ukrainian contributions to African training and education were undervalued or erased. Russians absorbed all the status and gratitude associated with Soviet aid. Ivan Dziuba, author of the dissident Ukrainian text Internationalism or Russification, lamented that Ukrainians had not “received a single word of thanks from those Asian and African peoples”.

As the historian Thom Loyd has demonstrated, multiple imperial hierarchies overlapped in Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists resented Russian arrogance and rejected the notion that Russians were developmentally superior or naturally fated to rule. At the same time, Ukrainian nationalists saw themselves as advanced, European and worthy of African gratitude.

The premise of Soviet generosity was laced with harmful racial stereotypes. Official and unofficial Soviet culture considered Africans to be backward and poor. In the romantic politics of the early 1960s, Soviet perceptions of Africans as backward encouraged a socialist version of a civilising mission, in which a benevolent Soviet mentor provided guidance and resources to needy African pupils.

Perceptions of backward Africans

Amid the disillusionment of the 1980s, perceptions of backward Africans instead fuelled a new kind of prejudice that saw poverty and violence as inherent features of African society that no amount of Soviet education or aid could displace. Popular racism, always present in Russia, Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union, got far worse amid the political reforms and economic collapse of the late 1980s.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “common European home,” it was implicitly understood that the Soviet Union was shedding its commitments in the global South as it turned to embrace the West. Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, and the Soviet Union dissolved quickly thereafter.

In the Soviet Union’s last years, when popular revolt against the apartheid system had intensified and the SA government instituted multiple states of emergency, Soviet foreign policy did an about-face. Rejecting their previous support for armed struggle, Soviet officials advocated dialogue and negotiated settlement, infuriating the ANC.

More radically still, the Soviet foreign ministry began to question and dismantle its opposition to the National Party government. Between 1988 and 1991 the intelligence services of the Soviet and apartheid governments developed a cosy relationship, much to the ANC’s dismay. In 1990, the Soviet Union began enthusiastically pursuing sanctions-busting trade deals facilitated by the white government and arms dealer middlemen.

In February 1992, after the Soviet Union had finally disintegrated, SA established diplomatic relations with post-Soviet Russia. On Monday of last week, as attacks on Kyiv intensified, the Russian Embassy in SA celebrated the 30-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

A statement released by the embassy celebrated a long, unbroken history of Russian support for the ANC from exile to government, but carefully omitted the period in the early 1990s when Russian governments preferred the Nats to the ANC, as well as the late 1990s when the ANC regarded post-Soviet Russia as a powerless has-been in global politics.

It was economic ties, in particular mining interests, that drove the ANC to rediscover Russia. After nearly a decade of delays and cancellations, Nelson Mandela visited Moscow in 1999. “We received enormous assistance from the Soviet Union, the assistance we could not get from the West,” said Mandela. “Russia should have been the very first country that I visited, and I have come to pay that debt now.”

Credit for supporting the exiled ANC accrued to Russia alone among the Soviet successor states. Russian officials counted on the gratitude of South Africans who had lived, trained and studied anywhere in the Soviet Union. In the 1990s they were often disappointed. In one example, Russian arms manufacturers expected the ANC government to purchase Russian fighter jets instead of British or Swedish.

It was only later that Putin’s government began in earnest to cultivate a myth of solidarity among ANC alumni, deliberately obfuscating the enormous ruptures between the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.

Appeal of Brics

Independent Ukraine has an even more fraught relationship to the Soviet past, and according to Ukraine’s ambassador to SA, Liubov Abravitova, never prioritised building connections with African alumni. Loyalty to Russia in the ANC — and in the SA government — revived after SA’s accession to Brics in 2010.

While its track record is mixed, the idea of a bloc of regional powers standing up to the Western-dominated unipolar world order has had durable appeal. Recent years have seen increased Russian efforts to cultivate relationships on the African continent, including at the first Russia-Africa Summit on the Black Sea in 2019.

In 2014, when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, SA joined 27 other African countries in either abstaining or voting no. On March 2, in light of the recent invasion, the General Assembly again tabled a resolution on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This time, 28 African countries voted in favour and 17 abstained or voted no. SA was among the abstentions.

In the past few weeks, Russian information and disinformation services have hammered on the narrative that Russia is Africa’s loyal friend while Ukraine is full of racists and Nazis. Many of the 16,000 African students who were in Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict tried to flee to neighbouring countries. In transit and at the borders, they have faced serious racial and national discrimination, being — sometimes literally — shoved aside to prioritise Ukrainian refugees.

Russia Today, the English language news service operated by the Russian government, has gleefully reported on racism at the Ukrainian border. Such discriminatory practice has given succour to those who wish to diminish Ukrainian suffering as the suffering of other dehumanised populations is often downplayed in the Western media.

Throughout the cold war, with help from sympathisers in the West, apartheid propaganda portrayed the ANC-SACP as the Soviet Union’s plaything, a puppet and a proxy, with no legitimate independent existence. The ANC and SACP demanded recognition for themselves as legitimate political actors and for SA as more than just another theatre of the global cold war. But their opponents consistently treated the ANC-SACP as nothing more than a front for Moscow’s superpower ambitions.

Recent statements from the ANC and SACP regard Ukraine’s democratically elected government in exactly the same way, but as a front for US-led Nato imperialism. Asked to clarify if the ANC sees Russia as an aggressor, Lindiwe Zulu — an alum of the Peoples Friendship University in Moscow and currently the ANC international relations subcommittee chair — named Nato as the responsible party for making Russia feel threatened.

“The aggressor is US imperialism,” argues SACP deputy secretary-general Solly Mapaila. “Russia has to defend itself.” And Ukraine? Ukraine’s existence, and the political desires and interest of Ukrainians, are simply irrelevant in a vision of politics that consists only of bad US imperialists and those who fight back. The suggestion is that imperialism is only imperialism, now, if Americans do it.

Some justifications for solidarity with Ukraine are flawed. Why should South Africans defend an idea of the West that has defined itself by excluding and subordinating people of colour? Why defend an idea of democracy that has offered cover for a series of imperialist military adventures by the US?

But one need not endorse these ideas — or all parts of the Ukrainian nationalist project — to express solidarity with human beings who are being shelled in an unprovoked attack. Likewise, there are good reasons to be critical of Nato expansion, and we should evaluate carefully the West’s role in escalating tensions. However, Russia bears responsibility for the huge moral leap to initiating war.

In the face of war, ANC leaders appear enthralled by the idea of repaying a historical debt. In addition to fudging a history that is more complicated than meets the eye, this stance plays into a neo-imperial way of thinking. Though Putin’s Russia differs from the Soviet Union in many important respects, one continuity is a powerful narrative of innocence abroad and an expectation that Soviet (then Russian) benevolence would generate gratitude and loyalty among those in need.

Gratitude — or the expectation of it — stabilised an imperial hierarchy: Russian givers claimed superiority over and obedience from non-Russian recipients.  The anthropologist Bruce Grant wrote: “While the gift of empire may ultimately be unilateral, it sets in motion a remarkably effective means of establishing sovereignty over others, hinging on a language of reciprocity that requires little or no actual reception among the conquered.”

From the 1990s to the present, one consistent Russian imperial lament is that non-Russians within the former Soviet sphere and in the world at large are insufficiently grateful for all of Russia’s generosity. We gave them so much, and this is how they repay us?

Ukrainians have rejected Putin’s claim to their allegiance. SA’s leaders, with so much less at stake, have gone along.

• Lynd, a PhD candidate in the history department of the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the comparative histories of SA and the former Soviet Union, is a visiting researcher at the Wits History Workshop.

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