The Provocation of Empirical Evidence: Soviet African Studies Between Enthusiasm and Discomfort
Focusing on the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the article looks at Africa through the eyes of Soviet scholars, who sought to comprehend the dramatic transformations on the continent. Incipient efforts under Comintern auspices in the 1920s and 1930s had fallen prey to the Stalinist purges. Since the mid-1950s, Soviet African Studies started to flourish, when socialism became a global project on Soviet political agendas in the context of cold war competition. Their expansion, however, was just as much an effect of intensifying encounters with colleagues in the region. Soviet scholars did not only struggle to reconcile the Marxist-Leninist framework with the diverse dynamics in African societies. They were also provoked by the reactions they received from Western and African counterparts during travels, and conferences. Challenging a diffusionist understanding of how ideas about socialism were 'transferred' from the Soviet Union to Africa, the key argument here is that the Soviet Union was neither an unchallenged 'exporter' of such models, nor where these static. Empirical evidence from Russian archives rather reveals confusion, destabilization and perceived marginalization of the Soviet position. Africa was, in this regard, not a repository for Soviet ideas about socialist transformation, but a space providing unforeseen challenges for Soviet theorizations through encounters and conversations.