H-Diplo Article Review 1152- Bain on Pedemonte, “The First Generation of Cuban Students in the1960s Soviet Union"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1152

15 December 2022

Rafael Pedemonte, “The First Generation of Cuban Students in the1960s Soviet Union: Shaping a Revolutionary ‘Culture of Militancy’,” Cold War History, 22:4 (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14682745.2022.2057472

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor:
Lori Maguire | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Mervyn J. Bain, University of Aberdeen

In “The First Generation of Cuban Students in the1960s Soviet Union: Shaping a Revolutionary ‘Culture of Militancy’,” Rafael Pedemonte examines the experiences of the first Cuban citizens to study in the Soviet Union in the 1960s after the reestablishment of Havana-Moscow relations in the wake of the Cuban Revolution of January 1959. Pedemonte utilizes a wide range of primary and secondary sources from both Cuba and the former Soviet Union, including previously unseen documents from the archives of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Havana. The author was also able to interview several of the former Cuban students who studied in the Soviet Union and is to be commended for this use of these excellent sources. Additionally, this important and fascinating topic has received little previous academic focus.[1] Consequently, the article makes an important contribution which will be of interest to a number of different audiences, including those interested in the Cuban revolutionary experiment in the 1960s, Soviet engagement with the Global South, Cuban-Soviet relations, and the Cold War in general.

The article is ordered in three main sections “around three issues that powerfully shaped the experiences of Cuban students, each reflecting a chronological stage of their personal and collective journey to the USSR … (1) preparation and first encounters with the Soviet world; (2) collective organisations in the USSR; and (3) political implications and international relations” (4). All are key to understanding the Cuban students’ experiences in the Soviet Union, with these sections being well positioned within the increased Soviet engagement with the Global South that commenced after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. This Soviet engagement took a number of forms, including trade and financial assistance, but also, importantly, the1960 creation in Moscow of the Peoples’ Friendship University Patrice Lumumba. Students from across the Global South studied at this institution and, as Pedemonte details, its opening coincided with the increased radicalisation of the Cuba Revolution. Both the creation of the Peoples’ Friendship University Patrice Lumumba and the increasing radicalisation of the Cuban Revolution were significant given that a number of Cubans studied at this institution. Moreover, as the author argues, periods of study in the Soviet Union permitted Cuban citizens who had been too young to participate in the Cuban Revolution from 1953 to 1959 to demonstrate their radicalness and commitment to the Cuban Revolution. Pedemonte details that Cuban students began to arrive in the Soviet Union after Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, President of the Cuban Central Bank, signed the first of multiple cultural agreements between Havana and Moscow after travelling to the Soviet Union in December 1960. Educational exchanges were part of this agreement, with Guevara agreeing to create 800 student scholarships (400 for technical training and 400 for university studies) for Cubans to study in the Soviet Union. Pedemonte’s examination of the Cuban students’ experiences throughout the Soviet Union (including in Kaliningrad and in Siberia) is to be applauded because much previous scholarship on Cuban-Soviet relations has been dominated by events in Havana and Moscow to the detriment of the remainder of the Caribbean Island and Soviet Union.[2]

In the first section of the article, which focuses on the preparation and first encounters with the Soviet world, Pedemonte begins by outlining the difficulties of travel from Cuba to the Soviet Union and the subsequent limited number of Cubans who had visited the Soviet Union prior to the Cuban Revolution. He also makes the important point that many of the limited number of Cubans were in some manner associated with the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), the Cuban organisation that had the most established links with Moscow. However, after the agreement signed by Guevara this began to change, with an increased, and regular, number of Cubans travelling to the Soviet Union to study. Pedemonte notes that many of the Cuban students experienced a number of difficulties while in the Soviet Union, not least a level of homesickness, learning the Russian language, and the very different climatic conditions between a Soviet winter and the Caribbean climate. These difficulties resulted in a number of the Cuban students returning to Cuba before they had completed their studies.

Interestingly, the first section also focuses on the importance which the Cuban government placed both on students studying in the Soviet Union and the moral obligation that the students felt towards the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government indicated the importance of these visits by the students by having Guevara himself present at the port in Cuba to bid some of the students farewell. Also, in 1965, some 400 Cuban students on the ship the Gruzia were accompanied by Raúl Castro, head of the Ministry of Defence, who was travelling to the Soviet Union as part of a military delegation. Throughout the voyage Castro regularly interacted with the students, including reading speeches by his elder brother and leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and even playing football with the students. The students were also acutely aware of their responsibility to return to Cuba and utilize the skills they had learnt in the Soviet Union for the betterment of the Cuban Revolution and Cuban society. In sum, the students were aware of the ‘culture of militancy’ in terms of their motivation for studying in the Soviet Union, their responsibilities while there, and on their return to Cuba.

The author also describes the sometimes limited level of education completed in Cuba (in some cases as little as four years of primary school) before some of the Cuban students left for the Soviet Union. This level of education in combination with the aforementioned difficulties of adjusting to life in the Soviet Union were challenging and hindered the progress of some of the Cuban students in the Soviet Union. However, this is not to downplay the significance of these educational trips both for the development of the individual students and the Cuban Revolution itself.

As noted, the second section of the article concentrates on the collective organisation of the Cuban students in the Soviet Union. This organisation focused on the creation of colectivos, which had the responsibility of overseeing daily issues, organising cultural and sporting events and ensuring that students adhered to codes of correct behaviour included not engaging in excessive drinking; even more, Cuban students were not allowed to marry until they had completed at least two years of study in the Soviet Union. Colectivos were organised in every institution at which that Cuban students studied and therefore varied in size of membership. Moreover, a multi-level organisational structure was implemented with each colectivo being contacted by the Cuban Embassy in Moscow. Speeches by Fidel Castro and films for the viewing of the students were distributed via this structure.   

The Cuban students were not only in the Soviet Union to study, but also as ambassadors of the Cuban Revolution, with the structure outlined above being important in helping the students publicise the Cuban Revolution throughout the Soviet Union. This included celebrations on important dates in Cuban history (for example, on the anniversaries of the 26 July 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks and of Cuban independence on 10 October). Pedemonte describes one Chilean student’s memories of attending such an event on 26 July 1967 in a summer camp near the Siberian town Zheleznogorsk. This recollection is not only important in itself, but again illustrates that the article goes beyond a focusing only on events in the Cuban and Soviet capitals.

Pedemonte also describes the weekly discussions of texts provided by the Cuban Embassy, including Régis Debray’s 1967 Revolution in the Revolution?[3] Debray’s work focused on the Cuban revolutionary experience. It is highly interesting that the book was discussed in the Soviet Union given that its ideas varied greatly from Soviet policy towards Latin America at this time, which was much more conservative than Cuban ideas. These differences between Cuban and Soviet policies caused friction between the governments in Havana and Moscow.[4]

This friction between Havana and Moscow is of growing importance in the third section of the article which concentrates on political implications and international relations. Moreover, tension between Cuba and the Soviet Union in this period was not linked to the correct path to socialism in the Western Hemisphere, but also resulted from the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the infamous ‘micro-faction plot’ that had seen some ‘dissenters’ within the Cuban political system make contact with the Soviet embassy in Havana in an attempt to influence Moscow’s Cuba policy.[5] Interestingly in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Emilio Aragonés, a member of the Cuban leading party secretariat, led a delegation to Leningrad to provide the Cuban students in the city with the Cuban government’s official version of events. This trip evidences the importance which the Cuban government attached to the Cuban students studying in the Soviet Union as ambassadors for the Cuban Revolution, as they were expected to promote Havana’s policies within the USSR. Pedemonte also describes the experiences of Cuban students who countered Venezuelan students at Patrice Lumumba University when they unveiled an anti-Cuban poster issued by the Venezuelan Communist Party and their involvement in other demonstrations in the aftermath of Guevara’s death in October 1967.

Pedemonte’s article provides granular detail and fascinating insights into the importance of Cuban students studying in the Soviet Union, the students’ motivation for participating in these studies, the way in which the students were organised while they were in the USSR, and their obligations both during their studies and once they returned to Cuba. Moreover, it also demonstrates the significance which the Cuban government attached to these periods of study. Pedemonte outlines a number of difficulties that the Cuban students encountered in the Soviet Union, but it would be of interest if potential issues of racism towards the Cuban students had also been examined. In a similar manner, increased reflections on the Cuban students’ perception of Soviet society in general and Soviet modernity would also have been of interest. These comments are not meant to detract greatly from a fascinating article which focuses not only on an under-researched topic, but also one that links to important topics of Soviet-era legacies in contemporary Cuban society, diaspora studies, and the marriages of Cuban and Soviet citizens, several of which resulted in births of children of Cuban and Soviet parents, etc.[6] These studies are of great significance for understanding the contemporary multi-level relationships that exist between Cuba and a number of the former Soviet republics, resulting in Pedemonte’s article being of importance for both contemporary issues and those of the 1960s.


Mervyn J. Bain (Ph.D., University of Glasgow) is a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom). He has published widely on Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union/Russia, including several books. These books include Moscow and Havana 1917 to the Present. An Enduring Relationship despite Major Changes in Global Contexts, published by Lexington Books, 2018.


[1] V. Lavrentyev, “USSR-Cuban Brotherhood and Cooperation,” (FBIS LD182341 Moscow Domestic Service in Russian 0615 18 April 1985); Mark, James, Paul Betts, Alena Alamgir, Peter Apor, Eric Burton, Dogdan C. Iacob, Steffi Marung and Radina Vucetic, Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonization (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2022): 314-317; Tobias Rupprecht, Soviet Internationalism after Stalin: Interaction and Exchange between the USSR and Latin America during the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 191-229.

[2] See J. Levesque, The USSR and the Cuban Revolution Ideological and Strategic Perspectives (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1978). Nicola Miller, Soviet Relations with Latin America 1959-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). M. Robins, “The Soviet-Cuban Relationship.” in Roger Kanet, ed., The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): 144-170. Yuri Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959-1991 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994). Yuri Pavlov, “The End of the Road.” in Irving Louis Horowitz, ed., Cuban Communism (London; Routledge, 1995): 823-848. Peter Shearman, The Soviet Union and Cuba (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987). Peter Shearman “The Soviet Union and Cuba: The 'Best' of Friends.” in Margot Light, ed., Troubled Friendships: Moscow’s Third World Adventures (London: British Academic Press, 1993): 166-190.

[3] Regis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution? (Paris: Maspero, 1967)

[4] Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance: 45-90. Shearman, The Soviet Union and Cuba: 17-24.

[5] James Blight & Philip Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days. Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002). Shearman, The Soviet Union and Cuba: 11-14 & 20. Edward González, Cuba Under Castro: The Limits of Charisma, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974): 139-140. K.S. Karol, Guerrillas in Power, The Course of the Cuban Revolution, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971): 468-475.

[6] Jacqueline Loss, Dreaming in Russian, The Cuban Soviet Imaginary (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2013): 22-24.