H-Diplo Roundtable XXIV-28 on Telepneva, _Cold War Liberation_

christopher ball Discussion

H-Diplo Roundtable XXIV-28

Natalia Telepneva, Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022) ISBN: 978-1-4696-6586-3.

24 April 2023 | https://hdiplo.org/to/RT24-28  
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Frank Gerits | Production Editor: Christopher Ball


Introduction by Lorenz Lüthi, McGill University. 2

Review by Elizabeth Banks, European University Institute in Florence.. 5

Review by Alessandro Iandolo, University College London.. 8

Review by Austin Jersild, Old Dominion University.. 12

Review by Artemy M. Kalinovsky, Temple University.. 15

Review by R. Joseph Parrott, Ohio State University.. 18

Response by Natalia Telepneva, European University Institute in Florence.. 22



In her fast-paced and well-researched monograph, Natalia Telepneva tells story of Soviet and East European support for the competing Angolan liberation movements in the 1961-75 period. Using Russian and multiple East European archival sources, the author provides readers with great and detailed insights into the Soviet and East European motivations, the mechanics of support on the ground, and, ultimately, the limits of advice and aid. Telepneva’s book strikes a good balance between the long-term narrative of Soviet support for decolonization since days of the Comintern and individual episodes of Communist-Angolan contact in the 15 years in focus. Her multi-angular approach and concise prose generates a fast-moving but still accessible narrative.

Communist support for African liberation during the Cold War has attracted significant attention and archival research by scholars in the last decades. Previous authors have focused on support of the liberation of individual African states,[1] on individual Communist countries providing support,[2] or on Cold War developments in general.[3] Telepneva discusses Soviet and East European representatives, their national and collective support for the Angolan liberation movements, and their competition and rivalry with each other. While the book also provides significant insights into the agency, policies, and rivalries of Angolan liberation leaders, the author focuses primarily on “the Soviets and their African interlocutors” (10-11). Although she had planned to use oral history, her interviews with rank-and-file members of the Angolan liberation movements turned out to be “too rich” (11) to be included into a book on Communist-African high-level relations.

Telepneva succeeds in forging an accessible narrative from her extensive research in the archives of multiple former Communist states. Her shifts of focus from long-term developments to individual events, from general developments to personal stories, and from the vantage points of multiple Communist and various Angolan actors work well. Her decision not to include materials of interviews with rank-and-file Angolan fighters is wise; that would have produced a book overburdened with detail and lacking focus. Still, one hopes that the interviews will lead to another fascinating publication on Angola’s decolonization and civil war.

All four reviewers agree that Cold War Liberation is an important contribution to the literature on Communist support of African national liberation. In their combined assessment, the book revises and refines much of the previous literature while also opening up new avenues to further research on motivations and forms of aid and advice.

Elizabeth Banks places the book firmly in the field of Cold War Studies, due to its predominant use of Soviet and East European archival sources. The book’s focus on the role secret services and Communist military aid and advice, however, is a major contribution to the understanding of the Cold War in Africa, as it counters older arguments about the primacy of Soviet revolutionary commitments to decolonization. Despite Telepneva’s decision not to incorporate interview material, Banks lauds the inclusion of the role of local and regional leaders in Angola. The turn to violence ultimately was their choice, not one that was imposed by Communist outsiders.

This “terrific book,” as Alessandro Iandolo writes, provides much new insights into the motivations, worldviews, and policies of both Communist donors and Portuguese-African recipients. Yet, he cautions against overestimating the leeway of African agency; independence leaders had clear ideas, but they needed to convince Moscow and Prague to provide aid and support while they also faced a formidable Portuguese foe. Cold War Liberation will still inspire future historians, he notes, because Telepneva shifts the focus from transatlantic connections to African-socialist relations.

Austin Jersild praises the focus on the policies of the Communist states in East Europe, and how they managed to eke out a sphere of operation besides and in competition with the Soviet Union. This provided Angolan actors with the opportunity to play Communist donor nations against each other. In the end, neither the Soviets nor the East Europeans made an ideological commitment to revolution in Angola, but used the rhetoric of internationalist duty to help along ongoing decolonization processes. This pragmatic approach aligned with other, self-serving motives behind Communist aid and advice, namely to get access to resources for the further development of the national economies of socialist states in Europe.

Artemy Kalinovsky concentrates in his enthusiastic review on the Soviet aspects of the book. The focus on how Communist support worked on the ground provides a multi-layered story that reveals disagreements and rivalries both among the donors and the recipients of aid and advice. Kalinovsky also stresses the important personal links between the Comintern past of many Soviet advisers and their work in Angola in the 1960s and early 1970s. Still, most of the Soviet personnel were junior leaders and technocrats. Ultimately, this suggests that Angola was not a major Soviet geostrategic or revolutionary concern. But why then did the Soviet Union make a commitment at all?

R. Joseph Parrot lauds the author for filling a major void in the history of Communist intervention in Lusophone Africa with a deeply researched and clearly written book. While the bulk of Telepneva’s research focus is on Soviet policy, her book provides much new information on the external and internal politics of the competing Angolan liberation movements. Yet, the Soviet lens of the book occasionally blurs the complexity of events on the ground, as Soviet representatives saw Angolan events on the basis of preconceived and simplified ideas of national liberation. Still, this seminal book on Soviet intervention in Lusophone Africa contributes much to the Cold War historiography on Africa and opens up new lines of inquiry.


Natalia Telepneva is Lecturer in International History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Her first book, Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975, explores Soviet support for anti-colonial movements in the Portuguese colonies. She has published articles on Soviet policy in Africa and the history of intelligence in International History Review, Journal of Cold War Studies and Journal of Southern African Studies, and is the co-editor, with Philip E. Muehlenbeck of Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World (I.B. Tauris, 2018). She received her PhD from the London School of Economics

Lorenz Lüthi is Professor of History in International Relations at McGill University. His research focuses on the large and cross-continental developments of the Cold War. He published The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton University Press) in 2008 and Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe (Cambridge University Press) in 2020. His current research focuses on Berlin in the Cold War.

Elizabeth (Betty) Banks is a historian of the Soviet Union and twentieth century Africa, and an ERC-funded research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. She is one of the editors of “The African-Soviet Modern,” a special section published in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 41:1 (2021). She recently completed a manuscript, Parallel Worlds: Socialist Globalization in the Soviet Union and Mozambique, which explores how leaders, bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens in the USSR and Mozambique enacted socialist internationalism through treaties, embassy building, diplomacy, fishing, debt, trade, and delegation exchange from the 1960s through the fall of the USSR. Her current work examines economic policy making inside international institutions, with a focus on experts in and from Africa and the USSR.

Alessandro Iandolo is Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet History at University College London. His first book, entitled Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955-1968, was published by Cornell University Press in 2022.

Austin Jersild is Professor of History, Chair of the Department of History, and Affiliate of the Graduate Program in International Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of The Sino-Soviet Alliance: An International History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), and a previous contributor to the CWIHP Digital Archive (e-Dossiers nos. 41, 43, and 46).

Artemy Kalinovsky is Professor of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet Studies at Temple University and the Principal Investigator of an ERC funded project, based at the University of Amsterdam, which investigates the legacies of socialist development in contemporary Central Asia to examine entanglements between socialist and capitalist development approaches in the late twentieth century. He earned his BA from the George Washington University and his MA and PhD from the London School of Economics. His first book was A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2011). His second book, Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (Cornell University Press, 2018), won the Davis and Hewett prizes from the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 

R. Joseph Parrott is Assistant Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He is currently revising a manuscript on the internationalism of Portuguese African liberation movements and their influence on US politics and is the co-editor with Mark Atwood Lawrence of The Tricontinental Revolution: Third World Radicalism and the Cold War (New York: Cambridge, 2022). He holds a PhD in History from the University of Texas and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Virginia.


In Cold War Liberation, Natalia Telepneva offers a detailed account of Soviet military and security support for national liberation movements in Lusophone Africa from the early sixties until 1975, by which time each of the territories had gained independence. The book also provides a rich and detailed picture of internal politics of the movements—mostly the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) and the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (paigc)—from the point of view of Soviet and Czechoslovak observers. The book primarily engages with Cold War history rather than either Soviet or African regional histories, or with the emergent field concerned with East-South broadly defined,[4] even as the book’s careful tracing of internal movement politics and of the nuances of the Soviet international bureaucracy will be of value to scholars of both regions. It draws primarily on extensive archival research in Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, and a generous number of memoir accounts, with interviews with participants the author carried out in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. The author notes that she has much more material from these interviews that will form the basis for other works, which I absolutely look forward to.

Cold War Liberation emphasizes the military as a sphere of action and connection, arguing that after the international enthusiasm of the Khrushchevian thaw (1956-64), the Soviet state “redirected its energies” towards security and military services (101). This is an important counter to a somewhat older view that Nikita Khrushchev’s years as First Secretary represented a unique moment of revolutionary openness that closed down by the end of the 1960s. As scholars of domestic politics have shown, many of the transformations engendered by Khrushchev remained vibrant into the next decades—even, as Eleonory Gilburd argues, to the end of the USSR.[5] Telepneva extends this insight into the realm of foreign policy, arguing that the Soviet position did not become less revolutionary but rather doubled down on revolutionary changes by focusing on military and security services. The book then explains the contours of Soviet military support to Lusophone Africa (an area of the continent that the first wave of African independence passed by), how it came to be, and its effects.

An important contribution of the book is its focus on individual actors—both African and Soviet. In the introduction, Telepneva narratively puts the agency and actions of African anti-colonial nationalists first, writing that her focus is on these African revolutionary actors, how they sought support for their struggle internationally, and how they got it from the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Czechoslovakia. She writes second about her work to examine the role and actions of mid-level Soviet bureaucrats in creating and shaping policy towards Africa. This dual emphasis leads directly into the first two chapters of the book, which set out the contextual background of the involvement of the USSR and the Portuguese empire in Africa respectively. These chapters expertly map the histories of these regions, of the concepts of anti-colonialism and internationalism that would soon overlap, and the cast of characters that would fill the pages that follow. As I read, I found myself thinking that it would equally serve people who are specialists of either or neither region—even though I say this as someone quite familiar with both. The narrative arc provides a wonderful journey through the topics.

The section setting out the two categories of Soviet international officials, or mezhdunarodniki, is particularly strong. As well as providing detailed biographies and group biographies of the Cominternians and the war generation, the section also puts flesh and bones onto ideological commitments, which Telepneva defines as “as a particular lens through which individuals processed and understood events around them” (6). Her focus on mezhdunarodniki is therefore a response to the perennial debate over ideology in the Cold War—since she follows ideology in the lives and actions of a set of characters from the bureaucratic and military elite—and a contribution to understanding the individuals who ran the Soviet state and bureaucracy that goes beyond Cold War history. The biographies of African revolutionaries are similarly detailed and well developed, with attention given to a larger number of lower-level figures as well as movement leaders. Indeed, Telepneva has done a great service in constructing biographies of nearly every character she mentions, both African and Soviet. In this way, she extends recent work emphasizing the role of smaller and regional states in shaping the Cold War in the global South to include the movements in Lusophone Africa.[6] By tracing the context of Portuguese colonialism as well as real detail in re-constructing the disagreements and developments within the liberation movements as they emerged and engaged their struggles, Telepneva makes clear that the turn towards violence among Lusophone revolutionary movements was an internal choice made in response to circumstance, including Portuguese intransience.

The body of the book as whole, however, retains an emphasis on Soviet/Eastern perspectives and does not always maintain the focus on individuals. While the biographies are extremely well-researched and well-constructed, I felt at times that they served to populate the text rather than contribute to the analysis. This is a dense book, with compact writing and a wealth of information but with less lingering on details or experience. At times Telepneva leans more on her interview materials to give wonderfully rich texture on the experience of the events discussed for the people involved, including the section on Soviet training camps (110-17) and on how the news of the Portuguese revolution was received in Africa (169-70). Other sections that offer the promise of similar social detail, such as chapter 4 on the politics of exile, capture intra-movement tensions and change but without conveying the interpersonal and social drama that must have accompanied it. The concise writing style has a tendency at times to obscure agency. For instance, the book employs the classic shorthand of “Moscow” as a stand in for the actually quite differentiated Soviet state—“Moscow was done with Roberto” (86), “Moscow and Prague pledged to support a publicity campaign” (62), “Moscow erred on the side of caution” (99), or “Moscow and Prague hoped that” (113)—with the result that the institutions and characters Telepneva painstaking constructs at the start of the book fade away.

The Soviet focus comes through implicitly in the telling. It is odd, for instance, that “the task of securing a ‘common front’ in Angola” after the 1961 uprising and start of the armed struggle fell not to Angolans but to “Soviet and Czechoslovak intelligence officers stationed in Zaire” (75). Another imbalance lies behind the author’s careful efforts made to document the responses of various Soviet officials to key African nationalists. In highlighting the fact that the Soviet authorities did not see all revolutionaries as the same and equal, Telepneva demonstrates simultaneously that Soviet authorities were also not a monolith but a series of individuals who again had different backgrounds, preferences, and moods. This intervention remains a Soviet one: that the Soviet officials had different opinions of different Africans. It is not news to us, or should not be, that Africans are different from one another. As I read these excellent sections parsing out Soviet officials’ opinions of Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (frelimo), versus Adelino Gwambe, the militant de-facto leader of União Democrática Nacional de Moçambique (udenamo), an early alternative liberation movement based in Rhodesia, versus the high-ranking frelimo member and poet Marcelino dos Santos, for instance, I found myself wanting to know that these same men thought of the various Soviet officials they dealt with, such as Evgenii Afanasenko, the Ambassador to Congo Brazzaville, or Piotr Evsiukov, who later became the first Soviet ambassador to Mozambique, or Sergei Slipchenko, Ambassador to Tanzania,  or indeed whether they or others ‘preferred’ Soviet over Czechoslovak over Swedish or other support. Of course, the judgments I sought are not available given the source base, and an exact balance is hard to achieve in any multi-regional work. Even so, this sensation is indicative of how the opening claim of a focus first on African agency and second on Soviet officials is addressed throughout the book, and how it is not. Perhaps one way to put it is that this is a still a Cold War/Soviet policy history rather than a social or African history, even one that is enriched with more attention to individuals and more specificity with regard to African events.

This said, Cold War Liberation offers much to scholars of the Cold War, the Cold War era Africa, and Soviet international life. Each of these groups will find must-read chapters in this deeply researched and excellent book that builds an incomparably comprehensive narrative of tensions and events, especially in Angola. It reveals the centrality of the military and security sectors in Soviet international policy though the 1960s and 1970s, reconstructing the Soviet institutions that occupied this sector, and focusing attention on the biographies of Lusophone African revolutionaries and Soviet officials who worked together to mediate liberation. 


International historians have been discussing the link between decolonization and the Cold War for at least two decades. In an influential article from 2000, Matthew Connelly invited scholars who are interested in decolonization to “take off” the Cold War lens from their analyses. In his view, North-South tensions matter more than East-West dynamics.[7]

In the time since, some historians have heeded Connelly’s call, while others have reaffirmed the centrality of the Cold War in explaining decolonization.[8] Cold War Liberation, Natalia Telepneva’s painstaking overview of Soviet involvement in the former Portuguese empire in Africa, belongs squarely to the second category. The book’s central argument is that the intervention of rival Cold War powers was instrumental in the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, Angola, and Mozambique. The Soviet Union played an especially important role in this process, supporting the liberation movements in West and Southern Africa in the early 1960s. Indeed, it was Soviet willingness to arm and train fighters in three separate theatres that eventually bled Portugal resources dry and facilitated the collapse of the authoritarian regime in Lisbon, which opened the way to independence for its African colonies.

The story of the Portuguese empire in Africa is well known, but its Soviet dimension has until now been told only as part of a wider narrative on the Cold War in the Third World, as secondary to American and Cuban involvement, or as memoir.[9] Cold War Liberation offers a systematic treatment of the Soviet Union’s support for liberation movements in the Portuguese empire, based on an impressive array of Soviet archival documents and numerous interviews conducted in Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. This is a terrific book, one which is destined to become the standard history of Soviet involvement in Portuguese Africa.

Telepneva makes two key arguments in Cold War Liberation. The first is about the impact of Soviet support on the fight for independence, shaping its course and ultimately determining its outcome. The second concerns the modalities of the USSR’s engagement, and particularly the role of the mezhdunarodniki (internationalists)—mid-level personnel who, out of a mix of dedication and careerism, made sure that Soviet interest in Africa did not falter over time.

Indeed, after an initial but partly unsuccessful foray into Africa, the Soviet government seemed to have lost interest in the continent. Under Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR initiated diplomatic relations with several newly independent African states and extended financial and technical assistance to them. By the time of Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, this effort appeared to have produced few results. Some of the African leaders who were friendly toward the Soviet Union had been toppled in coups. Others proved unwilling to commit to the socialist world and maintained relations with the West too.

The new leadership in Moscow, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, reassessed the country’s involvement in the Third World. As Cold War Liberation shows, Soviet interest in Africa changed qualitatively but did not disappear. The USSR continued to support the more radical elements of the liberation movements in the Portuguese empire—the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (paigc) in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) in Angola, and the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (frelimo) in Mozambique. These organizations and their leaders were judged reliable enough in terms of adherence to Marxism-Leninism. They were also assessed to have a reasonable chance to win independence and seize power in their territories.

Crucial in this assessment are the Soviet specialists on Africa who worked in the CPSU, the Foreign Ministry, the security services, and academia. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Khrushchev leadership had created new institutions and new departments within pre-existing ones to provide expert knowledge on Africa, Asia, and Latin America. With Brezhnev’s rise to power, the Soviet government questioned its involvement in the Third World but did not shut these new institutions down. The mezhdunarodniki who staffed them were able to argue for the continuation of Soviet support for select liberation movements in Africa.

In part, their intervention reflected their self-interest. Relinquishing Soviet involvement in Africa would have most likely spelled the end of those careers that were based on providing expertise on the continent. However, as Telepneva shows, many mezhdunarodniki had also developed a genuine attachment to the cause of African liberation from colonial rule. Thanks to their efforts, support for paigc, MPLA, and frelimo survived the USSR’s partial retrenchment from the Third World in the second half of the 1960s.

In the following decade, this support proved decisive for the liberation of Portuguese colonies. Portugal’s military, exhausted by years of fighting in Africa, toppled the regime in Lisbon in 1974 and then entered negotiations with the liberation movements in Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, Angola, and Mozambique. These ended with proclamations of independence in all former Portuguese territories.

Soviet arms and training had helped African fighters to continue harassing the Portuguese military throughout the 1960s. The eventual introduction of more sophisticated Soviet weaponry made sure that the generals who took power in Lisbon in 1974 gave up the idea of holding onto the colonies once and for all. It would have been much more difficult for African independence movements to have achieved liberation from the Portuguese empire without Soviet assistance. Cold War Liberation presents compelling evidence and provides a crisp narrative to explain how and why this was the case.

There are some aspects of the book that would be interesting to discuss with the author in the context of a roundtable review. Telepneva frames her analysis of the entanglements of African and Soviet actions and ideas in terms of agency. In the introduction, she sets out to highlight “the importance of African agency in the process that led to the collapse of the Portuguese Empire” (3). This approach adds some fascinating perspectives to the book, but it is not unproblematic.

Cold War Liberation is excellent in detailing the backgrounds, worldviews, and ambitions of the main leaders of the independence movement in then-Portuguese Africa—Amílcar Cabral of paigc, Agostinho Neto, Mário Pinto de Andrade, and Viriato da Cruz of the MPLA, and Marcelino Dos Santos of frelimo. They emerge as charismatic intellectuals and commanders who were determined to liberate their peoples from Portuguese control. Crucially, they were inspired not by liberal thinkers but by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. This reveals the complexity of the intellectual genealogy of African liberation, which went beyond transatlantic connections alone.

Just as fascinating is Telepneva’s use of the many interviews she conducted with activists in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. Interwoven in the broader narrative, the book opens windows into the ideas and actions of men and women who experienced the struggle for independence first-hand, allowing the reader to comprehend what was at stake from a personal point of view. Telepneva’s choice to use only a portion of these interviews in Cold War Liberation is perfectly understandable, lest the book become three times the length. However, one hopes that she will make use of them in the future—liberation from empire was a personal endeavor as well as a collective one, and the histories of those Africans who fought for liberation in various capacities are certainly worth telling in detail.

At the same time, the focus on agency presents some issues. While Cold War Liberation leaves no doubt as to the fundamental role that African actors played in their liberation (and how could it be otherwise?), the narrative would seem to point more at constraints on their agency. The members of the liberation movements had clear ideas of what they wanted, and they were ready to fight in all possible ways to obtain it. Nonetheless, they faced a formidable opponent who possessed more abundant resources and could deploy superior firepower. External assistance tipped the scales in favor of the liberation movements. In this context, what does “agency” mean, and is it the most appropriate category to historicize the fall of the Portuguese empire in Africa?

As Gayatri Spivak theorized, the concept of agency to analyze a situation of subalternity, or power asymmetry, may be a double-edged sword. The powerful oppressor (in this case, Portugal and its allies in Europe and North America) limited the ability to act of the oppressed (in this case, the liberation movements).[10] Should the scholar investigating this situation focus on agency or on the constraints to agency, and on who exercises them and why? The value of Cold War Liberation would seem to be in detailing the profound inequality, and profound injustice, of a colonial relationship rather than in establishing agency.

A second aspect that may be worth discussing is the role of Czechoslovakia in the story Cold War Liberation tells. Besides the African and Soviet sources, Telepneva relies on documents from archives in former Czechoslovakia and in other East European countries. This is laudable as the documents allow her to add complexity and fill gaps where Soviet records are patchy. However, the book dedicates special attention to Czechoslovakia as an actor who participated in the process that led to the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa. The value of this emphasis on Czechoslovakia is less obvious.

Undoubtedly, the government in Prague was engaged in Africa as a provider of economic and technical cooperation and a purveyor of light weapons. Multiple scholars have explored these activities in detail, arguing that Czechoslovakia was an especially important actor in the Third World, at least compared to other socialist states in Eastern Europe.[11]

However, Cold War Liberation would seem to suggest that Moscow and Prague operated on widely different scales. Czechoslovakia might have been a useful ally in aiding African liberation movements, but it had neither the resources nor the clout to affect the struggle for independence in the same way as the Soviet Union could. Czechoslovak arms were well received, Czechoslovak instructors were competent and reliable, and Czechoslovak intelligence proved useful if at times excessively audacious. This was no different from the contribution lent by East Germany or Poland in similar contexts. In and by itself, however, Czechoslovak assistance achieved little of consequence, especially when compared to what poorer and smaller Cuba managed in Africa.

Ultimately, the secondary focus on Czechoslovakia might raise more questions than it answers. The remarkable openness of the archives in former Czechoslovakia is a great asset for historians of the socialist world. At the same time, the ready availability of these sources carries the risk of exaggerating the Prague government’s capacity to operate in the Third World.

In conclusion, Cold War Liberation is international history at its best. Telepneva offers a masterful treatment of Soviet involvement in the Portuguese empire in Africa, in terms of source base, detail, and argumentation. The book sets a new standard in the field. It tackles a difficult subject in all its complexity, paying equal attention to multiple levels of analysis, from personal struggles to high politics, and from the intellectual roots of anti-colonialism to battlefield logistics and tactics.

Scholars in the same field would do well to take inspiration from Telepneva’s work. Cold War Liberation demonstrates that writing the history of decolonization in Africa requires an engagement with the USSR, its policies, and its sources. Parallel to transatlantic connections that linked African intellectuals, leaders, and movements to ideas, individuals, and groups in Western Europe and North America, there were equally strong ties between Africa and the socialist world. One hopes Cold War Liberation will allow scholars to establish this connection firmly in future historiography on decolonization.


In this concise book Natalya Telepneva picks up on a theme that is characteristic of many recent and contemporary studies of the Cold War. “[C]ategories of thought, ideas and convictions,” explains Tobias Rupprecht, are more significant as an explanatory device than state power and the “interests of realpolitik.”[12] Telepneva defines ideology as a “lens through which individuals processed and understood events around them,” and is interested in the shared goals and plans among socialist-bloc Europeans and revolutionary Africans in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. This allows her to explore how “ideology functioned in practice” and to restore “African agency” to the story of decolonization and Cold War (7). From the state socialist side, she describes Soviet and East European “mediators of liberation” and “internationalists” (mezhdunarodniki, 11), or mid-level officials from various bureaucracies of central committees, ministries of foreign affairs, and militaries and security agencies. Khrushchev-era optimism about revolutionary change in the Global South and decolonization as an opportunity was the background to their efforts (12-28). From the African side, she follows revolutionary parties and eventual state-builders: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (paigc), and the Mozambique Liberation Front (frelimo). Anti-colonial leaders such as Amílcar Cabral, Mário Pinto de Andrade, Marcelino dos Santos and others gravitated to the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc because of their radical Marxist-Leninist views (54-55).

The book contributes to numerous areas of research: the development and aid programs of the socialist states in the Global South (“East-South” relations); the capacity for independence and autonomy of small Eastern European states in relation to the Soviet Union; internal politics and power struggles within the revolutionary movements in the Portuguese colonies; education in the socialist world for students from the Global South; military training in both Africa and the socialist world; the export of weapons from the Soviet Union and especially Czechoslovakia; the nature of Cuban-Soviet cooperation in Angola, and the Sino-Soviet struggle in the Global South.[13] Telepneva attributes to Soviet and East European bureaucratic figures engaged with Africa an ethos and shared sense of purpose that was important to the evolution of Soviet and socialist-bloc foreign policy. She argues that the socialist world did not begin to retreat from the Global South after Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster in October 1964 but adjusted its policies to focus more carefully on productive relationships with military and intelligence services within the decolonizing states and the revolutionary parties (101). Telepneva believes a renewed socialist sense of purpose and optimism emerged from the experience in the Lusophone countries. “New advances in the Third World added to the jubilant and confident mood at the Twenty-Fifth CPSU Congress, held in February-March 1976,” she adds, and likely contributed to the inclination to continue this history of foreign intervention in Ethiopia and Afghanistan (205).

African revolutionaries were adept at pressuring their patrons for weapons, training, and money, and Telepneva concedes that some socialist officials were increasingly worried. The Czechoslovaks, for example, who were so important to early forms of socialist bloc outreach to Africa, were already by the early 1960s frustrated by the growing economic expenditures and determined to find more profitable forms of exchange in the Global South (104). After its 1955 arms deal with Egypt, Czechoslovakia became the “‘go-to’ capital for Third World leaders looking for arms,” she writes, and remained an important source of military equipment, advice, and training for the MLPA in Angola and the paigc in Guinea-Bissau (59, 110).[14] Was this “proletarian internationalism,” a series of calculated economic decisions, or perhaps even mild desperation? Guns sometimes generated hard currency and were perhaps also perceived by bloc officials as a more straightforward and less complicated form of exchange than the challenges of what was called “third world development” in the West.[15] Socialists abroad frequently discussed expenditures and profit margins. Bulgarian records chronicle the provision of military support and “special equipment” for Cabral and the paigc, for example, without ideological or visionary commentary, as if it was simply the fulfillment of yet another “order” or directive in a planned economy.[16] And even in discussions about military aid, other matters surfaced as well. After Luís Cabral, half-brother and successor to Amílcar Cabral, gratefully thanked Todor Zhivkov and the “internationalist policies” of the Bulgarian Communist Party for their military support, Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official P. Mladenov was quick to add that the country also had “significant national resources” such as bauxite and phosphates.[17]

Among socialists there were other signs of the absence of ideological commitment as well.  Socialists brought to the Global South the practices and interests of their domestic societies, which in personal terms included the relentless search for consumer goods and hard currency. The search for hard currency began before they arrived in Africa, with advisers and specialists arriving with goods suitable for sale. Bulgarian advisers in Guinea–Conakry, for example, the small West African country that sent the French home in 1958, have made “getting rich their main task,” complained embassy official M. Shomov in 1964.[18] Former Czechoslovak forestry adviser in Angola and Mozambique, Karel Rokyta, noted that the “opportunity to make money abroad was terribly appealing.” Czechoslovakia generally, he suggested, was interested in Angolan timber and oil and “needed hard currency.”[19] Telepneva notes but dismisses this issue among the military and intelligence officials in the Lusophone countries: “This system of benefits does not mean that the military was solely motivated by material gain. Similar to bureaucratic cadres, many in the military felt a sense of affinity with African revolutionaries and were motivated by their ‘internationalist duty’” (207, also 144)  Debates among socialist bloc trading representatives and embassy officials also illustrate a sustained attention from early on to matters of fiscal solvency and the problem of a trade imbalance that amounted to a subsidy.[20] Trade officials tried to put pressure on African countries to sell them goods needed and valued by the socialist bloc. Sometimes if that was impossible, they imported but then re-traded the goods to bloc countries or to other foreign trading partners.

This is a thoughtful and interesting book that pushes scholars of the global Cold War in the direction they have been headed for the past twenty years. Telepneva’s significant archival experience in numerous countries allows her to show how the Cold War in the era of decolonization connected otherwise very different and distant parts of the world. Like an effective teacher, she routinely reminds readers of what has been accomplished and what lies ahead. Her effort to cast the work of Soviet and East European mid-level officials in the contested Portuguese colonies as compatible with socialist ideological consistency and enduring revolutionary sentiment, however, is not entirely convincing. She notes in the conclusion that the retreat set in by the early and middle 1980s, shaping the Gorbachev era, but archival materials provide numerous examples already from the early 1960s (207). Also, the officials she describes who were responsible for direct exchange with African revolutionary parties were not necessarily representative of the broader socialist bloc experience in the Global South. The study of the variety of voices and bureaucratic interests that made up American foreign policy is of course routine, while the socialist world in the global Cold War offers significant space for future scholarship.[21] Telepneva’s excellent book opens numerous areas for future scholarship in a field recently enriched by encouraging archival access in the countries of Eastern Europe.


Starting in the 1950s, the USSR became involved in wars of liberation and civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. Nowhere did Soviet military support last as long or have as much of an effect as in Lusophone Africa. Whereas Britain and France had largely given up their colonies by the early 1960s, Portugal under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar refused to let go of its possessions; its crucial position as a NATO ally with bases in the Azores limited pressure from western governments and gave it more or less a free hand. Soviet and later Cuban military arms, training, and cash not only helped the resistance movements take on the Portuguese military; the latter’s success on the battlefield ultimately brought about the end of the Portuguese dictatorship itself with the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

Natalia Telepneva’s outstanding monograph explores this history from the start of Soviet involvement up to the independence of Angola and the end of Portuguese empire in 1975. Cold War Liberation is not the first work to examine Soviet and Cuban involvement on the continent generally or in Luspohone countries.[22] However, the book differs from its predecessors in a number of ways. First, unlike the works of Piero Gleijeses, Cold War Liberation focuses in depth on the periods before independence rather than on the long civil war that followed. But more importantly, Telepneva’s focus is not on the high politics or military aspects of the war (though we learn much about both), but rather on the interactions between Soviet military, intelligence, and party advisers on the one hand, and the leaders of liberation movements on the other. Drawing on Soviet archival materials that only became available in recent years, the records of Czechoslovak intelligence, as well as extensive interviews with participants from the Soviet bloc and the liberation movements, Telepneva is able to access this relationship in often granular detail, and to use that detail to explore larger themes. 

Yet this is not an exclusively Soviet story. Drawing on her own research as well as the work of other historians, she is able to provide quite detailed biographies of senior revolutionary leaders and to detail the plans, disagreements, and rivalries of different factions. The result is a rich work that helps answer some long-standing empirical questions, especially concerning the respective roles of Cuba and the USSR in providing support to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) at the outset of the Angolan Civil War and South African intervention (193-195). More importantly, this kind of “history from the middle”[23] allows Telepneva to ask a number of questions that have never been explored regarding Moscow’s involvement in Africa, and only rarely for histories of Soviet foreign policy: who were the Soviet individuals who advised the liberation movements and interpreted events for their bosses back in Moscow? What kind of relationships developed between these advisers and their counterparts? What role did ideology play in how the advisers made sense of what was happening on the ground, and how did that factor into decisionmaking in Moscow, Prague, and Havana?[24]

For a historian of the Soviet Union, one of the fascinating insights of this book is its mapping of the role played by institutions like the Institute of African Studies and the Soviet Society for Solidarity with the Countries of Asia and Africa, the Soviet Association for Friendship with the African Peoples, and the Association for Friendship and Cultural Ties with Foreign Countries. Neither of these institutions were formerly part of the Soviet foreign policy bureaucracy or intelligence services.[25] The former was generally understood to be a research institution meant to provide expertise on a part of the world that few Soviet citizens knew anything about; the latter was primarily an outfit aimed at consolidating support for Soviet foreign policy at home and demonstrating Soviet international and commitment to anti-colonialism abroad. Cold War Liberation demonstrates that while these associations and institutes certainly fulfilled those functions, they also played a more direct role in establishing ties between Moscow and the liberation movements, and in interpreting events in colonies and post-colonial countries for decisionmakers.

As Telepneva shows, some of the key people who worked in these institutions had been active in the Comintern.  But the greater number belonged substantially to the generation of the shestedesiatniki, people of the 1960s, often World War II veterans, who had been inspired by Nikita Khrushchev’s attempt at de-Stalinization and reform of the Soviet project, including its commitment to anti-colonialism.  This group included people like Petr Evsiukhov and Vadim Kirpichenko, both of whom were close to 40 at the time that Moscow’s engagement with Africa took off, and journalists like Oleg Ignatev. Telepneva calls these individuals “mediators of liberation” (27) whose success at developing relationships with African counterparts came not from their detailed knowledge of the continent, but rather their optimism about liberation, their knowledge of foreign languages (especially Portuguese) and their combat experience. Cabral’s close relationship with Evsiukov and Ignatev almost certainly helped guide Soviet aid towards the Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (paigc, 101-102).

As Alessandro Iandolo has shown in his recent book, Arrested Development, Soviet engagement with West Africa began with optimism about the possibilities for economic development among former colonies choosing a “non-capitalist path,” such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, but this initial enthusiasm gave way to disappointment.[26] Yet disappointment did not lead the USSR to give up on its presence in Africa; on the contrary, Moscow’s involvement deepened, taking on an increasingly military character. Economic development was not really on the agenda in those parts of Africa that were still under Lisbon’s control. But it is nevertheless clear that with time the military performance of the liberation groups became increasingly important to Moscow, while military technology overrode other concerns in terms of how leaders and rank-and-file fighters saw the USSR. Moscow wanted to support those groups who were willing to put up a fight and who were successful in challenging the Portuguese military.

This inevitably leads to the question of what the USSR hoped to gain from its alliances in Lusophone Africa, and what their interlocutors hoped to get from the USSR. As Telepneva points out, the importance of relatively junior functionaries like Evsiukhov was partially a result of the fact that “Africa would remain a relatively low priority for the Soviet leadership over the long term.” (27) As elsewhere, Moscow’s involvement was catalyzed by competition with China and the US and encouragement from Cuba. Yet Cold War Liberation does not leave one with the impression that Soviet involvement in Africa can be understood only in terms of geostrategy or in the search for advantage in the Cold War. If anything, the willingness to take military initiative, and success in doing so, was also understood in ideological terms. If the revolutionary groups were unable to mount a resistance against the Portuguese, it was because they had failed to win sufficient support over the masses, which meant that they were not ready to assume the role of vanguard.  Ideology also affected Moscow’s readings of events in Portugal after the Carnation Revolution, as well as the brewing conflict between the three liberation movements in Angola (182-183).

The book did leave me with some questions about the implications of Telepneva’s findings on different scales. We learn something about how rank-and-file soldiers experienced training in the USSR, or working with Soviet advisers on the ground, but not much. As Telepneva explains, she had begun to work in this direction but found that this would essentially be another project (11). That work will hopefully give us some sense of how fighters and activists negotiated questions of ideology, loyalty, and military strategy. On the macro-scale, I wonder how Telepneva’s findings translate to interpretations of the Soviet involvement in Africa more broadly and ultimately to ongoing debates about the Cold War. Telepneva shows convincingly that ideology mattered for her case studies, but I would be interested in how that ideology took shape and changed over time; did the relatively low priority given to sub-Saharan Africa mean that the prominence of mid-level cadres in interpreting and transforming ideology was unique, or does it have broader implications for our studies of the USSR in this period?


The international politics of decolonization in Portugal’s African colonies is finally becoming a hot topic. Ten years ago, I started most conference presentations with a map just to make sure the audience could locate Mozambique. I spent the majority of Q and A sessions apologizing for not having more to say about Cuba’s intervention in Angola. But recent years have seen a proliferation of books, articles, and dissertations that address the broad foreign relations of Lusophone decolonization. Much of this literature focuses on relationships with the West thanks to the availability of documents, but even the most generous European nations only tangentially aided the military struggles that undermined the Lisbon dictatorship.[27] Rather, after looking first to continental allies, African nationalists relied heavily on the Eastern bloc for the training and materiel needed to free their colonized nations. Histories from nationalist and Cuban perspectives touch on this topic as have recent works on the Sino-Soviet conflict, but the scholarly history of the Communist superpower’s intervention in Lusophone affairs has yet to be told.[28] Natalia Telepneva’s long-awaited Cold War Liberation helps fill this void. Deeply researched and clearly written, it is a testament to a scholar who has been an important player in expanding interest in Lusophone internationalism.

Cold War Liberation focuses on the internal politics of the Soviet Union as it built relationships with African revolutionaries. It uses an expansive selection of documents from Russian and Eastern bloc archives—along with dozens of interviews collected in seven countries—to explore the debates among the USSR’s bureaucratic elite as it shaped official policy. The Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee became “the first point of contact” with Southern actors and an “informal think tank” advising on international policy, sharing the latter duties with the foreign office and various intelligence services (21). A new generation of youthful Soviet apparatchiks guided these agencies, having come of age during World War II then responding with fervor to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s call to aid revolution in Asia and Africa. Building on the earlier arguments of Odd Arne Westad and Jeremy Friedman, Telepneva contends that the motivations of these actors were largely ideological; they believed that the collapse of empire was inevitable and that socialist countries had an international duty to support national liberation movements.[29] This frame influenced how Communist officials perceived African actors and whom they chose to work with. The Soviet Union built clandestine relationships with ideologically compatible revolutionaries, providing grants of money, scholarships, training, and—in certain cases—weapons to aid their struggles. This attempt to “fight the Cold War ‘on the cheap’” (72) reflected the caution of Soviet leaders and their limited means to project power internationally; nonetheless, the aid proved vital to African nationalists who were desperate for both assistance and recognition. Often these relationships were coordinated across the Eastern Bloc, with arms-exporting Czechoslovakia forging some of the earliest alliances that the Soviet Union later adopted and expanded.

Though Telepneva’s documentation leads her to emphasize Soviet perspectives, she does valuable work delving into the foreign policies of myriad nationalist groups while demonstrating a clear sensitivity to the African experience of the Cold War. African leaders built relations with the Soviet Union and its Communist allies as a way of strengthening their movements, both against Lisbon and domestic rivals. Three associated socialist parties—the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (African Party for the Independence of Guiné and Cabo Verde, or paigc), Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA), and Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Mozambique Liberation Front, or frelimo)—emerged as Moscow’s preferred partners. Most chapters devote a section to each and demonstrate that these alliances with the East were far from inevitable. Telepneva recounts negotiations and interpersonal diplomacy in impressive detail by combining the latest literature in Portuguese and English with new revelations from Eastern bloc documents. The Marxist inclinations of the paigc’s Amílcar Cabral differentiated him sufficiently from iconoclastic “African socialists” like Julius Nyerere to win over Soviet operatives, but concerns about ideology and leadership hindered relations with the other parties. Moscow repeatedly sought a united front in Angola because it lacked faith in the MPLA’s Agostinho Neto. And it kept frelimo at arm’s length, initially due to suspicions of the US-educated Eduardo Mondlane and later because Samora Machel seemed too radical (i.e. inclined toward China). As a result, Soviet officials flirted with an array of splinter groups and alternative nationalist organizers in Angola and Mozambique even as they lobbied their government for vital aid to the big three parties.

The book culminates with the 1975-1976 intervention in Angola, when the Soviet Union joined Cuba in supporting the MPLA’s war against US and South African-backed anti-Communists. As independence neared in the wake of the Carnation Revolution, Moscow followed the lead of the Portuguese Communist Party, which urged accommodation between the liberation movements and the provisional government. In Angola, Soviet officials encouraged power sharing agreements between nationalists. They only recognized the MPLA when it became clear that the party refused to cooperate with the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or unita) and was winning recognition from a growing number of African governments. Telepneva argues that Moscow’s preference for an “African solution” (194)—in which regional allies would prop up the MPLA—remained intact practically until the transfer of power in November 1975. The USSR only committed transportation and military support after Cuba made the decision to deploy troops without Soviet permission. With some slight adjustments to timing, this account largely confirms Piero Gleijeses’s version of events in Conflicting Missions, putting to rest whatever debate (if any) still existed about Cuba’s pivotal role in the Angolan intervention.[30] 

While Telepneva’s main evidentiary frame is the Soviet bureaucracy, the book provides major contributions to our understanding of the external and internal politics of the nationalist movements. Eastern sources allow her to go beyond inconsistently preserved nationalist documents and the hearsay of Western intelligence reports that have been used by most other historians. She concretely reconstructs how Africans appealed to communist governments and when precisely the latter aided liberation struggles. Mixed within these broad strokes are detailed insights into the socialist ambitions held by key leaders such as Amílcar Cabral and frelimo’s Marcelino dos Santos, who subsumed his politics into a broad front for the sake of liberation. Telepneva also delves into the internal disagreements—both political and personal—that led rogue MPLA elements and antagonistic nationalists like unita’s Jonas Savimbi to seek Soviet help establishing their own movements, with mixed results. Yet while high politics is the strength of the book, Telepneva is sensitive to the nationalist experience at the individual level. Her use of oral histories to capture the impact of Soviet training and the deep personal frustrations experienced by cadre members who faced racism in socialist states is especially powerful. The result is a complex, multilevel exploration of Soviet-African relations that goes beyond simple foreign policy as it recovers a key period of international socialist solidarity.

Yet the ideology that motivated this solidarity would benefit from a deeper conceptual examination. Telepneva’s narrative privileges official Soviet perspectives and does not always interrogate their reporting on African actors. The socialist ambitions of dos Santos and unita’s Savimbi receive essentially equal weight in her relation of conversations, despite the latter’s chameleonic tendency to reflect whatever ideology potential donors might desire. Even more problematic, Soviet apparatchiks often lumped potential allies into two camps: good Marxists worth embracing or a catchall of moderate African socialists and pro-Chinese radicals that they held at arm’s length. The difference between these camps is not clearly defined, likely reflecting the politics of Soviet bureaucracy where officials made ideological arguments for favored nationalists even as personal ties and the success of armed struggles trumped doctrine.

In reality, the relationship between African visions of revolution and orthodox Soviet Communism were always complex, even for the USSR’s closest allies. Cabral, whom Telepneva positions as Moscow’s ideological favorite, once told a Soviet audience that “even more than class struggle in the capitalist countries and the antagonism between these countries and the socialist world, the liberation struggle of the colonial peoples is…the prime motive force of the advance of history in our times.” The Guinean revolutionary was influenced by Marxism and praised the Soviet Union for striking “the first major blow to imperialism,” but his revolution embraced a distinctly African identity with the goal of redressing the meaningful historical and structural differences separating North and South.[31] I argued recently that these ideas fit best under the umbrella of Tricontinentalism, the worldview that encouraged military challenges against systematic global inequities by integrating Marxist critiques of the international system within self-consciously localized programs for political and economic revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.[32] Tricontinental advocates utilized Soviet aid to address power imbalances with global empires, but they often eschewed dogma, were deeply aware of racial inequalities, and embraced a left-leaning neutralism that engaged with sympathetic Westerners and independent socialist states like Yugoslavia. Telepneva nods briefly to these latter relationships but generally reproduces the triangular Cold War with the United States and China that obsessed Soviet officials but which mattered less to nationalists. Further exploring these ideological distinctions would more fluidly address the contradictions between high and low politics—successful military relationships versus personal experiences of racism—that make some chapters feel choppy. It could also have elucidated how Soviet policymakers were constrained by a Cold War framework, even as parties like the paigc subtly shifted Moscow’s views of global revolution and the leadership of it.[33]

The centrality of ideology also calls into question the book’s decision to conclude with Angola in 1976. This intervention is the common endpoint in Cold War historiography, but just one year later, both the MPLA and frelimo formally adopted Marxist-Leninism, albeit with differing levels of fervor. This latter date offers a natural conclusion to the internal and external debates over communist ideology that forms a major through line for the book.[34] By stopping in 1976, it remains unclear whether the Soviet Union influenced the abandonment of the broad front politics they once championed, or if this was the outcome of the quiet internal campaigns claimed by Marxists such as frelimo’s dos Santos. Indeed, there is an irony that the paigc—the preferred Soviet partner—was alone among the big three in not formally embracing Marxism-Leninism after independence (and Cabral’s assassination). This fact confirms Telepneva’ s conclusion that Cabral’s personal diplomacy was invaluable in shaping perceptions of his party, but exploring why the Soviet Union’s less favored allies effectively abandoned neutrality would clarify legacies of the Cold War in southern Africa.

These critiques should not detract from the fact that this is an exceptional book; rather, they point to lines of research that remain open. After all, since Cold War Liberation is the first scholarly monograph to focus on Soviet relations with Lusophone Africa, there is a lot of ground to cover and a book contains only so many pages. The impressive research and careful scholarship does yeoman’s work in recovering the complex internal politics of both the USSR and its African allies. And it does so while remaining clear and readable for those who are not well versed in the history of Portuguese decolonization. The result is a major contribution to a topic of growing importance. Lusophone liberation not only linked decolonization with the anti-apartheid struggle, but its contested conclusion rekindled the Cold War in the Global South. Telepneva’s thorough evaluation of Soviet involvement deserves wide readership since its depth of research and clear prose is unlikely to be matched in the near future.


I am glad that these reviewers, Elizabeth Banks, Austin Jersild, Artemy Kalinovsky, Joseph Parrott, and Alessandro Iandolo, find that my book, Cold War Liberation, makes several original contributions to Soviet, African and Cold War studies. They emphasize the book’s role in highlighting the ideas of Soviet bureaucrats who became important ‘mediators’ in the relations of the Soviet Union with African revolutionaries. They also acknowledge that the book contributes to our understanding of the politics of the liberation movements and praise my use of oral history interviews to reconstruct how African revolutionaries saw the USSR and the socialist system. I thank the reviewers for taking the time and effort to write these thoughtful responses to the book and Lorenz Lüthi for compiling the introduction.

In the remainder of the response, I would like to address some of the criticisms. Both Parrott and Banks would like to see more attention paid to African actors and developments. Whilst acknowledging that Cold War Liberation reconstructs the experiences of military men who went to the Soviet Union for training, Banks suggests that perspectives from African actors should have been woven into the text in a more consistent way. Oral history certainly plays an integrative part in constructing the narrative in chapter 5 which focuses on military matters, but elsewhere the book deals primarily with the interactions between a relatively small group of African revolutionaries who conducted international diplomacy and their Soviet interlocutors. The majority among this small group had passed away by the time I conducted my research. Others who were still alive, like Marcelino dos Santos, one of the founders of the Mozambican Liberation Front (frelimo), were unwilling to speak in any detail about their relations with the Soviets for reasons that are at least partly clear from the book. Thus, while I share Banks’ desire to know what these men thought about various Soviet officials, I think the constraints of the source base are obvious in this case.

It is true in a way, as Banks writes, that the book “retains an emphasis on Soviet/Eastern perspectives.” However, I would disagree that such emphasis obscures the role of African agency. The story of the common front is illustrative. The Soviets initially supported the idea of a ‘common front’ of all Angolan liberation movements and they shared this goal with their chosen partner—the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). On the Soviet side, the task of helping the MPLA bring together rival factions fell to the KGB and its Czechoslovak counterparts who came up with elaborate (and ultimately unsuccessful) plans to infiltrate the MPLA’s local rivals. As the anti-colonial struggle developed, however, Soviets and MPLA leaders often did not see eye-to-eye when it came to the strategy of achieving the common front objective; many squabbles around this issue ensued all the way up to 1974/75 and arguably beyond. It may well be a commonplace that “the Soviet officials had different opinions of different Africans.” The larger point is that these opinions had a real impact on policy towards the liberation movements, as detailed in the book.

Parrott argues that Cold War Liberation should have interrogated further the ideologies and socialist ambitious of characters like Jonas Savimbi, the founder of MPLA’s rival—the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). He also points out that the Soviets were wrong to lump together different African characters as “Communist,” pro-Chinese or “pro-Soviet.” Throughout the book, I show how the Soviets perceived their African clients and how their opinions of them (which were motivated by ideology and personal preferences) shaped these perceptions—oftentimes erroneously. In fact, my purpose is to highlight how Soviet officials, their often ample intelligence sources notwithstanding, were often confused as to what to make of their African clients and used ideological shorthand to differentiate between various groups and individuals. There is nowhere in the book that says that Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, paigc) was a ‘Communist’ or dogmatically ‘pro-Soviet’. This was obviously not the case. The book shows how someone like Cabral engaged with the Czechoslovaks and Soviets to establish a close relationship whilst maintaining a great deal of autonomy for the paigc and why others like MPLA’s leader Agostinho Neto were less willing and adept in doing so, especially before 1974/75.

Thus, the most original contribution of the book in this respect is its discussion of the international diplomacy of African revolutionaries and their relations with the Soviets. I welcome Parrott’s suggestion that it would be interesting to extend the story up until 1977. However, once the Portuguese colonies achieved independence, the character of the Soviet relationship with the liberation movements changed since these were no longer ‘non-state actors’ but independent states. While concerns about winning the anti-colonial wars dominated the relationship before the Carnation Revolution, independence set in motion a process where a different set of priorities—and a new set of actors on the Soviet side—came into play. It is a fascinating story which deserves its own book.

Jersild finds that my conclusion on the importance of ideology to Soviet mid-level officials is “not entirely convincing.” He draws on examples from Bulgarian archives to show how officials often prioritized profit over ideology in their dealings with the Global South to argue that those Soviet officials were not “necessarily representative of the broader socialist bloc experience in the Global South.” Fair enough. I emphasize, however, that I do not in fact offer such generalizations in the book. The book focuses on the Soviet Union and talks about other socialist countries, especially Czechoslovakia, China, and Cuba only as far as it is important to the story, for example when Prague spearheaded support for the paigc in the early 1960s or when Sino-Soviet rivalry or Soviet-Cuban cooperation made a tangible impact on Soviet relations with the African revolutionaries. Elsewhere in my work, I have emphasized the importance of hard currency for Eastern European states and the intense debates around balancing out foreign and economic goals in 1960s Czechoslovakia.[35] As far as the Soviet protagonists in this story, I believe Cold War Liberation provides ample evidence to show how ideology, which is defined as a certain worldview I explore in chapter 1 in some detail, influenced the Soviet foreign policy elites, including their views of African partners, opinions of military strategy, views of Western action in Africa, etc.

Alessandro Iandolo also notes that I pay disproportionate amount of attention to Czechoslovakia. Indeed, Czechoslovakia played an important role in early support for the paigc, and the story is in fact illustrative of how Cabral exercised his agency vis-à-vis an important early donor despite the constraints imposed upon him. I barely discuss Czechoslovakia beyond chapter 3, however, and in fact point towards (at least temporary) withdrawal after the 1968 Prague Spring. I definitely agree with Iandolo that we need to discuss who exercised agency, and why, in asymmetrical power relations. In fact, the book shows how a relatively small group of African intellectuals managed to use international diplomacy to eventually dominate the anti-colonial movements, often in competition with a multitude of local rivals who had competing visions of modernity.

Although the story of the book ends in 1975, the conclusion suggests that many of those who became committed to African revolution in the 1960s retained their ideas until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet relationship with Africa—and the wider world—remained a hotly contested topic amongst the bureaucratic circles right up until 1991. To answer Kalinovsky’s question about the broader implications of the book, I think the focus on individuals and institutions will help resolve the perennial debate about ideology versus strategy. As scholars learn more from Eastern European and (hopefully) Russian archives, I suspect we will find more diversity in terms of what mattered to particular groups of men and women in socialist countries who often interpreted what socialism meant in their own, unique ways.


[1] For example: Matthew Conelly, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955–1968 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022)

[2] For example: Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002). James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky and Steffi Marung, eds., Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020). Theodora K. Dragostinova, The Cold War from the Margins: A Small Socialist State on the Global Cultural Scene (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021).

[3] For example: Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Sara Lorenzini, Global Development: A Cold War History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019). James Mark and Paul Betts, Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonisation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022). Jeremy Friedman, Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022)

[4] For one classic and several more recent examples see David Engerman, "The Second World’s Third World," Kritika 12, no. 1 (2011): 183–211; Marcia Schenck, Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany. (London: Palgrave, forthcoming 2022); Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955–1968 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022); James Mark and Paul Betts, Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonisation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[5] Eleonory Gilburd, To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). See also for example Dina Fainberg and Artemy Kalinovsky, eds., Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016).

[6] Some examples are Lorenz M. Lüthi, Cold Wars: Asia, The Middle East, Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Jeremy Friedman, The Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Jamie Miller, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[7] Matthew Connelly, “Taking Off the Cold War Lens: Visions of North-South Conflict during the Algerian War for Independence,” American Historical Review 105: 3 (2000): 739-769.

[8] For an overview, see: Decolonization and the Cold War: Negotiating Independence, edited by Leslie James and Elisabeth Leake (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). For examples of works focused on decolonization in Africa that take different approaches to the Cold War, see: Jeffrey Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); Ryan Irwin, Cutting the Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Jamie Miller, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Alanna O’Malley, The Diplomacy of Decolonisation: America, Britain, and the United Nations during the Congo Crisis, 1960-1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

[9] O. Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 207-249; Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Vladimir Shubin, The Hot “Cold War:” The USSR in Southern Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu Natal Press, 2008).  

[10] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-316.

[11] See, for example: Philip Muehlenbeck, Czechoslovakia in Africa, 1945-1968 (London: Palgrave, 2015); Jan Koura and Robert Anthony Waters Jr., “‘They Are Businesslike on that Side of the Iron Curtain as They Are on This:’ Czechoslovakia and British Guiana,” in Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World: Aid and Influence in the Cold War, edited by Philip Muehlenbeck and Natalia Telepneva (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018), 74-94; Natalia Telepneva, “Cold War on the Cheap: Soviet and Czechoslovak Intelligence in the Congo, 1960-3,” in Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World, 125-147; Philip Muehlenbeck, “Czechoslovak Assistance to Kenya and Uganda, 1962-8,” in Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World ; Daniela Richterova, Mikulàs Pešta, and Natalia Telepneva, “Banking on Military Assistance: Czechoslovakia’s Struggle for Influence and Profit in the Third World, 1955-1968,” International History Review 43:1 (2021): 90-108.

[12] Tobias Rupprecht, “Die sowjetische Gesellschaft in der Welt des Kalten Kriegs:  Neue Forschungsperspektiven,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteruropas, vol. 58, no. 3 (2010), 383-84, 386.

[13] For related work on these topics, see Klaus Storkmann, “Fighting the Cold War in Southern Africa?  East German military support to FRELIMO,” Portuguese Journal of Social Science, vol. 9, no. 2 (2010), 151-164; Ilona Schleicher, “Zur ‘materiellen Solidarität’ der DDR mit dem ANC in den 60er Jahren,” Afrika Spectrum, vol. 27, no. 2 (1992), 213-217; Constantin Katsakioris, “Students from Portuguese Africa in the Soviet Union, 1960-1974:  Anti-colonization, Education, and the Socialist Alliance,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 56, no. 1 (2021), 142-165; Mikuláš Pešta, “Mezi solidaritou, obchodem a politikou:  Vojenský výcvik Afričanů v Československu v šedesátých letech,” Pamět a dějiny, no. 3 (2020), 24-32; Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War:  The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2015).  On affinities and shared assumptions between the socialist world and the Global South, see Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development:  The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955-1968 (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2022); Jeremy Friedman, Ripe for Revolution:  Building Socialism in the Third World (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2021); Theodora K. Dragostinova, The Cold War from the Margins:  A Small Socialist State on the Global Cultural Scene (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2021); James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky and Steffi Marung, eds., Alternative Globalizations:  Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2020); Lena Dallywater, Chris Saunders and Helder Adegar Fonseca, eds., Southern African Liberation Movements and the Global Cold War ‘East’:  Transnational Activism 1960-1990 (Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2019); Max Trecker, Red Money for the Global South:  East-South Economic Relations in the Cold War (London:  Routledge, 2020); Anna Calori, Anne-Kristin Hartmetz, Bence Kocsev, James Mark, and Jan Zofka, eds., Between East and South:  Spaces of Interaction in the Globalizing Economy of the Cold War (Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2019); Malgorzata Mazurek, “Polish Economist in Nehru’s India:  Making Science for the Third World in an Era of De-Stalinization and Decolonization,” Slavic Review, vol. 77, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 588-610; Andreas Hilger, “Socialist Internationalism, World Capitalism, and the Global South:  Soviet Foreign Economic Policy and India in Times of Cold War and Decolonization, 1950s—1960s,” Journal of World History, vol. 32, no. 3 (September 2021), 439-464.

[14] On the 1955 Czechoslovak arms deal with Egypt, see Milan Vyhlìdal, Činnost Československých Instruktorů v Egyptských ozbrojených silách:  Účast na egyptském vojenském školství v letech 1956-1977 (Prague:  Carter Reproplus, 2016), 16-20; Guy Laron, “Cutting the Gordian Knot:  The Post World War II Egyptian Quest for Arms and the 1955 Czechoslovak Arms Deal,” Working Paper #55, Cold War International History Project (February 2007).

[15] See David Engerman, The Price of Aid:  The Economic Cold War in India (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2018); Sara Lorenzini, Global Development:  A Cold War History (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2019).

[16] 13 August 1969, K. Tellalov,” Dokladna zapiska,” Central State Archives, Sofia, Bulgaria (Tsentralen darzhaven arhiv [TsDA]) f. 1b, op. 64, a.e. 385, 13; 16 March 1971, K. Tellalov, “Reshenie ‘B’ no. 4,” TsDA f. 1b, op. 64, a.e. 402, 1-9.

[17] 22 November 1979, P. Mladenov, “Do politbiuro na TsK na BKP,” TsDA f. 1b, op. 101, a.e. 17, 3.

[18] 27 October 1964, M. Shomov, “Protokol,” TsDA f. 1b, op. 51, a.e. 240, 46.

[19] Jan Hamerský, “Dvacet, třicet lesníků, dřevařů a techniků?  Dodáme!  Okamžitě!  Pamět a dějiny, no. 3 (2020), 50-51.

[20] 18 Janaury 1964, R. Mechev, “Otcheten doklad,” TsDA f. 1b, op. 51, a.e. 240, 20.

[21] Telepneva herself poses similar questions in Daniela Richterova, Mikuláš Pešta and Natalia Telepneva, “Banking on Military Assistance:  Czechoslovakia’s Struggle for Influence and Profit in the Third World 1955-1968,” The International History Review, vol. 43, no. 1 (2021), 90-108.


[22] See, for example, Piero Gleijeses Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955-1968.

[23] To borrow a term from Paul Kennedy, “History from the Middle: The Case of the Second World War,” Journal of Military History 74, no. 1 (2010).

[24] In her study of ideology, Telepneva builds on Westad’s The Global Cold War, and Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition in the Third World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[25] Masha Kirasirova, “‘Sons of Muslims’ in Moscow: Soviet Central Asian Mediators to the Foreign East, 1955–1962,” Ab Imperio 2011, no. 4 (2011): 106-132; James Pickett, “Soviet Civilization through a Persian Lens: Iranian Intellectuals, Cultural Diplomacy and Socialist Modernity 1941–55,” Iranian Studies 48, no. 5 (2015): 805-826.

[26] Alessandro Iandolo, “The Rise and fall of the ‘Soviet Model of Development’ in West Africa, 1957–64,” Cold War History 12, no. 4 (2012): 683-704; Iandolo Arrested Development.


[27] See for example, Aurora Almada e Santos, A Organização das Nações Unidas e a Questão Colonial Portuguesa : 1960-1974 (Lisbon: Instituto da Defesa Nacional, 2017); Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo and António Costa Pinto, Portugal e o fim do colonialismo : dimensões internacionais (Lisbon: Edições 70, 2014); Rui Lopes, West Germany and the Portuguese Dictatorship, 1968–1974: Between Cold War and Colonialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Luís Barroso,  Salazar, Caetano e o “Reduto Branco” : a Manobra Politico-diplomática de Portugal na África Austral, 1951-1974 (Lisbon : Fronteira do Caos, 2012); Tor Sellström, Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa, 2 vols (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 1999).

[28] See Julião Soares Sousa, Amílcar Cabral (1924-1973): Vida e Morte de um Revolucionário Africano (Lisbon: Vega, 2011); Mustafah Dada, Warriors at Work: How Guinea Was Really Set Free (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1993); Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Jeremy Friedman, Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022). Vladimir Shubin covers the region broadly and relies heavily on his own experiences as a Soviet official. Shubin, The Hot 'Cold War': The USSR in Southern Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

[29] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[30] See Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions.

[31]Amílcar Cabral, The Revolution in Guinea (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 13-14. Cabral concluded: “it is to this struggle, to this conflict on three continents that our national liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism is linked.”

[32] R. Joseph Parrott, “Brother and a Comrade: Amílcar Cabral as Global Revolutionary,” in Parrott and Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Tricontinental Revolution: Third World Radicalism and the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[33] Generally, scholars of Euro-American policy have been more apt to follow Matthew Connelly’s call to “[take] off the Cold War Lens” than experts on the Soviet Union, possibly because there are simply more books and sources on Western policy. Matthew Connelly, “Taking off the Cold War Lens: Visions of North-South Conflict during the Algerian War for Independence,” The American Historical Review 105, no. 3 (2000): 739-769. A notable exception is Jeremy Freidman’s work on global socialism that is cited above.

[34] An end date of 1977 would align Telepneva’s book with literature on the evolution of the MPLA and foundation of independent Angola. See for instance, Jean Michel Mabeko-Tali, Guerrilhas e Lutas Sociais: O MPLA Perante Si Próprio, 1960-1977 (Lisbon: Mercado de Letras Editores, 2019).

[35] Daniela Richterova, Mikulas Pešta and Natalia Telepneva, “Banking on Military Assistance: Czechoslovakia’s Struggle for Influence and Profit in the Third World 1955–1968,” International History Review, 43:1 (2021): 90-108