H-Diplo Article Review 880- Iandolo on Telepneva. “Saving Ghana’s Revolution: The Demise of Kwame Nkrumah and the Evolution of Soviet Policy in Africa, 1966-1973.”

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H-Diplo Article Review No. 880
6 September 2019

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Natalia Telepneva.   “Saving Ghana’s Revolution: The Demise of Kwame Nkrumah and the Evolution of Soviet Policy in Africa, 1966-1973.” Journal of Cold War Studies 20:4 (2018): 4-25.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_00838.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/AR880

Review by Alessandro Iandolo, University of Oxford

I have always believed that Soviet interest in Africa declined sharply after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s fall from power in late 1964. Like me, most historians of the Cold War generally assume that the second half of the 1960s and the very early 1970s were a period of relative disengagement from the African continent for both the USSR and the United States. This ended only in the mid-1970s, when the dissolution of the Portuguese empire and the intensification of the anti-apartheid struggle in Southern Africa reawakened the interest of both Cold War poles.

Natalia Telepneva’s research work challenges this narrative. Her Ph.D. dissertation explores the USSR’s support for liberation movements in Portuguese-speaking Africa. It argues that Soviet engagement with Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique should be seen as a continuum with roots firmly in the early 1960s, rather than the product of the momentous changes of the mid-1970s. The book based on this exciting research will no doubt be a landmark study with the potential to change current understandings of the evolution of the Cold War in Africa.[1] The purpose of this article shares the same intellectual goal, albeit in more compact form: showing that the Soviet Union was very much involved in Africa in the decade after 1964.

Telepneva looks at the attempts made between 1966 and 1968 by Soviet and, mostly, Czechoslovak intelligence services to organize a ‘countercoup’ in Ghana and reinstall President Kwame Nkrumah in power. Nkrumah’s Ghana became a key Soviet partner in West Africa just a few years after achieving independence in March 1957. The USSR and other socialist countries, including Czechoslovakia, invested heavily in Ghana. In the early 1960s, they sponsored construction projects, provided technology and expertise, and offered loans and favorable trade conditions to the new government in Accra. Everything, alas, changed in February 1966, when Nkrumah’s government was overthrown in a coup organized by a group of army officers. The new rulers of Ghana shut down economic cooperation with the socialist world and expelled most advisers and technicians from the USSR and its allies.

Most accounts of Soviet relations with Ghana would stop here. Accra and Moscow drifted apart after 1966, never to rekindle the close relationship of the early post-independence years. On the contrary, Telepneva argues that the socialist world’s interest in Ghana did not end with Nkrumah’s fall from power. Almost immediately after the coup, Soviet and Czechoslovak intelligence were surveying the political landscape in Accra, evaluating the possibility that opposition forces would be able to mount a successful countercoup against the generals. The Czechoslovak intelligence agency, Státní bezpečnost (StB), in particular, was convinced that such an operation had decent chances of success. Czechoslovak agents in Accra cultivated relations with potential countercoup leaders, including the firebrand writer and “Nkrumahist” activist Kofi Batsa. The StB gathered information on the level of support for a countercoup among Ghana’s armed forces and even planned the delivery of weapons and equipment to the plotters. Nkrumah waited in his exile in Conakry, keeping hope alive.

As is well known, Nkrumah remained in Guinea for the rest of his life. No countercoup—socialist-inspired or otherwise—happened in Ghana until the generals transferred power to a civilian government in 1969, which was then overthrown in a new military coup in 1972. Czechoslovak and Soviet intelligence officers had to give up on their plans. Support for a countercoup was difficult to gauge, local contacts proved unreliable, and the logistics of organizing a rebellion in Ghana remained complicated.

As Telepneva shows, the lesson Czechoslovak and Soviet intelligence officials drew from their half-fiasco in Ghana was that power mattered. If the Soviet Union and its socialist allies wanted to remain relevant in Africa, they had to learn how to organize coups and countercoups. Being able to build influence and contacts among the armed forces—the most obvious manifestation of power—was therefore a skill socialist intelligence services had to develop. And develop it quickly, given that the U.S. and others in the West seemed to have already mastered this art.

Telepneva offers a painstaking reconstruction of this botched intelligence operation in the context of the Cold War in West Africa. In this spy story, Czechoslovakia took the lead role, while the USSR followed behind. The article follows a prolific stream of recent Cold War literature in arguing that the socialist states of East and Central Europe were far from mere ‘satellites’ of the Soviet Union. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the socialist countries of Europe established political, economic and military relations with newly independent states and radical governments. They were active participants in the global Cold War, whose priorities and agendas did not necessarily match those of the USSR. Within the socialist world, Czechoslovakia is often taken as a prime example of this activism, not least because of the remarkable openness of the archives in Prague.[2]

This literature has helped ‘decentralize’ the Cold War in its East European dimension, shattering the idea that Czechoslovakia and others in the Soviet bloc were simply passively toeing Moscow’s line. As “Saving Ghana’s Revolution” shows, Czechoslovak intelligence could be very independent-minded when it came to dealing with Cold War crises. At the same time, the historiography on ‘decentralized’ socialist activism also presents some unresolved issues. The extent to which Czechoslovak (or Hungarian, East German or Polish) actions and sources can be ‘safely’ used as proxies to analyze and explain Soviet ambitions, policies, and disappointments is a matter of debate. On the other side of the Cold War divide, few historians would accept French or West German sources as reliable tools with which to interpret American foreign policy. While sources from Eastern Europe are undoubtedly incredibly useful to explore the Soviet bloc’s interactions with the outside world, they may need some qualification when used to investigate the USSR as well.

In this article, Telepneva makes the very logical and reasonable assumption that Soviet intelligence agencies, with which the StB consulted regularly, were supportive of the Czechoslovak plan to organize a countercoup in Ghana. A definitive answer regarding the precise nature of this support is difficult to give as long as Soviet intelligence sources remain largely sealed off (highlighting the source imbalance that historians working on the USSR face vis-à-vis those working on Eastern Europe). However, Telepneva has been able to access a number of reports prepared by the head of the GRU—the Soviet military intelligence agency—for the Politburo. These are exceptionally rare sources in the still secretive world of Soviet intelligence, and they suggest a more ambiguous assessment. The GRU presented a bleak picture of Ghana following the 1966 coup. It maintained that the political balance was still volatile, but the armed forces and other key players in Accra did not seem to support Nkrumah’s return. The GRU saw limited opportunities for subversion and advised caution and restraint (10-11). This fit perfectly with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s generally conservative and risk-averse attitude to foreign policy in the early years of his long tenure in the Kremlin. The extent of Soviet support for the Czechoslovak plan in Ghana may therefore not have been wholehearted.

This ambiguity could be partly related to the problem that there was not necessarily much of a ‘revolution’ to save in Ghana by the time of the 1966 coup. Relations between Moscow and Nkrumah’s government were already compromised before the coup that ousted him. Since at least 1962, Ghanaian officials complained about the poor quality of Soviet equipment, Soviet advisers lamented the lack of training of their Ghanaian colleagues, construction projects ended up delayed, and trade plans rarely worked out. There is some evidence that the Soviet leadership had greatly reduced its expectations on Ghana and Nkrumah even before the coup.[3]

A change of attitude was necessary. Telepneva’s article argues for a broadening of our chronology of Soviet-bloc interest in Africa. It also opens up the possibility that the Czechoslovak-Soviet countercoup in Ghana was part of the birth of a new phase of the Cold War and of a different kind of involvement in Africa in particular. During the Khrushchev era, the main instruments of Soviet engagement with Ghana tended to be loans, trade, and the exchange of people and ideas. Intelligence and anything broadly related to the military sphere were secondary. The countercoup operation that Telepneva analyzes suggests that the Brezhnev leadership was much more willing to at the very least take into consideration subversion and covert operations in Africa. This was a crucial change in the Soviet worldview that shaped the future decades of the global Cold War.

“Saving Ghana’s Revolution” makes a terrific contribution to the study of Soviet and socialist involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. It makes use of an extensive and fascinating source base and shows how intelligence history can capture both the macro and micro dimension of international exchanges. The article’s findings on the coordination between Czechoslovakia and the USSR and on the evolution of Soviet interest in Africa during the 1964-1974 ‘lost decade’ will provide much food for thought for specialists in the respective fields. The latter theme—Soviet engagement with Africa after 1964—is an extraordinarily important one, which Telepneva is especially well placed to explore in her future research. I look forward to reading more about it in the very near future.


Alessandro Iandolo is lecturer in International History in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He completed his Ph.D. at Oxford in 2012 and between 2013 and 2016 was British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and then Fulbright Fellow at Columbia University. Alessandro’s research focuses on Soviet economic and technical cooperation with countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the Cold War. He has published articles in Cold War History, The Journal of Cold War Studies, Contemporary European History and Diplomatic History, and is currently writing a history of Soviet economic aid to Ghana, Guinea and Mali during the Khrushchev era.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Natalia Telepneva, “Our Sacred Duty: The Soviet Union, the Liberation Movements in the Portuguese Colonies, and the Cold War, 1961-1975,” PhD Dissertation, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2015.

[2] Péter Apor and James Mark, “Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956-1989,” The Journal of Modern History 87:4 (2015), 853-891; Laurien Crump, The Warsaw Pact Reconsidered: International Relations in Eastern Europe, 1955-1969 (London: Routledge, 2015); Philip Muehlenbeck, Czechoslovakia in Africa, 1945-1968 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016); Philip Muehlenbeck and Natalia Telepnva, eds., Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World: Aid and Influence in the Cold War (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).

[3] Robert Legvold, Soviet Policy in West Africa (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 147-274; Sergei Mazov, A Distant Front in the Cold War: The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956-1964 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010), 157-250.