May 14, 2003 - Washington File: Russia may have planned it's own Peace Corps in Africa in early 1960's

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Russia may have planned it's own Peace Corps in Africa in early 1960's

Read and comment on this story from the Washington File that Russian scholar Sergei Mazov has unearthed a Soviet proposal in 1961 to mimic the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy's signature program to help developing nations achieve prosperity while fending off Soviet subversion at:

A Soviet Peace Corps for Africa?*

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A Soviet Peace Corps for Africa?

(Russian scholar unearths archival gems from Cold War in Africa)


By Jim Fisher-Thompson Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Russian scholar Sergei Mazov has unearthed secrets from U.S. and Soviet official archives that detail the Cold War rivalry in Africa, including a Soviet proposal in 1961 to mimic the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy's signature program to help developing nations achieve prosperity while fending off Soviet subversion.

Mazov delivered his paper, "Soviet Policy in West Africa (1956-1964) as an Episode of the Cold War" to a small group at the Wilson Center for International Scholars May 12. The Africa specialist is a senior researcher at the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences and spent the last four months examining formerly secret [declassified] U.S. government policy documents on Africa as a Wilson Center fellow. The Wilson Center's Africa Project and Cold War International History Project jointly sponsored his project.

Before he came to America, Mazov said he spent 10 years researching the U.S.-Russian rivalry over West Africa in the Soviet Union's Communist Party Central Committee archives and amongst the limited KGB records that have been opened to the public. He noted it was a refreshing change to work at the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington where declassified material was "more available and easier to access."

Mazov said, "I've found out that one can obtain in American archives many more documents covering both domestic and international aspects of the Cold War in West Africa that in Russian archives. The declassification procedures in Russia are still cumbersome and slow. Recently a substantial part of previously declassified documents has become less accessible or not accessible at all. The bulk of materials of crucial importance produced by the International Department of the Soviet Communist Party, KGB and Ministry of Defense are still unavailable."

Nevertheless, he indicated his research uncovered a number of interesting details after the Cold War came to Africa in 1956, the year the Soviet Government sent a delegation to the inauguration of Liberia's new president. "It was the first visit of an official Soviet delegation to tropical Africa and a vivid manifestation" of Khrushchev's new activist approach to developing countries, the scholar explained.

But Khrushchev was rebuffed in Liberia. Mazov found a cable addressed to its new President from President Eisenhower saying he viewed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Liberia and the Soviet Union as "a Soviet device for Communist penetration of the continent of Africa."

Khrushchev, however, did not give up. The Soviets next tried to get their foot in the door in Ghana, which became independent in 1957. Again, Mazov found documentary evidence showing the U.S. Government viewed such a Soviet overture as dangerous and the State Department came down hard. In a position paper on a possible exchange of ambassadors between the Soviet Union and Ghana that year, it emphasized: "In light of Soviet policy since the end of World War II, it can be safely assumed that Russia's primary objective in establishing diplomatic and consular offices in Africa is to undermine the fledgling political institutions of countries just emerged from colonial status to independence."

This hard-line American approach later became "less tough, more balanced and tolerant," the scholar added, as shown in a policy paper prepared by the State Department's African Bureau in 1960 called "Soviet Penetration of Africa." It stated: "A clear distinction must be drawn between ordinary diplomatic, commercial, and cultural contacts, which cannot be prevented by the West and Soviet Bloc efforts as propaganda and subversion, which must be countered promptly and effectively."

This meant that in West Africa, "Americans challenged Soviets in every sphere," Mazov found. "Each major move of the Soviet Union caused counter or pre-emptive measures that contributed much to frustrate its plans."

Part of the Soviet attempt to keep pace with American developments was a proposal to copy the Peace Corps, the U.S. agency that President Kennedy established in 1961 to send young Americans to teach English and other skills to people in the developing world. The first contingent of two-year volunteers was assigned to Africa.

Mazov said Soviet archives revealed that in the summer of that same year "One Komsomol [Young Communist league] leader Pavlov approached the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party with the plan of creating a counterweight to the American Peace Corps."

The idea was to send "specially trained groups of young Soviet volunteers to Ghana, Guinea and Mali -- the three main targets of Soviet penetration in Africa, according to Russian documents Mazov said he unearthed. Their mission was "to spread propaganda about Soviet achievements, to help with construction of industrial installations, schools, hospitals and also with teaching and the medical treatment of the native population."

Mazov said Soviet documents showed that the three targeted African nations "agreed to receive these groups" but Pavlov's plan was eventually turned down by the Politburo because of its cost. Incredibly, the Soviets turned down the plan because it would have cost $200,000, the approximate sum spent by the U.S. Government to provide only one year's activity for Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana alone.

Asked if costs were really the reason rather than a fear the volunteers would defect or otherwise embarrass the Soviets, Mazov said he believed that was the case because "most of the money would have had to be hard currency and that was not so easy to come by then."

Most Soviet aid to African nations was of the "White Elephant" variety, big unmaintained projects of shoddy workmanship and poorly manufactured equipment, Mazov said. But one propaganda coup occurred in the late 1950's when leading Soviet Africanist Ivan Potemkin approached noted black American historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and roped him into helping establish an autonomous African Institute in Moscow.

According to Soviet documents, Mazov said Du Bois, who was a member of the U.S. Communist Party, happened to seek treatment at a sanatorium for high Party and Government officials near Moscow where he was approached by Potemkin who was there trying to recover from a tropical disease picked up in Tanzania. Potemkin presented the American with his plan for an African Institute and Du Bois "handed it to Khrushchev during their meeting in January 1959." The Soviet leader then ordered the Institute into existence.

Mazov said one of "the most amazing" documents he came across in his search in America was a "Psychological Study of Kwame Nkrumah" prepared by the CIA in 1962. The study said: "As a thinker, Kwame Nkrumah is a highly original, imaginative, creative individual. He possesses a remarkable gift of vision which enables him to see over the mass -- or mess -- of intervening political problems and details; to view -- and all but taste -- a harmoniously organized free and independent Africa, possessed of its own unique personality which stands in equality before the rest of the world, accepted, honored and respected."

It continued: "This vision is, to Nkrumah, 'ultimate reality;' all other things -- politics, economics, people, lesser goals and ideas -- are less real, less important, transient, expendable. Whatever he does, whatever he achieves, whatever he thinks is...subordinate to this ultimate goal."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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