Third World Friendships

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

During the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet Union significantly increased its influence in what began to be referred to as the Third World. This broad arena of Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States consisted of the countries of Asia and Africa, many of which were struggling to achieve or had recently received their independence from colonial rule, as well as parts of Latin America. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the close ties that the Castro government subsequently established with the Soviet Union was only the most spectacular gain in this respect. Even while the Chinese Communists increasingly challenged Soviet pretensions to lead the anti-imperialist cause throughout the world, the socialist orientation of many Third World leaders and national liberation movements and the willingness of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev administrations to provide them with military and economic assistance led to a number of foreign policy successes.

The Soviet Union was the main supplier of military and other forms of aid to the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnam-based National Liberation Front in their long and ultimately successful struggle to oust the American-backed South Vietnamese government and achieve the unification of the country. Elsewhere in Asia, its role in bringing about the end to military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1966 earned the Soviet Union high accolades. Less successful was Soviet support for the Arab states that went to war with Israel. Israeli victories in the Six Day War (June 1967) and the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 were followed by Anwar Sadat’s reorientation of Egyptian foreign policy towards accommodation with Israel and reliance on western assistance, leaving the Soviet Union without an effective client state in the Middle East. Subsequently, the Soviet Union’s credentials as friend of the oppressed peoples of the Third World were strengthened inter alia by its support of the new Marxist regime of military officers in Ethiopia, the beleaguered post-independence governments in Angola and Mozambique, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 marked the outer limits of this forward thrust.

An important dimension of the Soviet Union’s influence in the Third World was the establishment in 1960 of the University of the Friendship of Peoples on the southern outskirts of Moscow. A year after its founding, the university adopted the name of Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the Republic of the Congo who was kidnapped and murdered by separatists from the province of Katanga in September 1960. Offering free tuition, accommodation, and medical care plus a modest stipend, the university attracted students from over eighty developing countries. It also contributed significantly to the colorization of Moscow. Indeed, for most Muscovites, Lumumba University’s students were the first people they had encountered from relatively exotic parts of the world. These encounters were overwhelmingly friendly, although unpleasant incidents derived from Muscovites’ naive racism and mutual incomprehension did occur.

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