The Provocation of Empirical Evidence: Soviet African Studies Between Enthusiasm and Discomfort

Steffi Marung (SFB 1199)

Publication Date

May 2018


London: Routledge






African Identities








Focusing on the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the article looks at Africa through the eyes of Soviet scholars, who sought to comprehend the dramatic transformations on the continent. Incipient efforts under Comintern auspices in the 1920s and 1930s had fallen prey to the Stalinist purges. Since the mid-1950s, Soviet African Studies started to flourish, when socialism became a global project on Soviet political agendas in the context of cold war competition. Their expansion, however, was just as much an effect of intensifying encounters with colleagues in the region. Soviet scholars did not only struggle to reconcile the Marxist–Leninist framework with the diverse dynamics in African societies. They were also provoked by the reactions they received from Western and African counterparts during travels, and conferences. Challenging a diffusionist understanding of how ideas about socialism were ‘transferred’ from the Soviet Union to Africa, the key argument here is that the Soviet Union was neither an unchallenged ‘exporter’ of such models, nor where these static. Empirical evidence from Russian archives rather reveals confusion, destabilization and perceived marginalization of the Soviet position. Africa was, in this regard, not a repository for Soviet ideas about socialist transformation, but a space providing unforeseen challenges for Soviet theorizations through encounters and conversations.

Biographical Note

Dr. Steffi Marung (SFB 1199, Leipzig University, Germany)
Steffi Marung earned a PhD in global studies from Leipzig University with a study on shifting border regimes of the expanding European Union since 1990. Prior to earning her PhD, she had studied political science and German literature in Halle, Berlin, and Prague. From there, she further developed her interest in processes of (re-)spatialization into an ongoing book project on the transnational history of Soviet African studies during the Cold War. In the framework of the international collaborative project “Socialism Goes Global”, she has extended this research towards more general questions of the geographies of East-South encounters during the Cold War. Teaching global history courses at the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University and being involved in further book projects (one on the transnational history of East Central Europe since the nineteenth century, another one on the global history of area studies, and a third one on transregional studies), she contributes to the SFB’s programme with research on the historiographical background of and multiple disciplinary theoretical foundations for the investigation of spatial formats and spatial orders. To this end, she endeavours to facilitate and promote joint cross-project discussions and the formation of a common theoretical language and framework.