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Reminiscence of Soviet soft power and the way it influenced Third World

By Punsara Amarasinghe and Prof. Sanjay Rajhans

The exact meaning carved by Joseph Nye in coining his notable concept “Soft Power” referred to a strong influence over states whereas governments cannot totally get rid of its influence. Because, unlike the hard power which pushes states to the edge, the influence of soft power brings more sentimental effects to targeted states as their national consciousness is solidly smitten by its approach. In a changing world where many state actors arise from military and economic dimensions, the gravity arises from soft power plays a bigger role in shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. In fact, such a smart use of power inevitably brings more constructive results than triggering the fire arms. Today emerging super powers like India and China have been much driven by the idea of using soft power as an indispensable strategy in the realm of their regional and international geo political space. However, the soft power strategy used by Soviet Union during Cold War as a decisive factor in its ideological and political expansion towards the Global South has left an interesting legacy as it could sucessfully accomplish its mission in Third World countries. In particular, the countries gained their independence from Western powers began to woo the ideological whims propagated by Moscow in early 50’s and 60’s. The anti-colonial sentiments spread across newly independent states boosted their rapport with Soviet Union and this was much strengthen when Moscow provided ample funds to Third World countries in order to galvanize their national economies which was perceived by Soviet Union as an action of necessity. Stalin’s successor Nikitha Khrushchev showed a great zeal in influencing Third World states against the struggle against imperialism.

Nevertheless, the growth of Soviet soft power towards the Global South was mainly an offshoot from its grand cultural and intellectual heritage and the apt way it was used by Soviet Union to twist the arms of those Third World states. As an example the indomitable expansion of Russian literature among the young university students and intellectuals in post-colonial countries became prevalent as a counter narrative against much dominated Anglo American literature. For instance, the growth appeared to bloom in South Asia towards Russian literature was much notable as its attracted and aspired the young generation in Indian sub-continent in a time when the nation emerged after long colonial movement. The characters portrayed by prerevolutionary Russia authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol invoked Asian sentiments to think about their own conditions under social inequality. It was such an incredible phenomenon how and why citizens from far distant countries like India and Sri Lanka in South Asia were fascinated with Russian literary ideals. From 60’s till the dissolution of USSR in 1991 Soviet Union spent a heavy amount of money on translating their great literary classics into local languages in South Asia, Africa and Latin America as a great cultural tool, which resulted in producing a class of citizens obsessed with Russian ethos in those regions.

The higher education assistance was another feature of Soviet soft power over third world countries. In African and Asian contexts, most of the ruling elites were products of either British or French higher educational institutes. Yet, most of the masses in rural areas with many economic deprivations had no access to privileged western universities, that went on to hinder their aspirations of pursuing higher studies beyond their states.  Since the dawn of Cold War the factor regarding higher education as a strategic tool was considered by both Soviets and Americans with greater importance. When the necessity of higher education was emphasized by African leaders at Addis Ababa Conference of African States on the Development of Education in Africa in 1961, Soviet leader Khrushchev declared the foundation of the People’s Friendship University in Moscow, especially for students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Addressing 3,000 students at Jogjakarta University, Khrushchev affirmed that the Soviet government ‘wished to help the [developing] countries to train their national workforce, engineers, agronomists, doctors, teachers, economists’ and at the same time give a chance to ‘many talented young people coming from poor families’, who otherwise were ‘deprived of the possibility of realizing their wish to study in the Soviet Union.

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As a matter of fact, the establishment of People’s Friendship University in Moscow was a greater achievement in Soviet soft power over the Third World States as it’s much promised ideals of the awakening of the East attracted many young students coming from decolonized states. Nourishing the socio cultural ties with non-Communist countries on the basis of idealizing the anti-imperial values intended to intensify the waves of communism in those countries with the eventual expectations of seizing the state power by workers. Another assumption held by Soviets of establishing a higher academic institute for the students from developing world was focused on two goals. Firstly, Soviet Union believed that the knowledge transfer to backward Asian African societies would accelerate their progress and secondly Moscow considered the graduates hailing from Soviet education would have a paternal gratitude towards their authority. The Soviet soft power alliance with the Third World reached its symbolic culmination, when People’s Friendship University was named after nationalist leader in Congo Patrice Lumumba, which was an indication of Moscow for their solidarity with non-Communist states in their struggle against imperialism.

The aftermath of the establishment of People’s Friendship University crated a much conspicuous platform for Soviet Union to execute their soft power and its outcomes became much effective as most of the students studied in People’s Friendship University excelled themselves fields like academia and diplomacy in their own countries. Nevertheless, it is true to admit that Soviet soft power strategy was not always successful, particularly the degrees awarded by People’s Friendship University were discriminated when pro-Western governments came into power in non –Communist states in Asian and African countries. For instance, the pro-Western government in Sri Lanka from 1965 to 1970 marginalized Soviet graduates from employment opportunities, labeling them as leftists. On the other hand, there were situations Moscow expelled Asian and African students, when they professed their dissenting opinions about Soviet system.

The soft power strategy adopted by Soviet Union to approach Third World countries was predominantly confined to higher education, yet the outcomes emerged from such investments brought long term results to Soviet Union. Especially, increase of alacrity to learn Russian among students in the Global South saw a great Slavic cultural infiltration into those Russian speaking countries and its influences continued to grow in many ways. The in 60’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, New Delhi established a center for Soviet and Central Asian studies which attracted many Indian scholars and with its growing political influence Russian language became quite a popular. However, the chaotic economic stagnation of Soviet Union in late 80 and its immediate effect resulted in the disintegration of Soviet Union brought the very end to Third World’s romanticism with Soviet culture. The idealistic slogans on world communist society and dictatorship of proletarians were faded into oblivion at the ebb of Soviet decline and the emergence of Russian federation had no time and space to persist their soft power in the Third World as a result of the wave of economic and social instabilities they faced in the 90’s.

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Today, more than 25 years after the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia again stands as a strong nation and its recent geo political expeditions have given a palpable sign the Russia yearns to restore its lost glory in the global arena. In fact, Moscow is well aware of the great importance of using soft power in 21st century power politics. Yet, the pivotal question appearing from post-Soviet era is how would modern Russia locates her soft power before growing expansion of Indo-Sino soft power contest in Global South. The steeping increase of Confucius centers and Indian cultural hegemony through its most colorful culture would always mar the idea of restoring Russian soft power beyond Ruski Mir. But, we should not easily forget still there is a nostalgia been pervaded in the memories of the old generation bureaucrats, diplomats, statesmen and academics in the third world countries, which always would pave the path to restore its soft power in diplomacy at least to a certain extend.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at Institute of Law and Politics, Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He held one-year research fellowship at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. . He can be reached at punsara.amarasinghe@santannapisa.it. Prof. Sanjay Rajhans is the deputy chair at Department of Public Policy at Faculty of Social Sciences in Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. He can be reached at ufindarts@gmail.com

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