Russia-Africa summit and blood bonds

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Welcome to the seventh instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.

The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.

(The first post about books on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third about what to read on Russia, revolts and 1917 is here. This is the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday and Bidenomics. The fifth post on fireworks in France – Bastille Day and the recent riots – is here. And the sixth one on Oppenheimer’s dharma is here.)

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Russia holds its second ever summit with Africa tomorrow (July 27) in St Petersburg and it’s hard to overestimate the importance of this meeting 17 months into Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Right now, the African continent  – the largest regional grouping at the UN General Assembly – is at the centre of a great-power charm offensive.

In December 2022, Joe Biden was able to bring the leaders of 49 of Africa’s 54 countries to Washington, D.C. for the first such summit in eight years. It came three years after the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, which drew 43 African heads of state.

Both Russia and the United States are seeking support for their approach to the Ukraine war, as also the wider international order. Africa has largely been unwilling to criticise Putin for the Ukraine war though its leaders are inclined to a peace process to end the “pernicious effects” of the conflict on Africa.

But it’s not just the Russians and Americans who want to wow Africa. In the past two years, there have been Japan-Africa, China-Africa, an EU-Africa, France-Africa, UK-Africa and Turkey-Africa summits. India’s pandemic-delayed fourth summit with Africa – the last was in 2015 – may happen next year.

So, it’s clear that Africa is important – to Russia as much as to others. But Russia too is important to Africa, which wants grain (exported from Ukraine despite the war until Russia recently withdrew from a UN-brokered agreement). Countries in Africa also routinely use Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries to keep the peace and to keep autocratic regimes in power. Talking to Russia also allows Africa to send a blunt message to the wider world, particularly the West, says Steven Gruzd, head of the Africa-Russia project at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, namely that “we also have our own foreign policies, and those reflect our national interest”.

But what was Africa to Russia, in terms of history and literature? The answers are surprising. They  range from the literary homage paid by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, to his African great-grandfather; the former Soviet Union’s eager interest more than half a century ago in fiction and poetry by Africans about Africa, and an important new book that challenges the usual Western depictions of Moscow’s post-Cold War Africa policy.

Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:

Peter the Great’s African: Experiments in Prose

By Alexander Pushkin

(Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Boris Dralyuk)

Publisher: NYRB Classics

Year: 2022

Alexander Pushkin, known as a quintessentially Russian writer, was mixed race and acutely conscious of his African heritage. In 1827, Pushkin began what he planned as an historical novel about his great-grandfather, General Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal. He never finished it. This book, newly translated by a superb team, contains Peter the Great’s African and three other unfinished works by Pushkin. Peter the Great offers a fascinating view of long and unsuspected links between Russia and Africa.

General Gannibal, of the Imperial Russian Army, was born in 1696, probably in what is now Cameroon. Kidnapped and sent to Constantinople as a slave, he was brought to the St. Petersburg Court of Tsar Peter the Great by a Serbian count. The Tsar grew fond of the boy, made him his godson and sent him to the École Militaire in Paris. Eventually, the young man would join the ranks of the nobility. In seeking to depict his great granddad as a black aristocrat in 18th century Europe, Pushkin was writing a sort of real-life Russian Bridgerton.

The novel begins in the royal court in France, where Ibrahim is conscious of the racial differences that mark him out. The ladies vie for “le Nègre du czar” to attend their salons but Ibrahim feels they “saw him as some kind of rare beast, a peculiar, alien creature accidentally transported to a world with which it had nothing in common”. He falls in love with a married woman, Countess D. The adulterous affair produces a dark-skinned son, who is whisked away to be “brought up far from the capital” and replaced by a white baby. Ibrahim returns to Russia and his godfather and there are vivid descriptions of the fun and games at the imperial Russian court in “barbarous Petersburg”.

It is historical fiction of its time but also in touch with some of the more inclusive instincts of ours.

In fact, thoughts of his African ancestor imbued Pushkin’s most famous work, Eugène Onegin, which Tchaikovsky interpreted as an opera, John Cranko as a ballet and Ralph Fiennes’s sister Martha as a 1999 film starring her sibling. Eugène Onegin has one of Pushkin’s most famous references to his mixed Russian-African heritage and straddling two worlds:

“It’s time to drop astern the shape
of the dull shores of my disfavour,
and there, beneath your noonday sky,
my Africa, where waves break high,
to mourn for Russia’s gloomy savour,
land where I learned to love and weep,
land where my heart is buried deep.”

Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?

By: Samuel Ramani

Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd

Year: 2023

Dr Samuel Ramani of Oxford University tells a good story about Russia’s relationship with Africa. For Moscow, Africa is many things: an “important power-projection theatre”, a place for “hybrid interventions” such as counterinsurgency operations, arms sales, autocracy promotion and soft power, as well as a venue to invest small and mainly in extractive industries.

The extensive research in this book includes some 1,400 references from English, French, Russian, and Arabic sources, as well as first-hand interviews. It is rich in anecdotes. Dr Joseph Siegle, of Maryland University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, has noted Ramani’s recounting of former French president Jacques Chirac’s concern over America’s expanding role in Africa and Moscow’s retrenchment from the region after the Cold War. Back channel communications between Russia and France eventually led President Putin to re-think Africa’s place in Moscow’s foreign policy in 2001. Apocryphal or not, it’s an interesting take on the games politicians play, sometimes foolishly, because Russia’s recent gains have been concentrated in francophone Africa – Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic –and have largely come at France’s expense.

All in all, says Siegle, Ramani’s historical review clarifies that Putin’s Africa policy seeks multipolarity but not multilateralism.

Ramani says that despite everything, “Russia’s appalling war crimes in Ukraine and the gravity of Moscow’s violations of international law, the Global South has not mirrored the West’s policies to counter Russian aggression”.

He sees this continuing: “The Global South’s growing alienation from US and European foreign policy diktats provides Russia with a durable soft power foundation, and will ensure that Africa does not isolate Moscow”.

BONUS: Let me know in chat or by email if you want a free pdf of the following three-page article

African Literature In Russia

By Victor Ramzes

Publisher: Harvard University

Transition, the magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

Year: 1966

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