Vasily Grigoryevich Solodovnikov – A Fighter for African Liberation

Vladimir Shubin celebrates the extraordinary life of an African scholar, activist and diplomat. Vasily Grigoryevich Solodovnikov, who died last year, spent decades working with African liberation movements. He worked tirelessly for the liberation of Southern Africa, and movements for colonial freedom across the continent. Shubin celebrates a legendary figure who was the first Russian citizen to be awarded the South African Order of O.R. Tambo.

By Vladimir Shubin

In November 1995 some weeks before my departure from the University of the Western Cape I was invited to deliver a lecture in the South African Military Academy in Saldanha. The Academy, a year and half after the first democratic election looked still like a ‘whites only’ establishment – it did change, but much later.[1] I was received by Chief of the Academy,  South African National Defence Force Brigadier, who as soon as I mentioned my affiliation to the Institute for African Studies in Moscow struggled to pronounce a Russian name, difficult for outsiders – Solodovnikov.

This episode happened almost 20 years after Professor Solodovnikov left his post at the Institute for diplomatic service and ten years since he retired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but his name was still well remembered both by his friends and also, should I say, his opponents. Born on 8 Match 1918, just four months after the Russian revolution, he lived a long life, but what he managed to accomplish could fill several lives.

As a rural boy from the ‘Old Believers’ village of Chrnorechye (Black River) in the Samara region he began working after finishing primary school and at 15 years old he became a tractor driver.[2] However his life changed when he saw a notice about the ‘workers faculty’, a bridging course for young workers to prepare them for tertiary education. Officially his primary education was not sufficient to register, but nevertheless he was admitted as a smart young man who proved to be a hard worker.

The road to knowledge had opened for Vasily. His studies were interrupted when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Solodovnikov was not conscripted and tried to join the Red Army voluntarily but was refused for health reasons. However, with fellow students he made a contribution to the victory. Studying in the evenings, in the day students worked at the local aircraft factory, installing and then operating the equipment that was evacuated from the territory occupied or threatened by the enemy.

After receiving a degree as an industrial engineer, he began teaching in the institute where he trained but the next year he was recommended to the All-Union Academy of Foreign Trade. From that moment, Solodovnikov’s life took an important turn. After studying in the Academy, he worked in AMTORG, a Soviet foreign trade company in the USA, based in the Ministry of Foreign Trade in Moscow, then he joined the academic Institute of Economics as a doctoral student and after the successful completion of the degree he became its academic secretary. In 1956 Solodovnikov was one of the founders of the famous IMEMO – the Institute of World Economy and International Relations – and soon became its Deputy Director.

However, from 1961 he became involved in practical work once again, in the UN Secretariat and then as the Soviet Deputy Representative to the United Nations, but this did not last for long. In June 1964 he was appointed Director of the Institute for African Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences (Professor Ivan Potekhin, the Institute’s founder and first director by that time was terminally ill).[3]

So, administratively Solodovnikov became involved in African studies only in 1964, when he was 46 years old, but already by that time he had developed a deep (though distant) knowledge of the continent, dealing with what was called ‘underdeveloped’ and then ‘developing’ countries both in his practical work and academic studies, in fact his first monograph was titled ‘Export of Capital’ and one of his first articles was ‘Economic co-operation between the Soviet Union and Underdeveloped Countries.’

Solodovnikov was director of the Institute for 12 years and visited 21 African countries not only as an inquisitive researcher (he published 12 books and over 300 academic articles) and experienced diplomat, but also as a major public figure. During his years at the head of the Institute he was elected Chair of the Soviet Association of Friendship with Peoples of Africa and Vice-Chair of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee.

The latter position meant that this author, who at that time was the Committee’s secretary for Africa, grew to know him well, especially when we were both involved in participation (and sometimes in organization) of international conferences of solidarity with liberation movements. Of them I would single out the International Conference in Support of the Peoples of Portuguese Colonies held in Rome in June 1970.

These days everybody tries to show that they supported the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, but this is very far from the truth. In particular, the government of Italy did its best to prevent the conference taking place, directed as it was against the then colonial regime in Portugal, a fellow NATO country. When the Preparatory Committee met in March the visas for Soviet representatives were issued but only on the day of the meeting.

The Italian government had good reason to worry. The conference was vital for the rise of solidarity movements in Western countries, in particular the trip of António Agostinho Neto –  then leader of the liberation movement in Angola  – to Sweden immediately after the conference, which signalled the beginning of direct assistance from Scandinavian countries to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). However, the most important element of the conference was the reception of the leaders of the liberation movements – Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto and Marcelino Dos Santos by the Pope. This had the effect of a bombshell on Catholic Portugal.

For us the conference had important consequences as well. With approval of Professor Rostislav Ulyanovsky, who was a major figure in the Communist Party’s International Department, Solodovnikov stated clearly (and for the first time) in Pravda that Moscow was supplying ‘arms, means of transport and communications, clothes and other goods needed for a successful struggle’ to the liberation movements of Southern Africa and that ‘military and civilian specialists are being trained in the USSR.’ [4]

However, when a year later, in 1974, Solodovnikov headed another delegation of the Solidarity Committee to a conference in Oslo, the atmosphere was quite different, beginning from its title – the International Conference of Experts for Support of Victims of Colonialism and Apartheid in Southern Africa. The title reflected the ambiguous attitude of the organizers, both in the UN and in Nordic countries towards the liberation struggle, while we regarded ourselves as its supporters rather than experts, and our African comrades regarded themselves as fighters and not just victims.

As Vice-Chair of the International Congress of African Studies, Solodovnikov did a great deal to broaden contacts of the Soviet Africanists with their colleagues on the continent as well as in West and Eastern Europe in particular. [5]

A new stage in Solodovnikov’s activities began when in 1976 he was appointed the USSR Ambassador to Zambia. It is hard to believe now but at that very period the situation with anti-colonial forces in Zambia was at a critical moment. President Kenneth Kaunda openly supported Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement in the civil war in Angola and this effectively meant that he was on the same side as Pretoria. He bitterly criticised Moscow and Havana for their involvement in Angola saying, ‘A plundering tiger with its deadly cubs is now coming in through the back door.

No doubt the main reason for Kaunda’s ‘change of heart’, his rapprochement with MPLA (and with the ANC for that matter) was the defeat of South African intervention and the strengthening of the Angolan government’s control over the country’s territory at that time. However, it is hard to overestimate the role played by the new Soviet Ambassador.

Prior to Solodovnikov’s departure from Lusaka the US Embassy in its dispatch to the State Department wrote in 1981, ‘Solodovnikov, a long favourite of the American and Western European media which touted him as Moscow’s Southern African wizard, leaves behind an impressive record in Zambia… Solodovnikov can take considerable personal credit for Soviet successes in Zambia. His patient, unaggressive style coupled with an impressive understanding of Africa put him in a good stand with Kaunda and the Zambian leadership.’[6]

His influence was impressive. Indeed, Solodovnikov even became a protagonist in four novels published in South Africa and the West! Solodovnikov’s stay in Lusaka coincided with the rise of the liberation struggle in South Africa and in particular with successful operations of the Umkontho we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. When MK fighters on 1 June 1980 attacked several strategic targets, South African Minister of Police Louis de Grange stated, ‘The Russian Ambassador in Lusaka, Dr Solodovnikov, played an important role in the planning of ANC and communist strategy and he was assisted by a South African refugee woman, Frene Ginwala’, though by that time Solodovnikov had not met her.[7]

As Soviet Ambassador he kept very close to his heart all matters of co-operation with the liberation movements based in Lusaka, sharing their achievements and difficulties. Naturally he was disappointed with the results of the March 1980 general election in Zimbabwe when ZANU prevailed over ZAPU.  ZAPU was the party of Joshua Nkomo, Solodovnikov’s good friend. Soviet diplomatic relations were delayed until February 1981. Meanwhile, as Solodovnikov wrote bitterly later, ‘The government of R. Mugabe was in a hurry to establish diplomatic relations with those countries that in the period of the struggle of independence of the people of Zimbabwe were openly calling ZANU leaders and its rank and file fighters terrorists, who were allies of Ian Smith’s regime and who were clandestinely supplying him with oil and weapons, used to shoot Zimbabwean refugees in the camps in Mozambique and Zambia and fighters of the PFZ [Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe] including those from ZANU.’[8]

Soon after returning from Zambia, Solodovnikov retired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went back to the Academy of Sciences combining his research with public activity in the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee. His role in this period is reflected accurately in the title of his 2002 pamphlet – ‘USSR and South Africa 1987-1991: I opposed the policies of Gorbachev-Shevardnadze in South Africa.’[9] As head of the Solidarity Committee’s delegation to Lusaka in the end of February 1990 he met Nelson Mandela in the Zambian capital and then in March 1991 led the first Committee’s delegation to come to South Africa after the unbanning of the ANC.

Solodovnikov passed away on 30 September 2018, half a year after his centenary was celebrated. Even though reaching an advanced age, he continued to work, to share his vast knowledge and rich experience. During his long life Solodovnikov met many prominent revolutionaries and statesmen, from Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara to the presidents of African countries, and he also became a legendary figure who was rightfully the first Russian citizen to be awarded the South African Order of O.R. Tambo.

As to his political views let us quote his own words: ‘I, like my distant ancestors, who refused to accept church reform, remain in my previous positions, remain an ideological and political Old Believer.’ [10]

Vladimir Shubin is Principal Research Fellow, Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and Research Fellow, Centre for Military Studies, Stellenbosch University.


[1] I can confirm its present non-racial character as Research Fellow of its Centre of Military Studies.

[2] ‘Old Believers’ are part of Orthodox Christians who left the Church after the reforms of the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow in the 17th century.

[3] This version of the Institute’s name in English is accepted now, but I would prefer a more direct translation – Africa Institute (ИнститутАфрики in Russian).

[4] Pravda, 7 July 1970.

[5] Accidentally or not, the last congress was held in Khartoum in December 1991, in the days of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

[6] Report sent to Solodovnikov. American Embassy, Lusaka to Secretary of State, Washington DC. Subject:‘Soviet-Zambian relations; the end of Solodovnikov era.’ Doc_nbr:1981Lusaka0149/

[7] Frene Ginwala, future speaker of the National Assembly of democratic South Africa was living in the UK at that time.Rand Daily Mail, 3 June 1980.

[8]  V. Solodovnikov. K istoriiustanovleniyadiplomaticheskihotnosheniimezhdu SSSR I Zimbabwe [On the history of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between the USSR and Zimbabwe] in Afrika v vospomnaniyahveterabovdoplomaticheskoisluzhby [Africa in Reminiscences of Veterans of Diplomatic Service], Moscow: XXI vek-Soglasie, 2000. P.165.

[9] V. Solodovnikov. SSSR n Yuzhaya Afrika 1987-1991: YavystupalprotivpolitikiGorbacheva-Shevardnadze v YushnoiAfrike. [“USSR and South Africa 1987-1991: I opposed the policies of Gorbachev-Sheverdnadze in South Africa]. Moscow: InstitutAfriki, 2002.

[10]V. Solodovnukov. Tvorcheskii put v afrikanistiru I diplomatiyu.[A Creative Path to Africa Studies and Diplomacy], Moscow: InstitutAfriki, 2000, p.25.


  1. A very full life well chronicled here. I remember his visit to South Africa early in 1991 (at the invitation of IDASA) very well indeed as I was a researcher at Stellenbosch University then. Not long afterwards came first the collapse of the CPSU in August and the demise of the USSR in December. Hopefully the Professor would have been pleased to note that Russia-SA relations have generally prospered since 1994.


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