Professor Irina Filatova. You are Russian, living in South Africa now, but if we go back right to the beginning to where you started, were you born in Russia?
Yes. I was born in 1947 in Murmansk. That’s where the British convoys brought supplies of all kids during the Second World War, and that’s how it is known to the English-speaking people. I spent my childhood in Oryol, a town to the south of Moscow, and the rest of my life in Moscow.
As an academic, who is very interested in African affairs, what drew you to Africa?
I got interested in politics during my late school years. A lot of interesting things were going on in Moscow at that time and the city was politically alive. It was the era of Khrushchev’s thaw in the Cold War. Then the Cold War started to freeze hard again. There were fewer and fewer topics that could be discussed. But I found a very interesting outlet in something called ‘The House of Friendship’, a club in Moscow where you were allowed to meet foreigners. You couldn’t meet foreigners just anywhere. You were only allowed to meet them in prescribed places, such as this ‘House of Friendship’. There was an African seminar there, in which African students who studied in Moscow, participated. Sometimes African students from other cities came specifically for these meetings.
They got together for a seminar and they discussed everything under the sun. They felt free to discuss what was going on in Africa and in Russia, and if they didn’t like how their meetings were reported by the media, they protested. Of course, these protests were never published but still it was very interesting. Russian students and academics were allowed to participate, so I started attending this seminar. Then I became their secretary and then I decided I to study Africa at Moscow State University.
It was an interesting time in relations between Africa and the USSR.
Yes. Look, it is difficult to imagine now but at that time it seemed that Africa was the future. When my school geography teacher told us that in a few years time, by the time we finish school, the whole of Africa will be free, it seemed impossible. And when this happened there was so much hope, so much expectations for a better Africa and even a better world.
Was there a sense of déjà vu for you, when you go back to South Africa in 1994, given what you had been through?
I actually came here in 1992. I started to teach at the University of Durban Westville in 1992, and there was a lot of the sense of déjà vu. Not only in terms of a comparison with other African countries but also, in some sense, with Russia, with some events in Russian history. The expectation of the revolution. The coming of the ‘February’ (democratic) revolution, then the ‘October’ revolution, then the 1920s. You could see the comparisons.
Going back to your time in Moscow, as an academic at Moscow State University, did you have a chance to meet any of the ANC leadership, who were in exile then?
That started much later, in the 1980s. There was a chance to meet Africans and in particular South Africans at the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee. Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee – it was very closely connected with the Central Committee of the Party. It called itself an NGO but in reality it was not one. It was practically a state organization. You had to be invited to the meetings, and not everyone was. Until late 1980s such NGOs were not really interested in academics: you do your work and we do our work. But trade unions and individual citizens contributed to such NGOs financially and by organising meetings (e.g. against apartheid), as they wanted a better future for Africa and Asia, and they wanted contribute. In the late 1980s the Soviet communist party, the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee and other such NGOs started to get interested in involving academics in their activities. Discussions and seminars with ANC representatives followed. Suddenly, in the Gorbachev era and with political developments in Southern Africa, academic opinion began to matter and this was when we were asked to come and meet ANC people.
How well were the ANC in exile, perhaps in propaganda, if you want to put it that way? It appears today that there is still a lot of the residue from the time that many of them spent in the Soviet Union – calling each other comrade, as an example. Applying Soviet-type policies: was it a learning process or was it just absorbed by being there?
I don’t think that it was absorbed just by being in the Soviet Union. Two answers. First. Imbibing of the Soviet doctrine, Soviet attitudes and the Soviet vision of the world. It was not necessarily connected to the time in the USSR. This was the Party propaganda and the ANC propaganda from the 1960s on, for the duration of armed struggle. There was a very close connection between the South African Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party. The ideological influence of South African communists on the ANC leadership, of which they were part, cannot not be disputed. You can see it now in the ANC policy, but it was all there, in the ANC historical documents.
Second, the general understanding of the world divided into progressives and reactionaries, imperialists and socialists, with the bright future of the whole humanity which was to come with socialism and with the assistance of socialist countries. They were also the ones that were helping the ANC in its struggle against apartheid, so obviously, they were the good guys and you had to listen to what they had to say.
And then there was, of course the Soviet example, the way it was presented to all African countries and to the South African leadership. ‘Look what we have achieved through our socialist policies of centralization, nationalisation, planning and so on. This was seen by many African leaders, and South African leaders amongst them, as the example to follow and the short-cut to a bright and happy future. Of course, by the time the ANC came to power, they accumulated a lot of experience: they saw how one African country after another destroyed its economy by attempting to copy the Soviet example.
They thought no, we are not going to repeat these mistakes. And indeed, they did not start nationalising immediately and all at once. But the instinct remained: there was nothing else that they could think of for the future. The majority could not start thinking differently. For the majority the future was and still is ‘the second stage of the revolution’. Everything else was a preparation for this second stage – a move to socialism. The whole idea of the national democratic revolution, which came from the USSR, means an incremental building of socialism. It remains the ANC’s official programme.
The degree to which ANC people whom I met in Moscow were convinced that the Soviet example was the one to follow was quite startling. There were, for example, two seminars of the ANC and Soviet social scientists, organized by the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee. A deputy head of the CPSU’s Central Committee attended one of these and tried to persuade the ANC comrades to be ‘careful’ with their economic policy and not to be in a hurry to nationalise. There was little understanding of this.
Pallo Jordan, head of the South African delegation, was the ANC’s main spokesman on nationality/ethnicity questions. When Soviet academics started to discuss ethnicity, race and nationality, there was little understanding on the part of our South African colleagues too.
We asked what they were going to do about protecting the rights of minorities and what they were going to do maintain good relations between ethnic and racial groups. The answer was that there was no racial and ethnic problem in South Africa. As soon as apartheid goes, everything will be fine. There will be no animosity, no ethic friction, no racial problem, no need to protect the rights of minorities. We were even told we paid too much attention to these issues because we were not steeped in the ANC literature.
That’s pretty idealistic from the ANC’s perspective.
Very idealistic, first, but second, it was again the Soviet idea that all nationality ethnicity and racial questions are created by imperialism, by capitalism and exploitation. So as soon as all this goes, no nationality problems can exist. The USSR was thought to be a good example. There was also the idea that as soon as apartheid goes capitalism will also go. capitalism will also go. It was thought that capitalism was bound to collapse because it was inseparably connected with apartheid.
That’s very simplistic but from your own perspective, working at Moscow State University, you were also exposed to this way of thinking. Did post 1985, Perestroika/Gorbachev era come as a shock to you or was it inevitable?
Well, you say that I was exposed to this way of thinking. Yes, but when you are exposed to too much of propaganda you start thinking differently, at least this often happens. My generation of students started thinking differently. Some thought we have to return to what was at that time to be believed to be true Leninism – a more democratic and lenient political and economic order. But then the Czech spring, which was exactly an attempt to create a better socialism, ‘socialism with human face’, was suppressed by Russian tanks in1968. The Russian economy continued to slow down. We could see that Soviet socialism could not be reformed either economically or politically. And we could see that the system was not working. You just could not fail to come to the conclusion that a complete control of one party over everything: politics, economy, ideology – every part of Soviet life – was a disaster. After all, it was Lenin who said, ‘monopoly leads to stagnation,’ and this is exactly what was happening. Many saw that the system did not and could not work.
To see the ANC people coming there and believing that it would work in South Africa was not a shock – we knew their thinking. But we could not tell them: don’t take this road. That deputy head of the Iternational Department of the CPSU’s Central Committee tried, but did not succeed. Who would have listened to young academics?
When Gorbachev’s reforms started, I thought it could never succeed. He won’t be allowed to go on. But he did go on and on. I could not believe what I was reading and hearing in the media: I couldn’t believe this was possible. This was my reaction: no shock but sheer amazement.
Given all the evidence that the Soviet Union didn’t work, why is the experiment being repeated here in South Africa?
It hasn’t been repeated yet. I think that among the ANC leadership there are many who understand that they cannot repeat what was done in the Soviet Union. But many keep on dreaming. They think that the Soviet Union and the Soviet economy collapsed by chance. Or because Yeltsin and Gorbachev betrayed Soviet ideals. Both are singled out as traitors and Yeltsin even as a criminal. If there were no Gorbachev then maybe the USSR would have been alive and well even today. They also look at the example of China and Russia both of which have – or recently had – impressive rates of economic growth in the situation where their economies are centrally controlled. Not necessarily nationalised but strictly controlled by the centre. In Russia the centre is the personalized power of the president, and in China, the power of the party. And this seems to work, while Western economies are barely developing. South African trade union leaders seem to be very happy if and when the American economy is doing badly, or the British economy, or the Euro is in crisis. For them this is the proof that the other side, ‘the progressives’, i.e. Russia and China, is right to centralize and control.
We’re still seeing, at least in a philosophical sense, a lot of the hangover of the time that the ANC was influenced by what happened in the Soviet Union. What would it take to change that way of thinking? You were saying earlier that in Russia you could see that things were not going well but it needed unbelievable leadership perhaps, to change that. What about here, given that experience that you’ve had – how are you reading what could be ahead of us here?
I don’t know what lies ahead but I can tell you what frightens me most. For decades the ANC spread one vein of political populism. Now a new vein which is perhaps worse than the ANC one, is spreading like wild fire. If you look at the young people, the followers of Malema, for example, their complete lack of understanding and knowledge of the economy, of history, of what is doable and what is not doable economically, and where their actions would lead to – that is quite frightening. It is amazing to see how little they understand what their policy would produce, and how many people are prepared to liste to them. The ANC leadership needs a lot of courage and wisdom to lead the country in this situation, and so far I haven’t seen it. It is not telling people the truth.
Some may understand that they have to but they just don’t do it, and some may not even understand what needs to be done, as they still live in a dream world. They still think that the more you nationalise and control the better the economy would work.
So it’s the fantasy that they had all those years ago, in Moscow?
In Moscow or in Lusaka or anywhere else – look if you read the ANC documents produced in exile, they are all based on the notion that the ANC will bring a brighter future, and it will not be a capitalist future.
For them tere is no other option, basically.
How do you as a Russian or as someone who grew up in Russia – how are you seeing the way that that country is going right now, with political murders, with apparent bribery and corruption, endemic with Mr Putin, doing very strange things, as far as everybody else in the world seems to believe anyway.
It has not been going right for quite a long time. As you mentioned, there have been murders of independent journalists and of opposition politicians, independent media barely exists, there has been a squeeze o independent NGOs. But the Rubicon was crossed with the occupation of the Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. It is very difficult, if not impossible for Putin to turn back, not only because the political elite would not understand this, but also because of the upsurge of nationalism and chauvinism, which has been instigated by the elite and which now precludes any turning back. It is very difficult for me to speak with many of my friends in Moscow because overnight so many have turned into Russian chauvinists, for whom Russia is a faultless victim of Western conspiracy. They too do not understand where this line of thinking leads.
Where does it lead to, Irina?
Where does it lead to? I think, it leads to Russia lagging more and more behind economically and technologically. For economic reform which Russia badly needs, you need an open society with open thinking, and not a conspiracy theory thinking. No reform – the country will stay poor and dependent exclusively on its natural resources for its welfare. And this is a very unreliable source of wealth, as we have seen. Political conformism and even mysticism. The Russian Orthodox Church plays a huge role in Russian perceptions of the world today. I don’t think that the combination of nationalism and religious conservatism are good leading lights in the modern world. They do not help to develop your economy quickly. What they lead to is the overblown national national pride and perceptions of being threatened from all sides. This means that the resources are going into the army, not on education or research. I teach at one of Moscow’s best universities. It is called National Research University Higher School of Economics. It is a well endowed institution. But there is less and less money for conferences, subscriptions, books, salaries and people are squeezed. Shops are closing. People are losing jobs, salaries go down. You There is no money.
There is opposition in Russia, we’ve seen it through chess chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and the feminist rock band Pussy Riot. While political leaders are getting shot in public places. Thoughts?
That is a huge problem with the opposition. The opposition has always been divided and even when they had a small chance to establish themselves, they could never agree on anything. Perhaps it is understandable because some trends among the opposition are more nationalistic, others are liberal; some are socialist, others are free marketers. It’s difficult to agree in these circumstances, but even parties with similar ideas could never agree and work out a plausible programme. There were powerful anti-Putin demonstrations on the eve of his return to the presidency for the third term. But this has all petered out: the nationalist wave has just swept the opposition away away. Recently, the upsurge of nationalism and the new upsurge of Putin’s popularity after the Crimea compromised whatever opposition there was. Some opposition still exists. Some people still say and write what they think, but more carefully.
There is one magazine, one newspaper and a couple of radio programs where you can say more than is permissible anywhere else, for example, on the State’s TV. A tiny percentage of the Russian population reads this and listens to these programmes. The majority watches the state TV, knows only the official view and agrees with it.
What about the relationship between South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma and Vladimir Putin – when you see pictures of the G20, the two of them are almost isolated from many of the others but they seem to be very close friends.
Well, I don’t know whether they are friends or not. I can’t read Putin’s mind, or Zuma’s mind, for that matter.
Is it a good thing for South Africa to be that closely aligned?
Look, if Russia could do something for the South African economy I don’t see any problem with their friendship or their meetings. Whatever Russia can do, in terms of helping to develop the South African economy that would be a good idea.
Do they have money, if they’re running out of money out over there?
Well, that is my question. What is going to happen? If we take the nuclear deal, for example, I’m not sure how it is going to work or who is going to pay. It’s enormous money – who is going to pay for it? What also worries me about this deal, is technology. Okay, the Russians come here and teach the South Africans all the appropriate skills but the Russians themselves have had accidents in nuclear power stations. What happens here? What if there is a human error? Labour discipline in this country, perhaps just as in Russia, is not very good. There are other problems. In both countries, corruption is rampant and when we speak about business connections, between Russia and South Africa that question is always on my mind. How clean is the deal? How clean is what is being proposed?
I don’t know. I can’t say but what I do know that the system of patronage is the core of the Russian economy. It is the core of Russian politics. It is the core of the Russian State at the moment. And the South Africans? Well, we all know what is going on with corruption here, and the patronage system here. So that is what worries me about the relations between the two countries. If there is a good deal – why not? You see, there is, for example, Media 24, which is very busy in Russia. South Africa supplies a lot of fruit and wine to Russia, and there are several others – the Mondi Paper, for example. Mondi Paper is in every Russian stationary shop. These are good deals, nothing against it. What is good is good.
Your relationship with South Africa started many years ago but why the decision to come and live here?
Well, I got a job here in 1992. I was first invited to the South African Institute of International Affairs as their Bradlow Fellow, and spent several months with them. It was very interesting because it was an interesting time indeed and it was interesting to watch the transition. Then I was interviewed for a position of HOD of History at the University of Durban Westville. I did not take it seriously, I must say, because at the time I had very few English language publications and I was not known here. But I was offered a position, to my amazement. I think partially because I was Russian and they expected me to be a communist. I worked there for ten years. It was quite a hectic time. UDW has never been an easy place to work. It was not a quiet campus.
The curriculum: has that changed? Has that been influenced in the same way, perhaps as the history of the ANC?
I wouldn’t say so. The curriculum began changing at South African universities in the 1980’s, and it continued changing through the 1990’s, in the sense that more African and South African history was added. We were still told that we had not Africanized even when two thirds of our curriculum was on Africa or South Africa. It was quite amazing when one of the Vice Chancellors, Mapule Ramashala met the department and told us : ‘Look, you do have to transform. You have to Africanise your curriculum so that you do not only teach the Great Trek’, We said we did not teach the Great Trek. Our curriculum was in front of her, yet she kept on repeating that she had nothing against the Great Trek, but the curriculum had to be Africanised.
In that sense, yes, the curriculum was changed drastically but I don’t think there was any ideological pressure on what we were teaching.
Well, we met at a friend’s braai braai in Durban by chance., and somehow the relations developed very gradually, to the stage where we are together here, in Cape Town.
Do you think similarly about ideology?
About many things – yes. About very many things, I would say. It does not mean that we agree on everything. We do argue about politics and ideology.