Perevalnoye training centre

The Military Training Centre in the village of Perevalnoye was set up in 1965 on the basis of a typical Soviet military unit under the jurisdiction of the USSR Ministry of Defence and was supervised by senior CPSU bodies. According to the existing data, Perevalnoye was launched in response to the needs of the national liberation movement leaders who had asked for more advanced and more guerrilla-focused military training for their armed forces (Shubin, 1999). During its 25-year existence, around 18 thousand fighters are estimated to have passed through Perevalnoye, including soldiers from the PAIGC, FRELIMO, MPLA, ZAPU, ANC and SWAPO, as well as freedom fighters from Latin America and the Middle East, including the Palestinian PLO. Cadets were enrolled in groups of varying sizes, depending on the tasks envisaged and agreements arrived at between a given national liberation movement’s leadership and the senior CPSU bodies responsible for the supervision of international political and military support.

Perevalnoye could accommodate up to 500 foreign soldiers on site and had well-maintained training and recreation facilities: a hospital, dining hall, training grounds, football and hockey pitches, lecture rooms and a parade ground, as well as dorms for the cadets. The camp was a secret object at the time, with a continuous perimeter wall, because it accommodated a “special contingent” brought there in secret – usually directly, following a very awkward African route and landing on an unscheduled flight in Simferopol. However, as our respondents recall, the locals could give directions to the military camp “for the blacks” – as it was nicknamed among local Crimeans (interview with K.). A small corner for black cadets at the local cemetery (where those who died in accidents or from diseases were buried) was the only visible evidence left of the camp after the collapse of the USSR.

According to various accounts, Perevalnoye provided a very broad programme, ranging from the training of commanders of partisan detachments and groups to very specialised and technical instruction for field radio operators, artillerymen, tankmen, motorists, weapons technicians, military nurses, sappers-demolition specialists, and anti-aircraft gunners. In addition to military subjects, cadets were taught a course of social disciplines, based on a short history of the USSR, the role of the October Revolution for the oppressed, and the world revolutionary movement as well as an overview of the theory of Marxism-Leninism.

The training centre was staffed by career officers of the Soviet Army, many of whom had fought in the battles of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and had direct experience of guerrilla warfare. In Russian, the tuition was referred to as partizanskoye training and its understanding and implementation was deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet partisan movement, encompassing a range of national experiences. However, the most recent and most dramatic experience in modern Russian history of mass-scale guerrilla resistance behind enemy lines had been the fought against the Nazis, both in the Crimea itself and many other parts of the USSR, and so this made training in Perevalnoye unique and exciting for the newcomers.

As various accounts indicate, classes were held daily from 08:00 to 18:00, with practical lessons conducted at night where necessary. The regime at the camp differed little from that of a regular Soviet military unit. The special contigent wore a Soviet uniform without insignia. Every morning, all the cadets, along with the Soviet officers and all the personnel of the training centre, would line up in formation on the parade ground. The camp commander – Colonel Boiko until 1974, later followed by Colonel Kalashnik – then informed those assembled of any violations of discipline and expressed gratitude to those who distinguished themselves during training. The cadets marched to music and went to their classes. After classes, at 19:00, cadets were shown Soviet films about the War and Revolution, with Soviet interpreters on hand to translate the content. The cadets were not permitted to leave the base, except on centrally organised outings for official supervised leisure activities – visits to exemplary collective farms and neighbouring schools, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the advantages of Soviet socialism.

The memoirs of military interpreters who were deployed to serve in Perevalnoye in the late ‘60s and mid-‘70s refer to sophisticated guerrilla artillery that was specially developed here, as they say, for the African freedom fighters, and on which they practiced during their field training exercises. The evidence suggests that the ZGU-23 and the Grad-Ppartisan installation were widely used at Perevalnoye. Both weapons would subsequently be mythologised in recent  Cold War history literature.

Looking more closely into the memories of the Perevalnoye trainees – the African fighters themselves – it should be noted that the camp was perceived as a very important transformative place where the soldiers were made morally mature and provided with the adequate military skills to be sent further to the front, but also as a place which went beyond the military – as it gave them their first and very lasting impressions of the realities of Soviet socialism. Some African respondents recall how they went on excursions to collective farms where they were able to ask questions about the organisation of daily life and work in the USSR (Interview with Vincent Ndlovu).

The Accounts from the former Soviet military interpreters who had worked daily hand in hand with senior Soviet military instructors and African cadets, have become an important source for our research. The interpreters became the main mediators between the senior Soviet military men and the African soldiers. Their accounts reflect the spectrum of feelings and moral attitudes of the trainers towards their students: we see a great deal of paternalism there, which is very common to Soviet army in general and mixes with a sense of a “civilising mission” with the regard to the trainees, who were naturally regarded as hailing from the oppressed and, in many cases, as being “backward” due to colonialism and apartheid.

When talking about military training, the former military interpreters often stressed the different social backgrounds of their students (peasant or urban origins, levels of education and actual guerrilla experience at home). This was important as their level of numeracy would have an impact on their further training. Without basic maths skills one couldn’t be taught artillery, for example. However, it was also perceived that if the movement leaders had sent their fighters this meant they were all prepared to go through the programme, and that ways should be found to explain things by any means possible. Whereas the memoirs from the other side indicate that Soviet interpreters’ level of English was not the best, and everyone struggled to get a sense of the explanations that the senior military men were making – something which occasionally led to amusing situations – and humour as suggested by the African trainees played a great role in helping avoid miscommunication (Interview with V. Ndlovu).

The training centre was supervised by senior CPSU bodies and was visited regularly by the NLM leaders: A. Cabral, A. Neto, S. Machel, J. Nkomo and other prominent figures all visited Perevalnoye to see with their own eyes the achievements made by their soldiers.

Soviet military interpreters found themselves in the middle of strict military social hierarchies and could benefit from their knowledge of language to communicate with the cadets directly, thereby breaking down the military hierarchies, as for example by changing the topic of discussion during the social classes or acting as mediators in conflicts thanks to their accessibility to the cadets. As my interviews have shown, when presented with the opportunity, some of them were happy to accept retraining as teachers of social and political sciences, thereby gaining more freedom to communicate with the cadets during their social studies classes. This led to many interesting exchanges: during these classes, several teachers began recording partisan stories and “folklore” directly from the mouths of their students, going on to publish the material in the USSR under the heading of African folk tales. One of the most widely known and oldest of the living Russian specialists in Guinean “folk tales”, Fyodor Nikolnikov, turns out to have begun gathering folklore precisely in Perevalnoye, while serving as a military interpreter of Portuguese and Creole. His example was followed by the translator Yuri Gorbunov, who set about the oral collection of folk tales from the Namibian SWAPO cadets he worked with.

Many of the former Soviet military interpreters look back on Perevalnoye as an ambivalent space: as a military camp where the senior command demanded strict discipline and subordination from everyone, including the military interpreters who were employed as military officers and had to obey the same rules as everybody else in camp and as a place of communication and international exchange. For those military interpreters with a strong commitment to internationalism, the camp is still remembered as an important foundry where former oppressed people were turned into “real combatants” and agents of anti-imperialism in Africa.

The research argues that Perevalnoye had become an important military hub for both hosts and the cadets where new skills in advanced weaponries and military technologies were introduced. For African trainees Perevalnoye provided an opportunity to learn about the Soviet history and army and added to the existing visions and imaginaries of the Soviet military masculinities. As the interviews have shown, Perevalnoye was regarded by the Soviets as an extremely important transformative place for the oppressed, where hosts performed their "international duty", providing the African freedom fighters with feelings of self-esteem and dignity, adding to the existing views of the national liberation guerrilla-fighter. However, the research also suggests that this training went beyond the military sphere. Both places became very significant sites for cultural exchange, personal communication, and networks’ establishment. Learning about the Soviet social world constituted an important introduction to racial and social equality, albeit limited by the Africans’ very short and managed stays in the Soviet Union.

Daria Zelenova



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