Vodka and Pelmeni on the Ivory Coast
Kevin Limonier

During a trip to Bouaké (Сôte d’Ivoire), I met Irina, the owner of the only Russian restaurant in the region. Her story, so different from those of entrepreneurs who seek to expand Moscow's geopolitical influence in Africa, offers alternative perspective on Russia’s presence in Africa.

Walking the dusty streets of Bouaké, the former capital of the rebels in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, I ran into Irina, the owner “The Datcha, Russian-Ivorian Specialties,” a small local restaurant. Bouaké, the third-largest city in Côte d'Ivoire, is a regional commercial crossroads in the center of the country, linking the coastal regions to the Sahel, via roads where jihadist incursions are increasingly common. Cars are rarer than in the south of the country, buildings are humbler, and roads are sandier. Further north, in Mali, one can find a significant Russian presence, but not here.

Russia is generally viewed unfavorably by Ivorian authorities, who see Moscow's influence as a potential security concern. The current president of Côte d'Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, enjoys a political position that is not conducive to rapprochement with Russia. A former opponent of Laurent Gbagbo, who was once indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Ouattara is a Western ally in the region.

Against the backdrop of his problematic relationship with France, Russian narratives accusing Western countries of imperialism and colonialism in the region are readily used by his opponents. For instance, the Russian news agency Sputnik published several articles that were widely circulated on social media, portraying France as the main culprit behind Ouattara's victory in 2011. At the same time, supporters of Gbagbo or Guillaume Soro, Bouaké's former strongman now living in exile, are sensitive to the rhetoric of pan-Africanist influencers backed by Moscow, such as Kemi Seba or the Swiss-Cameronese Nathalie Yamb, who calls herself "the Lady of Sochi" because of her participation in the Africa-Russia Forum there in 2019.

In Bouaké, the former capital of the rebels during the politico-military crisis (the period of instability and civil war that the country experienced between 2002 and 2007 and then again in 2011–2012), the authorities' distrust of Russia is complemented by a distrust of the local population, which is always suspected of betraying something. For example, a man suspected of running a highly influential fake Twitter account was recently arrested under murky circumstances.

It was in this incongruous setting, where the reddish dust from the Sahel causes breathtaking twilights, that I discovered this dacha in the bush, and met its owner Irina. Her story, which she shared without hesitation, opens a little-known page of the Russian presence in West Africa, far from the militias and other contractors who are busy restoring Moscow's geopolitical influence there. Irina's story dates back from way before the Wagner Private Military Company, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, or others doing their business there.
Baie de Cocody. Source: Wiki Commons
A Soviet life in the Sahel

Irina arrived in Africa in 1994. Like thousands of other young Russian women, she chose to follow her African husband she had met in the USSR, where he had come to be trained as an engineer.

Irina's husband was from Burkina Faso, and he benefited from the technological cooperation between the Soviet Union and what was then called the Third World. He had first arrived in Uzbekistan, before coming to Belarus, then a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

She met him while he was a student at the University of Novopolotsk, a small, closed military city, where she lived with her mother, an engineer. Her father, a career military man, had died shortly after her birth, and her uncle was to follow him a few years later — probably because of the position he held in Chernobyl, she told us.

If Irina said little about the circumstances of her departure, she spoke at greater length about her arrival in Burkina Faso at the early age of 17, newly married and not speaking a word of French.

Her account is sometimes a little blurred, but clear enough to convey the loneliness (and perhaps even the suffering) that she had to endure during the first years of her new African life. The Ouagadougou of the 1990s was indeed light years away from the closed military city where she had grown up in the USSR. Despite the deteriorating economic situation of the 1980s, the closed Soviet cities remained relatively protective cocoons for children who, like Irina, grew up there. The store shelves were probably almost as empty as elsewhere, but the social infrastructure maintained by the Soviet Red Army and the research laboratories present in these strategic enclaves made life sweeter.

In Ouaga, the short form of Ouagadougou everybody uses to refer to Burkina’s capital city, Irina discovered another universe. It was a world, she told us, that she did not even know about back in the USSR. We can guess from what she says that Irina's marriage must have been difficult. Her husband, often absent, let her to take care of the home and their young daughter in a country whose language and culture were alien to her.

In spite of the difficulties and extreme loneliness, she gradually got adjusted. She told us that she has had many jobs in the four corners of the Western Sahel: she was a waitress in the Malian capital of Bamako, a cook in Ouagadougou, and finally settled here in Bouaké, the city where her second husband came from, but she did not elaborate about that either.

In her restaurant, which she opened in 2019, Irina prepares Russian dishes to order: pirogi and pelmeni (dumplings), stroganoff, borsch. “The hardest part,” she says, “is finding the right ingredients in this city located six hours’ drive from Abidjan and its international port.”

Sometimes she cooks for the Ukrainian engineers who come from time to time to service the machines in the nearby tobacco factory. Her restaurant also attracts some of the Bouakois locals who are curious to taste this cuisine from far away.

For even if they are reluctant to try the low-cost geopolitical adventure offered by Russian entrepreneurs, the inhabitants of Bouaké seem to have a special bond with Russia. This is evidenced by several mysterious signs we came across in the streets of the city: Karaoke “chez Nikita,” which unfortunately we were not able to try, and a small cafe "Chez Vladimir" (which is Russian in name only, since it serves local dishes). “People here like Russians,” says Irina by way of explanation. It is likely that the Ukrainian cooperants who have been coming to the tobacco factory periodically for a long time have something to do with it. Ironically, Russians and Ukrainians represent the same ethnocultural group in the minds of many people here.
Vladimir Putin with Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire to the Russian Federation Roger Nyango, 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
Soviet brides in West Africa, a socio-historical phenomenon

Irina is neither an isolated case, nor a curiosity. Her trajectory is actually part of the commercial, political, and social exchange networks that have long linked West Africa to the former Soviet Union. Numerous ties were indeed established between the countries of the region and the USSR in the aftermath of their independence, in order to train the future elites of the former French colonies in Africa — particularly, though not exclusively, in countries that had opted for a “socialist path.”

Very far from the present-day problems of Wagner and the human rights exactions attributed to it, there was a time when Soviet and local engineers cooperated on large infrastructure, industrial, and agricultural projects. Thus, like Irina's first husband, thousands of Burkinabes, Senegalese, Malians, and Ivorians went to study in the USSR in order to return to their respective home countries with a degree of technical training. And like Irina, many Soviet citizens married these cooperants and followed them to their distant homelands. The phenomenon is extremely gendered, if only because of the essentially male nature of the contingents sent by African countries to train in the USSR.

No one really knows how many of them have settled permanently in the region — hundreds surely, thousands probably. During a brief career as a journalist in West Africa nearly 15 years ago, I had the chance to meet some of these Russian wives and I even wrote a paper on them. At the time, in 2007, the Russian Consulate in Dakar, Senegal, confirmed that there was a community of more than a hundred Russian citizens who had been living in the country since the 1970s and 1980s. Those whom I met were organized into associations, corresponded with each other, and formed a network of solidarity whose ramifications extended throughout French-speaking West Africa.

By its very existence, this community testifies to the intensity of the links that united West Africa and the Soviet Union. While many studies have been conducted on other aspects of this relationship (economic relations, student exchanges, etc.), the phenomenon of Soviet brides in the region has not been the subject of an in-depth study. This is a pity, because it is still a very vivid manifestation of the historical depth of Russo-African relations.

Moreover, a better knowledge of this phenomenon would allow us to put Moscow's recent African adventures in their historical context, while adding a healthy dose of ethnography. This would certainly help to enrich our analysis on Russia's return to the region, which today is mainly analyzed from above, through the prism of strategic and security studies. In short, it would be new fieldwork that would undoubtedly allow people to draw together the threads of other unknown aspects of the Russian presence in Africa, and perhaps even to anticipate certain developments, rather than perpetuating the magnifying-glass effects created by the excessive media exposure of Prigozhin’s geopolitical enterprises.
  • Kevin Limonier

    GEODE, Paris 8
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