Research article

Student colectivos in the USSR during the Cold War 1960s: shaping Cuba’s ‘New Man’ from abroad

  • Rafael Pedemonte (Associate Professor, CRLA–Archivos, Poitiers University, France)


As Cuban–Soviet relations strengthened throughout the 1960s, Havana sent a significant number of becarios (scholarship holders) to the USSR. This was intended to improve Cuba’s technical advancement, but it was also part of a broader attempt to build, through education, what Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara coined as ‘Cuban New Man’. To ensure the students’ adherence to socialism and avoid dissatisfaction with the revolution, Cuban leaders asked the students to organise themselves in colectivos, which assembled all students enrolled in the same Soviet institution. Although these organisations were constantly monitored by a state officials, many Cubans eagerly assumed a leading position within colectivos, guaranteeing the observance of strict discipline and contributing to strengthening the bond between the students and the revolution, ultimately reinforcing Cuban socialism’s New Man.

Keywords: Cuban Revolution, Soviet Union, education, colectivos, students, ‘New Man’, socialism

How to Cite: Pedemonte, R. (2023). Student colectivos in the USSR during the Cold War 1960s: shaping Cuba’s ‘New Man’ from abroad. Radical Americas, 8(1).

Rights: © 2023, Rafael Pedemonte.




Published on
10 May 2023
Peer Reviewed


After Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in 1959, education became a core component of the Cuban Revolution and the dissemination of its narrative. Eager to strengthen the Castro regime’s support base, the Cuban authorities designed a series of educational policies to both advance the development of an island that faced increasing international hostility and create a lasting bond between the people and the revolutionary project. The year 1961 was officially declared the ‘Year of Education’, leading to a large range of initiatives that intertwined instruction and political commitment. To accentuate the sense of rupture with the island’s capitalist past, the new regime labelled each year with some of the revolution’s high priorities (prior to 1961’s designation as the Year of Education, for example, 1960 had been the ‘Year of the Agrarian Reform’).1 The former insurrectional leader, Armando Hart, Minister of Education between 1959 and 1965, was in charge of overseeing the implementation of several social programmes that advanced what Richard Fagen has termed ‘the transformation of political culture’.2

Education and self-education through political socialisation and membership in revolutionary organisations was at the core of this process of rapid transition towards a new social order and a revolutionary ‘New Man’3. This latter term was famously coined in 1965 by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who operated in the 1960s as the Cuban Revolution’s leading theorist. According to Guevara, the construction of a revolutionary society required the active commitment of those possessing the most advanced revolutionary awareness: the ‘vanguard’. This select group, ‘ideologically more advanced than the mass’, was called on to transmit its exemplary behaviour to the rest of the population, thereby cancelling the ‘vestiges of the past’. The vanguard group assumed the key role of educating the people and transforming their mentalities through a dynamic of emulation that would turn the society ‘into a gigantic school’. To attain this ambitious goal, Guevara conceived of a dual educational process: ‘indirect education’ provided by the most revolutionary elements (the vanguard); and ‘direct education’, ‘carried out by the state’s educational apparatus’ and a series of official programmes (such as the one examined in this article). Both mechanisms were envisioned as a means to broaden and accelerate the revolutionary consciousness, an indispensable step in the building of a ‘society of Communist men’.4

In this article, I focus on one of the programmes that helped boost what Guevara branded as ‘direct education’: the scholarship system implemented by Havana and Moscow allowing thousands of Cubans to study in the Soviet Union (USSR). This programme has been disregarded by the existing historiography, although it underscores one of the Cuban government’s priorities: its willingness to perform an effective educational enhancement in the wake of its swift transition to socialism. Education in the USSR was complemented by an instrument of ‘indirect education’, which is at the core of my analysis: the colectivos of Cubans studying abroad. As the Cuban–Soviet alliance took shape in the early 1960s, the USSR hosted a growing number of Cuban students, who registered at Soviet universities and other training institutions. They were tasked with a key mission for the future of the Cuban Revolution, whose leaders expected the students not only to learn the ally’s language, but also to master sophisticated techniques such as agricultural mechanisation, modern fishing technologies and the operation of military aircraft that should, upon completion of their studies abroad, be applied back on the island. Immediately after leaving the country, scholarship holders were requested to organise themselves into so-called colectivos de estudiantes, which assembled all students enrolled in the same Soviet institution. Although the ways that individuals committed themselves in a colectivo were largely shaped by an uncommon experience – being a Cuban student in the USSR and other Socialist countries – the groups’ dynamics drew from a broader top-down attempt to mobilise and strengthen support for the Cuban Revolution. The colectivos’ agency was in fact embedded in a general policy designed to stir up a feeling of ownership of (and thus a fidelity to) the government through collective organisation. I claim in this article that, even if the formation of Cuban colectivos in the USSR transcended the Cuban territory, it constituted a political experience embedded in a larger mobilisation strategy driven by the Cuban Revolution. Colectivos therefore represent an unexplored mechanism that, together with other experiences of political organisation and mobilisation, forms part of a broader attempt to craft a ‘New Man’. As such, colectivos mirrored key domestic initiatives in Cuba, such as the ambitious Literacy Campaign of 1961 and the less-explored mobilisation scheme dubbed ‘socialist emulation’ (to which I refer later).5 These initiatives were powerful means to solidify people’s – particularly young people’s – sense of belonging to a revolution that was officially declared as socialist in April 1961.

Based on newly accessed Cuban diplomatic sources stored at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) in Havana, press articles, unpublished memoirs and several interviews conducted by myself with former students who took part in this scheme in the USSR, this article represents the first attempt to examine the Cuban student colectivos in the USSR. It focuses both on their functions and their political implications. I show how these colectivos helped consolidate a particular ‘culture of militancy’, which is understood in this article as an amalgamation of shared values, militant practices, collective imaginaries and expectations, moulding the group’s conviviality and pushing it to act in pursuit of an idealised political goal. In the 1960s, many within the Cuban community of students actively sought to reinforce the revolution, thereby gaining a sense of belonging with the Castro project. This way, the student associations participated in the revolution’s general effort to give meaning to the socialist transformation implemented at a rapid pace in the early 1960s.

This article reveals how, within each colectivo, students were encouraged both to support and to discipline and sanction each other, while also setting up various political, cultural and sporting activities. These organisations were hierarchically ruled by the students themselves, although with permanent surveillance from Cuban state delegates. Students designated a body of representatives (president, vice-president, delegates of finance, studies, sport, culture, discipline)6 who were called upon to keep alight the flame of the Cuban Revolution, transmitting a positive image of their country in the USSR and interacting with their higher authorities. Although my research highlights the agency of the students, collective commitment to the revolution was not entirely self-initiated. Incentives were created from above and pressures were exerted by Cuban government officials, including Embassy staff, special envoys from the Young Communist League (UJC) and staff from the Ministry of Education (MINED), sometimes with the assistance of Soviet university authorities. Both of those mechanisms – the actions of the students themselves and the enticement (sometimes coercion) coming from higher leaders – nurtured a strong ‘culture of militancy’ within most students, prompting them to develop a sense of ownership of the revolution. This way, Cuban students who were too young to engage in military operations during the anti-Batista insurrection (1952–9) could cultivate and bolster a sense of identification with the revolution and the exhilarating changes that the Castro government implemented throughout the 1960s. However, I also argue that this process entailed a sometimes difficult process of adaptation, which was not devoid of misunderstandings and disenchantments. After examining the multilayered disciplinary and ideological framing to which the students were subjected, I will cover the large range of cultural and sporting activities in which colectivos engaged. I will then flag the multiple obstacles and hurdles impinging upon the building of a committed ‘culture of militancy’. Critical voices or dissenting attitudes sometimes emerged, showing that not every student embraced the official rhetoric and assimilated the expected revolutionary behaviour. Complying with the expectations and requirements of Cuba’s new political culture was not an easy task, and the clash of old and new values could spark conflicts, tensions and a few scandals, sometimes leading to the expulsion and repatriation of the students involved.

As I have stressed, the student colectivos mirrored the mode of operation of other organisations in Cuba, such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR7), seeking to foment revolutionary habits and to galvanise a culture of militancy. To that aim, student leaders and higher authorities played a mutually reinforcing role through a sophisticated system of disciplinary surveillance, collective assistance, emulation, marginalisation and harassment. By exploring these overlapping activities and displays of revolutionary attachment, I show how the students did not merely bow to the rulers’ pressures, they also operated as active agents of political transformation, cultivating a vibrant set of moral values and a strong attachment to their educational and everyday revolutionary practices.

Interactions with Cuban officials: a multilayered structure to monitor students

The radical path taken by Cuba’s new revolutionary leaders from 1959 onwards soon caused a deterioration in Havana’s relations with the United States, its former main economic partner. Amid a bitter controversy with the White House regarding the nationalisation of American-owned oil companies (ESSO, Texaco, Shell), the Eisenhower administration made clear that the US would do its best to obstruct the revolution and in 1960 placed an embargo on exports to Cuba. Fidel Castro, who had already established close ties with the USSR, turned to Nikita Khrushchev, who expressed the Kremlin’s willingness to help the island both technically and economically. In a letter sent in June 1960, Castro asked Khrushchev for military assistance and received an optimistic reply: ‘The Cuban Republic today leads the anti-imperialist struggle in Latin America … In this serious struggle, the Cuban people can count on the sympathy and the support of the Soviet people.’8 This steadfast declaration of support quickly resulted in the shipment of arms, the purchase of Cuban sugar and the commitment to defend the island in the event of a foreign military intervention.9

But the scope of the Cuban–Soviet alliance was not confined to military and economic cooperation. In January 1961, Guevara announced a bilateral cultural agreement, which included sending 800 Cuban students to the USSR.10 Even if a few members of the communist Popular Socialist Party (PSP) had settled in the USSR in previous years, 1961 was the year from which an accelerated wave of students left home, often for the first time, to study in the territory of Cuba’s primary ally.11 Besides the 800 students who moved to the USSR as a consequence of Guevara’s agreement, a second deal signed in 1961 allowed an additional 1,000 Cuban peasants to benefit from one year of agricultural training in the USSR.12 The influx did not halt in the coming years and, by mid-1963, more than 4,000 Cubans were studying in the USSR.13 Although some scholars such as Damaris Puñales-Alpízar,14 Jacqueline Loss,15 Blas Nabel Pérez,16 Isabel Story17 and Rafael Pedemonte18 have already addressed Cuban–Soviet cultural relations during the Cold War, it is surprising that virtually no works have examined this subject through the perspective of the thousands of young Cubans who studied in the USSR.19 The exception is Isabelle Desisto’s 2020 master’s thesis, which constituted a superb introduction into the topic of Cuba–USSR educational exchanges spanning the 1960s to the 1980s. Desisto’s unpublished study is a fascinating examination of the experiences of the Cuban students in the USSR, which is sustained by an in-depth analysis of both Soviet diplomatic sources and oral history. However, there is no mention in her account of the Cuban colectivos, the core of the present article. By stressing the formation and role of such colectivos, this article seeks to transcend the sole experience of the Cuban students in the USSR and decipher how the Cuban Revolution’s mobilisation mechanisms were implemented and adapted abroad. It is aimed at becoming a contribution for both the knowledge about the Cuban becarios (scholarship holders) and a singular and, so far, uncharted case study of the dynamics of the building of Cuba’s ‘New Man’.

Following the Cuban government’s request, becarios in the USSR were assembled in colectivos, a collaborative form of organisation through which becarios complied with the requirements and duties that they were expected to fulfil. I will first address the early mechanisms that the Cuban authorities established to spur the students’ commitment to the revolution and guarantee their academic success. Havana appointed a multilayered structure of officials and delegates who were tasked with supervising the students during their stay in the Soviet Union. This severe control represents a substantive distinction between the experience of a Cuban becario and the life of other Third-World students in the USSR, who enjoyed greater autonomy from their home country.20

First, before the revolutionary administration implemented an efficient monitoring structure in the USSR, the Cuban students also benefited from some independence. In 1962, however, the Cuban Embassy in Moscow complained about the lack of an adequate diplomatic team that could accurately monitor and assist the growing community of students. ‘Taking into consideration that to this day, there are more than 1,000 students located in places distant to each other, we reach the conclusion that it is nearly impossible that one person looks after a work front that spans through more than 20,000 square kilometres’, a diplomatic report noted in September 196221. In his sharp letter, the diplomatic official went over the many limitations impairing the Embassy’s action with regard to the students and underscored the absence of a series of much-needed services, such as an official translator and a vehicle, crucial in such a large country. The note was directed to Ambassador Carlos Olivares who was urged by his subordinates to forward these concerns to Cuba’s authorities on the island.22

As can be inferred from the previous document, in an initial stage, the Cuban Embassy was the sole political body in charge of dealing with the problems and the surveillance of the students living in the USSR. But as the Cubans further spread throughout the vast Soviet territory, this organisational apparatus soon became insufficient. According to a MINREX document, in February 1963 it was still the role of Ambassador Olivares to travel in the USSR, inquire about the students’ life conditions and keep them updated about the political events the Cuban Revolution was facing.23 Indeed, providing political orientation was viewed as a top priority to secure the students’ faithfulness to the revolution. The diplomatic reports I have consulted in Havana attest to this consistent need to guide the students ideologically and assert the principles of the Cuban Revolution.

The 1962 October Crisis and Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the Soviet missiles after a secret negotiation with US President John Kennedy, without previous consultation with Fidel Castro, triggered the latter’s furious reaction, while many Cubans, encouraged by revolutionary authorities, shouted in street demonstrations: Nikita, marikita, lo que se da no se quita (‘Nikita, you little faggot, what has been given cannot be taken back’).24 As a former member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee would later acknowledge, the crisis seriously threatened to dismantle the Cuban–Soviet partnership.25 Becarios found themselves in an uncomfortable position, forced to assume a middle approach between being loyal to the Cuban Revolution and remaining respectful to their Soviet hosts. Well aware of this delicate balance, the Cuban diplomats reacted swiftly and offered systematic guidance to their young compatriots. The Embassy in Moscow approached the students and gave them abundant material to get acquainted with the revolution’s official version of the missile affair: ‘We have sent to the student colectivos literature and propaganda materials received from Cuba, as well as the declarations of our Party and government in connection with the events of the last crisis,’ wrote Ambassador Carlos Olivares in a diplomatic note. Along with the documents pertaining to the crisis and Khrushchev’s unilateral decision to withdraw the missiles from the island, this set of literature also included a number of Fidel Castro’s speeches and the 1962 Second Declaration of Havana, which were ‘intended as orientation for becarios regarding our country’s clear and concrete position in the face of the divergences and discrepancies that have emerged within the great family of the countries and parties that make up the socialist camp’.26 By alluding to these ‘divergences’, Olivares referred specifically to the growing tensions between Mao’s China and Moscow. As I will point out later, the Cuban students found themselves dangerously enmeshed in this international clash.

For the Cuban officials, it was thus urgent to make sure that no ‘lost sheep’ strayed from the revolution’s official fold. The students, key representatives of the Cuban Revolution in the land of its primary political partner, should nurture a strong sense of loyalty and commitment, which would also guarantee that they would eventually move back to the island and help the technical advancement of the revolution. Anxious about these ideological concerns, Havana acknowledged the absence of a suitable structure to deal with the students and opted for appointing a special envoy from the MINED with the title of Consejero responsable de becarios.

Antonio Díaz, an experienced professor and diplomat, arrived in Moscow in March 1963 and immediately introduced himself to the student colectivos. After a first tour in the Soviet capital and Leningrad (now known as St Petersburg), where he talked with all the student representatives and singled out worrying episodes of disorganisation and lack of discipline, Díaz noted that the liaison with the colectivos needed to be thoroughly reconsidered. First, he underlined the ‘need of more direct work with our students to assist them in personal, political, educational, and informative aspects’. He then suggested that the work should be split into two main fronts: a university student front and a peasant-worker front. The latter mainly concerned the young Cubans who were training as agricultural experts in several rural areas of the USSR, for which a special delegate from the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) was essential. Díaz concluded that even if his appointment was a positive step towards a deeper connection with the students, much remained to be done. He reiterated that the conditions had not been met to facilitate travel across the USSR and demanded the assistance of a translator and a typist, who was urgently needed since ‘we receive letters from our students every day’ and they could not be answered in reasonable time. ‘It is hard to work this way’, insisted Díaz, ‘and this is the reason why we are unable to develop all the activities that we should, and we want to develop.’27

Although the presence in the USSR of Díaz, who appeared to be fully devoted to handling student problems, eased the workload of his colleagues from the Embassy, it soon became evident that a more systematic plan was needed. Díaz’s worries regarding the loose relationship with most student colectivos were reiterated in the summer of 1963 during the first so-called Primera Plenaria de Becarios, a general assembly gathering large portions of the students living in socialist countries (who were on vacation in Cuba) and leading Cuban officials, such as Raúl Castro and Haydée Santamaría. Apart from recalling that the becarios were ‘the intellectual vanguard of our people’, the authorities’ speeches insisted on the need to improve ‘the efficiency of the administrative apparatus devoted to the scholarship system’, which would help in countering ‘the anarchy due to the lack of indispensable coordination of adequate planning’.28 These hurdles hampered the ability to monitor the students, which resulted in a series of breaches of the expected disciplined behaviour. During the second Plenaria de Becarios in August 1964, the minister Armando Hart acknowledged that there were ‘many vices that survive in the consciousness of many of our students’, and pinpointed some of them: ‘absenteeism, the vice of studying at the last minute, … a vice or tendency towards individualism, to believe yourself superior to others’ (Figure 1). According to Hart, all these evils stemmed from ‘the ideology of the reactionary and conservative classes’.29 Hart thus linked the students’ betterment to the outstanding project of overcoming Cuba’s bourgeois past, a project that should be achieved through the progressive building of a ‘Cuban New Man’. In a distant country, where the students enjoyed broader spaces of autonomy and were subjected to less control from the Cuban state than on the island, leaders concluded that new tools of ‘direct education’ were needed.

Figure 1
Figure 1

A 1963 newspaper notice published in Cuba encouraging the students to ‘eradicate the vices of the past in studies’, such as cheating (Source: Revolución, 16 February 1963, p. 5)

The second plenaria ended with the decision that four representatives of the UJC were to be sent to the different socialist countries where Cubans studied. Two emissaries of the Communist Youth, Remigio Ruiz and Juan Gregorich, headed to the USSR as encargado de atención política e ideológica to guide the students ideologically and politically. Humberto Cachón was charged with the mission of overseeing the students in East Germany and Poland and Pedro Lobaina took responsibility of those studying in Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The choice was made based on the delegates’ revolutionary pedigree, as well as on their political experience. Remigio Ruiz (Figure 2), for example, had joined the 26th of July Movement (M-26) after the 1959 revolution and served as UJC General Secretary in the province of Camagüey before departing for the USSR in 1964.30 With fresh UJC representatives in the USSR, the workload was better compartmentalised. While, as state delegate from the MINED, Antonio Díaz (and his successor since 1965, Francisco Pacheco) dealt primarily with the administrative and institutional procedures pertaining to the Cuban becarios, the UJC envoys focused on ‘the political work with the young who were there [in the USSR]’, effectively guarantying more regular contacts with the students and delivering constant ideological orientation.31

During his three-year mission as UJC envoy, Remigio Ruiz (Juan Gregorich was replaced a year later due to personal problems) toured 13 Soviet republics and visited all the student colectivos in the USSR,32 a noticeable uptick in outreach compared to the former system. These recurring meetings were aimed at ‘faithfully’ informing students about the Cuban revolutionary process, checking whether the students were fulfilling their duties and addressing their main concerns.33 Of the more than 20 former becarios interviewed for this article, the majority have retained a vivid memory of their interactions with UJC delegates, which suggests that their work decisively altered and deepened the exchanges between the students and their superiors.34 Lorenzo Campos (Figure 3), who headed his colectivo for a while, stated that the UJC mission was to give ‘direct assistance to the student groups, and I realised that they did so in order to keep alive the fervour of the revolution and … explain the different measures that were taken’ in a period when different trends coexisted among the young Cubans.35 Evelio Tieles, a violin student at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow until 1966, not only remembers the two envoys from the Communist youth but he could even name both Ruiz and Gregorich: ‘They were good people,’ he added.36 Confused by the large and multilayered structure erected by the authorities to deal with student issues, René Mena Millar acknowledges that he and his classmates from Kaliningrad could not figure out who had the final word: ‘We never knew who directed the political work with the students’ – the MINED, the MINREX, the Communist Party or the Embassy.37 As for the UJC delegates, Millar recalled that they came to Kaliningrad and that one of the two, Juan Gregorich, was nicknamed ‘Robespierre’ for ‘the passion and energy with which he demanded virtue from the Cuban students’.38

Figure 2
Figure 2

The UJC envoy, Remigio Ruiz, in Moscow in 1965, talking with a Cuban student who would later become his girlfriend (Source: Remigio Ruiz private collection)

Figure 3
Figure 3

Lorenzo Campos (standing, second from left) and his fellow classmates in a 1964 meeting with a Russian teacher (Source: Lorenzo Campos private collection)

I also asked Remigio Ruiz to clarify how the hierarchical order was distributed among the different layers tasked with monitoring the Cuban students. It is perhaps not surprising that Ruiz – a 23-year-old when he was sent to the USSR on behalf of the UJC – tends to highlight the importance of his own role, a common rhetorical strategy in oral history. Therefore, we must be cautious while examining his words. But, after comparing Ruiz’s statements with diplomatic sources from the MINREX Archives, it seems indeed that a ‘virtual horizontality’ was established between the Consejero responsable de becarios from the MINED and the UJC representatives, which means that they interacted on equal terms even though the latter were, in theory, subordinate to the former. Remigio Ruiz, who talked to his ex-colleague Juan Gregorich before addressing my queries, stressed that the MINED consejeros ‘were very gentle and respectful with both of us, they did not make any important decision without coordinating it with us first’. Despite the age gap (Antonio Díaz, for instance, was 20 years older than Gregorich and Ruiz), ‘we always found receptive ears and although they were adults, they did not object to our opinions, proposals, and suggestions’, which ultimately needed to be endorsed by the MINED officials. Above the UJC and the MINED stood the Cuban Embassy in the USSR, which implied that the most crucial decisions regarding the students (e.g., serious sanctions, repatriations) had to be communicated and approved by the ambassador, the top of the pyramid.39

Finally, the control structure built by the Cuban delegates in the USSR was backed by their Soviet counterparts. Every university and technical school in the USSR had a dean (decano) of international relations (the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow appointed a person in charge of the Latin American students), who used to approach the Cubans and report incidents in which the becarios were involved. In certain cases, the Soviets suggested the expulsion of some of the Cuban students who were not behaving according to the Soviet disciplinary principles. For instance, the Soviet person in charge of foreign students from the Plekhanov University of Economics contacted Antonio Díaz to express his discontent regarding the students Evelio Goderich, who had ‘breached the code of ethics and the rules of his house of studies’. As a result of the Soviet complaint, Goderich’s scholarship was cancelled.40 When a Cuban student lacked sufficient training and could hardly cope with the pedagogical demands, Soviet officials also intervened to suggest expatriation or the transfer of the students to less demanding educational institutions.41

For the Cuban Revolution, sending students to the USSR was not a minor issue. The rising community of becarios were called upon to boost Cuba’s technological and professional standing. It was thus pivotal to ensure that they would not fail in their quest for academic success, while also cultivating an unwavering loyalty to the revolution and its leaders. This required the establishment of a multidimensional network of officials aimed at guiding and controlling the students politically and academically. The structure described above reveals the significance that the Cuban authorities conferred on these students, as well as the relevance of the tasks that they were expected to fulfil once back on the island. Having designated this system of political envoys, the way to deal with the students became better compartmentalised. The students’ leeway to act autonomously narrowed as more officials were sent to the USSR with the task of supervising the colectivos’ performance. Student self-organisation, however, did not vanish completely. Instead, its contours were now better circumscribed. Having been incorporated into a hierarchical system of accountability, students could focus on the organisation of a wide range of extra-academic activities.

The colectivos’ organisational dimension: involvement beyond the academy

One of the colectivos’ most recurrent tasks can be matched to Richard Fagen’s concept of ‘implementor’, which he used to characterise the activities of the CDR.42 Cultural events, sporting activities, reading circles, political debates and donation drives represented some of the colectivos’ most important organisational actions. The Cuban students elected their leaders, who were tasked with organising public events designed to propagate an encouraging image of the Cuban Revolution and display a high level of commitment to their home country.

Initially, most Cubans (75 in April 1963) were enrolled at the Patrice Lumumba University. Founded in Moscow in 1960, a year that coincided with the steady radicalisation of the Cuban Revolution, the People’s Friendship University (rechristened Patrice Lumumba University [PLU] after the Congolese leader’s assassination in 1961) revealed the Kremlin’s post-Stalinist willingness to strengthen its ties with Third-World countries, while also granting increasing importance to education as a key field of the East–West confrontation.43 The PLU was designed to train mostly African, Asian and Latin American students (and a few Soviets), who regularly interacted with their Cuban counterparts and invited each other to join cultural acts and national commemorations. However, it was not infrequent that Soviet officials (particularly members of the Soviet Communist Youth, known as Komsomol44) invited a Cuban ‘mouthpiece’ to speak on behalf of the Caribbean revolution in one of the many international meetings convened by local authorities. According to the Cuban journalist Sergio Alpízar, the Cubans themselves were also encouraged to stage different events embodying their national culture, such as ‘celebrations of their national days [the 26th of July was given priority], dance and musical performances, sports, organization of friendship evenings with other countries as well as with other educational institutions or factories.’45 Demonstrating that they took this task seriously, the students wrote a letter in 1963 to their superiors to request the basic elements for properly disseminating Cuban culture: musical instruments, records, films, baseballs and traditional clothes.46

Pilar Sa, a student of electronic engineering in Leningrad, was often asked to sing at student parties and eventually formed a jazz band with her German classmates (Figure 4). They gained some prominence and were invited to perform on Soviet television. They were even given permission to tour the USSR, playing at the Jazz Festival of Tallinn in Estonia. The Soviets offered Sa their support to launch a career as a musician in the USSR, but Sa declined, arguing that working for the Cuban Revolution was her priority: ‘I had to solve the problems of the revolution.’47 It must be stated that this case was an exception.48 Partaking in cultural events was explicitly and energetically encouraged by the Cuban officials but was not meant to distract students from the primary purpose of their journey in the USSR: to succeed in their studies. Putting together a musical ensemble or other forms of non-academic activities were supported so long as such activities remained compatible with the successful completion of the students’ training programmes. Alba Aguirre, who studied mechanical engineering in Kiev and simultaneously played in a Cuban band, alleged that as soon as her group was invited to perform, ‘the success of the party was guaranteed’. Their public appearances became so regular that they started to disturb their education, and eventually the colectivo came to the conclusion that they should break up the band: ‘With parties every day, we were going to fail in our studies,’ Aguirre confessed.49

Figure 4
Figure 4

Pilar Sa and her German friends, with whom she formed a band (Source: Pilar Sa private collection)

Sport was also keenly promoted. A series of rules enacted in 1964 to frame the students’ lives in all socialist countries ostensibly pushed the Cubans to practise sports activities ‘even if they are not mandatory in the institution in question’.50 The students gathered often to play Cuba’s most popular sport: pelota (baseball). Big colectivos formed baseball teams, allowing this sport, ‘made in the USA’, to ‘enter the socialist countries through the Cuban students, because it was endorsed by Cuba. It is an infallible confirmation of Cuba, sí, Yanquís, no’, a former scholarship holder said sarcastically. A 1963 gathering with Cuban officials and student representatives from different socialist states encouraged each colectivo to have a baseball team and try to rally ‘Soviet, Hungarian, Poland, Czech, and other students’, an initiative that materialised in Kiev.51 As this example reveals, one of the colectivos’ recurrent tasks was to propagate some aspects of Cuban culture. By organising pelota tournaments and pushing their Soviet classmates to join, they subverted traditional representations (baseball as the enemy’s sport) and effectively displayed a more nuanced and complex vision of their country. However, as with cultural undertakings, students had to stay focused on their education and limit their extra-curricular activities if they encroached on their academic responsibilities.

Living in the USSR entailed the exploration of an utterly different world, what one of my interviewees referred to as ‘deslumbramientos’ (bedazzlements),52 and sometimes the attraction to the newly discovered culture could impinge on the becarios’ studies. Lorenzo Campos, a student at the Kaliningrad Technical University in 1963, recalled in an interview that one of his Cuban classmates lost his scholarship due to his excessive enthusiasm for ice skating: ‘He became so excited about it that he went wrong in the exams’ (Figure 5). Campos’s colectivo summoned the student and gave him an verbal warning, but he did not improve his marks. The student representatives met again and enacted his repatriation back to Cuba.53

Figure 5
Figure 5

Two Cuban students ice skating in Leningrad (Source: Néstor Gómez private collection)

Among the actions that colectivos implemented, the círculos de estudios (study circles) are particularly interesting since they reflect the complex intersection between the academic and political dimensions of the students’ experience in the USSR. These instances of intellectual exchange, which were also organised in Cuba to ‘root out the values of the past’,54 were initially conceived of as a means to collectively improve the group’s educational performance. Indeed, skilled students such as Rolando de la Hoz – who was six or seven years older than his peers and was studying industrial engineering at the University of Havana before obtaining a scholarship to pursue his training in the USSR – tutored classmates at a lower level, some of whom, such as René Mena Millar, had not even finished their secondary education.55 But for the Cuban authorities, these study circles were also an important way to pass on political messages and strengthen the students’ sense of identification with the Castro revolution. In 1962, a diplomatic official based in Moscow suggested to Ambassador Carlos Olivares that each colectivo should benefit from a ‘basic library’ containing ‘political study material in Spanish with the most fundamental books’, as well as ‘movies and documentaries about the advance of our revolution’.56 Receptive to his colleague’s suggestion, Olivares sent a letter to Havana and asked the government to dispatch ‘literary and propaganda materials’, ‘declarations of our party and government’ and 500 copies of a Fidel Castro’s speech, with the aim of distributing them among colectivos.57 Having received this wide assortment of political readings, the students were then able to set up further study circles designed to discuss Marxism and the main orientations and priorities of the Cuban Revolution. In 1963, for instance, a large group of students from the PLU met every week during study circles led by 32-year-old economics student Serbelio Rodríguez. They shared their views on a number of issues, such as recent leaders’ speeches, new laws implemented by the Castro administration and Marxist literature.58 They did not always agree and there was some room for autonomous thinking, such as when Lorenzo Campos opposed the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive – an aggressive campaign launched by the Cuban government to fully nationalise any remaining private businesses.59 However, the line of permitted dissidence was thin. The purpose of the study circles was precisely to erase unorthodox voices and seek unity. As one former student recalls, ‘we had the right to express some opinions, which were discussed within the colectivo and we clarified ourselves as much as possible, but we always came out with a unified criterion.’60

On a few occasions, student debates aroused stormy disagreements that the Cuban authorities were not willing to tolerate. An extreme case of infighting occurred in Minsk, when the colectivo split into two political factions: a pro-Chinese wing and a group that defended Soviet foreign policy. The Sino-Soviet dispute was raging in the mid-1960s, with each superpower claiming to represent the right embodiment of a legitimate Marxist-Leninist model. While in 1956 the USSR implemented a more conciliatory international outlook designed to foster a rapprochement with Western countries (‘Peaceful Coexistence’), China lambasted the new Soviet approach to foreign policy under Khrushchev as reactionary and cowardly. This led the Soviets to build a closer relation with the US and to smooth their rhetoric against the West, a position that the Chinese leadership (and many Cubans later on) considered a shameful abdication.61 Given the island’s tense relationship with the US, it is not surprising that some becarios tilted towards the Chinese side. Remigio Ruiz, who monitored this delicate situation as one of the two emissaries from the UJC in the USSR, acknowledges today that the row gained serious proportions, leading to scenes of physical confrontation and attempts from each group to infiltrate the other. Having examined the crisis on the ground, and after thoroughly discussing the situation with Orlando Reinosa – the pro-Soviet head of the Cuban colectivo in Minsk – the Cuban authorities opted for interrupting the scholarships of at least 10 students, who were blamed for leading the two confrontational blocs.62

However, political divisions within the student community were not the norm. Most colectivo members shared a common gratitude towards the USSR, and the arguments triggered in the study circles generally remained polite and constructive. The previous example nonetheless serves to measure the agency of the students, who were not just mere pawns of either the Soviet or Cuban leadership – they sometimes managed to implement semi-autonomous actions and spaces of interactions within which debates could emerge.

Another crucial dimension of the student organisation was embodied in the concept of ‘socialist emulation’ (emulación socialista).63 Following a dynamic first established in Cuba with the aim of stimulating workers’ production and attachment to the revolution, the students were encouraged to compete with one another. The criteria for succeeding in this competition included participation in a range of activities, such as sport or cultural events. It also considered factors such as discipline, academic performance and involvement in political meetings or acts of solidarity with other communities of foreign students.64 A ‘vanguard’ student could be awarded with both material and moral incentives, such as obtaining the membership card of the UJC,65 assuming a ruling position in his colectivo or representing his organisation in political rallies. As for the material stimulus, the 1964 reglamento de becarios stated that ‘every year, the Cuban revolutionary government will grant vacation trips to Cuba as an award for the best colectivo students according to the results of emulation.’66 Andrés Mena Millar, a former student in Kaliningrad from 1963 to 1969, was voted estudiante ejemplar of his colectivo in a 1965 election. This distinction, which was later communicated to the Embassy, was the result of an anonymous poll in which each student from a given colectivo had a vote. In a process that enjoyed full independence from higher authorities and that raised some disagreements among the students, Mena Millar obtained the majority of votes, which he credited to his outstanding marks and active involvement in political, cultural and sporting activities.67 In 1966, Ambassador Olivares summoned the becarios to an act held for the fifth anniversary of the Cuban military victory at Playa Girón (April 1961). It was also the occasion to announce the six ‘vanguard students’ for the 1965 period (Pedro Azze, Julio Béquer, Enrique Connejero, Elías Entrango, José Miguel Marín Antuña [see Figure 6] and Guillermo Trujillo), all of whom were elected after the emulation, which – in Olivares’ words – ‘emphasises its importance as a revolutionary tool for the advancement of the construction of socialism.’68

Figure 6
Figure 6

A band made up of Cuban students performing in 1967. Among them is José Miguel Marín Antuña, singing on the left behind the woman (Source: José Miguel Marín Antuña private collection)

Along with this dynamic of ‘socialist emulation’ among individuals, larger competitions between colectivos were also encouraged. Each body of students challenged one another throughout the academic year before the annual Plenaria de Becarios, when the Cubans, with the supervision of a few political authorities, weighed up their work in the previous months and designated the best colectivo. In 1963, the first plenaria crowned the colectivo of Krivoy Rog (in Ukraine) as the best group of Cuban scholarship holders in socialist countries. Its president, Kamo Pernas, was a committed communist and descendant of a long-standing social fighter, who in 1941 named his son after the old Bolshevik revolutionary, Simon Arshaki Ter-Petrosian (whose nom de guerre was Kamo). A press article covering the 1963 plenaria stressed that the first prize obtained by Krivoy Rog was based on the remarkable ‘organization of the collective work’, ‘measured by the study results’. This text took this as an opportunity to reassert Cuba’s Communist turn, symbolically linking the Soviet experience to the Castro revolution: ‘The fact that a boy named Kamo also studies there is another symbol that the continuity of the revolution has no end, no borders, no interruption, and like hidden rivers it reappears in the most distant sands.’69 The fourth Plenaria de Becarios (August 1966) took place in Havana during the summer break. The students, many of whom were on vacation in the island, were called upon to choose an exemplary student for each socialist country and award an honorary distinction for a few colectivos that excelled in their degree of organisation and commitment. Three of these colectivos, some of which had symbolic denominations (21st of October, Gorki, Mártires de Girón), were from the USSR.70

The emulation process, steered by the authorities but largely organised by the Cuban students themselves, gives an illustrative indication of the permanent intersection of educational and political drives that moulded the student experience in the USSR as well as their interactions with their classmates and higher authorities. Socialist emulation in the USSR, which mirrored the dynamic that infused collective work in Cuba in the 1960s, stimulated people’s mobilisation and pressed the Cubans to succeed in their studies.71 But this mechanism of constructive competition and collective recognition also contained a powerful ideological component designed to further tie up the students with the revolution and ensure their political faithfulness. Inspired and oriented by the government’s initiatives, the colectivos themselves seized the language of the revolution and crafted their own disciplinary mechanisms, unleashing an inner dynamic of mutual incentive and coercion.

The colectivos’ disciplinary dimension

Adopting the right attitude in accordance with the principles of the revolution was not always a straightforward process. The students needed first to overcome a series of daunting obstacles, which were exacerbated by the striking cultural and geographical gap between Cuba and the USSR. The Russian language, the winter weather, unknown foods and social codes were just some of the hurdles that seriously strained a sometimes painful process of relocation to the USSR. Some students could simply not cope with these intimidating disparities and were unable to pursue their training, requesting to be sent back to Cuba. Sonia Bravo Utrera, a language student in Moscow from 1961, acknowledges that settling in the Russian capital was a tall order, and that she got sick because of the freezing winter temperatures: ‘I had never suffered such an extraordinary cold, which lasted almost six months. A cooling of the bronchi … It was a completely different life.’ Bravo Utrera eventually got better and finished her studies, but several of her fellow students did not share the same fate. Some ‘went to hospitals, with severe depression’, and had to move back to the island.72 Another problem that specifically Black and mulato (with mixed White and Black ancestry) students faced in the USSR was racism. A few historiographical articles have singled out various cases of discriminatory experiences endured by African students on Soviet soil, which spiralled into an unprecedented 1963 political protest following the unsolved case of the assassination of a Ghanaian student, Edmund Assare-Addo. African demonstrators gathered in Red Square carrying placards with slogans such as ‘Moscow, a second Alabama’, and ‘Moscow: centre of discrimination’.73 It was a humiliating scandal for the USSR, carrying wide international resonance. It revealed the persistence of racism in a socialist country that claimed to have eradicated ethnic discrimination.74

Despite the solid alliance that Havana and Moscow built in the 1960s, tensions and misunderstandings still pervaded personal interactions between the Cuban students and Soviet society. Pilar Sa, a mulata student, started her Soviet journey in Minsk, a city with people who ‘had never seen a black person’ before. She remembers an episode when she was on a bus and a man from the countryside came, with his four-button jacket, his chapka and boots, so that you could see that he was not dressed for the city. He stands in front of me with his eyes like a pair of plates, and he rubbed his hand over my forehead and noticed that I did not whiten.

For Sa, having to endure such humiliations became ‘unbearable’, and she asked to be moved to a bigger city: ‘I was sent to Leningrad’, which ‘was more cosmopolitan, there were more Africans, and it was easier’. Such uneasy situations did not totally vanish, however: ‘At that time, in the subway, everybody was reading, so I took out my book and I read. But I knew that if I raised my eyes, someone would be looking at me.’75

Asked whether he witnessed racism in the USSR, Lorenzo Campos recalled the example of a mulato classmate who married a Soviet woman without first meeting her Moldavian parents. He eventually visited his wife’s family but was received with ‘tremendous rejection’, something that was not unusual at the time: ‘There was a lot of rejection from the population’, remarked Campos.76 Such episodes of racism could taint the experience of being a student in the USSR. Even though obtaining a scholarship to enrol in a Soviet institution was ostensibly a great chance to better one’s education and benefit from a higher standard of living than in Cuba, it did mean having to navigate an overwhelming cultural gap between the Cuban and Soviet realities.

Another recurring shortcoming was the overall lack of adequate preparation. It was not rare that Cuban government officials, overwhelmed by the effervescence of the revolution’s early years, granted scholarships to inappropriate and under-trained candidates. Many had not even finished their secondary education before departing to the USSR and had to undergo catch-up preparatory coaching in Soviet institutions, particularly in maths. Some of my interviewees, such as Valerio Panal and Andrés Mena Millar, confessed that they lied (sometimes with complicity of their superiors in Cuba) when asked whether they had graduated from high school, which eventually allowed them to study engineering in the USSR.77 MINREX reports are riddled with examples of the many problems following the hasty selection of becarios. Soviet university officials often complained and urged their Cuban counterparts to proceed more judiciously when picking their candidates. When Antonio Díaz met with the Leningrad Electrical Engineering Institute’s head of international relations in 1963, he received a disappointing review of the Cubans’ academic performance: ‘He said that he could not boast of having these Cubans’, and that they failed in their exams. According to the Soviet scholar, the main problem stemmed from their poor preparation in mathematics, which compelled the university to set up special classes with Spanish-speaking teachers. This severe account concluded by urging the Cuban officials to ‘send us more Cubans with a more complete foundation in math’.78

While many students struggled to assimilate the Soviet lifestyle and cope with their academic duties – particularly with the Russian language – Cuban officials implemented strict disciplinary measures designed to improve the students’ educational level and reinforce their adherence to the Socialist project. However, they were also perfectly aware that overseeing all students in the USSR was unfeasible and, consequently, they relied on the colectivos to enforce the moral and disciplinary codes that sought to shape the students’ private and educational lives. The second plenaria in 1964 listed a particularly severe set of rules. It was prohibited to leave the classroom during a lesson, to be absent from an official activity (classes, conferences, sports events), to travel outside the city without prior permission issued by the colectivo, to grow a beard or to get married before obtaining the university degree.

It was the colectivo’s duty to ensure the observance of these rules, and they pursued this task zealously. Mena Millar, who led his colectivo for a couple of years, recognises that ‘extremism was the norm among us’. Injunctions prohibited behaviour that ranged from going out after midnight to speaking loudly in the corridors. Repeated contraventions of the rules might lead to preventive sanctions and even expulsions. When a disciplinary breach was detected, student leaders could summon a special meeting with all members of the colectivo, including the offender, who had the right to defend themselves. After the proceedings, the students voted and enacted the fate of the defendant. Under Mena Millar’s leadership, for example, his colectivo met and decided to remove the scholarship of four Cuban students accused of breaching the disciplinary code.79 Another former student, Sonia Bravo Utrera, recalls being summoned by her colectivo to decide whether one of her fellow classmates, who married without previously requesting official permission, should be expelled. ‘We were placed in the circumstance of having to raise our hand to [decide whether to] expel them’, which was what finally happened.80

Although the colectivos were charged with dealing with minor cases of disciplinary breach (such as failure to attend lessons, unpunctuality or drinking), higher authorities intervened when it came to more serious affairs. A 1964 episode involving a 38-year-old technical student in Moscow, Evelio Álvarez, sheds light on the particular interaction between colectivos and Cuban officials on serious disciplinary matters. Having noticed that Álvarez had not slept in the student residence for two days, the colectivo reported his disappearance to the Embassy, which informed the Soviet authorities and asked the local police to look for the missing student. As Álvarez later confessed to his colectivo, he had an affair with a Russian employee of the student dorms and spent two days at her apartment. As soon as Álvarez returned to his room, his classmates summoned him to hear his version and decide on his future. Aware of the ‘responsibility that each one of us has for having been selected by the Ministry of Transportation as workers and revolutionaries to train in the USSR’, the student representatives sent a handwritten letter to the Ambassador Carlos Olivares to notify the Cuban authorities of their decision. Expressing their bewilderment at the unprecedented behaviour of Álvarez – who had until then acted as a ‘moral and hard-working classmate’ – the colectivo suggested that he had to be ‘punished’. Nonetheless, ‘at the same time, considering the benefits for Cuba of the knowledge that the above-mentioned comrade can acquire, we believe that he must finish his studies, since he has vowed, on his word of honour, to behave as a guide and vanguard in our group.’81

The ultimate verdict belonged to the Embassy, which designated two diplomatic officials, Manuel García and Óscar Cruz, to further discuss this issue with the colectivo. Worried about Álvarez’s mental health (he had threatened to commit suicide), the diplomats opted for following the students’ advice and ruled out the possibility of expulsion. After a round of discussions and a final vote, García, Cruz and the colectivo members all agreed that ‘the return to Cuba would be the worst’ option in light of Álvarez’s depressed mood. The penalty consisted of not being allowed to leave the dormitories for a month, except for attending classes and going to the Embassy on Saturdays to listen to a lecture or read about recent news in Cuba.82 As evident in this example, the enforcement of exemplary and coercive measures was a complex mechanism that benefited from the active participation of Cuban officials and students alike. The case of Evelio Álvarez demonstrates that colectivo representatives were not mere spectators of their classmates’ fate when dealing with ‘serious’ infractions of the rules. Instead, they were expected to actively engage in the problem at hand, often vigorously embracing a revolutionary discourse to solve the situation. Their words influenced the authorities’ choices, revealing a composite disciplinary system in which the students enjoyed a degree of agency.

I believe that during the 1960s this disciplinary framework eventually bore fruit, and most students nurtured a strong sense of ownership over the revolution, incorporating the codes of what was deemed a rightful revolutionary morality. That does not mean that ‘dissident’ attitudes were non-existent. A few students refused to accept the revolutionary rhetoric and broke with the Castro regime, while others remained faithful but expressed disagreements with some rules perceived as unreasonably coercive. ‘Active disaffection’ led to some cases of defection, though these seem to have been uncommon. René Mena Millar, who lived in the USSR for six years, only heard about two cases of defection.83 In one famous incident, a student, who was travelling back to Cuba, jumped from the ship in the Bosporus Strait and succeeded in reaching Turkish territory.84

‘Passive disaffection’, however, was more frequent. It did not mark a total rupture with the revolution, but rather expressed a nuanced view of the revolutionary code of conduct and a criticism of dogmatism. Pilar Sa, for instance, stood up in defence of a fellow classmate who was under attack for his homosexual orientation.85 ‘In my group there was one [student] who was sent [back to Cuba]. It was horrible, horrible. You know there were tremendous homophobic politics here [in Cuba] at the beginning of the revolution.’ Sa, who lives in Havana and still considers herself a committed revolutionary, rejected this discriminatory decision – her willingness, decades later, to openly express her criticism, reflects just how deeply she had objected to the student’s treatment. The Moscow association of Cuban students met and enacted the cancellation of the student’s scholarship, as well as Pilar Sa’s expulsion from her university, although this last decision was never ratified by the Cuban authorities.86

Moderate criticism of revolutionary radicalism was not uncommon among students. The 1968 Revolutionary Offensive – aimed at dismantling all private business in Cuba – and Fidel Castro’s support for the Soviet intervention in Prague, for example, sparked controversy, although it was not enough to create ‘active disaffection’.87 Rather, those who nurtured growing apprehensions about Cuba’s dogmatism seem to have silenced their criticism, and cautiously adopted a relatively withdrawn posture. Asked whether all students were zealous supporters of the revolution, Andrés Mena Millar commented: ‘We thought like Che. I mean, I am telling you “we”, but we were 20 students and maybe we were five or six to think this way, while others did not care at all [les importaba tres pepinos] about Che and the revolution.’88 In light of the evidence I have collected, it seems that Mena Millar, who headed his colectivo and acknowledges that he acted as an ‘extremist’ in the first years of the revolution, might be overestimating the feeling of indifference among his fellow students, tending to contrast it with his strong devotion to revolutionary principles. Instead, I would be inclined to assert that, overall, the colectivo disciplinary mechanisms succeeded in ‘taming’ the students and preventing – through a mix of coercion and proselytism – major infringements to the behavioural limits imposed by the authorities. As Lillian Guerra has concluded in her brilliant analysis of ‘passive dissidence’ in the Cuban territory, during the second part of the 1960s ‘being obedient was no longer enough; being truly revolutionary required much more.’89 The same conditions were to be enforced among Cuban students in the USSR, and the colectivo dynamic, through leaders such as Mena Millar, was increasingly aimed at ensuring that the Cuban becarios complied with the behaviour expected of the Cuban ‘New Man’.

Conclusion: making sense of the revolution from abroad

The student colectivos in the USSR participated in a broader phenomenon of mass involvement and political mobilisation through which Cuban authorities wished to foster the people’s sense of belonging with the revolution. Beyond their organisational component, these student associations also played a powerful political role as they were conceived of as a means for instilling a new ideological consciousness during Cuba’s accelerated path towards socialism. The first generation of Cuban scholarship holders went to the USSR in the wake of Fidel Castro’s 1961 labelling of the Cuban Revolution as ‘socialist’, although most Cubans – including many of the students who studied abroad – were still unfamiliar with the broad outlines of Marxist thinking. In this process of swift radicalisation, the students were given a ‘vanguard’ role as emissaries to the lands of Havana’s most vital political ally. As representatives of the Cuban Revolution, they were called on by the government to learn from their Soviet partners and to help forge a prosperous socialist society back at home. All my interviewees, including those who have broken with the Cuban Revolution since then, acknowledge that they were swiftly granted a position in Cuba, in which most of them remained in contact with the Soviet experts and workers who were sent to the island to assist the younger revolution. The then 17-year-old Xiomara García, for instance, was hired in 1965 as a Russian teacher in her home city, Camagüey, while Néstor Gómez, who studied fishing in the Leningrad Naval Institute, started working on the ocean a few months after his return in 1967 and eventually became a ship’s captain.90

In the midst of a critical political juncture for the revolution’s survival, the Castro administration relished this opportunity granted by its primary international partner. Sending young Cubans to the USSR appeared indeed as a promising chance to both reinforce the island’s upcoming technical advancement and also infuse militant values to a vanguard group of students expected to turn into future leaders. But, as this article has argued, to successfully attain these objectives, the early mobilisation schemes established in Cuba by the revolutionary government were to be reproduced in the USSR. To that aim, the authorities designed an original organisation mechanism, the so-called colectivos, in which many becarios became enthusiastically involved. Along with other structures for political mobilisation that were implemented in Cuba around the same time (such as the 1961 literacy campaign, the CDR and the Escuelas de Instrucción Revolucionaria), the formation of colectivos in the USSR became a powerful trigger of collective action, dissemination of hegemonic ideas about socialism and promotion of a revolutionary morality. As I have attempted to establish in this article, colectivos were not solely designed to organise the students’ lives and facilitate their sometimes laborious adaptation to the Soviet educational system – they were also supposed to deepen their sense of ownership over Cuba’s socialist revolution. Through a combination of persuasion, emulation and the promotion of a codified revolutionary ethos – but also via coercion and harassment – colectivos played a significant, albeit still underresearched, part in Cuba’s broader attempt to mould a ‘New Man’. This concept embodied the idea of a vanguard protagonist of the revolution who was expected to espouse an exemplary behaviour and guide those who had not yet fully achieved their revolutionary education, subordinating their personal ambitions to the interest of the community in its rapid path toward socialism.91

But in their process of being shaped into a ‘New Man’ (and a New Woman), the students enjoyed, particularly at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, some personal and political leeway. As a result of the revolution’s initial lack of control over the becarios, they could adapt their policies and design original initiatives of collective organisation and forms of interaction. In their journey towards becoming revolutionary individuals, the students were not always mere recipients of discipline injected by Cuban officials. Although often under supervision from their superiors, they found spaces for semi-autonomous organisation, and they sustained an inner and self-cultivated dynamic of revolutionary formation. As shown in the examples throughout this article, together with the government’s powerful revolutionary narrative, the students’ own agency became an integral part of the construction of their revolutionary consciousness. This process was not frictionless: students could be sidelined for their lack of militant spirit, or even endure coercion and marginalisation if they were deemed unable to fully embrace the official codes of revolutionary morality. The example of the student colectivos in the USSR unveils a complex path towards the shaping of Cuban socialism; a process in which the fresh socialist Cuban state, although in a phase of expansion, needed to delegate some of its powers to the students. As I have demonstrated, they took up this mission, sometimes eagerly, and proved perfectly able to create their own organisational schemes and collective rules.


  1. Hernández, ‘Cautivos del tiempo’.
  2. Fagen, Transformation of Political Culture. For Fidel Castro, education and revolution were two mutually reinforcing forces: ‘All revolution is an extraordinary process of education … Revolution and education are the same thing,’ said the Cuban leader in 1961. Quoted in Fagen, Transformation of Political Culture, 2.
  3. This gendered term was intended to cover women as well.
  4. Guevara coined this concept in a 1965 article. By ‘New Man’, he referred to a future generation of revolutionary activists, who would benefit from a Communist political education instilled by the Cuban Revolution and its vanguard members, and whose main drivers would be based on moral incentives instead of material gains. Guevara, El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba, 51–71.
  5. Herman, ‘An army of educators’, 93–111.
  6. Millar, ‘Recuerdos de un estudiante’, 41.
  7. Toro, ‘Socialist governmentality’, 2–29.
  8. Fursenko and Naftali, ‘One Hell of Gamble’, 47–51.
  9. For an insightful account of the inception of the Cuban–Soviet alliance, see Fursenko and Naftali, ‘One Hell of Gamble’. I also recommend Blight and Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days.
  10. ‘Esta revolución’, 5–6, 14.
  11. Author’s interview with Sonia Bravo Utrera (former Cuban student in Moscow), 7 June 2021.
  12. ‘Esfuerzo común para la mayor producción’, 1, 4–7.
  13. ‘Primera Plenaria’, 6–7. Highlighting its numerical and strategic importance, Guevara himself used to refer to this cohort of students as the ‘fourth university of the revolution’, after the University of Havana, Las Villas (Santa Clara) and Oriente (Santiago). Remigio Ruiz, in communication with the author, 2021.
  14. Puñales-Alpízar, Escrito en cirílico.
  15. Loss and Prieto, Caviar with Rum; Loss, Dreaming in Russian.
  16. Pérez, Las relaciones culturales Cuba–URSS.
  17. Story, When the Soviets Came to Stay. Euridice Charon-Cardona, a former student in the USSR, has penned a revealing auto-ethnographic article, but it focuses on the 1980s and on the impact of the perestroika policy on a group of Cuban students living in the USSR. Charon-Cardona, ‘Socialism and Education’, 296–313.
  18. Pedemonte, Guerra por las ideas en América Latina.
  19. Few accounts explore Latin American students in the USSR during the Cold War, but they focus on the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow and tend to neglect the Cuban case. Rupprecht, Soviet Internationalism after Stalin; Pedemonte, ‘Le sort des lumumbistes chiliens’, 149–68.
  20. There have been several recent publications on the Soviet educational aid to the Third World and on the sometimes troubled experiences of foreign students. Most of these works concern African and, to a lesser extent, Middle Eastern students. Hessler, ‘Third World students’, 202–15; Katsakioris, ‘Les étudiants de pays arabes’, 13–38; Katsakioris, ‘Burden or allies?’; Kirillova, ‘Soviet internationalism’; Hessler, ‘Death of an African student in Moscow’, 34. For other studies on African students in the USSR, see Matusevich, ‘Black in the USSR’; Matusevich, ‘Expanding the boundaries of the Black Atlantic’; Bartenev, ‘L’URSS et l’Afrique noire’. See also ‘Élites de retour de l’Est’.
  21. All translations from Cuban sources originally written in Spanish are the author’s own.
  22. Embajada de Cuba en la URSS, Moscow, 12 Septembre 1962, Archivos del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Cuba, Havana (hereafter AMINREX), file ‘USSR’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  23. Carlos Olivares to Raúl Roa, Moscow, 6 February 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  24. Karol, Les guérilleros au pouvoir, 273.
  25. Blight and Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days, 94.
  26. Carlos Olivares to Raúl Roa, Moscow, 6 February 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  27. Carlos Olivares and Antonio Díaz to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, 4 April 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  28. ‘Clausuran esta noche plenaria de becados’, 5.
  29. Hart, ‘Palabras pronunciadas por el Dr. Armando Hart’, 6–7.
  30. ‘Sin colgar los guantes’.
  31. Juan Gregorich, interview with the author, Havana, 24 December 2022.
  32. Remigio Ruiz, in communication with the author, 8 July 2021.
  33. ‘Antes de la III plenaria … ’, Mella, 1965.
  34. As an indication of the narrow contact that was established between the UJC members and the students, a collective interview that I conducted in Havana in 2022 gathered four former students and the two first UJC representatives (Ruiz and Gregorich). They were still in touch and, despite the hierarchical superiority of the UJC delegates, they are now friends. Orlando Reinosa, Juan del Pino, Alina Martínez, Juan Gregorich, Esteban Alfonso, Remigio Ruiz, interview with the author, Havana, 24 December 2022.
  35. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2021.
  36. Evelio Tieles, in discussion with the author, 19 May 2021.
  37. Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021; Millar, ‘Recuerdos de un estudiante’, 47.
  38. Millar, ‘Recuerdos de un estudiante’, 43.
  39. Carlos Olivares, Cuban Ambassador in Moscow until 1967, was replaced by Raúl García Peláez (1967–1973).
  40. Carlos Olivares and Antonio Díaz to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, 4 April 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  41. Manuel García to Carlos Olivares, Moscow, 12 September 1962, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  42. Fagen, Transformation of Political Culture, 90.
  43. For further discussion on the Soviet educational policy during the Cold War framework, see Katsakioris, ‘The Lumumba University in Moscow’, 281–300; Kret, ‘“We unite with knowledge”’. The White House also embarked on an ambitious educational policy designed to host Third World students in American universities and gained their ideological sympathy. O’Mara, ‘The uses of the foreign student’.
  44. Rolando de la Hoz, email exchange with the author, 1–8 July 2021.
  45. Alpízar, ‘Estudiantes cubanos en la URSS’, 76.
  46. ‘Primera plenaria’, 10.
  47. Pilar Sa, online interview with the author, 27 August 2021.
  48. That can be due to the fact that the colectivo in which Pilar Sa was incorporated was made up of only three students and was consequently deprived of the monitoring ability of stronger student organisations. In most cases, students performed in the city where they were based and acted in meetings convened by the local Komsomol or other foreign student communities from the same university. The colectivo from Kaliningrad, for instance, formed a small choir and were eager to sing for their fellow classmates. Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021.
  49. ‘Primera plenaria’, 9.
  50. ‘Reglamento para becarios cubanos’. I would like to thank Remigio Ruiz, special envoy of the UJC to the USSR for the supervision of the students, for sharing this document with us.
  51. ‘Primera plenaria’, 11–12.
  52. Xiomara García, interview with the author, Havana, 9 July 2015.
  53. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2021.
  54. Guerra, Visions of Power in Cuba, 216.
  55. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2021; Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021; Rolando de la Hoz, email exchange with the author, 1–8 July 2021.
  56. Embajada de Cuba en la URSS, Moscow, 12 Septembre 1962, Archivos del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Cuba, Havana (hereafter AMINREX), file ‘USSR’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  57. Carlos Olivares to Raúl Roa, Moscow, 6 February 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  58. Alpízar, ‘Estudiantes cubanos en la URSS’, 74.
  59. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2018.
  60. Rolando de la Hoz, email exchange with the author, 1–8 July 2021.
  61. On the Sino-Soviet split and its implications for the Third World, see Friedman, Shadow Cold War.
  62. Remigio Ruiz, in communication with the author, 2021. Orlando Reinosa, in communication with the author, 2021. Orlando Reinosa, Juan del Pino, Alina Martínez, Juan Gregorich, Esteban Alfonso, Remigio Ruiz, interview with the author, Havana, 24 December 2022.
  63. Guerra, Visions of Power in Cuba, 181–2.
  64. Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021. ‘Conclusiones’, 48–9.
  65. See, for instance, ‘Acto de becarios en Praga’, 3.
  66. ‘Reglamento para becarios cubanos’, 43. One year out of two, all Cuban students in the USSR were allowed to travel back to Cuba during the summer break.
  67. Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021.
  68. ‘Recordaron a Girón en Moscú’, 9; José Miguel Marín Antuña, interview with the author, Havana, 27 December 2022.
  69. ‘Primera plenaria’, 12–13. Remigio Ruiz remembers well Kamo Pernas, a son of a former PSP member, who was also a ‘brilliant student with a great deal of prestige and influence within his colectivo. We relied a lot on him’. Kamo Pernas died of cancer a few years later. Remigio Ruiz, in communication with the author, 2021.
  70. Granma, 15 August 1966, 3.
  71. The Cuban press in the 1960s is full of articles, leader speeches and instructions regarding the ‘Socialist emulation’ plan implemented in Cuba. See ‘Emulación socialista discutirán azucareros’, 12; ‘Proyecto de reglamento’, 6–8; ‘10 preguntas sobre emulación’, 6. The emulation scheme has not been appropriately studied, but it was a crucial priority to further mass participation and economic performance.
  72. Sonia Bravo Utrera, in discussion with the author, 7 June 2021.
  73. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2018.
  74. Hessler, ‘Death of an African student’, 34. For other studies on African students in the USSR, see Matusevich, ‘Black in the USSR’, 56–75; Matusevich, ‘Expanding the boundaries of the Black Atlantic’; Bartenev, ‘L’URSS et l’Afrique noire’.
  75. Pilar Sa, online interview with the author, 27 August 2021.
  76. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2021.
  77. Valerio Panal, interview with the author, Havana, 11 April 2014; Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021.
  78. Carlos Olivares and Antonio Díaz to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, 4 April 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  79. Millar, ‘Recuerdos de un estudiante’, 20.
  80. Sonia Bravo Utrera, in discussion with the author, 7 June 2021. For the Cuban authorities, weddings among students were a real problem, distracting them from their main duties and lowering their academic performance. MINREX reports constantly complain about what a diplomat called ‘the epidemic of weddings’. Embajada de Cuba en la URSS, Moscow, 12 Septembre 1962, AMINREX, file ‘USSR’, cajuela 1960–1964. As we have seen, the 1964 reglamento de becarios banned all weddings before the end of the Cubans’ studies, a measure that Pilar Sa characterises as ‘difficult, coercive, stupid’. Pilar Sa, online interview with the author, 27 August 2021.
  81. Letter of the colectivo to Carlos Olivares, Moscow, 25 October 1964, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  82. Manuel García Fuentes to Carlos Olivares, Moscow, 25 October 1964, AMINREX, file ‘URSS’, cajuela 1960–1964.
  83. Millar, ‘Recuerdos de un estudiante’, 47.
  84. Sonia Bravo Utrera, in discussion with the author, 7 June 2021; Orlando Reinosa, Juan del Pino, Alina Martínez, Juan Gregorich, Esteban Alfonso, Remigio Ruiz, interview with the author, Havana, 24 December 2022.
  85. A 1963 MINREX report described an affair involving five male Cuban students who were expelled for having same-sex sexual intercourse, an incident that the colectivo labelled as ‘an act of degradation in maximum degree’. My research does not allow me to relate this incident to the case denounced by Pilar Sa. It is unmistakeable, however, that for the Cuban authorities, being a homosexual was deemed incompatible with the codes of ‘revolutionary morality’ that the students must observe. Antonio Díaz to Armando Hart, Moscow, 16 December 1963, AMINREX, file ‘URSS,’ cajuela 1960–1964.
  86. Pilar Sa, online interview with the author, 27 August 2021.
  87. Lorenzo Campos, whose father was jailed in the 1960s for counter-revolutionary activities, returned to Cuba in 1965 and intervened before the Ministry of Defence to defend his father. He eventually managed to secure his release from prison. Campos was also one of the students who opposed the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive. Lorenzo Campos, online interview with the author, 18 June 2021.
  88. Andrés Mena Millar, online interview with the author, 14 May 2021.
  89. Guerra, Visions of Power in Cuba, 196.
  90. Xiomara García, interview with the author, Havana, 9 July 2015; Néstor Gómez, online interview with the author, 8 April 2022.
  91. For a compelling analysis of this concept and its role in shaping collective commitment and revolutionary values, see Vidaurrázaga, ‘La escisión entre lo individual y colectivo’.

Declarations and conflicts of interest

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The author declares no conflict of interest with this work. All efforts to sufficiently anonymise the author during peer review of this article have been made. The author declares no further conflicts with this article.


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