Soviet Medical Internationalism and the Global Cold War

Associate Professor Paula Michaels

American Albert Sabin (standing) and Soviet Mikhail Chumakov (second from r.) collaborating on the polio vaccine, c. 1956-59.  Courtesy of Henry R. Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

About the project

My current book project, Soviet Medical Internationalism and the Global Cold War, analyses the varied strategies the USSR employed to mobilise medical cadres and medical knowledge as vectors for global engagement. While these efforts began in the immediate wake of World War II, they grew exponentially during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Strategies to marshal medicine were organised around three approaches: (1) deploying Soviet workers overseas to conferences, on bi-lateral exchanges, and via secondments; (2) receiving overseas delegations to the USSR in order to showcase Soviet advances in research and in the organisation and delivery of public health services; and (3) hosting foreign students, primarily from the Global South, for the study of medicine in the USSR. While not expressly coordinated, these pathways of engagement exhibited complementarity that provided the state with a range of options that could be utilised flexibly, as appropriate for different target nations.

Taking the United States, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba as case studies for Soviet medical diplomatic efforts, I highlight the ways that personal contacts and professional networks operated in ways unanticipated by and perhaps undesired by the states that instigated them.

The Soviet experience illustrates the exceptional potency of medical and health initiatives as instruments of ‘soft power’: state-sponsored efforts to woo foreign governments and their people. Seemingly (if not in actual fact) free from ideological concerns, the universal, humanitarian grounds on which the case can be made for collaboration in medicine are an easy sell to recipient states and their citizens. Moreover, in light of the ways that diseases know no national boundaries, a clear case can be made for the advantageousness of cooperation and collaboration even in the face of conflict.

Unifying what has been in the scholarly literature to date three largely separate conversations about contacts between - to use the language of the Cold War era - the First and Second Worlds, within the Second World, and between the Second and Third Worlds, this study showcases the range of strategies available to state actors and how these approaches overlapped, reinforced and, at times, conflicted.