How Russia tried to colonise Africa and failed
Oleksandr Polianichev/ Al Jazeera:
“Remember, you are white, a man of the superior race,” this was one of the rules Lieutenant Grigorii Chertkov espoused while deployed in Africa in the service of the Russian Empire in 1897. He was part of a delegation sent by Russian Emperor Nicholas II to Ethiopia to establish a formal Russian diplomatic mission with the aim of bringing the African country into the Russian imperial fold. In the eyes of the African people who saw the Russian convoy make its way from a port in Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the Russians were probably hardly distinguishable from any other European colonial troops they had seen. Wearing white pith helmets – not only an item of headwear but also a symbol of presumed racial superiority – the Russians, like their European counterparts, were there to advance an imperial cause.
More than a century later, another Russian emissary visiting the Ethiopian capital would speak of colonialism on the African continent as if his country never tried to engage in it. At a July 2022 press conference, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticised the West for trying to bring back the “colonial epoch”. His speech conveniently missed the fact that his ancestors wanted to be part of the imperial domination of Africa that defined that epoch. Indeed, today’s official Russian rhetoric outlines the history of Russian relations with Africa in exclusively anti-colonial terms. And yet, historical facts reveal that Russia was part of the imperial “scramble for Africa” – only, it failed miserably at it. New Moscow, the failed colony Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian imperial expansionism focused on its immediate neighbourhood. Wars of conquest and colonisation were fought south into the Caucasus and east into Central Asia and the Far East. As it grew stronger, the Russian Empire ventured farther afield, expanding its sway into North America and even trying to establish a colony in Hawaii.
When the “scramble for Africa” started in the 1880s among Western imperial powers, the continent started to arouse the appetite of the Russian imperial elite as well. Nikolai Ashinov, a self-styled Cossack, an adventurer and a man with the rare ability to charm imperial decision-makers, is credited with bringing Africa to the attention of Russian imperial officials.
In 1885, his name started making headlines around the empire thanks to his audacious proposals to gain Russia a foothold in Africa by conquering Sudan and Ethiopia along with their Red Sea coasts. Ashinov asserted that he had enough volunteers willing to create a colony for the crown. The only thing he lacked was a green light from St Petersburg, the imperial capital. The most remarkable thing about Ashinov’s campaign was not the boldness of his venture but the excitement it caused within the highest echelons of power. A number of ministers as well as Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who exerted enormous influence over the emperor, saw this idea as a chance to acquire a colony in Africa at a low cost. That is, St Petersburg would not have to send an army to make the conquest because it would be a private venture.Various statesmen also saw the importance of such an undertaking. Some, like Navy Minister Ivan Shestakov, wanted to establish a coal station for Russian steamships on the Red Sea coast, which had acquired global significance after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Others, like Nikolai Baranov, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod – Russia’s commercial hub for trade with the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia – were more interested in the opportunity for resource exploitation. He suggested establishing the Russian-African company with its own fleet and garrison, which would extract resources and trade goods with the locals. Apparently, it was Baranov’s arguments about the commercial benefits of such an exploit that won over Emperor Alexander III.
In March 1888, a Russian warship with Ashinov and several of his companions landed off the coast of Tadjoura, located today within the borders of Djibouti. Lieutenant AK Ivanovskii, a navy representative, negotiated a protectorate status for the territory with a local sultan while Ashinov’s task was to stay and lay the foundation of a future settlement. Soon, Ashinov had travelled back to Russia, boasting of having established the Russian colony of New Moscow. As preparations started for sending settlers in under the guise of a religious mission, officially led by Archimandrite Paisii, news reached the government that the settlement did not exist. Ashinov’s men who were supposed to have established the settlement fled soon after they came ashore as they had no livelihood to survive. Ashinov turned out to be what many suspected he was: a liar. To avoid international embarrassment, St Petersburg withdrew its support for the settlers mission but still allowed it to proceed as another private venture, perhaps hoping the second time, Ashinov would be successful. In December 1888, a large crowd of people came to the port of Odesa to bid farewell to more than 100 settlers of diverse backgrounds, among them Ashinov himself. They arrived onboard a steamship in the Gulf of Tadjoura in January 1889 and eventually settled in the old Ottoman fort of Sagallo, hoisting the flag of the Russian Empire over it.
New Moscow was finally a reality. To feed themselves, settlers started farming, but they did not stay there long enough to reap the fruits of their efforts. Contrary to the assurances that a local chief had given to the Russian newcomers, the entire coast had already been claimed by France. In February 1889, after a few attempts to force the Russians to surrender the fort, French gunboats shelled Sagallo, killing several settlers. The rest were collected by the French and dropped off at Port Said in Egypt, where a Russian steamship picked them up and took them home. To avoid a diplomatic scandal of tremendous proportions, the Russian authorities denied any involvement in the colonisation of Tadjoura. The anti-colonial hero who was not Although the attempt to colonise the Red Sea coast failed spectacularly, Russia’s desire to expand its empire into Africa did not disappear.