How Russia tried to colonise Africa and failed

The Kremlin would have you believe that Russia was always an anti-colonial power in its relations with Africa. That was really not the case.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu presents the portrait of Nikolay Leontiev as gift to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on March 9, 2018 [Facebook/Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the UN]

“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. It continued to eye Ethiopia due to its Orthodox faith and test the ground for possible economic and political advances.

Nikolai Leontiev, a landowner and an adventurer, was one of the imperial subjects who led that effort. Celebrated in today’s Russia as an alleged anti-colonial hero who established Russo-Ethiopian “friendship”, he was anything but.

Leontiev managed to get into Ethiopian Emperor Menelik’s closest circle and helped establish Russian diplomatic relations with Ethiopia. Although he was not authorised as an official emissary of St Petersburg, he nevertheless tried to play such a role.

Taking advantage of Italy’s looming colonial invasion of Ethiopia, Leontiev promised the Ethiopian ruler large supplies of arms and ammunition in exchange for a colony for Russia on the caravan route from Harar to the Red Sea.

Ethiopia did not receive any substantial military supplies from the Russian Empire until the war against Italy was over, but the Russian adventurer’s thirst for self-promotion led him to invent a myth of Russia’s, and his personal, role in the victory over the Italian troops.

In 1897, Menelik appointed Leontiev as the governor of a newly annexed territory in Ethiopia’s south. He fashioned himself as the real colonial ruler of this realm, considering the Ethiopian emperor’s authority there as rather nominal.

Soon Leontiev started planning how the Russian Empire could exploit these territories. His initial idea was to establish a Russian joint-stock company to extract resources and ensure that the territory would later become a Russian protectorate, but St Petersburg did not respond to his proposal.

Then Leontiev sought to attract British, French and Belgian capital, often exaggerating the commercial potential of the territories he was governing. Needless to say, his investors never got their money back.

In a few years, he accumulated enormous wealth thanks to the generous investments while also mercilessly exploiting local people and resources. As he told one of his Russian associates, “I will take all elephant tusks, I will exhaust all my future slaves, and only then will I think about the history of Abyssinia.”

In 1902, on the run from angry investors, Leontiev once again invited the Russian government to take over the territories. This time, the Russian emperor and his ministers took the invitation more seriously, but Menelik was quick to intervene and expel his former confidant from the country. This episode effectively put the nascent diplomatic relations between the Russian Empire and the Ethiopian Empire in danger.

Today, the Kremlin portrays Leontiev as the embodiment of imperial Russia’s alleged anti-colonialism and uses his fabricated image to take credit for Ethiopia’s victory in the Battle of Adwa. Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials do not seem eager to challenge this myth, probably out of their own geopolitical considerations.

Diplomacy and colonialism

In 1897, while Leontiev was still enjoying good standing in Menelik’s court, the Russian foreign ministry sent its first official diplomatic mission to Addis Ababa. This mission, which is seen as laying the foundation for Russia’s relations with Africa, is also touted today by Moscow’s official historical narrative as a symbol of the Russian Empire’s purported anti-colonial sensibilities.

According to the Kremlin, the mission was dispatched out of St Petersburg’s desire to protect Ethiopia, to safeguard its freedom and sovereignty from imminent encroachments by Western imperialist powers.

This could not be further from the truth, however. Russian officials were there to advance Russian imperial interests, and they engaged with Africans, not as equals, but often as racially inferior people.

Apart from Chertkov, who insisted he was of “superior race”, Pyotr Krasnov, another member of the mission, described the local population in appallingly racist terms in his memoir: “At first glance, they are disgusting with their dark colour, their nakedness. Especially terrible are those whose skulls are clean-shaven or covered with yellowish-brown burned hair.”

Pyotr Vlasov, who headed the mission as the official envoy, also talked of Ethiopia in no “anti-colonial” terms. In fact, the very choice of sending him points to Russia’s colonial ambitions in the African empire. Vlasov had previously served as consul in Rasht and Mashhad in northern Iran, which at that time was one of the main targets of Russia’s informal colonialism.

Ethiopia was, of course, no Persia. While markets in the Persian north were heavily dominated by Russian industrial products, Russian consuls enjoyed a substantial degree of power and Russian officers exerted significant influence over the Persian military, Ethiopia was too far away for Russian imperialists to achieve this level of control.

As Vlasov reported, Russia could advance its interests in Ethiopia by establishing a military base or a “colony in the broad sense of the word” on the Red Sea coast. If it did not succeed in that, it could at least make Ethiopia “an obedient weapon in our hands” to keep pressure on British forces in neighbouring Sudan, Uganda and Somaliland.

But Menelik had his own geopolitical game in mind, and the Russian Empire occupied a secondary role within it. Russian representatives, in turn, held Menelik in low esteem, accusing him in their reports of being “greedy”, “avaricious”, and “always in need of money” – money that the Russian Empire could not afford to spend on Ethiopia.

Despite a rather successful idea to ramp up Russia’s prestige in Ethiopia by establishing a hospital in Addis Ababa, Russian influence was weak. In a report to the foreign ministry, Vlasov’s successor, Konstantin Lishin, spoke in favour of Russia’s more direct engagement in Ethiopian affairs, advocating the exploitation of its gold deposits and encouraging the emperor “to intervene in the domestic affairs of the country” in view of Ethiopia’s expected disintegration.

However, the defeat the Russian Empire suffered in its war with Japan in 1905 and the revolution of the same year put these designs on hold. Still, the desire to get involved in Ethiopia did not go away.

As Sergei Witte, finance minister of the Russian Empire from 1892 to 1903 and the head of its government from 1905 to 1906, put it: “Here in Russia our high spheres have a passion for conquests, or rather for grabbing what, in the government’s view, is lying around loose. Since Abyssinia is, after all, a semi-heathen country, but its religion has some glimpses of Orthodoxy, of the Orthodox Church, we really wanted to declare Abyssinia under our protectorate and, on occasion, to swallow it.”

But this was the pipe dreams of a European empire that lagged behind its more successful counterparts to the west. That these dreams did not come true was not for the lack of trying.

While the Russian Empire failed in Africa, it enjoyed remarkable success in expanding and maintaining its dominion in Eurasia, where its imperial troops imposed brutal rule on various nations and established infrastructure for the extraction of resources.

Throughout Asia, Russia pursued the same mission to “civilise the natives” that its Western allies and rivals did elsewhere in the world, sharing with them the same “white man’s burden”. Contrary to the Kremlin’s bold anti-colonial assertions today, Russia was part and parcel of global European imperialism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.