Oleksandr Polianichev

Oleksandr Polianichev



This image of a European governor of a sub-Saharan province evokes everything we associate with colonialism. Indeed, he and many of his "white" compatriots came to Africa for the benefit of empire. But there's a nuance: the Tsarist Empire. 🧵on Russia and whiteness in Africa. 1/

We've met this guy already. Nikolai Leont'ev, a landowner from Kherson, an adventurer, a colonial, a man who was behind Ethiopia's diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg. A man who promised Menelik arms and ammo in exchange for a colony for Russia somewhere in Djibouti. 2/

A man who became the head of a newly annexed province in Ethiopia's south. A man who, after all, promised his "rights" to this land to the tsar. As befitted a colonial man of privilege, he was an avid big-game hunter. Elephants were his passion. Just like any other animals. 3/

Still, it was elephant sport hunting that he really excelled in. Within Ethiopia, he broke a record. Ras Makonnen once congratulated Alfred Ilg, Menelik's closest advisor and minister: “It is good that you killed an elephant before Count Leont'ev exterminated [them all].” 4/

Ivory was Africa's "white gold." Leont'ev was white, too. He highlighted his whiteness by wearing a colonial outfit, with a pith helmet on his head. Scholars have long paid attention to the ways the pith helmet reinforced racial difference in colonial contexts. 5/

By its very function–to protect white bodies from the tropical sun that ostensibly did no harm to the "indigenous" population–the pith helmet racialized European hygiene. It forged a sense of shared belonging to the inter-imperial community of whites. Leont'ev was one of them. 6/

So where the others. The Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev, who came to Ethiopia a number of times, shared his impressions in 1909: "I will hunt along the way. There's everything here, lions and elephants included." He mocked his tan as a sign of going black in the Dark Continent. 7/

He racialized his "transformation": "The sun beats mercilessly, blacks are naked. Real Africa. I write poetry, but not much. I'm getting stupider as I'm getting blacker, and I'm getting blacker every hour." The association of tan with going native was a common colonial trope. 8/

Indeed, Russian encounters with Africa had a long tradition of evoking racial stereotypes. In the most influential example of Russian travel literature, "Frigate Pallada," the famous writer Ivan Goncharov described his expedition into the land of the San people. 9/

His observations were those of a racist: "And this is my brother, my neighbor, I thought, painfully observing this kind of under-created, miserable creature. They must be completely thoughtless, their minds seem not to be developed at all." 10/

This book was an obligatory reading in military schools up until the end of the empire. One of those who might have read it was Petr Krasnov, the head of the Convoy of the Russian Emperor's mission to Ethiopia. In his diary, he wrote about the aversion he felt in Djibouti. 11/

The reason was the Somalis: "At first glance, they are disgusting with their dark color, their nakedness," he wrote. But if you keep looking, "you begin to reconcile. (...) Clean white clothes soften the disgust of the black body: in its own way, it is not bad." 12/

The head of the convoy's caravan, Lieutenant Grigorii Chertkov, formulated a rule that kept their spirit high: "Remember that you are white, a man of the highest race, you must not lose your dignity by manhandling and bustle." Did the convoy wear the pith helmet? You bet! 13/

There was nothing particular in the attitudes of the subjects of the White Tsar in Africa. It was part, even if neglected, of the dark historical record of European imperialism. And no, the widely propagated myth of an "anti-colonial" Russian Empire is nowhere near the truth. end

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