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Translator's Introduction to Ethiopia through Russian Eyes

An eye-witness account of the end of an era, 1896-98 consisting of two books by Alexander Bulatovich:

From Entotto to the River Baro (1897)

With the Armies of Menelik II (1900)

Translated by Richard Seltzer,,

Copyright 1993 by Richard Seltzer

"Despite its bland title, this is the most important book on the history of eastern Africa to have been published for a century."  That's the beginning of a review of my book Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes (my translation from the Russian of From Entotto to the River Baro and With the Armies of Menelik II by Alexander Bulatovich) that just appeared in the August/Septemter 2008 issue of Old Africa (published in Kenya).

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim electronic copies of this translation for non-commercial purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

This is the translator's introduction to Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, by Alexander Bulatovich and translated by Richard Seltzer.

Africa World Press/Red Sea Press recently published a print edition of this book which you can buy from

Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich, translated by Richard Seltzer. Unique and detailed first-hand account of Ethiopia in 1896-98 -- at the change of an era -- by a Russian officer with remarkable understanding for the many varied people who lived there and keen insight into their destiny.

The full text is also included in the CD book:

Everything But the Internet gathers the complete non-Internet works of Richard Seltzer on CD, in plain text, with software that lets you listen as well as read. It includes: The Name of Hero, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, The Lizard of Oz, Without a Myth, Spit and Polish, Mercy, Rights Crossing, short stories, articles, book reviews, and poems.

To see the complete text of From Entotto to the River Baro, click here.

To see the complete text of With the Armies of Menelik II, click here.

Review of Ethiopia through Russian Eyes, which appeared in African Studies Review


A young Russian cavalry officer witnessed as Ethiopia vied with Italy, France, and England for control of previously unexplored territory in east-central Africa. His two books included in this volume are an important source of historical and ethnographic information about that little-known but critical and exciting period.

Almost all official Ethiopian documents from the 1890s were destroyed during the war with Italy in 1936. The historical record depends largely on the observations of European explorers and visitors, of whom Alexander Bulatovich was one of the very best. The books included here cover the first two (1896-97 and 1897-98) of his four trips to Ethiopia.

Bulatovich sensed that Ethiopia was in a delicate state of transition, that what he was seeing would not remain or even be remembered in a generation or two. He had the instincts, although not the training, of an anthropologist, trying to preserve some record of fast-disappearing cultures. But he was not a scientist who observed with cool detachment. Rather, he was actively involved in the events he described, particularly on the expedition to Lake Rudolf. He became ambivalent, torn by his military duty (as an officer attached to the army of Ras Wolda Giyorgis) and by his personal values and sense of justice. Time and again, he found himself party to the decimation of the very people whose culture he wanted to preserve.

He approached his subject with enthusiasm, fascination, and, at times, with almost religious respect. He did not presume that European culture and technology were morally superior. Nor did he romantically prefer the "primitive."

Empathizing with many of the peoples he encountered, he witnessed the tragedy of the clash between traditional ways and modern arms. He considered modernization inevitable, but prefered that it be done in the most humane manner. Hence he considered conquest and gradual change under the Amharic rulers of Ethiopia as preferable to the total destruction which would be likely in case of conquest by a European power.

Bulatovich had a strong natural interest in military and religious matters, and that was at the heart of his respect for these people. He saw the Abyssinian military as having recently passed through a golden age of cavalry charges and individual heroism, which called to mind the by-gone days of medieval Europe. He saw the Ethiopian Church as close to the Russian Orthodox Church and the origins of Christianity, and he greatly respected all the details of their belief and practice, and all their unique legends and saints.

He was, however, a product of his time: the time of Kipling and the Berlin Conference. In those days, it was common for Europeans to make judgements about cultures, based on a scale in which their own culture was at the top. He shows great respect for and understanding of Amhara, Galla (Oromo), and several other Ethiopian peoples and cultures, with whom he had prolonged contact and whose languages he learned. But he uses strong negative terms to describe the people and cultures of what is now Southern Ethiopia. In part, this prejudice is due to ignorance -- he had little contact with these people and did not understand their language. In part, too, it was a reflection of the attitudes of his comrades-in-arms -- Amhara and Galla warriors -- who also were encountering these people for the first time, and for whom they were just as foreign and incomprehensible as they were to Bulatovich.

His works should appeal to anyone interested in the history or anthropology of Africa and Ethiopia. They also provide a clear picture of the relations between Russia and Ethiopia in the 1890s, which planted the seeds of their present-day relations. And these accounts can help fill in historical details regarding events and individuals during that era, and can serve as a valuable resource to specialists.

Up until now, the main source in English about Russian activities in Ethiopia and their observations of that country has been The Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility by Czeslaw Jesman. This is an amusing collection of rumors and anecdotes, based primarily on Italian sources. Unfortunately, it is often wrong; but, in the absence of a better source, its errors have often been repeated.

One speech which Bulatovich made to the Russian Geographical Society was translated into Italian and French and is frequently cited. But his two books, up until now, were available only in Russian. Hence his observations and contributions have remained virtually unknown in the West.

Bulatovich's first book, From Entotto to the River Baro, published in 1897, consists of journals of two excursions he went on during his first trip to Ethiopia 1896-97, plus a series of essays based on what he heard and observed during his year-long stay with the Russian Red Cross Mission. The essays deal with various peoples of Ethiopia (Galla/Oromo, Sidamo, Amhara) -- their history, culture, way of life, beliefs and languages; on the governmental system and its historical background, on the army, on commerce, and on the Emperor's family.

With the Armies of Menilek II, published in 1900, is the journal of Bulatovich's second trip to Ethiopia 1897-98, during which he served as an advisor to the army of Ras Wolda Giyorgis as it conquered the previously little-known southwestern territories from Kaffa to Lake Rudolf. Here he builds on his previous knowledge of the country and also recounts an exciting personal story of military adventure, which builds to a climax in the final chapters.

Both books, edited and with an introduction by Isidor Savvich Katsnelson, were reissued by The Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow in 1971. 

I first discovered Bulatovich in the London Times of 1913, while looking for another story, on which I wished to base a novel. The article described how Russian troops had besieged two monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece and exiled some 660 monks to remote parts of the Russian Empire for believing that "The Name of God was a part of God and, therefore, in itself divine." Bulatovich -- a former cavalry officer who had "fought in the Italo-Abyssinian campaign, and afterwards in the Far East" -- was the leader and defender of the monks. ("Heresy at Mount Athos: a Soldier Monk and the Holy Synod," June 19, 1913).

News was a more leisurely business then than now. The reporter drew an analogy to characters in a novel by Anatole France and drew an interesting sketch of the background and motivations of the main figure. I got the impression of Bulatovich as a restless man, full of energy, chasing from one end of the world to the other in search of the meaning of life. Eventually, he sought tranquility as a monk at Mount Athos, only to find himself in a battle of another kind.

I was hooked by this new character and new story. What would a Russian soldier have been doing in Ethiopia at the turn of the century? What war could he have fought in the the Far East? What was it that compelled him to go from one end of the world to the other, and then to become a monk?

After getting out of the Army, I moved to Boston, where my future wife, Barbara lived. There I tracked down all available leads to this story, but could find very little additional information. There was a poem by Mandelshtam about the heresy. The philosopher Berdyayev had nearly been sent to Siberia for expressing support for the heretics. But that was it.

Then in the spring of 1972, the "B" volume of the new edition of the official Soviet Encyclopedia (Bolshaya Sovietskaya Entsiklopedia) appeared. The previous edition had mentioned an "Alexander" Bulatovich who died about 1910. The Bulatovich in the Times article was named "Anthony" and was very much alive in 1913. The new edition made it clear that Alexander and Anthony were the same man. (In the Russian Orthodox Church, when becoming a monk, it is common to adopt a new name with the same first letter.) The new article corrected the date of his death (1919) and referenced books that Bulatovich had written about his experiences in Ethiopia. This encyclopedia item was signed by Professor I.S. Katsnelson, from the Institute of Oriental Studies, in Moscow.

I wrote to Professor Katsnelson, and to my delight, in his reply, he sent me a copy of a recently published reprint of Bulatovich's Ethiopian books, which he had edited, and also gave me the name and address of Bulatovich's sister, Princess Mary Orbeliani, who was then 98, and living in Canada.

From that point on, one lead led to another.

Katsnelson offered to help me gain access to Soviet archives that had some of Bulatovich's unpublished notes and other related materials. But my Army security clearance prevented me from travel behind the Iron Curtain. (I was then in the Army reserves.)

Instead, in the summer of 1972, I traveled to Mount Athos, where I spent a couple of weeks, mostly doing research in the library of St. Pantelaimon, the one remaining Russian monastery there.

Meanwhile, I corresponded with Princess Orbeliani, and visited her for two days the following summer in Penticton, British Columbia. In long tape-recorded conversations and in letters before and after that visit, she provided me with valuable information about her brother's life and insight into his character. At 99, she was very articulate, lucid, and helpful. She was delighted that someone was showing an interest in her brother's work and beliefs. She was a remarkable and inspiring person -- unassuming, warm and open. Living in a nursing home, she continued to pursue her artwork, specializing in water colors. Although her fingers were swollen from arthritis and she had difficulty even unwrapping a piece of candy, she could still play Chopin on the piano from memory, smoothly and without hesitation. Her own tale would make an interesting book: flight during the Revolution by way of Baku to Yugoslavia, and hardship there under the Nazis; sending her son to engineering school in Louvain, Belgium; his career in the Belgian Congo; and then eventually joining him in British Columbia. (She passed away in 1977 at the age of 103).

Increasingly, I was getting caught up in the research, carrying it far beyond what one would normally do to write an "historical novel." Each new piece of information raised more questions and pulled me in even deeper.

After Barbara and I were married in 1973, we wanted to travel to Ethiopia. In preparation, we took lessons in the Oromo language with Solomon Kenea, an undergraduate at Harvard who came from the same part of Ethiopia where Bulatovich had traveled. I didn't expect to become proficient in the language, but I felt that learning it was one way to get an appreciation for the people and their culture. And if and when we got to Ethiopia, trying to learn more about the language would be a way to make friends there, as Bulatovich had eighty years before. Unfortunately, the revolution in Ethiopia then made the trip impossible.

But at Harvard's Widener Library, I was able to follow up references and find related materials. In this manner, I found and photocopied numerous books and articles about Ethiopia, as well as the heresy, and the Manchurian campaign of 1900.

I was fascinated by Bulatovich's character. I wanted to work out the puzzle of his motivations, to figure out what could have led to all the shifts and twists of his life story: from St. Petersburg, to Ethiopia, to Manchuria, then back to St. Petersburg where he became a monk, and on to Mount Athos, becoming the champion of the "heretics" there, then a chaplain at the Eastern Front in World War I, surviving the Revolution and Civil War, and returning to preach on what had been his family's estate in the Ukraine, only to be murdered by bandits.

What drove him to do the things he did? How could I present all these facts I had uncovered in a way that they seemed plausible?

Eventually, I wrote The Name of Hero. Intended as the first part of a trilogy, this novel focuses on Manchuria, with flashbacks to his childhood and to Ethiopia. Professor Katsnelson died in 1981, the year that Hero was published.

Katsnelson (1910-1981) was a professor at Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., in Moscow. He was a specialist in ancient Egypt and Nubia, best known for his monograph Napata and Meroe -- the Ancient Kingdom of Sudan published in 1971. He had a personal interest in Ethiopia and Bulatovich in particular. In 1975, together with G. Terekhova, he published a popularized biography of Bulatovich entitled Through Unknown Lands of Ethiopia. He also edited and, in 1979, published a book by another Russian explorer of Ethiopia, a contemporary of Bulatovich, L.K. Artamanov, entitled Through Ethiopia to the Banks of the White Nile. Katsnelson also uncovered in the Soviet Archives a series of previously unpublished documents by and about Bulatovich in Ethiopia. These were eventually published in Moscow in 1987 as Third Expedition in Ethiopia by Bulatovich. Selections from his introduction to the first Bulatovich books, with unique biographical details about Bulatovich, are included at the end of this volume.

While I was researching my novel, I translated portions of Bulatovich's Ethiopian books for my own use. The more I read about Ethiopia, the more it became clear to me that experts in the field were unfamiliar with these works and could benefit from them, and also that they contain much that would interest the general reader and lover of history. Finally, with the prompting of Professor Harold Marcus of Michigan State University, I made the time to translate both books in full. I am now writing the next Bulatovich novel.


Up until the Revolution, Russia used the Julian or "old style" calendar, which, in 1897-98 lagged 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar, which was used by the rest of the world. Since Bulatovich used the "old style" and celebrated religious holidays, such as Christmas, in accord with that calendar, his usage has been retained in this translation.

I have not anglicized the names -- except Biblic ones in a church or historical context (e.g. the Queen of Sheba), and Bulatovich's middle name Xavieryevich (instead of Ksaveryevich), to indicate the Roman Catholic origins of his father, Xavier.

Ethiopian words in the text pose a particular problem. Bulatovich used non-traditional phonetic methods to render what he heard into Cyrllic characters. Strictly following standard Cyrllic-to-English transliteration practice would lead to unnecessary confusion, making it difficult to recognize when he is writing about well-known historical people, places, and events. For instance, the general he accompanied on the expedition to Lake Rudolph is commonly rendered in English as Wolda Giyorgis, but direct transliteration from Bulatovich's Cyrillic would yield Val'dye Gyeorgyis. And the common title dajazmatch in direct transliteration would have been dadiazmach.

To avoid this problem, where the Amharic original is obvious and the person, place, or thing is well-known, I follow the spelling in The Life and Times of Menelik II by Harold G. Marcus.

In other cases, I deviate from standard transliteration to yield spellings consistent with well-known ones. For instance, the Russian letter "U" at the beginning of a word and before a vowel is rendered "W" in this text (as in Wollo and Wollaga). Also, the Russian character that is normally rendered with the two-letter combination "kh" is transcribed here simply as "h" when it falls at the beginning of a word (as in Haile). And the combination of two Russian letters -- "d" and the letter normally rendered as "zh" -- is here treated as the single letter "j" (as in Jibuti and Joti). Also, the series of titles ending in -match, such as dajazmatch, are rendered consistently with "tch" rather than just "ch" as in Bulatovich's usage.

For convenience, when Bulatovich uses Russian units of measure for distance (verst), length (vershok, arshin, sagene), temperature (Reamur), weight (pood), I provide a direct translation and immediately follow with the conversion to common American units of measure [in brackets].

The paragraph breaks are the same as in the orginal (for easy comparison of one text with the other).

Ellipses (...) are used here the same as in the original. They do not indicate that material has been omitted.

Thanks to the dozens of people from the Internet newsgroups soc.culture.soviet and k12.lang.russian who took the time to help me decipher obscure and obsolete Russian terms and identify literary quotations. Alexander Chaihorsky deserves special thanks for his insight into the meaning of "sal'nik" based on his experience as an explorer in northern Mongolia. Thanks also to another Internet contact: Zemen Lebne-Dengel, who explained for me the Amharic words t'ef and dagussa.

Complete text of From Entotto to the River Baro
Complext text of With the Armies of Menelik II
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