A Review: Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich; edited and translated by Richard Seltzer                                             

(Red Sea Press, 2000) Old Africa, Stories from East Africa's Past, Salvadori, Cynthia August/September 2008

"Despite its bland title, this is the most important book on the history of eastern Africa to have been published for a century. And it was written over a century ago!"

     The book consists of translations of two books, From Entotto to the River Baro, originally published in 1897, and With the Armies of Menelik II, published in 1900, both written by a Russian cavalry officer named Alexander Bulatovich, Lieutenant of His Majesty’s Life-Guard Hussar Regiment. It is the second book which we are reviewing here. Based on his day-by-day diary, it is not only the sole but an astonishingly vivid first-hand description of how Menelik II created his Ethiopian Empire.

     The Berlin Conference of 1884 was the crux of the infamous ‘Scramble for Africa’, whereby assorted colonial powers carved the continent up amongst themselves. Among the Europeans there was one sole African scrambler; Menelik II, the king of Shoa in the highlands of Ethiopia. The Russians, not being among the European scramblers, deemed it advisable to frustrate those who were and thus were sympathetic to Menelik and his policy of expansion. As Bulatovich says, “In striving to extend the bounds of his possessions, Menelik is only carrying out the traditional mission of Ethiopia as the propagator of culture . . . . These are the motives which led Menelik to aggressive acts; and we Russians cannot help sympathizing with his intentions, not only because of political considerations, but also for purely human reasons. It is well known to what consequences conquests of wild tribes by Europeans lead. Too great a difference in the degree of culture between the conquered people and their conquerors has always led to the enslavement, corruption and degeneration of the weaker race.”  (p 177)

     Bulatovich made his first trip to Ethiopia as a volunteer with the Medical Detachment of the Russian Red Cross, ordered to the scene of the Italo-Abyssinian military actions in 1896, when at Adowa Menelik soundly thrashed the Italians in their attempt to take over his domain from the north. Bulatovich stayed on to explore the western part of Menelik’s domain, the subject of his first book, From Entotto to the River Baro, which he got published just after his return to Russia.

     While in Russia Bulatovich did such successful PR that “In September 1897, the Sovereign Emperor [of Russian] was pleased to enter into direct relations with Abyssinia” and an Extraordinary Diplomatic Mission was sent to the court of Menelik — a Mission that included Lt Bulatovich. When he arrived in Addis, the newly created capital, Menelik was on the verge of sending off three generals heading their own huge armies on wars of conquest and he asked Bulatovich if he would like to accompany one of them. Bulatovich was delighted — who wouldn’t have been? —  and chose to go with Ras Wolda Giyorgis. He quickly made up his own caravan of 30 men, which included a fellow Russian as lackey, Private Zelepukin, “his broad-shouldered bulky figure and sunburnt crimson-coloured face making a complete contrast with the light, well-proportioned back-skinned Abyssinians” (251), and dashed off to recently-conquered Kaffa to meet up with the Ras. From the time Bulatovich left Addis Ababa to join the Ras, his book is basically his daily diary. (Though various retrospective remarks make it clear he edited it for publication.) Being a military man, Bulatovich was particularly observant of the workings of the army, and of the Ras’s leadership — for both of which he came to have the highest regard.

   He got to Ras Wolda Giyorgis’s headquarters in time for the departure that was set for 24 January 1897, and records his first view of the army that was mustering near the southern Gimiro border. “For several versts from the headquarters of the Ras, the road was studded with tents on both sides. Soldiers, soldiers’ wives, children, mules — all were mixed here in disorder. . . . I found the Ras in the little courtyard of his headquarters, surrounded by officers. He sat cross-legged, on a carpet in shade of a branchy tree and light-heartedly cleaned his teeth with a little stick.” (261) When the army of 30,000 men and 10,000 animals was on the move, Bulatovich climbed a hill to watch. “When I went down from the hill, I found myself amid such a dense mass of people and animals that I couldn’t get out of it; and only at the bivouac, did I connect with the Ras again. Like an endless worm, the transport wriggled quietly, following the detachment. Dust rose high over the column. Soldiers, women, children, horses, donkeys and mules went alternately in a dense mass. . . . Spontaneously, by an irrepressibly powerful flow, this human sea rushed forward, following its leaders.” (274) “The commander-in-chief and his comrades in arms seemed to me like a large family, united by strong bonds of comradeship in battle.” (279)

     At first some the troops resented the presence of a foreigner. But Bulatovich was a superb horseman and he and his horse changed that. “Defar (my horse) left my fellow travellers far behind me. At full gallop, we jumped off steep banks and again clambered up rising slopes and at a wide gallop rushed across plains. . . . [I] heard approving exclamations relating to my horse and my riding, as for example ‘Ay faras! Ay faras! Frenj farasenye!’ (‘There’s a horse! There’s a horse! The foreigner is a cavalryman!’)” (261)

     As the army marched south through Kaffa to Gimiro, Bulatovich sympathises with the fears of the soldiers, for once they left Kaffa, they were in totally unknown lands. Unknown to them – Bulatovich knew, geographically speaking, where Lake Rudolf lay. The conquest began immediately the army entered Gimiro, with its first encounter with the Shuro (a word, like Shankila, used by the Abyssinians to refer to a congeries of black tribes). This set the pattern. “At five o’clock in the evening, we reached the edge of the frontier forest and set up our bivouac in a small clearing. . . . As far as the eye could see, the valley and hills were densely settled. Smoke arose from the houses. Evidently food was being prepared there. Cattle were returning from pasture, and the sight [of] marvellous white cows aroused the appetite of my traveling companions. . . . The field around was cultivated. The quiet hardworking life of a peaceful people was evident in all, and it was sad to think that tomorrow all this would destroyed.” (262)

     “The valley of the Oyma River, which I had seen yesterday, now unfolded before us. Its population was in full flight. . . . By 11 o’clock, the road was cleared, and theRas’s army poured into the valley, where they scattered in various directions, rushing to replenish their supplies. Any prohibition would be unthinkable and fruitless, since the whole provisioning system of the campaign depended on such commandeering.” (263–64) The following day the Shuro warriors regrouped and attacked, but “About 10–15 minutes after the first shots, the Shuro were already retreating, energetically pursued by Abyssinians. . . . To hide from the Abyssinian bullets, the Shuro climbed high trees; but the bullets found them there, and the Negroes, like shot birds, dropped from there to the ground.” (270–71)

     Again, Bulatovich is impressed by the army: “In this apparently undisciplined army, an astonishing rise of spirit and energy was felt.” (274)

     According to Bulatovich, the Ras did his best to discourage wholesale slaughter. But, “The Ras’s prohibition against entering into battle with the natives now seemed unfeasible.” (287). The following day, bands of Shuro warriors attacked — with spears and stones. “It would have been senseless to hold back our men any longer, since we had not come this far just to sacrifice soldiers.” (289). “Now the Ras was in no position to stop the bloodletting. A thirst for blood and murder had taken possession of the troops. They showed no mercy, not only to men but also to animals. . . . Only women and children escaped death and they were taken prisoner. The commander-in-chief was deeply grieved by what had taken place. He practically wept from compassion and rode silently, covering his face with his shamma.” (300)

    Foraging and fighting, the army descended to the arid, thorny, uninhabited lowlands.  Bulatovich points out, “Really, the conditions of this campaign were most unusual. This wasn’t so much a military campaign as a geographical expedition by a fifteen-thousand-man detachment in absolutely unknown territory. Outstanding Abyssinian troops were completely unprepared for this activity, which was new to them.” (303).  So Bulatovich suggested to the Ras — and the Ras agreed — that, having constructed a semi-permanent camp at Kolu, they leave there the weak and wounded and continue with a reduced force to find Lake Rudolf — which only Bulatovich, who had read the reports of the Austrians, Teleki and von Hohnel, knew, geographically, where it lay. “A military council was held on February 27. At this meeting, they finally determined the composition of the detachment that was to go with the Ras. In all, 5,664 guns were chosen.” (306)

     Yet this unknown area sounded almost like Picadilly Circus; they find traces and hear accounts of the ‘Guchumba’ (vagrants) who passed though the previous year, which Bulatovich knows to have been the Italian expedition of Bottego, and then almost run into what Bulatovich deduces, from the objects found, to have been an English scientific expedition.

     On March 9, “From Menu the Ras had to make a rather difficult choice of route. It seemed impossible to go farther to the southwest. According to the natives, there were no inhabited lands; the time was already late; and the rainy season should be coming soon. Therefore the Rasdecided to postpone farther movement to the southwest to the following year and to take possession now of the mouth of the Omo River, the most important strategic point in these regions; and then return to Kaffa to finally conquer all the tribes on the route which we had followed, and to station garrisons in their lands.” (322)

     March 10 “We rested. . . . since the natives did not know where to find Lake Rudolf, our natural guide was now the compass. I determined the geographical position of Menu approximately and showed the Ras the direction in which the northern section of Lake Rudolf should lie.” (322)

    “We left the populated territories behind, and ahead of us again stretched low-lying hot, and almost uninhabited space with little water . . . . our soldiers were exhausted and our animals worn out. . . . I do not know if another leader could have succeeded in moving his immense weary army, who felt immediately ahead of them the horror of hunger, in a new unknown and seemingly endless desert. But Wolda Giyorgis, in the highest degree, had the gift of a military leader to control the will of his subjects and to carry them along behind him.” (329, 330)

     Then the going got really terrible; deeply cracked black soil, then salt marsh and dense thickets of wait-a-bit thorn through which they had to hack their way while ‘the heat was intolerable’. “I had never seen such powers of endurance.” (337) But finally they got to the Omo! “At eight o’clock in the morning, we sighted the farms of natives, ripening fields of mashella and corn and numerous herds of cattle and donkeys. . . . Soldiers forgot their weariness and, with a whoop, scattered over the plain. They took cattle and went into houses, looking for milk and bread. The inhabitants fled and only rarely did shots resound, bearing witness to individual skirmishes. At nine o’clock in the morning the detachment set up camp in the very center of the settlement.” (338–39)

    Finally, at long last, on March 27, the detachment reached Lake Rudolf! “At seven o’clock in the morning, we set up camp on the very bank of the river, in the shade of high trees, where the Nyanaya [the local name for the Omo] flows into the Rus Gulf.” (343) With the help of an interpreter, the Ras ordered the natives, “Come submit to us.” They replied, “We don’t know you. You Guchumba (vagrants), go away from our lands.” The Ras replied, “If you don’t surrender voluntarily, we will shoot at you with the fire of our guns, we will take your livestock, your women and children. We are not Guchumba. We are from the sovereign of the Amhara (Abyssinians) Menelik.” The Ras then persuaded the natives that if they brought tribute, they would not be killed. (346)

     Two days later came the climax! “About a hundred men crossed over, and from this side a thousand guns supported them. The last to cross over were Ato-Bayu and I, with a flag attached to a long pole. We raised the flag to the top of a large tree, and from the other side, the troops saluted with a volley of gunfire and the beating of drums. . . . The Ras did not undertake any more serious operations on that side, since his domain ended at the right bank of the River Omo. In the evening we ceremoniously erected a flag at the mouth of the river. . . . Each rank of the detachment, including the Ras, carried two stones on its shoulders. We stopped on one of the hills at the very shore and made a high pile from these stones. In the middle we fixed a column 28 feet high, made by connecting several tree trunks; and on the end of it rustled a silk green, red and yellow Abyssinian flag. . . . In front, the lake glistened, that same long-wished-for lake, to which we for so long and steadfastly had striven. To the right, stretched out lay the low-lying steppe, and there the far mountains; to the left lay the dense forest along the banks of the River Omo. And against this background the front of the Abyssinian army stood out brightly. The silk shirts shone, the animal hides, the gold and silver decorations; and Abyssinian flags fluttered. Finally, a shot rang out, and five thousand Abyssinian guns saluted the new domain of Menelik and again erected his flag. They beat drums, blew on pipes, blew on flutes, and broke out in military songs. Moved, Ras Wolda Giyorgis embraced me, and I, warmly and with feeling, congratulated him.” (347–48)

     Now it was all over — all but the trip back. They set off on 30 March. “Our marching column had increased now almost to double what it had been before, from the quantity of livestock that had been taken, and captive women and children. The Ras did not have the spirit to force his soldiers to give up their booty. Our soldiers were in a state of bliss: . . . Captive boys carried guns and shields or drove cattle which had been taken. And captive women, quickly submitting to their fate, already went for water, tore up grass for mules and ground meal.” (354) But, crossing the arid area to go straight to the Kibish, “Our column spread out, and the weaker began to fall behind. First our captive women and children began to fall and die. . . . Zelepukin, who went with the transport in the middle of column, had seen all kinds of horrors during the march and arrived very downcast. ‘How awfully pitiful it is to look at the captive Shankala (Shankala is “Negro” in Abyssinian), your Honor,’ he said. ‘They walk, then stagger, then fall and lie. The master lifts her, beats her, but already, evidently, she has no strength left. He can’t pick her up, so he throws her aside and leaves.’ The temperature at noon was 32 degrees Reaumur [104 degrees F] in the shade.” (355, 356)

    The detachment left at Kolu marched down to join the Ras and the whole army continued back to Kaffa, foraging and fighting on their way. On April 23, during a long day in the saddle, Bulatovich says he “was in some kind of dreamy philosophical mood: how many victims had the conquest of this land cost? It seemed to me brim-full of violence and injustice. Of course, a new phase in the history of peoples is always paid for with sacrifices. But world justice and individual justice are quite different from one another. Murder always remains murder for us, whatever goal it may accomplish, and it is especially immoral in relation to those peaceful, industrious people who never did any harm to us, whose land we now take away by force, using the superiority of our weapons.” But while going along a narrow trail in this benign frame of mind, Bulatovich was attacked by a native, and saved only by a shot from one of his officers. “My dreamy-philosophical mood had completely gone away. War is war, and not a tournament; and the more the one with superior strength can defeat his enemy, the better.” (370, 371)

     And a few days later, on April 29, the Ras put this into action. “In the morning there was a long meeting of the commander-in-chief and his leaders. The whole territory we had passed through was divided into five bands which extended from the boundaries of Kaffa to the south. In them he stationed those regiments which had had land to the east of the Omo River before.” Bulatovich then says exactly who got which part, with Fituarari Damti getting “Kastit, Maja-Tirma, Menu and the lands to the southwest of it. . . .  They were then ordered to go to their territories and set about the complete conquest of them.” (372–73)

     Bulatovich had had enough. He continued back to Andrachi with the Ras where they arrived on May 13. On the way, he killed a female elephant in milk; his account is full of the shooting at, and often just wounding wild animals; at one point he writes, “hunting the wild goats was the most fun.” On June 5 “ I arrived in Addis Ababa and found here our whole mission in assembly (to the great joy of both me and Zelepukin).” (380) After summing up (in one page) his stay with the army of Menelik II, Bulatovich ends his book, “On July 1, I left on the deck of the French steamship “Iruadi,” which sailed that day from Jibuti; and on July 19, I arrived in Petersburg.” (381)

     At the end of this all, Bulatovich returned to Russia, gave a talk to the Russian Geographical Society in Moscow, wrote his second book, With the Armies of Menelik II, which was published, with illustrations and maps, in 1900 — and then became a monk. As Father Antony, he became the leader of a group on Mt Athos that was involved in an arcane theological dispute (hence the article in the Times); eventually Bulatovich retired to the family farm, where he was murdered by robbers in 1919.

     Within little more than half a century the European colonial powers had all given up their African empires — but the highland Ethiopians had not. The area that Ras Wolda Giyorgis, with Bulatovich’s help, conquered became an integral part of the Ethiopian Empire, and remains part of Ethiopia today.

But what is almost as amazing as Bulatovich’s adventures is how they came to be translated into English. His speech to the RGS was later translated into French and Italian. Nearly three quarters of a century later, in 1971 a scholar named Katsnelson at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow republished the two books, with a good biographical introduction to the amazing, colourful man, A. X. Bulatovich — Hussar, Explorer, Monk. But still in Russian.

     At the same time, the early ‘70s, a young American Russian-speaking polymath named Richard Seltzer found an article in the London Times of 1913 and, intrigued by this strange soldier-monk, decided to write a novel based on his life. In the course of doing the necessary research, he found the 1971 edition and got in touch with Katsnelson, and also with Bulatovich’s sister, then aged 99 and living in Canada. He (Seltzer) translated various passages for his own use in his novel, The Name of Hero, which was published in 1981 — the same year Katsnelson died. But in so doing he realized what a treasure the whole two books were. So, with the encouragement of Prof. Harold Marcus at Michigan State, he translated both the books in full, and added an introduction and some notes (to those already made by both Bulatovich and then Katsnelson).

It was by sheer serendipitous chance that I happened upon a copy of the book at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies library in Addis Ababa while I was doing research for my own book, based on the letters of the fourth and last British consul in southwestern Ethiopia (1930–1935). I could hardly believe my eyes. It was the very background I needed, Menelik’s conquest of the area where ‘my’ consul had been posted to attempt to get the Ethiopians to observe the borders with Sudan and Kenya, and to report on the slavery and poaching being done by the Ethiopian administrators based in the town of Maji. And fortunately I finally found one bookshop in town which handled some Red Sea Press titles — and Seltzer’s book was the first thing that hit my eye as I walked in.

    In describing his travels, Bulatovich writes frequently of making a map and of taking (and processing) photographs  — but there are none in the English translation. So I wrote to Seltzer and asked why? He said the maps and illustrations were too badly reproduced in the Katsnelson edition to be re-reproduced. Seltzer then took the trouble of locating copies of the original books (at Harvard), put all the maps and illustrations (over 90 items) on a CD and generously posted me a copy, with permission to make use of whatever I wanted. When I asked what I owed him, he replied, “You don’t owe me anything. I hope you find it helpful.” We must be eternally grateful to such amateur historians, people who delight in discovering and sharing information, rather than academicians who make a profession of concocting long-worded theories.

    The good news is that Seltzer’s book was published. The bad news is that it was published badly. The book is full of inexcusable typos and inconsistent italicisation; the authors both deserve far better. And there is no map at all. To add insult to injury, Red Sea Press’s distribution is virtually nil — I have not found a single copy for sale in Kenya, even though the conquest impinges directly on Kenyan history. Fortunately, one should be able to get it through the Internet at http://www.samizdat.com or by writing to the author at  seltzer@samizdat.com. (Do not bother to contact Red Sea Press; they never even forwarded my original letter to Seltzer; luckily I found him on the Internet.) Seltzer’s book deserves to be republished by a reputable publisher, complete with maps, illustrations and an index.

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