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African Studies Review

Volume 44, Number 3, December 2001, pp. 137-140 (posted here with permission)

Alexander Bulatovich. Richard Seltzer, Trans. Ethiopia through Russian Eyes: Country in Transition, 1896-1898.
Lawrenceville, N.J., and Asmara, Eritrea: 2000. x + 420 pp. $29.95 Paper.

[In this online version of the book review, the translator has added a few minor factual corrections in brackets.]

The 1890s were a particularly turbulent political period in the Horn of Africa due both to European colonial expansion and the simultaneous reemergence of Ethiopia as a powerful indigenous state under the Emperor Menelik II. State formation in Ethiopia at that time consisted of the centralization of power by a well-organized and hierarchical military oligarchy, predation and exploitation of conquered peoples in the interests of supporting the state and its elites, confrontation with European rivals, especially Great Britain and Italy, and reliance on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a powerful cultural and religious force for unifying the nation. Menelik invoked alleged historical boundaries in an attempt to give legitimacy to his irredentist policies. This was insufficient, however, to stave off the colonial designs of European powers which, despite an Ethiopian military victory over the Italians at Adowa in 1896, continued unabated well into the twentieth century.

The author of Ethiopia through Russian Eyes describes in great detail how Menelik's imperial state drew much of its power and wealth form the exploitation of subjugated peoples, and employed a warrior class well trained in the use of European arms both to acquire territory and to drain it continuously of all its portable wealth. The military campaigns and ensuing Ethiopian rule of conquered regions resulted not only in death and injury for thousands of people, but also in social upheaval, famine, and severe epidemics. As Gebru Tareke has noted in Ethiopia: Power and Protest: Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century (1991), "Paternalistic and arrogant, Abyssinians looked upon and treated the indigenous peoples as backward, heathen, filthy, deceitful, lazy, and even stupid -- stereotypes that European colonists commonly ascribed to their African subjects" (71).

While Menelik was engaged in pushing his frontiers ever outward from an Amharic heartland, he ws also shrewdly playing off the European powers against one another. This included France, then intent on seizing the upper Nile, its rival Great Britain, which had diverse colonial interests in the region, Italy, which as eager to annex Ethiopia as a colonial possession, and Russia. The Russian agenda in Ethiopia was complex, often unofficial, and sometimes unplanned. Although the Russians had faint colonial ambitions and commercial interest in access to riches and trade, dreams of solidarity between the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ethiopian counterpart and the desire to exploit yet another stage in the interests of big-power European politics were foremost on their agenda.  The Franco-Russian alliance in Porte drew the Russians to the side of the French in Ethiopia, and this placed them in opposition to British colonial interests.

In 1896, a young Russian aristocrat and military officer, Alexander Xavieryevich Bulatovich (1870-1919), arrived in Ethiopia as part of a REd Cross mission sent to provide medical care for Menelik's soldiers following the Battle of Adowa. From the outset, he stood out form most other Europeans because he ws conversant in Ge'ez and Amharic, having studied it on his own prior to his departure form Russia. He was thus able to fraternize easily with the Ethiopians. He also displayed an intense interest in and respect for their culture and beliefs, all of which made him extremely popular. However, it was his scientific and military skills coupled with his impeccable integrity and honesty and deep religious beliefs that led Menelik to invite him to travel on an expedition of conquest with dejazmach Tessama to the western frontier around the Baro River.  He returned to Addis Ababa three months later, and then made two other trips to explore the course of the Angar River and the Didepa [Didessa] Valley. On all these travels, he recorded detailed geographic, anthropologic, and natural history observations, and impressed the Ethiopians as dependable, deeply religious, and highly skilled. After Bulatovich returned from these travels, Menelik hosted a reception for him, a distinct honor for a European at that time.

In 1897, Bulatovich's account of these travels was published by V. Kirshbaum in St. Petersburg under the title Ot Entotto do Reki Baro (From Entotto to the River Baro). However, it drew little attention outside of Russia, as did his subsequent volume, S. Voyskami Menelika II (With the Armies of Menelik II), published in 1900 in St. Petersburg by Artistic Press Publishing House. The latter volume is of far greater significance than the former in terms of its importance for Ethiopian historiography because in it Bulatovich describes in detail his experiences accompanying Ras Wolda Giorgis on his expedition of military conquest to Lake Rudolf in 1898. Although an amicus of the Ethiopians, Bulatovich was appalled by their ruthless butchery and pillaging of indigenous peoples, which he often attempted to stop. Describing the behavior of Ethiopian soldiers, he said that they sometimes competed with one another for pride of place in killing villagers and invariably returned with the testicles of their male victims as trophies. [This trophy-taking was not the behavior of the Ethiopian soldiers, but rather of auxiliaries with Wolde Giorgis' army and also of indigenous tribes in their wars with one another.] One of these victims was a three-year-old boy who has brutally castrated and whom Bulatovich later adopted [Cared for, but did not  officially adopt him] and brought back to Russia in 1898.

Bulatovich returned to Ethiopia in 1899, during which time he charted several affluents of the Blue Nile. The following year he participated in the Russo-Japanese War [Not the Russo-Japanese War, but rather the Russo-Chinese War, which took place during the Boxer Rebellion] but in 1893 he left military service [Left active service in 1903; retired from reserves 1907] and subsequently studied for the priesthood [He did not study for the priesthood, but rather for service as a monk]. Known as Father Anthony, he later [1907] entered a monastery at Mount Athos and repatriated his adopted son, whom he had named Vaska, to Ethiopia. In 1911 he returned to Ethiopia to visit Vaska, to treat the ailing Menelik with icons, holy water, oils, and prayers, and to establish a Russian Orthodox monastery. Denied permission to do the latter, he returned to Mouth Athos, where he became embroiled in a theological controversy that resulted in his expulsion from the monastery. [Bulatovich himself was never expelled from the monastery. 880 of his followers were exiled to Siberia and other remote areas of the Russian Empire. Bulatovich himself was in St. Petersburg at that time, pleading their cause.] He then lived with his sister, Princess Mary Orbeliani, in St. Petersburg, and later at his family's estate, Lutsikovka [in the Ukraine]. Retreating to a simple cabin near Lutsikovka, he was murdered on the night of December 5-6, 1919, allegedly by bandits.

In 1971, Bulatovich's two volumes were republished in Russian by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of sciences of the USSR in Moscow under the editorship of the late Isidor Saavich Katsnelson. In 1979 Professor Katsnelson and G. Terekhova wrote a popular biography of Bulatovich. Richard Seltzer, the translator and editor of the English-language edition of both books under review here, worked closely with Katsnelson and with Bulatovich's sister, Princess Mary Orbeliani, and with her son Prince Andre Orbeliani, and daughter-in-law, Princess Irene Orbeliani [All these people were very helpful. But he did not work "closely" with them.] In 1981 he published a fictional account of Bulatovich's life (The Name of Hero) [Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin, 1981], and completed the editing and editing and translation of the two books of African travel in 1993.

Alexander Bulatovich's accounts of his travels in Ethiopia stand in a superior class among works of this genre. He brought to them a remarkable breadth of intellectual interest, and an honesty and objectivity that are easily apparent in his meticulously recorded observations. these observations include insightful analyses of Ethiopian colonial policies and unique eyewitness descriptions of the severe consequences for the African peoples of the implementation of Ethiopian colonialism. As Bulatovich clearly shows, Ethiopian colonialism did not differ in many of its characteristics from its European counterpart.

Richard Seltzer, whose own plans to visit Ethiopia in the early 1970s were thwarted by political events, has made an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of Bulatovich and the Ethiopia of that time by editing and translating these works with insight and care. He has included an excellent introduction and an appendix composed of selections from Katsnelson's 1971 edition, and has carefully reproduced Bulatovich's many informative footnotes. The introduction and appendix provide a necessary overview of Bulatovich's life and career.

As its title implies, Ethiopia through Russian Eyes provides English-language readers with a new and different perspective on Ethiopia's imperial past. It will be a valuable resource for scholars form diverse disciplines, and will provide enjoyable reading for many.

Pascal James Imperato
Statue University of New York
Brooklyn, New York


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

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