RUSSIAN IMPERIALISM AND COLONIALISM IN SOUTH AFRICAN HISTORY

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I have heard some rather ignorant and puerile arguments made by Zuma’s Radical Economic Looter supporters about Russia never being involved in colonialism and never having been part of colonisation in South Africa. I suppose ignorance is bliss. Russians were among the largest single migrations of white settlers (25 000), fought on the Boer side in defense of independence and segregation, and were involved from the early days of the United Dutch East India Company at the Cape, and were involved in the Slave Trade.

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There is also this weird notion that Russia is still the Soviet Union and thus our old and natural allies against imperialism and that Russian Oligarchy Capitalism is different and more ‘progressive’ than Global Capitalism – a natural ally of Black Tender- entrepreneur  Capital. But it is from a very murky criminal arena that Zuma’s Radical Economic Looters take their inspiration. And this is where the world of the Gupta’s exist.

There were once 11 criminal oligarchs who emerged from the old government forces of the Soviet Union, especially from the KGB and Soviet Military. They made their money initially through the global criminal shadow economy, particularly as Lords of War – the ILLICIT ARMS TRADE, but also through the other 4 of the five key pillars of the global criminal syndicate capitalist arena – namely HUMAN TRAFFICKING  & PEOPLE SMUGGLING, the ILLEGAL  DRUGS TRADE, the GREY GOODS & EXOTICS TRADE and MONEY LAUNDERING. A fight broke out between them and one of these oligarchs emerged not only as the richest man but also as the President – Putin. Putin has huge investments in Capitalism across the world , including the united states. It is this murky side of Russia which was alive and well even under the Soviet Union which through the global criminal shadow economy had close relations between South African Gold and Diamond Mining as the two countries richest in these mining products. There have always been Lords of War who facilitate. (Here I refer you to go and see a movie by that name, starring Nicolas Cage…and you will get an understanding of what I am talking about). There were always ways that powers who would be politically embarrassed if they did certain things openly, required front men to do the dirty deeds for them. Apartheid South Africa facing global isolation tapped into this world just like the super powers did. It is in this context that the Gupta phenomenon arose.

Because of just over 70 years of the Soviet Union, Russian Capitalism had huge hurdles to overcome – one of these being that Imperialism is the highest stage of Capitalism and imperialism required colonies and in the modern era neo-colonies or satellites across the globe. While Russia has these satellites around its own territory, and some client states it has no real global spread. South Africa is one place that offers Russia just such a neo-colonial opportunity. But to be able to assert pressure and manipulate South Africa Russia needs an economic stake and indebtedness. Here Putin – a willing and keen buyer found a willing seller and sellout in Zuma and his Radical Economic Looters.

But let’s just go back and dispel the myth that there was no Imperialist involvement and colonial involvement of Russia in the conquering and colonisation of South Africa.

The links between South Africa and Russia are very old. The first locally born Governor of the Cape, Hendrik Schwellengrebel’s father, Johannes, was born in Moscow in 1671 and died in Cape Town in 1744. His father was a longstanding early capitalist trader in Moscow and spent most of his life in Russia. Hendrik became the chief representative of the largest multi-national company, the Dutch VOC, which had colonised the Cape. Swellendam was named after him.

The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great enjoyed a very close relationship with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch Royal family and had a particular interest in the affairs of the Cape Colony. The Tsar went out of his way to befriend one of the VOC’s best senior officials – the first VOC Governor Simon van der Stel who became his closest confidante. It was van der Stel who was responsible for the surge of development and efficiency at the Cape..

Russia had come into the maritime arena relatively late but the Dutch VOC played a big role in getting Russia off the starting blocks. Tsar Peter the Great, as a young man, assisted by one of the Directors of the VOC, Nicolaas Witsen, was accommodated in Amsterdam to learn everything about ships, shipping and maritime travel and trade and did so a one of the VOC shipping yards in 1697. It was here that his vision for a Russian Fleet was born and here that the foundations of the title “THE GREAT” was laid and it had everything to do with the VOC.. Indeed the relationship between Tsar Peter the Great and the Dutch colonial power at the Cape was so strong that Prince William of Orange and Witsen the Mayor of Amsterdam gifted Tsar Peter with his first ship built while Peter was in Holland. Once the fleet was up and running, the Cape of Good Hope was frequently visited by its ships.

Witsen was also one of Simon van der Stel’s best friends and he got the Russian Tsar interested in the Cape Colony. Under Peter the Great the first books were published in Russian about Africa assisted by Witsen and his friend van der Stel, and the first Russian maritime vessels were sent to round the Cape. It ended in disaster, but it is to be noted that so close was Imperial Russia and its Royal Family to the Dutch Royal family and the United Dutch East India Company that this Russian expedition included senior Dutch officers. Peter the great had huge dreams of maritime power and an equally huge interest in his friend’s economic vision for South Africa. These dreams were unfulfilled because of some basic blunders.

After Peter the Great, Tsarina Catherine the Great continued the maritime legacy of Peter this time with the temporary assistance of the British. It got Russia off the maritime starting blocks but she was to follow in Peter’s footsteps of unfulfilled dreams….but others did take the efforts forward in later leaps and bounds. This was just the beginning of a long relationship between Russians and South Africa that ultimately led to much Russian shipping rounding the Cape. Russian royalty and nobility made many an excursion to the Cape in the 19th century and had close relationships with the ruling elite at the Cape who were infatuated with the Russians. Even the Tsar’s son Grand Duke Prince Alexi was a prominent visitor to the Cape and was received by the Colonial Parliament.

Folly however again struck a blow to Russian ambitions when Russia sought to teach the Japanese a lesson using the Cape as a massing point for its attack ‘armada’ against Japan in 1904. Russian Imperialism blatantly used Cape Town as an African staging post for war regardless of the then pro-Japanese British, causing near hostility at Simonstown. Imperial Russia was taught an almighty lesson by Imperial Japanese navy that cut them down to size. One of the ships that was involved was the battleship Aurora which took a lead in the Russian Revolution. So here we have in our history a conflict involving three imperialist powers right on our doorstep in Cape Town. Most of the ‘British’ sailors at Simonstown naval base were actually West and East African sailors who had to stare down the Russians. The role of black sailors in global conflicts has always been relegated to the shadows. The first Naval battle of World War 1 actually took place on Lake Tanganyika between German and British gunboats with African sailors.

By the beginning of the 20th Century around 25, 000 Russian settlers had established themselves in South Africa. YES SETTLERS WHO STOLE BLACK LAND AND DISPLACED BLACK SOUTH AFRICANS! The Russian were amongst the strongest supporters of the Boer Republics in the Boer War. The largest international solidarity groups raising money, material aid, medical support detachments and fighters for the Boer army were in Russia and Holland and these included the royal families. The Russians were totally infatuated with the Boers and admired their way of life. Russian immigrants joined special detachments of Russian fighters to aid the Boer War effort.

Russians as one of the largest settler groups of all the European settlers were thus part and parcel of the numerous European colonial settlers in South Africa. They joined the Boers in defence of the Boer Republics and all that it stood for (segregation of and suppression of black people).

Additionally there is only one other short-lived case of Russians attempting to establish a colonial state of their own in Africa – Madagascar to be precise. Despite the efforts of Tsar Peter and Tsarina Catharina they were not a significant maritime power and this curtailed their Imperialist orbit to their immediate Asian and European neighbours. This was a simple twist of fate.

The African adventure into establishing a colony in Mauritius was when a rebel group of Russians, led by Count Maurice Benyowski, a Hungarian,  using the Cape as a rear base and supply line attempted to set up and maintain a base at  Antongil Bay on the north eastern coast of Madagascar. There he built  a  village  and  a  fort  at  the  mouth  of  the  Antanambalana  River  near  the  present  city  of Louisburg and declared himself a king of the local tribes.

Notably Madagascar was an important source of slaves to the Cape at this time and the ships carrying supplies for the privateer Russian colonial experiment also carried slaves back to the Cape. The Russians too made frequent trips from Benyowski’s settlement to the Cape and back. Benyowski  then returned to Europe but  later again went back to Madagascar in 1785 and set about transforming his little colonial kingdom into a city state in the form of a fortified village  above  the  sea  near Angontsy  and  Antongil  Bay.  After notifying the French of his ‘independent state’, the French who were the colonising power in Madagascar, put a quick stop to this. The French sent a military force and defeated the short-lived Russian colony and Benyowski was killed. From that time the Russian royal family and Russian capitalists disowned these rebels and kept their imperial interests closer to home, other than giving their support to the Boer Republics in an act of opposition to British Imperial interests.

So what of the Russians and slavery?

Dr Robert Shell in his major work on Cape Slavery – “Children of Bondage” mentions that ships operating out of Russian Ports were involved in the slave trade around the Cape which suggests involvement in the Indian Ocean slave trade which is still subject of much research after a long period of neglect. The Atlantic slave trade dominates the research in the slavery arena.

One record of a Russian ship involved in the slave trade was the Goliubchick which took 306 slaves to Matanzas in Cuba in 1838.  There were around 34 slaves who had died on the journey. In 1839 she was caught by British anti-slaver patrols and her slave cargo liberated.

Thus clearly the Russians were involved in transoceanic slave trading, even though not a major player. Rather they make up that smaller but yet significant sector of slave traders that include the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic and Russia. This was a small block compared to Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Spanish and American, but it did involve a significant part of the slave trade.

There has been a small African presence and black presence in general in the Russian Imperial orbit for at least 500 years and the finger points at least in part to slavery and servitude, even although the vast majority of slaves in the Russian empire were not people of colour. The African slave descendants go back to the period of Turkish occupation of part of Russia and when the Turks with their slaves retreated from this part of the Russian orbit they left some slave descendants behind. There are also older roots to this black presence in the region that are being explored. As major slave traders of the region – the Crimean Tartars, though focussed on European and Asian slaves, were also linked to the African slave trading centre of Basra in Persia which was probably the world’s biggest slave market from 800 AD to 1300 AD.

Here is a snippet from an interesting letter to the editor of a Russian newspaper indicating an old black presence in the Russian Imperial orbit.

“Passing for the first time through the Abkhazian community of Adzyubzha, I was struck by the purely tropical landscape around me: against the background of a bright green primeval jungle there stood huts and sheds built of wood and covered with reeds; curly-headed Negro children played on the ground and a Negro woman passed by carrying a load on her head. Black-skinned people wearing white clothes in the bright sun resembled a typical picture of some African village.” (Markov reprinted in Vradii 1914, pp. 16–17; quoted in Tynes 1973, p. 2 and Blakely 1986, p. 9; as per ‘African Presence in former Soviet Spaces’ – Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon (2002)

This was a letter in 1913 to the Editor of the Russian language newspaper KAVKAZ in Tblisi, Georgia by a certain E. Marko raising the curtain on a ‘phenomenon’ along the Black Sea at Abkhazia of a clearly African descendant community. It was not the first time this community had been ‘discovered’ and surprize was feigned. It had happened many times before and after that the Negroes of Batumi Province were brought to light. Indeed this story sheds just a chink of light on the history of the small black component of the slavery systems in the Russian orbit that go back in time to before the first millennium.  

Russians and various peoples all the way through to Poland and the borders of Germany were initially enslaved captives of the Crimean Tartars who ran the entire slave trade for centuries in the region. This was eventually reversed by the Russians in the 17th century and they then became slavers and slave keepers.

However outside of the Caucasus the evidence of black slavery in Russia is sparse until the transformation from Slavery to Servitude under Peter the Great. At this stage of the advent of Imperial Russia black African servants began to appear in high society. This coincides with the Russian Royal family’s close relationship to the Dutch East India Company and Dutch Royal family and parallel interest shown by Peter the Great in maritime travel/trade and in Africa. The black population at the time of Peter the Great was largely servants, but originally most likely to have been purchased as slaves. The African slaves would have come from the slave markets across the Russian – Iranian border and also it was common practice for shipping in the region to use slaves as sailors too. This would have resulted in East Africans entering the Russian slave arena. The Russians called them Negry.

There has been much papering over Russian Imperial history, colonialism and slavery in that part of the world resulting in a lot of ignorance of this history in countries that fall under the western dominant sphere. The Imperial Russian royal family, nobility and capitalists were well connected to the most advanced early capitalist trans-global companies and the Royal family network that patronised the efforts of East India Companies. Thus it cannot be said that the Russians were never involved in what Walter Rodney called “Europe’s Underdevelopment of Africa” through the imperial and colonial footprint. Indeed today Russian capitalism and its imperialist intent is making up for lost time and Zuma and his neo-colonialist looters have been quite willing to play the same role that the African facilitators of slave trade did in the past.

There is an assumption that Russia was never an Empire, never colonialist, never embraced the slave trade and always had a positive attitude to Africans and other persons of colour who were never exploited in Russia. This erroneous belief is based either on false history or plain ignorance or mischief and has led to some suggesting that Russia has a clean record in its interaction with smaller countries in the world and Africa in particular, and cannot really be seen as ever being an imperialist and capitalist country. Zuma and his looter friends are white-washing the Russians (or should I say blackwashing them). The Russians were as “White” Capitalist as any other in global capitalism, but were temporarily halted by the Russian Revolution, two World Wars and the Cold war. But the capitalist boys are back in town and the old Russian infatuation with South Africa continues.

It is true that Russia cannot be said to have been a direct colonial power in Africa but through the relationships between Royal families across Europe, the Russian Tsars certainly interacted positively with colonialism and were beneficiaries of that colonialism as a feudal Imperial super-power allied to other powers directly involved in colonialism and exploitation in South Africa. In its own orbit the Russian Empire built its infrastructure on slave labour and the Corvee system using slaves from within those territories.

Russia too was certainly an imperial colonial power in its own orbit. Russia would never have been that great a power unless it had itself revolted against being enslaved by others in its early history and in turn enslaving the subjects of the powers that once enslaved them. Slavery in Russia was made up of war captives, survivors of disasters, persons sold into debt bondage and victims of kidnapping…. Just like the same scenarios in Southeast Asia, India and Southern China. A few African slaves were brought into Russia and largely became servants, little more than slaves, in the households of the nobility and royal family. The moneyed upper classes were frequent visitors to the colonial playgrounds and South Africa was one of these playgrounds. These Russian upper classes also were intimately tied into the Dutch East India Company and later also had a relationship with the British colonial administration of the Cape and a strongly supportive role of the Boer Republics. Russians also served in the French Foreign Legion Forces and a group of Russians attempted a foolhardy establishment of a private colony in Madagascar which was quashed by the French.

Putin and other Russian oligarchs amassed their fortunes on human trafficking, arms smuggling and drugs smuggling if one follows the reports over 30 years, and much of this arms fuelled African conflict and bloodshed just like happened with Western Powers in Africa.

Russian slavery and its trade in slaves (Polish, Lithuanian, Germans and Siberians) to the Tartars is documented and involved great cruelty. Slaves were castrated and had their ears and nostrils cut off, their cheeks and foreheads branded with the burning iron and they were forced to work with their chains and shackles during the day, and were locked up at night in holds. Young slave women were continuously raped. The Russians would have treated black slaves similarly and in this sense a slave was a slave regardless of colour. Slaves were originally referred to as kholopy and their owners had unlimited power over their slaves. Slaves could be killed lawfully by owners, and be bought and sold.

Slavery which was a major institution in Russia came to an end or rather was transformed into servitude and enserfment only in 1723 under Peter the Great. Like the end of slavery in South Africa in the Russian empire slavery only ended in name and the servitude and enserfment that followed was similar to the indentured labour system that replaced slavery in South Africa and elsewhere.

Slavery in Russia differed from the west only in that the vast majority of slaves came from Russia’s orbit of imperial dominance rather than from afar and thus in the main it was Europeans, Slavs, Turks and Asians that were predominantly enslaved and Africans were a really tiny proportion of the whole. This was largely because Russia was a poor maritime power and reach. The Africans brought to Russia increased slightly during the post 1723 era of paternal servitude among royal families who wanted to keep in vogue with other Royal households in Europe by having black servants. In the 1800s the Tsar alone had around 20 Africans in servitude in his household.

The Russian capitalist class, royalty and nobility have always had a strong interest in South Africa, in particular in mining and during the gold and diamond rush flocked to South Africa to make their fortunes and to support the Boers. The Russian Revolution put paid to this colonial capitalist class furthering their interests but as soon as the cold war was over and the defeat of the USSR communists, Russian Capitalist interest peaked again with de Beers opening up in Moscow and new linkages being made. During Apartheid the Russians always still had dealings with de Beers, but covertly.

Interests in South African mineral resources, markets and control of energy in Southern Africa’s economic engine has become a pre-occupation of Russian oligarchs and mafias. Russian organised crime quickly moved into South Africa and human trafficking of women into the night club and sex trade (slavery) quickly ensured that a strategic foothold was secured for the criminal vanguard of oligarch Russian Capitalism and its imperialist intent. In a world where capitalism and imperialism is realigning the ghost of pre-revolutionary Russian capitalist and colonial interest in Southern Africa is resurfacing. Global realignment between the most conservative popular authoritarian forces  of USA capitalist and Russian Capitalist forces, both with strong fascist overtones should make South Africa really cautious. Peter the Great’s unfulfilled dreams may yet come to fruition.

REFERENCES

  • The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century – William Gervase Clarence-Smith
  • Slave Trades, 1500–1800: Globalization of Forced Labour – edited Patrick Manning
  • Russia and South Africa before the Soviet Era – Apollon Davidson
  • African Presence in former Soviet Spaces – Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon
  • Children of Bondage – Dr Robert C Shell
  • Bondage: free/unfree labor in Russia, Europe and the Indian Ocean – Alessandro Stanzian
  • Imperialism the highest stage of Capitalism – VI Lenin
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney
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