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Russia’s Footprint on Africa
 Dec 17, 2008

The very phrase “Russian Africa,” in contrast to “Russian America” or “Russian London,” sounds very unusual, to say the least. Nevertheless, our compatriots began to settle in what was then known as the Dark Continent at the end of the 19th century. To this day, South Africa remains an important area for Russian emigres.

History is silent about when the first of our compatriots settled in southern Africa. Numerous legends exist. According to one, the famous and influential Iloffs, a Boer family, had Russian roots. One of its pioneers was supposedly a Russian defector who had been sent by Peter I to study shipbuilding in the Netherlands. By a twist of fate, he eventually wound up in Cape Town, which was then known as Kapstadt. In theory, determining the origins of the Russian-sounding names is not very difficult, but it is the only compelling argument in favor of this version.

The first documented evidence of people arriving in the Cape Colony from Russia could be an entry in the logbook of the sloop Diana. In 1808, the first Russian ships dropped anchor in the Cape Town harbor. The entry mentions a native of Riga who was serving as a sergeant in the English garrison. In 1853, Ivan Goncharov, traveling aboard the Frigate Pallada, met in Cape Town a man hailing from the Orel province. In 1814, the man had been taken prisoner by the French, who had subsequently taken him in Africa. He later moved to the Cape Colony, married a black woman and raised six children. This story is not very plausible, however, as in 1814, Napoleonic France was defeated and the Allies entered Paris. The French ships were largely immobilized in the ports.

Later, at the beginning and middle of the 19th century, others from Russia settled in South Africa, including deserters and runaway exiles. All of these stories are no more than single, non-recurrent cases, however. According to the census of 1875, just 82 Russians lived in Cape Town. Mass emigration from the Russian Empire to southern Africa began only in the 1880s. Most of these people were Jews from the Ukrainian provinces. By 1914, their number reached 40,000 people. Most South African Jews today have Russian roots.

More widespread Russian emigration to the Union of South Africa actually began, rather expectedly after 1917. The majority of our compatriots went there not just from Russia but also from other European countries, from Manchuria, and even from India. The well-known mining engineer Pavel Nazarov, who in 1918 was sentenced by the Bolsheviks to the firing squad, managed to flee to China, after which he moved to Britain’s Indian possessions and then to Africa. Another mining engineer, who achieved prosperity in South Africa, was former St. Petersburg Professor Pavel Kovalev.

Among other well-known South African Russians who settled prior to the war, was the Cossack Choir of Sergei Zharov soloist Viktor Ivanov, who changed careers to become a famous painter and cartoonist. There was also the singer Zhenya Belmas and Evgenia Ladyzhenskaya, owner of a fashion house and several boutiques in Johannesburg.

During the interwar period, the Russian diaspora in South Africa remained small and unorganized. The main reason was the sharp tightening of immigration laws in the 1930s, which brought the influx of our compatriots to a halt. Their number began to grow again just before the Second World War, when many wanted to move as far away as possible from Europe and especially from Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The overall situation did not change significantly, however, and during this time, it was reported that only a few hundred Russians were living in South Africa. It was almost the only country without Russian йmigrй associations and where Russian-language newspapers and magazines were not published. Periodicals from other countries were delivered with considerable delay.

Despite their low numbers, the Soviet authorities did not ignore the Russian diaspora in South Africa. During the 1930s, the Friends of the Soviet Union was established, which proved very popular among the local working class, especially black Africans. Russian immigrants preferred not to have anything to do with this society, but after the German attack on the Soviet Union, many of them tried to help their homeland. Already in 1941, they had created their own society to provide medical assistance, clothing and even blood to the Soviet Union. Between early 1942 and June 1944, they had collected 700,000 pounds of donations. Zhenya Belmas played a particularly active role in this society. Medical Aid to Russia was the first social organization created by Russian йmigrйs in South Africa.

In the postwar years, the number of Russians in South Africa increased significantly. A lot of Russians came from the Far East and Europe, especially from countries in the Soviet zone of influence. They mostly came from the second generation of emigrants. It was this group that set up the Russian Society – the first all-emigre association in South Africa.

This group included a number of outstanding scientists. For example, Elizabeth Kandyba-Foxcroft founded the country's first department of Slavonic studies at the University of South Africa, which she headed for 20 years. A department of zoology at the country’s largest university – University of the Witwatersrand – was for many years headed by Boris Balinsky. In Namibia, which was a province of South Africa during that time, the archaeologist Nikolai Mosolov worked.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Russian йmigrй community in South Africa included a number of successful businessmen. The Tumanov sisters, who arrived in 1951, founded a company that produced cosmetics. In the 1960s, the owner of the largest car sales company in the country was Konstantin Lapshin. Nina Shvetsova led a company that produced asbestos. A leading member of the Russian nobility in South Africa, Mikhail Bibikov, founded the country's first school of guide dogs for the blind. For 20 years after that, he headed the advertising and public relations department for the South African division of IBM.

These and other entrepreneurs provided support for the establishment of the Russian House in 1968 in Johannesburg. The Russian House was a nursing home that held a small chapel. Its guardian became Evgenia Ladyzhenskaya; the walls and the iconostasis of the chapel were painted by Viktor Ivanov.

By the end of the 1960s, the Russian community in South Africa began to weaken considerably. In the 1973 version of the South African Encyclopedia, it was expressly referred to as “extinct.” To some extent, the situation of the 1930s was repeated, although instead of a temporary tightening of immigration laws, the main factors that gave rise to the crisis were the apartheid regime and the resulting international boycott of the country. The natural reduction of the Russian community was not offset by an influx of “new blood” from the outside. It became more difficult to maintain contacts with expatriates living in other countries, not to mention in the Soviet Union itself. During these years, the Soviet Union did not have diplomatic relations with South Africa, and the entry of South African citizens into the Soviet Union was strictly forbidden. In turn, the South African authorities treated all people from Russia and the Soviet Union with suspicion. As a result, many children of immigrants tried to hide their origins and become “one hundred percent South Africans.”

In the mid 1970s, the community did not have enough money to pay for an Orthodox priest. Archimandrite Alexei Cherny, who in 1959 was appointed head of all the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Equatorial and South Africa, left for America. The remaining small flock – mostly the elderly living in the Russian House – were served by Serb and Greek priests.

The Orthodox community in South Africa was reestablished only in 1988 with the active support of the Moscow Patriarchate. It was at this time that the Russian diaspora as a whole began to experience revival. The government of F.W. de Klerk, who is sometimes called “South Africa’s Gorbachev,” began to dismantle the apartheid system. His reforms not only lifted the last restrictions on entry into the country, but they also involved a deliberate policy to attract immigrants.

Then, in the late 1980s, Soviet citizens gained the right to freely travel abroad. South Africa, which eventually reestablished diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, began to receive “new immigrants” from the Soviet Union and later Russia. Among them were many highly qualified professionals in various industries, especially in mining. Those in mining sought to open their own business in South Africa. South Africa simplified the procedures regarding new businesses and relaxed the tax regime. There were a number of adventurers of all stripes who were willing to go anywhere they had to, as life could not get any worse for them than it was in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, according to the South African embassy in Moscow, 270,000 immigrants from Russia live in the country. Each month approximately 80 people apply for residence permits at the embassy. Many of them go there to work by signing contracts for a period of several years, or they apply to live with relatives already settled and established there. At the same time, many Russians, like whites in general, are leaving the country – mostly for Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The main reason is the constant growth of corruption and crime that the current South African government cannot address. For an increasing number of our fellow compatriots, South Africa is becoming a country of temporary rather than permanent residence (migrant workers) or a transfer point en route to what they see as more prosperous countries.

Vasily Andreev

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"And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
The great Russian word.
We will keep you free and pure,
And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage forever!" Anna Akhmatova "Valor"

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