Maverick Life


It’s a Continent – Russia’s unsuccessful and short-lived 19th Century African colony, ‘New Moscow’

It’s a Continent – Russia’s unsuccessful and short-lived 19th Century African colony, ‘New Moscow’
"It’s a Continent" book cover (left) and authors Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata (right). Image: The Reading List / Supplied

Why is Africa still perceived as a single country? How did African soldiers contribute to World War II? How did an African man become one of the wealthiest people in history? ‘It's a Continent: Unravelling Africa's History One Country at a Time’ by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata delves into these stories and reveals an Africa as you've never read it before.

Written by the founders of the hit podcast of the same name, It’s a Continent highlights the key historical moments that have shaped each African nation and contributed to its modern global position. Each chapter focuses on a different country and uncovers the histories you were never taught at school. The book is a bold and colourful corrective to the perception of Africa as monolith.


Djibouti: Africa’s New Moscow

The “Horn of Africa” has dealt with European influence from the likes of Italy and France to the usual candidate Britain. However, within the region also stems the story of an unlikely and often unheard coloniser, Russia. There is often discourse on how Russia never colonised Africa, but what’s left out is that they did indeed attempt to follow the Coloniser Handbook. In 1889 Russia laid claims to the village of Sagallo in present-day Djibouti. At the time, Djibouti was an area of particular interest to France, having already signed a treaty that gave them the town of Obock; later the country became a French protectorate known as French Somaliland.

Russia’s initial involvement in the African continent stemmed in part from them wanting a slice of India, which later became Europe’s next focus of conquest. Russia’s challenge was accessing South Asia. During the 1700s, they turned to Madagascar as its location proved pivotal to accessing the Indian Ocean. Their intent was for Madagascar to act as Russia’s gateway to India. There were hopes that Madagascar would become a Russian protectorate; however, this was wishful thinking and never materialised.

The nineteenth century saw Russia begin to plan their entrance into the African continent. The first plan was formed by Porfiry Uspensky, a Russian Orthodox monk who looked to amplify Russia’s influence in the continent, specifically Ethiopia, through religion. What Russia seems to have forgotten is that Christianity reached Ethiopia in the fourth century and locals didn’t need colonisers telling them how to connect spiritually. Next excuse to invade, please. The aim was to follow the classic ‘Africa needs civilising’ campaign in Ethiopia, making the nation a beacon and so-called positive representation for Africa. Still, once again, this plan never truly got off the ground. Then came Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov, who established Russia’s unsuccessful and short-lived African colony, New Moscow. Ashinov’s background and story is murky; even ‘the Russian ministry of internal affairs had four different backstories for the man’. What is clear is that Ashinov was a cunning trickster who leveraged his relationship within Russian society and the international community to benefit his end goal, Russia’s very own African colony.

Around 1885–86 Ashinov made his first trip to Ethiopia, a venture which the British had unknowingly paid for. Britain had made a deal with Ashinov whereby they would pay him to transport Cossacks and weapons into Afghanistan illegally. Instead, Ashinov took the money and made his way to Ethiopia. Upon his arrival, Ashinov claimed that he was there on behalf of the Czar, Alexander III, which wasn’t the case but was likely used as a crutch to give him credibility. Ashinov worked on building relationships with key leaders, he met with the Ethiopian Chieftan Ras Alula but it is unclear whether he had any interaction with the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV.

Following this first venture, he returned to Russia. To set up his African colony, Ashinov needed buy-in from critical members of the Russian community, one being the country’s religious leaders. In 1888, following a trip to the continent, he returned to Russia with two Ethiopian monks/priests (historical accounts are unclear on the role of the two Ethiopians), to help mark the 900th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. He also made sure to position Ethiopia as a place open to Russian influence, which cemented approval from Russian spiritual leaders. Within the political sphere, he had the support of NM Baranov, the Governor-General of Nizhni Novgorod. Baranov advocated for Ashinov’s plans in Africa to the Czar at the time Alexander III and had a plan for how Russia could purge the continent’s riches. So, he wrote to Alexander III and requested for a Russo-African company to be created modelled on Britain’s various overseas companies designed to extract as much wealth as possible. In return for his support, Alexander III would eventually have full responsibility for the colony’s political and military systems. Under this agreement, Ashinov would be given the position of company director and earn a 50 per cent share of the company’s profits. Ashinov would bend the truth depending on who he needed support from, with religion providing a necessary disguise. Alexander III was interested in the proposal but remained hesitant, even the Foreign Minister NK Giers was suspicious of the plan and grew concerned regarding its potential impact on Russia’s relationship with its European colleagues. Ashinov’s trustworthiness was also questioned, with the Russian Foreign Minister wanting to have a naval officer sent out to the location to validate the situation. At this point, Italy, France, and Britain were suspicious of Russia’s activities in the Horn of Africa but had no real idea as to what exactly they were planning.

Ashinov’s plans to build New Moscow were influenced by the Slavophilism movement, which ‘emphasized the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church, rejected Westernism and sought continual expansion of the empire’. Even though there were concerns from a political perspective, there was no strong voice actively pushing against it. In late 1888, the expedition went ahead under the guise of being a religious venture to Ethiopia. However, Ashinov’s true intentions soon revealed themselves in January 1889, when he and his group of roughly 150 Russians arrived in Sagallo, Djibouti, claiming it as New Moscow. The group were prepared to set-up their new country, even managing to have a flag ready to go in the drafts. The move was a surprise to the French as Djibouti was under their control. Still, Ashinov remained adamant that Sagallo was a Russian protectorate, a potential reason for this being that the Sultan of Tadjoura, Anfani, had sold him the land but missed the fact that it had previously been handed over to France. Ashinov remained unmoving and faced challenges from the local people, who quickly began to fear him and his approach to governing.  This even led to Russians who had moved to Sagallo with Ashinov to escape to the neighbouring town of Obock as they ‘accused Ashinov of brutality and corruption, of intriguing with the natives against the French, of oppressing the local population, and, for good measure, murder’. Back in Russia, Alexander III chose wisely and distanced himself from the situation unfolding in Djibouti, with Giers informing France that Ashinov’s plan ‘was an enterprise upon which they have embarked solely on their own account and at their own peril’. This left Ashinov out in the cold. A month later, France swiftly moved into Sagallo armed and reclaimed the land. Ashinov returned to Russia, was shunned, and forced to go into exile. The rest of his story remains vague as he soon disappeared.

Recent years have seen Russia look to expand its ties within the African continent specifically within the Horn of Africa. There’s a focus on reintroducing a military base on the Red Sea coast, much to the ire of the US. Russia also planned on setting up a military base in Djibouti, but the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 saw this thought side-lined. Russia continues to make efforts to relate with Djibouti. According to a 2021 article in the Horn Observer, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is looking to introduce joint projects within the country, and is willing to cooperate in trade, education and healthcare, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating ‘Russia will continue to help Africa solve its problems’. However, we are yet to see how another Ukrainian crisis unfolding in 2022 will impact Russia’s African policy. DM/ ML

It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country at a Time by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata is published by Hodder & Stoughton (R450) and available at Wordsworth Books and other retailers. Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

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