Summary. In this article the author, Dr Vladimir de Beer, depicts the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church in South Africa. It is preceded by a sketch of the historical background, including the participation of Russian volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Recognition for their sacrifice in the service of Boer independence came more than a century later with the dedication of a new chapel on the premises of the Russian Orthodox Church in Midrand.
Key words: South Africa; Afrikaners; Boers; Anglo-Boer War; Russian volunteers; Russian Orthodox
The Christian religion (albeit in its Protestant form) was brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch, German and French settlers who arrived at the southern tip of Africa from 1652 onwards. This new Dutch-ruled colony was established to provide a replenishment station for cargo ships and other vessels sailing between Western Europe and South-east Asia. In this way the future city of Cape Town, the Afrikaner people and the Afrikaans language gradually came into being. Among these early European settlers there was a Moscow-born Russian named Johannes Swellengrebel, whose son Hendrik in 1739 became the first Cape-born governor of the new colony . Towards the end of the Dutch colonial era in South, Africa, in 1798, a Russian cellist named Gerasim Lebedev gave a number of well-attended concerts in Cape Town before returning to St Petersburg [2, pp 11-12].
In 1806 the Cape colony was annexed by Britain during its wars against Napoleonic France. Among notable Russians whose accounts of their visits to the Cape during its early British-ruled era became popular were the naval officer Vassili Golovnin, the novelist Ivan Goncharov and the artist Alexei Vysheslavtsov [2, pp 13-16]. However, the most famous Russian to visit the Cape colony during the nineteenth century was Grand Duke Alexei, son of Tsar Alexander II. His first visit occurred in 1872 when the Cape parliament formally welcomed the Russian dignitary, and the second visit took place in 1874 as commander of the frigate Svetlana. Moreover, in 1886 a remarkable letter was sent by the Pondo1 chief
1 A Xhosa tribe living in the Eastern Cape.
Faku to Tsar Alexander III, requesting Russian protection against the British annexation of his land [2, pp 18-20].
Many of the Afrikaners were not content to live under British rule, and therefore during the 1830’s several thousand men, women and children migrated in ox wagons northwards across the Orange and Vaal Rivers. This Great Trek, as it came to be known, gave rise to the establishment of the Boer republics of the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal, although the latter was swiftly annexed by the British. The Transvaal and Free State republics, in contrast, had their independence recognised by the British government in 1852 and 1854 respectively. However, this peaceful situation only lasted until the discovery of the world’s richest gold-bearing strata in the southern Transvaal in 1886. This development brought substantial wealth and growing international recognition to the Transvaal, which was officially known as the South African Republic. Given the global ambitions of the imperialist rulers in London, as well as the influential diamond magnate Cecil John Rhodes’ vision of a British-ruled Africa stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, it was only a matter of time before the Transvaal became their next victim. The resultant escalating tensions between the British and the fiercely independent Boers (as the northern Afrikaners were called, the word meaning ‘farmers’ in Dutch and Afrikaans) eventually led to the outbreak of war in October 1899, in which the Transvaal and the Free State (with a combined Boer population of less than a million) were allied against the might of the British Empire.
In the ensuing three years of conflict the Boer farmers-turned-soldiers astonished the world by their military prowess in the face of overwhelming odds, facing around half a million well-trained soldiers from the British Isles, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) eventually became Britain’s longest and costliest war in the century between the Napoleonic Wars and World War One, prompting the well-known author Rudyard Kipling to declare that the Boers had taught the British ‘no end of a lesson’. The Boer republics enjoyed the sympathy of many European nations, including Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Russia [3, p 46]. Although none of these countries dared to openly provide military assistance to the Boers, thousands of volunteers risked life and limb travelling to the South African fields in order to fight on the Boer side. A notable contingent came from Ireland, which at that time was under British rule, and consequently the Irish pro-Boer volunteers were viewed as traitors by the British and treated accordingly when captured. It is with this groundswell of support for the Boer cause in Europe that Russian Orthodoxy made its entry into South Africa.
Enter the Russians
The Boer republics enjoyed the moral support of Tsar Nicholas II (later to be venerated as St Nicholas the Royal Martyr) and of the celebrated author Leo Tolstoy. Confiding in his sister Xenia, the Tsar wrote “I am wholly preoccupied with the war between England and the Transvaal; every day I read the news in the English newspapers from the first to the last line, and then share my impressions with the others at the table… I can not conceal my joy at the confirmation of yesterday’s news that during General White’s sally two full English battalions and a mountain battery have been captured by the Boers!” In a similar vein Tolstoy admitted, during the early months of the war when the British suffered a series of humiliating defeats by the Boer forces, that even as a well-known pacifist he rejoiced at the victories of the Boers [2, pp 26-27].
Around 225 Russian volunteers came to South Africa to assist the Boers in their freedom struggle against the mightiest empire up to that point in recorded history [1, p 45]. Their number included a unit of Scouts containing many Cossacks, such as Prince Bagration of Tiflis and Count Alexis de Ganetzky [3, p 47]. There was also a Russian-Dutch ambulance service active in the Transvaal and the Free State during the war, as well as medical staff from the Russian Red Cross [2, pp 27-28]. Such was the Russian enthusiasm for the Boer republics that a folk song ‘Transvaal, Transvaal, my country’ became quite popular throughout Russia in the early years of the twentieth century. It was still being sung at the time of the Great Patriotic War, while famous Soviet writers such as Anna Akhmatova and Ilya Ehrenburg also paid tribute to the Boers [2, pp 25, 29].
Among the Russian volunteers who fought in the Boer armies, the most famous was Colonel Evgeny Maximov, who initially served as second-in-command of the International Corps [3, p 47]. Renowned among the Boers as an excellent shot and horse-rider, Maximov was also an adviser to the Boer presidents Kruger and Steyn [2, pp 68, 73]. He was eventually appointed commander of the Dutch Corps, in which capacity he was severely injured during the battle of Thaba Nchu on 30 April 1900. A month later he left the Transvaal (as did the afore-mentioned ambulance service) when the conventional phase of the war came to end with the British capture of Pretoria [2, pp 77, 81]. To the chagrin of the British, this was followed by two years of highly effective guerilla warfare by the Boer commandos (to which Winston Churchill would later pay tribute when he designated the British special forces during World War Two as commandos). The British military responded by destroying more than 90 percent of the farms in the Boer republics, as well as herding most of their women and children into concentration camps erected on the open field, where around 30 000 were to die from malnutrition and disease. Prompted by these devastating losses of their families and farms while remaining undefeated in the field, the Boer leaders signed the Treaty of Vereeniging with the British in Pretoria on 31 May 1902, thereby ending the war and bringing the former republics into the Empire.
Another prominent Russian volunteer in South Africa was Lieutenant Yevgeny Augustov, whose memoirs of the war were published in Russia in 1902 [2, pp 24-25, 30-33]. With some of his countrymen he had fought in the Battle of Spioenkop in January 1900 (which was vividly described by Augustov), during which the British suffered one of the worst defeats of their imperial history. Captain Leo Pokrovsky was killed while leading a commando raid on the British garrison at Utrecht in December 1900, later receiving a memorial plaque in that Natal town in 1938. Captain Alexander Shulzhenko fought in the commando of the legendary Boer leader General De Wet, until he was captured by the British in April 1901 [1, pp 42-43]. Alexander Guchkov was wounded in July 1900 and remained paralysed for the rest of his life. However, this setback did not prevent him from later becoming chairman of the Russian Duma and eventually War Minister in the Provisional Government, following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II [1, p 64]. Another volunteer, Vladimir Semionov, designed the opera and ballet theatre in Yekaterinoslav shortly after the war, and had by the 1930’s become a prominent architect and academic in Moscow [1, pp 57-58]. Remarkably, even some opponents of the Tsarist government volunteered for military service with the Boers. Among them were Ivan Zabolotny, a member of the first State Duma in 1905; Alexander Essen, who became a leading Soviet economist in the 1920’s; and Prince Mikhail Yengalychev, who in 1907 attempted to form a republican organisation in Russia [1, pp 65-67].
It is interesting to note that when Russia sent its Baltic fleet around Africa towards the end of 1904 in order to fight the Japanese with whom they were at war, the British government issued strict orders that no Russian ships would be allowed to enter British-controlled ports anywhere in the world, which at the time included the South African ports. This armada included the cruiser Aurora, which would later become legendary for signalling the start of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Tragically, most of the Russian sailors in the armada sailing past the Cape of Good Hope never returned to their homes, having died in the disastrous naval battle of Tsushima in 1905 [2, pp 30-31].
During the first two decades of the twentieth century a variety of economic, cultural and academic ties were developing between Russia and South Africa. The economic link was centred on the mining industry, which is not surprising given the abundance of minerals found in both countries. In addition, the years before the outbreak of the First World War saw both the Transvaal and the Cape province import timber, textiles and railway rails from Russia. The academic link, overlapping with agriculture, included co-operation in locust control and irrigation. And in the cultural sphere the novels of the South African author Olive Schreiner became highly popular in Russia from the 1890’s onward, being published in most of the Russian popular magazines and literary journals. One of her publishers was Maxim Gorky, who like many Russians found resonance with Schreiner’s socialist views [2).
- 37-38]. A later famous Afrikaans author, Louis Leipoldt, visited Moscow in 1908 and was enamoured by the architectural splendour and colourful crowds of the Russian capital, which he vividly described in his letters to a friend. As a young physician Leipoldt was equally impressed by the high level of the Russian medical services, which he considered to be superior to that of Britain at the time. His only complaint was the exorbitant prices in Moscow [2, pp 32-33].
However, by the early 1920’s relations between the newly formed Soviet Union and South Africa practically came to an end, as was the case with all of the British dominions [2, p 38]. Although the two countries were Allies during the Second World War, Soviet-South Africans relations deteriorated further during the second half of the century. The South African Communist Party (SACP) was declared illegal by the Afrikaner nationalist government in 1950 and then formed a strategic alliance with the African National Congress (ANC), which continues to this day. Moreover, from the early 1960s until the late 1980s the Soviet Union actively supported the black guerilla movements fighting white rule in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South-west Africa (now Namibia). The Soviets and South Africans also clashed in Angola during the period 1975 to 1988, backing the Moscow-aligned MPLA government and the pro-Western rebel movement UNITA, respectively.2 However, with the transfer of power from the Afrikaner nationalists to the ANC in 1994, the SACP became an integral component of the new South African government. This surely has to count as one of the greatest ironies of recent history, since by that time the Communist era in Russia had already ended.
Russian Orthodoxy is established
Only in the 1990’s would diplomatic, economic and cultural relations be restored between the post-Soviet Russian Federation and post-apartheid South Africa. An office of the South African diamond mining giant, De Beers, was opened in Russia in 1992 [2, p 34]. Another beneficiary of the renewed links between Russia and South Africa was the Russian Orthodox Church, which founded a parish in Midrand (situated halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria) in 1998. Named after St Sergius of Radonezh, this became the first Russian Orthodox parish in sub-Saharan Africa. The first rector of the new parish was Father Sergius Rasskazovsky, who was also a professor at the St Petersburg Theological Academy.3 Under a new rector, Father Philaret Bulekov, a church began to be built for the parish towards the end of 2001. Funded by the Russian engineering construction company Stroytransgaz and supported by the Russian embassy in South Africa, the newly built church was consecrated early in 2003 by Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk, who later became the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ . With beautiful golden domes placed atop the building in 2004, the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sergius of Radonezh makes a striking appearance not far from the N1 motorway between Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The Russian volunteers who had fought and died in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century finally received recognition from the Church that most of them were
- The most comprehensive accounts of this protracted yet neglected conflict from a South African viewpoint are the following books: South Africa’s Border War 1966-89, by Willem Steenkamp; and The South African Defence Forces in the Border War 1966-1989, by Leopold Scholtz.
- This author had the privilege of receiving his first Communion as Orthodox Christian from Father Sergius in 1999.
members of in 2013, when a chapel commemorating them was built on the premises of the Midrand church [4 & 5]. The new chapel is dedicated to St Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, thus affirming a significant link between Russian Orthodoxy and the South African population, particularly the Afrikaners. The current rector of the Russian Orthodox parish of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand is Father Daniel Lugovoy, who also travels to Cape Town periodically to serve the Slavonic liturgy in a newly built chapel there. In addition to services every weekend and on major feast days, the parish conducts an active Sunday school for children and an Orthodox study group for adults. It also has a well-stocked library with over a thousand titles in Russian and English . May God grant the Russian Orthodox Church in South Africa many years!
- Apollon Davidson & Irina Filatova. The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Cape Town, Pretoria & Johannesburg: Human & Rousseau, 1998.
- Apollon Davidson. Russia and South Africa before the Soviet era. National Research University Higher School of Economics, 2013. hse.ru/data/2013/04/18/1297820237/21HUM2013.pdf
- Donal Lowry. ‘When the World loved the Boers’, in History Today, 43-49, May 1999.
- Andrew Phillips. ‘Orthodox who Fought for Freedom in the Boer War Commemorated.’ (17 April 2013). http://www.events.orthodoxengland.org.uk/orthodox-who-fought-for-freedom-in-the-boer-war-commemorated/
- ru: ‘Foundation laid for a new chapel in Johannesburg’ (15 April 2013). http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/60855.htm
- Russian Orthodox Church of St Sergius of Radonezh: http://www.st-sergius.info/en/our-church
- Wikipedia: Hendrik Swellengrebel. https://af.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Swellengrebel
Dr. Vladimir de Beer
30 November 2016