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Freebooter Nikolai Ashinov sought a foothold for Mother Russia in the Red Sea—but his African misadventure only caused embarrassment

Its 19th century struggle with the British empire for control of Central Asia left imperial Russia out of the European division of Africa and its resources. But with the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, some in Russia floated the possibility of establishing a warm-water port that would also control access to the Red Sea’s southern entrance. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had little interest in expansion to Africa, leaving execution of the scheme to a roguish adventurer named Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov, a Terek Cossack from the Chechen lowlands.

Though poorly educated, the charismatic Ashinov displayed sufficient resolve to attract support. Such a base, he explained, would both offer an entry point to Christian Ethiopia and govern the shipping lanes that transported India’s wealth to Britain. Ashinov, however, left out one vital detail—his target port, Tadjoura, lay within French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti). Carried out by an unlikely cadre of Cossack warriors and Russian Orthodox priests, Ashinov’s attempted occupation of an abandoned Egyptian fort there in 1889 sparked an international crisis and led to what Czar Alexander III deemed “a sad and stupid comedy.”

Ethiopia barely registered on the Russian consciousness until 1847, when Lt. Col. Egor Petrovich Kovalevsky led a two-year Russian expedition from Alexandria to Cairo, up the Nile and Blue Nile into Sudan, then followed a tributary into Gojjam (northwest Ethiopia) in search of gold deposits. A year later Russian monk Porfiry Uspensky, having met with Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem, claimed (incorrectly) the rites of the Russian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches were nearly identical and suggested sending a religious mission to the Ethiopian emperor. The end goal, the politically minded monk proposed, was to send Orthodox missionaries to the region, thus spreading Russian influence. Nothing came of the plan, but in 1855 Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II sent a letter to the czar suggesting a joint effort to wrest Jerusalem from Ottoman control. The timing was bad, however, as Russia was reeling from its losses in the Crimean War.

Meanwhile, the French were taking an interest in the challenging Gulf of Tadjoura region. In 1856, Henri Lambert, the French consul in Aden, became the first European to visit the port of Obock, where he negotiated trading rights with the local sultan. Lambert was murdered three years later after inserting himself into a local political dispute, but in 1862 the French signed a treaty of alliance with the regional Afar sultan and purchased Obock. The French initially found little use for the port and considered selling it to the Egyptians, who were expanding their African empire with a modernized military heavily reliant on Western mercenaries, including veterans of the American Civil War. In 1874 Egyptian troops began occupying the coast southward from Tadjoura. By 1882 passing French ships were reporting the presence of Egyptian forces at colonial holdings in the Gulf of Aden. French interest in the area picked up the next year after authorities in the British-held port of Aden refused to recoal French naval ships. By then the Egyptian military presence was pervasive in Obock, which France had still made no effort to occupy.

Ethiopia’s destruction of the Egyptian army at the Battle of Gura in March 1876 was the beginning of the end of Egypt’s efforts to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa. By 1884 Cairo had agreed to abandon its bases along the Ethiopian and Somali coasts, a withdrawal the European powers were ready to exploit. That year France dispatched statesman-ambassador Léonce Lagarde, Count of Rouffeyroux, to oversee its interests as military governor of the region. Fresh from colonial service in Cochin China and Senegal, Governor Lagarde established himself on the south side of the Tadjoura Gulf and gradually expanded French rule into the rest of the region, sowing the seeds for a French colony. Though the Italians and British managed to occupy some of the abandoned Egyptian ports, Lagarde beat Royal Navy warships to Tadjoura by only a few hours, adding it to the newly established French protectorate by agreement with the local sultan. Weeks later, as the last Egyptian forces withdrew from the timeworn bastion of Sagallo, French troops from the cruiser Seignelay occupied the decaying fort over British protests.

Russian adventurism in Africa was not limited to Ashinov’s scheme; Russian-supplied artillery helped the Ethiopians defeat Italian forces at the 1896 Battle of Adwa. (Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)


Nikolai Ashinov had begun his career as an adventurer in the caravan trade to Persia and Turkey before volunteering for service in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. Though he claimed to be an ataman, or Cossack leader, others denounced him as an imposter. During a visit to Constantinople, Ashinov encountered two Circassian Muslims returning to the northwestern Caucasus from Cairo who told him of a fertile land to the south of Egypt whose inhabitants practiced an ancient form of Christianity.

Ashinov’s first trip to Africa came in 1885, when he landed at the Red Sea port of Massawa, which Italy had just occupied as Egypt’s rule in the region collapsed. The Cossack quarreled with the Italians (who were also eyeing Ethiopia) before heading inland. Though accounts differ on whether Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV met with Ashinov, the latter claimed to have obtained a vague permit to establish a Cossack settlement on the Gulf of Tadjoura. Ashinov did meet with the influential Ethiopian Gen. Ras Alula and made a reconnaissance of Tadjoura.

Ashinov’s motivation was grounded in Slavophilism, a 19th century intellectual movement focused on preserving traditional Russian culture. It emphasized the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church, rejected Westernism and sought continual expansion of the empire. The expansionists were particularly drawn to the Red Sea coast and Ethiopia, given the region’s strategic value and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which seemed to offer common ground between the two nations. The preferred base for such efforts, the Gulf of Tadjoura, had been claimed but was not yet fully consolidated by the French. Regardless, leading merchants and administrators (including Alexander III’s brother) began to line up behind Ashinov in hopes that were he able to establish a Cossack colony, the czar would step in and proclaim it an official Russian overseas territory. Despite misgivings about Ashinov’s character, Alexander appears to have toyed with the idea in the face of protests from the Foreign Ministry, which sought to cultivate France as an ally. In the end the czar neither supported nor prevented the African initiative, preferring to fall back on plausible denial and see how events unfolded.

Ashinov failed to raise support during a visit to Paris in 1887, despite pitching his idea as a joint Russo-French venture. But the lack of overt opposition likely assured him he had the tacit support of both France and Russia. In 1888 he returned to Tadjoura, where he collected two Ethiopian priests selected by Yohannes to attend the 900th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ashinov took the priests to celebrations in Kiev and then St. Petersburg. They met the czar at the insistence of Alexander’s closest adviser, who plainly laid out the case for the emperor: “In such enterprises the most convenient tools are cutthroats of the likes of Ashinov.”

Depending on whose backing he sought, Ashinov represented his proposed Cossack mission to Tadjoura as either strategic, commercial or religious in intent. The Foreign Ministry, loath to place international relations in the hands of a rogue Cossack, remained vigorously opposed to Ashinov’s scheme. Others were more forthcoming. As Russian scholars worked up detailed analyses of the Tadjoura region, Minister of the Navy Adm.Ivan Alexeyevich Shestakov sent the Russian gunboat Mandjur ahead to Aden to support the Cossacks.

To bolster Ashinov’s religious cover, Alexander’s adviser assigned Father Paissi, a Russian Orthodox archimandrite, to ostensibly lead the mission. Paissi was also an Orenburg Cossack with military experience in Central Asia. A party of Russian monks lent further credence to the venture.

The Ashinov mission—comprising some 150 armed Terek Cossacks, Paissi’s monks and a number of women and children—left Odessa on Dec. 10, 1888, and landed at Tadjoura on Jan. 18, 1889, after taking a circuitous route on three different ships to avoid detection. As the last ship, the Austrian steamer Amphitrite, made its way down the Suez Canal, the Italian gunboat Agostino Barbarigo, suspicious of the foreign-flagged ship, gave chase. As Amphitrite neared its destination, it managed to slip the Cossacks past the patrolling French sloop Météore.

Once ashore, Ashinov abandoned the pretense of a religious mission to Ethiopia and revealed his intention to establish a permanent Russian settlement. Informed of the landing party, Lagarde dispatched an officer from Météore to warn the Cossacks that any abuse of the local Afar population would be met with a harsh response. But when his men asked permission to raid the Afar herds for meat, Ashinov foolishly acquiesced. During the raid, his men raped an Afar girl. Ashinov paid off the local sultan, and as the French expressed no interest in removing the Cossacks, he resumed the search for an appropriate site to settle.

By month’s end the mission had occupied the abandoned Egyptian fort at Sagallo. Renaming it New Moscow, the Russians erected a makeshift chapel and raised a specially designed flag—their nation’s white, blue and red tricolor overlaid with a yellow saltire cross. Ashinov, Paissi and the handful of Cossack families took refuge in the fort’s blockhouse, while the rest sheltered outdoors in tents. Though it was winter, the daily average high temperature of 80 degrees under a relentless tropical sun made the work of repairing the fort a taxing effort for the northern intruders. Discipline quickly dissolved, and Ashinov was forced to distribute cash to his followers to dissuade them from further raiding.

The Cossack reputation for horsemanship aided Ashinov’s dismounted men little. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


On a regional scope the settlement posed a direct threat to the colonial ambitions of Italy and Britain, who particularly feared the possibility of Russian arms winding up in the hands of indigenous tribes. Through diplomatic channels, they urged France to assert its claims in Tadjoura and bring a quick end to the Cossack occupation. However, France itself was not necessarily hostile to the Russian incursion. Indeed, it may have welcomed cooperative efforts in the region to challenge Britain’s dominance of the approaches to the Suez Canal, which itself had come under British control.

The French and Cossacks engaged in a brief propaganda war—Ashinov trying to convince the Afar tribesmen the French were but a minor power, while Lagarde gave them the impression the Russians were only there with French permission. The governor sent emissaries to Ashinov to demand he turn over his group’s “excess weapons,” lower his flag and raise the French flag. Ashinov demurred, claiming he could do nothing without the permission of the local Afar sultan, Muhammad Leita, who was conveniently away fighting the Somalis. Never a diplomat, Ashinov failed to recognize he was being offered an opportunity to remain so long as he observed certain formalities.

Meanwhile, his unruly Cossacks continued their depredations, and all the noble religious rhetoric surrounding the purpose of the expedition came crashing down. Not all the Cossacks were pleased with the chaotic conditions and lack of leadership. The Afar tribesmen had turned over several Russian deserters to the French in Obock, and these disaffected settlers shared a true picture of the disorder prevailing in New Moscow. When the French Foreign Office lodged a formal complaint, a furious Czar Alexander sent word through the Russian envoy in Paris, disavowing any involvement with Ashinov’s mission. The Cossacks were on their own.

Satisfied Ashinov’s expedition had no official backing in Russia, the French government ordered Rear Adm. Jean-Baptiste Léon Olry, commander of the Levant Naval Division, to expel the intruders. With Olry at the helm, the cruisers Seignelay and Primauguet steamed for Obock, where they picked up Lagarde and were joined by the gunboats Météore and Pingouin.

At that stage of the fiasco the czar was heeding the counsel of the Foreign Ministry and demanded “this beast Ashinov” be removed from Tadjoura as soon as possible. After Paris received notice the Russians had decided to send the gunboat Mandjur from Aden to deal with the contentious Cossack themselves, the French government sent orders to Olry’s squadron to stand down. Due to the poor communications of the day, the orders didn’t arrive in time.

On February 17 the French flotilla arrived off Tadjoura and assembled in front of Sagallo. Olry promptly sent a courier ashore from Seignelay with a written demand that Ashinov lower the Russian flag, evacuate the fort and stack the Cossack weapons. He was granted a half-hour to comply—had the sight of the warships lining up in battle formation not already brought him to his senses. Some 20 Cossacks understood the implications and swam out to the French ships to surrender. Meanwhile, the deadline slipped by with no sign of compliance from the fort. Olry waited an additional half-hour before having gunners fire a warning shot well over the blockhouse. Another five minutes passed in dreadful silence.

Panic gripped the Russians when the French naval guns opened a 15-minute barrage. As the shells exploded around them, Ashinov reportedly ordered the Cossacks to create a line of defense on the beach, a suicidal command they wisely ignored. Though the French fired 11 large projectiles, most of their fire came from the newly introduced 47 mm naval version of the Hotchkiss revolving cannon. Cossack skill in arms and horsemanship provided no defense against naval guns, and the Russian holdouts had little alternative but to run for the surrounding brush or cower within the fort’s ruined walls and pray.

By the time the shelling was over, one man, two women and three children were dead, with 20 more wounded. The bombardment had pounded the fight out of the Russians, and Ashinov’s confidence had taken a shocking beating. He left it to Father Paissi to deal with the French, with Ashinov’s wife serving as interpreter. Paissi angrily protested the action but found little sympathy. French opinion was the Cossacks had brought it on themselves after passing up numerous opportunities to stand down.

Over the coming days French troops collected the garrison’s weapons and oversaw the embarkation of the Russians to Obock. To prevent a reoccupation of Sagallo, Olry ordered the remaining fortifications destroyed with explosives. Paissi and his monks were allowed to proceed on a religious mission to the Ethiopian court. After transport to Suez, the surviving Cossacks were placed under arrest by Russian authorities and on March 4 put aboard the cruiser Zabiyaka for a humiliating return trip to Odessa.

Ashinov was received like a bad odor back in Russia. Given the czar’s anger with him, the Cossack freebooter was perhaps lucky to have received only three years exile in the Volga River region; the Foreign Ministry had recommended five years in Siberia. In 1890 Ashinov fled, first to Paris and then London. Ordered home by Alexander III in 1891, he was resentenced to 10 years’ exile on his wife’s estates in Chernigov in northern Ukraine. Ashinov’s adversary Lagarde went on to become French ambassador to Ethiopia and in 1897 was granted the honorific Duke of Entoto by Emperor Menelik II.

Even as Ashinov was embroiled in his failed effort to create an African New Moscow, the Russian minister of war was organizing his own Ethiopian mission using a trusted and far less erratic officer, Lt. Vasiliev Federovich Mashkov, an Anglophobe and strategic thinker. In October 1889 Mashkov arrived in Menelik’s court with the apparent support of Lagarde. French and Russian interests were converging over a mutual desire to wrest control from the British of the sea routes passing the Horn of Africa. Mashkov’s follow-up visit in 1891 led to the eventual formation of a Russian military advisory mission and the delivery of Russian mountain guns the Ethiopians used to defeat the Italian army at Adwa in 1896. France and Russia viewed Italy as an ally of the British in the contest for the Horn.

Capt. Aleksandr Vasilevich Eliseev visited Tadjoura and the nearby Sultanate of Rahayta in 1895 with an eye to establishing relations. He, too, was accompanied by a Russian Orthodox archimandrite, as the idea of uniting the Russian and Ethiopian churches persisted through the end of the century. Eliseev died that same year of an illness he contracted abroad, but the Cossack connection continued as Eliseev’s protégé Capt. Nicolay Leontiev, a Kuban Cossack, saw that mission through—alarming the British with stated plans to contact the Mahdist regime in Omdurman. Following up a few years later was Col.Leonid Konstantinovich Artamonov, who served Menelik as a trusted military aide.

Artamonov and two Cossack soldiers accompanied the military expedition of Ethiopian commander Tessema Nadew to the White Nile in 1898 in advance of both Horatio Kitchener’s British forces and the French mission led by Jean-Baptiste Marchand, but the diseased and exhausted Ethiopians were compelled to withdraw after raising the Ethiopian flag near Fashoda. That same year Russia established formal relations with Ethiopia and built an impressive embassy in Addis Ababa, guarded by 40 Cossacks. France meanwhile consolidated its territories and protectorates in the Tadjoura Gulf region in 1896 as French Somaliland.

In the end the Ashinov misadventure had little effect on warming Franco-Russian relations. In the face of growing British might no mere Cossack could significantly influence geopolitical imperatives. Russia had suffered an embarrassment, but France had suffered little—if anything, the resolve it demonstrated in its dealings with both Ashinov and Moscow had elevated its prestige in the Horn.

Despite Russian attempts to become a player in the Horn of Africa, its inability to establish a permanent presence on the coast was to have devastating consequences. In 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s destruction of Russia’s Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur, Manchuria, forced Moscow to send its outdated Baltic Fleet to tackle Adm. Heihachiro Togo’s British-built battleships. A year earlier London had denied the Russians use of the Suez Canal after they had fired on British fishing vessels in the North Sea, having mistaken them for Japanese torpedo boats. After an 18,000-mile journey around the Cape of Good Hope, the exhausted Russian fleet fell easy prey to the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima. Ashinov and his backers had grasped the strategic importance of a Russian base in the Horn of Africa, but the Cossack adventurer’s erratic behavior had instead unwittingly contributed to imperial Russia’s military decline. 

Andrew McGregor is director of Toronto-based Aberfoyle International Security. For further reading he recommends The Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility, by Czeslaw Jesman, and Russia and Black Africa before World War II, by Edward Thomas Wilson.