‘I am wholly preoccupied with the war between England and the Transvaal,’ Tsar Nicholas wrote to his sister at the outbreak of the Boer War. ‘Every day I read the news in the British newspapers from the first to the last line . . . I cannot conceal my joy at . . . yesterday’s news that during General White’s sally two full British battalions and a mountain battery were captured by the Boers!’
Britain’s hold on South Africa was significant for the Russians partly because the route to India lay via the Cape, and as Governors of the Cape were only too aware, Russia had its own designs on India. Indeed, in 1875 when Lord Carnarvon attempted to create a South African Confederation he justified his scheme by the need to defend British interests from Russian ambitions. In 1879 the British feared that Russia might take advantage of the Zulu War and strike in Central Asia – or even send arms to the Zulus. The young Jan Smuts, conscious of this Russian interest, advised his Boer colleagues on the eve of war to prevail on the Russians to foment an anti-British rising in India. In fact, Kruger, thinking along similar lines, had already sent the Russian émigré financier Benzion Aaron to represent the Transvaal at Nicholas’s coronation in 1896 – a singularly ignorant move since, as the authors of this book point out, Aaron was a Jew and the Tsar would have regarded the choice of such an emissary as an insult. Nonetheless, the Tsar grasped the larger point and quickly established diplomatic relations with the Transvaal.
Russian interests clashed with Britain’s in Central Asia, Iran, the Bosphorus, the Mediterranean and the Balkans as well as over India; and in addition to her vengeful feelings about the Crimean War, Russia felt herself blocked at every turn by Britain. Wildly excited at the thought that the Boers might at last have created the vital crack in the wall of the British Empire, Nicholas rushed off to see the Kaiser – ‘I intend to set the Emperor on the British, reminding him of his famous telegram to Kruger!’ – while the Russian Foreign Minister tried to interest the French in an anti-British alliance. In order to increase the pressure, Russia built up its Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets and even courted provocation with the dispatch of four cruisers to the Channel. At the same time, Russian troops were moved up to the borders of India and Afghanistan.
The Tsar was, in fact, quite carried away. ‘You know, my dear,’ he told his sister, ‘that I am not arrogant, but it is pleasant for me to know that I and I only possess the ultimate means of deciding the course of the war in South Africa. It is very simple – just a telegraphic order to all the troops in Turkestan to mobilise and advance towards the [Indian] frontier. Not even the strongest fleet in the world can keep us from striking England at this her most vulnerable point.’ Such was Nicholas’s ‘dearest dream’ but it came to nothing. The Germans and French scuttled away; Russia was in no position to take on Britain without their help; and the Tsarina Alexandra had her doubts, which was not so surprising given that, like the Kaiser, she was Queen Victoria’s grandchild – and in regular contact with her grandmother.
The enthusiasm of the Russian public for the Boer cause knew no such constraints. Books, articles, poems, plays and pamphlets about the Boers poured out, orchestras played ‘Transvaal, Transvaal, My Country’ over and over again, money was collected and sent, prayers were offered up in church for a speedy victory against the British and pictures of the Boers were everywhere. ‘Wherever you go these days you hear the same story – the Boers, the Boers and only the Boers,’ one writer complained. For years on end, and throughout the Empire, they were the favourite heroes of popular serials and penny dreadfuls. Restaurants, inns and cafés were given Boer names, their inter-iors refurbished in ‘Boer style’, and whole new lines of children’s toys appeared glor-ifying the Boers and ridiculing John Bull. Even the pacifist Tolstoy was caught up in the wild enthusiasm for the war: ‘You know what point I’ve reached? Opening a paper every morning I passionately wish to read that the Boers have beaten the British.’ He knew that he ‘should not rejoice at the vict-ories of the Boers or grieve about their defeats, after all they kill the English soldiers too’. But he couldn’t help it: ‘I am glad when I read about the defeats of the British, it cheers my soul.’
Russian conservatives were pro-Boer not only for the usual nationalist, anti-British reasons but because they thought the Boers were like the best sort of Russians – conservative, rural, Christian folk resisting the invasion of their land by foreign (especially Jewish) capitalists. ‘The deep historical meaning of this war,’ wrote one conservative Moscow paper, ‘is that faith, patriotism . . . the patriarchal family, primordial tribal unity, iron discipline and the complete lack of so-called modern civilisation have . . . become such an invincible force that even the seemingly invincible British have begun to tremble.’ But the Left, too, loved the Boers. Lenin supported their struggle against imperialism; and the works of Olive Schreiner, who had opposed the British invasion of the Boer republics as a matter of principle, were adopted with a real popular passion. Yet in 1980 Ruth First, who knew both the Russian and the South African contexts well, published what was meant to be an exhaustive list of all the translations of Schreiner’s works, including those into Czech and Esperanto, without realising that there had been literally scores of Russian translations. The events of 1905 and 1917 had wiped Boermania from the general memory.
Several hundred Russians came out to fight for the Boers and to be their nurses and doctors. It is difficult to be precise about the size of this group because many thousands of Jews, fleeing from the pogroms in Russia, had already joined the great gold rush to the Transvaal in the latter part of the 1880s. A good number of these left the Transvaal at the outbreak of war, some to join the British forces; but many fought for the Boers and probably accounted for the majority of the entire Russian contingent. The problem was that in the eyes of the often anti-semitic Russian nationalists who flocked to the Boer cause such people were not Russians at all: the nationalists formed a separate Russian Commando unit in the Boer Army and refused to allow Russian Jews to join it. On the other hand, the British, enraged that such recent émigrés should take up arms against them, found it convenient to regard them as Russians and deported large numbers of them back to Russia to face the pogroms again, an act of callousness which has never attracted the attention – or opprobrium – it deserves.
Not much is known about the Russian Jews who fought on the Boer side, though several rose to significant rank; we find a Commandant Kaplan and a Commandant Isaac Herman, while two others, Josef Segal (‘Jackals’) and Wolf Jacobson (‘Wolf’), who acted as scouts, were legendary figures in their time; Segal became a special adviser and secret agent for the Boer general, Christiaan de Wet. Benzion Aaron, by now a very wealthy man and a personal friend of Kruger, set up a Jewish Ambulance Corps and bankrolled whole depots for the Boers. The anti-semitism of the Russian nationalist volunteers doesn’t seem to have caused any difficulties. Wounded nationalists were shown great solicitousness by Aaron’s ambulance corps while the members of the anti-semitic Russian Commando, according to their own reports, were greeted as compatriots on their arrival by Russian Jews who showered them with fruit, cigars and good wishes.
Among the major new sources discovered by Davidson and Filatova are the journals and diaries of one Yevgeny Augustus, a gifted writer who gives a dramatic account of the battle of Spion Kop – though his main contribution to the history of the war was to have pointed up what a shambles it was. Proceeding to Pretoria from Poland or Lithuania via Brussels and Mozambique, he was hurriedly sworn in to the Boer cause in broken Dutch and informed that the Boer Army had run out of Mauser rifles. He quickly realised that the place had become ‘a paradise for adventurers and rogues of all kinds’ – among them, bogus volunteers who got endlessly re-equipped, only to sell their arms and horses before volunteering again.
Boer tactics were poor and many of the volunteers, Yevgeny Augustus recorded, ‘have been brought here either by a poorly concealed instinct for robbery and pillage or by a dirty story back home’. He and his comrades rode off to the Tugela front, arriving just in time to see an African being badly beaten on suspicion of spying for the British. When the victim’s stick broke – it was being used to beat him – a plan of the Boer fortifications fell out of it and he was shot on the spot.
Plenty of Russians were taken aback at the Boers’ casual brutality towards the Africans. Augustus was one; another was the Georgian Prince Nikolai Bagration, a descendant of the Marshal Bagration who had fought against Napoleon, and so well-connected an aristocrat that he had represented Georgia at the Tsar’s coronation. Niko the Boer (as he came to be known) was swanning off from the Paris Exhibition to go big-game hunting when he heard that war had broken out. He felt an instinctive affinity between the Boers, a lost white tribe in Africa, and native Georgians marooned in a sea of Muslims. He had never heard of the Transvaal until then, ‘but it felt very much like my motherland and I felt I must protect it.’ The first Russian volunteer to arrive in Pretoria, he was greeted with hugs by Kruger and his generals, who fancied that he would win European support for their cause. A giant of a man, he was attended by two Georgian servants who, like him, were generally taken for Cossacks. He fought bravely, was captured by the British and summoned by Lord Kitchener to explain his conduct – a memorable confrontation in which he accused Kitchener of atrocities (the charge was denied). Exiled to St Helena, Niko remained hugely cheerful among his depressed fellow prisoners, organising sports and other activities, even though he lost 90 lbs in weight. Returning to Russia, he showed similar courage in the face of the Bolsheviks, whom he detested, and ended his days selling cigarettes in Tbilisi marketplace, still dressed in princely garments.
Some Russian aristocrats who came to fight were men of the left. Prince Mikhail Yengalychev, like his comrades, Ivan Zabolotny and Alexander Essen, must have loathed the conservative monarchists of the Russian Commando. On his return to Russia the Prince was placed under police surveillance for having tried to bring about a peasant uprising against the Tsar, while Zabolotny became a leader of the Trudoviks and a member of the first Duma. Essen was already a member of the Social Democrats when he arrived in Pretoria and was to play an active role in the 1905 Revolution – his underground alias was ‘the Boer’. He went on to become a leading Bolshevik and in the Twenties was appointed deputy chairman of the Russian State Planning Committee.
The book’s most tragic figure is ‘the Russian Boer General’, Lt-Col. Yevgeny Maximov, who seems to have had such extraordinary influence with Kruger and his generals that he is thought to have arrived in South Africa on a secret mission from the Russian Government. And even after Kruger was exiled to Holland after the war, he remained in touch with Maximov, thanking him for his bravery. Maximov was the real thing: a professional soldier, a wonderful horseman, an almost miraculously good shot (on one occasion he shot a springbok at 800 metres from a moving train) – the sort of man who fought on despite his wounds when most of his unit had been wiped out. (He returned from that engagement a hero and was personally thanked by Smuts.) Like most of the Russians, he left via Mozambique once it became clear that the Boer cause was lost.
Thanks to the remarkable feats of detection they have displayed over and over again in this book, Davidson and Filatova have reconstructed Maximov’s career. He was born in 1849 and at the age of 20 joined an élite regiment, but three years later was transferred to a lesser regiment and at the age of 26 took retirement from the Army with a note on his service record referring to his ‘shattered home circumstances’ and an attempted suicide by poison – a mysterious but utterly damning black mark which ruined his army career. He spent the rest of his life fighting wars and reporting them as a war correspondent, as if in a frantic and impossible attempt to expiate this sin. No sooner had he retired than he volunteered to fight for Serbia against Turkey; he then enlisted in the Russo-Turkish war. By 1880 he was with the Russian campaign in Turkmenistan. A passionate conservative and monarchist, he was horrified by the Tsar’s assassination in 1881 and joined the secret police in order to root out the anarchists. By 1895 he was embroiled in the Italo-Ethiopian war, after which he volunteered to fight for the Greeks against the Turks. That was followed by a spell in Iran and Afghanistan; and it was from Afghanistan that he departed for the Transvaal.
Returning to Russia from the Anglo-Boer War, Maximov found himself in a train compartment with the mistresses of a number of prominent citizens. Sensing his disapproval, the women mocked him, drawing in turn a sharp retort from him and a challenge to a duel from one of their consorts, Prince Alexander Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, a member of the Tsar’s corps of personal guards. Knowing that no one could match him with a gun, Maximov told his seconds that he would let the Prince have the first shot and, if he survived that, would wound him in the leg. The trouble was that the seconds had deliberately overloaded both pistols to make them shoot high. The Prince missed but Maximov’s shot went high and killed his opponent. At the end of a sensational trial, Maximov was sentenced to two years in jail but a public outcry led to a pardon. The Prince’s friends took their revenge by trying to poison him and then throwing him out of a third-floor window. Maximov recovered, fell in love with a much younger woman and married her. His first child was born soon after the wedding.
When the Russo-Japanese war broke out in 1904, there was a strong case for staying at home, but Maximov, who was 55, immediately volunteered. He was rejected and appealed to the Dowager Empress. Her intercession, together with the utterly murderous casualties the Russians were suffering, persuaded the Army to change its mind. Arriving at Mukden, Maximov announced that he expected to die on his first day. In fact, he lasted two days before being cut down in an engagement in which more than half his regiment was killed.
Maximov is a figure of considerable pathos, his whole career seemingly devoted to the hopeless task of eradicating his early disgrace. ‘One of the many consequences of 19th-century imperialism,’ Davidson and Filatova conclude, ‘was that passion, direction and even grandeur were given to many lives which might otherwise have been empty, disconnected and sad.’ Maximov was in love with a conservative ideal of Russia – but spent his life escaping a country which in point of fact did not accept him and which was far too stifling and bureaucratic for a spirit such as his. His stirring deeds in the Transvaal represented the summit of his career, the nearest he came to the glory he always sought. But like all the Russian volunteers, he was in any case doomed. Those who survived the Russo-Japanese War were likely to die either in the First World War or the Civil War and those who got through both were likely to fall in the Purges or the Second World War. None seems to have survived to 1945.
On the Boer side it was different. Jonkheer van der Hoeven, Secretary of the Transvaal mission in Europe, arrived in St Petersburg in 1901 and, to the fury of the Foreign Minister, Lamsdorf, played on popular pro-Boer sentiment to get himself invited – amid bitter protests from the British – to the wedding of the Tsar’s sister. Lamsdorf sent him packing after that. A man without a country after Kruger’s fall, van der Hoeven took up gambling on a professional basis at Monte Carlo and elsewhere. During the First World War he turned to spying for the Germans in Russia; he was caught and exiled to Siberia, whence he emerged with a passionate hatred of his former employers. He was back in South Africa in 1942, volunteering his services against the Germans to the newly-opened Soviet Consulate: his pet plan was to leave cholera bacilli on chocolates and sausages in shops which the advancing German troops were likely to come across. The Russians did not take the offer up and van der Hoeven, who had once seen himself as a world-historical figure, died destitute in Cape Town in 1950.
There is more than a touch of Richard Cobb in the way Davidson and Filatova tease out these bizarre biographies and, in so doing, they have opened up a new front in a war long thought to be over. But it is the novel refraction of the British imperial world through St Petersburg which is the book’s larger achievement. For Britain’s imperial success was a challenge to the Tsarist state, and the impetus for many new and surprising alliances – Maximov’s Ethiopian adventure, for example, seems to have derived from a notion that, as Copts, the Ethiopians were the natural allies of the Russian Patriarch’s congregations. It was the Boers, however, on whom the Russians pinned their greatest hopes. Unfortunately for them, Kruger was not George Washington and Britain was willing to dispatch half a million troops to South Africa rather than lose the gold mines, a fact which only heightens the sense of doom hanging over the extraordinary cast of characters rescued from obscurity by this book.