Module #1

Peter the Great 
Peter the Great 
1) "Blacks in Russia: 
A Historical Perspective 
2) "Alexander Pushkin   
and Nancy Prince 


RUS 493
"African-American Literary Ties to
Russian Intellectual Thought"
URL: syllabus.htm
"Blacks in Russia: A Historical Perspective"

The most convenient starting point for a study of blacks in Russian history and thought is the beginning its Imperial Age, usually dated from the reign of Peter I, or Peter the Great (1682-1725). Peter modernized Russia, opening his country through contact with the West, and built the capital city, St. Petersburg, "the Window to the West." Peter was the first Russian to comprehend the advantage of African contact for Russiaís interests. There were no original black inhabitants of Russian lands. It was mainly through this expansion of contact with the outside world that blacks came to be involved with the Russian experience. 

Russia arrived late to sea travel, and although it acquired a large North American holding, it did not achieve a large maritime empire nor participate in the African slave trade the way other European powers did. At the same time, Russia did evolve into a gigantic landed empire which included numerous non-Slavic peoples, including several small populations of African descent. As Russia emerged as a recognized world power, it took interest in world affairs, including the slavery issue and European imperialism in Africa. Peter the Great imitated many Western customs, among them the importation of black servants for his court, a trend followed by some of the Russian nobility as well. 

As Russia grew as a trading power, the black population grew as black seamen regularly visited and some stayed. Russian perception of blacks was gradually shaped by the combination of the limited presence of blacks in Russia and by Russiaís growing exposure to developments and ideas from abroad. This continued even after the 1917 revolution brought the Imperial Age to an end in Russia. 

The Black Sea Region  

The earliest presence of black peoples in Russia was along the western slope of the Caucasus mountains near the Black Sea, in the small state of Abkhazia and in parts of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. When one considers the rugged terrain of the area, it is not surprising that these settlements remained isolated for centuries, largely unknown to the Russian public until the early 20th century. In the early years of the 20th c. several articles appeared detailing the populations of these settlements in Batumi,  in southwest Georgia, in Sukhumi, in Northwest Georgia and other areas of the Caucasus. In these, the black peoples were called by a variety of terms: Arabs, Lazs, or Adzhars by the people around Batumi, which referred to other groups of indigenous peoples as well, who had intermarried with the black populations. Most of the people in these black settlements were Moslems and spoke only the Abkhazian language. 

The most prevalent explanation of how these Africans came to the Black Sea region is that they were brought as slaves for Turkish and Abkhazian rulers between the 16th and 19th centuries. When the Turks withdrew they took their slaves with them, and those that remained gained their freedom in the 19th century. Another  theory, however, places blacks in this region centuries earlier, perhaps in Antiquity, perhaps as descendants of the legendary army of the Egyptian Emperor Sesotris , who supposedly conquered parts of Asia before the second millennium. Classical writings dating from the eight century BC refer to Colchis, the Colchians being described as black-skinned. More recent writings also refute the likelihood of importing Africans as slaves, since the area itself was already well-noted for exportation of its own slaves, suggesting an earlier population of blacks. Regardless, the slave colonies that existed in this area were cut off by the capture of the Byzantine empire by the Ottomans in the 15th c., leading to the European shift to black Africa for slaves. (Bear in mind that the area of Abkhazia to this day boasts more than a hundred languages for a population of half a million. Those peoples who into the twentieth century could still be identified as black probably descended from Africans brought into the region. Their presence in the region represents an interesting and little known tie between Russia and Africa.) 

Black Servants in Imperial Russia  

These native populations of blacks remained largely in the Caucasus regions of Russia during the Imperial Age. The remainder of the black population was largely servants, in some cases originally purchased as slaves. Russians called them interchangeably arapy, efiopy, or negry (blackamoors, Ethiopians, or Negros). There was, however, no significant black slave trade in Russia, as will be discussed later. 

Again we return to Peter the Great, who was personally responsible for bringing many blacks to serve in his court consistent with European fashion. Many of the nobles followed Peter's example through the 18th and 19th centuries. Most servants were acquired as slaves and upon arrival in Russia, were granted their personal freedom in exchange for a lifetime service obligation. The Tsar employed roughly 20 black servants in his court by the 19th century, and these came not only from Africa but from America as well. For example, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the American minister to Russia in 1894, discovered one servant originally from Tennessee.  John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), minister to Russia in 1809, placed two black American servants in the Tsar's court -- Nelson, a black man who had accompanied Adams to Russia, and Alexander Gabriel, a black shipís cook who had deserted an American ship. Another connection between American blacks and the Russian court can be traced to Nero Prince, who served as Grand Master of the Boston African Grand Lodge in 1808. Prince sailed to Russia in 1810 to serve as a butler for a noble family and remained in contact with his fellow Masons during his stay there. His second wife, Nancy Prince, kept a diary (which she eventually published herself) detailing court life from 1824 to 1833. Like some of the other black servants, the Prince family lived outside the palace and had a house of their own. Nancy established a sewing shop, employing journeymen and apprentices, and she was active in the Russian Bible Society, which distributed thousands of Bibles in St. Petersburg. 

Many black servants were royal favorites. The most famous of all was Abram Hannibal, whose family had a lasting significance in tsarist Russian history. Hannibalís specific African origins are difficult to assess. All accounts agree that the African boy who later assumed this name was brought to Russia around 1700, perhaps from Holland as a cabin boy or from the sultanís court in Constantinople. Many accounts suggest that his origins were in Ethiopia. Hannibal entered the Tsar's service in 1705, and from that period his biography becomes clearer through his listings in official court records. In 1707 he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, with Peter the Great as his godfather. Abram took his patronymic Petrovich, from Peter. From that point the boy was treated as Peterís godson, serving as his valet and accompanying him on numerous campaigns. Peter gave Abram an excellent education, especially in mathematics. In 1716, he was sent to Paris for higher education and remained abroad for seven years. Then in 1718 Abram joined the French Army for instruction in military engineering. Ordered home in 1723, he was assigned first as an engineer at Kronstadt and later as a mathematics teacher in one of Peterís personal guard units. At this point, Abram was one of the most highly educated people in Russia. With the death of Peter in 1725, Abramís fortunes suffered. He was not on good terms with the leading advisors of Peterís successor, Catherine I (Peter's wife), and in 1727 he was assigned to Siberia. After Catherineís death and the succession of Peter the II, Abram spent three years in Siberia. When Anna  finally took the throne in 1730 upon the sudden death of Peter II, Abram was promoted first to major and then to captain and assigned to the Baltic fortress of Pernau. In 1733, he was allowed to retire. At about his time he adopted the surname Hannibal, and married Eudoxia Dioper, the daughter of a Greek sea captain. Eudoxia entered the marriage unwillingly and Hannibal soon initiated a divorce. Although the divorce did not become final for 20 years, Hannibal married illegally Christina Regina von Shoberg, the daughter of a Baltic German army officer. She bore him 11 children and was his longtime companion. Eudoxia, accused by Hannibal of infidelity,  ultimately granted the divorce in 1753 and was sent to a convent for the remainder of her life. 

When one of Peterís daughters, Elizabeth I, gained the throne, she made Hannibal lieutenant colonel of artillery, assigned to the Reval Garrison. In 1742 he was given rank of major general and served as commandant of the city of Reval from 1743 to 1751. In 1746 the Empress granted him a number of estates in Pskov and Petersburg provinces and thousands of serfs. Here,  he retired in 1762. He died around 1781 in his 90s. Hannibalís professional achievements were important ones for which he received the highest awards. He was the first outstanding modern engineer in Russian history and is credited with building a number of important fortresses. His knowledge of canal construction made him a pioneer in an enterprise which had proven to be of utmost importance for Russia. His son Ivan had an illustrious military career;  two of his other sons Peter and Osip had respectable though undistinguished careers in the military and civil service. Osipís daughter, Nadezhda, gave birth to Alexander Pushkin in 1799, the greatest and most beloved Russian poet of all time. Her marriage into the old nobility of the Pushkin family illustrates the Hannibal familyís complete assimilation into Russian high society.