Russian Ethiopian Orthodox Church Bulatovitch

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a centerpiece for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the world's second most populous Orthodox Church

A Russian in Ethiopia: Mutual Understanding Between Orthodox Christians in the Nineteenth Century

Published: August 1, 2022

Because historic travel diaries by definition capture moments of cross-cultural interaction, they often preserve important evidence of interethnic -and even inter-church- solidarity and strife. This essay hones in on one nineteenth-century, non-African diarist in Ethiopia in order to better understand how international Orthodox populations have related in the past, despite differences in culture and creed.

The man in question, a Russian named Alexander Bulatovich, traveled to Ethiopia in 1896. His meticulously-kept journals record a trove of observations on Ethiopian life. Because Bulatovich was a devout Orthodox Christian, much of his writing is concerned with the religious practices of Ethiopian Christians. This paper will analyze his observations and commentary on Ethiopian Christianity in an effort to better grasp how Bulatovich conceived of, and appreciated, both Russian and Ethiopian Orthodoxy. These insights can then be used to draw broader conclusions about the ways in which Christians from these different sects (especially from Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches) have historically understood each other, and how global Orthodox believers from vying churches have used their co-religionists to construct and define their own identities.

Alexander Bulatovich

Bulatovich was born into a Russian noble family in 1870. He went to Ethiopia during a period sometimes referred to as ‘the European Scramble for Africa’ (1881-1914), in which competing European countries rapidly and violently colonized many autonomous African nations. Russia was not among these imperialists. Its Tsar, Nicholas II, was instead invested in preventing Ethiopia’s colonization by European countries like Italy, who were historically competitors to Russia. As such, Bulatovich was dispatched to Ethiopia with a Russian Red Cross detachment “organized to help the sick and wounded Ethiopian soldiers” as they resisted Italian invasion (Seltzer, With the Armies of Menelik II, page 22).

Alexander Bulatovich
Alexander Bulatovich in military dress.

Bulatovich, who had been educated at the Imperial Lyceum near St. Petersburg before volunteering as a private in the Life-Guard Hussar Regiment of the Second Cavalry Division, was a member of this Red Cross mission. He took pains to prepare for the journey prior to his departure from Russia, quickly mastering the Ethiopian lingua franca, Amharic, and even asserting to a friend that, within a few months, “There was no one in Petersburg who knew Amharic better than I did.” After arriving in Ethiopia, Bulatovich became a confidant of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) through a mutual friend, Russian military officer and geographer Nikolay Leontiev. Bulatovich provided Menelik with military advice not only during Ethiopia’s war with Italy, but also during violent conflicts with indigenous tribes in the country’s south. In part with Bulatovich’s help, Menelik successfully rebuffed Italian imperialism and greatly expanded his territory. Bulatovich, a passionate explorer, was also one of Ethiopia’s earliest cartographers, eventually earning a medal from the Russian Geographical Society.

Bulatovich returned to Russia in 1903 and was persuaded by the priest John of Kronstadt[1] to become a monk. He left the army and relocated to the famed monastery Mt. Athos, where he was tonsured as ‘Father Anthony.’ He then made a second trip to Ethiopia, this time to establish his own monastery and to attempt to heal the ailing Menelik, wherein he “sprinkled and massaged the body of the Emperor with holy water and oil, and applied wonder-working icons” (605). Both his laying-of-hands and church-planting efforts were unsuccessful; the monastery failed and Menelik died.

So Bulatovich left Ethiopia for a second time and, in 1907, was driven out of Mt. Athos – along with some 600 other monks – for participating in the imiaslavie or name-glorification movement,[2] which the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church declared to be pantheistic and thus heretical. After being rehabilitated by Tsar Nicholas II[3], Bulatovich served as an army chaplain in World War I. He eventually formed his own skete[4] and lived as a hermit before being murdered “by bandits” during the Civil War in 1919 (Seltzer, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, ix).

Ethiopia in 1896

Because of the European Scramble for Africa, the rapid introduction of various European  technologies, the war with Italy, and Menelik’s accession of historically tribal lands, Bulatovich arrived to an Ethiopia “in a delicate state of transition.” Much of what he observed and recorded “would not remain or even be remembered in a generation or two” (Seltzer, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, v). The boundaries of the Ethiopian nation had very recently expanded, allowing unprecedented access to territories formerly controlled by an indigenous tribe known as the Galla. Bulatovich remarks at Menelik’s surprising leniency and his own considerable luck in being admitted to this region, writing, “Now the Abyssinians rule this country and only with great reluctance let anyone go there” (3). Exploring and mapping this area was Bulatovich’s main objective during the period of his diary-keeping.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Tewahedo)

Since the fourth century, Ethiopia has been a predominantly Christian, Orthodox nation. In fact, its church predates the Russian Orthodox Church and is the second largest Orthodox body of believers in the world.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, called the Tewahedo, is non-Chalcedonian. This means that the Tewahedo rejects the findings of the famous Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD, which resolved that Jesus Christ was simultaneously human and divine. Non-Chalcedonian churches hold that Christ was entirely divine. In fact, ‘Tewahedo’ actually means ‘undivided,’ a reference to the Church’s non-Chalcedonian or ‘monophysite’[5] beliefs (Binns, page 33).

The Tewahedo was not autocephalous during Bulatovich’s time.[6] Its bishop, or abuna as they are called locally, was assigned by the Patriarchate of Alexandria (head of the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Church), as was decreed at the Nicaean Council[7] (Seltzer, Ethiopia, 123).

Clarification on the terms “Abyssinia” and “Abyssinian

Bulatovich uses the dated, now unfashionable exonymic word ‘Abyssinia’ to refer to the country of Ethiopia, as was common practice for foreigners at the time, and ‘Abyssinian’ to refer to “the rulers of the country,” a group composed of a “mixture of all the peoples who gradually occupied the country,” “not of one uniform type” (73), but roughly forming the dominant culture. As such, he does not include people from southwestern Ethiopia (namely the Galla, Sidamo, and Amhara tribes), who were colonized by Menelik II, within the designation ‘Abyssinian’ (51). Also among the non-Abyssinian cultures violently conquered by Menelik are tribes Bulatovich cannot identify by name – he refers to people from these groups only as “negroes[8] on the western and southern borders” (51) and would not have considered them to be Abyssinians either.

Bulatovich in Ethiopia

Coming from an Eastern Christian background himself, Bulatovich is naturally given to comparing and contrasting his own Russian Orthodox traditions with the behaviors of Ethiopian churchgoers. The specific way in which he writes is telling; the aspects of Ethiopian Orthodoxy which he chooses to highlight can reveal his areas of focus or interest, or betray his preferences. It is also important to zero in on that which he does not understand or agree with, because those moments of tension can reveal his biases and his core beliefs.

Alexander Bulatovich
Alexander Bulatovich in religious garb.

Some aspects of Ethiopian Christianity appeal to him because of their unfamiliarity. Specifically, he is interested in how Biblical stories are adapted to an African context, writing, for instance, that “by tradition, the gall which they gave Christ to eat on the cross was the gall of an elephant”[9] (135). He carefully notes environmentally-determined variations in architecture and decoration, remarking that on “the roofs of churches, they make crosses out of ostrich eggs embedded on reeds” (135). The Ethiopian style of eucharist is also new to Bulatovich, having been adapted to suit local tastes, agriculture, and technology: “Communion bread is baked of leavened wheat dough in the form of large round flat cakes, the surface of which is notched into small squares with lengthwise and transverse cuts,” he observes. “They do not use wine. In its place, they moisten dried grapes and squeeze the juice from it. Grapes are obtained from Gondar. The wheat flour is ground at the church itself by some innocent boy” (136).

In one memorable anecdote, Bulatovich is taken aback by the skin color of Ethiopian icons, writing that “in some churches, the walls of the altar are painted with icons, on which the Abyssinians never give their saints black skin, but rather the color of the faces on the icons is always yellow” (138). It is possible that he was struck by a lack of Black self-representation – in that he expected Black people to give their icons darker skin – but it is more likely that Bulatovich expected the icons to be dark-skinned because traditional Russian icons were always dark-skinned, until Peter the Great introduced a more “European,” light-skinned style of iconography in the 18th century. As a result, dark-skinned icons were considered by most Russians of the period to be traditional and correct.

At times, Bulatovich seems to be on the lookout for any measurable influence of Russian Orthodoxy on Ethiopian Christianity. At a public prayer service, for example, he remarks that there “was an icon of the Mother of God, made in Moscow” and that “at the sight of it, all bowed down to the ground” (Seltzer, Armies, 264). Importantly, he explicitly sees a kinship between Ethiopians and Russians because of their shared faith, writing that “the nearness of [Ethiopia’s] people to the Russian people in creed, won for her the favor of the Russian people” (33). These shared religious ties, and the sense of friendship which correspondingly arises, are a major theme in the book. Bulatovich tells one Ethiopian man that in Russia, “in the distant past, almost all was rather similar to their style of life now. I told him about Saint Vladimir, about his feasts, the baptism, about his answer to the Mohammedan ambassadors: ‘The joy of Russia is drinking.’ The Ras liked my story so much that he soon retold it to his retinue, who unanimously decided that Russians, truly, must be true Christians” (159). This story reinforces the idea that Bulatovich saw Ethiopians as compatriots in Orthodoxy, and implies that the feeling was likely shared by the Ethiopian Christians he encountered. Bulatovich provides more evidence for this special relationship in an anecdote about Jerusalem, claiming that “an Abyssinian monastery is located next to the Russian Inn in Jerusalem” and, as a result, “Abyssinian pilgrims often visit our churches. Met by other Europeans with contempt and arrogance, only among Russians do they find sympathy and help” (452).

Very often, Bulatovich is impressed by the strong emotions that Ethiopians frequently display during church services. “At the consecration of the holy gifts,” he writes, for example, “the clergymen mourn for the suffering and death of Jesus Christ” and “for the most part, the clergymen are completely carried away in spirit to the events they are mourning” (Seltzer, Ethiopia, 137). An exaggerated animacy, which would be taboo in Russia, is also visible in a typical mass:

The singers get more and more enthusiastic. They sing while swinging in beat with their whole body, ringing copper rattles and beating in time with staffs on the ground. The movement becomes more and more energetic. The beating on drums becomes more frequent and louder. The singers leave their rattles and clap their hands. Some squat and act like ducks, describing a cross with the movement of their heads. The priests, standing in front of the people, also sing. Some of the debtera go to the middle of the circle, making smooth and graceful steps and swinging a staff in time to the music. The oppressive heat becomes dreadful. Sweat pours in torrents from the singers. But all are terribly electrified. The religious enthusiasm is enormous. And there are not at this moment any other than purely religious sensations. (137)

The language which Bulatovich uses here is vivid and descriptive, providing the reader with a real sense of place, and communicating just how moved he himself felt by the powerful energy within the church. His breathless writing suggests a genuine admiration for Ethiopian Christians’ authentic, non-performative, deeply-felt worship, and perhaps implies a critique of more starchy, staid Russian-style church services. He even defends this behavior to outsiders, who “are inclined to condemn the Abyssinians for their ‘holy dance’” because of its perceived flamboyance or emotional extravagance, saying that “in the form in which it takes place among them, there is nothing immoral about this dance. It is only an expression of the highest degree of religious enthusiasm” (138).

At times, the depth and breadth of Ethiopian religious lore seems to astonish Bulatovich. “The Abyssinian church is very rich in holy traditions,” he writes admiringly, before going on to say that, for example, “they have preserved the names of the two thieves crucified on the right and left sides of Christ” (as well as the names of the soldier who pierced Christ’s side, and obscure details of Mary’s mother’s widowing and remarriage), even though this information was not retained in the Bible (134). Here, Bulatovich demonstrates a certain cultural sensitivity, as he is able to laud Eastern Christianity when it surpasses Russian Orthodoxy in detail and insight.

Bulatovich travels to Ethiopia during a time of cultural and political upheaval and rapid change, and he is acutely aware of the unprecedented influx of new technologies. In some cases, he seems to resent the intrusion of European apparatus, writing, for instance, that “in recent times, in some churches there have appeared bells,” the value of which is highly suspect, as “the Abyssinians still do not know how to ring them” (139). Ethiopians at the time did, of course, know how to ring bells – Bulatovich observes the use of small handheld bells throughout services at several churches, as when “little bells are rung when the holy gifts are carried in” (139). These large exterior bells are simply unfamiliar and unnecessary to Ethiopian church culture. Bulatovich seems to mention them only to highlight their extraneousness, and to thus criticize the unnecessary Westernization of Ethiopian society for purely aesthetic ends.

In Ethiopian Christianity, a complex web of feast and fast days gives rhythm and structure to daily life and is used by the community to construct a social hierarchy of the devout and the unclean (Boylston 3). Upon encountering the exclusion of the non-observant from sacred space, Bulatovich remarks that “there are always many men and women behind a fence… These are people who did not keep known rules and, considered unclean, do not have the right to enter the church” (138). He does not appear distressed by the strict stratification of Ethiopian religious society; judging by his writing, he accepts the existence of ‘unclean’ people who cannot enter the church as a basic given of Ethiopian Christian life. His indifferent attitude toward such individuals is made clear when he mentions them blithely among a laundry list of inanimate church architectural features, such as the altar positioned in the church’s center, or the gates which face north, south, east, and west – such to him is their constancy and their unremarkable nature (138).

Bulatovich is, at times, an eagle-eyed observer of the politics of church business, asserting that “the relationships of the bishops among themselves are strained” as “they openly do not agree with one another on many questions. For instance, Abuna Petros strongly condemns Abuna Mateos for taking money from those who are being ordained. Relationships of the Abyssinian clergy to the abunas are very hostile. They call the abunas mercenaries” (140). The use of the term ‘mercenaries’ in particular suggests that Ethiopians saw their Alexandria-appointed bishops as disingenuous outsiders. This kind of church infighting is probably not altogether unfamiliar to Bulatovich, coming from a profoundly hierarchical Russian Orthodox background in which priests and bishops frequently scuffled for power. Still, Bulatovich has a remarkable respect for Ethiopian bishopdom as an office or institution, as he displays when he complains of an underperforming metropolitan, saying, “The current metropolitan by far does not stand on that moral height which is demanded by his high position. Nonetheless, he has great importance” (140).

Bulatovich was raised in the Russian, Chalcedonian tradition, so he must have had an opinion on the non-Chalcedonian Alexandrian patriarchate’s control of Ethiopia’s abuna. Perhaps because of this bias, he seems to believe that Ethiopian Christians are chafing against their Coptic overseers, writing that they “receive bishops from Alexandria, but in spite of this outward unity, they differ from the Copts in many dogmas and in the divine service; and their relationship with the Alexandrian church and the abunas (bishops) they receive from there is one of antipathy.” He seems to blame Alexandria for Ethiopia’s relative removal from the rest of the Eastern Christian world, writing that it was “thanks to this dependence on the Alexandrian church” that “the Ethiopian church did not send representatives to the ecumenical councils and separated itself, together with the Alexandrian church, from the rest of the church after the censure of the monophysite doctrine of the Alexandrian Patriarch Aba Dioskuros by Pope Leo at the Chalcedonian Council” (123). In fact, he suspects that Ethiopian Christians, at heart, are more akin to his own faith tradition that to Alexandria, saying, “the Debra-Libanos[10] religious belief that now predominates in Abyssinia is closer to Orthodox dyophysitism[11] than to Coptic monophysitism.”

Bulatovich records pieces of the long history of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, clearly acknowledging that Ethiopian Christianity predates the Baptism of Rus’ by some six-hundred years. He writes, for instance, that “at the time of the fortieth king of [the Solomonic] dynasty, Abrekh-Atsebakh, the light of Christian learning penetrated Abyssinia in the person of Saint Frumentius, called by the Abyssinians Aba Salama” in the year 343, and that “from this dynasty… there reigned King Kaleb who had undertaken a campaign against the Jewish King Zu-Nuvas, well-known for his oppression of Christians of Nauad. Kaleb defeated Zu-Nuvas, and the Ethiopian kingdom was founded by the son of Kaleb, Abrekh” (91). This is important because it shows that Bulatovich is specifically aware that the Tewahado significantly predates Russian Orthodoxy. This is further apparent when he remarks that the Ethiopian “liturgy of John of Damascus differs, as far as I could tell, from our liturgy of John of Damascus,” because “there is no liturgical prayer… In all probability the liturgical prayer is a later addition made by the Byzantine church.” This remark about Constantinople’s influence in Russian liturgy explicitly recognizes that Ethiopian traditions preexist his own. It also evidences his conception of the Eastern Orthodox family as an international, multicultural one, with the Byzantine Church having shaped his Church in the past.

Bulatovich is also curious about the daily, lived experience of non-Christian Ethiopians operating in a predominantly Christian society, because interviews with such individuals allow him to measure the degree of absorption of Eastern Orthodoxy into the fabric of the larger community. For example, he encounters a “pagan” man whose entire family was recently killed in the war which pitted Menelik against the southern tribes. Questioning the man about his understanding of Christ, heaven, and fasting, Bulatovich is told, “We have heard that good people will be in a state of bliss after death, and the evil will be racked with pain. We have heard that to get the first, we should fast: meat is tasty, butter is tasty, but we do not eat them. There are many beautiful women; we are attracted to them, but we restrain ourselves.” Because the man reports “I heard all this as hearsay, and for a long time this has hurt my soul (literally, ‘my stomach hurts’),” it can be deduced that these religious values of self-denial do not originate within his own pagan belief system, but from an outside influence: Christianity. This interaction makes apparent that a specifically Christian, highly ritualized way of fasting has achieved a high degree of saturation within the larger society, giving structure to the calendars and lives of even non-religious people. Bulatovich is not an unbiased observer; instead, he has an active stake in evangelizing the man. He presses the man to be baptized, to which the man answers, “And who will teach me fasts and rites? And can I be baptized when my ancestors were not baptized? Will I do well?” To this, Bulatovich only repeats his simplistic urging that the man be baptized, suggesting that his impulse to Christianize is undermined by a lack of intimate understanding of Ethiopian society and webs of ancestry and community. He does not grasp that it is frowned upon for the man to convert to a religion not shared by his forebears, or that it is difficult for him to jump into a new system of belief without a guide to “teach him fasts and rites” (260).

As Bulatovich travels more and more extensively, he becomes increasingly well acquainted with specific practices and features of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. As a result, he is able to delineate individual churches from one another by their small idiosyncrasies. When commenting on these variations, his tone is usually uncritical, as when he writes that one poorer church has “no icons at all,” and that its clergymen dress in “threadbare robes” and “wretched silk chasubles, faded from age,” but that its priest is “handsome… with a long white beard” (228), a facial feature which would have been desirable in Russia at the time[12]. His forgiveness of the possible shortcomings of this church, and his generous highlighting of its best features, suggest that he allows for significant internal diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy. Although this accepting attitude towards ecclesiastical deviation is probably the result of a lifetime in Orthodoxy – which is known to be highly internally heterogeneous, with significant deviation generally found between any two Orthodox churches, even within one patriarchate – Bulatovich’s flexibility regarding liturgical differences almost certainly increased during his immersion in a new branch of Orthodoxy.

Bulatovich and the Ethiopian Orthodox ‘Origin Story’

Several competing stories exist regarding the 343 AD Conversion of Ethiopia by St. Frumentius, known in Ethiopia as Aba Salama. Bulatovich records three, apparently preferring the version recorded in the Kebra Nagast,[13] which he calls the ‘Tarika Negest’ (125). This version is the most standard among Ethiopians and describes Aba Salama’s baptism of then-King Abrekh-Atsebakh. As the story goes, “Aba Salama taught [the King and all Ethiopians] about the descent of Jesus Christ – the birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection” and “performed many miracles before them,” so that “they came to believe in Christian baptism and were baptized.” Importantly, this version specifies that Ethiopia was Christianized before the arrival of “Turks,” cementing the hegemony of Christianity as Ethiopia’s dominant religion and sidelining Islam.

The second version is the “Latin” version, which goes into more detail about Aba Salama’s arrival in Ethiopia, but which otherwise is basically identical. Specifically, it claims that Frumentius, en route to India, was “lost in a wreck in the Red Sea”‘ and eventually “found himself at the court of the Ethiopian king. From there he returned to Jerusalem, then he was ordained by the Alexandrian patriarch as bishop of Ethiopia; and, returning to Ethiopia, he baptized King Abrekh-Atsebakh and the whole nation.” Bulatovich appears to accept this version as generally factual, despite its briskness, narrative gaps, and lack of explanation of Frumentius’s motives.

The third version was told to Bulatovich by Alaka Sou Aganyekh, an “Abyssinian scholar” and the “father superior of the church in the city of Gori” (126). It is by far the most divergent form of the story, and Bulatovich does not appear to put much stock in it, claiming he includes it only “since it is very curious.” He also defines its central figure as a “legendary character,” suggesting that he views the account as ahistorical. This version describes the supernatural circumstances of Aba Salama’s birth thusly:

There was a good man who got sick and died. They washed him and wanted to bury him, but by some indications, they noticed that he wasn’t completely dead. They waited three days, but the situation didn’t change. Then, on the advice of a wise man, they decided that this was an important sign and that one should not oppose the clearly expressed will of God. For a large sum of money, they got a blind beggar woman to lie down with the dead man. After this the dead man quieted down, and after nine months and five days the blind woman gave birth to a son whom they called “Fre Mentotos,” which means “creation of an unknown guest.”

The son – who is of course Aba Salama – is sold into slavery but eventually returns to Ethiopia as a free man, where he is summoned to the royal court by Abrekh-Atsebakh. There, Aba Salama gives teachings about the descent of Christ, much as in the Kebra Nagast. Impressed, the King sends Aba Salama to Jerusalem to be educated. Eventually becoming an Alexandrian bishop, Aba Salama finally returns to Ethiopia bearing the books of the Old Testament, which he himself translated into Amharic. According to this version of the story, Ethiopia has been under Alexandrian control ever since. Bulatovich rejects this version, which he views as more myth than history, probably because at this time there was a movement in Russia to legitimize the canon for the modern era, scrubbing it of embarrassing, supernatural stories and firmly situating texts within a logical, demonstrable history.


As an outsider in Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Bulatovich naturally gravitates toward the strange and unfamiliar, often fixating on that which surprises or challenges him, such as the leavened bread served at communion, or priests who go barefoot during services. Yet his expectations for ‘foreignness’ in Ethiopian churches do not always align with reality – in fact, he repeatedly finds that Ethiopian Christianity is less exotic or foreign than he expects. Ethiopian Christians may not make the sign of the cross, for example, but Bulatovich ultimately finds that, overall, “the Abyssinian Creed is literally the same as ours” (135). Building on this, Bulatovich believes Ethiopia and Russia to share a unique and close relationship, specifically as a result of their shared Orthodox faith. Some things in the Tewahedo which would be unacceptable in the Russian Church, such as extreme displays of emotion, are stirring for Bulatovich, seeming to allow him some freedom or release. He is aware of the age and rich history of Ethiopian Christianity, and, accordingly, seems at times disturbed by the rapid change and imposition of the imperialist era through which he is living.

Over the course of his diary-keeping, Bulatovich gradually comes to an improved understanding of Ethiopian church culture – and its hierarchical, rigid structure – by observing the daily routines and rituals of churchgoers. He can, at times, give insightful commentary of the minutiae of church politics, suggesting that he is invested in, and conversant in, the relationships and conflicts between individual clergymen. As a member of the Chalcedonian Russian Church, he seems resentful of non-Chalcedonian Alexandria’s exertions of control over the Tewahedo, suspecting – correctly or not – that Ethiopian Christianity is, at some core level, closer in spirit to his own faith. As he navigates these issues, it is made clear that he has a strong idea of himself as a global citizen of a large, international body of Orthodox believers. Finally, his tolerance for a wide spectrum of liturgical practices demonstrates a high level of familiarity with and respect for Ethiopian Christian traditions, along with a growing confidence as an insider.

Still, Bulatovich’s conclusions about Ethiopian Christians never quite come unstuck from his upbringing in a deeply racist and orientalist context. While his interactions with Ethiopians demonstrate a capacity for cultural relativism, Bulatovich’s writing is often paternalistic or downright hateful. For example, although disapproving of the European Scramble for Africa, Bulatovich is nonetheless prone to sweeping and racist generalizations about Ethiopian people, as when he attempts to compose a racial hierarchy of Ethiopians based on facial features and skin color (Seltzer, Ethiopia, 51); if he was a staunch admirer of Ethiopian culture (and saw Orthodoxy, specifically, as core to a kind of ‘Ethiopian exceptionalism,’ which problematically placed Ethiopia above other African nations due to its relatively Western-friendly society and its Christian roots), he also repeatedly enacted violence against Ethiopians in order to realize his own ambitions of colonialism and exploration.

Therefore, although a shared Orthodox background did encourage Bulatovich to relate to and humanize his POC coreligionists with more tolerance and curiosity than he would have otherwise employed, his forays into Ethiopian Christianity were still inescapably determined by larger racial dynamics, mostly reflecting, rather than challenging, conventional notions of racial hegemony. If Bulatovich -and European and Eurasian travelers to Ethiopia in general[14]– saw themselves reflected in their Ethiopian peers, they also felt themselves better by comparison; non-African Christians in such texts repeatedly use Ethiopian Christianity as a flattering foil to their own regionally specific Orthodoxy, which is shown to be standard and proper, whereas Ethiopian Orthodoxy is painted as exotic, foreign, and incorrect. Liturgical ‘deviations’ present in Ethiopian Orthodoxy are frequently used to uphold notions of European supremacy, and are taken as evidence of African inferiority. Specifically for Russian travelers of this time[15], whose own claim on Western-ness was always tenuous, denouncing or othering Ethiopian Christianity was a useful method of asserting European identity– by locating and criticizing a group with lower social capital, Russians who felt marginalized and excluded from Western European Culture were able to distinguish themselves and assert a sense of belonging and religious autonomy.


Binns, John. An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Boylston, Tom. The Stranger at the Feast: Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community. University of California Press, 2018.

Bulatovich, Alexander. Ethiopia through Russian Eyes: Country in Transition, 1896: 1898. Translated by Richard Seltzer. The Red Sea Press, Inc., 2000.

Bulatovich, Alexander. With the Armies of Menelik II: Journal of an Expedition from Ethiopia to Lake Rudolf (An Eye-Witness Account of the End of an Era). Translated by Richard Seltzer. B&R Samizdat Express, 2009.

de Lorenzi, James. “Caught in the Storm of Progress: Timoteos Saprichian, Ethiopia, and the Modernity of Christianity.” Journal of World History, vol. 19, no. 1, Mar. 2008, pp. 89–114.

Denisovna, Tatyana. “The First Russian Religious Missions to Ethiopia.” Politics and Religion Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 2021.

Eschner, Kat. “Why Peter the Great Established a Beard Tax”. Smithsonian Magazine, September 2017.

Gumilev, Nikolai. Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa. Translated by Slava I. Yastremski, Michael M. Naydan, and Maria Badanova. Glagoslav Publications, 2018.

Kizenko, Nadieszda. A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Mirzeler, Mustafa Kemal. “Reading ‘Ethiopia through Russian Eyes’: Political and Racial Sentiments in the Travel Writings of Alexander Bulatovich, 1896-1898.” History in Africa, vol. 32, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 281–94.

Citations and Notes

[1] St. John of Kronstadt was a charismatic Russian Orthodox archpriest famous for his mass confessions, establishing a major relief organization, and performing miracles. He was also summoned to the deathbed of Tsar Alexander III to perform healing prayers. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for his antisemitism and support of the monarchy. Tsar Nicholas II established his commemoration in the Church in 1909, and St. John of Kronstadt was canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1990.

[2] The imiaslavie movement emphasizes the importance of the Jesus prayer and teaches that the name of God is equal to God himself.

[3] This rehabilitation ended a period of marked persecution in which name-glorifying monks on Athos were imprisoned, forbidden to hold religious services, and even denied last rites upon their death beds.

[4] A skete is an especially isolated monastery, wherein monks live a nearly hermetic lifestyle but remain in community with one another.

[5] Many believe this term implies a heretical understanding of Christ’s humanity and thus avoid it.

[6] The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly in 1959 by Cyril IV, then the Bishop of Alexandria.

[7] The Nicene Council was the very first ecumenical council in Christian history, convened by Constantine I in the year 325.

[8] This term (“negr”) remains commonly used today among Russian speakers when describing Black people, and does not have the derogatory connotations of its English cognate.

[9] Matthew 27:34, NIV. “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.”

[10] Debre Libanos is a famous Tewahado monastery established in 1248.

[11] In dyophysitism, Jesus Christ is believed to be at once both human and divine. Chalcedonian Churches (like the Russian or Greek Churches, for example) are dyophysite. Dyophysitism is contrasted with monophysitism, which conceives of Christ as solely divine, and which is practiced in non-Chalcedonian Churches like the Tewahedo.

[12] Facial hair surged in popularity in Russia following the end of the beard tax in 1772, under Catherine the Great. Even before that, clean-shaveness was unstylish – a dearth of facial hair was thought blasphemous by the Russian Orthodox Church.

[13] The Kebra Nagast is the Ethiopian national epic. It was written in the fourteenth century and tells the history of the Solomonic dynasty.

[14] These writers included Timoteos Saprichian, an Armenian bishop who traveled to Ethiopia in 1867. Saprichian took a mostly ungenerous view towards his Ethiopian coreligionists, feeling that they “could barely be considered members of his own Orthodox faith” (de Lorenzi, “Caught in the Storm of Progress,” page 106). In Saprichian’s view, Ethiopian spirituality was “incomplete” and “utterly debased;” this sidelining of Ethiopian Christians to an undesirable position outside his socially-constructed ‘in-group’ is likely mediated by the precarious and subjugated legal status of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (91).

[15] Among this group was Nikolai Gumilev, a famed poet and the husband of Anna Akhmatova. He traveled to Ethiopia on assignment from the St. Petersburg Imperial Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. His journals from this period frequently adopt an exoticizing tone; rather than highlighting the many similarities between Russian and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, he tends to focus on perceived idiosyncrasies, and “his views can certainly be characterized as ‘orientalist’ by present-day standards” (Gumilev, Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa, page 10).

About the author

Jacqueline Kline

Jacqueline Kline graduated from Smith College in May 2022 with a double major in Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies and Film & Media Studies. She is an 2022-2023 M.A. Candidate at Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. She served a Research Internship with SRAS in the summer of 2022.

Program attended: Online Internships

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