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Who Was Count Abai?

At the end of 2001 Russia and Ethiopia agreed to resume economic and political cooperation. The media pointed out that the Russian Federation was returning to the country from which Russia's presence in Africa began as early as at the end of the 19th century. In fact, all this began in St. Petersburg. You may find the supporting evidence in the historical pages we have published below.

* Record book from Ethiopia
* The first diplomatic mission from Addis-Ababa to the banks of the Neva River
* Nicholai Leontyev - a friend of Menelik II

A manuscript of some 50 pages is kept at the archives of the Russian Geographical Society. Its statistical data includes information about the temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind direction and amount of rainfall in Ethiopia over a hundred years ago.

How did this meteorological record book get to St. Petersburg? As it turns out, it was brought by the expedition of Nicholai Stepanovich Leontyev - a Russian man who is not very well-known today. He did much to establish mutual friendly relations between Russia and the remote African country.

Ethiopia. Crocodile hunting. End of 19th century.

Since his youth he had dreamed of going to Ethiopia. For many years Leontyev collected information about Ethiopia's culture, nature, and its people's traditions and customs and recorded it in his diaries. Finally, Leontyev went to Ethiopia having prepared a wide research programme. Famous Russian scientists, the Russian Science Academy and the Russian Geographical Society took great interest in this programme.

Leontyev lived up to the scientists' expectations. In 1895, the St. Petersburg newspaper Novoye Vremya wrote: "The expedition's scientific work is very important. In addition to the discovery of different valuables and doing meteorological observations, the scientists conducted significant investigations of the flora and fauna of a country that is almost inaccessible to Europeans." And even more valuable than the scientific information brought by the expedition, was the fact that during his first voyage Leontyev managed to establish the foundations of friendship that was so desirable for both the Russians and the Ethiopians.

Ethiopia. Soldier with a lance on a camel.
End of 19th century.

Having just arrived in Ethiopia, Leontyev saw that the Ethiopian people wished to be on friendly terms with the Russians. In 1898, after having familiarized himself with Leontyev's travel notes, a literary man by the name of Yelets, from St. Petersburg mentioned, "The travellers were given a hearty welcome in Harer by Ras-Mekonnen. That was the Ethiopian emperor's injunction. Five miles from the city, Leontyev and his companions were met by a colossal procession headed by the priesthood bearing standards. There were crowds of people. On both sides of the road to Harer Ethiopian troops were kneeling. The Russian expedition immediately gained the general sympathy of the Ethiopian authorities and common people. The reception in Entoto was even better than in Harer. The attentiveness, kindness and hospitality of the Ethiopians was really surprising."

The meeting between Leontyev and Menelik II set up the foundation for their mutual friendship. When the Russian traveller decided to go home, the Ethiopian emperor sent his first diplomatic mission to the banks of the Neva with him. In June 1895 the newspapers in St. Petersburg wrote, "Along with the expedition, Menelik II sent his diplomatic mission to Russia, including his princes and his bishop."

Ethiopian delegation
Extraordinary Ethiopian delegation in
St. Petersburg. In the photograph:
Prince Belyakio (right), Prince Damto
(left), Ato-Iosiph, personal secretary
to Menelik II (centre).
1895. Photo by Anufriyev.
Many citizens of the capital came to meet the train that brought Prince Damto, General Genemier, Prince Belyakio, Bishop of Harer Gabraux Xavier and other members of the delegation to St. Petersburg. That was how the suite came to stay in Russia for all of 40 days.

Nicholai Leontyev never left his Ethiopian guests at all during that time. He showed them St. Petersburg's places of interest. Working as their interpreter, he took part in the numerous meetings of Prince Damto, General Genemier and the Bishop of Harer. He wanted the emperor's envoy of ministers to know Russia well, and make certain of the Russian people's great sympathies toward the Ethiopian people. And the guests from this remote country were made certain of that. One of the documents of that time states, "The mission immediately gained the general sympathy of Russian society and it continued to grow. The delegation was given a splendid reception in the capital of Russia. Russian society was very attentive and hospitable to their exotic guests. We can say that no delegation has enjoyed such popularity in Russia before. A great number of letters of welcome, flowers and presents have been brought to the Ethiopian mission every day."

By invitation of Menelik II, Leontyev returned to Ethiopia along with the delegation. There, the Russian traveller was awarded with the First Degree Star, the emperor's award for his services in establishing mutual relations between Russia and Ethiopia. Some time later, Menelik II introduced the title of count, which had never existed in his country before. To the sound of a three-shot rifle salute, Nicholai Leontyev was handed an official document that declared him to be Count Abai.

One by one, this Russian man fulfilled Menelik's important errands. He again went to St. Petersburg with Ato-Iosiph, the famous Ethiopian statesman. Then he visited Italy and Turkey. In summer 1897, Count Abai (Nicholai Leontyev) was appointed governor-general of the Ethiopian equatorial provinces. Menelik II awarded him the highest military rank in the country for his services at this post.

The documents surrounding these events are kept in St. Petersburg, including the document of awarding Leontyev with the Russian order of St. Vladimir. Are there any documents in Addis-Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, that can tell us about our famous compatriot? We would be glad to receive and publish them.

Our e-mail address is: segodnya_spb@mail.ru

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