‘An Entirely Different World’: Russian Visitors to the Cape


Alexey Vysheslavtsev,                 Vasily Golovnin,                         Ivan Goncharov,                      Yuri Lisyansky                  Alexander Wrangel,               Konstantin Posyet



Edited by Boris Gorelik


Boris Gorelik is a Russian writer and researcher based in Moscow and Johannesburg. Born in Sverdlovsk (USSR), he received his MA in linguistics from the Moscow State University. In 2004, he was awarded with the Candidate of Sciences degree in history from the Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, for his research into the history of Russian immigration to South Africa.

Gorelik authored a comprehensive study of the Russian community in this country (Moscow, 2006) and a complete biography of artist Vladimir Tretchikoff (Cape Town; London, 2013). He also prepared and edited the new authorised version of David Grinker’s memoir of Soweto in the 1960s-80s (Johannesburg, 2014).

ISBN 978–0–9814264-6-4

The Russian view of the Cape as represented in this volume may be unique.

During the period in question, Russia had no cultural, political or economic ties with South Africa. Russians saw the Cape only as a convenient stopover en route to the Far East, to their country’s distant domains that could not be reached by sea otherwise. The Cape was one of the ‘exotic’ lands they would visit on such journeys, their first and only introduction to the African continent.

Although amazed and perplexed by the ‘entirely different word’ they found here, Russian travellers would often draw unexpected parallels between life in their motherland and the realities of the Cape Colony.

The selections include memoirs of such important Russian personalities as Yuri Lisyansky, Vasily Golovnin, Ivan Goncharov and Konstantin Posyet. Most of the texts appear in English for the first time.




Cape Town, 1858  by  Alexey Vysheslavtsev




Excerpt from: A Russian Novelist at the Cape, by Ivan Goncharov:


...[Andrew Geddes] Bain is a remarkable man in the Colony. He has lived there from an early age and four times, either alone or with companions, has travelled beyond its furthest limits, across the Orange River, to 20°S latitude, partly for geological exploration, partly from a passion for travel and adventure. He spoke much of his encounters with lions and rhinoceroses ….
    Also with his companions, he went on a big hunt in the far interior and ran into a tribe that was at war with its neighbour. The chief received him very warmly and entertained him for several days. And when Bain wanted to take his leave, the chief asked him to fight in the war and help to overcome the enemy. Bain replied that he could not do that without permission from his government.       
    ‘Very well then, your rifles, oxen and wagons are all mine,’ retorted the savage. Persuasion was in vain, and Bain set off for the war. Fortunately, it did not last long. Neither side had any firearms of their own. The enemy fled at Bain’s first shots, leaving their dwellings in the victors’ hands.

‘Shooting at the poor devils must have been very unpleasant for you?’ we asked.

‘Not at all,’ Bain answered, ‘I fired blanks, you see. It did not occur to anybody to check up on me. They do not know how to use guns.’

Bain is tall, built sturdily and strongly; he walks a great deal, taking long firm strides like an elephant, no matter uphill or downhill. He eats a lot, like a workman, and drinks even more; he has a reddish complexion, and he is balding. From learned conversation, he passes easily to joking, and he sings so loud that we, all together, could not shout him down. If he were not a civil engineer and geologist, then, certainly, he would be an African Rubini: his falsetto is amazing.105 He sang Scottish songs and ballads for us ….