Heritage Day 2021

Heritage Day 2021

Russian Involvement in the Anglo-Boer (South African) War 1899-1902.  

Heritage Day on 24 September recognises and celebrates the cultural wealth of our nation. South Africans celebrate the day by remembering the cultural heritage of the many cultures that make up the population of South Africa.

This year the Museum celebrates the Russian Involvement in the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, as we remember that foreign involvement in the war made a large contribution to the war effort.

The relations between the Transvaal and Russia had already started in 1896 when President Kruger sent a representative to the coronation of Tsar Nicholas. Thereafter diplomatic relations were established between the two nations.
When the war broke out, there was a lot of interest in the war from Russia and the “Russian Volunteer Movement” was started in Russia. Reverent Hendrik Gillot of the Dutch Colony in St. Petersburg took charge of the process. The volunteers would go from Russia through Marseilles and would then arrived in South Africa. Because the volunteers had to pay for themselves to join the volunteer movement, the group of people who joined would have been fortunate enough to have money readily available. Therefore, many of the volunteers were from the nobility and educated classes like advocates and teachers. When the volunteers arrived in South Africa they joined the Russian brethren who were already working in the South African mines.

The Russian Government decided to send two military attaches to South Africa to observe the war effort. Col Stakhovitch was attached to the British forces while Lt-Col Romeiko-Gurko was assigned to the Boer forces. The official reports made by these officials gave critical insight to both the Boer and British warfare and count as valuable primary sources from the war. Russia’s official position was that of neutrality, influenced by the threat of the might of the British Empire, and internal issues. Four official military attachés were attached to this war in the end. Lt-Col Miller in Brussels and the Hague, Col Ermolov in London, Lt-Col Stakhovitch, who was attached to the British forces and Lt-Col Romeiko-Gurko, who was attached to the Boer forces. When looking at the experiences of the two latter attachés. Lt-Col Stakhovitch with the British Forces was treated different to his counterpart who was with the Boers. He was entertained at diplomatic level, but was barred from viewing any warfare which did not favour the British Forces. He was in a sense more restricted. Lt-Col Romeiko-Gurko on the other hand experienced first-hand the hardships and fortunes experienced by the Boers in the veld and he could move around freely as he wished.

Many Russians had sympathy for the Boer cause, and even Tsar Nicholas II wished for a Boer victory. Unlike other European countries, Russia did not take part in the colonisation of Africa, and their support of the Boer Republics could be seen as sincere. By the time the war broke out, there were 25 000 Russian nationals in the two Boer Republics. The Boers impressed the Russian because they had the gull to declare and wage war against Britain, even though they were a nation much smaller in number. There were many Russians who wanted to join the Russian Volunteer Movement. They would not really gain materially when joining the war effort, but did feel they wanted to help in what they called an unjust war. The Anglo-Boer (South African) war created big interest in Russia, especially the first phase of the war. Conservative newspapers praised Boer successes and Pro-Boer pamphlets were distributed. These pamphlets mentioned how the small Boer republics were fighting against the mighty Britain, for their freedom. Even the Liberal Press were sympathetic toward the Boer cause, but only up to a point.

In 1900 Dr Leyds, Mr Wolmarans and Mr Fischer visited St. Petersburg. While there, they requested Russian Mediation. The Russian Foreign Minister agreed, but only if both the Boers and the British agreed that they would have to settle on a positive outcome. Unfortunately, the feedback from London regarding this proposal was negative, and negotiations fell through. The Russian government made numerous attempts to mediate a settlement, but all attempts failed because of the refusal of the British Government to co-operate. Unfortunately, the Russian Government, with its pledge of neutrality, could not do more in its official capacity.

Even though politically the Government could do no more, humanitarian support could still be given. The Government sent a fully equipped Red Cross Ambulance corps to South Africa, including a large supply of surgical instruments. This was done at the Russian Government’s expense. There was also a Russo-Dutch ambulance corps, which was funded by Russian private subscriptions. These two corps established hospitals in South Africa and the wounded Boers received excellent medical care from the doctors and nurses. These corps were independence from both the government and the military, and therefore their accounts and reports they compiled gave some real-time insights into the conditions of the war.

The Volunteers:

As mentioned before, Russian Volunteers had to fund their own travel to and stay in South Africa. Communication was hard, and therefore they stayed together, even considering creating a “Russian Commando”. Second Lieutenant Alexei Ganetsky was a big supporter of the idea of a separate Russian Corps. He was chosen as leader with Augustus Diatropov as his aide-de-camp. But not all the volunteers wanted to be part of the corps, and decided to rather join the Johannesburg Police. In the end the corps had 60 members.

Col Yevgeny Yakovlevich Maximov joined General Louis Botha and later joined French Colonel De Villebois Mareuil and became his Chief of Staff. In 1900 he became commander of a mostly Dutch Volunteers. Col Maximov fought bravely and was severely wounded in the mid-1900s. When Pretoria fell, and the war moved to the Guerrilla warfare phase, many of the volunteer units disbanded and the members decided to individually fight alongside the Boers in their commandos. The volunteers, because there were many officers in their ranks, was an asset to the war effort.

Russian Public and Boermania:
The Russian Public was fascinated by the idea of the Boer cause. Many items were created like books, articles, plays, poems and even the orchestras played “Transvaal, Transvaal, My Country.” People collected money for the cause and people even prayed for a Boer victory. Photographs of the Boers also appeared everywhere. The Boer’s popularity continued in Russia after the war, with Restaurants and Cafés named after Boers, even the interior was made to look “Boer-like” and there was even a line of children’s toys developed.

Niko the Boer:
Prince Nikolai Bagration was Georgian Royalty and well-known aristocrat. He felt that he understood the Boers and their plight and the Transvaal felt like home to him, and he wanted to protect it. He was the one of the first Russian volunteers to arrive in Pretoria. He was greeted personally by President Kruger and his generals. He fought valiantly in the war but during the war he was caught by the British forces. Lord Kitchener asked him why he was fighting for the Boers, and Bagration responded by accusing Kitchener of war atrocities. He was sent to St Helena as a prisoner of war. He was in good spirits while in exile and he organised sports and other activities for his fellow inmates. He also wrote a memoir entitled “With the Boers”.

The Five Swimmers:
During the war many Boers were taken prisoner of war by the British Army. Most of the prisoner of war camps were housed in foreign countries or on islands, making escape nearly impossible. In 1901, Willie Steyn, Piet Botha, Ernst Hausner, Louw Steytler and George Steytler were on their way to the Diyatalawa prisoner of war camp on Ceylon. They were on the ship Catalonia. But Steyn was not planning on reaching the camp, he was planning to escape. He also convinced his four friends to attempt the escape with him. The ship docked in the harbour and the prisoners were taken to shore in groups. The group planned their escape to happen during this time. They jumped off the ship and swam to a Russian steamship called the Gherson / Kherson. The Russian sailors helped the men aboard and they sailed with them to Russia. From there they travelled to Europe and even met up with President Paul Kruger. Their end goal was to return to South Africa and re-join the war effort. Steyn, Botha and Louw Steytler re-joined a commando and continued to fight in the war. Willie Steyn wrote about his and his friends experience. In 2015 a new version of Steyn’s story was published entitled Die groot Boere-ontsnapping by Willie Steyn.

The Bratina of Russian Brotherhood:
The Bratina or fraternity cup was part of the Russian tokens of honour and friendship to General Piet Cronjé and the Boers during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War. It arrived at the Transvaal Museum in 1921 with other objects from the Zuid-Afrikaansch Museum which was in Dordrecht in the Netherlands. It is housed at the Kruger Museum today, which forms part of the DITSONG museums.
For more information, see the following link:

C&N Meisieskool Oranje (C&N Girls School Oranje):
After the war, President Steyn felt that education was a important aspect that had to be nurtured, especially education for girls, which during the time was rather limited. He and his wife Tibbie Steyn therefore had the vision to start a Dutch girl’s school in Bloemfontein. To fund this school, benefactors came from not only the Dutch Reformed Church but also overseas, which included Russia. The school still exists today, keeping with many historic traditions, including visiting the Women’s Memorial each year for the school’s birthday, to show their gratitude to Pres and Mrs Steyn for their contribution to the school’s existence.
For more information, see the school’s website: Oranjemeisies

Text Sources:
Honour and Duty Russia’s special relationship with South Africa, The War Museum.
Rogue’s Paradise 
Die vyf swemmers ontsnap 
Boekresensie: Die groot Boere-ontsnapping, deur Willie Steyn 
Oranjemeisies Geskiedenis 

Further Reading List:

1. Motive of Brotherhood in Russian – South African Relationships. From the personal accounts of Russian volunteers, military observers, doctors and nurses in Anglo-Boer War. By Dr Elina Komarova-Tagar

2. Russian doctors and nurses in the South African War. By Apollon Davidson and Irina Filatova


Russians and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 by Apollon Davidson.

A Few Months with the Boers: The war reminiscences of a Russian Nursing Sister by Sophia Izedinova.

Russia and the Anglo-Boer War by Elisaveta Kandyba-Foxcroft.







Since before 1899, St Petersburg in Russia had been home to a large Swiss community. Their admiration for De Wet’s victory at Roodewal inspired them to have this bas-relief made, set in a wooden frame of Russian Birch. It was sent with the following message: “To the brave General de Wet, hardened defender of oppressed freedom. In memory of our strong conviction in the Boer’s victory.”


Niko Bagrationi-Mukhraneli as a prisoner in St Helena.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


Nicolai Georgewitz Bagrationi-Mukhraneli’s prisoner of war information.

Source: War Museum


After being released Niko Bagrationi-Mukhraneli (Buri) sitting in the chair.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niko_Bagration


Niko Bagrationi Memoirs Burebtan (”With the Boers”)

Source: Bid or Buy


Colonel Yevgeny Yakovlevich Maximov (sitting) during the war

Source: Wikipedia


Lieutenant Alexei Ganetsky in the Transvaal

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


Romeiko -Gurko (centre) with other military attachés attached to the Boer troops.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


Lt Col Pavel Alexandrovich Stakhovich (centre standing) among other military attachés attached to the British troops.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


The Russian Red Cross Detachment in Newcastle.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


The staff of the Russo-Dutch Hospital in Kroonstad.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


The Five Swimmers and Pastor Gillot of St Petersburg. The Boers escaped from British captivity on Ceylon and were saved by the crew of a Russian ship Kherson.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


The ship Kherson.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


A page from the album “St Petersburg-Transvaal”, a luxurious 1900 publication containing dozen of pictures of Russian artists, poets, writers, actors and other prominent representatives of the Russian public, with their signatures and good wishes to the Boers.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


1902: A little prince from the Romanov family is photographed in a Boer costume.

Source: The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Apollon Borisovich Davidson and Irina Filatova


Russia and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Elisaveta Kandyba-Foxcroft


A Few Months with the Boers by Izedinova, Sophia



Posted: 2021-09-22 21:32:25