The history of Afro-Russians is a captivating tale that weaves together the complex intersections of race, culture, and identity. In Russia, a diverse community of Afro-Russians emerged in the 16th and early 17th centuries, contributing to the country’s rich historical and cultural tapestry. Here’s what we know about their origin story.
Early Encounters and Slave Trade
The first recorded presence of Africans in Russia dates back to the 17th century. During this period, Russia established trade connections with the Ottoman Empire and Africa, leading to the arrival of enslaved Africans. Most Afro-Russians were sold to Russian nobility.
Slavery was never adopted in Russia. Many African people that arrived in the country were employed under a system known as serfdom, according to Russia Beyond. Serfs were legally bound to the land they worked on and could be traded among members of the Russian hierarchy but unlike slaves, serfs owned property and could earn income. Many had the freedom to obtain an education.
Some of the first Black people that migrated to Russia were employed as entertainers due to their “exotic” features, Russia Beyond notes. Some Black serfs, or “Moors” picked up work as elephant handlers. They would train their elephants to perform tricks for the Russian elite.
Some Kings within the country, known as Tsars, would live with their serfs. King Mikhail Fyodorovich or Michael I allegedly had two serfs named Moor Murat and later Moor Davyd Saltanov that lived at his court during his reign in the 16th century. They wore expensive clothing provided by the noble king.
Historians believe that a serf named Savley, owned by Tsar Alexis of Russia was sent to learn Russian and became fluent. Savley learned to read, write and master music. Education for the sef community expanded in the 17th century when Peter The Great ruled Russia. He allowed them to freely study and educate themselves.
Prominent Figures and Cultural Contributions
Afro-Russians have made significant contributions to Russian culture, arts, and sciences throughout history. One prominent figure is an African nobleman Abram Petrovich Gannibal who was adopted by Peter the Great. Gannibal became a renowned military engineer, poet, and the great-grandfather of the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Born around 1696 in the region of what is now Cameroon, Gannibal was kidnapped as a child and brought to the court of the Ottoman Empire before being presented as a gift to Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia.
In Russia, Gannibal was baptized and educated. He showed great talent and intellect and eventually became an important military engineer, diplomat and general in the Russian Imperial Army. He played a significant role in various military campaigns and participated in the Great Northern War against Sweden.
Gannibal’s accomplishments extended beyond the military sphere. He became an esteemed member of the Russian court and was granted noble status. He also tutored and mentored Peter the Great’s grandson, the future Emperor Peter III.
In the mid-19th century, Russia became a haven for Black emigrants in search of a better life during the slave trade. According to historian Jessie Dunbar of The University of Alabama, Black seamstress Nancy Prince and the amazing actor Ira Aldridge left an indelible mark on the country with their incredible talents.
Aldridge was a Shakespearean actor from New York. He moved to Russia in the mid-18th century with his acting troupe in search of bigger opportunities. When he traveled to Russia and Poland, surprisingly his career began to soar, according to Dunbar. “When he gets to Poland and Russia, his reviews are amazing, and in fact, he’s getting awards for his talent,” the history buff said of Aldridge’s life.
Aldridge and his troup eventually traveled to Europe where he received more praise and began speaking openly about slavery and the racism he endured living in the United States.
Nancy Prince, a free Black woman from Massachusetts moved to Russia in 1824 to find work. She took a job as a Russian palace guard and never returned to the States. Although free in the U.S., Prince could not earn the same income she was generating overseas. The savvy businesswoman used the opportunity to her advantage. She eventually landed a job as a seamstress and hired a team to work with her. Prince quickly became noticed among the elite. According to Dunbar, the talented star became good friends with Russian empresses Elizabeth Alexeievna and Alexandra Feodorovna.
The history of Afro-Russians is a testament to the resilience and diversity of the human experience. From the early encounters with enslaved Africans to the thriving communities of today, Afro-Russians have left a mark on Russia’s history and culture. Understanding their journey helps us appreciate the complexities of identity, multiculturalism and the ongoing struggle for equality.
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