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

I was very happy to be contacted towards the end of 2018 by Glagoslav Publications; an independent publisher dedicated to widening knowledge, understanding of and access to writing from the Slavic regions, they issue a fascinating array of books and I’ve been intending to read some of their works for a while now. They were kind enough to offer me review copies, and I was particularly keen to explore “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa”, especially as he’s a poet I’ve only circled around up to this point.

Gumilev is probably remember more nowadays for having been the husband of the great Anna Akhmatova, and yet his achievements and importance in his own right shouldn’t be ignored. As well as co-founding the Acmeist movement, which sought for clarity and compactness in poetry, he was an influential literary critic and traveller. And it’s his travels which are the focus in this fascinating book; Gumilev journeyed to, wrote about and photographed extensively the Africa of the early 20th century, and all of those materials are gathered in this exemplary collection.

The bulk of this material comes from a 1913 trip to Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called at the time) which Gumilev made on behalf of the St. Petersburg Imperial Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. He collected folk tales and objects, transcribed folk songs and took numerous photos – more of which later. The volume seems to have been the brainchild of the late Slava Yastremski, and it draws together initially all of Gumilev’s poetry from his various collections which focus on Africa. The lyrics are beautiful and haunting, drawing on mythology and magic, as well as some of the terrors of the jungle. Reading the verse works has made me very keen to explore Gumilev’s poetry further…

…a door opened in my heart,
And when the heart whispers to us,
We don’t struggle, we don’t wait.

The prose pieces which follow are a mixture of short fictions, essays and diaries of his journeys through the various countries. The writing is beautifully descriptive, bringing the landscape and its peoples vividly to life and creating haunting imagery. The diaries in particular are fascinating reading, as the conditions which these early explorers had to endure were harsh and all without our modern conveniences and aids. This makes it even more remarkable that Gumilev and his assistant (his nephew Nikolai Sverchkov) managed to take and develop more than 200 photographs of the places and peoples they encountered on the way, and a number of these feature at the end of the book.

The various elements combine to build up a quite captivating picture of the country at the time; and it was fascinating to learn of the multitude of cultures living in the country at the time. Gumilev mentions all manner of indigenous peoples encountered in the area he travelled through, including Egyptians, Abyssinians, Somalis, Greeks, French, English… You name it, they seemed to be present in the area at the time. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of the area to do more than guess that there were a number of colonial influences involved, but it’s fascinating to see photographs of Emperor Haile Selassie before he bore that name; I’m old enough to remember his presence in the world, and I felt a weird kind of link back to Gumilev’s journey because of that.

The pages in the book of destinies have been tangled long ago, and no one knows in what remarkable way he will come to his ruin.

Gumilev’s life was tragically cut short in 1921 when he was shot by the Russian Cheka after being falsely accused of involvement in a monarchist conspiracy; he was only rehabilitated in 1992, and it’s been said that his execution negatively affected the life of Akhmatova and their son, despite the two poets having divorced in 1918. However, bearing in mind his views and his lack of sympathies with the Soviet regime, I suspect it’s unlikely he would have survived the Great Purge of the 1930s.

Gumilev by Karl Bulla [Public domain] – via Wikipedia Commons

“Africa…” is a really fascinating piece of work, despite the fact that the kind of cultural anthropology undertaken by this kind of expedition would most likely not be considered appropriate nowadays. There is, inevitably, some unfortunate terminology and as Michael Naydan explains in his short note to the book, the decision was taken to translate words and phrases into the equivalent English of the time. Nowadays we would hopefully approach different cultures in a more sensitive way than explorers of the past did. Putting this aside, however, this is a valuable, absorbing and intriguing volume. It comes with useful notes, an introduction and fascinating essay on Gumilev’s photographs by Yastremski, and the aforementioned note by Naydan. From the latter it would appear that Yastremski sadly passed away before the work on the book could be finished, and this was completed by Naydan alongside Badanova; I can’t imagine a greater tribute to a colleague. “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa” is not only an excellent introduction to Gumilev’s work, but also a little time machine which will take you travelling back to the Ethiopia of the early 20th century – highly recommended!