From Refuge to Revolution: Bolshevism’s Evolution in Ethiopia

This post is part of our online forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora

Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square.

Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution looked, at first glance, a lot like that of the Bolsheviks in 1917; a long-reigning autocrat was overthrown in a country of considerable inequalities, following a period of domestic turmoil. Ethiopia even had a “February revolution” of broad-based, popular unrest in and beyond Addis Ababa, followed by several months of attempted reform before Haile Selassie’s ultimate fall in September 1974. Initial appearances, however, mask the longer, complicated history of Ethiopia’s engagement with Bolshevism, as well as the painful course of its revolution.

The case against the Emperor had been building since 1960, when there had been a failed coup d’etat by Germame and Mengistu Neway. Of the brothers, Germame was the intellectual, driven by what he had witnessed as governor in Sidamo: the hardships of Ethiopia’s landless peasants. In the years that followed 1960, many voices would join Germame’s in questioning endemic poverty and in denouncing what young Ethiopians insisted was “feudalism.” These included students such as Tamiru Feyissa who used College Day celebrations in 1961 to read his provocative poem, “The Poor Man Speaks Out” and artists such as Gebre Kristos Desta who painted scenes of urban deprivation, and who returned from studying abroad with a copy of Bertram D. Wolfe’s account of Russia’s political complexities, Three Who Made A Revolution.

These students were versed in Lenin and Marx; debates remain as to whether some were rather too versed in foreign ideologies ill suited to local realities.1 Yet it was not they, nor a vanguard political party, who struck the final blow. It was the military who entered the palace on September 12th, 1974 and arrested Haile Selassie, having indicted him via the spectacular screening of a famine documentary the night before. The seeming similarities between the Bolshevik revolution and Ethiopia’s own radical moment were not lost on the provisional government (the Derg) who assumed power. The image and the language of Bolshevism proved critical in establishing a military (rather than proletarian) dictatorship that would last until the collapse of the USSR.

Addis Ababa, December 1974: Ethiopia’s Derg leaders, who deposed emperor Haile Selassie in September 1974. (Photo: J. M. Blin/AFP/Getty Images)

Testament to the currency of the word “Bolshevism” in revolution’s early days is found in the English language daily, The Ethiopian Herald, in late 1974 and early 1975. Over six days, historian Aleme Eshete serialized his academic paper entitled “Ethiopia and the Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1935.” It would later appear as a journal article, but in 1974 Aleme felt it resonated beyond the ivory tower. His text did not draw equivalence between current events and those of 1917, but rather it provided the longer, complicated history of Ethiopia’s engagement with the Bolsheviks. He asserted, firstly, that, in the 1920s and 30s, there had been considerable concern amongst the local elite that the “teachings” of the Russian revolution “might reach the Ethiopian people.” Secondly, he revealed that Orthodox Ethiopia had provided refuge for those fleeing the Bolsheviks. The arrival of the latter, a motley crew of Russian refugees had further spurred fear of Bolshevism slipping covertly into Addis.

Aleme mapped attempts to root out Bolshevism and its agents, and highlighted those who had contributed to such efforts, most notably Western diplomats who participated in the “witch-hunt” and white refugees, such as one Captain Babikhian, who used both his own name and pseudonyms to publish articles in the press that denounced the Bolsheviks as “wicked beasts.” Aleme insisted that there was fear, but no real understanding of Bolshevism in 1920s Ethiopia. He did not explicitly state it, but by elucidating the often hysterical misinterpretations and denouncements of Bolshevik ideas, he highlighted how potently relevant they might be in an Ethiopia looking for change.

The density of Aleme’s text was characteristic of intellectual discourse in the revolution’s earliest years, when civilian activists debated the need for a transition from military dictatorship. The principal factions, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), jostled one another, on the pages of Addis Zemen, and, later, on the streets. The former insisted that the military had usurped a popular revolution and must be challenged, whilst the latter sought cooperation with the soldiers in the hope that they could negotiate civilian rule. As these debates about ideology and approach raged among leftist students and activist, the Derg set about constructing its image as the leader of a “popular,” socialist revolution.

New terms such as “proletariat” and “broad masses” were decisively introduced through posters, political cartoons, and publications. The Derg pushed the narrative that they had led a popular revolution against local “feudal” elites. Artists tasked with visualizing this version of events quickly turned to books of political cartoons and other revolutionary art from the Eastern Bloc (available on the shelves of the art school library) for prototype images of popular, socialist revolt. Whereas in Mozambique in the mid-1970s, artists designing revolutionary posters drew inspiration from Cuban brightly colored graphics of Third World solidarity, Ethiopia’s artists saw Bolshevik and Eastern European graphic designs as more relevant to the revolution they were tasked with visually articulating.

The Tarāmāğ Mazgaba-Qālāt or “Progressive Dictionary” published in several versions in 1975-6 further helped define the bevvy of new revolutionary terms. Amongst them was “Bolshevik.” In a three-page entry the Tarāmāğ corrected Ethiopia’s earlier, negative impressions of “Bolshevik,” and concluded by stating that the Bolshevik party was the shining model for the world’s proletariat.2 The dictionary’s detailed entries reflected knowledge of Marxist-Leninist theory and history, as well as a desire to find their applicability in the Ethiopian context. Certainly there were zealous, committed intellectuals who believed that the revolution could still be, at its heart, popular and progressive; Aleme himself wrote a text in the early 1980s celebrating the “cultural” transformations that the revolution brought. Yet for the Derg the images and language of Bolshevism served ultimately as a means to control.

An Ethiopian Soldier Poses Next To An Image Drawing Unit For The Popular Struggle On The Front Of The Ogaden Against Somalia In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 27, 1978. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty.

Nothing made this clearer than the “Red Terror” (“Kay Sheber”) in 1977. In a dramatic speech, Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam declared his violent campaign to counter the so-called “White Terror” of the EPRP, who had increasingly used guerrilla tactics against the military. Using the very language of the Bolshevik campaign to annihilate “enemies” of the revolution, Mengistu brought to an end the effervescent debates that pervaded the immediate aftermath of 1974. Mengistu’s brutality led to the deaths of many thousands of young Ethiopians, some of whom knew painfully well that the military’s revolution was a betrayal of that which the Bolsheviks had fought for.

1977 was the October revolution’s sixtieth anniversary and a Novosti Press pamphlet marking this circulated in Addis. It celebrated the USSR’s support for liberation and noted “progressive changes…in the public life of socialist-oriented Arab, African and Asian countries.” For Ethiopians these “progressive changes,” of course, had just wrought the Red Terror. In the wake of the violence, and with relations with Somalia deteriorating, the USSR consolidated its “friendship” with Ethiopia. Their alliance would grow to oppose “imperialism, neocolonialism, racism, apartheid, Zionism and [to] advocate peace, international détente [and] the establishment of a new international economic order.”3

With Moscow’s support, Ethiopia’s celebrations of the tenth anniversary of its revolution in 1984, complete with flashing, neon hammers and sickles, would be one of the last great Communist hurrahs before the end of the Cold War. There was painful irony, of course, in the Soviets celebrating this comradeship. It was with a regime whose total power had come at the expense of the lives of thousands of young Ethiopians, many of whom had known of the Bolshevik revolution, and had once been inspired by its transformative potential.

  1.  See, for example, Messay Kebede, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008).
  2.  Tarāmāğ  Mazgaba-Qālāt (Addis Ababa: Debating Society of Ethiopian Professors, 1976), 57. The edition referenced chapter is dated Sene 1968 (June 1976). It is the fifth edition. The entry on “Bolshevik” begins on page 102.
  3.  Anatoly Gromyko, “Soviet-Ethiopian Relations Today” in Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Ethiopian Studies, University of Addis Ababa, 1984, ed. Tadesse Beyene, (Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies, 1988), 529.
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Kate Cowcher

Kate Cowcher is the 2017-18 Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of the Maryland’s Center for Art and Knowledge at the Phillips Collection. She recently completed her doctoral work in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. Her research explores the centrality of images in the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and in the shaping of the Marxist-Leninist military dictatorship that followed.