Russian volunteers honoured at Anglo-Boer War Museum


A plaque has been unveiled commemorating Russian volunteers who had fought in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Timed to coincide with South Africa’s Heritage Day, the unveiling at the Anglo-Boer War Museum on Thursday 23 September 2021 in Bloemfontein recalled the support provided by Russian nationals to the Boer republics in their independence struggle against the British.

During the Anglo-Boer War, some 270 Russian volunteers fought in the ranks of Boer armies. In 1900, Russian Red Cross and Russian-Dutch ambulance units were deployed in South Africa, which provided medical assistance to both combatants and civilians.

Dr Elina Komarova-Tagar, a medical doctor from Moscow and now living in Cape Town, has been involved for many years with peace and reconciliation gatherings between the Russian and South African forces involved in military operations during the Angolan War.

She noted at the unveiling that the Russian volunteers, military observers and medical personnel had their first direct encounter with South African people during the Anglo-Boer War and this laid a foundation for future Russian-South African relations.

“Following a calling from the heart, with passion, compassion and sincere interest, they could adjust, participate, grasp the reality and describe their experience, thus heralding to the world the new Boer nation, which was destined to emerge into the distinct Afrikaner culture,” she said.

Continuing, she noted that “Russian volunteers came to South African to gain war experience; some also to learn from the Boers about how to fight and to die for freedom. Indeed, some were interned in African soil or endured with the Boers the hardship of long-term imprisonment. Upon returning to Russia their destiny had been irrevocably shaped by their South African experience.”

Many left-wing Russians volunteered to join the Boer cause due to their anti-imperialist beliefs.

Due to political reasons after the Second World War, this history was censored from Russian reference books, with South African references downplaying the involvement of the Russian volunteers.

Many Boer prisoners of war, including the two Steytler brothers and Willy Steyn who escaped aboard a Russian ship and after travelling to Russia, returned to continue fighting for the Boer Republics. A descendant of the Steytler family, Lourens Steytler, attended the ceremony, as did Petrovna Metelenkamp, granddaughter of Willy Steyn.

The Anglo-Boer War was fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer states, the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, over the Empire’s influence in Southern Africa.

The war concluded with absorption of the Boer republics by the British colonial empire. It claimed over 70 000 lives from both sides, including 40 000 who perished in British concentration camps.