Imperial Russia had one of the largest empires in the world at the end of the 19th century. While the sun most certainly did set on it – it spanned several time zones and stretched from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Pacific. What it did not have was a true overseas colonial empire.
It is true that the Czar ruled many peoples who spoke different languages and had different customs and cultures. Yet Imperial Russia was different than the rival empires of Great Britain, France, Germany or even Italy. It ruled more land that the latter two but it had no true tropical colonies. While it did send forces to China – and units took part in the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) – most of the troops were from the Russian Imperial Navy not actually the Russian Army.
Thus it would seem that the Russians never had a use for a colonial pattern sun helmet. Interestingly the Russians did however use such helmets in small numbers. While the first thought would be that the helmets were used by marine forces traveling with the navy this isn’t accurate.
In fact the Russians may have used such helmets in Africa – where it interestingly had no colonies. There had been a short lived attempt undertaking by a Cossack adventurer named Nikolay Ivanovitch Ashinov, who looked to establish a “New Moscow” in 1889 at the coast town of Sagallo (also known as Sagallou) – in Russian Сагалло – in what is present day Djibouti, formerly French Somaliland. The colony, which included 175 Russian settlers, was short lived as the French responded in true “gunboat diplomacy” – sending two gunboats, which bombarded the Sagallo. The colonists were then deported to Odessa and any dream of Russian expansion into Africa came to an end.
However, it isn’t clear if any actual tropical uniforms, including helmets, were created or produced for this short lived adventure. Instead the helmets (as seen in the above photo) were used during the visit of Russian diplomatic and military missions, led by V.F. Mashkov, to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1889 during the reign of Emperor Menelik II.
It has been noted that Menelik II was a Russophile as he thought only Russia could be the main ally of his policy of expansion of Ethiopia and to counter the British colonial expansion. Menelik II even concluded a strong alliance with the Russians – one that lasted until 1913.
The original 1889 diplomatic visit to Ethiopia was such as success that Mashkov made a second visit in 1891, which was sponsored by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. From 1893 to 1913 Russia sponsored the visit of thousand of advisors and volunteers to Ethiopia. It is also worth noting that Russia also supplied mountain guns to Ethiopia and these were used in the 1896 Battle of Adowa, where the Ethiopians defeated the Italian Army and stopped their conquest of the Horn of Africa.
While the Ethiopian Army also had a small team of Russian advisers and volunteers commanded by the Kuban Cossack army officer N.S. Leontiev it isn’t clear if these men were provided with Ethiopian equipment. Given that the Italians were wearing sun helmets it is possible that the Russian advisers and volunteers did not so as to avoid confusion on the battlefield.
This was thus Russia’s only true colonial adventure involving military troops in Africa in the Age of Imperialism. However, even in contemporary writing the actual motives behind the Russian support of Ethiopia were question as noted in the November 26, 1898 edition of The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly:
“The real object of Russian policy is said to be the acquisition of a port on the Red Sea, as a reward for forwarding the aggrandisement of Abyssinia.”
Less than a decade later Russia would have another far flung adventure, one in the Far East when it went to war with Japan. During the fighting in Manchuria some Russian soldiers may have also used a sun helmet – as noted in the book The Russo-Japanese War: 1904-05, by Alexei Ivanov and Philip Jowett (Osprey Publishing, 2004, page 23):
“One privately acquired headgear seen in use by some officers during the blazing heat of the Manchurian summer was a cork sun helmet.”
Where such helmets may have been acquired is not clear, but it is worth noting that the Russian fleet had to sail half around the world via the Cape of Good Hope in the course of a seven-month odyssey. During this trip it stopped both German and French colonies for coaling.
While there is some evidence of use of sun helmets by Imperial Russian forces it remains entirely unclear where these were made and/or acquired. The photographic evidence is so sparse that it is hard to determine the exact shape of the helmet used in the diplomatic mission to Ethiopia.
However, the helmets could likely be British or French – as these were the most widely produced helmets and could have been acquired in route. It is likely that the Russian delegation traveled via Egypt and the Suez Canal and could have acquired helmets in Cairo or Aden.
Finally, it must also be remembered that the Russians had used a tall spike helmet throughout much of the middle of the 19th century and did have a robust military industry. It is entirely possible that the helmets were made domestically and possibly even outfitted with the Imperial Russian Eagle.
Until photographic evidence shows up or in the unlikely event a helmet surfaces it is simply a mystery, yet one that is a fascinating footnote on the history of the military sun helmet.