Fedor Evgenievich Konovalov's Eyewitness Memoirs

of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36


J. Calvitt Clarke III

Jacksonville University

                Brief Biography

In the fifty or so years before the First World War, many Russians—adventurers, scoundrels, and saints—explored Ethiopia and often formed close ties with the country's rulers. Steeled by this tradition, some anti-Communist, White Russians made their way to Ethiopia after the Bolsheviks had conquered their country between 1917 and 1922.[1]

After Teferi Mekonnen—the future Emperor Haile Sellase—gained power as regent in 1916, one of his first steps was to recruit some of these White Russian officers to train his troops.[2]   The most important of them was Feodor Evgenievich Konovalov.

Colonel Konovalov, a native of the Crimea, had been a military engineer. Before the First World War, he began a new career in aviation, and during the war he served with the Imperial Guards Squadron, eventually commanding an aerial division. Konovalov then served with Tsar Nicholas IIs last military mission to Great Britain. As the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, he fled to Constantinople, then to Egypt, and finally to Ethiopia in 1919.[3]

An electrical expert, Colonel Konovalov soon found employment in the Ethiopian office of Public Works, became an Ethiopian citizen, and loyally supported Ethiopian independence. In July 1935, Emperor Haile Sellase entrusted him to go to the North to inspect Ethiopia's main defenses along the likely route for invasion coming from Italy's Eritrean colony. He flew to Mekele and then continued by automobile for Adowa,[4]  where he met Ras Seyoum Mengesha,[5] governor of Tigrey,[6] to offer him and other Ethiopian leaders technical-military advice.[7]

                Without declaring war, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935. As a military adviser in January and February 1936, Konovalov witnessed the first and second battles of Tembien in Tigrey. He also observed the decisive Battle of Mychew in March.[8]  He then retreated with the sovereign back to the capital of Addis Ababa,[9] and he watched as Italian

troops entered the capital in May. Konovalov remained there for several months and witnessed Italy's early occupation of Ethiopia.[10]


George Steer Publishes Portions of Konovalov's Manuscript

Konovalov almost immediately drafted, likely in French, a semi-autobiographical account of the campaign. Of historical importance, Konovalov's work has led a troubled history as historian Richard Pankhurst impeccably documents.[11]

Konovalov gave a copy to George Lowther Steer, who was visiting Ethiopia. Steer had covered Italy's invasion of Ethiopia for The Times of London, and he knew Emperor Haile Sellase, who later stood as godfather to his son. Describing Konovalov as "a white Russian without a passport and without country,"[12] Steer added, "Colonel Konovaloff, who is still in Addis Ababa, has written for me the story of the Emperor's last battle. He was .. . the only European who saw it on the Ethiopian side."[13]  In his' popular book, Caesar in Abyssinia,[14] Steer translated and published passages covering from March 19, 1936, after the Italians had defeated Ras Seyoum's army, to mid-April, before the Emperor's return to the capital. In this version, Konovalov sympathetically described Haile Sellase's courage. The Emperor had exposed himself on the battlefield while manning a machine gun, and he had shown great calm and dignity during the disastrous final rout of Ethiopia's army.[15]

Konovalov's Unpublished Italian Manuscript

After the Italo-Ethiopian War, Colonel Konovalov left the anti-Fascist cause and went to Spain, where he worked with the Fascist Falangists during the Spanish Civil War.[16]

Before then, someone revised and translated his work into Italian. Many years later, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University got a typed copy which likely is this first Italian translation.[17]  It consists of seven chapters and ninety-one pages typed on a typewriter at the Fourth Court of Appeals in Turin. Pankhurst details some of the differences between this translation and the version found in Steer. In particular, this new version downplayed the author's friendly comments toward Ethiopia and added passages favorable to Italy, presumably to gratify the Fascist regime and to get by its censorship.   Significantly, this manuscript said nothing about Italy's use of poison gas during the war.[18]

What explains Konovalov's seeming change of heart found in the published version of this manuscript?

                The American historian, Thomas Coffey has insinuated that Konovalov could have always been playing a double game.  He specifically charged that Konovalov could have deceived the Emperor by making him believe that he faced only ten thousand Italians at Mychew, while the enemy's numbers were much greater. During his March 21 reconnaissance trip into the mountains north of the Ethiopian camp, he claimed to have passed through the Italian lines disguised as a Coptic priest.[19]  Doubting the truth of this story, Coffey concluded that, as a skilled military observer, if he had infiltrated the Italian lines, he must have discovered the Ethiopians faced more than twenty thousand men. In his memoirs, Konovalov did not detail what he told the Emperor on his return, although he admitted that, on March 29, he said he thought the Ethiopians faced "five-to-eight thousand" Italians at Mychew.[20]

                A prolific writer on the history of Italian Fascism and colonialism, Angelo Del Boca commented on Ethiopian fears of mercenaries fighting for Ethiopia but actually in Rome's pay. As an example, he called Konovalov's behavior "ambiguous."[21]  He rhetorically wondered about "this survivor of the wreckage from Wrangel's army," who found a job in Ethiopia, enjoyed the Emperor's favor, and advised Ras Kasa Darge's army.[22]  Del Boca, however, could not confirm rumors that Konovalov was sometimes in Italian pay and that he was playing a double game.[23]  Even so, continued Del Boca, after the war Konovalov published memoirs began with the puzzling dedication: "To the Italian soldier who showed to the world, at first skeptical and then amazed but always hostile, that glorifying in the new fascist climate, he has the ancient virtues of the Roman legionary."[24]



The Published Italian Version: Con le armate del Negus
                This first Italian draft, although closer to the Fascist point-of-view compared to Steer's excerpts, needed more manipulation before authorities would publish it. The work of revision fell to an Italian naval officer and a former "electro-technical adviser" to Addis Ababa, Commander Stefano Micciche, who had known Konovalov in Ethiopia before the war. The new text came with a new title, Con le armate del Negus [With the Army of the Negus] and with a new, and racist, subtitle, Un bianco fr a Inert [A White Among the Blacks]. The commander also wrote a twenty-six page, semi-autobiographical and political Preface in which he assured readers that "I have kept the original text unchanged, except for leaving out some episodes to avoid repetition."[25] A false promise, unfortunately, most know Konovalov only through Micciche's revised edition.

First published in Bologna at the end of 1936 and reprinted two years later, Con le armate del Negus, changed much, and Pankhurst again describes at some length these changes.[26]     It consists of nine chapters versus Konovalov's seven in the first Italian draft. The book changed the order of the chapters to have Konovalov's audience with the Emperor taking place on July 17, 1935 instead of August 17, as in the original Italian draft. Micciche's edition almost invariably changed Konovalov's comments on Haile Sellase to the sovereign's disadvantage. The term "negus" [king] replaced "Emperor of Ethiopia," and the new edition omitted or weakened positive statements toward him.[27]

As just one example of Pankhurst's discussion of these differences, he notes that Micciche added criticism along the lines fixed by Fascist propaganda, which described Ethiopia as weakened by ethnic differences. Konovalov's Italian draft noted such problems, but Micciche strengthened them. He now had Konovalov writing, "Ethiopia was a horde of races of peoples without order or national spirit.... Ethiopia could not survive the first serious test with any hope of success."[28]

Micciche further changed Konovalov's manuscript, again along the lines of Fascist propaganda, by adding a new chapter, "The Looting of Addis Ababa." One passage specifically accuses the Emperor of responsibility for the looting that took place after he had fled his capital in early May. "Sometime Friday night, provoked by anger, he violently tore the silk curtains that adorned the canopy for the throne and shouted to the bystanders, 'Take all, ransack, but do not set fire to the gebbi, the royal palace compound. This will bring you misfortune. Do not leave anything for the Italians.'"[29] A photo of looting strengthened the impact of this final chapter, and Micciche's edition declared that when the Fascist army entered the Ethiopian capital immediately after these events, "the population went out of their houses and hailed the new arrivals. The Italians did not come as conquerors, but as liberators."[30]

Contemporary writers and Haile Sellase himself contradict this version of events, as Del Boca shows.[31]

Konovalov's memoirs were one of only three meaningful works written by observers on the Ethiopian side—in addition to Steer's book there is also a book by a Cuban, Colonel Alejandro del Valle.[32]  Konovalov's book, however, became a tool of Fascist propaganda, and Pankhurst calls it "a brilliant political move."[33] The blustering bravado in Micciche's Preface and the extended effort to use Konovalov's words to rebut any denigration of the Italian people surely falls into the realm of defensive overcompensation. It comforted Italian public opinion—and international opinion as well. Writing, as the text underscored, as one of the Emperor's closest collaborators, it countered both Steer's writings and the opinions of most of the non-Italian residents in Addis Ababa before the occupation. These foreigners had vigorously condemned the Fascist invasion and occupation of Ethiopia.[34]

The Duce himself enthusiastically supported Konovalov's book, and on December 31, 1937 in Popolo d'Italia, he recommended the book. The second edition of the work in 1938 reproduced this approval.[35]

While many have uncritically quoted Con le armate del Negus, three writers have underlined the book's serious flaws. Czeslaw Jesman derisively dismissed Micciche's text as "a garbled and tendentious version of Konovalov's reminiscences."[36]    Thomas Coffey more explicitly wrote that Konovalov "vividly and convincingly described many details, but was strangely silent, obscure, or baffling about others. His admiration for the Italians was greater than for their victims. He fulsomely praised Italian aviators but failed to mention the tons of mustard gas they sprayed on the Ethiopians."[37] Angelo del Boca underlined Micciche text's inherent distortions by noting its many inconsistencies compared to Steer's publication.[38]

Konovalov's Manuscript at the Hoover Institution

Despite Micciche's edition, Emperor Haile Sellase evidently forgave Konovalov after Ethiopia's liberation. The Russian spent about ten more years in Ethiopia, where he lived until 1952, when he finally left the country.[39]

During his stay at Addis Ababa after the liberation, Konovalov wrote the "History of Ethiopia," a long draft in English that no one has published in its entirety. The Hoover Institution in California and The Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University hold copies of the manuscript. Typewritten, someone has begun editing part of it, and some sections clearly represent an early draft, full of mistakes, many of which are common for someone not comfortable with the English language.

Its most interesting and useful portions describe those events, which he witnessed or took part in. Clearly enthusiastic about Ethiopia's efforts to modernize, he favorably described Empress Zewditu Menilek,[40] and lavished praise on Teferi, the future Haile Sellase, for his education and reformist spirit, which many in the country opposed. As an eyewitness, he described many of the preparations for Teferi's coronation and the coronation itself as well as national improvements, such as road and church building, plus local administrative, postal, constitutional, and judicial reforms.[41]

In a chapter entitled "1935-1936," Konovalov describes his participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War without the changes Fascist politics had imposed. Although shorter than Con le armate del Negus, this interesting section begins with his first audience with the Emperor in July 1935.[42]  The chapter sympathizes with the Ethiopian people in their difficulties and celebrates their religion, culture, and patriotism. Konovalov now favorably evaluates the Ethiopian chiefs, comments not included in the published Italian text, and he praises the common Ethiopian soldier striving under impossible conditions. Konovalov sympathetically praises the Emperor and writes at some length about his personal conversations with him. Interestingly, Konovalov now glides over his underestimation of Italian forces at Mychew.

Konovalov's comments on Italy's occupation policy and the quick growth of guerrilla resistance provide a beguiling mix of Italian brutality and positive accomplishment, the latter especially in building a physical infrastructure and often forging close, personal relations with individual Ethiopians. Although Italy claimed victory on May 5, 1936 when its troops occupied the capital, in truth, Italy never pacified the country. Ethiopia's "Patriots" played an underappreciated role in liberating their own country, the first freed from Axis oppression in World War II.[43]

The World War II Quarterly has published in February 2008 the first of a two-part article in which I took and severely edited material from Konovalov's manuscript at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Part of Konovalov's much larger, projected "History of Ethiopia," I excerpted from pages 307-77 material dealing with the eve of war and Italy's attack, victory, and occupation of Ethiopia. I closed with Konovalov's description of British victory and eye-witness commentary on Haile Sellase's entry into Addis Ababa in early World War II, after exactly five years of Italian occupation.[44]


[1] Czeslaw Jesman, The Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), 143-49.

[2] Teferi Mekonnen took Ethiopia's crown as Emperor Haile Sellase in 1930. See Chris Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982), 91-93.

[3] Th. Konovaloff, Con le armate del negus (Un bianco fra i neri) [With the Army of the Negus (A White among the Blacks)], trans, and ed. Comandate Stefano Micciche (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1938), v-x.

[4] Emperor Yohannes IV founded Mekele as his capital when he relocated his power base there in 1881. The city is important to Tigrey's economy. Adowa was once Tigrey's capital and site of Ethiopia's dramatic victory over Italian forces on March 1, 1896. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 5.

[5] Ras Seyoum Mengesha served several times as governor of Tigrey. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 168. Similar to "Duke," Ras means "head," the highest traditional title next to negus [king], and is a title conferred on heads of important houses, provincial governors, ministers, and high officials. During the Italian occupation, the rases lost their privileges.

[6] The province of Tigrey includes Aksum, the site of Ethiopia's earliest kingdom. Before 1935, the central government tried to impose its will over the recalcitrant Tigreyans by dividing the governorship or by imposing a Shewan governor over them.

[7] Fedor Eugenievich Konovalov, "The Konovaloff Manuscript," Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 307-09; Anthony Mockler, Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941 (New York: Random
House, 1984), 51, 60; George Lowther Steer, Caesar in Abyssinia (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1937), 298; Richard Pankhurst, "Le diverse versioni della testimonianza deH'colonnello Konovaloff sulfinvasione fascista dell'Etiopia." [Different Versions of Colonel Konovalov's Testimony on the Fascist Invasion of Ethiopia] Studi Piacentini:
Rivista dell'Istituto storico della Resistenza e dell'eta contemporanea
17 (1995): 157.

[8]  On Mychew, see Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 123-24.

[9] Founded by Empress Taytu in 1887 as Ethiopia's new capital, "Addis Ababa" means "New Flower" in Amharic. Located in the center of the country on a large plateau in Shewa Province, it is the center of Amhara life and culture and is Ethiopia's political, financial, and communications center. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 4.

[10] Konovalov, "Manuscript," 310-46; Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni," 157; Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, 83.

[11]Pankhurst, "Diverse versioni," 157-59. I have not been able to find the French-language draft of the story, and, apparently, neither has Dr. Pankhurst. Born in 1927 in London into a progressive, left-wing family, Richard Pankhurst received his Ph.D. in Economic History. He moved to Ethiopia in 1956 and began teaching at the University College of Addis Ababa. One of Ethiopia's foremost historians, he has published nearly twenty books and over 400 articles on the country.

[12] Steer, Caesar, 284.

[13] Ibid, 298.

[14] Ibid., 299-338.

[15] Ibid., e.g., see 307-08, and 316.

[16] Angelo Del Boca, Gli italiani in Africa orientate: La Conquista dell'Impero Roma. (Bari: Laterza, 1979), 366, n. 56.

[17] In 1963, Richard Pankhurst founded The Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the oldest of the five research institutes within the Addis Ababa University system.

[18] Pankhurst, "Diversi version!," 159-60. This manuscript, I.E.S. No. 827, carries the title, La guerra italo-etiopica vista da un testimone ["The Italo-Ethiopian War As Seen by a Witness"]. Other foreign, contemporary observers referred to Italy's use of gas. John William Scott Macfie, An Ethiopian Diary: A Record of the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia (London: University Press of Liverpool, 1936), e.g., 117; Kathleen Nelson and Alan Sullivan, John Melly of Ethiopia (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), e.g., 214; Marcel Junod, Warrior Without Weapons (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 42-45; John Hathaway Spencer, Ethiopia At Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Sellassie Years (Algonac, MI: Reference Publications, 1987), 47; Steer, Caesar, 8. For a few of the articles in the New York Times on Italy's use of gas, see Mar. 17, 31; Apr. 4, 10, 15, 26; and May 3, 1936.

[19]  St. Mark founded the Coptic Church about 42 AD. Composed of Egyptians who had converted to Christianity in the second and third centuries, the Church developed its own language, Coptic, a combination of Greek and Arabic, to translate the Bible. Its patriarch was one of early Christendom's most powerful figures. Holding the Monophysite doctrine, its followers left the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Coptic Church belongs to theEastern Orthodox family of churches. The patriarchate is in Alexandria, though the Patriarch usually lives in Cairo. He chose Ethiopia's first bishop in the fourth century.  Despite interruptions, the See of St. Mark kept its privilege to name a Copt as abun [head] of Ethiopia's church for fifteen centuries. With an Ethiopian appointed as abun, theEthiopian church became independent between 1948 and 1950.

[20] Thomas M. Coffey, Lion by the Tail: The Story of the Italian-Ethiopian War (NewYork: The Viking Press, 1974), 314-15; Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, 115.

[21] Del Boca, Gli italiani, 366.

[22] Ibid. Although the claim of Ras Kasa Darge, 1881-1956, to Ethiopia's throne was equal to Haile Sellase's, he remained loyal to his cousin, the Emperor. The Italians killed three of his four sons. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 112.

[23] Del Boca, Gli italiani, 366.

[24] Ibid.; Konovalov, Con le armate, xi.

[25]   Konovalov, Con le armate, 26.

[26] Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni," 160-63.

[27] Ibid., 161..

[28] Konovalov, Con le armate, 187. Many philo-fascist works of this period emphasize this lack of ethnic unity, e.g., Edward William Poison Newman, Ethiopian Realities (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936) and Charles Fernand Rey, The Real Abyssinia (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969/1935). Compare Rey's earlier work, Unconquered Abyssinia As It Is To-Day (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1924) for its more sympathetic view, e.g., 305-06 where he asserts that a powerful Ethiopia would benefit the surrounding colonies held by Italy, France, and Great Britain.

[29] Konovalov, Con le armate, 210; Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni, 162-63.

[30] Konovalov, Con le armate, 214.

[31] Del Boca, Gli italiani, 694. See also James Dugan and Laurence Lafore, Days of Emperor and Clown: The Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), 283-84, 289-90 and Edward Ullendorff, The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I. My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, 1892-1937 (London: Oxford University Press), 291-92.

[32] Colonel Alejandro del Valle, Un hombre blanco en el infierno negro por el Coronel Alejandro del Valle [A White Man in a Black Hell by Colonel Alejandro del Valle], as told to Arturo Alfonso Rosello (Havana: Impreso en los Talleres Tipograficos, 1937). The book tells the story of a Cuban volunteer, Del Valle, who, like Konovalov, served at the northern Ethiopian front. Its anti-Ethiopian perspective is clear between the title and the photographs of mutilated Italian corpses at the end of the book.

[33] Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni," 163.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Popolo d'Italia; Dec. 31, 1937; Konovaloff, Con le armate, v-x; Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni," 163.

[36] Jesman, Russians, 148.

[37] Coffey, Lion, 314.

[38] Del Boca, Gli italiani, 619-39.

[39] Jesman, Russians in Ethiopia, 148.

[40] Zewditu Menilek ruled Ethiopia as empress from 1916 to 1930. Teferi Mekonnen, her second cousin, was her regent. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 191.

[41] Konovalov, "Konovaloff Manuscript," 84-90.

[42] For Pankhurst's discussion of the manuscript, see his "Diversi versioni," 164-66.   Pankhurst complains that Konovalov still does not discuss Italy's use of poison gas.  Pankhurst is wrong in detail; Konovalov mentions gas twice. But he is correct in wondering why Konovalov did not discuss this more. See 164.

[43] "Patriots" designates those who resisted the Italians between 1936 and 1941. These leaders were often provincial or local chiefs from important landowning families. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, 144-46.

[44] Pankhurst, "Diversi versioni," 166-200, covers pages 307-67 in the manuscript. There appear to be fourteen pages missing from the manuscript copy, likely dealing with British military operations.


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