Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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From the skies to the shadows: The enigmatic journey of Misha Babichev

Ivan Babichev was a Russian traveler who journeyed to Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Menelik in the early 1890s. Little is known about his life before he embarked on his mission to explore the southwestern parts of Ethiopia, which were largely unknown to most Europeans at the time. However, Babichev’s fate took an unexpected turn, and he ended up at the Imperial Palace, where he became a trusted advisor to the emperor and was bestowed the title of Fitawrari. He also fought in the Ethiopian-Italian war, notably at the Battle of Adwa.

After settling in Ethiopia, Ivan married an Ethiopian woman, and on February 14, 1908, they welcomed their son Misha into the world. Today, Misha’s son, Professor Alexander, carries on his family’s legacy. A documentary film based on a book about Ivan Babichev’s life, partially shown on Russia TV2 channel, sheds light on his remarkable journey. Furthermore, a memorial plaque in Moscow commemorates Babichev’s contributions to history.

After attending the Teferi Mekonnen School in Addis Ababa, Misha transferred to Haile Selassie first secondary school (Kokebe Tsebah) and eventually joined the Imperial bodyguard. When Ethiopia acquired airplanes, Misha was among the first aviation cadets, along with Asfaw Ali, Seyoum Kebede, Bahiru Kaba, Demisie Haileyesus, Demeke Teklewolde, and Yeshimebet Imiru. In October 1930, Misha completed his training and was commissioned as a Lieutenant.

When the Ethiopian Air Force was established, Misha became one of its first pilots. He then went to France to attend the aviation academy, where he successfully completed his training and became the first Ethiopian military pilot to hold the rank of Major. Upon returning to Ethiopia in 1945, Misha was appointed as the first director of the newly formed Ethiopian Civil Aviation, following a proclamation issued by the emperor on the organization’s formation.

After World War II ended in 1945, Misha was appointed as the first diplomat to the former USSR, where he served for three years. According to the Professor, Misha’s son who currently resides in Moscow, the files related to his father’s work in the USSR are kept in secret places that he couldn’t access.

Additional information about Misha Babichev can be found in an interview conducted by Alexander, published in the well-known Russian newspaper ITOGI No. 44 in 2014, during the 50th anniversary of Misha’s death. This interview sheds light on Misha’s life and legacy, and has been included in the Russian version of Wikipedia published in the same year.

Alexander is passionate about honoring his father’s memory and wishes to see a monument or a memorial plaque installed in his honor. Misha Babichev was one of the first Ethiopian pilots, a hero of the Ethiopian-Italian war, and an organizer of civil aviation in Ethiopia. Along with his colleagues, he paved the way for aviation in Ethiopia and defended the country against Fascist Italy’s aggression.

Misha, a handsome Ethiopian diplomat, met his future wife Ludmila at the world-renowned Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1945. Ludmila was a second-year student at the Moscow State University of Foreign Languages, majoring in French. Although Misha did not speak Russian, he and Ludmila shared a common language in French, which led to their initial acquaintance. A few months later, they got married in the spring of 1946. At the time, Misha was 38 years old, and Ludmila was 21, born on April 26, 1925. The following year, on April 6, 1947, they welcomed their son Alexander into the world.

A photo copy of Misha’s diplomatic ID as the first secretary of the Ethiopian embassy in Moscow is available, but the original is stored in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. The ID lists his wife, Soviet citizen Nesterenkova Lyudmila, and their 2½-year-old son Alexander, who was registered on July 1, 1947.

Until the end of February 1948, they had no accommodation of their own and were living at the national luxury hotel in Moscow near the Kremlin. The fact that Misha, as a diplomat, was permitted by the Soviet government to stay in this hotel demonstrates the good and well-established diplomatic relations between the two countries.

At the beginning of 1948, the Ethiopian diplomatic mission, although not a full-scale embassy, received its own mansion on Gagarin Street. However, in January of that year, Misha suffered a stroke while leaving a diplomatic reception with his wife on a cold Moscow winter day. As he bent down sharply to tie his shoelaces, he fell into the snow and was paralyzed. His body was curved, and he lost the ability to speak. Despite receiving all possible medical assistance in Moscow, his paralysis was not cured.

As a result, Misha’s diplomatic mission was terminated on February 2, 1948, and he was replaced by Fassil Shiferaw. Misha continued to receive treatment, but he was unable to speak. His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie showed great concern and followed up on Misha’s condition, as Misha had previously served as his personal pilot.

Misha’s younger sister, Helen Babichev, who was living in Bologna, Italy, came to visit, and the family decided to send him to Sweden, where a well-known neurologist was practicing at the time. After receiving treatment in Sweden, Misha was supposed to return to Ethiopia for a vacation.

The Ethiopian diplomatic mission in Moscow requested an open visa for Misha from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR. Misha, who expected to undergo lengthy treatment, wanted his family to accompany him, along with his sister Helen. However, when the Soviet authorities reacted negatively, Misha was forced to leave without his wife and son.

Before leaving Moscow in July 1948, Misha wrote a touching letter to Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Molotov V. M., requesting permission for his wife to accompany him. However, he received no reply. On July 16, 1948, Misha wrote again, this time to Vishinsky, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, but still received no reply.

Finally, on July 22, 1948, Misha left Moscow for Sweden, accompanied only by his sister Helen, without his wife and son. He flew away from Russia, expecting to return one day when he recovered. At the time, he did not know that he was abandoning his family not temporarily, but forever.

This was because in February 1947, the USSR adopted a law that forbade Soviet women from marrying foreigners. In some cases, when diplomats married Soviet women, they were forced to leave the country within 48 hours, and the women were sentenced to hard labor.

In Sweden, Misha received the necessary treatment and was able to walk, speak, and even drive a car. He returned home to Ethiopia on November 25, 1948. Baykov, the attaché of the USSR mission in Addis Ababa, wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR on December 4, 1948, about Babichev’s return to Ethiopia. This information was kept confidential in the aforementioned archives.

However, when Misha arrived at the airport, he was unable to walk on his own. The Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia visited him and asked about the Soviet attitude towards Ethiopia, particularly towards Misha. He replied that he was well respected in Moscow, despite his young age and diplomatic rank. He represented his country on all occasions with ambassadors of all countries and had immediate access to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was also to be given permission to bring his wife with him, as the authorities were afraid of Western media attention regarding the prohibition of departure from the USSR for Russian women who married foreigners.

After his return to Ethiopia, Babichev was frequently visited by His Majesty, the Empress, Ras’s, many government officials, and ordinary people. However, Baykov reported that Babichev’s health was improving, but he was unable to walk or visit the mission by himself.

Babichev was confident that he would be given permission to bring his family to Ethiopia, but his dreams never came true. His wife and son lived for about a year in the diplomatic mansion, but later on, Lyudmila and her son were forced to leave the house and join her parents in the suburbs of Moscow. They lived in a two-room flat where her parents lived with her cousin until 1961. At that point, they moved to a new building in a newly created region of expanding Moscow.

Misha waited for his family for most of his life, sending numerous letters that were never delivered to his wife. He received responses from the Soviet post service that his family had left Moscow for an unknown location. Even His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I officially requested the Soviet authorities for their return, but they were denied.

Soviet officials argued that Lyudmila, who was later forced to change her name back to Nesterenkova, was a Russian citizen, and her son was born on the territory of the USSR, making it illegal for them to abandon the country. Lyudmila later remarried in 1956 and changed her surname to Shakhnazarova. However, due to her previous marriage to a foreigner, she faced several difficulties and was considered politically unreliable.

Despite these challenges, Lyudmila had a successful career at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. She passed away at the age of 84 in August 2004.

To protect her son from the attention of Soviet secret services, Lyudmila changed his name twice. This helped him stay out of the spotlight, and he became a student and graduated from the Economic Department of Moscow State University. He is now a Dr. of Science, author of many articles and several books in Economics.

During the Soviet era, all documents related to Misha and Lyudmila were destroyed from all archives. As a result, the first Ethiopian pilot and hero lost contact with his family. However, in 2011, thanks to TV journalists who made documentary films on Misha and his family for Russian audiences, Nigussie Kasie Mikael (Prof.), a historian living in Moscow, and the invaluable help of Konnik, head of the Russian Cultural Center in Addis Ababa, the son of Misha, Alexander, was able to find his relatives and visit the tomb of his father at Trinity Cathedral in Ethiopia.

Contributed by Gebregziabher Wondaferew (col.) and Alexander Shakhnazarov (Misha) (Prof.) 

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