Russo-Iranian Encounter: Empire & Statehood


A review of Empire and Statehood in the Russo-Iranian Encounter, 1880s-1911, by Moritz Deutschmann.

This smart, well-researched dissertation, part of a remarkable surge in interest in the encounter between pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Islamic lands to its south, breaks away from a tradition of viewing the history of non-European countries primarily in relation to the West. It looks at Russia’s late ninteenth-century foreign policy vis-à-vis Qajar Iran and its effect, indirect control, not simply as a story of inexorable “intrusion,” and one-sided domination, but as a complex, interactive process. This process, the author contends, cannot be understood by simply viewing it through the lens of the “Great Game,” with Iran a mere buffer state between Russia and Great Britain, a hapless victim of great power politics (a notion cherished by many Iranians wont to see themselves as victims rather than as active participants in their own destiny). Written from the perspective of Russia, and mostly using Russian-language sources, the study nevertheless makes a real contribution to Iranian history and political culture. While it has much to say about official policies, it offers an especially penetrating analysis of how non-state actors in both countries behaved in the face of states and their centralizing tendencies.

Deutschmann leaves no doubt that the Russo-Iranian relationship was an uneven one: Late Tsarist Russia was far stronger and more “advanced” than Qajar Iran, a tribally based country that, in developmental terms, was backward even by Middle Eastern standards. Yet he eschews the obvious dichotomies—between the “center” and the “periphery,” between “colonizing,” “Western-oriented” Russia, and “colonized,” “backward” Iran. Instead, he emphasizes interpenetration and symbiosis, mutual complicity and, especially, ambiguity.  Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Qajar Iran in this study are also comparable regimes, even if the latter lacked a modern bureaucracy and written laws. The author’s main argument is that Russia was at once Iran’s closest ally and the greatest threat to its territorial integrity. The tsarist regime pursued its goals vis-à-vis Iran by effectively forging an alliance with the Qajar elite. Russia in this implicit arrangement helped shape Iran’s politics and exploited its economic resources. Iran’s rulers, in turn, adapted to foreign norms and standards but also bent their relationship with the north to their own advantage.

Chapter One, titled “Shah and Tsars,” addresses politics and starts from the notion that, in their traditional, autocratic makeup, the two monarchies had much in common.  It explains how in the course of the nineteenth century Iran perforce gradually adapted to the symbolism and the performative functions of European-style monarchies, and how, to the extent that influence came from the north, Russia helped reformulate the legitimacy of Iranian kingship. Symbolic of Iran’s growing acquaintance with things Westerns are the three trips Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) took to Europe via Russia. The patronizing Russian press turned these into metaphors for Iran pursuing civilization, judging the Shah on the level and quality of the reforms he instituted.

Unsurprisingly, even if under-appreciated, Iran’s legal, military, and educational modernizing tendencies at the time were substantially Russia-inspired. Especially in matters of military reform Russian imperial interests and Iranian royal ambitions overlapped. Iran’s first non-tribal military force, the Cossack Brigade, was founded in 1877 under Russian auspices. Overseen by condescending officers, it served as an agent of Russia’s imperial interests, but also helped the Qajars stay in power.  Russia’s educational influence culminated with the employment of Konstantin Smirnov as tutor for Crown Prince Ahmad in 1907. Rather Orientalist in tone, Smirnov’s memoirs are filled with worrisome observations about the lassitude and the languor, the mistrust and the culture of lying he thought prevalent at the royal court.

The Constitutional Revolution that broke out in Iran in 1905 and that gave the country its first written constitution and parliament, receives particular attention, in this and later chapters.  The upheaval confronted the Russians with the dilemma of how much and how long to support the Qajar regime in the face of its creeping loss of legitimacy. In an ironically circular movement, this loss was hastened by the growing foreign influence on Iranian politics at the time, culminating in the infamous 1907 accord that effectively divided Iran into Russian and British spheres of influence. Contrary to common perceptions, St. Petersburg did not automatically and unanimously side with the conservative forces against the revolutionaries, even though its instincts were with the former and Russia’s envoy to Tehran, Nicholas Hartwig, was deeply skeptical about the prospects for parliamentary rule in Iran. The Russians were ambivalent about Iran. They were impatient with Qajar inefficiency and worried that the fall of the latter might harm their own position of influence in Iran. But, egged on by the shah, they were also fearful that the revolutionary ferment would lead to chaos. Paradoxically, the period effectively ended the implicit alliance between the tsar and the shah. The main reason for this rupture, Deutschmann submits, was a reorientation in Russia’s foreign policy. The epitome of this change, the 1907 agreement, reduced the importance of the Qajar dynasty to the Russians. Thus the damage they inflicted on Iran’s parliament building in 1908, universally seen as emblematic of their hostility to the constitutional experiment, was in reality much more equivocal with regard to intent, the result of a concatenation of incidents rather than the outcome of a preplanned policy.

Chapter Two stays with the topic of control and reform but switches the setting as well as the actors. It does so by delving into the role played by the tribes in Turkmenia, the vast lands straddling the long Central Asian border between the two states, where chieftains commanded power and central authority long remained weak, causing tribal raiding into Iran’s northeastern region to remain a problem well into the twentieth century. The story as told here is no unilinear one of frontier zones turning to clear-cut boundaries, with two states seeking to demarcate their territorial sovereignty in antagonistic fashion. It is in part the story of state formation and centralization, to be sure, of Russia and Iran cooperating to control the poorly policed borderlands. This took the form of joint efforts to reduce the role of the tribes—culminating in the Russian assault on Gök Tepe in 1881. But on a deeper level, a great deal of ambiguity and contradiction becomes visible in the ways either state often colluded with tribal forces against the other side. The Qajars, barely removed from their own tribal roots, were much more adept at this game than the Russians, although the latter undermined their claim to modern management by proving to be just as manipulative at times. The Turkmen themselves, meanwhile, were no mere victims in all of this, and are given full agency in this study. They alternatively resisted central authority and offered to support either state by patrolling borders. Eventually of course, the construction of the trans-Caspian railway and various public health measures taken to combat the plague epidemics of the 1890s gave the Russians the upper hand, contributing significantly to their ability to control the region.

In Chapter Three the author turns to the commercial dimension of the relationship as represented by the consular system, part of the unequal legal framework imposed on Iran by Russia after the Treaty of Turkomanchay of 1828. Concentrating on Tabriz, Iran’s window on Russia and Russia’s hub in Iran, he discusses the role of the consulates—outposts of a semi-colonial administration and instruments of Russian economic expansionism. He further explains how the commercial networks that straddled the border, made up of Transcaucasian Muslims and Armenians, many of them Russian subjects, navigated between two different jurisdictions.  Here, too, the picture is complex: As they had done for centuries, the Russians generally supported the Armenians. Yet, as revolutionary ideas gained ground among the latter, they became more reluctant to do so. Meanwhile, inter-ethnic tensions escalated, fueled by revolutionary fervor and economic jealousy on the part of Muslims. In the absence of a strong state, such tensions led to pogrom-like violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan—where an Ottoman-style massacre was only averted because the Armenians declared themselves Iranian above anything else. Concerned about their economic interests, the Russians in this period more and more opted for direct military intervention.  They thus entered Tabriz in 1909, with the tacit consent of the British, breaking up the royalist siege of the city, and in subsequent years ended up establishing direct control over large swaths of northern Iran.

The final chapter returns to politics and discusses the role Caucasian and Iranian revolutionaries played in Iran’s Constitutional Movement. In keeping with the study’s overall tenor, this movement is presented less as a lofty struggle for political emancipation and representative government than as a complex process where rural banditry and protection rackets were difficult to distinguish from popular protest and in which political convictions often masked crass opportunism and greed. Challenging the notion that the Caucasian participants were “internationalists,” as especially Soviet historiography tended to depict them, Deutschmann focuses on how, divided along ethnic and religious lines, they operated in an environment where state authority was weak to non-existent.  These included the estimated 100,000 Iranians migrant workers who lived under Russian jurisdiction, laboring in horrendous conditions in the Baku oil industry.

The inhabitants of the Caucasus were crucial in the struggle, both for their ideological commitment and their familiarity with armed resistance. But there were marked differences among them. The Armenians, more educated, better connected, and working within their own nationalist framework, spearheaded the political movement. Georgians, who tended to be rural, gravitated toward a more romantic Marxism, directing their anti-capitalist fervor in part against the urban Armenians. Muslims, seen as passive and hard to mobilize, played a relatively minor role in the events. Many Muslims on the Russian side of the border, Deutschmann notes, viewed Iran’s revolutionaries as backward and Iran and its culture as an obstacle to progress, and ended up writing in Russian or Azeri.

The author’s final reflections are as apt as they are interesting. The weakness of the Qajar state, he suggests, raises questions about the very concept “revolution” as viewed and practiced by the Iranians: if a state was hardly visible and mostly irrelevant, what did it mean to engage in a revolution (against it)? The peculiar Iranian tendency toward “creative anarchy” as noted by Smirnov, also raises doubts about maximum state capacity as the only model for a functioning society. And then there are the counterintuitive continuities in Russia’s imperial project in its interplay with Iranian nationalism. Instinctively grasping the difficulty of imposing their own type of centralized authority, the Russians wisely never intended outright and permanent occupation in Iran—as they did not in Afghanistan in 1980.  As for Iranians, as they would during the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, they adopted some elements of the socialist agenda that had percolated from the north, while rejecting others, and what they adopted they reconfigured to fit indigenous notions of revolution and state building.

In its sophisticated argument about the nature of empires, their interaction and the role in this played by their authorities as well as their subject, this thesis brings the study of Iranian history in line with the high standards that exist for Russian historiography.

Rudi Matthee
Department of History
University of Delaware

Primary Sources

Archive of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Empire
Russian State Historical Archives
Russian State Archive of Military History
National Historical Archive of Georgia
British National Archives
Russian newspapers and magazines

Dissertation Information 

European University (Florence, Italy). 2013. 223 pp. Primary Advisor: Stephen A. Smith (EUI/University of Oxford).

Image: Late-nineteenth century image shows soldiers of the Persian Cossack Brigade, who were trained by Russian officers, in the Golestan Palace in Tehran. Photograph by author.

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