Iranian-Russian Encounters: Empires and Revolutions since 1800

Author: Stephanie Cronin

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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The ‘Neighbour in the North’, whether Tsarist, Soviet or Putinist, has lowered over Iran’s Guarded Realms since the 18th century, but has left in Iranian historiography merely a bear-shaped hole. Iranians are reluctant to learn Russian while the Cold War isolated the European and Russian schools of Iranian studies into separate institutes. The end of the Cold War in 1989 permitted a certain intermingling of scholars, but in several departments of Irano-Russian history we are as ignorant as our fathers and grandfathers.
The volume under review, which arose out of a learned conference in London in 2009, is not a comprehensive account. There is little about the Tsarist expansion into the Caucasus, which brought the two empires into conflict; next to nothing about Griboyedov, hacked to death in Tehran in 1829; not much about Russian commercial penetration or the two Russian loans of 1900 and 1902; nothing at all on the Soviet invasion of 1941, the republics set up in 1945 under Red Army protection in north-western Iran, or the diplomatic summer under Mohammed Reza Shah (the only Iranian of modern times with any grasp of Russian diplomacy); nothing on the Soviet dithering during the Revolution of 1979. Instead, these authors shine flashes of light into the corners and cupboards of Irano-Russian history which add to our knowledge but leave us avid for more.
The most substantial of the essays is that by the editor on the army reforms of Crown Prince Abbas Mirza in Tabriz after 1808 in response to the Russian annexation of Georgia. Up to now, we have been told that Abbas Mirza’s new model army (nezam-e jadid) was principally shaped by improvements in the Ottoman military and the advice of French and British officers. Professor Cronin takes as her starting point a statement of Abbas Mirza in 1812: “With every defeat the Russians inflict on me, they unwittingly teach me a lesson.” Using newly available Russian sources, she stresses the contribution of Russian deserters embodied into the new army, and especially a staff-trumpeter named Makintsev, who absconded (it is alleged) with some silver mouthpieces in 1802 and rose to head a regiment in Abbas Mirza’s new model army known as the ‘Heroes’ (Bahaduran or, in Russian, Bagaderan). Many of the deserters became Muslims while crossing themselves at prayer. Cronin also finds the origin of Abbas Mirza’s conscription system, known as bonicheh, in Russian rather than Western European or Turkish military practice. It is a fascinating piece.
Other contributors look as the first Iranian travellers’ acounts of Russia, dating from each side of 1815, and their admiration for the ‘order’ introduced by Peter the Great; the role of Georgian volunteers in support of parliamentary government in Gilan and Tabriz in 1908 and 1909; and the Irano-Soviet treaty of 1921, where the despised Iranian statesmen of the later Qajar are shown standing up to the bully-boy Curzon. Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian pieces together from family papers the chicanery surrounding the building and then abandonment of the Astara-Ardebil carriage road.
Of particular interest are the essays on Russian influence on the Iranian cinema and stage. Emily Jane O’Dell resurrects the court cinematographer under Mohammed Ali Shah, Mehdi Ivanov or ‘Russi Khan’, who staged a private screening for the great divine Fazlollah Nuri, who none the less anathematised moving pictures. This Iranian ambivalence is important both because of the excellence of Iranian film-making since the 1960s and also the arson by religious radicals of the Rex Cinema in Abadan, the turning point of the 1978–1979 revolution. The pick of the book is Saeed Talajooy’s essay on the Tudeh playwright, Abdolhossein Nushin. Talajooy stages Nushin’s story as tragedy: the stiff-necked old revolutionary preferring to stay in a Soviet Union he hated and despised than give Mohammed Reza the pleasure of his recantation. On relations since the revolution, Clément Therme shows how the Islamic Republic’s monotonous anti-Americanism robs its Russian diplomacy of effect.
There are admirable photographs, almost all of them new. One small fault in the volume is a fondness by some of the authors for sonorous terms that hover just on the edge of meaning but never quite achieve it: problematise, discourse, trope, ‘the Other’, subalternity, instrumentalism, periodisation, positivism, the long 19th century.
Jamie Buchan C.2013
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