Russian historians and their Western colleagues often disagree about the dates and events that triggered the Cold War. Many Russian historians (like their Soviet predecessors) date the beginning of the conflict to Winston Churchill’s famous speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on 5 March 1946. By contrast, many Western historians see the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, or the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia as the real starting point. Neither of these timelines is accepted by Jamil Hasanli, a professor of modern history at Baku State University in Azerbaijan, whose new book, At the Dawn of the Cold War, brings to the fore the early postwar confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States in southwest Asia, one of the most complicated and important regions in the 1940s. Hasanli provides a valuable, thoroughly researched account of one of the least studied topics in Cold War history—the tense U.S.-Soviet crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan, the establishment of the short-lived Azerbaijan People’s Republic under Soviet auspices, and the liquidation of that puppet regime by the U.S.-backed Iranian army. Based on top-secret archival materials from Soviet and Azerbaijani archives as well as documents from U.S., British, and Iranian sources, the book details Iranian Azerbaijan’s independence movement, the Soviet struggle for oil concessions in Iran, and the U.S. and British reactions to these events.
At the Dawn of the Cold War brings to light a great deal of important information about Soviet actions and plans in southern Azerbaijan. The Soviet occupation and annexation of western Belarus and western Ukraine inspired leaders in Moscow to try to use the same model in Azerbaijan. Newly released documents show, however, that the Soviet dictator Josif Stalin did not have a clear-cut strategy in that region. Hasanli demonstrates that during the early stages of Soviet involvement in Iran (1941–1942) Soviet leader could not decide on specific steps to take. One of the possible ways to expand [End Page 174] Soviet influence in Iran was by playing the “Kurdish card”—that is, by instigating a Kurdish separatist movement in Iran. Later on, however, Soviet leaders settled on the use of Azerbaijan as a wedge against both the Iranian government and the West.
The book shows that in the midst of war with Germany, when generals Erwin Rommel (from Northern Africa) and Friedrich Paulus (from Stalingrad) were rushing to link up in Beirut, the Soviet Union and Great Britain were struggling against each other for influence in southern Azerbaijan. The book contains many examples of how each side tried to neutralize the other’s agents of influence and to spy on the other. Hasanli does a wonderful job of documenting the Soviet-U.S.-British struggle over the rich oil reserves in Iran and the policies adopted by each side. It is interesting to see how the great powers manipulated the people of Iran, including Azerbaijanis, to obtain oil concessions. The denial of oil concessions rights to the Soviet Union prompted Moscow to instigate protests and demonstrations that successfully toppled the Iranian government headed by Muhammad Sa’ed Maraghei. Hasanli skillfully shows how the Soviet authorities exploited Azerbaijani national aspirations for their own ends. For Moscow, what mattered was not the Azerbaijani national independence movement per se but the securing of oil concessions. The Soviet Union used the Azerbaijanis’ struggle to push forward its own oil interests. Many Azerbaijanis, for their part, saw the struggle between Soviet Union and the West as a good opportunity to gain independence.
The book provides extensive new information about political figures such as MirJafar Baghirov, the autocratic leader of the Soviet Azerbaijani Communist Party; Sayyed Ja’far Pishevari, the founder and chairman of the Azerbaijani People’s Government; and many others. Baghirov’s persona has long been a mystery. Scholars have generally regarded him as an eager accomplice in the Stalinist terror, responsible for many crimes. Hasanli’s book gives a much more positive depiction of Baghirov, presenting him as an...