- Iranian-Russian Encounters: Empires and Revolutions since 1800 edited by Stephanie Cronin
This edited collection reflects the growing attention scholars have of late been paying to the history of relations between modern Iran and it most consequential neighbor, Russia. Since the 18th century, this relationship has persistently been asymmetrical, with Iran, the junior, more vulnerable, “receiving” partner. In keeping with this reality, the focus here is on the impact Russia and its people have had on Iran in the last 200 years. As the editor points out in her introduction, insight into the reverse influence will have to wait for future research.
Most of the contributions concentrate on politics, but culture and the arts receive their due as well. The result is a well-rounded volume that succeeds well in the stated goal of going beyond state-to-state relations to delve into various layers of society, including subaltern forces, dissident and marginal elements, so as to unearth the complex, often paradoxical relations between the two neighbors.
Afshin Matin-asghari opens the section on political, diplomatic, and military relations with an interpretive essay arguing that Iran’s modernization was a matter of absorbing ideas, techniques, and practices from the “north” (Russia) and the “northwest” (the Ottoman Empire), rather than from the “West” (Europe); and that the debate about West and East in Iran mirrored the well-known Russian controversy between advocates of “European” and defenders of “Asian” values. He also offers a preliminary analysis of a topic that has yet to be studied in detail: the tenacious and widespread hold of sympathy for the Soviet Union among the Iranian bourgeoisie, as expressed in the prevalence of Russian-inspired Marxist ideas throughout the Pahlavi era.
The volume contains a well-researched paper by Morteza Nourai and Vanessa Martin dealing with Russian land acquisition in Iran in the 19th century, which shows this to have been a creeping form of colonization that went well beyond the property rights for foreigners in Iran as spelled out in the clauses of the 1828 Treaty of Torkamanchay. Maziar Behrooz investigates the trajectory of Iran’s mental approach to Russia, which evolved from supreme confidence during the military confrontation of the early 19th century to a habitual tendency to play off the Russians against the British once their manifest weakness left Iranians little other choice. Firuza Melville, using Russian sources, sheds new light on the nature of the important mission of Prince Khosrow Mirza to St. Petersburg in 1829 to deliver an apology to Russian Tsar Nicholas I for the killing of Minister Plenipotentiary Aleksandr Griboyedov by an angry mob that had stormed the embassy in Tehran. Fatema Soudavar uses both Russian sources and Persian-language material from private family archives to unlock a complex detective story of how Hajj Kazem Malek-ol-To-jjar’s plan to build a road connecting Astara and Ardabil at the turn of the 20th century went down in a byzantine welter of intrigue.
One of the highlights of the volume is the essay by the editor. Like Behrooz, Stephanie Cronin traces Iran’s trajectory from proud nation, equal if not superior to its neighbors, to weak, dependent state. She illustrates this evolution by investigating the role the Russians played in the building of a modern Iranian army. In the early 19th century, Crown Prince ‘Abbas Mirza exploited Russia’s military [End Page 645] vulnerabilities, recruiting Russian soldiers from his army. By the eve of the twentieth century the tables had turned: in the Russian-led Cossack Brigade, the Russians now had a tool to play a domineering role in Iranian politics. During the Constitutional Revolution, Iran’s domestic struggle became intertwined with Russia’s own internal conflict, leading it to support the reactionary Qajar court, not the revolutionary forces.
Part two, dealing with Iran’s constitutional period, 1905–11, features interesting articles by Sohrab Yazdani on the origins of the Iranian Socialist Party and by Iago Gocheleishvili on Georgian sources on Iran’s Constitutional Movement. James Clark...