Iran and Russia in the 19th and 20th Century: War, Diplomacy, Economic Relations and Culture (2)

This double panel is structured around the notion that Russia’s historical involvement in Iran is as longstanding and pervasive as it is understudied. Instinctive anti-colonialists, Iranians continue to be very much exercised about what they consider the wholly negative, devious and even destructive interference of the British in their country’s affairs over the past two centuries. Yet they are hardly aware of the fact that, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, the Russian presence in especially northern Iran was far more invasive and consequential than that of the British. Indeed, they would be startled to hear and unwilling to accept that, in some ways, the British presence may even have prevented a more drastic Russian role in Iran's affairs.

Each of the papers deals with an aspect of the intensive encounter between Russians and Iranians between the early Qajar period and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty by considering the activities of Russians in Iran. Some of the papers concentrate on a single person, a diplomat, or an adviser and agent, using biographical information about the official in question as a prism to highlight a political or diplomatic facet of Russo-Iranian relations. Others take a more structural approach by analyzing an aspect of the military and economic entwinement between the two countries. Yet others take on Russia’s artistic legacy in Iran. Together they paint a rich tableau of the multifaceted role Russian nationals have played in modern Iranian history.


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This article addresses the reaction of the Russian government to the presence of Russian deserters in Iran and to their service there. Desertions of Russian soldiers to Iran and their acceptance by Iranian officials created a stir in Russian diplomatic and military circles, including the personal involvement of the emperor, Nicholas I, and several high-ranking diplomats. The issue of deserters that arose during the second half of the 19th century is presented in the broader context of Russia’s aspirations to dominate Iran as a player in the Great Game.
Russian soldiers started to escape to Iran through the Caucasus at the very beginning of the 19th century, when Russia established its military presence there. Two Russo-Iranian wars further increased the number of deserters, so that their presence in the Iranian provinces of Azerbaijan and Khorasan by the second half of the 19th century became a factor in the Russo-Iranian relationship. Using stories of specific deserters, this paper demonstrates that Russian diplomatic and military authorities took this issue quite seriously and put a lot of pressure on the Iranian government and local administration, including direct threats, demanding deserters’ arrest and extradition. The Convention about Deserters signed by Russia and Iran in 1844 created a legal backing for Russia’s demands.
Though the author is aware of the recent publications by Stephanie Cronin on Russians in Iranian military service in the 19th and early 20th century, the current paper is entirely based on Russian archival sources, which include interviews with several deserters. It builds upon the concept of Russian Orientalism, mainly in relation to individual Russians in Iran. This article demonstrates that Russian Orientalism generated by the duality of Russia’s national identity also manifested itself at the level of the Russian government. Its overreaction to the presence of Russian deserters in Iran and their service there can be interpreted as a way to compensate in Asia for what ultimately became a failed aspiration in Europe – the desire to prove Russia’s equality to the Western European empires and Russia’s natural affiliation with the West.

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Alexander Segeevich Griboedov, both as a person but more as a diplomat shaped and influenced the history of the Russian-Iranian relationship at the start of the Great Game. It is even possible to say that his rather short life full of great ambitions and expectations and even more so his tragic death caused this phenomenon and identified the direction of Russo-British politics in Persia.
In my paper I intend to compare the established views on the period of Russian military success in Persia between the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmanchay with those expressed in the new publications related to the theme of Griboedov in Persia. Recent authors discuss the facts that influenced his decision to accept the post at the Tehran embassy, and his activities as plenipotentiary minister of Russia until his murder. The publications in question will include new biography of Griboedov, which is the lifetime achievement of the most prominent scholar of Griboedov Professor Sergey Alexandrovich Fomichev of the Pushkin House in St Petersburg (SPb: Vita Nova, 2012), which is the continuation of his Griboedov Encyclopaedia (SPb: Nestor-Istoria, 2007): both publications contain the results of the most recent Russian studies on Griboedov and his milieu. I will also consider newly published sources which became available in Russia in the post-Soviet period, like Russian émigré literature on Griboedov (Minorsky, Khodasevich, Struve, Kizevetter, Svyatopolk-Mirsky et al.) as well as the memoires of A. Berzhe, editor of the Acts of the Caucasian Archeographic Commission (Acts) and originally published in Russkaya Starina (Kavkazskaya starina, Pyatigorsk: Sneg, 2011) together with the materials from the Acts.

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The recollections of Roald Matveev, recorded in a series of personal interviews from 2012 to 2013, provide a unique window on life in the Iranian city of Pahlavi (now Bandar-e Anzali) and the activities of the Soviet mission there during the Second World War. Roald is the son of former Soviet Consul General Fyodor Matveyev, who was stationed in Pahlavi from 1941 to 1945. Before the war, the elder Matveyev worked in Baku as Commissioner of the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, or Foreign Minister, of Azerbaijan. In late 1941, he was reassigned to the city of Pahlavi, where he later became Soviet Consul General. Roald's reminiscences include striking details of life in the embassy compound, his school days, the military and political situation in Iran, and the variety of tasks his father was engaged in while the
Soviet Union was at war.

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This presentation explores Iranian perceptions of the changes taking place beyond the country's northern borders, and it traces the historical background and the development of international relations between Iran and the three Transcaucasian states of the former Soviet South. On the basis of today’s political realities in the South Caucasus, considerable attention is also given to Iranian perceptions of the role of the main foreign actors in the region – the USA, Russia, and Turkey. The presentation also shows that despite its activities in the Caucasus, Iran is not a dominant player in the region.

Iranian politics towards the South Caucasus can be considered as pragmatic and realistic. Iran feared that the establishment of a strong and independent Republic of Azerbaijan could lead to a rise of nationalistic aspirations among its own Azerbaijani minority, and so adopted a policy of de facto cooperation with Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh. This example illustrates the ‘paradoxical’ non-ideological nature of Iran’s policy toward the region. Similarly, Iran's rapprochement with Russia is driven by the hypothetical enlargement of NATO; the economic importance to Western companies of the Caspian energy resources and the transit routes of the region; and the political and military presence of the US in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Iran doesn't even make any serious attempt to compete with Russia for influence in the newly independent republics in Central Asia and Caucasus.

The presentation also explores the ‘new Iranian diaspora’ in the Caucasus, especially in Georgia, paying special attention to the causes of their emigration from Iran, and to their social, religious and other activities..