Infidel Aggression: The Russian Assault on the Holy Shrine of Mashhad, April 1912

In April 1912, Russian troops bombed Astan-e Qods Razavi, the holy shrine of the eighth Shi`i Imam in Mashhad, while pursuing Iranian anti-imperialists taking refuge (bast) there. Over the course of the ensuing weeks, the Russians detained and terrorized suspected anti-imperialists leading to a popular outcry. The Russian bombing of the shrine was one among several striking events in the aftermath of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), which saw foreign intervention and occupation, and the reassertion of local and provincial forces in reaction.
At the time, this incident received little international media coverage for being overshadowed by the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14-15. Yet it was of great significance, locally, for the sacrilege perpetrated against a sacred site as well as the loss of life and the damage done to the shrine; as well as on the national Iranian stage, where it represented humiliation inflicted by an imperialist power which seemingly was able to act in Iran with impunity. It thus deepened the hatred of Russia and Russians among Iranians, who expressed this sentiment in an outpouring of poetry and folk tales. Yet, dependent on Russia, the Iranian government, such as it existed, was hardly in a position to react to the outrage in a more vigorous manner.
My paper seeks to establish the place of the incident in the history and the collective memory of early-twentieth-century Iran. To do so, it will first discuss the wider geopolitical context of the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution. Using an array of sources, Persian, English, and Russian—some of them locally written reports following the events on a day-to-day basis—it will next narrate the sequence of events culminating in the military assault on the shrine. The main conclusion of the paper is that, while the shrine was a haven for anti-imperialist forces, the Russians reacted to their provocations with excessive force, and deliberately caused tensions to escalate so as to be able to strike terror in the hearts of those who resisted their intrusive policies in Iran.