Iran and Russia in the 19th and 20th Century: War, Diplomacy, Economic Relations and Culture (1)

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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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.

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The Russian Caucasus’s geographic in-between-ness as a land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean region is reflected in its history as a crossroads between empires and East and West. The Caucasus has been incorporated into the Persian, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian, and Soviet empires at different points in its history, yet it has remained peripheral to these empires. A long history of multiethnic, multireligious, and multilingual existence has disposed the region both to peace and conflict, division and unity – seemingly paradoxical trends. As a center of both cultural reception and transmission, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Caucasus has been the playground and battleground of socialist and nationalist revolutionary ideas that have permeated both Iran and Ottoman Anatolia. In that sense, the Russian-ruled Caucasus served as the glue and hinge that bound and connected three revolutions (Russian - 1905, Iranian - 1905-1911, Ottoman - 1908) together and became the nursery of revolutionary ideas.

This presentation will focus on the importance and contribution of the Caucasus to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) by exploring the Caucasus in its global, regional, and local context. Using Armenian-language biographies, memoirs, and the archival documents of the leading Armenian political party of early twentieth-century Caucasus and Iran, this talk will center on the circulation of Armenian revolutionaries and ideas. Armenian revolutionaries and intellectuals flowing between the Caucasus and Iran are ideal subjects for study for many reasons: they prepared for, collaborated in, and participated in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman revolutions; they frequently crossed imperial borders within the Caucasus and Iranian region and beyond; and, they adopted, interpreted, adapted, and took part in spreading such influential and global ideologies as socialism and constitutionalism from the Caucasus (and Europe) to Iran. They were local and regional actors with global ties to big ideas and ideologies. As such, Armenian revolutionaries and the ideas they carried become quite a fitting way to study the Russian Caucasus as a nest of revolution, giving wings to revolutionary ideas and to roving revolutionaries.

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Nikolai Markov was not merely a successful builder with European know-how in Iran, but an enthusiastic student of Islamic architecture, especially its early forms. He created an architectural style to suit the needs of early 20th century Tehran that nonetheless blended harmoniously with traditional Persian architecture. Some particularly telling examples of this are the Old Municipal Building, the prestigious Jeanne d’Arc school, and the Alborz College. Markov’s fidelity to local architecture extended to the use of traditional Persian methods of construction and materials, such as brick, stone, tile and plaster. Persians came to call the 20x20cm-sized bricks the architect was most fond of as “ajore markovi,” or “Markov’s brick.”
Nikolai Markov was born on December 28, 1882 in Tiflis, Georgia, in the Russian Empire. His father, Lev Markov, was a privy councilor from an old aristocratic Russian family. After spending time in Persia in his youth, the young Markov moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied architecture and Persian language and culture. Markov served in the Russian army during the first World War, and after the Revolution returned to Tehran to serve in the Persian Cossack Division, where he rose to the post of Chief of Staff and eventually attained the rank of “Iranian” General.
In 1921, he was demobilized and chose to remain in Tehran, where he founded his own architectural bureau that in the 1920s and 30s planned and built dozens of buildings in the Iranian capital, including the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Justice, the General Post Office, the Italian Embassy, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Saint Nicholas, the Assyrian Church on Forsat Street, and a representative office for the "Singer" sewing machine company. Markov, who was Russian Orthodox, also built several mosques, including the Fahret Dowleh and Amin Dowleh mosques.
Nikolai Markov died on July 19, 1957 and was buried in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Tehran. His son Alexei Markov, born in 1927 in Tehran, also became an architect.