Sunday, June 20, 2010

Window on Eurasia: The Brief but Instructive Story of the Soviet Persian Republic Recalled

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 20 – The unexpected rise and the rapid fall of the Soviet Persian Republic in the early 1920s highlights the complexities of ethnic and political relations in northern Iran and provides a clear example of the Realpolitik approach Moscow has adopted since in its dealings with its southern neighbor.
In an article in the current issue of “Nezavisimoye voennoye obozreniye,” Moscow historian Vladimir Leshchenko describes what he calls “the bright and forgotten victory of the Red Army and the bitter defeat of Soviet politicians” in the northern regions of Iran in1920-1921 (
On May 18, 1920, a small detachment of the Red Army attacked the Persian city of Enzeli, which was under the control of the British navy and some 3,000 to 5,000 White Russian soldiers from the army of General Anton Denikin. Both the British and the anti-communist Russians fled without giving much of a fight, and Soviet forces captured an enormous prize.
The pro-Moscow troops seized ten cruisers, four cutters, airplanes, military equipment and ammunition, gold, silver, and other “trophies.” Among them was the capture of British Commodore Frazier who “by an irony of fate,” Leshchenko notes, later served as the admiral in command of Allies convoys to Murmansk during World War II.
The capture of Enzeli opened what the Moscow military historian says is “still one of the least well-known but very interesting histories in which sat together the ancient affairs of the East and the young Bolshevik forces, the adventurism of former tsarist officers and the cynical calculations of the revolutionaries in the Kremlin, as well as much else.”
At the time of these events, Leshchenko points out, Iran was “expressed in contemporary language, a classical ’non-functioning state.’” The central apparatus did not have control, “and in the forests and mountains operated bands of various sizes. In the North, these were called the Jengeli, or “forest fighters” and were led by Sheikh Muhammed Hiabani.
One of the most important partisan commanders was Mirza Kuchek-Khan, and it was he whom the Bolshevik commanders on the scene, Fedor Raskolnikov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze decided to rely on. To that end, they proclaimed the creation of the Gilan Republic, which was also known as the Soviet Republic of Gilan under Kuchek-Khan.
This entity created a Persian Army which initially had striking success because whenever its forces appeared, those of the shah “simply ran away.” As a result, to the Bolsheviks, “it seemed that one more leap and over Tehran would fly the red banner.” There didn’t appear to be any real obstacles.
Such a “Red Iran” could either be incorporated in the Soviet state much as Bukhara and Kokand had been in Central Asia, or they could be left as Soviet satellites and incorporated much later as was the case with Tuva which was annexed “only in1944.” But that was not to be because of Moscow’s Realpolitik calculations regarding Britain.
British officials made it clear that Moscow would have to give up any idea of a Persian Soviet Republic if it hoped for “the normalization of relations” with London. And although Bolsheviks on the scene pressed Moscow for more assistance and support, “the Politburo of the Central Committee decisively rejected [their pleas].”
For a time, the pro-Soviet forces in Northern Iran has success after success, but after it became clear where Moscow was heading – ties with the West were more important to Lenin than advancing the revolution in Iran – the tide turned, and the Gilan Republic army retreated just as quickly as it had advanced.
In February 1921, the Soviet government signed a treaty with Iran and agreed to the gradual withdrawal of the Red Army personnel, and then in March of that year Moscow reached an agreement with England, “one of the points of which was a promise by Moscow ‘to refrain from any attempt” at mobilizing Asian peoples against the British.
But even those developments “did not lead to the immediate collapse of the Gilan Republic.” It received support from Kurdish groups and the Iranian communist party and was backed by some Bolsheviks as well. Nonetheless the die was cast, and the attempt to create a Red Iran was put off The Gilan adventure ended.
Stalin resumed his effort to control Northern Iran in during World War II with the proclamation of the Southern Azerbaijan and Kurdish Republics. “And again,” Leshchenko writes, “we were forced to withdraw, subordinating ourselves to the demands of London and Washington which were strengthened by the monopoly of the West on the atomic bomb.”
Moreover the Moscow historian says, “there are reports that after ‘the Islamic Revolution’ in Tehran and the destruction of the Soviet embassy in December 1979, [officials in the Soviet] General Staff began to outline plans for a broad scale strike at Iran.” But those plans were never realized because “the USSR already was conducting another war – in Afghanistan.”
“But now,” Leshchenko concludes, “in the Iranian press there are quite serious discussions about the prospects for the future participation of Iranian peacekeepers in the resolution of the situation on the territory of a disintegrating Russia,” a dramatic reversal of fortune from the times of the Gilan Republic.

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