Russian Travelogues and Religious-Ethnic Biases

  August 17, 2021   Read time 6 min
Russian Travelogues and Religious-Ethnic Biases
Most of the travelers demonstrate clear religious and ethnic preferences. They express a great deal of sympathy in describing such tribes as the Kurds, Turcomans and Baluchis – their “patriarchal” life, fighting abilities, independence and sense of honor.

The travelogues describe their powerful tribal leaders and the territories they control, landowning patterns and their hostile and tense relations with the Iranian government. Similar consideration is given to religious minorities, such as Zoroastrians, Christians (Armenians) and even Sunni Muslims, dwelling on their pattern of life as distinct from and superior to that of the Shi’i Muslim majority. Siding with the non-Muslim peoples represented a typical colonial reaction to the “threat of Islam” and reflected the actual policy of Russian colonial officers who were trying to secure the support of religious and ethnic minorities against the Shi’i Muslim Persian majority of Iran in order to “divide and rule.” Examples abound of similar colonial practices aimed at supporting dominated peoples against one another – most notoriously the policy of the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon after World War I. The destructive consequences of promoting regional, ethnic and religious fragmentation there played a role in the subsequent troubles that have persisted to this day.

Fortunately for the Iranians, the Russians did not have enough power in Iran to instigate serious ethnic or religious rifts. As for the travelogue authors, they assume, in a rather naïve way, that the peoples of north, northwestern and northeastern Iran, especially the non-Persians, simply favored Russians and would welcome a takeover by the just Russian emperor who would bring them peace and prosperity. This assumption was based on the weakness of the central Iranian government in some tribal areas of the northeast and northwest, the infamous corruption of local rulers, and on the respect demonstrated by some Persians and non-Persians alike towards the travelers. It is also evident from the travelogues that these expressions of loyalty were made by those who were grateful to the Russians for having rid them of the Turcoman raids. They respected and feared the strength of Russian arms, and had benefited or hoped to benefit from trade or military connections with the Russians.

One persistent theme of the travelogue authors is that all the glory of Iran lay in the remote past. At present, as most of them claimed straightforwardly or implied, Iran was weak and backward due to its religious fanaticism, corrupt and ineffective administration, outdated military and low levels of health care, education and culture. These inadequacies made Iran an easy prey for the anticipated Russian advance. Since Iranians could not rule over their country effectively, progress and development were only possible through the assistance of an advanced and benevolent empire such as Russia. This argument made the “civilizing mission” in Iran appear perfectly legitimate and even noble and served as a justification for imperial and colonial domination.

The Russian perspective on Iran is significant because of the special role Russia had played there since the time of Peter the Great. In the early eighteenth century, Russia started pursuing aggressive policies against Iran, pushing southward towards the Persian Gulf in a quest for warm-water ports. The areas that Russia annexed or tried to annex from Iran were the Caucasus, the Caspian provinces of Iran and its northern and northeastern regions. Georgia was annexed in 1801, and after two wars lost to Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century, Iran was forced to cede most of its Caucasian possessions. If we take into account the current war in Chechnya, the Russian expansion into the former Iranian territory of the Caucasus is by now more than 200 years old. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Iran lost some of its Central Asian lands to Russia, and only the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 stopped Russian colonization and occupation of northern and northeastern Iran. The authors of the travelogues actively participated in the Russian colonial enterprise in Iran and shared this experience with their readers.

Russia’s colonial activities and designs in Iran formed a part of what became known as the “Great Game,” or the struggle between Russia and Britain for dominance in the East. A significant episode in the history of colonialism, the Great Game started in the early nineteenth century and intensified in the second half when Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia began to alarm Great Britain. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia was falling behind the Western European powers and was less and less able to compete in European politics. So she tried to challenge her rivals in Asia, with Iran becoming one of the targets in this imperial competition. The combined pressure by Russia and Britain on Iran’s politics and economy was overwhelming and virtually impossible to resist, and thus had a major impact on the history of Qajar Iran.

The culminating event of the Great Game in Iran took place in 1907 when the Anglo-Russian Convention divided Iran into spheres of influence. According to this agreement, northern and central Iran became the Russian sphere, while southeastern Iran was defined as the British sphere, with the area between these two zones deemed neutral territory. An analysis of the Russian travelogues proves that a de facto division and Russian sphere of influence had existed throughout the nineteenth century and was only confirmed by the Convention of 1907. Indeed, the routes taken by Russian travelers (see Appendix 1, Map) are coextensive with what was to become the Russian sphere of influence.

The Great Game has been analyzed so far mainly from the British side, and British travelogues about Iran have played an important role in those efforts. Indeed, travelogue writing can be viewed as an additional terrain of Anglo-Russian competition. In like manner, the Russian travelogues present a unique opportunity to examine the Great Game from the Russian perspective, since most of the travelers were in the imperial military or diplomatic service and therefore were directly implementing Russian colonial policies in Iran. The detailed reports they provided on the military, diplomatic and economic aspects of the Great Game from a Russian perspective include Russian military designs in Iran; the results of military reconnaissance of northern, northeastern and northwestern Iran; undercurrents of Russian diplomacy in Iran; Russian colonization in Iran; and the development of Russian trade, including information on trade routes and specific goods, supported by statistical data. The travelers also surveyed tribal and rural areas, and nomadic areas in the north and northeast throughout the area of Russian influence. The Iranian government only nominally controlled many of these areas and the results of the reconnaissance performed by military officers who were drawing up expansionist plans for the region provide unique information about routes, population and water resources. The material is usually put into the framework of the Great Game and often Russian achievements are measured against the corresponding actions of the British. Russian players in the Great Game proudly recorded their role in the “civilizing mission” of Russia in the Orient and denounced their British rivals, since the struggle against Great Britain was perceived by the travelers as an important part of their mission.