Russian Travelogues of Qajar Persia

  August 17, 2021   Read time 4 min
Russian Travelogues of Qajar Persia
Among the travelers are military officers (who constitute the majority), diplomats and civil servants. Most came from the gentry class of modest or average means.

Many were graduates of universities or higher military institutions but only a few had special knowledge of the Middle East or the Persian language. There are also several scholars of the Middle East, scientists and writers among the travelers. Except for the authors of two insignificant accounts, one anonymous, all the authors were men. As a result of all these factors, the travelogues are a generally homogeneous collection of documents that demonstrate little chronological evolution in their authors’ views and attitudes. In most cases, finding information about the lives of the authors was hard or impossible, in particular about those who held no important positions and published one or two insignificant articles. Occasionally, cross-references by other Russian travelers have provided some information on the person in question.

The travelogues offer rich information on the various aspects of Iranian life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the realities of everyday life are among the most popular topics. Many travelogues contain vividly told and often humorous stories and anecdotes – one of the hallmarks of the genre – as well as maps, drawings and photographs of cities, views and people, including many images of women in their domestic outfits. Readers learn about family regulations, habits, customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and superstitions. Travelogues include detailed descriptions of cities, such as Tehran, Mashhad and Astarabad, streets, bazaars, poor and rich houses, palaces and shacks. However, a reflex attitude of Western superiority, complicated by the Russians’ unique sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Western Europe, distorts the image of Iran and Iranians. Often in negative or mocking context, the travelers describe the appearance of different groups of people, their clothes and the food they favor. Allegedly low morals and unattractive features of the Iranian character are usually strongly emphasized. Perceived ignorance and lack of education among different social groups, including the rulers and the aristocracy, the backwardness of health care and the absence of true artistic taste in music, dancing, painting and architecture are all presented as signs of the inferiority of the Iranians. Society as a whole and particular individuals are portrayed as corrupt and dishonest in most of the accounts.

The issue of Islam occupies a significant position in most of the travelogues. They level conventional Western stereotypes against Islam, accusing Iranians of fanaticism, on one hand, and hypocrisy on the other. The authors are usually uninterested in Muslim theology but are curious about popular Islam, the Muslim family, Shi’i rituals, and Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. They attack these aspects passionately while being fascinated by the colorful figures of dervishes and the processions during the holy month of Muharram and the religious passion plays, called ta”ziyeh. However, many travelogues preserved valuable detailed descriptions of the religious observances and traditions, especially of ta”ziyehs. Several authors even translated significant parts of ta”ziyehs and included them in their accounts.

Another subject zealously condemned is the position of women in Iran; at the same time, the travelers are secretly and perhaps subconsciously attracted by it. The theme of women is significant, since for the Westerners “Oriental” women stand for the Orient itself, which they want to see as feminine and submissive, weak and irrational, and naturally dominated by Western masculine power. The veil covering Iranian women irritates the authors because it prevents them from controlling these women, and thus, the Orient. The travelogues criticize polygamy and often make unflattering remarks about Iranian women – their lack of education, their seclusion, veiling and harem life. The Shi’i institution of temporary marriage, in which a man can marry as many women as he wants for a short period of time, is vigorously attacked by the scandalized Russian authors, many of whom do not see any difference between that type of “marriage” and prostitution. However, most of the authors blame the men for keeping their women in this state of “ignorance” and reducing them to sex toys. The position of the Iranian woman is viewed in the context of Islam, and Muslim “fanaticism” is blamed for the restrictions that make her life pitiable in the eyes of the travelers.

Military officers, in particular, and many of the civilian authors following them pay special attention to the development of the military in Iran. They observed drills and parades, visited arsenals and military camps and reported on the poor conditions of the Shah’s army, and the lack of adequate discipline, training and equipment. Some of them provide enumerations of arms and soldiers, including descriptions of military campaigns, the armories, irregular cavalry, militia, forts, and the foreign officers in the Persian service. The Cossack Brigade, founded by Russian officers in 1879 and left under their command, is one of their favorite topics. Readers learn about the brigade’s evolution, arms, training, uniforms, organization and numbers. One of the travelogues gives a detailed eyewitness account of the events of June 1908, when, led by Colonel Liakhov, the brigade played the decisive role in dissolving the Iranian parliament and putting an end to Iranian Constitutional reforms.