The Cossacks’ Triumph and Debacle, September–October 1920

  September 26, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Cossacks’ Triumph and Debacle, September–October 1920
In the summer of 1920, the Gilan rebels attacked Mazandaran, thereby causing a general panic in Tehran. This time, however, the Cossacks, under the command of their Russian commander, Colonel Starosselki, saved the day.

The Cossack victory was a great moral boost to Ahmad Shah and the Persian government. It proved that the British were not indispensable. In May the British forces evacuated Enzeli and Resht and retired to Menjil [Manjil] and Kazvin, and the Bolshevists, both foreign and native, made no really serious attempt to come on to Kazvin and Teheran.

However, in June and July they began spreading along the southern shore of the Caspian, in the province of Mazanderan, and there was great excitement for fear they intended invading Teheran by way of the extremely difficult route to the northeast.... Colonel Starosselski, the Russian Chief of the Persian Cossacks, was made a General and given full charge of the situation, evidently to the great disgust of the British, who have General Dickson here desiring and apparently still hoping to be put at the head of the Persian consolidated or uniform force.

But the present Premier is endeavoring to put him off with the excuse that nothing can be done until the Medjliss is convened. . . . He [Starosselski] is a man of considerable affability and tact, and also of considerable ability. He has been at the head of the Cossacks here for about three years, and has several times been accused of intriguing with the Shah against the British. It will be remembered that during the Spring the British demanded that the Cossack Brigade be turned over to them, but Starosselski refused to give up his command and has so far effectively resisted all efforts made against him in this connection. So it happened that the Cossacks were sent into Mazanderan, where there were so few Bolshevists that the Cossacks had a complete and easy victory—the invaders being forced to put out to sea and return to Enzeli. Starosselski himself went to Mazanderan for a few days, and upon returning after the victory was presented by the Shah with a jeweled sword and had the honorary title of Field Marshall conferred upon him.

Shortly after their victory against the rebels in Mazandaran, the Cossacks attacked Enzeli, but the attackers were devastated by the heavy naval guns there. Having earlier retreated from Enzeli, the British were fully aware of those guns and their allowing the ill-advised attack to take place indicates that it was a deliberate measure to destroy the Cossacks and discredit their Russian officers. Having failed earlier to get rid of the Russian officers, the British brought it about the hard way.

The complicity of the British is made clear by Ironside, as reported by Sabahi: “From a political point of view it would be very advantageous to us to leave Col. Starosselski to make a mess of things as it would then be more easy for me to get rid of him.” Sabahi adds that Ironside “first ordered the British advance column at Manjil not to render any help to Starosselski.” And then, inexplicably and “without being seriously attacked,” the British withdrew from Manjil. British headquarters in Baghdad was baffled at the British withdrawal on the eve of the Cossack offensive.

As for the Bolshevik threat so often proposed in books based on the British records (e.g., Sabahi), Caldwell comments: “‘The Revolutionary Red Committee of Persia,’ which formed a ‘Provisional Republican Government’ for the province of Guilan, seems to have disappeared, together with its government. Kuchik Khan, the leader of the Jangalees in that province, at first joined the foreign invaders, but later decided that it would be best to withdraw from their association. This he did, but found himself left only with some two hundred followers, and with these he has retired to the jungle.” Thus by the fall of 1920, despite the Cossack disaster at Enzeli, the Jangali movement and the “Bolshevik threat” had effectively dissipated