Kevin Khadavi: The Ideological Significance of the Revisionist Causes of the Second Russo-Persian War (1826-1828)
The Southern Caucasus has historically been of great geopolitical significance, bordering the Ottomans on the east, the Russians on the south, and the Iranians on the north. Whichever entity controlled the Caucasus too controlled vast networks of trade and powerful military positions. As such, contestation over the territory has been rampant and somewhat routine over the last millennium. The modern ethnic, cultural, and geographic breakdown of Caucasian nations can be traced back to such military conflicts; most notably and of the greatest significance today is the Second Russo-Persian War from 1826-1828, resulting in the signing of the Treaty of Turkmanchai. This treaty, conciliatory on the part of the Iranians, ended Russia’s devastating conquest of Transcaucasia and severed control over the lands for the Qajars, shaping the region’s cultural make-up for centuries to come. For nearly nine score years, blame over the cause of the war has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Qajar leadership, who allegedly started the conflict, fueled by false British intelligence. In recent years, however, such claims have been contested, and far more nuanced explanations of the conflict have emerged. Each contention as to the cause of the 1826-1828 Russo-Persian War comes with ideological consequences, both positive and negative, to the claimed belligerents. Although a Russo-Centric model has been widely accepted by historians and laymen alike over the years, it has been increasingly apparent that such a narrative was not perpetuated merely on its factual basis but rather its ideological benefit to the Russian peoples. This paper seeks to evaluate, qualify, and disqualify the differing claims to the cause of the Second Russo-Persian War, the unique reasoning behind each proposed cause, and the present-day significance of each claim.
Russo-Persian Relations Leading Up to the War
The first major encounters between the Iranian dynasties and Russia occurred during the Safavid era. French observer Jean Chardin noted that the Persians viewed the Russians as “filthy, uncultured, and obtuse.” Such characterization led to the Persian phrase Rus-e manhus meaning ‘ominous Russia.’ “Such designations,” according to Professor Afshin Matin-asgari, “implied utter contempt, condescension and dismissal.” Nevertheless, the two empires maintained diplomatic relations initiated by Shah ‘Abbas I. During the 17th century, Russia’s power and global prestige immeasurably grew with the sweeping reforms of Peter the Great. The Russian invasion of Gilan in 1722 under Tsar Peter began what Matin-asgari calls “a long-term pattern of Russian military and mercantile presence in northern Iran.” Leading to the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1736, the Ottomans and Russians had begun seizing territory in the Caucasus in what was at the time Northern Persia. The newfound Qajar Turkish dynasty saw the Caucasus as part of a national reunification effort, while the Russians, on the other hand, began expanding their empire with what historian Muriel Atkin calls a “colonialist outlook.” For Russia, control of the Caucasus meant a complete monopoly on Persian trade and a possibility to expand into India. Furthermore, control of the Caucasus gave the Russian military a favorable position over the Ottomans to the West. The Russian Empire’s sympathy toward the Christians under Muslim rule in the Caucasus played a smaller role but a role nonetheless in their desire for full control over the region. These factors made the Caucasus, specifically the Southern Caucasus (north of the Aras river), absolutely necessary for Russia’s imperialist cause.
Caucasian Outlook on Imperialist Rule
The people of the Caucasus, unable to deny the inevitability of their conquer considering the extreme power of both Persia and Russia, in the words of Matin-asgari, “compared Iranian to Russian rule on pragmatic rather than nationalistic or religious grounds.” According to Atkin,
"The inhabitants of the disputed provinces viewed this imperial conflict with at best cautious optimism. A few rulers, such as the last two kings of Georgia and the khan of Ganjeh, believed that one or the other empire would be a valuable ally against traditional rivals. More often, Caucasian rulers did not welcome the encroachments of either empire but, since they could not alter the fact, tried instead to turn it to advantage by seeking the most favorable alliance possible. This meant the preservation of autonomy to the greatest extent permitted and favored treatment at the expense of traditional rivals."
On July 24, 1783, the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk cemented the inevitability of a Russo-Persian military encounter: the east Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti cut all ties with Persia to become a Russian protectorate. Article 1 of the Treaty exemplifies the imperialist attitude in the eyes of the Russians, mentioning Persia by name:
"Art. 1. His Serene Highness Tsar Irakli of Kartli and Kakhetia, in his name and in that of his heirs and successors, solemnly rejects becoming the vassal of any power, [and rejects] any and all dependence on Persia or any other power; and by [this treaty] declares before the face of all the world that he and his successors recognize over themselves no other Authority except the supreme power and protection of the All-Russian Throne of Her Imperial Majesty and of Her August Heirs and Successors, promising to said Throne fidelity and readiness to render aid on behalf of the State on any occasion when such aid be required from him."
Qajar Shah Agha Muhammad, angered by the Russian presence in the region, aimed to absorb the Caucasus back into his empire which resulted in the September 1795 sack of Tiflis (Tbilisi). In turn, the Russians invaded the region, leading to Agha’s second invasion into the Caucasus. This invasion culminated in Agha’s assassination in Shusha, present day Azerbaijan, in May 1797. The territories of the Caucasus had historic ties to the empires of Persia, and, according to historian Maziar Behrooz, “had Irakli submitted to the Qajar shah, he would have remained in power with much local authority.” Therefore, had the Georgians acted in line with Atkin’s contention regarding Caucasian mentality toward Russian and Iranian rule, the conflict would not have been sparked. Viewing the conflict in this light, furthermore, paints the Qajars not as the belligerents but rather as respondents to a Russian-initaited conflict. According to historian Maziar Behrooz:
"For Iran under both Aqa Muhammad Shah and his successor Fath Ali Shah (Baba Khan Jahanbani), confrontation with Russia was a defensive posture as the shah’s guarded domain of Iran was under aggressive colonialist attack. Therefore, an important aspect of this conflict was that throughout this period Russia was the initiator of [an] active policy of aggression and annexation and Iran was merely showing reaction in a defensive posture."
The First Russo-Persian War (1804-1813)
The first Russio-Persian War began in 1804 with Russia’s sack of Ganjeh. The Qizilbash army of Ganjeh, militaristically inferior on account of their lack of modernization, was defeated by the Russian army in 1813. The Treaty of Gulistan officially ended the war, giving Russia near total control over the Caucasus. Before the signing of the treaty, however, numerous attempts were made by the Russians to end the war on favorable terms. Each proposal would have ceded more land to the Russians in exchange for peace; each proposal was rejected. The Treaty of Gulistan was signed, reluctantly, by Fath Ali Shah, who was promised by British ambassador Gore Ousely that the British government would orchestrate the return of some Caucasian territories to Iran following the signing of the treaty. Despite Persia’s massive geographical losses, two khanates north of the Aras river were left to Iran, leaving Russia dissatisfied as well with the result. According to Behrooz, “Golestan was at best a temporary cease-fire line, leaving the rest of the disputed issues, especially the new border, to future negotiations.” Thus the Gulistan treaty lit a powder keg between the Qajar Turks and Russians over the Caucasus which finally burst with the outbreak of the Second Russo-Persian War. When determining the cause of this second war, the interim years between the two become of great importance.
Arguably the most important player in the Caucasus at this time was Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov, governor of Georgia and the occupied Caucasus, appointed by Tsar Alexander. Yermolov, having a very close relationship with the Tsar, was given an extremely high degree of autonomy over the Caucasus. In fact, Yermolov’s policy toward the Caucasus was oftentimes in direct contradiction to that of St. Petersburg. Acting on his own accord, Yermolov believed that full conquest of the Caucasus would bolster his political power and pursue Russia’s imperialist goals. According to Behrooz, “Perhaps the most important legacy of Yermolov was his intention from early on to prepare the ground to conquer the remaining khanates under Iranian rule and make the river Aras the border.” Yermolov would then go on to do everything in his power to provoke a full-scale conflict with Persia to conquer the Caucasus. During his rule, Yermolov brutalized the Caucasian people, particularly the Muslims of the region. As described by writer and journalist John Baddeley in 1908, “Russian legal procedure [was] forced on a people who clung with extreme tenacity to their customary law. In short, [General] Grékoff seems to have acted in strict conformity with Yermóloff's ferocious threats ‘to destroy aouls, hang hostages, and slaughter women and children.’... No impartial reader of the Russian accounts of this period...can doubt that they were cruelly oppressed.” Yermolov continued his conquest of the region and, in early 1825, ordered the occupation of the territory surrounding Lake Gokcha, undisputedly entrusted to the Qajars in the treaty of Gulistan. Yermolov’s dichotomy with St. Petersburg’s view of the Caucasus is highlighted in a letter sent from the new Tsar Nicolas I to Yermolov which “emphasiz[ed] the need to maintain peace with Iran based on the Golestan Treaty.”
The Council of Sultanieh
In June 1826, The Council of Sultanieh was convened to finalize a course of action against Russian hostilities. Although the final say was that of the Shah, advisors and lobbyists alike attended the Council in hopes of swaying his opinion. By the time of the Council, Yermolov had occupied Bash Aparan, deep in Iranian territory, and immediate action on the part of the Qajars was becoming inevitable. Besides the encroachment onto the territory, Yermolov’s brutalization of Muslims in his occupied regions was alarming to the Shah. According to Behrooz, “It was also true that by moral obligation, precedent and religious duty, the shah was expected to take action if that population was being mistreated. Fath Ali Shah Qajar was not a mere king of the guarded domain of Iran but a protector of Muslims — in this case Shi’a Muslims. If the Shi’a community was threatened with harm anywhere,...the Iranian shah was expected to react accordingly.”
Also influencing the Qajars’ decision was the struggle for power concurrently occurring in Russia. Tsar Alexander I died on December 1, 1825 and his younger brother, Nicolas I ascended to the throne. Nevertheless, there were those in Russia who instead supported the ascension of Constantine, Nicolas’ older brother, to the throne, sparking the Decembrist rebellion. Considering Persia’s history of tribal warfare, the news of the Decebrist rebellion was falsely interpreted as a full blown Civil War. As described by Lieutenant General William Monteith, who was present in Persia at the time, “Just at that period intelligence arrived of the military revolt at St. Petersburg, after the death of the Emperor Alexander: this revolt was magnified in Persia into a civil war and a disputed succession.” Thus the Qajars, assuming Russia to be in a weakened state, entered the Council in a precarious position, teetering on the edge of war. Interestingly, Britain did play a role in the Council. Chargé d'affaires of Great Britain was Sir Henry Willock. In conversation with the Fath Ali Shah, Willock urged him to compromise with the Russians rather than declare war.
For Prince Regent Abbas Mirza, the decision of war was particularly tough. On the one hand, the pro-war members of the Council accused him of indecisiveness against the Russians. The Russians, on the other hand, accused Mirza of being under the influence of the British. Mirza, initially seeking to avoid war with Russia given that the Qizilbash army of Azerbaijan was unprepared for war, did not belong to either the anti-war or pro-war factions.
Mirza, who knew the kind of man Yermolov was, decided just before arriving at the Council that war was the only option. According to Behrooz, “Abbas Mirza could not possibly have resolved border disputes with Russia, nor could he have predicted or prevented the Gokcha occupation;” and despite not having the power to declare war himself, he was deeply influential to Fath Ali Shah, making Abbas Mirza the de-facto Shah with the ability to declare war. As such, full-scare war was declared by the Shah, and Yermonov became successful in provoking an Iranian attack.
The Second Russo-Persian War (1826-1828) and Supposed Causes
The Qajars were devastated in a crushing defeat. The Qizilbash army, not yet modernized, was again overpowered by Russian forces. Despite an initial victory, partly because of Yermonov’s underestimation of the resistance he would face in the Caucasus, the Qajars conceded less than two years after the war’s beginning, and the Treaty of Turkmanchai was signed in 1828. In this treaty, Persia renegotiated its borders with Russia, ceding all the land in the Caucasus. The Aras river was assigned to be the new boundary between Russia and Persia, fulfilling Yermonov’s prophecy. Reparations were to be paid to Russia by Persia, and Russia was given full economic control of the region. When ascertaining the cause of the conflict, the Treaty of Turkmanchai is of great relevance. The treaty contained Persia’s formal apology for breaking its promises made in the Treaty of Gulistan, effectively admitting responsibility for causing the war. The analyses presented, though, show that this is simply untrue. As one historian puts it, “Blaming Iran for the outbreak of the second Russo-Iranian war is similar to blaming the victim for fighting back.”
Nevertheless, blaming the Qajars for the outbreak of the war is common. Most Russian and pro-Russian sources blame Fath Ali Shah for starting the conflict while pro-Iranian sources claim that Persia started the war solely on false British intelligence. One study claims that “The English not only encouraged Iran to start a war with Russia, but also prepared the Iranians for the conflict in every way they could including with military and financial aid,” while another states that “Fath 'Ali Shah...relied on the advice of British agents, who advised him to reconquer the territories lost to Russian Empire and pledged their support for military action.” Blaming the British, as previously shown, is not rooted in historical fact. Britain would have benefited more from the avoidance of war than from a war itself. After 1814, the British Empire committed to protect Iran against Russia, contingent on the fact that Russia started the armed conflict. If Iran was to wage war against Russia, Britain would have no obligation to defend Persia, and, as such, Britain was actually incentivized to avoid a war at all costs. In fact, it was in Britain’s best interest for the Shah to unilaterally concede to Russia in the event of a dispute; this is evidenced by Willock’s suggestion that the Shah engage in compromise and conciliation rather than combat. Yet such evidence is rarely recognized in the eyes of the Iranians. As illustrated by Historian Rudi Matthee, “Many Iranians, especially those of the older generation, continue to see perfidious British influence behind each and every negative event and development in their country. Rarely, if ever, is Russia’s historical role in Iran mentioned in the same manner and with comparable passion.” Such a position makes sense. Considering Persia’s apology in the Treaty of Turkmanchai, placing blame on the Russians would be contradictory to the Qajar dynasty’s own writings. They can, however, place blame on the British with moral impunity. In a sense, the deliberate scapegoating of the British serves to lessen the impact of the Iranian military failure in the Second Russo-Persian War. This then preserves the ideological superiority of the Iranians that exists within the Iranian psyche. Russia, on the other hand, cemented their ideological superiority during the Treaty of Turkmenchay, having the Persians admit guilt, thereby removing any and all blame, present or future, from the Russians.
Since the dawn of civilization, the ideological battle has been an important one. To have a nation’s citizens look favorably upon that nation’s past is of the utmost importance to create a strong, unified, and nationalistic body politic. As such, the course of history has seen repeated and deliberate attempts to be rewritten to make one party seem less or more favorable. Oftentimes, this revisionist history lies contradictory to the facts. Examples of such revisions can be found wherever one may look. In the United States, a tirade was launched against the true cause of Southern Secession in the Civil War, shifting from the Southern idolization of the institution of slavery to a false mask of the idolization of local governance. Again in the United States, The Vietnam War was said to have been waged to save objectors of Communism from becoming its subjects — yet those said objectors welcomed Communism with open arms. It is understandably difficult for the American South to admit its attachment to slavery or Americans as a whole admit that they waged a brutal, unnecessary, and unwinnable war. So too is this true in the lives of Iranians and Russians today: it is damaging for the Russians to believe that the decisions of their powerful government could be undermined by one rogue governor, provoking an attack by brutalizing civilians; it is equally damaging for the Iranians to believe that the admired Qajars waged a clearly unwinnable war, unprepared in every aspect, leading to the loss of the prestigious and resource-rich Southern Caucasus and the division of the historic Azerbaijani population between Iran and the Russian Empire. As a consequence, the Russians blamed the Iranians, and the Iranians blamed the British. But no country’s history is without its vices. Governments repress their people, engage in conflict, and oftentimes exercise poor judgment. The best course of action, however, is not to rewrite the vices of the past into virtues but rather to grapple with the truth, however difficult and sickening it may be, to ensure those vices never occur again.
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