100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: research, collections and events at IISH.
When the First World War came to an end, Iran was still heeling from the shake-up of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09. The country’s enlightened circles were inspired by social egalitarianism, liberalism and romantic territorial nationalism, and strove for a modern, centralised state, capable of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, and persuading economic and social development promised by the Constitutional Revolution. To the south of the Caspian Sea, in the province of Gilan, a reform-minded popular leader, Mirza Kuchik, aligned his rebellious Jangali movement against the central government. Kuchik believed the following: if he succeeded in launching regional campaigns to initiate change and reform in his province, these same reforms would gradually spread throughout the country as a whole. He was not a separatist, but aimed instead to establish a stable political power in Iran, while addressing the question of a fair division of powers between the central government and provinces.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Iran was one of the major targets for the Bolsheviks to spread their revolutionary communism beyond the fallen Tsarist Empire. They particularly looked at the neighbouring northern Iran, where the Janglai guerrillas ruled the province of Gilan. With the pretext of obstructing activities of the White Russian counterrevolutionaries in the Caspian Sea, on 18 May 1920 Soviet forces landed on the Caspian shores of Iran.
May Day celebration in Rasht, Gilan, in 1927. Touraj Atabaki private collection
Communist Party of Iran
In June 1920, Iranian Social-Democrats and Socialists from all over Iran and the southern territories of the former Tsarist Empire, congregated in the portal Caspian city of Anzali and founded the Communist Party of Iran, which unhesitatingly joined the Third Communist International (the Comintern). Later, the Jangalis, now accompanied by Iranian and Soviet communists, moved to the provincial capital Rasht. On 5 June 1920, at a mass procession with a military band and flags in the city’s main square, Kuchik Khan declared the inauguration of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran in the following words:
“A Dazzling light has been lit in Russia, but at the beginning we were so blinded by its rays that we even turned away from it. But now we have understood all the greatness of this radiant light. If this burning lamp should be extinguished in Russia, the Iranian people will not have the means to rekindle it. All the efforts of the Iranian people should therefore be directed to rekindle it. All the effort of the Iranian people should therefore be directed at an alliance with Soviet Russia. As a token of close alliance with the Russian Bolsheviks, I embrace the representative of Soviet Russia.”
In an ensuing declaration entitled the “Cry of the Oppressed Nation of Iran Voiced by the Fada’is of Jangal”, he established the Iran’s Red Revolution Committee, which was to abolish the monarchy and establish the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran.
Stamp of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran, 1920. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran existed for one year. In its first manifesto the cabinet of the republic, composed of Iranian Communists and Jangalis, set out to accomplish the following objectives:
- Civil rights for all individuals, irrespective of race and religion;
- Freedom of thought, opinion, speech, association, press, employment and travel;
- Abolition of all aristocratic titles and privileges;
- The right to retire at the age of sixty;
- Equality of sexes in civil and social rights;
- Universal suffrage and direct election;
- Free and obligatory primary education for all;
- Free and obligatory secondary education for talented children and freedom to choose one’s field of study;
- Separation of religion from political and economic matters.
However, tensions between the communist and non-communist factions within the leadership of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran soon ended with a severe dispute, which pushed the non-Communist Jangalis from the cabinet. The Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran went on to exist for a while under a communist leadership and with the support of the Soviet Union. The end came in March 1921 with the ratification of the Anglo-Soviet Trade agreement, which called on the Soviet Union to withdraw its support for the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran. Under pressure from the Iranian central government the short-lived republic caved in and was dissolved in September 1921.
Article written by Touraj Atabaki.
The Soviet Union continued to exert influence on Iranian politics throughout its existence. For more information about this remarkable episode, see: The Double Life of N.K. by Hamed Khosravi.
Touraj Atabaki is honorary fellow at the International Institute of Social History (IISH). He joined the IISH in 1995 and held the position of head Collection and Research Middle East and Central Asia.