The Gilan Soviet Republic and Azadistan in Iranian Azerbaijan (1917-1921)

A study in delinking

Younes Parsa Benab



In the process of the struggle for economic and political independence, the contemporary socio-political history of any “Third World” country appears confronted by two logically interrelated phenomena. The first is the attempt by the global system of capital (imperialism) to achieve socio-economic ascendancy (hegemony) over that country, albeit in the scheme of great power rivalry. The second phenomenon is the national liberation movement which grows out of combating this alien challenge.

An historical and critical examination of two authentic liberation movements - the Soviet Republic of Gilan and Azadistan in Iranian Azerbaijan – in the context of Anglo-Soviet “power politics” in the Middle East, during the 1917-1921 period, can provide a case study of a “delinking” from the global system of capital, perhaps the first such effort in the history of modern conflicts in “Third World” countries.


Until the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Iran had for over a century been involved in Anglo-Russian “power politics” in Asia. Subjected to Czarist territorial expansion and British economic domination, she had been progressively transformed from a viable, independent and cohesive sovereign entity into a chaotic and dependent Asian “semi-colony”. While observing the “integrity” and “sovereignty” of Iran in their mutual dealings, Russia and Britain had, through their “entente”, designed counterrevolutionary tactics against the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 by dividing Iran into zones of Russian and British “spheres of influence” in 1907. They not only opposed the progressive programmes of the reform-minded personalities but had also effectively and militarily nipped the blooming of any democratic upsurge in Iran with the object of preventing the further spread of constitutional ideas in Asia during the 1907-1917 period.

The fall of Czarism and the Bolshevik victory brought the temporary 1907-1917 “entente” to an end, and the two powers reverted to their traditional competition. In fact, the pre-1907 Anglo-Russian rivalry for ascendancy in Iran was reborn within the new context of “socialist-capitalist” antagonism. The expansionist policies of Czarist Russia, which had long conflicted with British interests in Iran, were now transformed, reinforces and goaded by the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist teachings.

It is against this historical background, as well as its modern context, that the two cases of Iranian attempts to “delink” from the oppressive world system of capital in the years 1917-1921 will be reappraised. 


The context of Anglo-Soviet rivalry in Iran

The revolutionary and turbulent situation in Iran during the 1917-1921 period invited the Bolshevik Government “to press home its advantage” in Iran. The principal Bolshevik strategy in the Middle East. Appeared from the outset to take a dual form as a struggle for promoting the revolutionary cause in forms “adapted” to the socio-economic conditions in the Middle East and as a struggle against the British presence. In Iran, as elsewhere in Asia, the national and international interests of Soviet Russia shaded into each other, and the distinction between them proved difficult to disentangle. To Lenin and his associates, revolution in Iran was necessary because Iran was a “gateway” into Indian civilisation, which was to serve as a “vanguard of revolution” in Asia. But apart from this ideological consideration for establishing “socialism” in Iran, the Bolsheviks also believed that their major efforts should be channelled in the direction of weakening and finally ousting British power.

The British occupation of northern Iran during the First World War, so long as it was aimed at maintaining the Anglo-Russian accord of 1907 and at preventing Iran from being drawn into the “orbit of German diplomacy” gave rise to no political difficulties with Russia. [1] But after the Bolshevik Revolution a dramatic renewal of the former rivalry between Russia and Great Britain took place. No longer did the British and Russians act in concert and, in a way, the powers reverted to their old competition in Iran. The Bolshevik seizure of power created a far-reaching transformation in the character of power-politics.” The expansionist policies of Czarist Russia, which had long threatened the British interest in Iran as a buffer for the defence of India, were now reinforced by the revolutionary tenets of Bolshevik ideology. The radical change in the balance of power brought the temporary Anglo-Russian “entente” to an end, and the pre-1917 “power-politics” reappeared within the new context of “socialist-capitalist” rivalry.

The Bolshevik Revolution created a vacuum in Iran which the British could fill. But due to internal factors in England caused by the War, the British government was faced with a division of counsel. On the one hand, the pressure for demobilisation was strong, and military operations were subject to the keen scrutiny of Parliament and of public opinion. The War Office was disinclined to accept lasting commitments in northern Iran, which lay beyond the traditional British sphere; and this tendency corresponded with prime minister Lloyd George’s desire to avoid direct military action against Soviet  Russia. On the other hand, the Foreign Office, now controlled by Curzon, sought to profit from the impotence of Russia by establishing a veiled form of British protectorate over the whole of Iran in order to combat the spread of Bolshevism. [2]

The latter policy line finally won out, causing Great Britain to divert a part of the vast resources released by the Armistice to the launching of a campaign against the Bolshevik challenge. Throughout the period from 1918 to 1920, the British permitted officers of Denikin and other “White” Russian generals to use Iran as a base from which to wage their wars against Soviet Russia [3]. Apart from supplies furnished to anti-Bolshevik Russians, the British troops, under the leadership of Dunsterville, moved north through Iran and, with the aid of Russian White Guards, occupied the valuable oil provinces of the Caucasus [4]. These actions by the British forces could hardly fail to excite alarm among the Bolsheviks in Russia. Being militarily weak and encircled by nearly hostile and pro-British countries, the Bolsheviks soon found themselves committed to a general offensive aimed at diminishing British prestige and in Iran. For the fulfilment of this basic aim, the Soviet leaders increased their support for the Communist Party of Iran, which in turn aided the national liberation movements of Gilan and Azerbaijan during the 1918-1921 period.

It is instructive to note that, despite the various claims of pro-British sources, the rise of national liberation movements in Gilan and Azerbaijan were nor by-products of Soviet “machinations” and Bolshevik “conspiracy”. They were, as will become apparent, the direct ramification of the dependent and corrupt policies of the Iranian ruling class, led by prime minister Vusuq al-Dowleh who under the banner of the “Bolshevik threat” and “fear of communism” capitulated and accepted the domination of Iran by Great Britain. Detailed study of the official and non-official documents clearly indicate that during the 1918-1919 period, although the Russian troops had been withdrawn from Iran, and the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 had been denounced, Vusuq al-Dowleh’s government had already tied the destiny of Iran to Great Britain by engaging in secret negotiations throughout they summer of 1919 for the conclusion of an Anglo-Persian alliance. Prime minister Vusuq al-Dowleh and his conservative allies believed that Iran’s deliverance from territorial disintegration and communism depended on active support for the British “containment” policy against the spread of Bolshevism in Iran [5]. In fact Lord Curzon’s plan of “containing” Bolshevik “expansion” seemed a very viable alternative to Vusuq al-Dowleh and his associates. Alarmed by the Bolshevik activities in Iran and the rise of socialist republics in the Caucasian provinces, Vusuq al-Dowleh saw fit to make an alliance with Lord Curzon’s England.


Lord Curzon’s plan of creating a chain of pro-British states stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pamirs seemed to find reliable allies in Iran. “The weakest and most vital link” of this chain in Curzon’s view was Iran [6]. Consequently he regarded a policy of unrestrained evacuation of Iran as “immoral, feeble and disastrous” [7]. To avoid such a “disaster”, Great Britain sought to establish a close British “alliance” with Iran; and this ambition found expression in the Anglo-Persian Agreement of August 9, 1919. The conclusion of this treaty brought about far-reaching consequences for Britain and a significant shift in Soviet policy towards Iran.

The Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 contained a preamble and six articles. A brief review of this agreement explains why Iranians from all walks of life opposed its implementation.  

The experience of the Anglo-Persian Agreement was a profoundly shocking event for Iranian democrats and constitutionalists. In retrospect, it appears that the protest movement of August 1919 – May 1920 against the Agreement marked a significant transition from thought to action. The anti-British democrats not only denounced the Agreement, but in a manner more significant that before defied Iran’s parliamentarism and its central government. The immediate manifestations of this national crisis were the revolts of the national liberation forces in Gilan and Azerbaijan. These forces took the law into their own hands, vowed to fight against the British domination in Iran, and advocated friendly relations with Bolshevik Russia.

To the Soviets, the rise of these rebellions in strategically located Gilan and Azerbaijan was welcome news. As examined later, Soviet policy was concerned with the task of using any means to diminish and ultimately eliminate British influence. Once efforts to establish diplomatic relations failed due to prime minister Vusuq al-Dowleh’s adamant refusal, the Soviets adopted a course of outright assistance to the rebels in Gilan and Azerbaijan.

The political significance of this shift in Soviet policy stemmed from the fact that these revolutionary happenings were the first fully-fledged anti-British movements in Asia which provided an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to apply the guidelines on “national liberation movements” to combat the British presence in a strategic area. It is to the Gilan movement that we now turn. The Azerbaijan episode will be discussed in the following issue of iran bulletin – Middle East Forum.


The Soviet republic of Gilan

The rise and development of the Gilan movement dominated every aspect of the Anglo-Soviet rivalry in Iran during the 1917-1921 period. Here an attempt will be made to put this significant event into its proper perspective by reappraising the political background of the Jangali Movement out of which the Soviet Republic of Gilan was born.

The Jangali movement had its origins in the revolutionary happenings connected with the Russian (Czarist) occupation of northern Iran in the 1912-1915 period [8]. Those who had participated in the Iranian Constitutions Revolution (1906-1909) later on organised partisan groups to resist the Czarist occupation of Gilan [9].

Mirza Kuchek Khan, who alter assumed the leadership of this forest-based guerrilla movement, had participated in the 1906-9 revolution and had marched with the Constitutionalists on Tehran in 1909 [10]. Though intensely Islamic, nationalistic and anti-foreign [11], Kuchek Khan was regarded as a person of honesty and integrity not only by his compatriots [12], but even by many Americans and British in Iran [13]. In 1912, Kuchek Khan, aided by two leader sof the Turkish pan-Islamic movement, became one of the founders of the Ettehad-e-Islam (unity of Islam) Committee in Iran [14]. After the outbreak of the First World War, the democratic members deserted the Committee and Kuchek returned to Gilan [15]. Knowing the economic plight and social grievances of his people in Gilan, in 1915 Kuchek Khan, Ehsanullah khan and other nationalist and progressive leaders [16] met in Tehran to draw up a program of socio-economic reform for Iran. By drawing this reform program Kuchek Khan re-established the Ettehade-e-Islam Committee with the dual objective of internal reform and emancipation from foreign domination [17]. From February 1915 onward the Committee published Bamdad-i Roshan (the bright morning) under the editorship of Mirza Mohammad Ali Khorasani, reflecting its politico-religious positions vis-à-vis the major domestic and international events [18].

After the Russian Revolution of February 1917 and the consequent disintegration of the Russian army in Iran, the Jangali movement, under the leadership of Kuchek Khan and his associates, began to develop rapidly [19].

In the summer of 1917, the rebels appeared near Rasht all armed with rifles and clad in homespun uniforms [20]. During the autumn of 1917 they took over administrative and governing functions in Gilan and penetrated into neighbouring province of Mazandaran [21].

After levying heavy taxes on the wealthy landlords and frequently confiscating the properties of absentee landlords, they launched their campaigns against the British, who had just dispatched their troops to northern Iran following the October Revolution in Russia. A real guerrilla-type insurgency was on by the beginning of 1918 [22].

When in February 1918 the British arrested Prince Suleiman Mirza, a democrat who had been implicated in the anti-British activities during the 1915-1916 period, the Jangalis protested to the Tehran government and demanded his release as well as the end of foreign military occupation in Gilan [24]. The inability of the central government to carry out their demand led the Jangalis to arrest a number of Britons and hold them as hostages [25]. The guerrillas then moved to block the path of the British expeditionary force under the command of Dunsterville to Baku and thence to Tiflis (Tblisi, August 1918) [26]. After some resistance by the Jangalis against the mission [27], Dunsterville offered a peace treaty which was accepted by the Jangalis. This treaty, which was signed on August 12, 1918, provided for British recognition of Kuchek Khan’s Ettehad-e-Islam Committee’s authority in Gilan and, in return, an agreement by Kuchek Khan to suspend hostilities against the British [28].

A major consideration which may have played a role in Kuchek Khan’s decision to make peace with Dunsterville was the fact that the nationalist government of Samsam al-Saltaneh had fallen only a few days before the agreement was signed. The cabinet of Samsam al-Saltaneh had been forced out of office through British pressure in early August 1918 in favour of a government headed by the pro-British Vosuq al-Dowleh. The Jangalis may have felt that only by preserving their authority in Gilan could any part of Iran remain in the hands of nationalists. From then until the summer of 1919, Kuchek Khan’s movement grew rapidly and became increasingly popular throughout Iran. But that summer marked a turning point for the movement. The very fact of continued British recognition of Kuchek’s authority in Gilan and their simultaneous support of the central government in Tehran confronted the British authorities with a contradictory situation [29].

The rise of Kuchek Khan’s popularity on the one hand, and the growing weakness of the central government in Tehran on the other, caused the British to campaign against the Jangali movement in favour of Vosuq’s regime in Tehran [30]. Once the central government had instructed Colonel Storroselski, the head of the Persian Cossack Brigade, to finish off the Jangalis [31], the British reinforced the Cossacks and backed Vosuq’s ultimatum demanding Kuchek Khan’s unconditional surrender [32]. The Jangalis after some resistance retreated into the forests [33]. During Kuchek Khan’s retreat, the central government took punitive measures against those who were suspected of having any connections with the rebels [34]. For a time the British and Tehran government believed that they had established order and finished with the Jangalis and their supporters [35]. But by the winter of 1919 the Jangalis adamant opposition to the signing of the Anglo-Persian agreement regained the support of the anti-British democrats in Tehran [36]. Kuchek Khan shared the general nationalist view that the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 made of Iran a British “protectorate” and that its negotiators, prime minister Vosuq al-Dowleh and his associates were little more than “British agents”. The upsurge of nationalist opposition to Vosuq’s pro-British policies in the urban centres encouraged Kuchek Khan to call on the peasants of Gilan to refrain from paying taxes to the central government tax collectors and to prepare for a general uprising against Vosuq al-Dowleh’s regime [37].

Meanwhile, Kuchek Khan and his closest associate, Ehsanullah Khan, decided to ask for Soviet assistance. Following this decision, Kuchek Khan, in an attapt to make contact with the Soviets, went to Lankaran, a province of Russian Azerbaijan, where he was contacted by Bolshevik activists, and a close liaison was established between him and the Bolsheviks of Russian Azerbaijan [38]. Thereafter, Kuchek Khan, back in Gilan, rallied his dispersed forces and reportedly increased the strength of his movement to approximately 6,000 armed partisans [39].

In the early part of April 1920, Kuchek Khan received a letter from the Russian Bolshevik commander in the Caucasus informing him that the Soviet forces would soon take over Baku and put and end to the Menshevik-ruled Azerbaijan Republic. The realisation of the Bolshevik program and the establishment and consolidation of Bolsheviks in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan emboldened the Bolsheviks of the Iranian ‘Adalat (Justice) Committee who, by issuing a manifesto, called upon all Iranian Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries to rise up against the central government, and imprison those who had, in one way or another, collaborated with the British occupation forces in Iran [40].

A few days later, a special representative of the Soviets was dispatched to Gilan where he informed Ehsanullah of the Soviet plan to strike at Anzeli [41].

The adoption of such a course of action by the Soviets, it should be noted here, was due to the simple fact that the government of prime minister Vosuq al-Dowleh had refused to establish even minimum normal relations with Moscow. Under such circumstances, Bolshevik Russia opted to use revolutionary agitation in Gilan in order to make the government in Tehran change its attitude towards Bolshevik Russia. From the sources that are available, it seems unlikely that the Soviets would have shifted their course of action from diplomacy to belligerency if Tehran had maintained a certain degree of independence from Britain. But, as discussed earlier, the Iranian government of Vosuq al-Dowleh had made an alliance with Britain and had agreed to British occupation of the strategically located port of Anzeli in the northern province of Gilan.

On may 18, 1920, a Soviet naval squadron, led by Commander FF Raskolinkov, landed in Anzeli [42] with the declared intention of “returning the ships that had been taken away by interventionists” and eliminating the threat of White Russian forces stationed in Gilan [43].

To be continued










1. Sepahr. Iran in the Great War. Pp70-88

2. Carr EH. The Bolshevik Revolution, vol III p 240

3. for a comprehensive treatment of the British and White Russians see WG Rosenberg, A.I. Denikin and the anti-Bolshevik movement in south Russia. Amhurst College Press, 1961.

4. Dunsterville LC, “Military mission to Nothwest Persia, 1912”. Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, vol VIII, no 2 (1922), pp 80-85.

5. Iran. August 10, 1919.

6. On Curzon’s efforts to keep Persia under British control and free of any trace of Bolshevik revolutionary ideas and influence, see Mashe Lesham, “Soviet propaganda in the Middle East”. Middle East Affairs, vol IV, no 1, January 1953.

7. Harold Nicholson. Curzon: the last phase, 1919-1925. Constable and Co, London 1934, p 132.

8. For a comprehensive account of the Russian occupation of northern Iran during 1912-1915 see Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, pp 627-79.

9. Ebrahim Fakhrai’, Sardar-I Jangal (commander of the Jungle), Teheran 1344/1965, pp39-50.

10. ibid pp 33-44

11. See for example, Carr, ibid vol III, p242; also Lenczowski, Russia and the West in Iran, p 54.

12. See Ahmad Tamami-Taleqani, Jangali-i Iran cheh boodeh? (what was the Iranian Jungle?), Tehran 1324/1945 and Hasan Tehrani-Afshari, Mirza Kuchek Khan, Tehran 1320/1941

13. For example see: Martin H Donohoe, With the Persian Expedition, Edward Arnold, London 1919, p72.

14. The other prominent leaders of the Committee were: Seyyed Mohammad Reza Mosavat, Soleyman Mirza and Seyyed Hassan Modarres. See Fakhrai’ ibid pp 18-19.

15. Fakhrai’ ibid pp 20-22.

16. The group included Dr Heshmat Taleqani, a popular physician; Kasmai’, a pro-constitutionalist journalist; and Khalou Ghorban, a Kurdish leader in Gilan and Mazandaran. See Besuy-i Ayandeh, August 5, 1952.

17. For the text and a detailed analysis of this reform platform see Fakhrai’ ibid pp 49-59.

18. Sadr-Hashemi M, Tarikh-i jaraed va majjelate-i Iran (a history of newspapers and magazines in Iran) 2 vols. Isfahan 1327-32/1948-1953, Vol II, pp 5-6.

19. See the letter of revolution Charles r Murray to Consul Paddock, Tabriz, October 17, 1917, in US National Archives, Box 10099, File 891.00/1071; also Ahmad Ahrar, Mardi az jangal (a man from the jungle), Tehran, Elmi 1346/1976, pp 58-65.

20. Ra’ad, Januaru 16, 1918.

21. Iran, March 28, 1919; alo Sykes, A history of Persia, Vol II, pp 490-493.

22. Nameh Pasi, Vol VII, no 2, October 1968, pp 10-11; also Cottam: Nationalism in Iran pp 103-104.

23. Kavek Vol III, no 26, March 15, 1918, p 2.

24. The latter demand referred to Dunsterville’s expedition which had then just arrived in the port of Anzeli [later Bandar Pahlavi]. See Ra’ad, February 21, 1918.

25. Those arrested were Captain Noel, a British intelligence officer on his way back from Baku; and Oakshott, the manager of the British bank in Rasht. See Avery, Modern Iran, p 214; also see Garhkani, The Soviet policy in Iran, pp 35-36.

26. Fearful of the thrust through the Caucasus at India as well as the fall of Baku and use of its petroleum by the Bolsheviks, Britain dispatched a military mission through Iran’s northern port of Anzeli to the Caucasus. The immediate purpose was that of  arresting Germany’s ever-increasing prestige and influence in the area. Major-General Dunsterville, the commander of this military expedition, found the occupation of the port of Anzeli necessary to carry out his plans to reach Baku, a day’s sail from Anzeli. For a detailed account of this mission and Dunsterville’s problems with Kuchek Khan’s guerrillas see LC Dunsterville: The adventures of Dunsterforce, Macmilaln and Co, London 1920; see also Kazemzadeh: The struggle for Transcaucasia p 133.

27. For details see Fakhrai’ ibid pp 112-121.

28. Iran, March 28, 1919. According to this agreement, Kuchek Khan was even seconded the right to appoint governor fro Rasht, the provincial capital of Gilan. For reference see Avery: Modern Iran, p 214. for the full text of this agreement see Ahrar ibid pp 170-1.

29. For details see Ahrar ibid pp 175-85.

30. Fakhari’ ibid pp 138-50; also Iran, March 28, 1919.

31. Iran. April 6, 1919.

32. Iran. April 6, 1919.

33. Iran. April 6, 1919.

34. Iran. November 13, 1919; 1lso Asr-i No, June 27m 1952.

35. Iran. August 1, 1919.

36. The American legation was convinced that as early as March, the Jangalis were receiving encouragement and aid from two groups in Tehran led by prominent ex-prime ministers, Mostofi al-Mamalek and Samsam al-Saltanej, who although moderates, were in complete disagreement with the signing of the Anglo-Persian Agreement. See letter of Charge d’Affaires White to Secretary Lansing, March 20, 1919, in US National Archives Box 10099, File 891.00/1083.

37. Iran, November 7, 1919.

38. Lenczowski ibid p 56; also Soviet Russia, Vol III, no 11, September 11, 1920 p 262.

39. For reference consult Fatemi: Diplomatic history of Peria, pp 219-20

40. Setareh-i Iran, February 23, 1923; also for the activites of the ‘Adalat (justice) Committee in Gilan see Chapter II pp 100-7.

41. Lenczowski, ibid p 56.

42. Kaveh. Vol IV no 43, July 17, 1920 p 10.

43. Soviet Russia, Vol III, no 17, October 23 1920, pp 393-4.