From the Oilfield to the Battlefield: The Internationalization of Northern Iranian Revolution, 1904-1921

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Amanat, Abbas


This dissertation reconstructs the history of early twentieth-century political protest in the Iranian north. Drawing on Russian, Georgian, Iranian, and British archival documents, it demonstrates that émigré fighters and agents converged in northern Iran from the Russian and Ottoman empires, aligning with various revolutionary movements that emerged to contest European encroachment and Qajar monarchism (1794-1921). Concurrently, migrant Iranians came to participate in and even lead labor movements in the South Caucasus, contributing to a transnational space of revolution that allowed them to mobilize in coalitions extending across ideological and ethnic boundaries. This study locates the earliest instances of this mobilization in the Baku oilfields on the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), and traces their development through the First World War and eventual establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran (SSRI, 1920-1921) in the northern province of Gilan. At times, namely during the Revolution of 1905 and existence of the SSRI, various factions of the Russian socialist left functioned as the most important foreign contingent of the Iranian revolutionary coalitions. In other instances, especially from 1912 to 1917, autonomist and anti-Entente resistance fell to a broad spectrum of national liberationists and nationalists, including Ottoman-aligned pan-Islamists. Finally, socialists and national liberationists operated in union at critical junctures, particularly during the latter stages of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, and the interim between the February Revolution in Russia (1917) and the establishment of the SSRI. By probing the linkages between these episodes, this study interprets early twentieth-century northern Iranian revolutionary movements as interconnected rather than discrete developments. In particular, it seeks to question the SSRI beyond the exclusive bounds of Soviet foreign policy, affording equal weight to the social democratic underpinnings of its predecessor, the Jangal Movement of Gilan (1915-1920). This dissertation argues that the coalitions of Iranian and non-Iranian revolutionaries fractured along several axes, reflecting national and religious antagonisms, divergent political cultures, competing strategic calculations, and even personal rivalries that foreclosed possibilities for cooperation at critical moments. Although successful in some of their military challenges to European powers and the monarchical state, attempts at governance invariably brought to fore the revolutionaries’ programmatic and ideological disunion. In 1920-1921, even with the backing of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, these tensions resurfaced in the governing coalition of the SSRI, signaling not only the short-term unfeasibility of constructing socialism in the Iranian north, but also the incongruities of Russian socialism and the Gilani tradition of social democracy.

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