Imperial Russia and the Caucasus

Count Pavel Tsitsianov.

This painting once decorated the Abbas Mirza’s palace. Depicted on this huge canvas is the defeat of the Russian Trinity Infantry Regiment in the battle near Sultanabad, which took place on 13 February 1812. Persian soldiers wearing European uniforms and bearing Persian banners, on which a lion holds a sabre in its paw against a background of the rising sun.


This painting by Franz Roubaud illustrates an episode when 493 Russians for two weeks repelled attacks by a 20,000-strong Persian army. They made a “live bridge”, so that two cannons could be transported over their bodies.

Imperial Russia had not forgotten the dreams of Peter the Great: the conquest of the Caucasus, domination of Iran and the Persian Gulf with ambitions towards British India. Fathali Shah and Iran would soon be facing the might of imperial Russia, a military challenge for which the armies of the Qajars were wholly unprepared.

Iran was ruled by a series of princes in the major cities and provinces as well as tribes beholden to their leaders. The country would be stable so long as these forces acknowledged the shah’s authority, however the large degree of autonomy in the provinces did facilitate rebellion against the government or center. When Iran faced the armies of Russia, a series of rebellions broke out in the northeast (Khorasan) as well as the north (Astarabad and Mazandaran). These types of rebellions often forced the diversion of troops to provincial areas when they could otherwise have been used in critical battles against foreign armies. An example of fickle khans and the threats these posed to Qajar military activities in Khorasan as late as 1832 is provided by Hedayat’s Fihrist ol Tavareekh. Iran was to eventually lose all of the Caucasus due to a combination of Qajar mismanagement, outdated technology, and opportunistic khans who were willing to side with the Russians in hopes of increasing their personal wealth and status.

Agha Mohammad Khan’s assassination left his conquests in Georgia unconsolidated, inviting the Russians to forcibly pursue the establishment of their preferred Russo-Iranian border, as far south as the Kura River and even the Araxes River bordering Azarbaijan. There are indications that Fathali Shah did seek better relations with the Russians, especially in the earlier days of his rule. Tsar Paul was willing to accommodate Fathali Shah’s overtures and reciprocated by agreeing that Russian merchants should pay duties on goods they imported to Iran, the export of 18,000 tons of iron into Iran and that Russian warships not enter the port of Anzali arbitrarily. Despite these constructive acts of accommodation, the thorny issue of Georgia remained. No Iranian shah could conceive of ruling just a part of Iran by abandoning its other provinces, a practice which had occurred at the time of Karim Khan and Shahrokh Afshar. Fathali viewed Georgia as a prized province that had to be restored to the Iranian state. Tsar Paul I in turn was determined to treat Georgia as his protectorate, making the prospect of war all but inevitable.

The pattern of events unfolded as they had before. Fathali Shah wrote a highly threatening letter to Giorgi XII (son of Heraclius who had died in 1798), the new king of Karli-Kakheti, in the summer of 1798 ordering him to submit to his authority or face the prospect of “doubly increased subjection… Georgia will again be annihilated… Georgian people given to our wrath.” Giorgi XII sent emissaries to St. Petersburg in September 1800 in order to negotiate a new pact with Tsar Paul I (r. 1796–1801), The pact entitled Paul I to nominate himself as the tsar of Russia and Georgia, thereby considering the latter as a Russian protectorate. Giorgi also demanded that his eldest son David succeed him as king of Georgia.

Confrontation was also hastened by Russian imperialist ambitions. Andreeva has noted that “Territorial aggrandizement … would make the empire rich and … the empire could in return benefit subject peoples by introducing them to civilization and Christianity.”  Russia was a major European power, thanks to her “absorption of western technology and military skills…” as well as her participation in the Napoleonic wars and European politics. From St. Petersburg, Iran and her Caucasian possessions looked ripe for imperial conquest and economic domination.

Catherine the Great had considered Georgia as the lynchpin of Russian foreign policy to her south. From Georgia Russia could project its military power against both the Iranians and the Ottomans. The Russian navy would also benefit greatly from having access to Georgia’s western ports along the Black Sea. With ports already established in southern Russia, access to Georgian seaports would transform the Black Sea into a Russian-dominated lake. As Georgia and the Caucasus stood at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, control of this region would greatly benefit Russian commerce. Control of Georgia as well as the khanates to its east and south would allow the Russians to dominate the maritime trade of both the Black and Caspian seas. Control of the Caspian Sea would allow the Russians to extend their maritime and commercial interests into northern Iran and Central Asia.

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