Thursday, 17 July 2014

King Cossack

Cossack Brigade, 1909

Astrakhan hats, swords, riding boots, long flowing coats decorated with epaulets and sashes, topped off with an impressive sprinkling of military decorations and flamboyant facial hair. Pretty much standard kit for the Czar's paramilitary heavies in Imperial Russia. From Doctor Zhivago to Fiddler on the Roof to the thuggish antics of Putin's boot boys, you think cossack and you think Russia.

Except that the doomed royal house that these particular guys served wasn't the Romanovs, but the Qajar dynasty of the Sublime State of Persia:
Loyal, disciplined, and well trained, the most effective government unit was the 8,000-man Persian Cossack Brigade. Created in 1879 and commanded by Russian officers until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, after which its command passed into Iranian hands, the brigade represented the core of the new Iranian armed forces.
I hadn't heard of the Persian Cossack Brigade until the other day when I came across a reference to Reza Shah Pahlavi, (born Reza Khan), founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and father of the last Shah of Iran, having been a former cossack, which sounded a bit weird to me. After looking it up, I discovered that the cossack thing dates back to the days of the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires were trying to incorporate the unabsorbed bits of the Middle East into their respective spheres of influence. As per Wikipedia:
At the time of the Persian Cossack Brigade's formation the Shah’s royal cavalry was described as having no training or discipline. The Qajar state at this point was very weak, lacking any professional military forces. In wars against the British the royal cavalry had been defeated, and had even seen much difficulties against Turcoman nomads. The Tsar Alexander II approved Russian military advisors travelling to Persia to fulfill the Shah’s request. The brigade was then formed in 1879 by Lieutenant-Colonel Domantovich, a Russian officer.
So, although the Shah's cossacks sound as archaic as the Varangian Guard or the Mamelukes, they belong firmly to the age of modern nation states interacting with weak or failing states - a form of power projection that's not so very different from a contemporary Great Power trying to create and beef up an Afghan National Army around a cadre of US/NATO military advisers. And the Persian Brigade of Cossacks were, in that qualified sense, the nucleus of an actual army. Despite conforming to Central Casting's idea of what well-dressed cossacks should look like, they weren't "real" cossacks:
In spite of its name the Brigade was never a genuine Cossack force. Neither did it have the status of a guard unit. Late nineteenth century photographs show that Russian style uniforms were worn, in contrast to the indigenous dress of other Persian forces at the time. The rank and file of the Brigade were always Caucasian Muhajir and Persian but until 1917 its commanders were Russian officers who were also employed in the Russian army, such as Vladimir Liakhov.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the British took over the Cossack Brigade, got rid of its Russian officers and installed British and Persian ones.* This is where Reza Khan comes in, as the the Cossack Brigade's last commanding officer and the only Persian commander in its history.

With the end of the First World War, the British Empire found itself in a new round of the Great Game, this time contending with the Red Army to draw Persia into its sphere of influence. The Qajar dynasty lost effective control of the country to the Soviets, until the Great Bear's grip was ironically broken by Reza Khan and his newly Anglicised/Persicised cossacks, who rode into Tehran and pulled off a coup d'├ętat in 1921 (turns out that unanticipated blowback from training up uncontrollable paramilitary proxy forces isn't such a new problem after all). This is where things also got a bit more Mameluke-like, with an elite military force seizing power.

By 1925 Khan had become powerful enough to push the parliament into deposing and exiling the last Qajar Shah, and to get himself proclaimed the new Shah of Persia (the name was officially changed to Iran in 1935).

Everything went swimmingly, from the British point of view, until 1941 when the British and their new Soviet allies, fearful that the oil-rich, officially neutral, Imperial State of Iran might side with, or capitulate to, the Axis, invaded and deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former cossack, in favour of his 21 year old Westernised, Swiss boarding school-educated, son, the ill-fated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

*Shortly after the Brits had set up their own proxy force, the South Persia Rifles, commanded by the splendidly-named Brigadier-General Percy Molesworth-Sykes.