Exploring the Russian Refugee Diaspora in Iran, 1930-1955
Updated: Jun 21
Father Alexander (Zarkasheev), current priest of the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas conducting prayers in the Russian section of the Doulab Christian Cemetery in Tehran in 2019 (Personal Collection).
In 1930 Rosita Forbes, a British explorer, travel writer and correspondent, was visiting Mashhad in the Khorasan region of north-east Iran, near the border with Soviet Turkmenistan.[i] While there she noted the presence of many Soviet refugees. These were mostly members of nomadic Turkmen tribes, but she also observed that some refugees were from `European Russia’. She reported that two groups of the latter included: `three women, two ex-officers, two Red Army deserters, one Greek Orthodox clergyman, a railway linesman, several factory employees, engineers, and motor drivers, three students from Petrograd who failed to escape by the guarded Northern frontiers, [and] some farmers and peasants.’ They told her that they had all decided to leave Russia because of the 'difficulty of obtaining food' and the 'lack of opportunity for personal advancement' offered by the Soviet regime.[ii] These people were part of a second wave of Russian refugees from the Soviet Union in the wake of De-kulakisation (the forcible dispossession by the Soviet authorities of wealthier peasants and private traders of their farms and businesses) and Collectivisation in the 1920s, a migration much less well-known than the one following the 1917 Revolution and Civil War.[iii]
For my PhD dissertation I am researching the Russian refugees who fled to Iran in the late 1920s and early 1930s and then emigrated in the early 1950s. This topic poses an interesting research challenge, straddling as it does the peoples’ Russian and Soviet origins, their twenty or so years in Iran, and then their second displacement with their emigration to countries in the West in the early 1950s. My research draws on the oral testimonies of families who emigrated and a range of archival sources from Australia, the United States, Iran and Russia.[iv] These people had remained in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, until the twin terrors of De-kulakisation and Collectivisation finally forced them to flee their homeland. In Persia (as it was known until 1935), they joined some remnants of the earlier pre- and post-Revolutionary and Civil War Russian presence: mostly White army officers stranded there after fighting against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War and a few businessmen and Russian government employees who remained in Persia after the Bolshevik takeover, either by necessity or by choice.
Who were the `former people’ or `kulaks’ in this new wave of dispossessed people? They were mostly farmers, mechanics, other tradesmen and traders, as well as religious dissenters, including Molokans.[v] There were also some professionals including architects and engineers. While undoubtedly the majority of those crossing the Iranian border from the Soviet Union were probably the tribal peoples on either side of the Caspian, observers noted that there were also thousands of White Russsians. Ethnically, as well as Russians, they included Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeris, Turkmen, Volga Germans and some other Soviet minorities. Some came from cities and towns along the Volga, others from Ukraine, Voronezh, Tambov region, Kuban, the Caucasus, Rostov and towns along the Ural River valley. Some had even come from as far as St. Petersburg, having found the USSR’s northern borders too well policed. Others had been in labour camps or special settlements in Central Asia. They crossed the Iranian border either near Ashkhabad in the province of Khorasan on the Eastern side of the Caspian, or from Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Western side, wherever the border was most permeable. They were helped by local guides, traders, smugglers, and even on occasion by Soviet officials prepared to turn a blind eye.
The Diatlov family in Mashhad, Iran, shortly after crossing the border from Soviet Turkmenistan as refugees in 1932 (Personal Collection).
The refugees' reception in Iran appears to have been mixed. On the one hand, there seems to have been some sympathy for these refugees from Communism, who tended to be monarchists and had practical skills useful for the modernising agenda of Reza Shah’s Pahlavi regime. On the other hand, the Iranian authorities feared Soviet spies and infiltrators. The sensational revelations of the Soviet defector, Georges Agabekov, in 1931 of the extensive scale of OGPU operations in Iran and Afghanistan in the 1920s did nothing to allay the nerves of the Iranian authorities and indeed some refugees were quickly returned to Soviet territory.[vi]
Initially the refugees were restricted to rural villages and required to report to police on a weekly basis. As stateless refugees, they were not allowed to have government jobs or own property and businesses. Periodic sweeps were made of larger cities to relocate them to rural areas to work on infrastructure projects such as road and railway building. In the course of the 1930s, some managed to work their way to the larger cities, especially Tehran. Others, for example some Molokans, were allowed to establish farming communities in the northern Gorgan Province bordering the Caspian.[vii]
By 1940, the community in Tehran had become large and confident enough to embark upon the process of building an Orthodox Church, the Church of St Nicholas. It was the first Russian Church there since the original churches had been closed by the Soviet Government in 1921 and it opened in time for the Easter services in 1945.[viii]
St Nicholas Church, Tehran in the late 1940s
(Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) Synod Archives, New York, Iran, Box II)
With the Soviet and British occupation of Iran from August 1941, the lives of the refugees became much more complicated. Initially, many fled south to the British zone of occupation and former White officers disappeared in the Soviet Occupation Zone and Tehran. But there does not seem to have been a wholesale roundup, as occurred, for example, after the Soviet occupation of Manchuria in 1945. In fact, during the occupation, the Iranian government restrictions eased and refugees could move around more freely for work and family reasons.[ix] In addition, the establishment of the Persian Corridor (the use of and upgrading of the Iranian road and rail transport network, to deliver Lend Lease military and other aid to Russia) provided significant opportunities for skilled Russian-speaking refugees. A number ran mechanical workshops to service the road and rail transport using the supply routes. Others acted as freight convoy guides or were employed in road building. Some refugee teenagers did their apprenticeships in the mechanical workshops.
By the time the Allies finally left Iran in mid-1946, the circumstances of the Russian community had become very difficult. Iran’s economy was in tatters and employment had dried up. There was growing political instability with frequent changes of ministries. Riots and assassinations resulted from the jockeying for power between democratic, religious, royalist and military parties. With the growth of Cold War tensions, the threat of Soviet invasion also remained. Accordingly, most ex-Soviet Russians (and Armenians too) became increasingly determined to emigrate as the 1940s drew to a close.
With tensions mounting due to the ongoing battle over oil nationalisation with Britain, in February 1951 the Iranian Government passed legislation to try to push out Western foreigners by threatening them with exile to islands in the Persian Gulf or even, in the case of the Russians, return to the Soviet Union unless they left of their own accord or became naturalised. Subsequently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States-based Tolstoy Foundation worked together to help them escape to Australia, America and some countries in South America. A small number returned voluntarily to the USSR.[x]
The Andropov family's farewell before they embarked the train from Tehran to the port of Khorramshahr at the start of their journey to Australia in early 1950 (Personal Collection).
Other Russian families, particularly those who had become naturalised, remained in Iran until the 1979 Islamic Revolution when they too decided it was time to leave. Now there are very few Russians left in Iran, but the Russian community is remembered both there and by their many descendants abroad.[xi]
Marcus James is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Central Asia and the Middle East) at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is researching the Russian refugee colony that developed in Iran between the two World Wars and then emigrated to Australia and the United States, among other countries, in the 1950s. His other research interests include the work of Russian refugee relief agencies in Europe and the Middle East after WWII and the experience of the Finno-Ugric Erzya people in modern Russia – he has Erzya ancestry himself.
[i] Dorothy Middleton, "(Joan) Rosita Forbes" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004). [ii] Rosita Forbes, Conflict: Angora to Afghanistan (London: Cassell and Co., 1931) 161-163 [iii] But see the paper by Touraj Atabaki and Denis V. Volkov, `Flying away from the Bolshevik winter: Soviet refugees across the Southern borders (1917-1930), Journal of Refugee Studies (March 2020) 1-24. [iv] See the overview in Marcus James, `Mechanics Fleeing Communism: Russian Refugees in Iran and their Resettlement in Australia, 1930-1955', in Д.С. Панарина (эд) восточные Ветви Российской Диаспоры. Том 2. Свозь Века и Страны (Ин-Т Востоковедения РАН.-М.: ИВ РАН, 2020) 189-220. Available open access here. [v] The Molokans, literally `milk drinkers', were a dissenting Orthodox sect which had already been forced to the periphery of the Tsarist Empire. They were noted for their industriousness and productive farms. [vi] Georges Agabekov, OGPU: The Russian Secret Terror, translated from French by Henry W. Blum (New York: Brentanos, 1931). [vii] James, `Mechanics Fleeing Communism’, 201-202; Shahla Azari, `Migration of Soviet Citizens to Iran (1917-1937) Ganjineh-ye Asnad ,Volume 9 (1993) 2-29 (in Farsi, translated by Negaar Ilghami). [viii] On the building of the new church in Tehran see Igumen Father Alexander Zarkeshev, Русская православная церковь в Персии – Иране (1597-2001) (Санкт-Петербург, 2002) 99-107. [ix] As noted in the memoirs of Manucher and Roxane Farmanfarmaian, Blood and Oil: Inside the Shah’s Iran (New York and Toronto: Random House 1997) 140-141; and Alexander Malakhoff, Growing up in Iran (Bloomington: Author House, 2009) 106-07. [x] James ‘Mechanics Fleeing Communism’ 208-214. [xi] On the remaining presence of Russians in Tehran see: Milena Faustova, `Russian Orthodoxy in Iran’, Voice of Russia, March 9, 2012. URL: www.johnsanidopolous.com/2012/03/russian-orthodoxy-in-iran.htlm (accessed on: 23.01.2019)