Dr. Elena Andreeva gained her B.A. and M.A in the Middle East studies from Moscow State University and her doctoral degree from the University of New York. She is a professor of history at Virginia Military Institute, where classes are held and lessons are taught on the history of Iran, the Middle East and Islam. Her studies focus on actions and interactions between the west and the east, the history and culture of the 19th and 20th century Iran as well as dimensions of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East and Asia. We held an interview with Dr. Andreeva regarding her research activities about the history of Iran, Russia and the impact of the WWI and WWII on the political developments inside Iran which you can read below.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Lt. Col. Elena Andreeva
Associate Professor of History, History Department, Virginia Military Institute
One of many interest areas of yours relates to the Middle East studies. What has primarily incentivized you to pursue this field?
I was a high school student in Moscow when I went through a “Persian” period reading Shahname and classical Persian poetry in Russian translation. When I applied to the college of Asian and African studies at Moscow State University, I remembered those books and chose Persian language in filling out the application. I have never regretted my choice.
As a Russian researcher, you have most definitely conducted studies on the historical relations of Iran and Russia. When do you believe has been the golden era of Iran-USSR through the history?
I have always been cautious about applying the term “golden age” since every historical period is subject to multiple interpretations. It was only prior to the 18th century that Iran and Russia treated each other as equals – though their trade and diplomatic contacts were sporadic. Following this first “golden age” Russia’s increasingly interventionist posture towards Iran peaked in the early 20th century – but by the 1990s, the two countries had created a solid basis for cooperation. During the first decade of the 21st century the relationship between Russia and Iran has fluctuated, with Russia joining international sanctions although the two governments retain an interest in improving the relationship and protecting their shared geopolitical interests.
In your works, you have written about the Iran of WWI and WWII. How much do you think the then occupation of Iran has affected the trend of democracy therein?
In addition to colonial occupation, during WWI the territory of Iran was became a battlefield. In both circumstances, occupation was a political disaster aggravated by economic difficulties. WWI was a factor contributing to the collapse of the Qajar dynasty and ascent of the Pahlavis. WWII of course led to the replacement of Reza Shah by Mohammad Reza Shah. The Pahlavi regime was clearly authoritarian and suspicious of any democratic trends.
Before the Pahlavis win the power in Iran, the country had undergone a period of constitutionalism which later caused it to experience some relative surface levels of democracy. What have been your most prominent works in this regard?
I have not dealt specifically with issues of the constitutional revolution and democracy in Iran or other Middle Eastern countries, although I consider democracy one of the most challenging issues for the region.
There have been a large number of logbooks and itineraries penned through the Qajar period. Why did you become more interested in that of Berezin, a 19th-century Russian in Iran? The book talks about the Iranian society and culture of the time. What were its most typical features on the topic?
The travelogue by Il’ia Berezin has an advantage in being written by an educated person well versed in Middle Eastern studies. His travelogue is also quite detailed and provides some valuable information about Iran in the 19th century, for example about ta’ziyeh. That is why I wrote a separate article about Berezin. Since more than 200 Russian travelogues were written about Iran in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I have written a book analyzing them. The most typical feature shared by the absolute majority of the authors, including Berezin, was looking down at the Iranians in an attempt to prove Russia’s perceived “Westerness.”
How much has the Persian literature drawn your interest to it?
At both Moscow State University and New York University, where I received my doctoral degree, my study of Iranian culture has always included a close reading of Persian literature, which I have always enjoyed.
What is the main reason for your vested interest in the works of Sadegh Hedayat?
I became interested in the works of Sadeq Hedayat during my graduate work at Moscow State University. I was researching existentialism in Persian literature — and Sadeq Hedayat was one of the authors whose works I analyzed for that purpose.
One of your works talks about the role the Russians played in the kingdom of Mohammad Ali Shah. How do you view the influence the Russians injected Iran’s then office with and its aftereffects in the country’s political trends?
I consider foreign interference in the internal affairs of an independent country detrimental by definition – and Russian pressure on the Iranian monarchs in the 19th and early 20th centuries was no exception. In spite of Russia’s claims that their efforts meant to benefit the Iranians, Russia’s policies in Iran had only one goal – to extend its imperial domination and, if possible, to annex Iran’s northern provinces
The very concept of colonialism has always been a feature of the leadership of world powers, which is also true about the Russian Empire. How much does the early-20th-century presence of the Russians in Iran relate to the continuation of its then colonialist approach?
Colonialism indeed was an important aspect of Russia’s foreign policy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even prior to the 1907 agreement with Great Britain about the spheres of influence in Iran, northern Iran de facto turned into a Russian sphere of influence. By the early 20th century, Russia’s domination in northern Iran becomes overwhelming – Russian diplomatic and military officials exercised almost unlimited authority in the northern provinces, even at times collecting taxes and supporting Russian settlements there. Vast territories in northern and northeastern Iran were occupied by Russian troops during WWI while some prominent Russian officials aspired to keep a Russian presence there after the end of the war. It was the revolution of 1917 that put an end to those designs, at least temporarily.
Has Russia’s approach toward the harboring of some of its immigrants in the Northern regions of Iran affected the ethnic formation there? What did happen to those immigrants in the end?
Some White Russians did stay behind in northern Iran. Most of them would gradually leave Iran and move to Europe. The Russian presence in northern Iran had an insignificant effect on the ethnic structure of the population.
You have participated in a research case on Iran-Russia ties with Dr. Yarshater. What was your main motivation for such cooperation?
I always enjoy cooperation with my colleagues. Beyond that, I do not comment on my colleagues.
You penned an article on the Russian orientalism in music. How much is the Russian music inspired by the Iranian genres?
The article treated Aleksandr Aliab’ev (1787-1851) who, in my opinion, was the first Russian composer to discover and collect “Oriental” melodies and to infuse elements of authentic “Oriental” music into his own music. Since he spent many years of his life in the Caucasus and western Siberia (which then was closely connected administratively and commercially with Russian Central Asia), he primarily studied the music of those regions and was greatly influenced by it. However, although Aliab’ev composed multiple “Caucasian” and “Asian” songs (including Kabardinian, Georgian, Circassian and so on), he never composed a “Persian song.” We can only speculate that, while living in the Caucasus, he got acquainted with Persian melodies in addition to Circassian, Kabardinian, Azerbaijanian and Georgian melodies. He did use the popular Persian motif of the nightingale longing for his beloved rose in his most famous song, “Lover of the rose, the nightingale.” Typically for what became known as the “Russian Oriental Renaissance,” Aliab’ev borrowed his “Oriental” motif from Western Europe. For that song, he used a Russian translation by I. Kozlov of Byron’s “Turkish Tale” from his The Bride of Abydos (1813). The same popular motif was used by many other Russian artists, including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
You have taken regular presence in different international Iranian study conferences. How much can the holding of such sessions contribute to further familiarity of other nations with Iranian culture, history and art?
I always try to take part in Iranian studies conferences, such as the bi-annual conferences of the International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS). Additionally, annual conferences of major organizations like the Middle East Studies Association of North America usually include a good number of panels dedicated to Iran. Those conferences bring together scholars of Iran from different parts of the world, including Iran, Europe, North America and Asia. The participants discuss various aspects of Iranian history, culture and art – and plan for future projects, including field trips, conference panels and publications. The exchange of ideas and publications generated by those scholarly conferences contribute to the area of Iranian studies.
What are the most significant works and researches about Iran you have in progress currently?
In collaboration with a colleague, I am currently editing articles to be published in a volume dedicated to Russians in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries. My own contribution to the volume deals with the Russian deserters in Iran in the 19th century and the reaction of the Russian government to the problem posed by them.