Peasant Activism During the Soviet Occupation of Iran

By Andrew Akhlaghi
Submitted to Session P4979 (Peasants, Land, and Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Sharecroppers used the Soviet occupation of northern Iran (1941-1946) and the formation of the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan as opportunities to challenge the existing social and economic order of Iran. Existing scholarship treats the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan (1945-1946) as an important moment in Iranian and world history. The creation of a semi-independent state by the Democrat Party of Azerbaijan was a high-water mark for Azeri nationalism and leftist politics in Iran. Similarly, the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946 was a turning point in the Cold War and was mentioned by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech as proof of the Soviet Union’s expansionist intentions. Thus, the Autonomous Republic is treated as product of Soviet machinations implemented by their misguided proxies, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. This narrative largely ignores the participation of ordinary residents of Azerbaijan whose participation was critical to the initial success of the Autonomous Republic. This paper seeks to answer the question, what was the role of sharecroppers in the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan? Further, why did sharecroppers cooperate with Soviet authorities and the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan?

My research will critically engage with Iranian government documents, Iranian press accounts, American and Russian diplomatic sources, and memoirs of the period. Some of these sources have been neglected entirely, while others were examined with the assumption that sharecroppers could not have been important. Methodologically, I will embrace the tenets of the Subaltern Group and critically examine these documents to investigate the shared position and consequent common mentality of Iranian sharecroppers. Azeri speaking sharecroppers were united by their common position at (or at least near) the bottom of the social and economic order in Azerbaijan. Sharecroppers seized the opportunity presented by the collapse of government control after the Allied invasion and began to withhold the landlords’ share of the harvest. Peasants actively cooperated with the Tudeh party and Soviet authorities in order to change their economic and social position. Sharecroppers were not passive or reactive in this relationship. Rather, sharecroppers made a contribution on their own and independent of either bourgeois national or revolutionary elites. The actions of sharecroppers were not synonymous with the wishes or designs of the Soviet Union, the Tudeh party, or the Azeri Democrats. In fact, these three entities tried and failed to control the violence and political activity of sharecroppers.