The Jangali Resistance (1915-21)
Mirza Kuchek Khan, the famous Sardar-e Jangal (Jungle Commander), has attracted more attention than any other personality in the history of early twentieth-century Iran. Nationalists see him as an "unyielding patriot," an "incorruptible leader," and an "indefatigable fighter" who took to the mountains of northern Iran with the burning "ambition of ridding the country" of Russian and British troops. According to this interpretation, his revolution would have succeeded but for Lenin's willingness to sacrifice Iran to reach a compromise with Britain. For local reformers, Kuchek Khan fought for regional autonomy as well as against feudal landlords and corrupt tribal chiefs. For some leftists, he was a Che Guevara, the forests of Gilan were the Sierra Maestra, his bearded followers were revolutionary peasants, and his short-lived Soviet Socialist Republic was a forerunner of revolutionary Cuba.
For Khomeinists, Kuchek Khan was a turbaned martyr who raised the banner of Islam against the West and died fighting both the monarchists and the Communists. He froze to death in the Gilan highlands because of "Communist intrigues" and because his principles would not permit him to seek asylum in the Soviet
Union. The Islamic Republic has honored him with postage stamps and posters, as well as articles, books, and full chapters in school textbooks. It has also funded a fourteen-hour television epic entitled Kuchek-e Jangal.
Even his opponents pay grudging respect to Kuchek Khan. A British officer in the military expedition sent to the Caucasus via Gilan described him as the Robin Hood of the Caspian Marches, taking from the rich to give to the poor. He also described him as endowed with "courage, personal magnetism, and great force of character." The governor of Gilan in the aftermath of the revolt praised him as a "brave" and "altruistic patriot." Meanwhile, historians in the Soviet Union have depicted him as a well-intentioned nationalist misled into killing Haydar Khan by "reactionary advisers." Kuchek Khan's admirers retort that this dramatic killing occurred either without his knowledge or as a defensive measure against a Communist plot.
The Islamic Republic's portrayal of the Jangalis is incomplete. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that Kuchek Khan was a social conservative. He fought in the constitutional movement in the entourage of a wealthy northern landlord and joined the conservative Moderate party. At times, he collaborated with the Qajars; the title of Sardar-e Jangal as well as the governorship of the Fuman district in Gilan were given to him by Ahmad Shah. At other times, he negotiated with Britain, Colonel Reza Khan, and even archconservative ministers in Tehran — though his supporters have tried to argue that he was really negotiating with more progressive members of the government. In 1919 he was even willing to support the notorious Anglo-Persian Agreement. If Kuchek Khan was a rebel, it was in the tradition of Robin Hood and other "primitive" rebels.
The Islamic Republic's portrayal also blows the Jangalis completely out of proportion. The movement — if it can be called that — was launched in 1915 with the assistance of the Central Powers. At its height in the midst of World War I, it totaled no more than 2,000 armed men, and by 1919 it was as good as dead, able to muster no more than 500 armed men. Kuchek Khan's foreign assistance dried up, and his bookkeeper absconded with
the remaining funds. His right-hand man, Dr. Heshmat (Taleqani), withdrew from politics and fell into government hands. Vossugh al-Dawleh, the pro-British premier, promptly hanged him. Kuchek Khan himself was quietly negotiating with the same premier. What revived the movement briefly in 1920 was not the controversial Anglo-Persian Agreement, as official histories claim, but the sudden arrival of the Red Army in Enzeli. The Red Army intervened not so much to help the Jangalis as to chase the White Russians and their British patrons out of the Caspian area.
The Jangali forces remained modest, and divided, even when the Red Army helped them establish the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran in Gilan. Khomeinists refer to this government simply as the "republican government." In the Soviet Socialist Republic, Kuchek Khan probably had no more than 300 armed guerrillas, many of them sons of the local gentry. Ehsanallah Khan, a militant Democrat, had about 200, most of them radical intellectuals from Tehran. Khalu Qurban, a Kurd from Kermanshah, had less than 150, all of them Kurds and Lurs from his home region. The Iranian Communist party had 300, many of them Turkish-speaking Iranians from Baku. Meanwhile, the Red Army in Gilan had over 1,000. According to Gregor Yeqikian, Kuchek Khan's trusted translator, some of the Red soldiers were Armenians from Baku who had volunteered to serve in Iran because the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbayjan had spread rumors that Muslims in Gilan were massacring Christians. Yeqikian, who was Armenian himself, categorically denied these rumors. However, relations between other ethnic groups were tense. Numerous memoirs describe how there were bad feelings between Gilanis and outsiders and between Tehranis, Kurds, and Turkish-speakers from Baku.
Although Khomeinists, nationalists, and some leftists have depicted the Jangalis as a "peasant movement," none of the many primary sources provide evidence for such a claim. The rural population may have provided money and shelter, but few fighters. This is not surprising. Kuchek Khan's main financial supporters, such as Mirza Hosayn Kasma'i, were local merchants and
landlords. Fuman, Kuchek Khan's base, was inhabited by Kurds and Taleshi villagers tied strongly to their feudal patron, who was hostile to Kuchek Khan and controlled more armed men than the Jangalis. A 1920 Red Army report concluded that there was no such thing as a "revolutionary peasantry" in Iran.
The fate of the Soviet Socialist Republic was sealed as early as the summer of 1921. Ehsanallah Khan, without consulting his colleagues, launched an ill-prepared and consequently disastrous march on Tehran. Khalu Qurban and many of Kuchek Khan's own fighters made their own peace with Reza Khan — some became his ardent henchmen. When the Red Army began to evacuate once the British agreed to withdraw from Iran, Kuchek Khan went to Enzeli to persuade the Red Army to delay the withdrawal. It is paradoxical that nationalists both denounce the Soviets for interfering in Iranian affairs and, at the same time, fault them for failing to provide Kuchek Khan with greater assistance. Presumably the Red Army should have continued to interfere until the central government had fallen.
The Islamic Republic's portrayal also simplifies Kuchek Khan's complex relationship with the Left. Kuchek Khan welcomed the October Revolution, adopted the socialist label, obtained arms from the Soviets, and welcomed the Red Army with the "Marseillaise" and the "Internationale." He also sought Lenin's support to the very end, especially against Ehsanallah Khan, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbayjan, and the Turkish-speaking Communists from Baku, whom he contemptuously referred to as "British agents," "ignoramuses," and "nonentities" masquerading as Iranian Communists. His final clash with the Left came over neither religion, the veil, nor the sanctity of the family — as claimed by the Islamic Republic — but over land reform. Haydar Khan, who took over the Iranian Communist party in October 1920 with Lenin's support, was willing to drop every radical demand for the sake of a united front with Kuchek Khan except the demand for land reform. In September 1921, only fifteen months after the establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republic in Gilan, Kuchek Khan ordered Haydar Khan's assassination. Three months later, Kuchek Khan himself froze to death in the Gilan
highlands. The only person who remained with him to the bitter end was a Russian revolutionary adventurer named Gauk. Official historians tend to ignore Gauk or refer to him only by his Persian nom de guerre, Houshang.