History Repeats Itself
By Jeremy Noble
The preface to this wonderful book tells you very succinctly what it is about: “John Tchalenko’s reconstruction of the unknown, lost life of Alexander Iyas, a military officer and consul on the borders of Persia in the years immediately before the First World War, based on surviving correspondence, reports and photographs, is a remarkable achievement. It is the story of the discovery of a long-lost relative and how a number of negatives found on the dead body of a Turkish officer killed when Russian troops retook Tabriz in early 1915, led through many vicissitudes to the piecing together of an extraordinary photographic collection. Russian, Finnish and English archives have been skillfully used to recreate as far as possible the life of that photographer and place it in the context of the conflict between Russia and Britain in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Images from the Endgame, Persia through a Russian Lens 1901–1914 is as elegantly produced as a coffee-table book, and as entertaining as an historical thriller. It is also painstakingly well-researched, scholarly, and still manages to be affectionate about its subject, Alexander Iyas. We come to know much about him, and to admire him, for his diplomacy, and above all for his photographs. How the author found out by chance that Iyas was his great-uncle is what adds to the tale.
Iyas was born in 1869 in Lovisa in Finland (at a time when Finland was a part of the Russian Empire), about halfway between Helsinki and St Petersburg. His father was a tailor (about his mother there is no information). He received a military education and joined the Lithuanian Regiment of the Tsar’s Guard in Warsaw. He had a great talent for languages, and in 1895 he took a three-year course at the Eastern Languages Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St.Petersburg. He was fluent in two Afghan languages and both spoke and wrote Persian flawlessly. He was sent first to Turkestan in 1900. He spent nearly 10 years in Turbat-I Haydari in Khorasan in north-east Persia (now Iran), ending up as Consul. In 1912 he was then appointed Consul in Soujbulak, south of Lake Urmiyeh, a mainly Kurdish town which, until 1905, had been a part of Turkey. It would be called a good, if not remarkable, career. It does show how possible it was to be upwardly mobile in the Russia of Nicholas II.
The tribal politics of Kurdestan and Central Asia which Iyas encountered (not to mention the intrigues of the Turks), will seem all too familiar to a reader of newspapers today, or anybody who watches CNN, BBC News or Russia Today. Actually, Iyas makes a much better job of describing the internecine feuding; he reports monthly about the machinations of the petty pashas and nomad tribes who would swap sides for a herd of sheep and a couple of camels. He lucidly explains to his superiors in St Petersburg the differences between Sunnis and Shi-ites, which should make this book required reading in Washington. We are in 2007, and nothing has changed since Iyas was trying to make peace between the mind-boggling num ber of inter-related tribes. Today, British troops are bogged down in Afghanistan, and American soldiers are being shot at by the descendants of the men who intrigued against the imperialists (British, Turkish and Russian) a century ago.
This is one way to read this book. The other way is to admire Iyas as a photographer. His photographs of the people and the landscape of northern Persia are what make him a man to remember. Iyas would never have described himself as anything other than an enthusiastic amateur, but he had the best equipment – a No.1 Folding Pocket Kodak camera and a No.4 Panoram, Kodak – and, above all, a wonderful eye. His photographs were not used as such in his work, and he photographed for his own enjoyment, not with any thought of publication. That is surely why there is such an artless quality about his photos, even when he takes such care to get a shot absolutely right. There is an early group portrait of himself and his Cossack guard: the men are placed in an arc convex towards the rotating camera; the result is both formal in its symmetry and informal in the relaxed poses of the men. A 1912 photo of Quarapapakh hunters poses two falconers; one looks straight at the camera, screwing up his eyes, the other has his eyes closed; it is a luminous image of stasis, the birds perched, ready at any moment to fly.
His landscapes are only sparsely populated; the vastness only emphasizes how futile it was to imagine that one could control such a region. His photographs of the tribal leaders and their turbaned thugs, armed to the teeth, show how dangerous were the men with whom Iyas was dealing. The same men who shot and beheaded him, in the assault on Mianduab in 1914.
There is nothing new about brutality in war. History repeats itself.
Images from the Endgame, Persia through a Russian Lens 1901–1914
SAQI London 2006 in association with Iran Heritage Foundation
Jeremy Noble was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is the author of A Century of Russian Ballet.