Revolution and Reform in Russia and Iran: Modernisation and Politics in Revolutionary States

By Jalilvand, David Ramin | Insight Turkey, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Revolution and Reform in Russia and Iran: Modernisation and Politics in Revolutionary States


Jalilvand, David Ramin, Insight Turkey


Revolution and Reform in Russia and Iran: Modernisation and Politics in Revolutionary States

By Ghoncheh Tazmini

New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012, 302 pages, ISBN 9781848855540.

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IN HER comparative study, Ghoncheh Tazmini investigates the Russian revolution of 1917 and the 1979 Iranian revolution to identify patterns of continuity and change, including attempts at reform. At first, both revolutions might appear entirely different. In Russia, the Tsarist monarchy was replaced by socialism, whereas in Iran political Islam prevailed. However, Tazmini convincingly shows that both revolutions had related roots: the people's opposition to Western-inspired, autocratically enforced modernization that was endorsed by the Russian Tsars and Iranian Shahs. Moreover, in Vladimir Putin and Mohammad Khatami, she argues, both countries saw reformers with a similar outlook. By adopting beneficial Western practices without 'Westernizing' their countries, Putin and Khatami overcame the "antinomies of the past."

After the introduction, chapters two, three, and four discuss the experiences of modernization in Russia and Iran under the Romanov tsars and Pahlavi shahs. Both Peter the Great (in the 18th century) and Reza Shah (in the 20th century) sought to catch-up with developed European countries. To this end, they embarked on ambitious modernization programs, which were continued by their successors. In this context, Tazmini shows that the Russian and Iranian modernization programs only partially followed the European example. While embracing outward signs of modernity such as modern industries, state-society relations remained traditionally autocratic. Tazmini rightly grasps this as "modernization without modernity" in an attempt of "modernization from above." Modernization from above is described as a "double helix" of economic modernization on the one hand and authoritarian political stagnation on the other hand. She notes, "Whilst both countries aspired to converge with the West by meeting its material and technological achievements, they ended up diverging by retaining the autocratic foundations of the ancient regimes."

Chapter five examines the people's opposition to the modernization from above, which resulted in the 1917 and 1979 revolutions. Tazmini argues that the contradiction inherent to modernization from above--economic development versus political stagnation --made people lose confidence in their respective state institutions. This provided the ground on which "ideological channels and fateful 'sparks' culminated in revolution" that replaced the Romanov and Pahlavi monarchies with communism in Russia and an Islamic Republic in Iran.

Chapter six scrutinizes the systems established by the revolution, i.e., socialism in Russia and theocracy in Iran. Tazmini stresses that Lenin and Stalin in Russia as well as Khomeini in Iran embarked on development paths that were meant to be designed decisively against Western principles, which the revolutionaries rejected.

Before the conclusion, chapter seven deals with reform in Russia and Iran. Tazmini argues that "globalization, economic integration and the information age" forced both countries to reconsider their "alternative modernities." In contrast to previous episodes, however, Vladimir Putin and Mohammad Khatami overcame "the stark antinomies of the past." Instead of continuing or fully rejecting past experiences, both presidents adopted "a more integrative approach to modernity --one that accommodated historical, national, revolutionary and local experience whilst benefiting from the accomplishments of western civilization." Tazmini conceives this as "modernization from below," which she describes as "the antithesis of 'modernization from above' by concentrating on the indigenous rather than the imported, by finding the impetus for reform from below (civil society and market forces) rather than from above, and by pushing for change through the simultaneous engagement of the future as well as the past. …

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