The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21

Author: W. Morgan Shuster  | Date: A.D. 1911

Persia’s Loss of Liberty

A.D. 1911


As told in the preceding volume, Persia in the year 1905 began a struggle for freedom from autocratic rule. This she finally achieved in decisive fashion and set up a parliamentary government. Her career of liberty seemed fairly assured. She had against her, however, an irresistible force. England and Russia had long been encroaching upon Persian territory. Russia, in especial, had snatched away province after province in the north. Of course Persia’s revival would mean that these territorial seizures would be stopped. Hence Russia almost openly opposed each step in Persia’s progress. In 1907, Russia and England entered into an agreement by which each, without consulting Persia, recognized that the other held some sort of rights over a part of Persian territory: a "sphere of Russian influence" was thus established in the north, and of British in the southeast.

The climax to this antagonism against Persia came in 1911. The desperate Persians appealed to the United States Government to send them an honest administrator to guide them, and President Taft recommended Mr. Shuster for the task. The work of Mr. Shuster soon won him the enthusiastic confidence and devotion of the Persians themselves. But in proportion as his reforms seemed more and more to strengthen the parliamentary government and bring hope to Persia, he found himself more and more opposed by the Russian officials. Finally Russia made his mere presence in the land an excuse for sending her armies to assault the Persians. Seldom has the murderous attack of a strong country upon a weak one been so open, brazen, and void of all moral justification. Thousands of Persians were slain by the Russian troops, and many more have since been executed for "rebellion" against the Russian authorities. The parliamentary government of Persia was completely destroyed; it finally disappeared in tumult and dismay on December 24, 1911.

The country was reduced to helpless submission to the Russian armies. Mr. Shuster’s own account of the tragedy follows. He called it "The Strangling of Persia."

OF the many changing scenes during the eight months of my recent experiences in Persia, two pictures stand out in such sharp contrast as to deserve special mention.

The first is a small party of Americans, of which the writer was one, seated with their families in ancient post-chaises rumbling along the tiresome road from Enzeli, the Persian port on the Caspian Sea, toward Teheran. It was in the early days of May, 1911, and from these medieval vehicles, drawn by four ratlike ponies, in heat and dust, we gained our first physical impressions of the land where we had come to live for some years—to mend the broken finances of the descendants of Cyrus and Darius. We were fired with the ambition to succeed in our work, and, viewed through such eyes, the physical discomforts became unimportant. Hope sang loud in our hearts as the carriages crawled on through two hundred and twenty miles of alternate mountain and desert scenery.

The second picture is eight months later, almost to the day. On January 11, 1912, I stood in a circle of gloomy American and Persian friends in front of the Atabak palace where we had been living, about to step into the automobile that was to bear us back over the same road to Enzeli. The mountains behind Teheran were white with snow, the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky, there was life-tonic in the air, but none in our hearts, for our work in Persia, hardly begun, had come to a sudden end.

Between the two dates some things had happened—things that may be written down, but will probably never be undone—and the hopes of a patient, long-exploited people of reclaiming their position in the world had been stamped out ruthlessly and unjustly by the armies of a so-called Christian and civilized nation.

Prior to 1906, the masses of the Persians had suffered in comparative silence from the ever-growing tyranny and betrayal of successive despots, the last of whom, Muhammad Ali Shah, a vice-sodden monster of the most perverted type, openly avowed himself the tool of Russia. The people, finally stung to a blind desperation and exhorted by their priests, rose in the summer of 1906, and by purely passive measures—such as taking sanctuary, or bast, in large numbers in sacred places and in the grounds of the British Legation at Teheran—succeeded in obtaining from Muzaffarn’d Din Shah, the father of Muhammad Ali, a institution which he granted some six months before his death.

The pledge given in this document his son and successor swore to fulfil and then violated a dozen or more times, until the long-suffering constitutionalists, who called themselves "nationalists," finally compelled him, despite the intrigues and armed resistance of Russian agents and officers, to abdicate In favor of his young son, Sultan Ahmad Shah, the present constitutional monarch. This was In July, 1909.

It was this constitutional government, recognized as sovereign by the Powers, that had determined to set its house in order, and in practise to replace absolute monarchy with something approaching democracy. Whence the Persians, a strictly Oriental people, had derived their strange confidence In the potency of a democratic form of government to mitigate or cure their ills, no one can say. We might ask the Hindus of India, or the "Young Turks," or today the "Young Chinese" the same question. The fact is that the past ten years have witnessed a truly marvelous transformation in the ideas of Oriental peoples, and the East, in its capacity to assimilate Western theories of government, and in its willingness to fight for them against everything that tradition makes sacred, has of late years shown a phase heretofore almost unknown.

Persia has given a most perfect example of this struggle toward democracy, and, considering the odds against the nationalist element, the results accomplished have been little short of amazing.

Filled with the desire to perform its task, the Medjlis, or national parliament, had voted in the latter part of 1910 to obtain the services of five American experts to undertake the work of reorganizing Persia’s finances. They applied to the American Government, and through the good offices of our State Department, their legation at Washington was placed In communication with men who were considered suitable for the task. The Intervention of the State Department went no further than this, and the Persian Government, like the men finally selected, was told that the nomination by the American Government of suitable financial administrators Indicated a mere friendly desire to aid and was of no political significance whatsoever.

The Persians had already tried Belgian and French functionaries and had seen them rapidly become mere Russian political agents or, at best, seen them lapse into a state of dolce far niente. Poor Persia had been sold out so many times in the framing of tariffs and tax laws, in loan transactions and concessions of various kinds that the nationalist government had grown desperate and certainly most distrustful of all foreigners coming from nations within the sphere of European diplomacy. What they sought was a practical administration of their finances in the Interest of the Persian people and nation.

In this way the writer found himself in Teheran on the 12th of May last year, having agreed to serve as Treasurer-General of the Persian Empire, and to reorganize and conduct its finances.

It is difficult to describe the Persian political situation existing at that time without going too deeply into history. It is true that in a moment of temporary weakness after her defeat by Japan, Russia had signed a solemn convention with England whereby she engaged herself, as did England, to respect the independence and integrity of Persia. Later, by the stipulations of 1909, these two Powers solemnly agreed to prevent the ex-Shah, Muhammad Ali, from any political agitation against the constitutional government. But, as the world and Persia have seen, a trifle like a treaty or a convention never balks Russia when she has taken the pulse of her possible adversaries and found it weak. What is more painful to Anglo-Saxons is that the British Government has been no better nor more scrupulous of its pledges.

During the first half of July, we began to learn where some of the money was supposed to come from, and we were just beginning to control the government expenditures after a fashion when, on July 18th, late at night, the telegraph brought the news that Muhammad Ali, the ex-Shah, had landed with a small force at Gumesh-Teppeh, a small port on the Caspian, very near the Russian frontier. It was the proverbial bolt from the blue, for while rumors of such a possibility had been rife, most persons believed that Russia would not dare to violate so openly her solemn stipulation signed less than two years before.

1Reprinted in condensed form from the original narrative in Hearst’s Magazine, by permission.


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Chicago: W. Morgan Shuster, "Persia’s Loss of Liberty," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed June 16, 2024,

MLA: Shuster, W. Morgan. "Persia’s Loss of Liberty." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 16 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Shuster, WM, 'Persia’s Loss of Liberty' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 16 June 2024, from