Murder, Russian Style

On June 11, 1829, Alexander Pushkin was traveling through the Caucasus, on his way to join his brother on the Russo-Turkish front, when he came across a disturbing sight:

Two oxen harnessed to a cart were descending the steep road. Some Georgians were accompanying the cart. “Where do you come from?” I asked them. “From Tehran.” “What do you have on your cart?” “Griboyed.”

Alexander Griboyedov had been murdered in Tehran by an angry mob during the storming of the Russian embassy. It happened at the end of the Russo-Persian war, when Griboyedov had been sent as the Tsar’s envoy to impose a humiliating peace treaty on the Persians. Griboyedov was a diplomat who played a modest but important role in the Russian Empire’s conquest of the Caucasus between 1818 and 1829. But Pushkin had known him since 1817, when Griboyedov had been a rising star in literary St. Petersburg. Today Griboyedov is best known for his sparkling and subversive drama Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma, 1823), which still remains, as Pushkin had predicted, the most quoted work of Russian literature in its native land. Relatively unknown in the West, Griboyedov’s extraordinary life is the subject of Laurence Kelly’s well-researched and finely written book Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran. It is a fascinating tale of imperial conflict and political intrigue with much contemporary relevance.

Alexander Griboyedov was born in 1795 to a noble family with grand connections but very little cash. At the age of eleven, he enrolled as a student in the Literature Faculty of Moscow University, where he fell into a circle of romantic liberals that included the philosopher Petr Chaadaev (later to fall afoul of the authorities for his Western views) and the future revolutionary conspirators, the Decembrists Ivan Turgenev, Sergei Trubetskoi, and Artamon Muravev. The War of 1812 crystallized their political convictions, and, having served in it as young guards officers, they returned from it in the expectation that Russia would embark on the Western path of constitutional reform. Having been in the cavalry reserves, Griboyedov went back to St. Petersburg and became a civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, joining on the same day as Pushkin (then just eighteen). The Russian Foreign Service was extravagantly overmanned (Griboyedov said that “all he did was to attend the Ministry once a month, and sleep in its padded armchairs to talk about the Trojan war”). It left him time to learn Persian, to write poetry, and to compose operas (Kelly thinks that he had studied with the Irish composer John Field, who lived in Russia at that time). He also pursued pretty ballerinas, which led to his involvement in a tragic duel, for which he was banished from the capital.

Griboyedov took a post as attaché to the first Russian mission in Tehran. His main concern was the Caucasus. Since the eighteenth century, the Russians had been seeking to extend their influence in the Caucasus at the expense of the Ottoman and Persian …

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