Alexander Griboedov

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Alexander Griboedov; portrait by Ivan Kramskoi, 1873

When Alexander Pushkin read the manuscript of Alexander Griboedov’s verse comedy Woe from Wit, he realized at once that it would be a major Russian classic and that many of its lines would become proverbs. He was right: scholars have calculated that Russians quote this work more than any other. People repeat its lines with no awareness that they have an author. As English speakers say “To err is human” without thinking of Pope’s Essay on Criticism, so Russians say “No one happy minds the clock” without considering, or expecting others to consider, its context in Griboedov’s masterpiece.

Completed in 1824, shortly before a group of Russian officers (now called the Decembrists) attempted their abortive revolt of December 14, 1825, the provocative play could not be published, let alone staged, in Griboedov’s lifetime. No matter: readers resorted to a practice that, in Soviet times, would be called samizdat (self-publishing) and copied the work by hand. As many as 40,000 copies were in circulation by 1830, and the work was known and quoted even in distant provinces. When Griboedov’s close friend, the reactionary Faddei Bulgarin—a writer and publisher who was also an informer for the tsar’s secret police—managed to publish an excerpt of the play, it became possible to discuss it openly long before the full text appeared in the 1860s. Since then it has been the most widely performed play in the Russian repertoire.

Both Woe from Wit and its author have fascinated critics and ordinary readers. Griboedov’s contemporaries found his personality irresistible. “His melancholy character, his caustic wit, his good nature, his very weaknesses and vices…everything in him was unusually appealing,” wrote Pushkin. An expert pianist, a composer who impressed Mikhail Glinka, and a prodigious scholar, Griboedov was considered exceptional even when he had only written minor dramas and vaudevilles.

He entered Moscow University at the astonishingly precocious age of eleven, finished his degree in literature in two years, then promptly entered the faculty of law, from which he graduated at age fifteen. His plan to get yet another degree, in science and mathematics, was derailed by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Griboedov enlisted but never saw combat. By this time he could read Latin and Greek and was fluent in French, German, Italian, and English. He later learned Arabic and Persian, which helped him advance in the diplomatic service.

Though socially well connected, his family had little money, and Griboedov, to the dismay of many, paid close attention to his career, even though, in Woe from Wit, he satirized the cynical careerism of the play’s repulsive character Molchalin—so repulsive that he seduces his boss’s daughter so she can lobby on his behalf. Griboedov’s diplomatic service took him to Persia, where, after marrying a Georgian princess, he was brutally killed in an uprising in Tehran in 1829. He was only thirty-four, and had written no major work besides Woe from Wit, without which he would hardly be remembered today. Yuri Tynyanov, an early-twentieth-century critic and novelist, wrote of Griboedov’s gruesome demise in The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, bringing events from Griboedov’s life together with scenes and well-known quotations from his play. “Who’s the Molchalin here?” Tynyanov asked. “Well, that’s clear, that’s easy: Molchalin was him.”

The plot of Woe from Wit is simple. It opens with the heroine, Sophie, and her maid, Liza, warding off Sophie’s father, Famusov, so he does not discover that she has spent the night with Molchalin, who is Famusov’s secretary. Chatsky, a landowner and the play’s hero, arrives after three years abroad and, remarkably enough, expects that Sophie will still love him even though he sent no messages while he was away. As the play progresses, it presents a series of characters to whom Chatsky makes lengthy, high-minded speeches about complete truthfulness, independent thought, and the dishonesty of seeking influence or following fashions, especially those from abroad. Famusov deems these sentiments dangerous (“He’s a Carbonari!”), while others find them incomprehensible.

Sophie is in love with Molchalin, but Chatsky cannot believe that she cares for such a man. In fact, no evidence, from her frequent rebuffs to her sharp criticisms of his bilious character, seems sufficient for Chatsky to grasp that she no longer loves him:

Let me ask you:
Has it ever happened that, laughing or sad
Or by mistake you’ve said something good about someone?
If not now, then perhaps in childhood?

Command: I’d go through fire on the spot.

Fine if you burn, but what if you do not?

Elsewhere, she says:

Your murderous cold’s too much for me
Either to hear you or to see.

When Sophie praises Molchalin, Chatsky thinks she cannot mean it. As the third act begins, he still remains in doubt: “I’ll wait for her and make her confess/Who’s dear to her, Molchalin or Skalozub”—a general and her father’s preferred suitor.


In act 3 the Famusovs give a ball, allowing Griboedov to introduce a menagerie of satiric types: a domineering wife with her emasculated husband; Prince Tugo-Ukhovsky (Hard- of-Hearing), who never says an intelligible word; a spiteful countess accompanied by her granddaughter; and a swindling go-between whom everyone despises but is glad to make use of. As the henpecked husband Platon Mikhailovich explains, “With us a man whom all detest/Is everywhere a welcome guest.”

Irritated by Chatsky’s constant sarcasm, Sophie starts the rumor that he is insane. The first person she tells doesn’t believe it but immediately repeats the line, and within minutes everyone accepts the spurious diagnosis as fact because everyone else does. (The name Chatsky is often thought to allude to Pyotr Chaadaev, a well-known skeptic who later published a famous essay denouncing Russian culture as utterly worthless. In response the tsar, as if recalling Griboedov’s play, had Chaadaev locked up in a madhouse—an incident many recalled when the Soviets diagnosed dissidents as suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia.”)

Act 3 ends when Chatsky, who has been delivering a lengthy tirade about the craze for French fashion, at last looks around to find that everyone has disappeared. In Chekhov’s plays, people talk but do not listen to one another, a failure of empathy that is one of his most important themes, but both theme and technique are already present in Griboedov’s play. Tugo-Ukhovsky cannot hear and Chatsky refuses to listen. As Pushkin observed, Chatsky pays no attention to his audience. “Who is the [only] intelligent person in the comedy?” Pushkin asked. “Griboedov”:

Chatsky…spent some time with a very intelligent man (namely, with Griboedov) and absorbed his thoughts, witticisms and satirical remarks. Everything he says is very clever. But to whom does he say it all? To Famusov? To Skalozub?… This is unforgivable. The first sign of an intelligent person is to know from the first glance with whom you are dealing and not to cast pearls before the Repetilovs and their ilk.

Pushkin attributed the hero’s ludicrous pearl casting to a flaw in the play’s conception, but Chatsky’s failure to imagine the perspective of others, or even notice their absence, constitutes an essential feature of his character. He, too, is a satiric type: the oblivious idealist deaf to the concerns of others.

In act 4 Sophie and Chatsky, unaware of each other’s presence, both eavesdrop on Molchalin’s attempt to seduce Liza, the maid. When Liza reminds Molchalin that he is in love with her mistress, he deems his attentions to Sophie to have been sheer pretense, just a way to get ahead by winning the favor of his boss’s daughter. As both eavesdroppers reveal themselves, Sophie threatens to ruin Molchalin by telling her powerful father what he has done to her, unless he departs at once. No sooner does he leave than Famusov rushes in and, finding Sophie with Chatsky, concludes he is her secret lover and banishes her to the provinces (“to the country, to the back woods, to your auntie, to Saratov”).

At last Chatsky recognizes that Sophie has preferred Molchalin all along. “I looked, I saw, and did not believe” that she could love such a nonentity. But perhaps, he reflects, that is how this vile world is made: “Who foresees dame Fortune’s spin?/She scourges men with soul:/On earth Molchalins always win!” (Molchaliny blazhenstvuyut na svete!) Like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, like Gulliver in his letter to his cousin Sympson, and, above all, like Alceste at the end of Molière’s The Misanthrope, Chatsky condemns all humanity and vows to hide from other people:

On daughter and father
And on the idiot lover
And on the whole world I’ll pour out my bile and vexation….
I’ll search the world
For some little refuge for insulted feeling.
My carriage! Call my carriage!

Beginning with the radical critic Vissarion Belinsky, Russians have had a tendency to interpret literary works politically, often arbitrarily and sometimes detecting opinions the exact opposite of those the author actually held. When Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the cofounder of the Moscow Art Theatre, staged Woe from Wit in 1906, he complained that “most actors play Chatsky…as a fighter for civil rights”: “They seem to perform not the play, but those political essays that it has engendered, which is the most antiartistic approach imaginable.” Alexander Herzen regarded Chatsky as a Decembrist at heart, while others discovered in him class-conscious hostility to aristocrats, principled opposition to serfdom, and partiality for the whole agenda of desired reforms. They turned a misanthrope into a radical.


In 1951 Militsa Nechkina published the second edition of Griboedov and the Decembrists, which, the late scholar Simon Karlinsky wrote, “came to be seen as the embodiment of the official party line on the play and its creator”: Griboedov, Nechkina asserted, was a Decembrist revolutionary and so was Chatsky. Griboedov was certainly aware of the secret societies that would eventually organize the revolt. In Woe from Wit, Repetilov, a garrulous fool, tries unsuccessfully to persuade Chatsky to join these hopelessly quixotic radicals. “A hundred second lieutenants,” Griboedov once remarked, “cannot transform the whole governing structure of Russia.” Hearing some of them quarrel heatedly over political programs, he called them fools.

After the Decembrist revolt, Griboedov was imprisoned and interrogated for months. The suspicious tsar at last accepted his investigators’ conclusion that Griboedov was completely innocent. He was not only released but promoted, to the rank of collegiate counsellor, seventh class (equivalent to lieutenant colonel in the military). Griboedov had several friends among the Decembrists, and he tried to ease the sufferings of those the tsar had punished. But he was also close friends with people on the other side, especially the conservative Bulgarin.

A scene from Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit

Russian State Library, Moscow/Getty Images

A scene from Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit; illustration by Dmitri Kardovsky, 1913

Faced with this evidence, proponents of the Decembrist theory have detected revolutionary sentiments in the play itself. All the play’s socially prominent Russians are repulsive, but that is how satire works, and many satirists—think of Swift and Pope—have been politically conservative. In Woe from Wit, Chatsky gets upset when the ladies claim that “there’s no better place on earth” than France (as Karlinsky observed, Griboedov rarely misses a chance to indulge in misogyny), and he implores God to “extirpate this unclean spirit” of mindless adulation of anything French. Older Russian thinking was much better, he declares, and Russians made a bad bargain when they “exchanged for some new fashion/Our manners, and language and holy antiquity.” These are not the sentiments of a radical.

Some critics point to the play’s passages about serfdom. In a famous monologue, Chatsky condemns one landowner who sold off the serf who saved his life and another landowner who took children from their parents so they could be cupids in theatricals until they, too, were sold off one by one to pay debts. A particularly nauseating character parades her Black slave girl, whose skin color fascinates and disgusts her. But nowhere does Griboedov suggest that the problem is serfdom, as opposed to the abuse of serfs. Griboedov himself had received a regular income from his mother, who was so famously abusive to her serfs that she provoked an uprising that had to be put down by armed force. In the play Chatsky owns some three hundred serfs and never suggests concerns about that arrangement. If anything, the inclination to discover the source of evil in human nature, as Dostoevsky did, runs counter to the radicals’ inclination to blame changeable institutions.

Another traditional, and better-grounded, view identifies Chatsky as the first “superfluous man” in Russian literature, a type that includes Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin (in A Hero of Our Time), the hero of Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man, Goncharov’s Oblomov, and (perhaps) Dostoevsky’s man from underground. These men—there seem to have been no superfluous women—are “superfluous” (lishnie) because they can find no useful occupation, a condition sometimes attributed to Russian social conditions and at other times to the characteristically Russian existential sense of the absurdity and pointlessness of all activity.

Karlinsky correctly pointed out the influence of Molière’s The Misanthrope on Griboedov’s play. Reading the two comedies side by side, one is struck by how similar Chatsky’s sentiments are to Alceste’s, how the speeches of one recall those of the other, and how much the plays’ endings resemble each other. Like Molière’s masterpiece, Woe from Wit is a satire on misanthropy, but not a simple one. No less than Molière, Griboedov understands all the reasons that an intelligent person, contemplating the human race, might utterly condemn it. People are indeed hopelessly vicious, he seems to conclude, but one must still learn to engage with them and mitigate evil so far as possible. Griboedov, after all, was a diplomat.

What makes Griboedov’s drama great is its cleverness, its wit, and its linguistic play. Virtually every character is given well-turned aphorisms. The first question any good translator of a masterpiece should ask is: How can I best convey what makes this work so brilliant? A comedy has to be funny. Pointed witticisms cannot be rendered by lengthy paraphrases that express more or less the same literal meaning. For example, as legend has it, when rumors circulated that Mark Twain had died in Europe, he cabled: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Imagine a translator rendering this as: “Those who have reported me as being no longer among the living have been mistaken.” One might call this a translation in the sense that it paraphrases the literal meaning of the original, but it misses the whole point. It isn’t funny.

No one has succeeded in conveying what makes Griboedov’s play so quotable, and perhaps no one ever will, but that should be the goal. So far as possible, the rendition must sparkle with witty, quotable lines. Unfortunately, Betsy Hulick, like her predecessors Sir Bernard Pares, A.S. Vagapov, and Alan Shaw, chose to prioritize the rhyming of the play’s verse. To do so, she resorts to long paraphrases. At times I could not tell how her lines corresponded to those in the original, which is why, in the passages cited above, I did not use her version but my own translations. She strains for rhyme, but not in the same pattern as the original, so that, let us say, the concluding word in her translation of a couplet echoes not the previous line but some earlier one. One recognizes verse, but there is no snap of wit.

Hulick does produce some effective lines: “The world that eats an honest man alive/is well content to let Molchalins thrive”; “And if the need arose to bow and scrape/he’d gladly bend himself to any shape.” On the whole, however, it remains hard to see what makes this play, above all, quotable. In act 1, Liza says, “Sin is no harm, but rumor is bad” (or perhaps: “No harm in sin, but only in the rumor”), a line that became proverbial. Hulick gives us: “It doesn’t matter if the wrong you’ve done/is buried in oblivion:/It only matters if it’s talked about.” One line becomes three. It is hard to imagine anyone quoting this version. At times the comic effect depends on the last full line of one speaker rhyming with the first words of the next. Here is my translation of an exchange from act 1:

To run down Moscow! Your worldliness is rot.
Where’s it better?

                              Where we are not.

Hulick dilutes the effect by rhyming the last line not with the previous one but the one before that:

I see. Moscow isn’t worth a song.
That’s what comes from traveling such a lot.
If everything with us is wrong, where’s it right?

            Where we are not.

This is singsong, not wit.

Hulick faced a formidable task, and her rendition is no more disappointing than others’. Sometimes it takes one great poet to translate another, the way Pope did The Iliad, Dryden The Aeneid, and Seamus Heaney Beowulf. At the very least, the translator of Griboedov should be steeped in Pope, Byron (especially Don Juan), and, perhaps, Dorothy Parker’s light verse. Rather than resort to elaborate paraphrases to make every line rhyme with some other, it might be better to imitate those Shakespeare speeches in which only the last couplet rhymes. ’Tis not enough that rhyme and meter fit, if readers cannot trace the play of wit.

It was a pity that Griboedov did not write his memoirs, Pushkin observed, and he urged others not to leave the dramatic story of Griboedov’s adventures untold. And they have not. At age twenty-three Griboedov became involved in a scandalous four-person duel over a famous ballerina. After one man was killed when the first pair of combatants fought, the second pair, Griboedov and his enemy Alexander Yakubovich, had to postpone their exchange. When they eventually resumed it, Yakubovich wounded Griboedov in his little finger, which, Yakubovich hoped, would ruin Griboedov’s piano playing.

As a result of the duel, Griboedov was forbidden from living in Moscow or St. Petersburg. He was given the choice of continuing his foreign service career either in Philadelphia or Persia, and he chose the latter. Russia had been fighting wars with Persia since the seventeenth century, and the Treaty of Gulistan, which concluded the war that lasted from 1804 to 1813, had left boundaries vague enough to precipitate the war of 1826–1828. After that war ended in a disastrous defeat for the Persians, Griboedov was assigned to draft the harsh Treaty of Turkmenchay, which established borders still in force, made Persia pay a huge indemnity, and imposed other conditions that added insult to injury.

In the course of his dealings with the Persians, Griboedov made murderous enemies, and he knew that he would be risking his life if he ever returned to Persia. So he was not entirely happy when, in late 1828, the tsar promoted him to the exalted rank of minister plenipotentiary (in Persian, vazir-mukhtar) and sent him back to Persia to enforce the treaty terms with no concessions whatever. Dawdling in Georgia, where he married the sixteen-year-old Princess Nina Chavchavadze, he was at last ordered to proceed to Tabriz, the diplomatic capital, and Tehran, where the shah held court.

For the shah and his relatives, the treaty’s repatriation provision, which would have returned to Russia women who had been forced into their harems, proved especially offensive. Still worse, one of the shah’s chief eunuchs, Yakub Mirza, born in Armenia as Yakub Makarian, claimed asylum in the Russian embassy. Captured by Persians as a young man and castrated, he had risen to a position of prominence. He managed the ruler’s finances, which meant the shah could not conceal any wealth from the Russians after Mirza’s defection, and, still more embarrassing, Mirza was able to repeat the most intimate secrets of the shah’s household.

In a series of events eerily prescient of 1979, mullahs incited mobs to surround the Russian embassy. When Griboedov refused to surrender Yakub Mirza, they sacked the embassy and murdered everyone in it, except one person who happened to be wearing Persian dress and prudently merged with the crowd. Griboedov’s head was put on a post and his body dragged through the town for days until it was at last dumped in a pit with countless other hacked-up corpses. When it came time for the shah to return the body to the Russians, it was so badly mutilated there was no telling which body parts belonged to the vazir-mukhtar. As accounts have it, they could properly identify only Griboedov’s finger—in some versions because of a ring he wore, in others because of the distinctive wound left by the duel.

In 1927–1928 Yuri Tynyanov, arguably the greatest of the Russian Formalist critics and a significant fiction writer, published in serial form The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, a novel following Griboedov through the last eleven months of his life. By this point the Formalists had abandoned their early idea that authors have no relevance to a text, and recognized that sometimes an author’s biography (or legend) can become a “literary fact” in itself. They also became fascinated by “the literature of fact,” which sometimes referred to fiction that was as factually accurate as possible and occasionally consisted entirely of documentary material. Tynyanov’s novel relies on meticulous scholarship. It can almost be read as a straight biography of Griboedov, except at moments when the author fills in what obviously could not be documented, such as a character’s passing thoughts. “Literature differs from history,” Tynyanov explained, “not through ‘invention,’ but through a greater, more intimate understanding of people and events.”

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar opens with “the crack of breaking bones” as the Decembrists, their revolt having failed, begin to flee over the bodies of their comrades. “The age itself was being tortured,” Tynyanov remarks; “it was ‘one big prison cell’ (as they said in Peter’s day).” Peter the Great died exactly a century before the revolt, and more than one reader has suggested that Tynyanov was inviting us to contemplate the prison cell of Soviet Russia a century later, when Tynyanov himself was writing. The suggestion is plausible because the novel’s narrator is always sly and often ironic. He takes special delight in describing the Russian obsession, bemoaned by Chatsky, with everything European. Wryly observing that Karl Robert Nesselrode, the man the tsar chose to direct foreign relations, was the “son of a Prussian father and Jewish mother…born on an English ship sailing to Lisbon,” he points out that this Russian minister spoke no Russian. When the emperor appears at a concert, Tynyanov explains, “there was…a call for the anthem to be repeated—the Russian national anthem, the one composed by a German for the English king.”

Tynyanov grows still more irreverent in his handling of Russian cultural tradition, which, especially in the Soviet period, always portrayed great writers as spotless heroes. Tynyanov’s Griboedov, by contrast, is complex and often less than admirable, as Griboedov himself is well aware. The high-minded speeches in his play come back to haunt him as the words of his conscience. Time and again, Tynyanov describes how Griboedov, in a determined quest for what he calls “profit,” connives to get official support for his plan to set up a Russian equivalent to the British East India Company. If it had been approved, the plan would not only have enriched him, but also made him a quasi monarch. He doesn’t seem bothered that thousands of people would have perished or been enslaved if his plan had succeeded.

In Russian literary mythology, Pushkin above all was irreproachable, but Tynyanov has Griboedov call him “the supreme…weathercock of poetry.” Tynyanov instead chooses as Griboedov’s best friend the usual embodiment of evil, Faddei Bulgarin, and then, despite Bulgarin’s constant help and devotion, Griboedov has an affair with Bulgarin’s wife. None of these blemishes, however, diminishes Griboedov’s genius as a satirist, integrity as a diplomat, courage in refusing to deliver up Yakub Mirza, or, when the mob invades the embassy, heroism in slaying a dozen crazed assailants. One senses that Griboedov’s untimely death deprived us of masterpieces even greater than Woe from Wit.

Much as Griboedov didn’t live to finish his life’s work, Susan Causey, the translator of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, died in a road accident before she could polish or publish her work, and her husband, already gravely ill, died soon after. Their friends worked with their sons to recover the manuscript in the hope it could appear in print. The Slavicist Tim Johnson commissioned Vera Tsareva-Brauner, a lecturer at Cambridge, to edit it from the perspective of a native speaker. So edited, Causey’s version is not only the first complete rendition of the novel, but usually reads as if it were written in English. Another fine rendition of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush, will soon be published by Columbia University Press, with a splendid introduction by Angela Brintlinger and helpful supplementary material identifying people and allusions unfamiliar to the nonspecialist. A brilliant thinker and a splendid writer, Tynyanov deserves to be better known. With his works, at least, good translators will be able to convey, as Causey does, what makes his novel so important a contribution to historical fiction.

Tynyanov had an eye for the perfect story, like the one about how Pushkin, traveling through the Caucasus, encountered some Georgians leading an oxcart. When he asked what was in the cart, they answered, “Griboyed.” Pushkin reflected, “I know of nothing more enviable than the last years of his stormy life.” He married the woman he loved and “his death itself, overtaking him in the midst of courageous, unequal combat, had nothing terrible, nothing agonizing for Griboedov. It was instantaneous and beautiful.”