Michael Pevzner: The Death of Another Ambassador

Michael Pevzner was a program officer in Moscow with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

Americans are rightly shocked at images of embassy after American embassy in the Middle East attacked by ferocious mobs. But for someone familiar with Russian literature, these events may also bring to mind a different time, long ago, when a different ambassador and his staff were similarly cut down by a frenzied mob incited by mullahs.
On a hillside outside Georgia’s capital Tbilisi lies the grave of Alexander Griboyedov, the literary giant, whose comic verse play Woe from Wit is still taught to schoolchildren in Russia. In addition to being a poet and playwright, Griboyedov was the Russian tsar’s envoy to Persia in 1829 when he was slaughtered along with the staff of his embassy by a mob enraged over a perceived slight against its customs and religion.
The two empires had just signed a peace treaty to end a war in which Persia had suffered a serious defeat. Feelings against the victors were still raw, needing only a spark to set them off. This came in February 1829, when two Christian Armenian women escaped from a harem and sought refuge in the Russian mission in Tehran. One of the terms of the unpopular treaty stipulated that Armenians in Persia were allowed to return to Russian Armenia, and Griboyedov refused to return them despite the shah’s demands.
Contemporaneous accounts relate that a mob of several thousand irate Persians then gathered around the mission, at which point—too late—Griboyedov offered to hand over the escapees. One protester was killed by an embassy guard, further outraging the mob, which, incited by local mullahs, proceeded to storm the mission. Griboyedov and the few other diplomats with him bravely defended themselves but could do nothing against the onslaught. The Cossack guards were killed, and the rest of the mission, despite a valiant defense, soon followed. The scene became “a mass of dead, cut-up and beheaded corpses.” Griboyedov’s body was desecrated and dragged through the streets of Tehran. Only when all was quiet did the guard force sent by the shah make its appearance.
This history echoes today, as mobs are whipped into a frenzy by extremist preachers and factions seeking to exploit political instability and undermine moderate governments...

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