In the tortuous annals of the "Great Game", the long rivalry between Britain and Russia in the 19th century for the possession of Central Asia, few episodes are more dramatic and shameful than the horrific murder of Alexander Griboyedov, the Russian envoy at the court of the Shah of Persia, Fathali Shah, by a fanatic mob in Tehran in January 1829. Griboyedov is not well known in this country, but in his native Russia he is revered as "a writer of genius" and one of the founders, with Pushkin and Lermontov, of Russian poetry and the golden age of Russian literature. His verse comedy Woe from Wit (or Laurence Kelly's The Misfortune of Being Clever , a more appropriate title in view of its author's tragic destiny) is "one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian theatre", a brilliant satire whose hero, Chatsky, is the prototype for Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and a host of other characters created by Russian writers from Gogol to Chekhov - "the superfluous man", a lonely, blase, ineffective critic of society.
Poet, playwright and wit, Griboyedov was born in 1795 into an aristocratic family, and by his early 20s he had become one of the brightest stars of literary St Petersburg. Woe from Wit was published in 1823 and was immediately banned by the censors, but it circulated in thousands of samizdat manuscript copies - 40,000 in one estimate - and became an instant classic, making Griboyedov famous throughout Russia. Many of its lines and bons mots are quoted as adages to this day, much as we quote Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Unlike some of his friends of the jeunesse dorée , Griboyedov had no private income, his father died leaving him nothing but debts, and he was forced to work for a living. It was the era of aggressive imperialism and of Russia's expansionist policy in Muslim Asia at the expense of her Persian and Ottoman neighbours. Griboyedov learnt Persian and Arabic with a view to joining the foreign service, while writing poetry and plays.
Following his participation in a duel over a pretty ballerina, Griboyedov was exiled to Persia as diplomat and adviser to General Yermolov, the notorious commander-in-chief of the Russian forces in the Caucasus. In his letters and travel notes, he describes his long journey in a caravan of 600 armed riders through the rugged mountains and vast plains of the Caucasus - the thrill of adventure, the Romantic poet faced with majestic nature. Kelly bedecks his narrative with superb lyrical passages from them.
Brutal and rapacious, Yermolov was "openly contemptuous of Asiatics (though he kept three Muslim concubines)". His ruthless treatment of the Chechens and other subjugated Muslims had won him the nickname "the butcher of Russia", yet he firmly believed in his "civilising mission" at a time when harsh serfdom was prevalent in Russia. Griboyedov's relationship with him was at first tricky, but he gradually won his trust and affection. He spent a few months in the Georgian capital Tiflis, where he began to understand the rules of the Great Game in which he was to play a fatal role. Involvement in a second duel, desertion among his troops and other troubles made him long for home and "the company of enlightened people and sympathetic women".
Back in Russia in 1825, Griboyedov was unwittingly implicated in the Decembrist plot by a group of liberal aristocrats against the tsarist regime. He narrowly escaped execution and, after a few months in prison, he returned to Tehran as the Tsar's minister. His mission in Persia culminated in the Treaty of Turkamanchai, signed in 1828 after the second Russo-Persian war, which divested Persia of all its dominions in the Caucasus and reduced it to its present frontiers. It is one of the most painful episodes in the country's tormented history: defeat, dishonour and humiliation left a profound wound in the national psyche, while the war and subsequent punitive "reparations" made the country so destitute that it would not recover for a century.
Griboyedov's behaviour in Persia, which had suffered a crushing defeat, was arrogant and tactless. He pillaged the great library of Ardabil and sent the precious contents to St Petersburg, and on his way to Tehran he was brutal in extorting food and money from local people. In mitigation, Kelly points out that "he had been given an impossible remit by his masters in St Petersburg" and that "the harshness of the terms he had to impose made him a hated figure from the start". At any rate, the scene was set for the ultimate tragedy.
In January 1829, a few days before Griboyedov was due to leave Tehran for good, following an incident concerning two former wives of a Persian general who had taken refuge in the Russian embassy, a frenzied mob of several hundred stormed the compound. Fierce fighting ensued, which left Griboyedov and 43 of his staff dead. He was 34. Two months earlier he had married Nina, a ravishing Georgian princess, who was pregnant. Later in the spring Pushkin was travelling in the Caucasus, and he came across a bullock cart carrying a body lumbering down the mountain track in the direction of Tiflis. He asked who was on it and was stunned to learn that it was his old friend Griboyedov. He told the story in Journey to Erzerum .
Kelly, a Russian speaker and the prizewinning author of a life of Lermontov, has spent many years delving into Russian and Persian archives and found hitherto uncovered telling details. But he wears his meticulous scholarship lightly and tells a riveting tale that reads like a Russian novel.
The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the pitiful state of the country today, partly the legacy of the Great Game, add contemporary relevance to this enthralling biography. Nor is the war in Chechnya far from the mind: "We shall hang them, and forgive them, and spit on the verdict of history," wrote Griboyedov before the Russian campaign to crush the Chechens. Except for the "forgive them", you could almost hear Vladimir Putin.
Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review .
Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran: Alexander Griboyedov and Imperial Russia's Mission to the Shah of Persia
Author - Laurence Kelly
ISBN - 1 86064 666 2 and 869 X
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £25.00 and £14.95
Pages - 315