The Death of Another Ambassador

What the recent tragedy in Libya has in common with the sad history of a Russian literary giant.

Portrait of Alexander Griboyedov.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. The spark this time was an obscure Internet clip, but the result is no less terrible than in Tehran 183 years ago. The attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, tragically resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including our ambassador, Christopher Stevens. Numerous other facilities, including those of the British and Germans, have also been besieged.

Other recent history in the region shows a pattern; it should not be surprising when an obscure incident barely even noticed in the West translates into violence in the Middle East. After an unknown Florida “pastor” simply threatened to burn the Koran in 2010, at least twenty people were killed. The next year, this same individual did burn the holy book, and a mob in Afghanistan stormed a UN compound, savagely slaughtering seven aid workers. They were seen as representatives of a Western world that would allow someone to do something so offensive to Islam.

In 2005 and 2006, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and other papers published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, Danish and other embassies and consulates were attacked and burned in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, and hundreds of people were killed. In Libya, the Italian embassy was attacked after an Italian parliament member was televised wearing a copy of one of the Danish cartoons on his shirt.

This history of mob attacks against diplomatic outposts shows how unpredictable, ill informed and fearsome mobs can be as they are whipped up against perceived insults from “the West.” The job of a diplomat in the region is inherently perilous and has only become more so as new postauthoritarian governments struggle to react to mob violence and the spread of disinformation.

After the 1829 Griboyedov massacre, the Persian shah sent his grandson to the court of Tsar Nicholas I, along with a massive eighty-eight-carat diamond, known as the Shah Diamond, to apologize for the death of the Russian envoy. The Shah Diamond can still be seen in the Kremlin’s Diamond Fund, one of the seven historical gems in this collection. Its many facets reflect its sad history and the death of another diplomat far from home, at the hands of a feverish mob.

Michael Pevzner was a program officer in Moscow with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The views expressed are his own.