This superb historical novel, first published in the USSR in 1927–8, follows in detail the last ten months in the life of Russia’s Vazir-Mukhtar (minister plenipotentiary) as he leaves St Petersburg in March 1828 for the last time to negotiate, after the humiliating Treaty of Turkmenchai has been signed, with the representatives of the defeated Fath-Ali Shah of Persia in Tehran. The Russian minister was Alexander Griboyedov, a young polyglot whose main achievement was to write the world’s finest verse comedy, Woe from Wit, inverting Molière’s Le Misanthrope by championing its misanthropist protagonist and dismissing with contempt the rest of the human race (except for the servants). Griboyedov was a brilliant linguist and a formidable Don Juan, with ambitious ideas (among them a Transcaucasian company based on Britain’s East India Company), but he was an appalling diplomat. He had been lucky not to end up on the gallows or in Siberia after the Decembrist Revolt against the enthronement of Tsar Nicholas I in 1825, being saved only by his servant, who burned the incriminating evidence before his trunk could be searched. The inflexible arrogance with which he proposed emptying the shah’s treasury and abducting his ministers led a well-organised Tehran mob to sack the Russian embassy and hack the entire mission, including Griboyedov, to death, with the exception of a junior member, who was dispatched back to Russia to tell the tale. If the American State Department had troubled to read the story of Griboyedov’s mission, they might have been spared the similar, if less bloody, sacking of their embassy in Tehran 150 years later. The Russians, at least, learned their lesson from the debacle of 1829 and have ever since managed their relations with Iran with skill and tact.
Nineteenth-century Russia repeatedly blundered by sending great writers abroad as ambassadors or consuls. The consequences were usually deplorable. The poet Konstantin Batyushkov was dismissed from the embassy in Naples for idleness; the poet Fyodor Tyutchev abandoned his consulate in Turin, taking its codes with him as he tried to untangle