Saturday, October 25, 2008
The Past is Prologue
He was a man of letters, a celebrated playwright whose involvement in an illegal dual had led to his exile from Moscow. Now he found himself beyond the hinterlands, in the service of the Tsar in Iran, “this gloomy kingdom where one learns nothing and, worse still, loses the very memory of what one knew.”
Alexander Griboyedov first arrived in Tehran in 1818, a few years after the Russo-Persian War ended in the Treaty of Gulistan in which Iran ceded territory to Russia. Russian power was in ascension after Tsar Alexander’s victory over Napoleon and triumphant march into Paris in the War of 1812.
With France subdued, the Russians sought to rival the British, whose global reach encompassed the ultimate prize: India. More than one Tsar had ruminated over how India could be pried from English hands. Iran was strategically vital to the Russians as a possible invasion route and to the British as a buffer against such an attack.
Persian power, meanwhile, had been on the wane since Nadir Shah’s own invasion of India in 1739. Only the glittering Peacock Throne seized in Delhi remained of those days of glory. Qajar rule in Iran was weak and decentralized.
During the Russo-Persian War, the Qajar king, Fath Ali Shah, had appealed for help to the British on the basis of a treaty between the two countries. But the British had been allies with Russia against Napoleon and the Persian request was denied.
Russia’s commander in the region, General Yermolov, reflected his nation’s feeling of superiority when he refused to remove his boots as he stood for an audience on the Shah’s Persian carpets. Where the Treaty of Gulistan was vague and concessions might be made to Persia, Yermolov made none. The man whose place it was to deal with Yermolov was Crown Prince Abbas Mirza – the son of Fath Ali Shah and the Governor of Azerbaijan.
Finally, in July of 1826, the Crown Prince, fed up with Yermolov’s demands, led a Persian attack on southwestern Georgia. The assault was short-lived and before long Russian troops gained the upper hand. Alarmed that he would lose even more of his land to the Russians, Fath Ali Shah again appealed for help to the British on the basis of yet another treaty that had been signed only a year earlier. For the second time in 22 years, they declined to come to Persia’s aid.
Eventually the Persian troops were routed, losing even more territory to the Russians.
Griboyedov was sent to negotiate the terms of a new treaty. When Abbas Mirza tried to reinstate the territorial terms of the Treaty of Gulistan, the Russian made it clear there would be no return to the previous borders. In addition, the Iranians would be forced to pay a substantial amount of money. The Iranians cajoled, pleaded and stalled but eventually were forced to sign the Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828.
As the Tsar’s representative Griboyodov negotiated the humiliating terms of Persia’s surrender. He returned to Tehran in January of 1829. It was the holy month of Muharram. Emotions were high and the nation’s pride was bruised. Then two sparks were struck which would inflame the people of Tehran.
First, a eunuch of the Shah, an Armenian in charge of the harem’s treasury, asked for and was granted protection at the Russian Embassy. The Russians placed a priority of the repatriation of those they considered subjects of the Tsar. They realized the delicacy of providing a haven for someone in so sensitive position in the Shah’s court, but attempts to convince him to return to his duties failed.
Moreover, two Armenian women who were wives of a Persian military commander were also brought to the embassy. It was claimed they, too, wanted to return to their homeland.
On the 29th of January 1829, the women were seen being escorted to the baths adjacent to the embassy. Under these circumstances, the bathing ritual was viewed by the mullahs as a prelude to the seduction and dishonoring of the women. As word spread, a crowd of several hundred, armed with clubs, swords and firearms, forced its way into the embassy - killing the eunuch and carrying away the women. The Russian soldiers protecting the compound were outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed. Breaking into the ambassador’s apartment, the mob killed Griboyedov. Hours later two bodies, the corpse of the eunuch and a body thought to be Griboyedov’s (it wasn’t), were dragged through the streets and bazaars to shouts of “make way for the Russian ambassador, on his way to visit the Shah.”*
Griboyedov’s body was returned to Russia. Writer Alexander Pushkin wrote of encountering the wagon bearing his old acquaintance's coffin as it returned home. Griboyedov was one of the first casualties of the Great Game.
In addition to territorial losses, the Treaty of Turchmanchai included a bitter pill known as ‘the capitulations’, which put foreign nationals beyond the reach of Persian courts and exempted imported goods from tariffs. It can be argued that the anti-foreign sentiments of the Iranian populace were born at this moment in history, and nurtured by events that followed - most notably the 1872 Reuter Concession and the tobacco concession of 1890.
While the players changed, the dynamics of the Great Game – and the Western powers’ manipulation of Iran - continued into modern times. Only in the last 30 years has Iran enjoyed independence from foreign meddling.
*These details are taken from the book “Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran” by Laurence Kelly.
Peter Hopkirk offers a fascinating history of the great powers in central Asia in “The Great Game, The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia".