We're still gauging the diplomatic fallout of the chilling assassination of Andrey Karlov, Russia's ambassador in Turkey, on Monday. In front of cameras at an art exhibition in Ankara, a lone assailant gunned down Karlov and proceeded to shout out jihadist and anti-Russian slogans, animated by Moscow's role in the Syrian war, before he was killed by Turkish security forces.
Analysts think that rather than renewing tensions between the two countries — historic adversaries — Karlov's murder may draw them closer. On Tuesday, Turkish officials attended a summit in Moscow with counterparts from Russia and Iran and emerged with a joint resolve to end the Syrian war. If there are hard feelings between the two governments, they're not being aired publicly.
Compared to some countries in the West, Moscow has not lost that many of its top-ranking envoys overseas to assassination plots over the past century — a credit, perhaps, to the rigors of Soviet security protocols. In the 1920s, two Bolshevik ambassadors were slain by embittered White Russian exiles in Switzerland and Poland.
The only other incident dates back 100 years earlier to Tehran in the early 19th century. In 1829, an angry Persian mob surged into the compound of the Russian legation and after an hour-long battle with the embassy's Cossack guards, ransacked the place and killed the ambassador, Alexander Griboyedov.
Griboyedov's body was dragged through the streets and hideously mutilated. According to one historian's account, “he was later identified only by the deformity of the little finger on his left hand.”
Persian ill will toward the Russian envoy was in part a consequence of the terms of a peace treaty settled between czarist Russia and the Persian empire, ruled by the Qajar dynasty, the year before. After winning a war, Russia saddled Persia with significant indemnities that were being felt by the common man.
This grievance found its focus when two Christian Armenian women from the harem of the Persian shah's son-in-law, followed by an Armenian eunuch from the shah's own harem, claimed asylum and sought repatriation to Armenian lands controlled by Russia. Whipped up in part by religious mullahs, a mob of “thousands” rushed the Russian compound and eventually overcame its defenders. Only one member of the Russian mission survived; 37 others died.
Soviet stamp of the Shah Diamond which Persians stole from India in 1738 and then gave Russia in 1829 after Russian amb was killed in Tehran pic.twitter.com/PaEZpacZX5
— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) December 19, 2016
The Qajar shah's troops arrived late. But they were worried. In recompense, the Persian monarch sent his grandson to St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital, and with him a massive 80-carat diamond, known as the Shah Diamond, as a gift. The gem, mined in India, had itself been plundered from the subcontinent by the Persian marauder Nader Shah in 1738. It now is part of the Kremlin's collection of state-owned gems.
Griboyedov was no obscure diplomat, either. An accomplished playwright and composer, he was famed for his 1825 comedy “Woe from Wit,” which satirized Russian high society and inspired subsequent generations of playwrights. Well traveled in the Caucasus and its environs, he'd had a posting in Tehran in 1818 and wasn't particularly keen on going back.
The poet Alexander Pushkin, a friend of the doomed Russian envoy, later wrote that before departing St. Petersburg, Griboyedov lamented to him: “You don't know these people. You'll see that it's bound to come to knife play.” His words proved grimly prescient.
Griboyedov was only 34 when he was slain. And he remains a source of nationalist nostalgia and propaganda — just this year, a filmmaker and close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin put together a TV series on Griboyedov's murder, pinning the affair on wider anti-Russian plots hatched in Europe's capitals.
Griboyedov's body sits not in Russia, but at a site outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. His wife, a Georgian countess who had been married to him for only a few weeks before his death, left a message inscribed on his tombstone: “Your mind and works are immortal in Russian memory, but why has my love outlived you?”
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