The Tsar’s Man in Tehran

The tragic and untimely death of Russian poet, playwright and diplomat Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboyedov (1795-1828) in Tehran was just one episode in a geopolitical duel, the Great Game, as Russia and Great Britain maneuvered for position in Central Asia throughout the 19th century. This official account from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), authored by A.N. Itskov, tells a story of diplomacy, espionage, and murder in Persia. Translated by Mark Hackard.

For the first third of the 19th century, Russia was engaged in bloody wars with Persia (1804-1813 and 1826-1828). Consequently Russia emerged victorious, and Persia was forced to recognize Russia’s annexation of Georgia, Dagestan, Northern Azerbaijan, and also the Yerevan and Nakhichevan khanates. In elaboration of the conditions of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which legally formalized the results of the two wars and became the basis of relations between the two lands up to October of 1917, a most active participant was the diplomatic counsel under the Commander of the Russian Army of the Caucasus Ivan Paskevich, Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboyedov. Griboyedov had already worked in the Russian embassy in Persia between the two wars and had learned well the situation in the country. And when he journeyed to the camp of Abbas Mirza, the son of the Shah and commander of the Persian Army, to resolve political questions, at the same time he studied the state of the army and detected its low morale. Griboyedov also “probed” Abbas Mirza’s adjutant, Haji Mahmud Aga, regarding the latter’s possible future use as an agent, and was practically able to receive his consent on cooperating[i].

The Treaty of Turkmenchay: Griboyedov is seen fifth from left in white pants and glasses.
The Treaty of Turkmenchay: Griboyedov is seen fifth from right in white pants and glasses.

Griboyedov’s success during the conclusion of a peace decided his further diplomatic career: he was appointed ambassador to Tehran. In a directive for Griboyedov composed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Nesselrode and confirmed by Tsar Nicholas I on April 25, 1828, among detailed orders in relation to political objectives for his work in Persia (such as stabilizing peaceful relations between the two countries, the neutrality of Persia in Russo-Turkish affairs, the development of mutually beneficial commerce, etc.) a large part was allotted to such matters as: Protection of Persian subjects who rendered services to Russian forces during the Russo-Persian War and who began to be persecuted after the war’s end (this was especially mentioned in the Treaty of Turkmenchay).

  • Collection of statistical and political information on Persia, her history, geography, the state of her economy, and trade;
  • Collection of information on Persia’s neighbors and her relations with them, on the way of life and customs of their population, on their trade, and their “friendly and non-hostile” relations with other countries.
  • What especially stands out is the task of collecting elaborated information “in its true light” on Bukhara, its trade, and external relations with Khiva, Persia, Afghanistan, and the Ottoman Empire.
  • No less important a mission was collecting intelligence on the ancient and contemporary caravan routes going from the Caspian Sea to India and the countries neighboring her.

“But most of all,” says the directive, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has need of information gathered from reliable sources on Persia’s relations with the Turkmens and Khivans, the degree of her hostility to them, and the influence of her power on these nomadic tribes – and on the other hand, on cases for alarm – regarding mutually hostile actions and Persia’s capability to repel their raids.”

Iranian Caravan Sarai Agh Baba Pyasetsky
Persian caravan outpost Agh-Baba. Painting by Pavel Pyasetsky.

A large section of the directive was devoted to “emergency expenditures.”

For the successful execution of everything assigned you, connections in the region where you will have a constant presence are necessary, as is the assistance of diligent men. The lords themselves and even sons of the Shah sometimes need insignificant aid in cash, by which their heft is at once restored, and upon which their salvation often depends. Such a service from your quarters, punctually rendered, can gain you the gratitude of useful figures and make them sincere. Therefore, decisions on this matter are subject to your good judgment. However, many local circumstances in Persia are completely unknown to us, and I thereby limit myself to the heretofore elaborated instructions designated to you by the Highest Sanction as a guide. But nevertheless, I consider it a duty to inform you that His Imperial Majesty abides in that pleasant assurance that you will in all cases and in all actions have in view the honor, interest, and glory of Russia.”[ii]

At that time Russia’s glory in large part depended on successfully counteracting England’s expansionist aspirations along the whole length of Russian borders to the east and south. Already in the first half of the 19th century in Asia, two marked tendencies excluded the possibility of any compromise: this was the movement of the English to the north of India and Russia’s drive toward the south, in the direction of “the jewel of the British Crown.” By every means England guarded even the most remote approaches to India and strived to fortify its presence and influence in lands bordering her. For the realization of these goals, the British government used the most diverse methods, from propagandistic denunciation of Russia’s “aggressive course” against her southern neighbors to genuine threats of an open clash with the application of “the united efforts of countries fearing attack by their northern neighbor.” Foremost among such countries were counted the Ottoman Empire and Persia, who with looked upon the war games of the Tsar’s army in direct proximity to their border with suspicion and attempted to raise their own military capabilities through massive purchases of modern armaments and inviting qualified English advisors into their service.

These advisors were interested in their presence being constructed on a permanent basis. And for that was needed a permanent threat or the creation of such.

Upon his arrival in Tehran, Griboyedov practically wasn’t able to carry out the tasks set before him. In December of 1828 there occurred a fateful incident that provided ground for stirring up hostility to Russia. Hearing the tearful pleas of a eunuch of the Shah’s harem, an Armenian named Mirza Yakub, and two Armenian girls captured during the war who sought escape from their persecutors, Griboyedov gave them refuge in the building of the diplomatic mission. For the Persian authorities, this served as an excuse to rouse the religious fanaticism of a certain segment of the local population and initiate an anti-Russian demonstration in Tehran. Many are inclined to think that this happened not without the help of the English.

Russian Mission in Tehran S.N. Dmitriev
Ruins of the former Russian embassy in Tehran. 35 Cossacks also died defending the mission from the fanatical mob. Photo by S.N. Dmitriev.

On January 30th, 1829, a tremendous mob of enraged Persians stormed the territory of the Russian embassy, murdered everyone to be found there, and looted all the property. Among the dead was Griboyedov. Nesselrode’s directive already had to be carried out by Griboyedov’s successors, in particular Major-General Ivan Osipovich, who took the fallen diplomat’s place. Nicholas I’s representative Major-General Nikolai Dolgorukov, arriving in Tehran to settle the incident of the storm of the Russian mission and spending a rather long time in the Persian capital, expressed his observations to the head of the Asiatic Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs K.K. Rodofinkin with regard to the further organization of intelligence work in Persia. He noted:

In Asia it is not as in Europe. Here every day come changes in thought and quite often in actions. In order to keep affairs from going bad and sometimes to prevent any actions, we must be quickly and reliably informed. Success in our work derives from this. To reach a designated objective, we must have men, and it’s impossible to acquire men without money and gifts… I’m absolutely of the opinion that we should not permit large, extraordinary expenditures, but it’s also necessary to appoint a sum to find one or two Persian officials who could deliver accurate news… Upon my arrival I couldn’t find one man who would support our mission at a time when everything falls at the feet of the English.[iii]

Not so much time would pass, and the figures of whom Dolgorukov spoke would appear within the Russian agent network. In the 1870s, when Russian policy in Central Asia became noticeably active and there was a struggle underway against English intrigue in the region, the Russian ambassador in Tehran received detailed intelligence on the secret designs and actions of the English not only from his consuls, who had numerous agents in the Turkmen tribes that England constantly tried to pit against Russia, but also directly from the Persian minister of foreign affairs.


[i] See Archive for Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire, “Griboyedov A.S.,” Matter No. 76.

[ii] Ibid, Matter No. 16.

[iii] Ibid, Matter No. 21.

Work Translated: Очерки истории российской внешней разведки: В 6-ти тт. 0-95 — Т.1: От древнейших времен до 1917 года. — М.:Между- нар. отношения, 1995.

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