“The Death of Vazir Mukhtar” by Yury Tynyanov

Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov

Riding to join the army in Armenia, Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin met a ox-cart heading in the opposite direction, carrying a plain box made of planks. “What are you carrying?” the poet asked the carters. “Griboedov”, came the answer. That was Pushkin’s last encounter with his friend, namesake, fellow playwright, diplomat, and now terrorist victim, Alexander Sergeievich Griboedov. Yuri Tynyanov’s 1929 biographical novel describes the last year of the hero’s life and his death, offering a portrait of Russia’s Golden Age of literature as well as a veiled critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The author of Woe from Wit, one of Europe’s greatest 19th century comedies of manners, found that his brilliance and his liberal views had become suspect under the despotic regime of Emperor Nicholas I. To escape Petersburg and Moscow, like many intellectuals including Pushkin, he sought adventure in the Caucasus, Russia’s wild west. There his gift for oriental languages made his career as a diplomat. He helped negotiate a Carthaginian peace treaty to end Russia’s lengthy war with Iran. Named Russian ambassador to defeated and embittered Tehran, he was ripped to pieces when terrorists stormed his embassy.

To our generation grimly accustomed to embassy attacks and terrorism, the diplomatic drama of Griboedov’s mission to Tehran sounds depressingly familiar. Tynyanov captures many nuances of Iranian culture, both the alluring and frightening, which still ring true. The Russians were of course aghast at the assassination of their ambassador, or “vazir mukhtar” as the Iranians called him. The Shah of Iran was more philosophical. Indeed, after the assassination of his ambassador to India a few years earlier, he was so impressed by the indemnity he received from the English that he allegedly quipped that more ambassadors might be killed on such terms (nb, says David Lang).

Like all Russian novels, a large cast populates Death of Vazir Mukhtar.

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, Yury Tynyanov. Anna Kurkina Rush (trans), Christopher Rush (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2021)
The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar,
Yury Tynyanov, Anna Kurkina Rush (trans), Christopher Rush (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2021)

Like all Russian novels, a large cast populates Death of Vazir Mukhtar. 160 thumbnails include Iranian Mirzas, Georgian Princes, French artistes, Greek speculators and Russian intelligentsia. While War and Peace mainly described Tolstoy’s own fictionalized relatives, Tynyanov ventures into the minds of well-known historical personalities. As a literary critic, Tynyanov deconstructs the period’s letters and memoirs on which the novel relies. He reads between the lines of his sources, and strives to recreate a deeper reality than that available to the historian. One critic said of his efforts, “He portrayed Griboedov not as he was, but as he must have been.” The same can be said about Tynyanov’s Pushkin, Nesselrode, Benckendorf and all the luminaries who populate these pages.

Tynyanov’s work presents the usual difficulties of translating Russian literature of the Silver Age (1890-1920). This era abandoned the descriptive realism of Tolstoy for experimentation with images and sounds. To match the author’s sparkling Russian, the Rushes developed a racy English style for their earlier translation of Tynyanov’s Young Pushkin. Sometimes their text becomes overwrought: one sentence reads “a hand has already picked up a cobble from a Parisian causeway”, where one might have written a more straightforward line: “In Paris, someone’s hand has already pried a stone from the pavement”.

Prickly sentences like this are partly justified to convey Tynyanov’s technique of “Verfremdung”, or alienation. The ironic narrator describes all the events as faintly ridiculous. When middle-ranking bureaucrat Griboedov is ushered to his audience with the Emperor, court etiquette unfolds like a scene out of Buster Keaton. The women of Tbilisi limp about town because the Iranians cut the hamstrings of all the females they raped during their sack of the city. Griboedov is “massacred” by the Tatars on the massage table. A romantic serenade goes off key when the singer hits a high note.

Did Tynyanov, one of the few Soviet intellectuals to die peacefully in bed, escape his generational catastrophe or did it also engulf him?

To whom does Tynyanov address the mordancy of Death of Vazir Mukhtar? Griboedov criticizes his own generation: “A defective class of half-Europeans”, sons unworthy of the brilliant deeds of their fathers, who  had defeated Napoleon. Nicholas I exiles the cream of this generation to Siberia and urges the survivors to climb the greasy pole. Griboedov is a literary genius who cannot write because he has no money. His greatest work, Woe from Wit, cannot be published, but is widely quoted in society. Griboedov’s friends tease him that he has become his own character, Molchalin, a slimy, mercenary, mediocrity. Such criticisms also apply to Soviet Russia in 1929, where growing terror teaches a whole generation to keep their heads down, to become Molchalin (ie, “the silent one”).

Death of Vazir Mukhtar is the story of how a man betrays the ideals of his youth: how money, ambition and vanity make him lose himself. He is dead before the book starts. For the generation of the Romantics, the child is the father of the man, and only by returning to a real Russian life, with real Russians (not the Greeks, Poles and Germans who populate this novel) can he retrieve his real self.  “He lived not in himself, but through his ever-changing travel companions, and all of them either were wits, or aspired to be.” The tragedy of Griboedov is that he could not escape from the machine that engulfed his generation. Did Tynyanov, one of the few Soviet intellectuals to die peacefully in bed, escape his generational catastrophe or did it also engulf him? Perhaps this novel answers that question.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.