Russian Film Blames Britain for Death of Tsarist-Era Literary Icon
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
But the story also offers quite a bit of room for controversy, especially when rendered by Mikhalkov, an apologist for Russian imperialism and admirer of President Vladimir Putin. The Oscar-winning director is seen himself as something of a Putin of the Russian film-industry.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
“Griboyedov’s death is not about an angry crowd of Muslims, but a purely political assassination,” Mikhalkov told TASS last year. Though the script supposedly was written in 1985, this twist brings the story back to Russia’s modern-day confrontation with the West. As Mikhalkov said in a January interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, events depicted in the film are quite contemporary.
Russia’s contradictory relations with the South Caucasus add another contemporary dimension.
Griboyedov lived in an era when much of Russian literature drew inspiration from the colonized Caucasus, its mountains, struggles and tales.
Russian classics were once widely celebrated in the region on the orders of Soviet Moscow. Monuments to Russian writers bedazzled by the Caucasus, such as Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, still stand. But the writers’ tendencies to present Russia’s often brutal conquests as part of a civilizing mission now give Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia reasons to look askance at a film about Griboyedov.
Mikhalkov did not elaborate about his plans to film in Georgia, which he probably needs to do if (and that’s a big if) he plans to stay true to Griboyedov’s biography. Griboyedov spent much of his diplomatic career in Tbilisi, then Russia’s main foothold in the Caucasus, and is buried there in a hillside pantheon.
But Mikhalkov said that he does plan to shoot in Nagorno-Karabakh and this has not been met yet by cheers in Armenia and Azerbaijan, who hold each other at gunpoint over the breakaway region. In an effort to isolate the separatist territory and keep up pressure on its protector, Armenia, Azerbaijan effectively banned international travel to Karabakh. Yet Mikhalkov’s crew is likely to arrive in Karabakh via Armenia.
Azerbaijani media claims that the film will depict Griboyedov’s settling 40,000 Armenians in Karabakh. This goes right into the most incendiary subject of which ethnic group owns the region by historic right.
Taking a clinical, detailed look into Griboyedov’s life and the dramatic events of the time would be of interest for all the countries to where fate brought the playwright. But this particular project is not shaping up as such.