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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar

Yury Tynyanov

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To purchase The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar

Title: The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar
Author: Yury Tynyanov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 590 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar - US
The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar - UK
The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar - Canada
La mort du Vazir-Moukhtar - France
Der Tod des Wesir Muchtar - Deutschland
La muerte de Vazir-Mujtar - España
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • Russian title: Смерть Вазир-Мухтара
  • Translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush
  • Previously translated as Death and Diplomacy in Persia by Alec Brown (1938) and as Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Susan Causey (2018)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a fine historical novel, well-conceived

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 5/7/1969 Piotr Rawicz
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2021 Gary Saul Morson
TLS* . 9/7/1938 R.D.Charques
TLS . 23/7/2021 Boris Dralyuk

[* review of a different translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tynyanov's novel relies on meticulous scholarship. It can almost be read as a straight biography of Griboedov, except at moments when the author fills in what obviously could not be documented, such as a character's passing thoughts. (...) Another fine rendition of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush, will soon be published by Columbia University Press, with a splendid introduction by Angela Brintlinger and helpful supplementary material identifying people and allusions unfamiliar to the nonspecialist. A brilliant thinker and a splendid writer, Tynyanov deserves to be better known." - Gary Saul Morson, The New York Review of Books

  • "With skilful irony Tynianov sketches the rivalry of Russia and Britain in Persia, the clash of political and commercial ambition, the contrasting methods of diplomacy. (...) In his search for illumination he imparts a strain of the grotesque, of mordant caricature, to every portrait in the book. His style is vividly impressionist, though it runs to a degree of preciosity that is carefully toned down in this translation." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)he novel puts paid to the notion that Tynyanov was ignorant of the interplay between literature and major social factors. Yet it also suggests that neither literary nor social history progresses along greased tracks towards a glorious future. (...) The narrative is rich in intrigue, exotic flavour, and meticulous period detail, but destiny is its driving force and central concern." - Boris Dralyuk, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar is an historical novel based on the life of Russian diplomat and author -- notably of the play, Woe from Wit -- Alexander Griboedov. The action takes place in 1828-9 and, given the title (and since it is based on fact), it is clear from the beginning where this story is headed.
       A short Preface sets the stage, or rather the times, Tynyanov suggesting that, with the (turbulent) ascension to the Russian throne of Nicholas I in 1825: "Time was suddenly shattered". he sees an abrupt shift in generations, of those from the (eighteen-)twenties to then those of the thirties, summing up:

     The age was in ferment.
     The age is forever fermenting in the blood; each age has its own special ferment.
     In the twenties, there was fermentation of wine -- Pushkin.
     With Griboedov, it was fermentation of vinegar.
     And then, from Lermontov onward, there was putrefaction, spreading through words and blood, like the sound of a guitar.
       Summed up, the novel can be said to be a chronicle of these shifts, with a focus on the vinegary fermentation of Griboedov's last year.
       The novel proper opens with Griboedov in Moscow in the spring of 1828, returning from Persia; he is on his way to Petersburg with the Turkmenchai Treaty negotiated after the defeat of the Persians. His career advanced by a relative, Ivan Fyodorovich Paskevich, his future looks promising: "Surely the world was his oyster: he had shown himself to be a great diplomat". He also already has something of a reputation as a writer, his Woe from Wit widely hailed -- but also not yet published or performed, impossible to get by the censor. So, in fact:
     It all felt uncertain.
     On the one hand, an eminent person was driving along, the author of the celebrated comedy, a rising diplomat, riding independently and free of care, carrying the famous peace treaty to Petersburg, visiting Moscow along the way, taking it in freely and easily.
     On the other hand, the street had its own appearance, its palpable stamp, and it paid no attention to the luminary. The celebrated comedy had neither been staged at the theater nor even published. Friends took no pleasure in him; he was an outsider. The elders had crumbled, like the houses. And the famous man had neither home nor even a corner to call his own; he had only his heart, which swung like a pendulum: young one moment, old the next.
       If the Turkmenchai Treaty was highly favorable to Russia, there remained concern about the defeated Persians paying the reparations they had agreed to. With Russia now taking on the Turks as well, this was also a matter of some urgency; as Karl Robert Nesselrode -- "the gray-faced dwarf, the head of Russian foreign policy" -- explained to Griboedov:
We need to take twenty-five thousand troops out of Khoi and send them to Turkey. But to achieve that, we need to receive the indemnity, the kurors. we are looking for the man who can accomplish that. You are that man.
       Griboedov is not pleased by this turn of events -- "Only not Persia, for the love of God, not Persia !" he had prayed as to his next posting -- but emperor and foreign minister insist. Griboedov's attempt to bow out of this duty by noting that his rank is not high enough for such a mission only gets him a promotion; it can't be helped: he's soon on his way back to the Caucasus and then Persia again.
       Griboedov did not only return to Petersburg with the Turkmenchai Treaty, but rather had also put his mind to a larger-scale plan regarding the future of Russian involvement in the region -- the Caucasus and Persia -- conceiving a venture modeled on the British East India Company, a Transcaucasian Manufacturing Company. It was this that, like his writing, he was particularly proud of, understanding from the extensive time he had spent in the region that a more comprehensive vision was necessary and in the Russian interest; he was also very certain about being on the right track in this regard:
     His project was immense, bigger than the Turkmenchai Peace Treaty. Everything had been calculated, and everything was irrefutable.
       His proposal falls mostly on deaf ears, however; they humor him, but show not the least interest in putting the plan into practice. Griboedov remains hopeful, but the plan suffers a similar fate as Woe from Wit -- something of quality that is, essentially, quashed by officialdom. As with his play, Griboedov does not give up on it, but he will get nowhere with it -- even as the emperor and Nesselrode's own vision is an entirely unclear one, practically a tapping in the dark:
     Neither Emperor Nicholas nor Volkonsky, nor Chernyshev, knew what would happen if the entire Caucasus were suddenly conquered by Russia. What they did know was this:
     If Persia won, the Caucasus would rebel.
     If Turkey won, the Caucasus would be sure to rebel.
     And what exactly were they fighting for in the Caucasus ?
       The backdrop of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar is, in fact, the beginnings of 'the Great Game' played between the British and the Russians, and offers a quite detailed and fascinating account of the some of these early moves. The British -- very much with their own agenda -- figure prominently here; meanwhile, it's fascinating to learn that, for example, as Tynyanov pointedly points out: "Karl Robert Nesselrode did not speak Russian" -- the man responsible for all of Russia's foreign affairs !
       It's not so much that the officials don't share Griboedov's grand vision, it's that they can't even seem to see it; Nesselrode's blinkered view is only and all on the desperately needed cash. All he cares about is getting the kurors, to fund the on-going fighting with the Turks -- and, as it turns out, he's perfectly willing to sacrifice Griboedov for that or whatever other short-term gain he sees.
       Griboedov isn't really allowed to be at any crossroads, even as he'd like to retreat. His mother continues to hound him for money, and pushes his career so that he'll keep raking it in, and he finds he can't escape serving the state, even as he's sorely tempted to retire to a quiet life in the outback. He sees himself as a writer, but the Moscow writing scene repels him (and his play languishes in its peculiar limbo, circulating, but always behind the scenes rather than in public):
     Griboedov hated the vanity of the literary scum. In his heart of hearts, he hated literature itself. It was in the wrong hands, everything was going haywire, nothing was being done as it should.
       Then there's the fact that, despite his ambivalence, he can't help but be dutiful:
     Essentially, he was first and foremost an honest and efficient official. He disapproved of Paskevich and Nesselrode, but he nevertheless had some respect for them.
       And so The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar chronicles his slow journey to his inevitable end. And it is a rather drawn-out journey, not least because of the distances covered, but also because Griboedov remains not only ambivalent but hesitant. He makes extended stops along the way, and is leery of taking the final steps, to Tabriz and then Tehran; he thinks it would be wiser to operate from Tiflis, but he is pushed onwards by his higher-ups, not listening to even his sensible arguments in their desperation to get their hands on the cash:
     I'd think that from here, in Tiflis, I'd squeeze more money out of them. Once I am there, things will be different: they'd be in no hurry, and I might find myself their hostage.
       Along the way, Griboedov marries the young daughter of a prominent Georgian family, Nino (also Nina), half his age and not yet sixteen when they marry, and she accompanies him on much of the rest of his voyage. (A constant companion, from the beginning, is also Griboedov's footman and near-namesake Alexander Gribov, a sometimes comic figure who is hardly an exemplary servant.)
       Along the way, Griboedov also crosses paths with Paskevich, the relative under whom he served, who leads the military engagements, a pivotal figure:
     Two campaigns -- the Persian and the Turkish -- depended on this man, who decided the fate of Russia in Asia and, even more than that, the fate of the new Imperial Russia, that of Emperor Nicholas I.
     The life and death of all the Russian armies depended on Paskevich, as did the life and slow death of the army officers demoted for taking part in the Decembrist uprising. He sent reports concerning them to the emperor. The life of the entire Caucasus and its government depended on him. As did Griboedov's project.
       He isn't very competent, but his incompetence, remarkably, works to his advantage:
     Chance and necessity had given rise to a new type of warfare. Paskevich's very deficiencies had made him a new type of military leader.
       Unsurprisingly, Griboedov can't count on much support from him.
       It's well over halfway through the novel before Griboedov arrives in Iran -- and become Vazir-Mukhtar ('envoy'). He handles the locals well -- and squeezes the cash out of them -- but still faces difficulties. Notably, the Turkmenchai Treaty also sees to it that all the Russians who deserted should be handed over to the Russians -- a matter of honor that the authorities insist on and quite the sticking point, and something that contributes to Griboedov's demise.
       Griboedov would love to simply retreat to the countryside with his young (and soon pregnant) wife, but he remains dutiful. He's not so much torn between his literary and political careers, but a sense of obligation sees him forcing himself to see his mission through, despite all his misgivings about it (with his own grand plan essentially off the table, even as he knows it to be the superior way of proceeding):
He was an author, a temporary and chance man in terms of the figures and towns listed in the Turkmenchai Treaty. He was always flexible and elusive in thought and conversation because he did not take any of it seriously, merely played the trade and geography game, an entirely different affair from authorship. So his real work gave him a sense of superiority.
     But as soon as he became addicted to gambling with maps, everything was different; all began to spin. The oppressive post of his own invention fettered him inexorably. His body lost its youthful strength and much became unclear.
       Griboedov remains dutiful to the last, as matters get out of control in a slow death-spiral. Griboedov is essentially backed into a corner by the quirks of circumstance and the demands placed on him; the outraged masses rise up and storm the building, killing the entire Russian mission save the first secretary who had made good his escape. The circumstances allow for the Persian government to claim they bore no responsibility -- with a representative then even sent to the emperor, to officially be told that Russia did not hold what happened against them. (The Russian government's washing their hands of the whole ugly scene was a particularly shameful show, as Tynyanov makes very clear.) Everyone is happy to place all the blame squarely on Griboedov -- "He spurned and slurred Iran's traditions, its sacred customs" -- and essentially shrug the whole thing off.
       Among the last conversations the tragic hero and victim Griboedov has is one he could practically have been holding with himself, the questions he had long asked himself now voiced by another:
     "What have you abandoned your childhood dreams for ? What has become of your learning, your work ?"
     "Nothing," said Griboedov quietly. "It has been a tiring day. Let me be."
     "Where did you go wrong ?"
       In its drawn-out chronicling of the last year of Griboedov's life (and then a summing-up of what came after), The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar has the occasional longueurs, but on the whole makes for gripping reading. If the presentation of Griboedov is, at times, aloof, many of the secondary figures he interacts with make for an often colorful tale -- while the character-study, very much also framed as a period-and-place(s) study, of Griboedov is thorough and revealing. The locales and their idiosyncrasies are neatly drawn, while the Russian (and British) presence in the Caucasus and Persia, as well as the various local powers, are well presented.
       The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar is an historical novel that captures this slice of history and these locales well, including the famous incident at the heart of it, and its aftermath. The portrait of Griboedov -- also as representative of a Russia that is unsure of its roles, culturally and politically -- is also fascinating, not least also with its glimpses of the literary scene of the times, notably in the figures of Pushkin and Faddei Bulgarin.
       The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar is grand novel rooted in the old Russian tradition -- but also in much of the new, a work that is also experimental, a work of the 1920s Soviet Union when Russia was in similar ferment and people faced similar crossroads. Tynyanov's modernism is far removed from the writing of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, yet achieves similar sweep and detail; grounded in the historical, it nevertheless avoids being dryly documentary. If something of a heap of a novel, it also reads quickly and well; an all-around interesting work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2021

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The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Yury Tynyanov (Юрий Николаевич Тынянов) lived 1894 to 1943.

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© 2021-3033 the complete review

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