In the confused interregnum following the death of Tsar Alexander I in December 1825, a group of conspirators dedicated to the introduction of a liberal constitution decided their moment had come. Members of the ‘Northern Society’—largely officers from the Imperial Army’s elite regiments—persuaded the men under their command to refuse to take the oath of allegiance to the future Nicholas I, and a crowd of 3,000 soldiers assembled on Senate Square in St Petersburg. There followed the tragic debacle of what came to be known as the Decembrist rebellion which, after several of its leaders lost their nerve or fled the scene, was rapidly and forcefully crushed by the new tsar; two weeks later a rising orchestrated by the ‘Southern Society’ in the Ukraine, in belated and ill-informed support of the revolt in the capital, was similarly despatched. Five of the ringleaders were executed; over a hundred of the conspirators were sentenced to hard labour or exile in Siberia; still others, who knew one or more Decembrists from the officers’ clubs, literary salons and theatres of St Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev, were dragged in for interrogation in the dank cells of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva.

If the reign of Nicholas I has come to embody the depths of autocratic obscurantism, the Decembrists have for their part come to stand for the progressive (liberal) Russia that might have been. Born in the last years of the eighteenth century and educated in the tradition of the Enlightenment, they came to adulthood during the Napoleonic campaigns of 1812–15. As they marched to Paris they observed admiringly both the constitutional order of Western Europe and the succession of invigorated national movements the Grande Armée was leaving in its wake. Indeed, on their return Russian officers were jolted into a recognition of the deficiencies of their own system of government. The rationalism of their schooling combined with a new attachment to—and romance of—the nation, which the officers who were to lead the movement of December 1825 were determined to serve by recasting the autocratic state as a modern polity, at the service of the people. The mood among them was one of stern, civic virtue—Konstantin Ryleev proclaimed ‘I am a citizen, not a poet’—and the ideas (half-) formed from a broad range of sources: from Benjamin Constant to Adam Smith, from the English parliament to the Jacobins. But diffuse as their programme may have been, the Decembrists acquired mythological status as a distillation of the hopes of a generation, and their social position meant that there was no part of the political and cultural elite left untouched by their arrest, execution or exile.

Among the many figures on the periphery of the movement was Aleksandr Griboyedov, best known for his play Gore ot uma (usually translated as Woe from Wit or the The Misfortune of Being Clever), which satirizes Muscovite mores and social conformity, and is the most cited literary text in the Russian language. Born in 1795, Griboyedov was of the same generation as Pushkin and most of the Decembrists, and was formed by a similar combination of Voltairean ideals and nascent Russian patriotism. He appears in one of Pushkin’s doodles in the margins of a manuscript for Evgenii Onegin, bespectacled, with pointed, bird-like features. Fascinated by the combination of ‘his melancholy character, his caustic wit, his good nature’, Pushkin even planned a novel based on his life. Aleksandr Blok, on the other hand, saw in Griboyedov a duality, describing him as ‘an unfriendly man, with a cold and delicate face, a venomous mocker and sceptic’, but nonetheless a man of many friends and the author of a witty and much-loved play. There are other tensions: Gore ot uma, which never passed the censors in his lifetime, might seem to point to an oppositional stance, yet Griboyedov was exemplary in his career as an imperialist diplomat, playing an important role in Russian expansion across the Caucasus. Laurence Kelly’s biography—remarkably, the first in English—touches on some of these tensions in a lavishly illustrated account that furnishes a decent narrative, despite a tangle of confused notes.

Born into an aristocratic family in decline, Griboyedov grew up in Moscow, and began his studies at the university there at the precocious age of 11—his contemporaries including the philosopher Petr Chaadaev and the future Decembrists Artamon Muravev and Sergei Trubetskoi. In 1812, as Napoleon advanced on Moscow, Griboyedov volunteered for military duty but saw no action, waiting in the reserves while many of his peers fought at Borodino. His military career lasted only until 1816, and he spent much of the time on sick leave with complaints ranging from rheumatic fevers to ‘continuous colds’. Having distinguished himself only by a pair of articles sycophantically singing the praises of his commanding officer, Griboyedov left the army for the Foreign Ministry.

He had served only a few months in the joint domain of Nesselrode and Capodistrias before he became involved in a four-sided duel—a partie carrée—which resulted in the death of one of the participants. Though he received no formal punishment, Griboyedov was under pressure to leave the capital, and in 1818 duly accepted a posting as an attaché to the first permanent Russian mission to Persia. The southward expansion of the Russian empire had, after the annexation of Georgia in 1801, once again gathered pace, and a war with Persia from 1804 to 1812 added a succession of khanates to the tsar’s lands. Tbilisi became both the headquarters for General Ermolov’s brutal military subjugation of the North Caucasus and the nexus of increasingly uneven trade between the Russian heartland and Persia. Griboyedov’s task in the Persian diplomatic capital, Tabriz, was to enforce the terms of the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813—chief among them the return of Russian deserters, who formed an 800-strong battalion in the army of Abbas Mirza, the Shah’s heir. What followed remains a controversial and murky episode in Griboyedov’s career: between 70 and 150 deserters were returned to an unknown fate, after he had very probably promised them some form of amnesty. That he was aware that such a promise might not be kept is suggested by a guilt-laden phrase in a letter to his superior, Mazarovich: ‘me voici dupe et trompeur’.

Griboyedov divided the next few years between Tabriz and Tbilisi, and between toeing the conciliatory line of Mazarovich and the Foreign Ministry and, whenever possible, voicing his support for the bellicose stance of Ermolov. When Griboyedov arrived in Tbilisi, the latter had just founded the garrison town of Grozny, claiming, in the midst of genocidal punitive missions, that ‘out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe’. Griboyedov found him to have a ‘Napoleonic gift of oratory’—indeed, others of Russia’s liberal youth were greatly drawn to Ermolov: Pushkin praised him in ‘The Prisoner of the Caucasus’, and there were a number of future Decembrists on his staff, including the writer and close friend of Pushkin, Vilgelm Kiukhelbeker. The Caucasus was an imperial proving-ground for the Russian jeunesse dorée in somewhat the way India became for the British, helping to form a series of aristocratic writers—Lermontov and Tolstoy as well as Griboyedov—whose higher social and military rank was matched by literary gifts a cut above those of their later British colonial counterparts, the journalist Kipling or policeman Orwell. No doubt there was also an element of generational conflict in the gravitation of Griboyedov and others to the maverick general, opting for the swagger of the frontier over stagnation among the bureaucrats. Their frustration and impatience to apply their talents were early manifestations of the mood that crystallized into the movement of December 1825.

In March 1823 Griboyedov went on a leave that was to last until the summer of 1825, and during which he put the finishing touches to the play he had been working on in Tabriz. He had written a handful of vaudevilles and adaptations of French comedies in the years before leaving for the Caucasus, mostly well received; there was, however, little to suggest the brilliance of his new work, Gore ot uma, which rapidly acquired fame as he read from it in the salons of first Moscow and then St Petersburg, where he went in 1824 to try to smooth the play’s progress past the censors. He was unsuccessful—sections of the play were first performed in theatres only in 1831, and it was not widely staged until the 1860s. What secured the play’s reputation, however, was the circulation of manuscript copies. Kelly describes how