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Killed Negotiating Peace: Assassinations of Russian Ambassadors

The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, Director of Legal Research at the Law Library of Congress. Peter has contributed to In Custodia Legis a number of posts related to Russia and the former Soviet Union. These include posts on a spring holiday for workers, the Soviet investigation of Nazi war crimes, lustration in Ukraine, Crimean history and the 2014 referendum, regulating the Winter Olympics in Russia, Soviet law and the assassination of JFK, and the treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about politically motivated killings. The murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey earlier this week, brings me back to this topic because killing an official representative of a foreign head of state is an exceptional crime.

Special status of diplomats has been recognized since ancient times. In the History of Diplomatic Immunity, Linda and Marsha Frey write that in antiquity the inviolability of envoys was rooted in religious beliefs. They cite Herodotus who linked Persian attacks on Athens with the killings of Darius’s ambassadors by the Greeks. Throughout the centuries, traditions and customs to protect diplomats survived and developed into an internationally recognized principle of inviolability of diplomatic representatives.  According to Craig Barker, author of the book Protection of Diplomatic Personnel, that is probably the reason that the number of attacks on diplomatic agents throughout history is relatively small.

Being representatives of their states, diplomats are recognized as “internationally protected persons.” Together with their family members, they are entitled to “special protection from any attack” on their lives, freedom or dignity.  Presently, diplomatic security is regulated by the 1973 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including diplomatic agents, known as the Protection of Diplomats Convention. Almost all UN member states signed and ratified this document which details the protection requirement of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and provides for the application of the “extradite or prosecute” principle to those who committed “a murder, kidnapping or other attack upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person.”

While Russia and Turkey conduct a joint investigation of the assassination, it seems appropriate to reflect upon other examples when Russian diplomats were killed. The Russian State Information Agency, TASS, maintains a long list of attacks on Soviet and Russian diplomats, but only few of these victims were ambassadors.

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Griboyedov, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left (Cartes de visite and cabinet card portraits of Russians from the George Kennan papers, c.1880), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c28269

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Griboyedov, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left (Cartes de visite and cabinet card portraits of Russians from the George Kennan papers, c.1880), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c28269

The first known murder of a Russian ambassador in modern history occurred on January 30, 1829. A 34-year old poet Alexander Griboyedov was appointed to serve as an ambassador to Tehran after the Russian victory in the Second Russo-Iranian war of 1826-1928. Griboyedov was a Middle Eastern expert at the Russian Foreign Ministry. He was instrumental in concluding the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay under which Iran seceded its territory to Russia, lost navigation rights in the Caspian, paid heavy monetary contributions, and was required to “repatriate all prisoners of war and Russian citizens held against their will in Persia.”

Insistent upon executing the latter provision of the Treaty, Griboyedov offered refuge at the Russian embassy to the Shah’s eunuch who was an ethnic Armenian and a Christian before converting to Islam and two Christian-born wives from the Shah’s harem. Under the pretext that these people had some court related information and while under Russian protection may be involved in activities that would be offensive to a true Muslim, the Shah’s son-in-law demanded the extradition of the refugees and instigated a protest. Griboyedov’s refusal to meet the demands resulted in an angry mob storming the embassy and killing the ambassador and all but one members of the mission. Different accounts state that the number of victims ranged from 37 to 41. Griboyedov was stoned, dragged through the streets, and then his body was cut into pieces. His remains were recognized only by a scar on his hand left from a previous duel.

Russia could not retaliate by starting a new war against Iran because it was involved in another conflict with Turkey at the same time. As a sign of apology, the Russian Tsar received many expensive gifts from the Shah. One of them was the Shah diamond. Weighing almost 90 karat, it belonged to the Great Moghuls in the past. The diamond became one of the Russian Imperial crown jewels, and is one of the most treasured gems in the Russian national Diamond Fund today.

The Memorial Church of Alexander the Second. #17 (Wightman, Orrin Sage, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1917), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37967

The Memorial Church of Alexander the Second. #17 (Wightman, Orrin Sage, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1917), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37967

In memory of Griboyedov, his name was given to a channel in St. Petersburg. Ironically, it was on the bank of this channel that Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

It is another coincidence that on the evening of December 19, 2016, when Russian President Vladimir Putin received news about the killing of his ambassador in Ankara, he was on his way to the theater to see a play written by Alexander Griboyedov.

Another diplomatic murder which affected Russian foreign policy occurred on May 10, 1923 when the Soviet ambassador to Italy Vatslav Vorovsky arrived in Switzerland to participate in the Lausanne conference. The conference resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne under which the current Turkish borders and the legal status of the Black Sea straits were established. Vorovsky was dining at a restaurant when a group of young men who turned out to be the White Russian émigrés, shot down him and his two companions. This murder was described in Alfred Senn’s book, Assassination in Switzerland: Murder of Vatslav Vorovsky. The trial of the assassins was turned into a forum on the horrors of Bolshevism as 70 witnesses described the terrifying treatment of the assassin’s relatives under the Soviet Union. The assassins were acquitted by the jurors, and in response, the Soviet Government terminated diplomatic relations with Switzerland, ordered a boycott of the country, and prohibited the entry into the Soviet Union to all Swiss citizens unless they were members of the workers’ class.  As a political gesture aimed at foreign countries, a Moscow street where most of the foreign embassies are located (an equivalent to the Embassy Row in Washington DC) was named after Vorovsky.

Another émigré assassinated a Soviet ambassador on the train station platform in Warsaw, Poland on June 7, 1927. Pyotr Voykov, known for his involvement in the murder of the Tsar’s family in 1918 and the sale of the treasures from the Russian tsar’s collections, was declared persona non-grata by the British Foreign Office and was not accepted as a Soviet ambassador to Canada. After some political maneuvering, the Soviet government placed him as its representative in then independent Poland in 1924.  As the assassin wrote later in his book, he took “revenge for Russia and millions of people.” There were no major political consequences to this murder. Except for the cessation of Soviet-Polish peace negotiations and reciprocal non-judicial execution by Soviet secret police of 20 randomly seized members of the former Russian nobility shortly thereafter.

Monument to St. Olga in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Flickr userMatt Shalvatis, Jul. 3, 2011.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Monument to St. Olga in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Flickr userMatt Shalvatis, Jul. 3, 2011.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

While four Russian ambassadors were killed in the course of their duties abroad, Russia was not a safe place for diplomats either. Some trace Russians’ disrespect to foreign diplomats to the time of the canonized Duchess Olga, a legendary ruler of the first Russian state entity, the Kyivan Rus (now territory of Ukraine). In 945 A.D. Duchess Olga locked up and burned down the envoys from a neighboring state formation who brought to her a marriage proposal from their leader.

However, the most infamous murder of a foreign diplomat in Moscow is the bombing of the German Embassy and murder of the ambassador Count Wilhelm von Mirbach on July 6, 1918. The murderers were the officers of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (predecessor of KGB).  The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes provides a detailed account of these events. According to the Russian official version, the assassins were working in the interests of one of the opposition parties and aimed at destroying a fragile peace with Germany. Supposedly, they tried to involve Russia in the ongoing World War again and hoped to weaken the Bolsheviks. However, the fact that the perpetrators were not punished, and one of them made a glorious career in the Russian secret service, while the opposition was decimated and Germany lost its influence on Russian affairs, allows some historians to suggest that the Soviet ruling regime which benefited from this murder at most, plotted this attack on the embassy.

Usually, such dramatic events as the murder of a diplomat impact a country’s foreign policy and may affect its approach to international law. Here in the Law Library, we monitor legal developments in Russia as well as in all other foreign countries and will be happy to answer your questions.

One Comment

  1. David James
    March 22, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Fantastic post

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