Why Georgia’s Last Queen Murdered a Russian General
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Stephen Badalyan Riegg
Wedged in an imperial vise between three expansionist powers—Russia, Persia, and Turkey—the king of a tiny Caucasian polity had few good options at the dawn of the nineteenth century. In the annals of Russian empire-building, the tsarist annexation of the Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti in 1801 stands out as a rare example of negotiated imperial integration. Threatened by Persian subjugation, King Giorgii XII had little choice but to seek not just patronage but outright incorporation into the Romanov empire’s borders.
Leading up to the takeover of 1801, the Georgian legation in St. Petersburg had announced to the court of Tsar Paul that Giorgii, the “dignitaries, the clergy, and the people, unanimously wish to enter forever into the subjecthood of the Russian empire, solemnly pledging to carry out all that, which Russian subjects carry out, without avoiding any laws or commands.” Although in 1795 Russia had reneged on a promise of protection Catherine the Great had made to the Georgians against the Persians, leading to the shah’s sacking of Tiflis, by the turn of the nineteenth century the Georgian king saw no alternative to inviting Russian absorption.
This pragmatic Georgian-Russian diplomacy, however, belied simmering animosities between the Kartli-Kakheti monarchy and the agents of the tsarist government. Early signs of discord can be hard to detect in the context of ostensibly parallel political priorities, wider imperial maneuvers, and regional rivalries among national groups, but they constitute part of a story that helped shape Russia’s imperial experience in the South Caucasus.
Even before Giorgii’s petition, Paul looked to project his authority into Kartli Kakheti. In April 1799, the tsar dispatched to Georgia an emissary, State Councilor Petr Kovalenskii, who was tasked with representing Russia’s interests, protecting economic links, and gathering intelligence. Giorgii embraced this move as a promising sign of Russian security guarantees, but strife quickly arose between the ruling elites of the Caucasian kingdom and the Europeanized empire it sought to join.
Key grievances stemmed from the Russian envoy’s personal arrogance toward Georgians. Kovalenskii ignored the de rigueur observances of diplomatic protocol, seemingly trivial actions that in practice inflamed animosity between the Russian administration and the Georgian elite. From the beginning, he displayed insufficient deference toward Giorgii, failing to report to him upon arrival in Tiflis and repeatedly declining the king’s dinner invitations, citing ill health, but sending in his stead low-ranking representatives. He also demanded custom-built armchairs for his audience with the Georgian monarch, moving his seat so close to the king during their meeting that their feet touched, a gross breach of etiquette. In putting an end to Kovalenskii’s debauchery, High Commissioner of the Caucasus Pavel Tsitsianov scolded the bureaucrat, whose downfall was “a consequence of your insensitivity toward local nobles, whom you offended by your behavior and thereby compelled to come to hate [our] administration to such a degree, that I have found a terrible wavering of minds against the Russian administration.” While these tensions did not prevent the final, acquiesced integration of Kartli Kakheti into the tsarist empire, they portended a dark chapter in Russian-Georgian ties.
In January 1801, a month after King Giorgii died, and just two months before his own murder at the hands of palace conspirators, the tsar decreed Georgia a part of the Romanov empire. Paul’s successor, Alexander I, confirmed his father’s decision. However, the new tsar dethroned the Georgian royal family, the Bagrationis, breaking the agreement his predecessor had reached with them. Despite the outcry of Georgian nobles, Alexander claimed the decision was not calculated to “increase my powers, secure profit, nor enlarge the boundaries of an already vast empire,” but rather was intended to “establish in Georgia a government that can maintain justice, ensure the security of persons and of property, and give to everyone the protection of law.” These assurances did little to mollify an elite whose sociopolitical status became precarious overnight.
Before the annexation of 1801, the key sign of the Bagrationi family’s discontent was the flight of Giorgii’s half-brother, Prince Alexander Batonishvili. Opposed to Giorgii’s orientation toward Russia’s orbit, he orchestrated a protracted anti-Russian rebellion that involved some Persian khans and North Caucasian tribes. If, before 1801, this was a rare display of the Georgian elite’s reluctance to join the Russian empire, then after Tsar Alexander deposed the Bagrationis more evidence of tensions between Georgian royals and Russian statesmen appeared.
Major-General Ivan Petrovich Lazarev, an ethnic Armenian born in Russia, who had led a small contingent of tsarist troops to Kartli-Kakheti at Giorgii’s insistence to deter the Persians, alerted St. Petersburg to the signs of multifaceted discord. Lazarev characterized the Georgian court and nobility as “filled with intrigues and internecine conflicts [mezhdusobiia].” He found that not only external threats but also internal “secret conspiracies of various prominent people” compromised Georgia’s security. Throughout 1801 and 1802, the Bagrationis faced political marginalization inside Russia’s newest imperial prize. At the same time, Tsitsianov, Lazarev, and other tsarist officials nervously tracked the movements of renegade Prince Batonishvili, who continued to mobilize a strikingly diverse anti-Russian coalition.
By 1803, Russian authorities suspected that the deposed Georgian royal family had sided with Prince Batonishvili. In April of that year, Tsitsianov learned that Queen Mariam, the widow of Georgia’s last king, planned to flee Tiflis with her children. The High Commissioner ordered General Lazarev to detain the queen. When Lazarev approached her, Mariam thrust a dagger into his chest, killing him.
Thus, while Georgia’s entrance into the tsarist empire was without violence on the scale that was experienced in Russia’s other peripheries, it was not bloodless. The dramatic murder of Lazarev by Georgia’s last queen in the early nineteenth century vividly illustrates how the political manner of Russian imperialism and the personal manners of Russian imperialists intersected, moulding allegiances and antagonisms in one of Eurasia’s most contested corners.
Stephen B. Riegg is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. He is working on his first book manuscript, “Adversarial Allies: Imperial Russia’s Encounter with Armenians, 1801-1914.” He tweets from @StyopaJan.
 Akty, sobrannye Kavkazskoiu Arkheograficheskoiu Kommissieiu (hereafter AKAK) (Tiflis: Glavnoe upravlenie namestnika kavkazskogo, 1866, vol. I), 179.
 AKAK, vol. I (1866), 93-96.
 Throughout 1801 and 1802 secret reports reached St. Petersburg about Kovalenskii’s supercilious behavior vis-à-vis the Georgians. See AKAK, vol. II (1868), 5-6.
 AKAK, vol. II (1868), 20.
 AKAK, vol. I (1866), 433.
 AKAK, vol. I (1866), 184.
 For a handful of examples, including Persian pledges of assistance to Prince Batonishvili against Russians, see AKAK, vol. I (1866), 685-86 and 702.