The last time I heard from Alex, he emailed from Kabul. “Our lengthy discussions about your trip to St. Petersburg were apt, because you are like Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” As was not uncommon with an email from Alex, I didn’t quite know what to say, so I didn’t respond right away. Then I lost the chance. Two days after he sent the note, Alex was dead. And I soon realized that Churchill’s famous words applied quite aptly to the man who’d quoted them.
On Friday, January 17, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated himself at the entrance to a restaurant in the Afghan capital popular with foreign civilians. Then two men with AK-47s entered and methodically killed every foreigner inside, along with some locals. Alex hadn’t been in Kabul a week; he’d flown out of Washington the previous Saturday to take a post at the American University of Afghanistan.
Alexandros Petersen might be a name you know. This magazine published a piece of his last fall on a topic virtually no one else was writing about: the flowering friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan. He was a student of global geopolitics, with a special interest in energy policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and published prolifically, over the years, from perches at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Wilson Center for International Scholars. He earned a first-class bachelor’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. But his scholarship was only part of what makes him worth remembering.
You’ve heard of The Most Interesting Man in the World, the debonair but fictitious spokesman for Dos Equis beer. Alex Petersen was The Most Interesting Man in D.C. Like his fictional counterpart, Alex was brains and brawn, intensely charming, an irresistible conversationalist—and always more than a little mysterious. You never knew exactly where you’d see Alex next, or when you might get a missive from London, Baku, or Tbilisi.
I met him at a raucous party at the Yemeni embassy. He was tall, thin, dashing, but his poise really made him stand out in a room crowded with the capital’s beautiful and bright. At our first lunch together, we debated who was the superior thinker, the early George Kennan or the later George Kennan. Alex was then working on his first book. Published in 2011, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West argued that the independence of Eurasia—which China and Russia are fighting to dominate—was also essential to American interests. The more accomplished he grew, the more modest he became. I asked him last summer about the book he was then writing, about China’s influence in Central Asia. “You don’t want to hear about that,” he insisted. I did, but he soon changed the subject to his off-time in the region, exploring the mountains of Azerbaijan on horseback, alone with a guide who spoke little English.
To be honest, it was difficult to picture Alex on horseback in the Caucasus. I had never once gone out with him when he wasn’t sporting a jacket with a pocket square carefully poking out. He wasn’t pretentious, but to many, he looked a fop, with his well-fitting clothes and well-placed hair. But Alex never failed to surprise those who might judge him from his appearance. I was amazed when, listening to music at my apartment late one night, we started talking about some of my favorite bands. How did this young and serious guy know so much about Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Jethro Tull? It turned out he’d sung in a hardcore punk band he formed in high school. That same night, I learned he used to knit, taught by a European grandparent. We talked for a while about the differences in yarns.
Alex partly cultivated his enigmatic side. He always refused to tell me his age; he said he told no one. He felt it was better, both professionally and romantically, not to be judged by it. I knew he was precocious, but I was taken aback when, after his death, I learned he was just 29.
Of course it was Alex, this American with Danish and Greek parents, who introduced me to a songwriter from my hometown of Edmonton, Canada. Corb Lund’s “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier” is a country tune recounting the history of warhorses, and Alex loved a YouTube video that added the appropriate historical paintings and photographs to the music. He always got teary-eyed at the end of the song. The narrator thinks the modern world has made the warhorse extinct but learns it’s not so: Today I ride with Special Forces on those wily Afghan horses / Dostum’s Northern Alliance give their thanks / And no matter defeat or victory, in battle it occurs to me / That we may see a swelling in our ranks. The West has lost one of its soldiers—and the world one of its most interesting men.