On Jan. 17, five days after his arrival in Afghanistan, author and academic Alexandros Petersen died in a terrorist attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners. He was 29 years old.
Known as “Alexi” to his family and “Alex” to his many friends in his hometown of Washington and in London, where he lived for years, Petersen was an accomplished scholar, writer, and consultant to governments and private organizations on global geopolitics, Central Asia, the Caucasus region, Russia, and energy policy. He was the author of the 2011 book, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, and he co-authored the blog China in Central Asia, which was also the topic of a book he was near finished writing.
Petersen was a convener of people, known on multiple continents as a careful thinker, dynamic speaker, and dapper dresser. During his time as a student at King’s College London, where he earned a BA, and the London School of Economics, where he received a PhD, Petersen founded the London branch of the DC networking organization, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, which he grew to over 500 members before returning to Washington.
Born in Philadelphia, Petersen’s parents moved the family to Rome until he was four years old. He was the son of a Danish father, a now-retired economist for the World Bank, and a Greek mother, also an economist, working for the International Monetary Fund. His parents’ work included travel to Central Asia and the Caucasus, spurring Petersen’s interest in those two regions from a very young age.
“He was only eight but he wanted to know more about Central Asia and where does that part of the world really belong,” his mother Effie Psalida, said. “He saw himself as an ally of that region and he wanted to make the world familiar with the intricacies and the complexities of that part of the world.” Petersen spent his formative years in Washington where he graduated from Georgetown Day School in 2003.
Among Petersen’s early influences was his paternal grandfather, a chemical engineer and amateur historian who lived in Iran, Russia, and Japan and helped develop his love of history. Petersen dedicated his first book to him. His sense of style and fashion, for which he was also known, is credited to his maternal grandmother, who hosted him in Greece several summers during his childhood.
Petersen was a fixture in the DC think tank and foreign policy communities. He interned or worked at different times for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council, and the Wilson Center for International Scholars, where he was affiliated at the time of his death.
Friends said he was excited about spending several months in Kabul at the American University in Afghanistan, a relatively new school where Petersen intended to teach young Afghans political science and get them involved in his research. He was dining with colleagues at a Lebanese restaurant known as the “Rick’s Café” of Kabul when Taliban attackers stormed in and killed 21 people, including Petersen and one of his AUAF colleagues.
Friends described Petersen as intrepid and entrepreneurial and always in the practice of reaching out and meeting new people and building relationships.
“He was an open, warm guy with great ideas who you wanted to like and trust and he had the chops to back it up,” said friend and colleague Eli Sugarman. “He had confidence and poise but he was understated and modest despite being a really impressive and accomplished guy at a young age.”
Petersen, a fluent speaker of Danish and Greek, had diverse interests. He traveled for work and pleasure and amassed friends on several continents, many of whom have written and spoken about him since his death . A member and regular at the Traveler’s Club in London and the Cosmos Club in Washington, he also was a music lover who sang in a punk rock band called “The AK’s,” while in high school. Before his death, he had begun work on a biography of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilli.
Alex was also a friend of mine. We would sit for long lunches at a local Chinese restaurant as he explained the intricacies of missile defense policy or the latest Kremlinology rumors. I could always call on Alex for a quote that would be clever but honest and sharp but not snarky. Whenever we talked, he was genuinely interested and always interesting. He volunteered help even when I hadn’t asked. He always made the effort to maintain our friendship, often from the other side of the world.
Even those who didn’t know Petersen well lamented this week that the life and career of a bright, young scholar was cut short in its prime. His professional reputation was that of an expert who was proud to be an American, but cared most about understanding the perspective and history of the countries he was studying, not only from an American point of view.
“Central Asia just lost one of the best, most impassioned individuals it had outside,” wrote Casey Michel, a Central Asia expert. “Those attacking didn’t know this. They couldn’t know that they were intending to murder one of the most well-spoken allies their country, and their region, maintained.”
Petersen would have been pleased to be characterized as an ally to those countries he was trying to demystify for Western audiences, his mother said. “Although he thought of himself as a true Washingtonian, he was a true internationalist.”
Petersen is also survived by his younger sister Lydia, 18, with whom he was very close, and his partner in life Chanda Creasy. He will be missed.