Russia commemorated the bicentenary of Mikhail Lermontov recently. In Russian literature, his fame as a poet is second only to Alexander Pushkin. He also wrote one landmark work of prose, “A Hero of our Times” which earned him recognition as a prose writer and also earner the ire of the Czarist regime in Russia.
Lermontov was born on October 15, 1814, in Moscow. His father was an impoverished Army officer and his mother was a woman of an aristocratic family. Incidentally, his maternal grandmother was a Stolypin and therefore was an ancestor of the Czarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who was murdered in 1911. The mismatch of the two families created a bitter family dispute and Lermontov’s mother died when he was three. His maternal grandmother took over as his guardian, threatening to disinherit him if his father demanded the son. Lermontov’s father, poor and bitter of his fate, would die in 1831, leaving a lasting impact on young Mikhail.
Mikhail grew up in Serednikovo Estate near Moscow, where, several decades later, the staunchly monarchist Pyotr Stolypin also grew up. However, Lermontov was of different character, perhaps because of the influence of his father. He received an extensive home education, and became fluent in French and German. He could play several music instruments and proved to be a gifted painter.
Since Lermontov’s health was poor, his grandmother took him to the Caucasus. Lermontov was to fall in love with this magical landscape and the Caucasus was to become an inherent part of his life story. He later enrolled in the University of Moscow but was not interested in studies. He left for St. Petersburg to join the cavalry school, but military life did not suit him as well. However, he graduated as an officer and entered the high life of St. Petersburg. He started writing poetry, of the kind the elite of the society admired. He started to make a name as a poet. However, all was to change in 1837.
That year, on January 27, Alexander Pushkin was fatally wounded in a duel, succumbing to his injuries two days later. Lermontov wrote an inflammatory poem, “Death of the Poet” blaming the Russian elite of the murder of Pushkin. He ended by saying:
But there is Court of God, you, evil manifold! --
The terrible court: it waits;
It's not reached by a ring of gold,
It knows, in advance, all thoughts' and actions' weights.
Then you, in vain, will try to bring your evil voice on:
It will not help you to be right,
And you will not wash of with all your bloody poison,
The Poet's righteous blood!
(From Poetry Lovers' Page. Translated by Yevgeny Bonver, June, 1998. Edited by Dmitry Karshtedt, May, 2001)
This poem did not please the high society, including the Czar himself. Lermontov was duly arrested and banished, coincidentally to his beloved Caucasus. Attracted to the nature of the Caucasus and excited by its folklore, he studied the local languages, wrote some of his most splendid poems and painted extensively.
His grandmother intervened once again, and she managed to bring Lermontov back to St. Petersburg, and to the high society theatre-going and ballroom dancing existence. One can easily compare this existence with that of Taras Shevchenko, a contemporary of Lermontov. There was no one to save the forefather of Ukrainian literature from banishment. He was born a serf and lived most of his life in exile. People of the high society, like Lermontov, sometimes could escape even after attracting the ire of the Czar. For the vast majority of the poor in the Russian Empire, it was not to be.
Widely hailed as a promising literary talent, Lermontov published a number of his works and began his famous novel A Hero of Our Time. His only novel earned him recognition as one of the founding fathers of Russian prose. This is partially autobiographical and consists of five closely linked tales revolving around a single character, Pechorin. He is a disenchanted, bored and doomed young nobleman, who is a strange mix of the good and the bad. In contemporary Russia, such shady people were the heroes. If Pechorin was a hero to look upon, one could imagine what a moral wreck a normal Russian must have been.
The book is considered a pioneering classic of Russian psychological realism. It was published in 1840, earning the author widespread acclaim. However, the author could not bask too long in this new found fame.
After a clash with the son of a French ambassador over a young society woman, a duel followed and prompted the poet’s second Caucasian exile. Lermontov was dispatched to the front-line fighting the local tribesmen. He proved to be a brave soldier but dreamed of the time when he could leave the army and devote himself entirely to his writing.
Allowed two-months leave, he promptly rushed to St. Petersburg, but the Czar declined his request for discharge. Furthermore, the Czar denied him the award of bravery in battle. Lermontov was forced to return back to the army, and arrived in the town of Pyatigorsk in May 1841.
He joined the town’s social life, meeting one of his old acquaintances, fellow army officer Nikolay Martynov. He soon became a target of Lermontov’s sharp wit and caustic jokes. After one such incident, Martynov challenged Lermontov to a duel. Lermontov reportedly said he would not fire at Martynov. He was not unable to do so if he wished. However, Martynov aimed to the heart, and Lermontov was killed on the spot on the evening of July 27, 1841, at the foot of Mashuk Mountain. He was just 26.
There was no one to write of the death of this poet.