Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov (1814-1841)
Mikhail Vrubel, Portrait of an Officer (Pechorin on a Sofa), 1889, watercolor on paper
Lermontov was born in Moscow into a wealthy family but raised mostly in Penza by his grandmother. He was well-educated in Moscow and then at the School of Cadets in St. Petersburg, where he finished as an low-ranking officer of the guards in 1834.
Lermontov had started to write some poetry while in school, taking Aleksandr Pushkin for his inspiration. Then in 1837 Pushkin died in a duel. Lermontov was shattered and penned “Smert’ Poeta” (Death of a Poet) in which he vowed that Russia must take vengeance on Pushkin’s assassin–something which the government refused to do. Lermontov also challenged the imperial court for complicity in Pushkin’s death. The poem brought Lermontov fame as it was copied and passed from hand to hand through the small circles of enlightened Russia of the 1830s. Tsar Nicholas I was not pleased and ordered Lermontov sent to the Caucasus.
There, in the Caucasus, where Lermontov served with some distinction, he found inspiration for more poetry and also for his novel which he wrote on his return to St. Petersburg. I have always considered this novel as the first real novel in Russian literature (not Aleksandr Radishchev’s Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg). A Hero of Our Times has also been considered by many critics to be the first Russian novel of “psychological realism,” but more importantly to my mind, it introduced into Russian literature the archetype of the “superfluous man.” Pechorin, the main character and the “hero” (a partly autobiographical one at that) of the novel, is young, well-educated and has his entire life ahead of him, yet he feels that life is empty, without meaning. He is “superfluous.” In the book’s foreword, Lermontov wrote, “A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” Finally, another aspect that set the book apart from others is the fact that the book was not simply a straight-forward chronology of action but rather a set of loosely-linked five stories centering on Pechorin in the Caucasus.
In July 1841 Lermontov was challenged to a duel by Nikolai Martynov, an old acquaintance of Lermontov, who claimed that he had been insulted by one of Lermontov’s poems (Most likely also there was a young girl involved . Legend has it that Lermontov selected a cliff as the site of the duel so that if anyone was injured he would fall to death. In any case, the first shot from Martynov killed Lermontov. According to some witnesses, Lermontov raised his pistol into the air and fired, which was supposed to be a sign of reconciliation. Again, legend has it that when the tsar learned of Lermontov’s death, he reacted by saying, “a dog’s death for a dog.” (Quoted in the introduction by Natasha Randall to Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero for Our Time, 2009, p. xxiv.)
Note: Lermontov’s poem, “Сон” (A Dream, 1841), has been widely interpreted as a premonition of his impending death. Lermontov, much like many of the Romantics, had a very fatalistic attitude towards life/death. The poem reminds me, in a way, of that nasty old Goethe tale, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which inspired so many young men to kill themselves.
So, at age 27 the poet was dead; dying just as Pushkin had died, in a ridiculous duel. In Russian poetry there are many names, but two larger-than-life names: Pushkin and Lermontov. Separated by fifteen years, Lermontov was the bridge between Pushkin’s Russia of the Decembrist generation and Lermontov’s setting of the Marvelous Decade of the 1840s.
Lermontov was not only a talented poet and prose writer, but he also experimented with drama. His best-known poem, “Демон” (The Demon), was set in the Caucasus about an angel who tragically falls in love with a woman. Another well-known work was “Песня про купца Калашникова” (The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov, 1837). Only one small collection of poems was published by Lermontov during his lifetime, him in 1840.