A Hero of our Time

By Mikhail Lermontov


Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov was born in Moscow on 15th October (New Style) 1814. He was the son of an impoverished landowner and retired army captain and of the only daughter of Elizaveta Arseneva; a member of the wealthy Stolypin family and thus socially superior by far to Mikhail's father. When Lermontov was three his mother died of consumption and he was left completely in the care of his maternal grandmother, who lavished so much care on him as to make him regard his own ego as the most important thing in the world from a very early age. However, due to the loss of his mother and to the draconian rule of his German governess, he also developed a keen sense of loneliness and a deep-seated hatred of any enforced authority.

The young Lermontov was well-educated by the standards of the day, but more importantly perhaps even than this in his youthful development were the three visits he made with his grandmother before the age of twelve to the vicinity of the spa-town resort of Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus. It was an area that Lermontov was later to consider the land of his "heart's desire" and which was to figure prominently in his literary work, adult life and, eventually, his death.

From the age of fourteen Lermontov spent two years as part of the acclaimed "Pension Noble" attached to Moscow University, where he excelled in both the writing and translating of poetry and indulged in extensive reading of the best Russian, French and German authors of the time. Importantly, he also learned enough English to enable him to read Byron in the original.

In 1830 Lermontov entered Moscow University and it was at this point that he first reached a peak of poetic activity, at least in terms of sheer quantity if not quality of work. He also experienced his first loves, falling in love with several of his young cousins or second cousins, most of whom did not take him seriously. However, possibly the most serious and perhaps the only true love of Lermontov's life was that which he had for Varya Lopukhina, who betrayed his feelings in 1835 when she suddenly married the much older and mediocre but wealthy N. F. Bakhmetyev. Lermontov as a result of these snubs developed a cold and bluffly ironical attitude towards women, although it seems that he never got over his love for Varya.

During his two years at the university Lermontov deliberately avoided becoming involved in groups or societies that would mean having to come into contact with other students, preferring instead his own company and that of his pen and paper. For although at this time he did not intend to submit any work for publication, between 1828 and 1832 he wrote about three hundred poems, seventeen Byronic tales in verse and three plays. And although these works were often somewhat immature and overly indebted to Byron, many certainly show an emotional and intellectual precocity that was soon to be fully exploited in his more mature works.

For reasons unknown Lermontov left Moscow University in 1832 and went to St. Petersburg. On discovering that the two years that he had spent studying in Moscow would not be taken into account if he entered university in Petersburg, he decided to give up on university altogether and instead entered the School of Cavalry Cadets, where for two years he indulged in the usual round of drinking and bawdy behaviour before continuing the much the same after his promotion to ensign in the regiment of Hussars stationed near to St. Petersburg at Tsarskoe Selo.

All this time however, Lermontov was still perturbed by his unrequited love for Varya, and even complained in a letter to a friend that he was not able to continue normal sexual relations with the serf-girls on his estate "because they stink"! Another complication for him at this time was also his ambiguous social standing, for despite his grandmother's wealth and connections, his father had been from the lower strata of the Russian gentry, and therefore Lermontov was never able to enter the inner circles of high society of which he was so fond even though he ridiculed them.

During his military training and immediately after Lermontov's poetic output was much decreased, but in 1837 he gained fame and notoriety with his poem The Death of a Poet, which dealt with the controversial subject of the poet Alexander Pushkin's death in a duel at the hands of Baron d'Anthes, the bastard son of the Dutch ambassador to Russia. The poem could not appear in print due to its subject matter and the fact that many considered that the Tsar himself had been involved in a plot to have Pushkin killed. Nonetheless, it was circulated in thousands of hand- written copies. However, when the authorities discovered the identity of the poem's author, Lermontov was arrested and sent to join an infantry regiment stationed in a remote part of the Caucasus.

Not missing his Petersburg friends and enjoying the time that was afforded him for exploiting his creative energies during this period, Lermontov even wrote the following to his friend Rayevsky: "At the moment I have no wishes. I would gladly remain in this place and watch its scenery to the end of my days." During this time Lermontov reached maturity as a poet, and was to use the Caucasian landscape as a background for his two best verse tales: The Novice and The Demon, and also for his prose masterpiece A Hero of Our Time.

However, following great efforts on the part of his grandmother, Lermontov was allowed to leave the Caucasus in the autumn of that same year, and after a short spell serving in a regiment stationed at Novgorod, was permitted to rejoin his Hussars at Tsarskoe Selo in January 1838. On his return to Petersburg the newly popular poet was lionised by the same high society which had previously ignored him, and whether sincerely or from inverted snobbery, Lermontov claimed to be bored by it all, soon turning to a deliberate lack of manners in order to assert himself against his social betters and was therefore considered an undesirable outsider.

At this time Lermontov was regularly contributing to periodicals, which in Russia played a more important role than anywhere else in Europe. In 1840 he published his first collection of poems as well as his novel, A Hero of Our Time, both of which were received with much enthusiasm by the pre-eminent critic of the time, Belinsky, who was also Lermontov's greatest champion. However, while on a literary level Lermontov was now 'safe', on a deeper level his own divided personality meant that people were rarely sure what to think of him. Very interesting is Ivan Turgenev's description of him at a ball in 1840:

"In Lermontov's appearance there was something sinister and tragic, a kind of dark and fatal strength, spiteful melancholy and a fervent passion imprinted on his swarthy face, in his big, dark and motionless eyes. Their heavy look formed a strange contrast to the expression of his slightly protruding lips, which were tender like the lips of a child. His thickset frame, his bow-legs, big head, large shoulders and slightly bent figure made an unpleasant impression; still, one could not help feeling in him a certain power... It is beyond any doubt that, following the fashion of the period, he had adopted a certain Byronic style seasoned with even worse whims and caprices of his own. But he paid a terrible penalty for them. It seems that in the depth of his heart Lermontov was profoundly bored. He felt stifled in the narrow sphere to which he had been relegated by fate."

It seems also that Lermontov took a perverse pleasure in inciting quarrels and misunderstandings, and thus in 1840 he argued at a ball with the son of the French ambassador and historian de Barante and thereafter duelled with him and was lightly wounded. As a result of the duel, which was considered somewhat scandalous, Lermontov was once again arrested and sent back to the Caucasus.

During this second period in the Caucasus, seemingly inspired by some sort of romantic death wish, Lermontov took part in many bloody skirmishes with the Caucasian mountain tribesmen and was recommended for medals and gold sabre for valour. His grandmother desperately tried to obtain a pardon for him so that he could return from his exile to Petersburg, but the Tsar on reading A Hero of Our Time is reputed to have commented on its author's "depravity" and thus Lermontov was in utter disgrace. He was refused a release from the army, but was allowed an extended leave, which enabled him to spend the first three or four months of 1841 in St. Petersburg and partly in Moscow.

Travelling back to the Caucasus with his cousin "Mongo" Stolypin in the spring he broke his journey for a while at the fashionable spa-town of Pyatigorsk (which features prominently in A Hero of Our Time) on finding several old friends and acquaintances there. Amongst these was a certain Major Martynov.

Martynov was an old school companion of Lermontov whose sister Nadezhda had fallen in love with the writer during his recent time in Moscow and, it seems, had been rather poorly treated by him. For whatever reason Lermontov took it upon himself to ridicule Major Martynov as much as possible; an easy task because the Major was something of a romantic poseur.

Major Martynov in return tried to discourage Lermontov from such needlessly provocative behaviour, but when Lermontov insulted him once in the presence of ladies at the house of the Cossack General Verzilin, Martynov was obliged to challenge him to a duel, which took place on the outskirts of Pyatigorsk in the early morning of the 27th July 1841. Fittingly for a poet and author whose life so closely mirrored that of one of his flawed romantic heroes, the duel took place during a fierce storm and Lermontov was killed outright accompanied by the sound of thunderclaps. He was twenty-six years old.