Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly

‘You have not even started talking to him,’ wrote one acquaintance, ‘but he has already seen through you; he notices everything; his glance is heavy and it is tiring to feel this gaze upon oneself. His presence was unpleasant for the first minutes. But at the same time I understand the only reason for such a strong effect was only mere curiosity … this man never listens to what you are telling him; he is listening to you yourself, and is observing you. You remain an exterior force in his life, having no right to change anything in it.’

At the end of 2009, I realised that I hadn’t read much non-fiction during the year, and I decided to remedy this in 2010. What better subject than Lermontov? Especially since it was a 2010 goal to reread A Hero of Our Time. I’d been looking for an excuse to reread it, and I hoped that reading a bio would give me a bit more insight into Lermontov’s wonderful novel. And so I turned to Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly.

Lermontov cuts a romantic but tragic figure whose brief but brilliant life ended in a duel at the age of 26. When I first read A Hero of Our Time, I was struck with a terrific sense of loss–loss on a selfish level (no more novels to read), but the loss too for Russian literature. Then on top of that I was struck by some rather eerie similarities about the novel and the life of its author. While some of this would be expected (Lermontov was a young man who, after all,  incorporated his experiences into his novel), other aspects cannot be so easily explained away. For example, Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time fights a duel outside of Pyatigorsk, and it’s here that Lermontov met his death. There are some slim but still uncanny similarities between Pechorin’s enemy Grushnitski and Lermontov’s opponent Martynov. Grushnitski, who is a figure of fun for Pechorin, falls in love and tries to impress Princess Mary. The real-life Martynov went around in “Circassian dress and wearing an enormous dagger,” trying to impress women and becoming the target for Lermontov’s ridicule instead.

Laurence’s book, Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus begins with descriptions of Lermontov’s parents, Mariya Arseniyeva who in 1812 married a feckless neighbour Captain Yuri Lermontov against her mother’s wishes. The instincts of Lermontov’s grandmother, Madame Arseniyeva,  were correct. After marriage, Captain Lermontov rapidly turned to the “traditional distractions of serf girls and drink,” and his wife died of consumption in 1817.  This left Lermontov, an infant, born in 1814, in the dubious care of his father. At this point, Madame Arseniyeva made her son-in-law an offer: she demanded custody of her grandson, and if Captain Lermontov refused, her considerable estate would pass to “her Stolyin relations.” If Captain Lermontov agreed, then his son would be the sole heir to his grandmother’s estate. Madame Arseniyeva, a woman who played to win, had experienced marital problems of her own, and in this instance, she held all the cards (her son-in-law owed her money), and so little Mikhail Lermontov “entered, at the age of three, the gilded and luxurious cage lovingly prepared for him by his grandmother.

The author details “three expeditions” undertaken by Lermontov and his grandmother to the Caucasus. These occurred when Lermontov was three, five and ten years old, and these expeditions (you have to read the details to realise the appropriateness of the author’s choice of word) were pivotal experiences and represented exciting unforgettable months which later found their way into Lermontov’s poetry. Already  “The Caucasus had become for him a temple of liberty.”

In 1825, the Decembrists failed in their coup attempt. Lermontov was 12 at the time, and two of his grandmother’s brothers had close friendships with two of the Decembrists who were executed by hanging. The Decembrists were to have a profound influence on Lermontov–especially when he found himself exiled in the Caucasus a few years later. By 15, Lermontov was attending a school for the “children of the aristocracy” in Moscow, and it’s here that Lermontov first fell foul of Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas viewed the pupils as “potential germ carriers of liberal contraband.” And the Tsar’s visit provoked Lermontov to write poetry that was definitely anti-tsarist and ‘treasonous.’ This was the beginning of a pattern of behaviour and also the beginning of the adversarial relationship between Nicholas and Lermontov.

Kelly argues that Lermontov was in spirit, a  “Decembrist without December.” While Lermontov wasn’t vehemently opposed to serfdom, he held several “dangerous” attitudes–attitudes that he shared with the Decembrists and attitudes which were the root cause of exile (Yermolov is mentioned as an example). Kelly does an excellent job of outlining the poisonous system of censorship within Russia, and the key players within the system–Count Benckendorff & General Dubbelt.  Censorship and any hint of so-called “shameless free-thinking” raised the ire of both the Tsar and his censors–after all, one of the Decembrists’ goals was for freedom from censorship. After the Decembrists were either executed or sent into exile, censorship was enforced with new gusto. When Lermontov wrote “The Death of a Poet” after Pushkin’s death as the result of a duel, the poem eventually found its way into the Tsar’s hands. Nicholas decided that Lermontov should be “inspected” in order to ascertain “if he is demented.” Lermontov, a military officer, was put under house arrest and then exiled for the first time.

Lermontov’s first exile was fairly brief and evidently it was supposed to be a lesson in how to conform. Lermontov either didn’t learn that lesson–or refused to learn it (I argue the latter). It’s a very bizarre thing that Nicholas loved sending off those who offended him into exile, and yet very often those sent away found far more freedom in the destination that was supposed to be a punishment. In the Caucasus, Lermontov mingled with others in exile and he socialised with some of the surviving Decembrists.

Lermontov was soon pardoned and made his way back to St Petersburg–all in all he was gone less than a year. He was still a military officer, but found time to complete A Hero of Our Time. Here’s a nasty little excerpt of a quote from Nicholas I on the novel:

“I have now read and finished the ‘Hero’. I find the second volume odious and quite worthy to be fashionable [a la mode] as it is the same gallery of despicable, exaggerated characters that one finds in fashionable foreign novels. It is such novels that debauch morals and distort character, and whilst one hears such caterwauling with disgust, it always leaves one painfully half-convinced that the world is only composed of such people whose best actions apparently are inspired only by abominable or impure motives….I therefore repeat my view that the author suffers from a most depraved spirit, and his talents are pathetic.”

Reading the Tsar’s opinion is chilling. This is a man whose limitless power crushed and destroyed those who displeased him. And Lermontov displeased him very much.

Back in military life in St Petersburg, it was just  matter of time before Lermontov fell in disgrace once again. Excerpts from his letters show a bitter despair combined with a sense of suffocation. Kelly systematically lists the events that led to Lermontov’s second exile: his appearance on parade with a toy sword, his membership in the “Circle of Sixteen,” the Empress’s “weakness” for flirtation, and Lermontov’s duel with the son of an ambassador. Lermontov was arrested for this duel, sent to the guard-house and ordered back to the Caucasus. The Tsar wrote a nasty little note titled “Bon Voyage a M. Lermontov” and Kelly argues that the Tsar’s intention was that Lermontov’s spirit be broken by assigning him to the boring mundane assignment of training–not that he be killed by being sent to the front lines. While the Tsar understood what made Lermontov tick and evidently knew that boredom could destroy him, he completely underestimated Lermontov’s self-destructive streak and his sheer refusal to bow to the Tsar’s authority. Once out in the Caucasus again, Lermontov went wild and by pulling strings, he participated in a number of daring campaigns. Lermontov basically rewrote his assignment thus effectively thwarting the will of the Tsar. After being nominated by medals by his commanding officers, he returned on leave to St Petersburg, and here perhaps Lermontov finally understood that the damage was irreversible. The Tsar was furious that Lermontov’s exile–which was supposed to be a humiliating experience–had been converted into heroism. Lermontov was turned down for medals and returning to the Caucasus, he managed to get diverted to the spa town of Pyatigorsk….

Kelly’s book pays marvellous attention to the work of Lermontov, connecting strands in the poetry, plays and novel with real life incidents. However, there are some frustrating gaps. At one point, for example, the book mentions that Lermontov suffered from arthritis as he had badly crushed knees from an accident that had happened years before. This was only mentioned as an explanation for some of his health problems, and I would have preferred this sort of detail to appear in the chronology of Lermontov’s life. But the book does give a marvelous sense of who Lermontov was–his sense of humour, his friendships, his melancholy streak, his despair and his self-destructive urges.

Kelly details Lermontov’s early relationship with the woman who was arguably the love of the poet’s life–Varvara Lopukhina. They met as teenagers and apparently Lermontov was devastated when she later married a much older man. She was the inspiration for some of Lermontov’s early poems and paintings. The book also outlines the versions of the quarrel with Martynov and also versions of the duel, and there’s a great index included along with illustrations. Basically if you are interested in Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time or just Russian literature in general, Kelly’s book is highly recommended.

On a final note, after my initial reading of  A Hero of Our Time I felt as though I’d been cheated by Lermontov’s early death. Now after reading Kelly’s book, I also feel anger that he was tossed away by a Tsar so controlling and dictatorial that Lermontov, a man whose work the Tsar purported to despise, was in reality so threatened by this painfully young writer’s talent that he attempted to silence him.

Here’s a short poem written by Lermontov as he left Russia for the last time:

Farewell, unwashed Russia

Land of slaves, land of lords,

And you blue uniforms,

And you submissive hordes.

Perhaps beyond Caucasian peaks,

I’ll find a peace from tears,

From Tsars’ all seeing eyes,

From their all hearing ears.


Filed under Kelly Laurence

4 responses to “Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly

  1. It sounds excellent, save for the chronographical discrepancies you mention.

    How is it on the background to the Decembrists? I don’t know that much about that period, and it sounds critical to an understanding.

    Where did you find this? I hadn’t even heard of it (though admittedly I hadn’t thought to look).

  2. I bought it on Alibris. I was thinking one day: “I wonder if there’s a bio of Lermontov,” so I went looking and found one. I read a few references to the book saying that it was the only bio on Lermontov but I since found out that that isn’t true. There’s at least one more. I know because I bought that one too!

    I’m hoping that between the two bios I will get a few more details–as I noted when mentioning Lermontov’s crushed knees which are introduced as a ‘oh yes by the way’ aside.

    The author really puts an emphasis on analysing Lermontov’s work with a biographical approach.

    As for the Decembrists, there’s not much here. I have a book to read about that too. You are right, I think, in saying it’s germane to that period.

    There’s a great film about it: “The Captivating Star of Happiness.” It’s over at my film blog if you are interested.

  3. Hi, I just stumbled on your blog by chance. Great reviews both on Lermontov and his bio. One more title on my TBR list 2011. Guess I will linger for a while

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.