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Very Nearly All About Lermontov. Except the Bits About Pushkin.

No, I am not Byron, but another,
A chosen one as yet unknown,
Like him a wanderer, an outcast,
Only with a Russian soul.
I started soon, shall finish sooner,
My mind’s achievements will be few;
In my soul, like in the ocean,
A heap of broken hopes lie drowned.
Oh gloomy ocean, tell me who
Can know your secrets? Who can tell
The masses of my thoughts?
I – or God – or no man!
1832

DISCLAIMER: The following post, like the Russian series as a whole, is a partisan account and is visceral, impressionistic and often outright unfair. I can’t emphasise this enough, particularly if you are or have ever been my academic supervisor. I swear, I wouldn’t write like this for you, honest guv.

I’m always glad that when I picked my specialism within Russian studies, I didn’t pick Lermontov. The man attracts such fantastic stories that I should be very sorry to have to take them apart and find out if they were true. The following brief biographical sketch incorporates every one of them I can cram in. Don’t go citing it.

Mikhail Iur’evich Lermontov was born in Moscow in 1814 to a noble family with connections. His father Iurii was descended from a Scottish soldier-adventurer by the name of George Learmont – a Fifer, no less – who came to Russia in the 17th century, serving under the very famous Prince Pozharskii (of Minin and Pozharskii, Defenders of the Motherland Ltd.). This justifies Lermontov’s presence in this themed week. Our Mishenka was a precocious boy, and composed verses as a teenager that would put many established poets to shame. Of course, they were full of angst, self-importance and navel-gazing; but that’s no different from the rest of his work. The poem at the head of this piece (Net, ya ne Bairon) was composed at age 18 while he was a student at Moscow University. The bad and somewhat free translation is mine; I tried to preserve the metre but couldn’t keep the rhymes. Sorry. Being quite pretty and good at turning out quick and easy rhymes, Lermontov became very popular in Moscow high society. Of course, he hated every minute, devoting a good portion of his literary output to decrying the decadence and hypocrisy of it all. So outraged was he that he went to every party he could find. Research? Perhaps. He also worked very hard at having love affairs, not one of which worked out. At a guess and without wishing to fall into the morass of psycho-history, this may have been because he blatantly really disliked women. This has led to speculation about his sexuality by later generations of readers and critics, who have read Freud, or at least Freud for Beginners.

Lermontov was kicked out of Moscow University in 1832 for bad behaviour, and went to St. Petersburg to be a Hussar and carry on “researching” high society. He graduated from cadet school in 1834 and was stationed in Tsarskoe Selo, where his hero Pushkin went to school. Pushkin’s death in a duel in 1837 prompted Lermontov to write his Death of a Poet (Smert’ Poeta), of which more below. This led to his first Caucasian exile, a very productive period in which he wrote, among other things, the stories that would later become his most famous prose work, A Hero of our Time. By sheer coincidence, he was un-exiled after writing a nice patriotic poem about the battle of Borodino, but his behaviour back in the capital was enough to get him exiled again in 1840. Apparently he insulted two of the Tsar’s daughters; I have always wanted to know how. Back in the Caucasus, Lermontov fought recklessly, lived recklessly and was killed in a duel in 1841 at the age of 27, beating Pushkin by a whole 11 years. It was a bravura death. In the tradition described in A Hero of our Time, the opponents took turns; the target standing on the edge of a ravine so that even a flesh wound could send him to his death. According to one story, Lermontov fired his pistol in the air and cried “I will not fire upon that fool!”, so enraging his opponent Martynov (who had not intended to fire) that he took him out. There is even a second gunman theory involving a grassy knoll. Seriously.

When I was younger I thought Lermontov must have been a wonderful creature; misguided, but salvageable. He was second only to Pushkin in my pantheon of great literary crushes. Now I’m fairly sure that if I met him I would find him unbearable. He has all of Pushkin’s recklessness with none of his good nature; all of his dissolution with none of his sensuality; all of his political estrangement with none of his political engagement. Pushkin is often rather silly about women (and heaven knows you wouldn’t want to be involved with him); Lermontov often seems to despise them. As a result I still have a soft spot the size of Red Square for Pushkin, and Lermontov is an author whose work I love in spite of his personality. No small feat because – again, unlike Pushkin – Lermontov places his emphasis firmly on the internal, the individual and to some extent (careful now!) the autobiographical. He is a champion of the first-person narrative, filtering events and personalities through his own particular sense of irony. Not humorous irony, like Gogol, but serious, existential, doom-laden irony. Lermontov is a man with a world-view, and he’s not about to let the reader get away from it easily.

This is possibly why, when I went back to read A Hero of Our Time in preparation for this piece, I found that I was much less engaged with it this time round. While the language and imagery still thrilled me – especially the descriptions of the Caucasus, and Gud-Mountain with its smoke staining the sky – I knew exactly what the narrative had in store, having read it many more times than is healthy, and I felt… unenthused. Instead, I went to play on the internet and found a treasure-trove; an online library of Lermontov’s poetry in Russian. (Most of my books are in my parents’ attic on the other side of the world, waiting to be shipped to me, so online libraries are my friend). And among all those familiar titles one stood out for me: Death of a Poet. You can see an excellent literary translation of it here, alongside the original (if you can’t read the original, please listen to the sound recording; no translation can convey Lermontov’s extraordinary sense for the sound of his own language). The translations below are mine and are literal.

Death of a Poet stands out in all of Lermontov’s oeuvre as a moment of sheer righteous anger. There’s no irony or detachment or affected world-weariness from this youth of 23 whose hero has been murdered. I do not know whether he knew for certain that the duel in which Pushkin died had been orchestrated at Court, although it is common knowledge now. At any rate, his reaction was to write and circulate a blistering indictment of the people he perceived to have martyred the poet even as they sang his praises. I have seen it prefaced, in Russian editions, with a note asking the Tsar to “be just and punish the murderer/ So that in later centuries his punishment/ Will restore the legacy of your righteous judgement/ So that wrongdoers will see an example in him.” Of course, when it did reach the Tsar, he didn’t take this little piece of advice to heart. And no wonder.

The body of the poem is inflammatory, passionate, visceral and vitriolic; it’s an unapologetic challenge to an entire layer of Russian society. The Poet is dead, cries Lermontov, and you murdered him!

The poet’s soul could not endure/ The disgrace of petty insults/ He rose up against society’s opinion/ Alone, as before… and he is slain!

The courageous Poet, who “laughing, impudently scorned” the customs of Russian society is brought down by a “cold-blooded” murderer whose gun hand doesn’t so much as tremble. But the moral schema isn’t as simple as you might expect. Although he was not personally close to Pushkin, Lermontov presents a complex and believable portrait of his hero. The man he depicts is one who deliberately mocked the customs of Russian society but who “could not understand in that bloody moment/ against what he had raised his hand”; a victim who was murdered not only by rumour and conspiracy but by his own pride. A man who understood human nature but who was too given to believing flattery and trusting those who praised him. In this sense, we can see clearly that Pushkin was not innocent in his own downfall. Nonetheless, to Lermontov, there is only one real guilty party and that is the social class responsible for exploiting the poet in all his weakness and annihilating him, physically and morally. In a gut-twisting few lines, he elevates Pushkin to the status of Christ:

And once they had taken off his wreath, a crown of thorns/ Wound round with laurels they placed upon him/ But the hidden spikes cruelly/ Tore his glorious brow…

Whether or not this is a believable role for Pushkin – and I would say that it is not, if only because of the gonorrhea and the naughty verses – the pain and grief of this stanza brings a tear to the eye. That sounds like a cliché, but in my case at least it is literal, because I am a soppy creature and it’s about my hero too.

But it is in the final stanza that Lermontov really pulls out all the stops, accusing those who “stand in a greedy crowd around the throne” of murdering freedom itself. You can hide behind the law in this life, he tells the conspirators, but God will judge you and He cannot be bought. And when that final judgment comes:

Then you will turn, in vain, to slander/ But it will no longer help you/ And all your black blood will not wash away/ The righteous blood of the Poet.

Excuse me for a moment while I compose myself. And do you know, I think that my next piece is going to be about Pushkin.

21 comments on “Very Nearly All About Lermontov. Except the Bits About Pushkin.

  1. Lisa
    April 15, 2008

    Wow. Kirsty, you have excelled once again.

    “Then you will turn, in vain, to slander/ But it will no longer help you/ And all your black blood will not wash away/ The righteous blood of the Poet.”

    I was getting a little teary at this too, and I know sod all about Lermontov or Pushkin. Naturally, I know a little more now.

    Men and their duels, eh.

    I would like to know more about why Lermontov seemed to despise women. Tell all.

  2. kirstyjane
    April 15, 2008

    Yes, men and their duels – I have somewhere a lovely little book in Russian called “All Pushkin’s Duels”. He fought, or tried to fight, something like 26 of them and mostly for daft reasons. Often he was dissuaded by friends before he could do anything silly, or sillier.

    Lermontov’s attitude to women… well, almost every relationship depicted in his work, poetry or prose, is somehow poisoned. Have a look at “A Hero of our Time” and especially the chapters about Bela and Princess Mary. Oh, those weak, emotional, shallow, slavish and yet not really slavish enough, scheming women! Of course, it’s the “hero” Pechorin who comes off worse in the reader’s eyes; his behaviour to these women is manipulative and exploitative, and he admits it. He clearly has no illusions of being particularly sexually healthy. But I can’t help think that, as ever, we are expected to understand that the women in Lermontov’s stories can be treated with such contempt because they are contemptible. As for his poetry, his love poems often carry a hefty load of rejection, jealousy or spite, unless of course they are very idealised or about a relationship which only exists in potential.

    I need to go back and read more Lermontov, though, so my impressions might be as flawed as Pechorin. But this is my overwhelming memory of reading him intensely when I was younger.

    (I was going to talk about “Demon” but that’s something for another day. On reflection, that’s really about the flaws of the lover, not the beloved.}

  3. kirstyjane
    April 15, 2008

    By the way, after some reflection I want to clarify my point about Lermontov’s sexuality and later criticism. I think the depiction of love and sexuality in his work is absolutely worth analysing. However, as a historian and a well-trained one I personally am very reluctant to start trying to determine the sexuality (or other personal attribute) of a given author except where the latter states it explicitly, like our friend Tolstoy in his memoirs and journals. And even then I think it is relevant to the work you’re reading only if the author explicitly makes it so; again, like Tolstoy. So in sum, I’m all for talking frankly about how Lermontov wrote hetero- and homosexual relationships (see the Hussar poems for the latter); and I’m not above taking a few swipes at the misogyny that radiates out of his writing, or saying in an informal piece like this how I feel about the personality that comes through in his poetry (again, Lermontov is one of these authors who does involve his personality and views directly in his work). As a reader, everyone’s entitled to have a gut feeling about an author. But in an academic context, I would be very hesitant to start putting the author on the couch.

    OK, I swear, I’ll shut up now. ;)

  4. Lisa
    April 15, 2008

    :-) Kirsty, I thank you for answering. Author on the couch, eh. I’m all for that.

    P.S I wish I had a couch rather than this crappy settee. ;)

  5. marygm
    April 15, 2008

    This is fascinating stuff, Kirsty, and not least because your passion for your subject shines though your words. It’s wonderful to hear. I’ve read very little Russian literature – just Tolstoy, I think and now I know your opinion of him – but your pieces here are encouraging me to seek them out and read them.
    I might have to ask you to explain how the Russian names work first though as I get lost among them all.

  6. Simon T
    April 15, 2008

    Wow, and here’s me, not even heard of him. I was feeling proud because I read my first Russians this year (The Eternal Husband – Dostoevsky, and Mary – Nabakov). In English, though…

  7. kirstyjane
    April 16, 2008

    I am glad I could introduce Lermontov to a new audience! He deserves to be read!

    Mary, what do you want me to explain about russian names – the patronymics/diminutives?

  8. Mhairi
    April 16, 2008

    I really enjoyed that, Kirsty. Gonorrhea and naughty verses indeed. You know how to bring a moment down to earth with a thump, don’t you? :mrgreen:

  9. marygm
    April 16, 2008

    Yes Kirsty, I feel a bit daft saying this but I just couldn’t get a handle on all the names as everyone in Russian novels has three with the first name and patronymic being used all the time and then they use diminutives a lot so I end up getting lost about who’s who and it does turn me off. Especially if the cast of characters is big anyway.

  10. kirstyjane
    April 16, 2008

    Mary: yeah, it is confusing at first but actually it’s a very nice system once you get used to it.

    OK, so a Russian will have a first name, patronymic and surname.

    So Mikhail Iur’evich (son of Iurii) Lermontov.

    If you were on formal terms, you would call him Mikhail Iur’evich.

    If you were on what we consider first name terms (ie you could call him “tu” in French) you would call him Misha.

    If you were his mother, his lover, or met him as a small child, or, on the contrary, wanted to be very rude and offensive, you would call him Mishenka.

    At no point would you call him Mikhail or Mr. Lermontov.

    So it goes: name + patronymic; diminutive; even more diminutive.

    Lev Nikolaevich – Leva – Levushka
    Aleksandr Sergeevich – Sasha – Sashenka
    Aleksandra Mikhailovna – Sasha – Sashenka

    (Russian authors are good to practice on!)

  11. marygm
    April 16, 2008

    Thanks for explaining Kirsty.
    That’s clearer but I have more questions. ;)

    So you say that you would use the diminutive ‘Misha’ if you are friends but would you always use it? I mean, in English, Michael might be called Mike by his friends but not always. He could possibly be called Michael.

    What about in fiction? What term does the author tend to use in a third person narrative?

    Is there no equivent of ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ in Russian?

    And if ‘vich’ means ‘son of’ does that mean ‘ovna’ means ‘daughter of’?

    Part of what kind of got to me as well is that when you have generations of people in the novel it got very confusing. So if the father was Nikolae Sergeevich and then he had a son and decided to call him Sergei (if he really wanted to get awkward) hence Sergei Nikolaevich, my eyes started to skim over names and wonder which was which.

  12. kirstyjane
    April 16, 2008

    Well, you used to have gospodin (pre-revolutionary) and tovarishch (comrade) but those were usually affixed to first name + patronymic if addressing the person directly, IIRC. Gospodin was very much for the upper echelons of society, since it’s a derivation of the word for Lord.

    Yes, the diminutives are standard. You wouldn’t call someone Mikhail on its own. My Russian friends were so uncomfortable calling me by my first name they ended up inventing a diminutive for it – Kirstichka. In Russian, how you address someone is really that important; I suppose this is a big cultural difference compared to English. -vich and -ovna are indeed son and daughter of [blank].

    Other than this, it just boils down to getting used to the system. Don’t let it put you off reading Russian literature – it gets easier the more you see it. It’s a very elegant and functional system and definitely has a logic, even if the logic can get a little mind-boggling down the generations!

    E2A: Third person narratives vary. It depends on the author and how they view the characters or real people they are describing. When writing about real people, particularly historical figures, you tend to use the last name and I’ve seen the same for fictional characters.

  13. marygm
    April 16, 2008

    Thanks, Kirstichka. :)

  14. rosyb
    April 16, 2008

    Gosh, everyone dying in duels. It’s a bit hard not to laugh really, isn’t it? I’m feeling very guilty about that.

    I’m also very impressed with the accent you managed to get on your “cliched” – something I failed to achieve with the DJ interview above. Tips? Advice? Life coaching?

  15. Pingback: Dilemma time « Revisiting Russia

  16. kirstyjane
    April 17, 2008

    Ah, rosy, that was Word autocorrect being nice and helping me out. Otherwise I’d have used the character map (I have a mac).

  17. Jackie
    April 18, 2008

    This was certainly a colorful portrait, he really crammed a lot into his brief lifetime, didn’t he? I do like the snippets of poetry and will be looking up more. It’s too bad he didn’t spend more time on that instead of partying. Once again, your flair for irony made me chuckle through this review; we learn a lot while being entertained.

  18. Allen
    October 19, 2008

    “Well, you used to have gospodin (pre-revolutionary) and tovarishch (comrade) but those were usually affixed to first name + patronymic if addressing the person directly, IIRC. Gospodin was very much for the upper echelons of society, since it’s a derivation of the word for Lord.”

    Umm, no, gospodin was used with the surname. First example that springs to mind is Za Dvumya Zaytzamy, in which the insufferable Pronya tells her parents that Gospodin Galakhvastov prishli (the gospodin Golokhvastov have arrived).

    It also used to be common to use only the patronymic if you weren’t quite on a first-name basis. An example being one of the characters in The Little Golden Calf (Zolotoy Telyonok), an Aleksander Dmitrievich Sukhoveyko who is reffered to as Mitrich.

    For the early part of the Soviet Union, it was far more common to reffer to people as grazhdanin or grazhdanka (citizen) rather than tovarish.

    If you wanted to be excedingly polite, you could refer to someone as baryn/baryshnya or sudarin/sudarinya, very archaic Slavic terms.

    As for Lermontov, he was the sort of person that spent much of the time writing verses AT the party!
    Many of those were biting satires which earned him no friends.
    A very important aspect you left out was that he was also a bit of an artist, very interesting watercolours of the Caucasus.

  19. kirstyjane
    October 19, 2008

    Thanks for the more detailed explanation, Allen. This is why i am careful to put IIRC when recalling something of the top of my head. Of course, baryn and sudaryn are now only used with extreme sarcasm. By the way, gospodin Golokhvastov prishel, not prishli – there is only one of him.

    Regarding the patronymic only, I have only seen examples of that where the speaker is on terms of very close familiarity with the subject. Maybe it conveys a certain respect, but still, you would not call Lenin “Ilych” unless you were close to him already.

    I am familiar with Lermontov’s art, but as you can see, this is a short schematic introduction.

  20. Allen
    October 19, 2008

    The interesting thing is that it was fashionable usage to apply vy to past tense, even if there was only one gospodin Galakhvastov! Very pretensious, naturally. The film Za Dvumya Zaytzamy, based on a stage play, is an excellent story of keeping up appearances. Oscar Wilde-ish. The protagonist’s surname is actualy Golokhvosty, but he considers it uncouth and goes by Galakhvastov. He tries to talk very intelligently, but all that comes out are illiterate Ukrainisms.

    That’s sort of what I meant with the patronymic only, used when you weren’t quite on a first name basis but still familiar.

    Anyway, great piece on Lermontov.

  21. kirstyjane
    October 19, 2008

    Thanks, Allen, glad you enjoyed it.

    It must be my lack of familiarity with Ukrainian high society – I have never seen the plural applied in the third person singular before. That is quite a thing.

    I think the patronymic only thing is traditionally a peasant usage, although of course Lenin was not a peasant. In Krupskaia’s memoirs it almost feels like an affectation, this repeated use of Ilych.

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This entry was posted on April 15, 2008 by in Entries by Kirsty, Fiction: literary, Poetry: lyric, Russian Series and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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