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Mikhail (Yuryevich) Lermontov - born on October 3 (New Time Oct. 15), 1814 - died July 15 (New Time July 27), 1841


The freedom loving Russian Romantic poet and author of the novel Geroi nashego vremeni  (1840, Hero of Our Time), which had a deep influence on later Russian writers. Lermontov was exiled twice to the Caucasus because of his libertarian verses. He died in a duel like his great contemporary, the poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

The Sail 
A lone white sail shows for an instant
Where gleams the sea, an azure streak.
What left it in its homeland distant?
In alien parts what does it seek?
The billows play, the mast bends, creaking,
The wind, impatient, moans and sighs...
It is not joy that it is seeking,
Nor is't from happiness it flies.
The blue waves dance, they dance and tremble,
The sun's bright rays caress the seas.
And yet for storm it begs, the rebel,
As if in storm lurked calm and peace!...

(1832, translated by Irina Zheleznova, from Mikhail Lermontov: Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moskow, 1976)

Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow, the son of Yuri Petrovich Lermontov, a poor army officer, and Maria Mikhailovna Lermontova, an heiress to rich estates, who belonged to the prominent Stolypin family. The Lermontovs claimed descent from the Learmonths in Scotland. Maria Mihkailovna died of consumption in 1817; her marriage had lasted barely four years. After her death,  Lermontov's father left his son's upbringing to Yelizaveta Alexeyevna Arsenyeva, his wealthy grandmother. In the new home he became the subject of family disputes between his grandmother and father, who was not allowed to participate in the upbringing. Lermontov received an extensive education at home, but it included doubtful aspects: in his childhood he was dressed in a girl's frock to act as a model for a painter.

At the age of fourteen Lermontov moved to Moscow, where he entered a boarding school for the sons of the nobility. At the Moscow University he started to write poetry under the influence of Lord Byron, adapting the Byronic cult of personality. One of Lermontov's first loves during this period was Ekaterina Sushkova, who did not reciprocate his feelings. Seventeen years later Lermontov revenged by courting her publicly and then dropping her suddenly.

Lermontov, who played the violin and sang folk songs with great feeling, was praised for his performance in 1829. Possibly he wrote his own music for the 'Cossack Cradle Song'. At the university he studied ethics, politics, and literature, but was expelled in 1832 for disciplinary reasons. He then went to St. Petersburg and graduated from the cadet school in 1834 with the lowest officer's rank of cornet. He was stationed in the same town with a Husser regiment of the Imperial Guards.

From his position in the Hussars and with his early devotion to writing, Lermontov observed the social life of the wealthy. By 1832 he had already written two hundred lyric poems, ten long poems and three plays. His first verse narrative, Hadji Abrek, came out in 1835. Maskarad (1836), considered Lermontov's best drama, centers around a bracelet, mistaken identities, and jealousy. At the end a faithful wife is poisoned with ice cream by her husband. The play was first produced by V.E. Meyerhold in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Revolution in 1917. Later Lermontov's melodrama inspired Aram Khachaturian's Masquerade Suite (1944). A number of Lermontov's poems have been arranged for romances.

In 1837 Lermontov gained wider recognition as a writer. After Alexandr Pushkin was killed in a duel, he published an elegy, Smert poeta. In it he finds, behind the blind tool of destiny, arrogant descendants "of fathers famed for their base infamies / Who, with a slavish heel, have spurned the remnants / Of nobler but less favoured families!" And Lermontov continues prophetically: "Before this seat your slanders will not sway / That Judge both just and good... / Nor all your black blood serve to wash away / The poet's righteous blood." The poem was enthusiastically received in liberal circles, but annoyed the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to the Caucasus, where he with several of the members of the Decembrist anti-Nicholas I revolt.

Due to the influence of his grandmother, Lermontov was permitted to return to Petersburg. However, Lermontov's attitude toward contemporary state of affairs did not become less critical. "There was something ominous and tragic in Lermontov's appearance," said Ivan Turgenev later, "his swarthy face and large, motionless dark eyes excluded a sort of somer and evil strength, a sort of pensive scornfulness and passion." . . . . The words, "His eyes did not laugh when he laughed," from A Hero of Our Time, etc., could really have been applied to himself."

Also in 1837 there appeared the poem About Czar Ivan Vasiliyevich, His Young Bodyguard, and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnokov. The scenery of the Caucaus, the wild tribesmen, and the company of ordinary soldiers inspired Lermontov. He produced a series of tales, later collected under the title A Hero of Our Times, one of the great classics of 19th-century Russian literature. The Caucasus had also inspired Puskin, and later Tolstoy depicted this wild and colorful frontier and its people in Hadzi-Murat. Politically the Russian Empire gained control of the Caucasus in the 1860s, but it has been ever since a constant source of conflicts, lately in the Checheno-Ingush region.

A Hero of Our Time has been characterized as the first Russian novel of psychological realism. It consists of five separate stories linked by a common hero, Grigorii Pechorin, who is young, intelligent and feels his life empty. In the foreword Lermontov writes: "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." The book involves three narrative levels, which do not follow chronological order. The first tale, 'Bela,' introduces an unnamed narrator. He tells a story, in which Pechorin steals a Circassian princess, Bela. She loves Pechorin, who after some time starts to spent his time on hunting trips. Finally she is murdered by a vengeful Circassian. In 'Maksim Maksimych' the narrator acquires Pechorin's papers. Pechorin starts his journey to Persia, tells that "I doubt whether I shall return, nor is there any reason why I should." He dies upon his return. In 'Taman' Pechorin is nearly drowned in a wretched provincial town. He has witnessed at night strange doings of local smugglers and a young girl, working for them, tries to kill him in a boat. Pectorin manages to hurl the girl into the sea. In 'Princess Mary' Pechorin asks "why it is that I so persistently seek to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to seduce and whom I shall never marry. Why this feminine coquetery? Vera loves me better than Princess Mary ever will. Were she an unconquerable beauty, the difficulty of the undertaking might serve as an inducement..." Pechorin has no desire to marry the Princess. In a duell he kills Grushnitsky, who has been his friend and loves the Princess. The last story, 'Fatalist' has Pechorin speculating on whether fate or change rules human existence. One of Pechorin's friends, Vulic, had earlier played Russian roulette; he survives the game but bets are made was the pistol loaded  it was. Vulic is killed on his way to home by a drunken Cossack by a sabre. "After all this, one might think, how could one help becoming a fatalist?"

During this creative period he wrote such masterpieces as The Novice, The Cliff, Argument, Meeting, A Leaf, and Prophet. In 'Clouds' (1840) the poet contrasted the clouds "free both to come and go, free and indifferent" to his fate in exile. 'The Dream' (1841) anticipated the poet's death in that remote country: "In Daghestan, no cloud its hot sun cloaking, / A bullet in my side, I lay without / Movement or sound, my wound still fresh and smoking / And drop by drop my lifeblood trickling out."

Lermontov's best-known poem, The Demon (1842), about an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman, reflected the poet's self-image as a demonic creature. The melancholic Demon, exiled from Paradise, wanders on Earth, past hope of making peace again. At night he visits Tamara who says: "Come, swear to me to leave behind / All evil wishes from this hour". The Demon promises: "You are my holy one. This day / My power at your feet I lay. / And for your love one moment long / I'll give you all eternity." His kiss like deadly poison kills Tamara, who is saved by her martyr's pain: "She suffered, loved, laid down her life  / And Heaven opened to her love!" The Demon curses his dreams of better things  "Alone in all the universe, Abandoned, without love or hope!..." Lermontov drafted the sorrowful and self-accusing poem first at the age of 14.

Because of a duel with the French ambassador's son, Lermontov was again exiled, this time to Tenginskii Infantry Regiment on the Black Sea. The regiment was almost permanently engaged on active service and for his courage Lermontov gained the admiration of his fellow officers. However, serving in the front prevented him from writing. Pretending to be ill, Lermontov returned to the health resort of Pyatigorsk, near Moscow and joined the social life of the town. He quarrelled with Major N.S. Martynov, an old acquaintance of the family, and was killed in 1841, at the age of 27, in a duel.

For further reading: Geroi nashego vremeni M. Iu. Lermontova by S. Durylin (1940); Three Russian Poets by Vladimir Nabokov (1945); Lermontov by Janko Lavrin (1959); Mikhail Lermontov by John Mersereau, Jr (1962); Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly (1977); Lermontov by John Garrard (1982); Sud'ba Lermontova by Emma Gershtein (1986): A Wicked Irony by Andrew Barratt and A.D.P. Briggs (1989); The Fey Hussar, ed. by Jessie Davis (1989); Mikhali Lermontov, ed.  Efim Etkind (1992); Lermontov's 'A Hero of Our Time' by Robert Reid (1997); Lermontov's Narratives of Heroism by Vladimir Golstein (1998) - Suom.: Suomennoksia myös teoksessa Venäjän runotar, toim. V. Kiparsky ja Lauri Viljanen (1946)

Selected writings:

  • Vesna, 1830
  • Ispantsy, 1830
  • Angel, 1831
    - The Angel (translated by Guy Daniels, 1965)
    - Enkeli (suom. Lauri Kemiläinen)
  • Parus, 1832
    - The Sail (translated by Irina Zheleznova, 1976)  
    - Purje (suom. Lauri Kemiläinen)
  • Hadji Abrek, 1835 (Hadji the Blood Outcast)
  • Kniaginia Ligovskaia, 1836
    - Princess Ligovskaya (translated by Guy Daniels, in A Lermontov Reader, 1965)
  • Maskarad, 1836
    - Masquerade (translated by Roger W. Phillips, in Russian Literature Triquarterly 7, 1973)
    - Film 1941, prod. Lenfilm Studio, dir. Sergei Gerasimov, featuring Tamara Makarova, Nikolai Mordvinov, Mikhail Sadovsky
  • Smert poeta, 1837 (Death of a Poet)
  • Pesnya pro tsarya Ivana Vasilievicha, molodogo oprichnika i udalogo kuptsa Kalashnikova, 1837
    -   A Song about Tsar Ivan Vasilyevitch His Young Body-Guard and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnikov (translated by John Cournos, 1929) / The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich, His Young Oprichnik, and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov (translated by Irina Zheleznova, 1976)
  • Tambovskaia kaznacheisha, 1837-38
    - The Tambov Treasurer's Wife (translated by Guy Daniels, in A Lermontov Reader, 1965) / The Tambov Lady (translated by Charles Johnston, in Narrative Poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, 1983)
  • Sashka, 1835-39
  • Geroi nashego vremeni, 1840
    - Sketches of Russian Life in the Caucasus (tr. 1853) / A Hero of Our Time (translators: J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray, 1854; Martin Parker, in Selected Works, 1976; Vladimir Nabokov in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov, 1958; Paul Foote, 1966; Philip Longworth, 75; Reginald Merton, 1980) / A Hero of Our Own Times (translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, 1940) / The Heart of a Russian (translated by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray, 1912)
    - Aikamme uros (suom. M. Wuori, 1882) / Bela: kaukaasialainen kertomus (suom. S. L., 1907) / Aikamme sankari (suom. Oskari Kostiainen, 1927; Ulla-Liisa Heino, 1959)
    - Films: Bela, 1927, dir.  Vladimir Barsky, featuring Nikolai Prozorovsky as Pechorin; Maksim Maksimich, 1927, dir.  Vladimir Barsky, featuring Nikolai Prozorovsky as Pechorin; Geroi nashego vremeni, 1965, prod. Gorky Film Studios, dir.  Stanislav Rostotsky, featuring Vladimir Ivashov as Pechorin; Bela, 1966, prod. Gorky Film Studios, dir.  Stanislav Rostotsky; TV film 1966, dir.  Henric Hirsch, featuring Alan Bates as Pechorin, with Mary Miller, Terence de Marney, Ronald Bridges, Natasha Pyne, Maksim Maksimovich, 1966, dir.  Stanislav Rostotsky; 1985, dir. by Michael Almereyda; Geroi nashego vremeni, 2006, prod. Central Partnership, dir.  Alexander Kott, featuring Igor Petrenko, Elvira Bolgova, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Sergei Nikonenko; Pechorin, 2010, prod. Globus Film Studio, dir. Roman Khrushch, starring Stanislav Ryadinskiy, Dmitriy Podnozov and Ilya Sherbinin
  • Mtsyri, 1840
    - The Circassian Boy (tr. 1875) / The Novice (translated by Eugene M. Kayden, in The Demon and Other Poems, 1965) / Mtsyri (translated by Avril Pyman and Irina Zheleznova, in Selected Works, 1976)
    - Karkuri (suom. Armas Äikiä, 1952)
  • Kazachya kolybelnaya pesnya, 1840
  • Demon, 1841
    - The Demon (translators: Eugene M. Kayden, 1965; Avril Pyman and Irina Zheleznova, in Selected Works, 1976; Charles Johnston, in Narrative Poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, 1983)
    - Demooni (suom. M. Vuori, 1889; Armas Äikiä) / Daimoni (suom. Martti Wuori, 1911)
    - Film 1911, prod. Thiemann & Reinhardt, dir.  Giovanni Vitrotti
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, 1935-37 (5 vols., ed. Boris Eikhenbaum)
  • Vadim, 1973
    - Vadim (translated by Helena Goscilo, 1984)
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1936-37 (5 vols.)
  • Sochineniia, 1954-57 (6 vols.)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1957-58 (4 vols., edited by  I. L. Andronikov et al.)
  • The Demon and Other Poems, 1965 (translated by Eugene M. Kayden)
  • A Lermontov Reader, 1965 (edited and translated by Guy Daniels)
  • Selected Works, 1976 (translated by Avril Pyman, Irina Zheleznova, and Martin Parker)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1979 (4 vols., edited by V.A. Manuilov)
  • Narrative Poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, 1983 (translated by Charles Johnston)
  • Major Poetical Works, 1984 (translated by Anatoly Liberman)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1989 (4 vols., edited by G.P. Makogonenko)
  • Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii, 1989 (2 vols., edited by Iu.A. Andreev)

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