Lermontov and the Caucasus

In the second part about the Caucasus we're going to talk about another authority on that subject: Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). He visited the region for the first time as a child and got banished to the Caucasus twice.

Pushkin's Heir

Lermontov rose to fame instantly with his poem Death of the Poet, which he wrote after Pushkin's untimely death in 1837. In it he blames Russian society and the government for the loss of Russia's greatest talent. Pushkin's unexpected death shocked Lermontov so much that he even considered challenging d'Anthes (Pushkin's opponent in the fatal duel) to a duel himself. And after reading Lermontov 's outraged poem d'Anthes thought about challenging Lermontov.

More duels

Besides instant fame the poem also earned him his first exile the the Caucasus, for one year. In 1840 Lermontov was banished to the Caucasus for the second time, this time because he had actually taken part in a duel (which his opponent also survived). Apparently the banishment hadn't scared him off sufficiently, because in 1841 Lermontov died in a duel, fought at the foot of Mount Mashuk, which he described so often during his short life.

Romantic environment

The exotic landscape of the Caucasus and it's colourful inhabitants inspired Lermontov, like Pushkin, enormously. Of course, they lend themselves perfectly as a setting for literature in the Romantic genre. Lermontov wrote several works that take place in the Caucasus, A Hero of Our Time (1840) is the best known.

A superfluous man

The hero of the story, Pechorin, is not really a hero in the classical sense. He's a Byronic hero, an anti-hero. In Russian such characters are called a лишний человек, a superfluous man.

Pechorin's character is rather contradictory. On the one hand he is the bored dandy from Saint Petersburg. A dashing young man with expensive trinkets and clothes. On the other hand he is a reckless and unscrupulous daredevil, who appears to fit in effortlessly with the local climate and people.

“I SOMETIMES despise myself… Is not that the reason why I despise others also?…”

At some point in the book Pechorin is determined to have the attractive Circassian Bela. But he has a rival, the Cossack Kazbich. With a cunning scheme Pechorin not only manages to steal the girl from her family, he also robs Kazbich from his most prized possession, his horse. He makes it seem as if the horse was stolen by Bela's family and Kazbich kills Bela's father. And so Pechorin has destroyed a family and ruined a man, all for the sake of a fling with a pretty girl.

“The love of a savage is little better than that of your lady of quality.”

After they have lived together for a while, Pechorin quickly gets bored with Bela. By coincidence Kazbich catches a glimpse of Bela and tries to kidnap her. Pechorin manages to prevent this from happening, but Bela gets fatally injured in the process and dies a few days later. On her deathbed she briefly considers becoming a Christian, so that she will be reunited with Pechorin in the afterlife. She decides however to stay true to her roots. And probably she suspects that Pechorin won't make it there anyway, and that he won't stay alone the rest of his life.

Kismet

Just like Pushkin, Lermontov depicted the locals as noble savages. They rob and murder left and right. But he let Pechorin do the same. Pechorin sees himself as someone who doesn't matter, therefore he appears not to care about the implications his actions have on other people. Also he is obsessed with 'kismet', he firmly believes that you cannot escape your destiny. Lermontov used the rugged and unpredictable, but at the same time impressive, landscape to emphasise Pechorin's character. Nature doesn't care if you fall into a ravine or drown in a river, that's kismet.

 

The books I read:

– A Hero of Our Time – Lermontov

– Russian Literature and Empire – Susan Layton

 

Self portrait by Lermontov, Memorial for Lermontov at the foot of Mount Mashuk, Caucasian landscape by Lermontov – all from Wikipedia.

 

The quotes are from A Hero of Our Time.

 

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