The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

When Pushkin died in 1836, Lermontov got so infuriated, that he immediately wrote the poem On the Death of a Poet. In it he blamed, as did many people, the higher circles of Saint Petersburg society for Pushkin's death. The poem was copied out by hand and promptly distributed throughout the city. Lermontov became famous instantly and was received as the heir of Pushkin* in literary circles. A copy of the poem reached Tsar Nicholas and he was not so impressed with the young Lermontov and his criticisms. He got banished to the Caucasus, to serve in the Russian army there.

First exile to the Caucasus

Lermontov (1814-1841) was already serving as a cornet in Saint Petersburg at the time. There is a self portrait of him in 1837, looking the part, clutching a Circassian dagger. As some of you may remember, Lermontov had been to the Caucasus already three times before with his grandmother. He loved it there, so the exile was hardly a severe punishment for him. He was actually sorry when his banishment was over, and he certainly would have stayed, if it wasn't for his grandmother.

Youth with his grandmother

He was raised by his adoring grandmother after his mother died when he was little. Little Mikhail rarely saw his father, a descendant from the Scottish Learmonth family. His grandmother made sure that he received an excellent education. He had a number of foreign tutors, as was the norm for aristocratic families at the time. As a boy he discovered his hero Byron and when he wished he could read him in English, his grandmother hired an English tutor. As a result of this education, he knew English, French and German, could play and compose music and had learned how to draw and paint. Because he suffered from arthritis already as a child, his grandmother took him to the Caucasus, where the climate was better.

The spectacular nature, the fantastic stories he heard there and the exiting (to say the least!) lifestyle had a profound effect on the boy. After such an upbringing how could he not have become an artist? When he returned to the Caucasus as a grown man, he enjoyed spending his spare time drawing and painting the landscapes, but mostly the Caucasus inspired him to write.

Writing career

Back in Saint Petersburg he had more time to write and in 1839 his most famous work A Hero of our Time was published, as was his his beautiful poem The Demon. Both are set in his beloved Caucasus and have a melancholy feeling that is typical for Lermontov. He had now firmly established his name as Pushkin’s successor. Curiously enough** he was challenged to a duel by the son of the French ambassador, Ernest de Barante. Possibly de Barante was offended by Lermontov's poem On the Death of a Poet and the hate against his fellow countryman d’Anthès it expresses. The duel took place at exactly the same place as Pushkin's fatal duel. Luckily neither opponent was seriously hurt this time. Duels were illegal and someone must have betrayed them. De Barante could not be prosecuted due to his diplomatic status, but Lermontov got his second exile.

Second exile to the Caucasus

Again to the Caucasus, but lower in rank, fighting front line now. Lermontov was a free thinker who didn't like to be told what to do, but in the regiment he followed orders and showed extraordinary bravery. His superiors put him up for promotion and several medals, but Nicholas didn't think Lermontov worthy.

Perhaps also as the result of his childhood, Lermontov was a bit strange. Most people didn't like him, and he didn't like most people. He had a childish sense of humour, played pranks and made fun of others. When Lermontov was on sick leave in Pyatigorsk, his old comrade Martynov got enough of Lermontov’s jokes at his expense and challenged him. Until the last moment Lermontov was convinced that they would reconcile, but the duel took place. At the foot of mount Mashuk, so frequently mentioned in Lermontov's work. Lermontov said beforehand that he would fire in the air, and he did, but Martynov aimed directly at him and shot Lermontov dead.

Lermontov died at just 27 years of age, depriving Russia of another fantastic talent, who is in the West highly underestimated and undertranslated.


*Pushkin died young and was already during his lifetime recognised as Russia's greatest, Russia's all. His death, by a foreigner, caused a real feeling of deprivation and despair and it raised two questions: How could things have gotten so out of hand that someone had dared to kill their national poet and who was going to fill his shoes?!

**Obviously there have been many conspiracy theories about this duel too, the similarities were obvious.

© Elisabeth van der Meer – Photos by me and from Wikipedia


Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

After Lermontov, Translations for the Bicentenary – edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack (translations by Scottish translators into English or Scottish to honour Lermontov’s Scottish roots:-))

Liever in het Nederlands?

53 thoughts on “The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

  1. I love that the copy was copied by hand immediately so as to be distributed throughout the city quickly, a sense of urgency despite the limitations of the printing press.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, there were two reasons for that, as you mention, in order to be able to distribute it immediately and secondly, because it could not be printed. The strict censorship of the time did not allow criticism. Thanks for stopping by, Letizia! 💚

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks , Carrie. Yes, completely senseless. We can only wonder what pearls he might have written if only he had stayed alive… But of course that makes a good story too. The lives these Russian writers lived were anything but boring!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another fascinating post, Elisabeth. Thanks!

    As always, I appreciated your shrewd insights and use of telling details. For example: “Perhaps also as the result of his childhood, Lermontov was a bit strange. Most people didn’t like him, and he didn’t like most people. He had a childish sense of humour, played pranks and made fun of others.”\

    It’s incredible that Lermontov was killed in a duel just like his idol Pushkin. Do you think somehow, he willed it?

    I found myself asking, did Lermontov ever spend time in Scotland. I looked him up in Wikipedia and it appears that he didn’t.

    I would bet that not that many people realize that Scotland is not that far from Russia by sea.

    When I was in the UK about 15 years ago, I purchased a fascinating book: “The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood” by Eugenie Fraser. It was a great read. She was born in Archangel, Russia to a Russian father and a Scottish mother. The family fled to Scotland, where she was brought up, after the Russian Revolution.

    In the poem by Lermontov, “Ossian’s Grave,” which you posted, he speaks of “the Highlands of Scotland I love.” Does this mean he visited there? (It’s interesting that the American poet Robinson Jeffers [1887-1962] also wrote poem entitled “Ossian’s Grave.”)

    Ossian was supposedly an ancient Scottish bard. James Macpherson (1736 – 1796), a Scottish poet and literary collector, became famous as the “translator” of the Ossian cycle of epic poems, which he supposedly discovered and translated from the Gaelic. The poems were shown to be fraudulent, invented by Macpherson and passed off as authentic. Samuel Johnson was one of the early critics to note this. Macpherson actually challenged Johnson, who was in late middle age, to a duel!


  5. Thank you, Roger, for this interesting contribution!

    About his death, I don’t think he willed it. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and had his army career. But he did have a certain carelessness about him, a sort of disregard for life, like his character Pechorin from A Hero of our Time. It is difficult to estimate how much of that was just a pose, befitting a romantic poet. There certainly is no evidence of a conspiracy, like with Pushkin. The only thing that can be said is that it was strange that Martynov, an old army comrade, took so much offence to Lermontov’s jokes, that he felt a duel was necessary, and that Lermontov according to witnesses had said that he would fire into the air. That bit was not mentioned in official reports, but if it had, it would have been murder.
    With Pushkin, however, it was different. He had money problems, was well known to be a hotheaded person and he was clearly trapped. With him I feel it was both suicide and murder.

    Lermontov has never been to Scotland, the Scottish landscape he describes is from Ossian and Walter Scott. He was a descendant of the Learmonths, and also claimed to descend from Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet.

    The book you describe sounds interesting. I have been to Scotland many times, and it is really spectacularly beautiful. I can imagine that the Caucasus would have reminded Lermontov of Scotland, even though he had never been there. And there you go, another duel!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting, Elisabeth. Your comment on Walter Scott rings true. It seems that everyone was reading him in Lermontov’s time.

    Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake” used to be a commonly assigned work in high school English courses (in the US). We were assigned it in freshman English. It seemed antiquated and a bit “strange” for a modern ear (reader).
    I agree with you that Scotland is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this post, Elisabeth! Lermontov’s poem The Demon is one of the most beautiful and powerful pieces of poetry I have ever read. Lermontov is always described as a prankster who was teasing and tormenting his fellow comrades, but reading his poems and prose no one would ever guess so. What I think is that his less educated comrades just didn’t get his jokes and thought he was laughing at them. He lived in a wrong environment, in a wrong time, in a wrong country. He was a genius like Pushkin, but more sophisticated and passionate. I also love the fact that he didn’t care of the worldly things and didn’t make debts because of these things. Free spirit like his Demon he was.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you, Inese (?) for you insightful comment! I’m so happy to hear that you know and love Lermontov! Like you I love The Demon, he was definitely equal to Pushkin in talent, in a different way, more passionate, as you say. He was wrongly described as a prankster, actually a quiet young man, who didn’t drink or played cards much, and a bit of an outsider. He preferred to read, paint and write. Definitely a free sprint, but no compromise either, or he would probably have lived a bit longer. Can I ask you if you know of any other biographies, other than the Kelly? I want to write a blog about the final duel, since some readers were curious about it. Thanks again! Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “… he was definitely equal to Pushkin in talent”

    was he?

    I’m basically ignorant

    I do not have an in depth knowledge of Russian literature or of poetry in general

    but we were always told that Pushkin was the greatest, Russia’s Shakespeare

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating post, and so sad that the life of such a talent was cut short ins such a random way. The poem at the end has similarities in cadence (at least for me) with the work of the Irish poet Yeats.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh yes, the stories in A Hero of our Time are equal to Pushkin’s Belkin Stories, and The Demon is even better. Pushkin is more famous, lived a bit longer and was able to write more. But you can’t help but wonder what if… Lermontov had lived as long as Tolstoy…?


  12. How lovely of you to speak about great Russian writers!
    Indeed, having quite a nasty character, Lermontov had an excellent feeling of human nature and possessed an impressive talent of narrator.
    I adored his Demon when I first read it, and The Hero of Our Time could surely be staged as a spectacular television series nowadays))))

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Lovely to hear from you, someone! Isn’t A Hero he best story ever? I’m re-reading it now for the third time and it only gains in beauty. It’s such a one of a kind. It outs definitely make an exciting tv series. And I adore The Demon too, it’s so melodious and dramatic!
    Thanks for stopping by:-)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your 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