Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

“Если бы этот мальчик остался жив, не нужны были ни я, ни Достоевский – If that young man had stayed alive, neither I, nor Dostoevsky, would have been necessary” – Tolstoy

 

At 7 o’clock in the evening of July 27th 1841, somewhere at the foot of mount Mashuk near Pyatigorsk, in the midst of a fierce mountain thunderstorm, the young poet Lermontov was shot dead in a duel with his old comrade Martynov.

 

Since that fatal moment, there have been plenty of people who suspected a plot to murder Lermontov. Sadly there are not many reliable accounts of the events that took place on that fatal evening. So what do we know?

 

Lermontov was staying in Pyatigorsk to ‘take the waters’, to recover from an illness before he went to rejoin his regiment. Pyatigorsk was a popular spa town in the Caucasus (on the Russian side) where many wealthy Russians came to get cured. There were also many military men there, who were on (sick) leave from their duties in the Caucasian War, like Lermontov. Lermontov knew many of the people there, including Martynov, who he had known since military school.

 

In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water. In the afternoons there were picnics in the mountains and in the evening dinner parties and balls were organised. At one of those parties Lermontov made one joke too many at the expense of his old comrade, calling him ‘the highlander with the big dagger’, mocking Martynov’s Circassian outfit and weapon. Martynov replied that he had repeatedly asked him not not make fun of him in the company of ladies. The next day they met again and Martynov again expressed his dissatisfaction, and a date and place for a duel were fixed.

 

Duels were illegal; both participants and seconds would not get off lightly. As a result duels were held in secret, but there were clear rules. The participants needed at least one second each, in this case they each had two. There also had to be a doctor present, and there had to be a cart to take away the dead or injured. The seconds had to try to dissuade the participants in advance and organise the pistols and a doctor.

Until the last moment Lermontov appeared nonchalant, thinking that they would call off the duel, embrace and go for dinner together. The seconds thought so too. They made an attempt to get a doctor, but even though there were obviously plenty of doctors in Pyatigorsk, they all refused to be present at an illegal duel. They didn’t bring a cart either.

 

Only one of the seconds, Vasiltchikov, wrote about the events later. The others, and Martynov too, kept silent. Tolstoy tried later in vain (unfortunately!) to persuade another second, Stolypin, to talk. According to Vasiltchikov, Lermontov had told the seconds that he would fire in the air. At the moment suprême the contestants faced each other. Lermontov pointed his gun upwards and supposedly said that he was not going to shoot at that ‘fool’ and at that Martynov aimed and fired.

 

The bullet pierced Lermontov’s heart and he fell down without even grasping his injury. Although he was clearly dead, a doctor was called. This time they had difficulty getting one to come because of the weather. One of the seconds, Glebov, stayed with the body, in the dark forest in the pouring rain until help arrived. The dead Lermontov was taken to his lodgings and Martynov and the seconds were arrested.

 

Pyatigorsk was in shock; all the ladies paid their respect and the poet’s body was soon covered in flowers. Death by duel was considered suicide, but after some money was paid, Lermontov got a Christian burial. His devastated grandmother later managed to get his body transferred to the family grave.

 

In the official reports there is no mention of Lermontov’s intention to fire in the air. It would have meant that Martynov had to be tried for murder. It remains strange that his old pal was unable to forgive Lermontov his pranks. Other than that there is no evidence of a coverup. And besides, the authorities may have had reasons to exile him, but not to kill him, although one could argue that sending a man to fight at the front in the Caucasian War is practically murder.

 

Did he perhaps want to die? I don’t think so. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and he had his army career. 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 that comes with the territory of being a romantic poet. With Pushkin it was a different case. 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.

 

Since the duel could easily have been avoided if Lermontov had apologised for his attitude immediately, my conclusion is that Lermontov himself was mostly to blame for his death.

 

*****

 

Different sources all have slightly different versions of the events. I based this account mostly upon the Laurence Kelly biography, Tragedy in the Caucasus and the following websites: fishki.net and aif.ru.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos from Wikimedia: Lermontov dying, the memorial in Pyatigorsk and the family grave in Tarkhany.

Also included is Lermontov’s prophetic poem A Dream.

 

Voor mijn Nederlandstalige lezers: alle Nederlandstalige blogposts staan nu op http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com .

 

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56 thoughts on “Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

  1. There are too many versions of what actually happened, but I cannot disagree with you – his death was self-inflicted indeed. Lermontov provoked Martinov more that once so that he lost control and fired his pistol. Martinov was in shock of what he had done. It was not in his nature, and explains his silence regards the events.
    Thank you for these wonderful articles!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reading them! Yes, in another account Lermontov looked at Martynov with utter contempt during the duel, and there is even a theory that Martynov didn’t kill Lermontov, but another person, because of the angle of the course that the bullet ran through his chest.
    I don’t think Martynov wanted to kill Lermontov either, and it’s good that they didn’t mention L’s intention not to shoot M, in that respect. Poor guy, having to live with killing Russia’s most promising writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an excellent retelling of the fatal duel… I much enjoyed the way you wrote it, dear Elisabeth! … It seems Martynov might have considered Lermontov´s words too harsh…. But a duel!?…. I guess we need to understand the importance it used to have when it came to Honor and Pride.
    Also, how curious that Tolstoy even tried to stop them in the last minutes. An excellent post, my friend. Thank you for sharing. Love & best wishes! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much, dear Amalia! Yes, it certainly seems like Martynov took too much offence. Although I’m sure even he thought it’d just be a warning, and that Lermontov would apologise. It was a different time, as you say. And for the record, Tolstoy met one of the seconds, Stolypin, about ten years after the duel, and he tried to get Stolypin to talk about the duel, but Stolypin refused to do so.
    Thanks so much, sending hugs and kisses to Argentina! ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a fascinating post, Elisabeth. Very well thought out and done. You obviously thought a lot about your conclusions.

    I like the novelistic way you describe what happened: “In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water.”

    Your post gave me a feeling — a real feeling — for the first time of what a duel must have been like. So senseless from our twenty-first century perspective.

    The painting of Lermontov dying which you posted (thanks!) conveys so much.

    Lermontov’s prophetic poem “A Dream” is amazing in view of what happened. Uncanny.

    Thank you for mentioning the biography of Lermontov by Laurence Kelly. I had never heard of it. I have purchased it form Amazon. There was only one copy left for sale.

    Great post.

    ROGER

    Like

  6. I love random stories from history like this. And by the way, why do we not still practice the art of dueling? It would make some things so much easier to decide, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My goodness what a life that went to waste because of one bad decision. I never really understood how they could just demand a duel so easily when one could and would most probably be severely injured or worse killed. Literally playing with their own lives. You’re right though, he did (thinking it was honourable) when in hindsight it was foolish wasn’t it ?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m not that in russian literature, but I’m fascinated how russian treat their writers like heroes. There are in deed still ‘popstars’ over there. My russian wife knows all books of Pushkin and others by heart! And I guess that all of the russians do. That makes me in a way a bit sad, because I missed to come closer to german or european literature.
    Two years ago I was in Pjatigorsk and visited Lermontovs house and I was overwhelmed by that spell of that place. As well as the cave Podval from Ill’s and Petrow’s novella ‘Twelve Chairs’.

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  9. Hey Markus, so good to hear from you! I would love to go to Pyatigorsk and visit all those places! In Russia they definitely treat writers like pop stars. I was at the Helsinki book fair a few times, and they always have a Russian corner, that is really popular with the local Russians; they sit and talk about books the whole day. Two years ago Lyudmila Ulitskaya was there, she gave a lecture and people were practically fighting to get in to see her.
    I realise that to western standards I know a lot about Russian literature, but that that’s nothing compared to the average Russian 😄
    Thanks for stopping by!

    Like

  10. Hey Elisabeth,
    oh yes, Pyatigorsk and the North Caucasus is definitely wort to go! But we get told to better not walk alone in the dark because it could be dangerous… …not kidding. BUT St. Petersburg and Moscow are wonderful places as well. There are so many places connected to literature.. …you would love it. Museums, Memorials… …the datshas of the writers in Peredelkino in the outskirts of Moscow, which you maybe know from the movie The Russian House (Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeifer). …and of course the Novodevichi Cemetery:
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nowodewitschi-Friedhof
    …this is the german wiki site where you can find the list of people buried there.
    And even in the small cities between St. Petersburg and Moscow you will find in almost all of them a Pushkin Museum, because all the writers stopped by small hotels on their travel between the two metropolises.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for all your great advice, Markus! I really appreciate it, and it is something that I hope to do in the near future.
    I have never seen that movie, I shall look it up.
    I really enjoyed the photos you took at the Novodevichi Cemetery.
    Nice to connect with you!
    Elisabeth

    Like

  12. Ah, Bulgakov, one of mine too, I’m actually re-reading The Master and Margarita now. He’s great. I’m sure you know many of those places in Moscow.
    I wonder how I could’ve missed the Russia House, it sounds just my thing!

    Like

  13. wow, Master and Margarita is great. I love it. I do remember pretty good how I felt inside this scenery of Moscows 20s. Later I went to all that places… ..Patrichats Pond, Malaja Bronnaja St., Sadovaja 302b (where Bugakov had is flat in real) and there was this spell again that I felt while reading. The ponds a wonderful and calm oasis in the center of Moscow.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarch_Ponds

    btw there is a pretty good tv show made of this book in 2005. Here with english subtitles:

    Did you know that Mick Jagger was inspired by this book, that he wrote the song ‘Sympathy for the devil’ for the Rolling Stones? Bulgarkov started writing M&M in 1928, then burned the script, wrote it again.. …and the book was censored and not published until the middle of the 1960s.

    SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I’m a man of wealth and taste
    I’ve been around for a long, long years
    Stole many a man’s soul and faith

    And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that Pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what’s puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game

    I stuck around St. Petersburg
    When I saw it was a time for a change
    Killed the czar and his ministers
    Anastasia screamed in vain

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes, I’ve watched the tv show on YouTube twice! I enjoyed it very much. The theme music keeps haunting your head for days!
    Last April there was an opera version of A Dog’s Heart here in Amsterdam, super interesting!
    I read about the Stones, and I’m not surprised that after reading the novel, they were inspired. It has the best quotes too, and so many literary references. Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Lucky you!

    Hey, that looks great. I mean I’m not a big friend with opera.. …but like they announce in the trailer, that this play is exactly for something like me. 😀

    There is one movie from 1976, the one I knew..

    ..but it seems that there is a remake from 1988 as well. Full version btw with subtitles and in a good quality:

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Good morning,
    oops… …I’ve found out, that the link which I considered as the 1988 version of Dog’s Heart is the 1976 version… …only in good quality. This quality is even better then the version we good already on DVD.
    Enjoy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Today we get visitors from Russia for a couple of days… …and they loved to be entertained. 😀 …seems like I have to postpone it to next week. I mean this movie is over 40 y/o… …it won’t get sad to be watched a few days later. 🙂
    have a nice day, Elisabeth 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Elisabeth,

    so nice that you wrote.

    Great that you managed it, respect 😁👍🏼 …Nö subtitles? 😳😳😳 …hmmm, I thought this high quality version had subtitles… …strange

    Like

  19. hey, you speak russian? Where did you learned it? ….I would consider my russian language skills as ‘maybe in future times almost okay-ish’ 😀 😀 ..found it so hard to learn it, but I can survive with my skills. One week a month I’m in Russia for business. In Tver… …such a beautiful city. Worth to see. And as a matter of fact you are forced to speak russian… …if you wanna talk. Sometimes it’s make me sad that that I can only communicate on a very simple level (except my english and german speaking friends) and a lot of things get lost in translation. BUT, in a way the russians are very good non verbal speakers, which make it more simple to understand when you talk about emotions and you just need to read their eyes and faces. Thats different in Germany. 😀 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Yes, I do, a little bit rusty though, I don’t speak it very often. I studied Russian, but didn’t finish it.
    So you go to Russia all the time! Is that how you met your wife?

    Like

  21. Wow, impressing. I’m envy you. 🙂 Cool.
    I studied electronics (major field data and IT). Worked for NOKIA for almost ten years. After they closed down the factory I started my own business by building up a company that trades european fashion (garments and shoes) to Russia. What a change, huh? 😀
    Victoria I met 20 y/a here in Germany. She studied already german language and law and work at that time for a german-russian organization which cares about human rights…. …hey, you like to continue on my mail account? markus.mehring@gmx.net (the other WP mail address I usually never check, because for some reasons I could not switch of all this WP notices…)

    Like

  22. I appreciate that you have not only shared your passion for the literature but taken much care in making it palpable, real, interesting, intriguing by providing historical perspectives and most of all, human perspective. Who doesn’t want to know all the delicious details of an author’s life or the back stories of his/her characters!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Well, thank you! That is such a nice compliment to get! It makes me very happy that you took the time to read my blog posts and that you enjoyed them. By the way, I love the name of you blog! Have a great day and happy reading, walk cheerfully 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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