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.eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com .

 

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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


Booklist:

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? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Tolstoy and Homer

As I write this I'm sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a view that has been the same for thousands of years. It’s the perfect place to write about the similarities between Homer and Tolstoy.

As I have written before, Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

Typically Homer

The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were written some 2800 years ago, assumedly by Homer. They are about the Trojan War and its aftermath and have been extremely influential. The major themes of the Iliad are glory, honour, wrath and fate. The Homeric hero would rather die honourably and receive eternal glory than be a coward. The war is constantly interfered with by the eternal gods, who use the war to fight their own petty battles with each other.

Fascination with war

Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man. Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night. It provides a chance to escape from daily life and responsibilities, and to prove yourself. Striving for glory is important. In War and Peace Nicholas and later his younger brother Petya can't wait to go to war. In the Iliad Paris is scorned for his unwillingness to fight. For Hadji Murad there simply is no other way of life, he will fight until the end.

Contrast with home

Nevertheless, both writers contrast life on the battlefield with that that the heroes have left behind: home, family, and working the land. The shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles is adorned with more peaceful scenes than war scenes. In between battles the hero Hector visits his family, showing his tender side. Hadji Murad’s life had always been rather violent and the Russians regard him as a heroic and legendary figure, but he too gets sentimental thinking about his mother and his family and it's the welfare of his family that motivates him.

To die heroically

When Hector faces Achilles in a man to man fight, he is initially scared, but eventually he faces Achilles and dies a hero. Hadji Murad dies heroically as well, still standing, even though he is mortally wounded; he keeps fighting until he literally falls down. The scene is extremely Homeric and Tolstoyan at the same time: no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.

Fate

The outcome of wars is decided by the arbitrariness of the gods or the tsar or Napoleon. We humans are mere mortals, without control of our destiny. And because of this the message of these two gigantic writers is that life has to be lived and enjoyed right now.

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

Deep in cold water, (whence the strength of steel)

So hiss’d his eye around the olive-wood.” (Homer – The Odyssey)

“With a solemn, triumphant march there mingled a song, the drip from the trees, and the hissing of the sabre, “Ozheg-zheg-zheg…” and again the horses jostled each other and neighed, not disturbing the choir but joining in it.” (Tolstoy – War and Peace)

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

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


Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Mumu – A Quiet Protest

 

Mumu is one of Turgenev’s best known stories, beautifully and subtly constructed. At first sight a touching story of the love between a serf and his dog, cruelly disrupted by the jealousy of his mistress. Written in 1852, when it was not exactly customary to write about a simple serf and his feelings. Turgenev was never politically outspoken, but his prose speaks for itself.

Summary

The deaf-mute Gerasim is an appreciated and hard working peasant in one of the villages of his wealthy old mistress until one day she decides to make him yard-keeper at her Moscow mansion. Poor Gerasim finds it hard to adjust and finishes his city work for the day in half an hour. After a year he falls in love with laundry girl Tatyana, but she is scared of him and the mistress wants Tatyana to marry the drunken shoemaker Kapiton. A year later the couple is sent off to a remote village. After Gerasim has seen them off, he rescues a small dog from drowning. The dog recovers and Gerasim calls her Mumu, the only sound he can make. They simply adore each other. A year later the mistress sees Mumu and wants to have her, but Mumu clearly doesn’t like her. The vexed mistress orders to have Mumu drowned, claiming the dog keeps her awake with her barking. Gerasim is heartbroken, but drowns Mumu himself (yes, keep your hankies ready!). After that heartbreaking scene he returns to his room, takes his belongings and walks back to his birth village in two days.

The old widow and the deaf-mute yard-keeper

The widow is alone, her children are married and “the evening of her life was blacker than night”. She owns thousands of serfs, but no one spends time with her voluntarily. She is bitter and cannot stand to see other people happy, so she rips families apart and uproots her serfs constantly. Gerasim is alone too, especially in the city. People are scared of him and he is isolated because of his handicap, ”for him the noisiest day was more silent and soundless than the softest night” But he accepts his fate, works hard and is capable is kindhearted, as he shows with Mumu. When he strides back to the countryside ”an infinite number of stars” light his way.

Round story

It is a very neat and round story. Gerasim is taken from and returns to his village. Mumu is saved from drowning and drowned by Gerasim. Everything takes place in the course of three years at summertime, the first year Gerasim gets used to the city, the second he falls in love with Tatyana and the third he looks after Mumu.

True story

Turgenev's mother Warwara (1787-1850) was the cruel mistress, and Gerasim's real name was Andrey. The only difference is in how the story ends, Turgenev lets Gerasim make a statement by returning to his village. That was an unheard of act of defiance, but he gets away with it, and therefore the story ends with a small victory of serf over mistress. Gerasim keeps his dignity. In real life Andrey loyally stayed with his mistress.

The Russian People

Gerasim stood for the Russian people, their sensible character, work lust, and faithful nature. Faithful to even the most cruel master or mistress. The serfs might as well be mute, like Gerasim, because they were an ignored class. With this story Turgenev gave a voice to the serfs.

Turgenev's Protest

When Turgenev wrote Mumu in 1852 he was in exile because of the obituary of Gogol that he wrote. He suspected that it had more to do with his Sportsman's Sketches, which had somehow slipped through the strict censure. In this light Mumu can be seen as a protest against the censure. Mumu is finally published in1884.

All photos by me except the portrait of Turgenev's mother Warwara (Wikipedia)

Mumu – Turgenev, translation by Anthony Briggs

You can read Mumu online: http://www.online-literature.com/turgenev/1972/

 

In the footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris

Ah Paris.. As I’m writing this I look out over the countless roofs of the city. I’m here to walk in the footsteps of two great Russian writers, two favourites of mine: Turgenev and Tolstoy. 150 years ago the journey from Russia to Paris took about ten days; for me it’s just over three hours by train from Amsterdam.

Pauline Viardot

Turgenev came to live in Paris (actually he lived there off and on for 36 years) to be close to his objet d’amour, Pauline Viardot. He had been hopelessly in love with her since 1843, but she was the wife of his good friend Louis Viardot (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R). After staying at the Viardots’ as a ‘family friend’ for a really long time, he decides in 1847 that it’s more appropriate to rent his own apartment, close to the Tuileries Garden.

Depressed

Around 1857, the year that Tolstoy came to visit, Turgenev lives on the Rue the Rivoli 208 or 210 (most sources say 210) with his daughter Paulinette. At that time his relationship with Pauline is not so good, and that depresses him.

50 Rue de Douai

In 1871, however, when he is 53 years old, he moves in with the Viardots at the 50 Rue de Douai. There he occupies four rooms on the third flour. By then he has become some sort of honorary consul of Russia in Paris. Ilya Repin comes to paint his portrait, and he takes part in weekly get togethers with Maupassant, Zola, Flaubert and Georges Sand (to name but a few) in former restaurant Magny on the Rue Mazet.

After his death in 1883 in the Viardots’ country house, his body is transported to Russia to be buried there. But before the coffin gets on the train, it is sent to the Russian Cathedral in the Rue Daru to get censed, even though Ivan was not religious.

Rue de Rivoli

With Tolstoy, of course, it’s a different story. Not love, but adventure calls him to Paris. He arrives at the Gare du Nord on February 9th 1857. Turgenev and the writer Nekrasov, who he knows well, receive him. The first night he sleeps in the Hôtel Meurice in the Rue de Rivoli, but the next day he rents a furnished apartment in the same street on number 206.

Madness

On the evening of his arrival Tolstoy is taken to a costumed ball in the Opéra by Turgenev. Before he goes to bed that night Tolstoy writes only one word in his diary, that typifies his stay in Paris: “Madness.”.

Turgenev, who knows the city really well, shows him numerous places of interest. But also when Tolstoy is alone he keeps a busy schedule. He goes to lectures at the Sorbonne, to concerts, to evenings with fellow countrymen. Obviously he thinks Napoleon’s grave is a disgusting display of misplaced worship. Through Turgenev he could have met a number of acclaimed French writers, but typically he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

The Guillotine

Tolstoy is enjoying himself tremendously until he decides one unfortunate day to attend an execution by guillotine. But seeing the infamous machine in action with his own eyes terrifies him, it disgusts him, he is disgusted with himself for going, he is disgusted with the French for inventing it and can’t sleep for nights. He leaves Paris soon after.

Love-hate

In Paris too the relationship between the two writers is not always good (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1Y). Their diaries and letters clearly show that:

Turgenev, February 16 – His creaking and groaning have a very bad effect on a man like me, whose nerves are already overstrained.

Tolstoy, February 21 – Spent another pleasant evening with Turgenev and a bottle of wine by the fireside.

Tolstoy, March 4 – Dropped in on Turgenev. He is a cold and useless man, but intelligent and his art is inoffensive.

Turgenev, March 8 – I cannot establish any lasting friendship with Tolstoy, our views are too different.

 

View on the Tuileries from the Rue de Rivoli
This is the building in which Tolstoy rented an apartment
He only stayed six weeks, but he is remembered in Paris
The door at 206-208 is beautiful, and the location in great, but inside it was not as comfortable as Tolstoy was accustomed to..

The Viardots’ house on the Rue de Douai

Turgenev’s rooms were on the third flour

Turgenev must have crossed this doorstep many times

Ici vécut de 1871 à 1883 l’écrivain Russe Ivan Tourguéniev après de ses amis Louis Viardot, historien d’art et hispaniste, et Pauline Viardot-Garcia, cantatrice et compositeur, soeur de la Malibran

On the ground flour there is now an authentic and delicious bakery

The view from the bakery

The Russian Cathedral where Turgenev’s coffin was censed. Incidentally there was also a funeral service being held when I took these photos.

When on February 19th 1871 Russia officially abolished serfdom, Turgenev was so happy (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28) that he went to Russian church to celebrate!

-fin-

—Tous les photos prises par moi-même—

Les livres:

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy and Turgenev, his Life and Times by Henri Troyat

The Death of Lev Nikolayevich

The clock at the train station of the small Russian town Lev Tolstoy has stopped at five past six ever since the famous writer died there 105 years ago. When on the 31st of October 1910 an ill Tolstoy was put to bed at the station master’s house, the quiet town of Astapovo, as it was known then, suddenly became the stage of an epic media circus.

Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana!

In the early morning of the 28th of October 1910 Tolstoy had left his beloved Yasnaya Polyana in secret. The situation at his home had become unbearable. His wife Sophia argued non stop with him about his friendship with Chertkov, a devoted Tolstoy follower, who according to Sophia had too much influence. Also Tolstoy wanted to finally act according to his principles, live a simple life, become a wanderer and give up his worldly possessions.

Together with his physician Makovitsky he traveled to the station where he bought two tickets with different destinations, to make it more difficult for Sophia to track him down. Once on board the train he is immediately recognised and people from the whole train flock to his compartment to see and hear the famous writer. Within hours a newspaper headline reads “Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana”. When Sophia, who is rather paranoid and jealous, finds out that her husband has left her, she runs to the garden pond and tries to drown herself (as she well knows it’s not very deep).

How Tolstoy ended up in Astapovo

On the first day of his travels Tolstoy visits the famous Optina Monastery, where he talks with the elders and spends the night. The second day he visits his sister in the Shamardino monastery. He then continues his travels and buys a third class ticket in the direction of the Caucasus.

On the 31st however, he develops pneumonia and in the evening he has deteriorated so much that Makovitsky decides to take him of the train at the next station. And that happens to be Astapovo. The station master Ivan Ozolin recognises the writer and offers him a room in his house.

Tolstoy’s illness attracts the world press

It’s not long before the whole world knows that Tolstoy is seriously ill. Press from all over the world gathers in Astapovo. Every detail, even the tea he drinks, is news. Around 1000 telegrams are dispatched from Astapovo in the week that follows. Mister Pathė has sent a camera crew and has given them orders to film everything. When Sophia arrives on the the scene, her husband does not wish to see her. That painful marriage drama too is cause for the wildest speculations in the papers.

The peace and quiet Tolstoy longed for is nowhere near. Luckily he doesn’t notice the extent of the sensation he has caused, but he does sense that his wife wants to see him and that upsets him. Sophia and the children on her side are staying in the first class train wagon that they arrived in, and Chertkov, the doctor and the children on their father’s side are staying in the station master’s house (who by now has given up his whole house and is staying elsewhere with his family).

 

Well, this is the end. That is all…

 

Tolstoy’s health deteriorates rapidly and he loses consciousness more frequently. The last words he speaks to his daughter Sasha are “Well, this is the end. That is all”. When Sophia is finally admitted to her husband he is already unconscious. In the presence of his wife and children Tolstoy dies at five past six in the morning on November the 7th 1910.

Those who are present in Astapovo pay their last respects. On November the 9th Tolstoy shall be buried, without the church, as he has been excommunicated, at Yasnaya Polyana. There is an enormous interest for his funeral, but the government has decided not to run any extra trains to accommodate all who want to go. Once again the Russian authorities find it difficult to deal with the death of a controversial writer.

A special train brings the coffin to Zasyeka station, where thousands are waiting in the morning frost and fog. From there it is a three hour walk to Yasnaya Polyana. The coffin is carried first by Tolstoy’s sons and later by the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia walks behind the coffin with her children as the crowd quietly sings Eternal Memory, the song that is always sung at orthodox funerals. At home Tolsoy lies on a table in the hall for another three hours and during that time approximately 5000 people walk past him, many of them crying. Finally he is buried on his estate, in a favourite childhood spot.

And so the first non-religious funeral in Russia is a fact.

 

 

Books read:

Tolstoy, a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

 

Thanks to the Pathé film crew we can watch footage from Tolstoy’s funeral:

 

Tolstoy and the Caucasus

Unlike Pushkin and Lermontov Tolstoy (1828-1910) went to the Caucasus voluntarily. He had accumulated considerable gambling debts in Moscow. Gambling addiction was a big problem with the Russian aristocracy, and the stakes could get really high. The Tolstoy family was no exception. Remember the American( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n )? When he couldn’t pay his debts anymore, he contemplated suicide, but his gypsy girlfriend gave him the money and saved him. The wild stories about Leo’s illustrious great uncle circulated in Moscow for years after his death in 1846.

Good intentions

In order to escape from his troubles in Moscow, Leo decided to join his brother Nikolay, who was positioned with the Russian army in the Caucasus. In their enthusiasm the brothers forgot to take into consideration the well known fact that the average Russian officer loves a game of cards. In no time at all Tolstoy was 850 roubles in debt again and was forced to sell off more of his inheritance. His other good intentions didn’t come to much either; he had gypsy girl after Cossack girl.

The start of his writing career

Tolstoy stayed in the Cossack village Starogladkovskaya for two and a half years. This period turned out to have a positive influence on his writing at least. He even started his writing career in the Caucasus. His war experiences there were used for War and Peace and several of his stories, like The Cossacks and Hadji Murad are situated in the Caucasus.

“He admired the Cossacks”

The novella The Cossacks (1862) is Tolstoy’s first masterpiece and it was Turgenev’s favourite. It starts like any Romantic story. The hero Olenin leaves his troubled past behind to start a new life in the Caucasus. Tolstoy himself, having read Pushkin and Lermontov, must have felt like that too when he made that journey. Tolstoy, however, is not a Romantic writer and Olenin is no Pechorin. Where Pechorin left a trail of destruction behind him, Olenin leaves no impression at all, he doesn’t get the girl and before he’s even out of sight he’s forgotten. This is a technique that Tolstoy uses frequently, making the familiar strange. Ironically Tolstoy needed the proceeds from this work to pay off more gambling debts.

Tolstoy’s final piece of fiction

At the end of his life, between 1896 and 1904, Tolstoy wrote his last masterpiece: Hadji Murad. At that time he wrote mainly religious and pacifist texts and had already declared that literature was a waste of time. As a result he felt guilty working on it. Perhaps we owe it to Turgenev’s deathbed plea that Tolstoy did once more what he was so extraordinarily good at: writing superb fiction. The story is based on a piece of Caucasian history from 1851, precisely the year that Tolstoy went to the Caucasus.

“This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naïb”

It’s a typical Tolstoy story, actually a mini version of War and Peace. It tells the story of the dilemma that Hadji Murad, Chechen rebel leader and hero, faced in the final year of his restless life. We see Hadji Murad through the eyes of the Russians, who admire but also distrust him. We see him through the eyes of his own people, through women’s eyes and finally as a father whose family is being held hostage. It’s a bloody war story and to clear his conscience Tolstoy warns us at regular intervals: war is evil. Feel free to skip these passages and enjoy the great Tolstoy at his best. Tolstoy knew very well why people wage wars and why people like reading fiction. After all he was only human himself.

Hadji Murad in 1851 (Wikipedia)

The quotes are from The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

The books I used were:

Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

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.

 

A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky

Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.

Banned to the Caucasus

As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.

Pushkin

We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.

The prisoner of the Caucasus

The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.

The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.

They recall the former days

Of raids that could not be repulsed,

Of the treachery of sly leaders,

Of the blows of their cruel sabers,

And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,

And of the ash of destroyed villages,

And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”

Violent people

If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.

Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.

*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.

Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus


Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.

The Artist Fyodor Tolstoy

Actually I intended not to write about the illustrious Tolstoy clan for a while, but a recent visit to the Hermitage in Amsterdam changed my mind. On the Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine exhibition there I discovered to my delight seven beautiful medallions by Fyodor Tolstoy.

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy was a first cousin of Fyodor, the 'American' Tolstoy and great uncle of our well known Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His great-great-grandfather was Peter Tolstoy, the trustee of Peter the Great. He was born in 1753 and had, like apparently most Tolstoys, an idyllic childhood, even though his family was not wealthy. His artistic talents were discovered early, but according to tradition he was given a military upbringing.

Artistic

In 1802 he went to study at the the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and there he was much happier than at the Naval Academy. It may not have been entirely appropriate for a Count Tolstoy, but his parents let him go. Fyodor dedicated the rest of his life to art. As a result he spent his life in relative poverty, even though he was quite successful as an artist.

Fyodor was an extremely talented painter, illustrator (of among others Dushenka by Bogdanovich), sculptor, and, if unemployed for a few moments, he cut out clever silhouettes. Later he also designed costumes and background scenery for the ballet.

Magnus Opus

His Magnus Opus is a series of 24 medallions depicting the war against Napoleon. After extensive research he decided to make them in the neoclassical style. In 1814, just after the Russians took Paris, he made the first one. It shows a bust of Alexander I. Making the medallions was an extremely laborious precision job, that required great craftsmanship. With this first one he managed to secure a grant that would allow him to finish the other 23. That was necessary because he made them to express his patriotic feelings and not on an assignment. In 1836 he made the last one.

Tolstoy gained international fame with these medallions. In Vienna they wrote that nothing finer had been made in the past centuries and Goethe was so impressed that he wanted to meet him. The British government asked if he could also make a series about British victories. An offer he declined on patriotic grounds.

Hermitage Amsterdam

And now seven of the twenty four medals are on display in the Hermitage in Amsterdam, where they can be admired until the 8th of November 2015.

http://www.hermitage.nl/en/tentoonstellingen/alexander_napoleon_josephine/index.htm

 

 

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy