“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.
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