A Russian Affair is four years old!

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A Russian Affair is four years old!

And still going strong. The followers of this blog know that in 2018 I have moved from the Netherlands to Finland to live with the love of my life. Moving countries is no small feat, but Finland seems to agree with me and I’m settling in well. The (next) best thing about Finland is of course the beautiful nature, I love to go out and enjoy it! 

Meanwhile there was plenty going on at A Russian Affair as well: I wrote about War and Peace again, about Russian horror stories, about Finns in Russian literature and the wives of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also got some well deserved attention. Your favourite blog post was Russian Ghost Stories, one that I particularly enjoyed making. I had great fun reading all those stories again and making the photos for the post.

All time favourites by far are still Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace and Is there really an incestueus relationship in War and Peace?

But I’m not finished with War and Peace yet (will I ever be?): I’m going to write something about Denisov and about Pierre’s duel. I would also like to talk about Turgenev’s Smoke and to tell you something about Russian plays. Chekhov was of course a famous playwright, but Gogol and Turgenev wrote plays as well.

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I get inspired by whatever comes across my path and often by your commentary and blogs, so who knows what else the year will bring.

I wish you all a wonderful blog year!

x

text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

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Natasha’s Russian Dance at Uncle’s House

In which Natasha shows that she has pure Russian blood running through her veins

At Uncle’s

After the hunt the young Rostovs come along with Uncle to his authentic Russian wooden house. Uncle isn’t married and from an impoverished branch of the family. He lives alone with his serfs. As soon as he gets home, he changes into a Cossack coat, blue trousers and boots. Nicholas and Natasha are so full of expectations and in such a happy mood, that they can only look at each other and burst out laughing. Now that the hunt is finished, Nicholas can act normally again with his sister. Petya has fallen asleep on the sofa. The housekeeper Anisya brings in the most delicious dishes, all prepared by herself. From her countenance Natasha and Nicholas soon conclude that she is not just Uncle’s housekeeper.

The young Rostovs savour the local dishes while someone in the background is playing on the balalaika. Uncle asks Anisya to bring his guitar and it turns out that he can play very well. His Russian notes hit Nicholas and Natasha straight in the heart. Every time a song finishes, Natasha begs Uncle to play another. The music becomes livelier, and Uncle gets up and challenges Natasha: he expects her to dance Russian style. But Natasha was raised by a French governess and learned to dance at Iogel’s*…

Nonetheless she dances as if she has always danced like that, conveying with every movement that Russian feeling, that is inimitable, that you have to have inside you, and that Natasha apparently breathed in together with the Russian air, in spite of her foreign upbringing. Anisya, who is watching from the door opening with the rest of the staff, is moved to tears. “Well, little countess, that’s it – come on!” cries uncle with his favourite expression. After the dance there’s more singing, but soon, much too soon, the carriage arrives to take the Rostovs home.

On the way home Petya is still sleeping, and Natasha and Nicholas discuss their evening at Uncle’s and both agree that it was an excellent evening. Nicholas thinks that that Natasha of his is his best friend, and that he wishes that she wouldn’t get married and that they could stay together forever. Natasha thinks that that Nicholas of hers is a real darling.

Domestic happiness and being authentic

This scene revolves around two main themes: domestic happiness and authenticity. Uncle shows the young Rostovs that happiness doesn’t mean having a lot of money and status. Real happiness can be found in a pleasant home, comfortable clothes, simple but excellent Russian food, Russian music and dance, and even in a relationship with a simple housekeeper. All those frills that Nicholas and Natasha were raised with don’t really matter.

Natasha likes being unconventional: she has been on horseback the whole day, like a man, and at Uncle’s house she has shown her true Russian spirit. And although Uncle, Nicholas and Anisya all adore her like this, it remains to be seen if Andrew, her fiancé, appreciates this deeply rooted aspect of her character. Natasha enjoys her position in the Rostov family very much. She realises only too well that the happiness that she feels now won’t last and that she has to enjoy it now. At the same time she dreams of her future happiness, but it’s the circumstances of her engagement that make her doubt: she is separated from Andrew by the war, and his despotic father is against the marriage. It seems that Nicholas isn’t a fan of Andrew either. The Rostov family is close knit and warm; the Bolkonski’s (Andrew’s family) are distant towards each other and live according to strict protocol.

Most readers will have understood immediately that Natasha won’t fit in, but we can certainly understand her getting carried away and thinking perhaps that she can change him. During the course of the novel we follow Natasha from being a thirteen year old to being a married woman with children. There are many defining moments in her young life, but we can be sure that she’ll always remember this evening with particular fondness.

This is definitely one of my favourite scenes in War and Peace. What’s yours?

*Iogel was a famous dance teacher who held popular balls for the young people. Natasha is one of his favourite pupils, but she certainly didn’t learn any folk dances from him.

*****

Photos and text © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

 

The Hunting Scene in War and Peace

In which Nicholas wants to show that he is a grown-up, but instead proves that he’s still a boy.

Financial problems

Nicholas Rostov has quit the order and clarity of the army and returned home to the chaos of family life, where his mother expects him to sort out the financial problems of the family. In order to save some money, the family has moved to their country estate. Because their financial struggles are partly his own fault for losing a fortune to Dolokhov, Nicholas makes a serious effort, but it soon becomes clear that he is as good with money and business as his father is, and he quickly gives up. He tries instead to fulfill his position as Count Rostov and eldest son in a more pleasant way.

Planning to go hunting

One fine morning in September he organises a hunting trip*. He summons the main huntsman Daniel and together they make a plan. Although this Daniel looks scornfully at Nicholas, Tolstoy reassures us that that’s just part of the hunter’s careless air and that Nicholas knows that Daniel is his serf. The first real flaws in his authority appear when he’s unable to stop Natasha and Petya from coming along on the hunt. The discussion he has with them in his study in front of the perplexed Daniel appears to come straight out of the nursery:

Nicholas, carelessly: We are going, but only wolf hunting: it would be dull for you.

Natasha, outraged: It’s not fair, you are going by yourself, are having the horses saddled and said nothing to us about it.

Petya, shouting: No barrier bars a Russian’s path – we’ll go!

And so the hunting party, consisting of around 130 dogs and 20 horsemen, they have to cut down on their spending, after all, sets off.

Uncle

They go to the Otrodnoe enclosure, where they intend to hunt an old wolf**. On the way there they meet ‘Uncle’, a neighbor and distant relative, who is also going hunting. They decide to join up. Uncle also doesn’t like to combine the serious business of hunting with frivolities: “Only mind you don’t fall of your horse, little countess”, he warns Natasha. Everybody is appointed a strategic position, Natasha and Petya are put somewhere where the wolf can’t possibly appear.

The old Count

The old Count Rostov has also come along, looking “like a schoolboy on an outing”. Although he knows the rules of the hunt very well, he’s not as obsessed as Nicholas. Sitting on his horse he starts to daydream about his children and how proud he is of them. Smiling he takes out his snuffbox. The wolf appears and he lets it slip by, much to the anger of Daniel. Now the Count looks like “a punished schoolboy”. The roles appear indeed to have reversed…

Nicholas prays

Although… Nicholas, meanwhile, is also prone to childish behaviour, praying to God to make the old wolf come his way and to let his dog catch the wolf. When the wolf does come his way, he forgets everything else, it’s just him, his horse, his dogs and the wolf and when they do eventually get the wolf, it’s the happiest moment of his life. He wants to kill the entrapped wolf, but Daniel suggests that they take it alive. The hunt is a success.

Good intentions

It is clear that Nicholas is not yet the man he so wants to be. He came home to sort out the finances, but gave up after the first hurdles, and instead of getting advice, he goes and spends more money. In that respect he is a lot like young Tolstoy himself: a lot of plans and good intentions that usually nothing comes from.

The hunting scene, in which the family relations, traditions and values of the Rostov family are underlined, is written by Tolstoy with a particularly loving hand and a lot of humour.

*The magnificent hunting scene in War and Peace was according to Maude very much influenced by a hunting trip that Tolstoy had made with a neighbor. I’m certainly no hunting expert, so I’m sticking to what I know from Russian literature and that describes basically two different types of hunting: the Turgenev kind; a man and a dog, sleeping rough and hunting mainly fowl for the dinner table; and the War and Peace kind (Tolstoy describes a Turgenev hunt in Anna Karenina): a huge party of noblemen, servants, grooms, horses and dogs, hunting for wolves, foxes and hares. In the first case the dogs retrieve and in the second they scent, chase and kill. The dogs used in the second kind, hounds and borzois, are often very expensive and highly treasured by their owners. In both cases the hunter needs to have a careless appearance, he’s preferably dressed in rags.

**In ancient Russian folklore the wolf symbolises darkness, evil and foreignness. Superstitious Russians were afraid to call the wolf upon themselves by saying its name, and called it by various nicknames like ‘shaggy’ instead. Here you could say that the wolf symbolises Napoleon. At this moment in the book Napoleon and Alexander are allies, so he is for now not a threat. In the book too, Napoleon is often not called by his name, but referred to as ‘the Antichrist’.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer


War and Peace – Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude



Walking with Turgenev

It's as if you're walking through a forest. All around you it's quiet and calm. Until you start to listen and look carefully. You can hear a wood warbler sing, and the buzzing of bees and mosquitoes. And if you look closely you can see ants and beetles busying about on the forest ground. A world opens up in front of you in the silence. You loose your sense of time and forget you daily problems. Your heart is singing and you're drinking in the fresh air. What's that? Did you just see a deer?! Yes, yes, you can just see it's white behind disappear into the forest. Now that's Turgenev. Nothing much happens in Turgenev’s work. But actually a lot happens.

Nature plays an important role; the best known example is of course A Sportsman’s Sketches, but in his other works too nature is very much present. Turgenev was a passionate hunter, and although we tend to frown upon hunting nowadays, it was his passion for nature that attracted him to it in the first place: “Who but the sportsman knows how soothing it is to wander at daybreak among the underwoods?” (Epilogue of A Sportsman’s Sketches)

Sometimes it's purely about the beauty of nature, but often natural phenomena symbolise feelings and moods. And then there is the enchantment of nature, it can get you under its spell. Nature evokes feelings of passion, happiness, bliss, boundless possibilities. And in Russia, where they have plenty of nature, it is also suffused with superstition: there are water nymphs, Rusalki, who lure you into the water and drown you. All this is in sharp contrast with the city, where people aren't free and out of touch with their hearts.

Bezhin Lea

In Bezhin Lea (one of the Sketches) the hunter gets lost in the dark and ends up in a meadow called Bezhin Lea. A group of peasant boys is spending the night there to let the horses graze. The hunter decides to spend the night there and lays down under a bush. Pretending to sleep he listens to the boys. Around their fire they're telling stories about Rusalki and forest spirits. Every unexpected sound of the night startles them, while the hunter is quietly enjoying their talk. And the next morning: “All things began to stir, to awaken, to sing, to flutter, to speak. On all sides thick drops of dew sparkled in glittering diamonds.” The enchanting night has been replaced by an enchanting morning.

Torrents of Spring

In Torrents of Spring there's a scene in which Sanin is seduced by the wife of his (homosexual) friend. This whole scene consists for at least eighty percent of nature descriptions. Sanin and Maria ride on horseback into a forest, deeper into the shade, past a rather narrow gorge, the smell is drowsy, and “through the clefts of the big brown rocks came strong currents of fresh air” and “He really was bewitched. His whole being was filled full of one thing . . . one idea, one desire. Maria Nikolaevna turned a keen look upon him”. They go further and further into the forest until they reach a “tumbledown little hut”. They return home four hours later. In 1871 explicit sex scenes were not done, but Turgenev can easily do without.

No, Turgenev is anything but boring. Just like a walk in the forest isn't boring. As long as you open up your senses. It's time for Turgenev.

У природы нет плохой пагоди

Photos by me, for the quotations I used the Constance Garnett translations.

© Elisabeth van der Meer


 

Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

In Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace bad guy Dolokhov proposes to good girl Sonya. She refuses him, but one of the readers of this blog wondered if she should have married him after all. So let’s try to analyse this romantic affair.

Sonya

Sonya is a poor orphan cousin living with Rostovs. Tolstoy describes her as a promising kitten at the beginning of the novel. She’s very pretty, loyal, sweet and has a strong sense of justice. She’s her cousin Natasha’s best friend and this little kitten is very much in love with her cousin Nicholas.

Dolokhov

Dolokhov is a good looking officer, notorious gambler and duelist. He has no connections or money. Most people consider him a cruel and cold hearted person. In fact the only person who thinks he has a heart of gold is his mother. Dolokhov is an enigmatic character. He seems disappointed in the world and feels a strong need to revenge himself.

Sacrifice

Dolokhov tells Nicholas that he will sacrifice anything for the people he loves, but we don’t see any proof of that; au contraire, he claims to be Nicholas’ friend but not much later tries to steal his girl, and when she rejects him, he punishes Nicholas by cheating him out of 43000 (precisely 43000, because 43 is the combined age of him and Sonya) roubles in a game of cards.

Sonya really does make sacrifices: she risks her friendship with Natasha in order to prevent Natasha from eloping with Anatole. Later she writes Nicholas to forget his promise to marry her, so that he is free to marry Mary.

Does Dolokhov love Sonya?

So why does Dolokhov propose to Sonya? I’m mostly inclined to say out of jealousy. In his mind people like Pierre and Nicholas get all the good things in life because of their name, connections and money, and for the same reasons they get away with anything. Perhaps he has heard or sensed that Sonya loves Nicholas and he wants to take her from Nicholas, who, after all, already has so much good luck*.

When he is recovering from the injuries he suffered in his duel with Pierre he confides in Nicholas, telling him that he is looking for “divine purity and devotion” in women; he needs a woman who will “regenerate, purify and elevate” him. It is technically possible that he saw those qualities in Sonya, and that that’s why he proposed to her.

The refusal

Either way, Sonya was right to refuse Dolokhov. His mother may have been blind to his faults, but our Sonya is a smart girl, guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. She inadvertently uses Nicholas as an excuse, probably thinking optimistically that Dolokhov will at least be happy for his friend. Her euphoric state immediately after the refusal speaks volumes; she made the right choice.

In 19th century terms Dolokhov would have been a good match for Sonya; the old countess, who disapproves anyway of a marriage between Nicholas and Sonya, clearly thinks that Sonya should have accepted him. But Sonya is to remain single and together with the old countess she’s going to live with Nicholas and Mary. Like a cat, Tolstoy writes, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.

And as for Dolokhov’s need to be purified, regenerated and elevated? Well, he shouldn’t rely on a woman to better his life, let alone a sweet seventeen year old girl. He shows his true colours and punishes Nicholas severely for his cousin’s love: first by making him lose a fortune and then by not preventing the death of his little brother Petya. Tolstoy doesn’t tell us if he ever found the wife of his dreams.


*In the beginning of War and Peace, Dolokhov, Pierre and Anatole tie a bear to a policeman and throw them in the river. For this ‘prank’ Dolokhov gets reduced in rank to soldier. Anatole, who is rich and well connected, remains an officer. Pierre is a civilian, but doesn’t get any punishment because of his dying (and extremely wealthy) father. Nicholas, similarly, seems to have everything going for him, he’s a count, wealthy, makes a dashing career in the army, everyone likes him, and he comes from a warm and loving family. He too is protected by his family name: For being Dolokhov’s second in the duel, he ought to have gotten punished. Instead he gets a promotion.

Have you read War and Peace? And if so, what are your feelings about Sonya and Dolokhov? Should Sonya have married Nicholas?



© Elisabeth van der Meer / illustration from War and Peace


See also:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/fyodor-dolokhov-the-bad-guy-from-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/love-in-war-and-peace-1/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/love-in-war-and-peace-2/

A Russian Affair is Three Years Old!

A Russian Affair is three years old!

When I started this blog three years ago I had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that I had plenty of ideas for blog posts. I imagined my reader as someone curious, but not knowledgeable about Russian literature, and Dutch. I only wrote the English version for the sake of my Finnish boyfriend. As it turned out the vast majority of my readers is now American and the rest is literally from all over the world, from Somalia and Iraq to Palestina and Kirghizia.

Google

I have my regular readers, but most people find my blog through a search engine. Most of them want to know if there really is an incestuous relationship in War and Peace, although some of the search terms (Russian can make sex with sibling; sex brother and sister on Russian) used suggested something else! There was one search question that I can definitely try to answer in 2018: Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

My Tolstoy or Dostoevsky post sparked the most discussion. It is fantastic to see that both writers, although they have been dead for ages, are indeed immortal and continue to inspire people to think about life. Many of you expressed your horror after reading about Lermontov's Fatal Duel, a writer that most of you weren't even too familiar with. “My goodness what a life that went to waste because of one bad decision” (@GlamourPrin); “Who doesn't want to know all the delicious details of an author's life?” (@walkcheerfullyblog); “I guess we need to understand the importance it used to have when it came to Honour and Pride” (@Aquileana); “… such a senseless way to leave this world” (@CarrieRubin).

Inspiration

After three years of blog writing I'm coming to the conclusion that Russian literature may be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, but that the readers of this blog are the main inspiration. Your kind comments give me new ideas and tell me that I'm on the right track with this blog. I would like to especially thank @RogerW.Smith for his loyal following, kind comments, sending me interesting articles and pointing out any mistakes I made in English; Markus from @pointblank, who sent me a wonderful annotated copy of Pushkin's Onegin; and dear Amalia from @aquileana for sharing my posts on her huge social media network.

A huge thanks and a super happy and inspired 2018 to all of you!!! Do let me know if there is anything, related to Russian literature that you'd like to know more about, and I'll see what I can do. I'm looking forward to hearing from you and to reading your blog posts as well.

Love, Elisabeth

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” – Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo

Thanks to:

https://glamourprin.com

https://walkcheerfullyblog.wordpress.com

https://rogersgleanings.com

https://chasingart.com

https://carrierubin.com

https://pointblankphoto.wordpress.com

https://johannasuomela.com

https://inesemjphotography.com

https://linguafennica.wordpress.com

https://aquileana.wordpress.com

https://daveastoronliterature.com

 

The Who’s Who of Anna Karenina

One of biggest hurdles for people just starting to read Russian literature is the large amount of characters and their complicated Russian names. I thought that it would be handy to make a Who’s Who of Anna Karenina. Because that's an excellent novel to start with and it would be a huge shame if you didn't finish it because of the names. I'll give a short description of each character and their (nick)name and I'll try not to give too much away.

Oblonsky

Stiva, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky. He is Anna's brother and Dolly’s husband. His first name is Stepan, but intimates call him Stiva. His father's name was Arkady, hence the patronymic Arkadyevitch. Tolstoy usually refers to him as Oblonsky, and sometimes as Stiva or Stepan Arkadyevitch. Oblonsky is a central character in the novel, he connects all the other characters. He knows everyone and is on friendly terms with everyone. His closest friend is Levin. He’s a real bon vivant.

Dolly

Dolly, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya, née Shtcherbatskaya. She’s Kiity’s sister. At that time it was fashionable to have an English nickname. Her patronymic and last name take the female form: Alexandrovna Oblonskaya. She is usually called Dolly, but also Darya or Darya Alexandrovna, but never Oblonskaya. The Oblonskys form a hectic family with lots of children. They live above their means and it's Dolly who keeps things together.

Anna

Anna, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, née Oblonskaya. She has the same father as Stiva and thus the same patronymic. She is married to Karenin. Anna is probably the best known character from Russian literature. She is the personification of the double standard: her brother has an affair and gets away with it; she does the same and is shunned by society. Her turbulent life never ceased to captivate readers.

Levin

Levin, Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin. The hero of the novel. Tolstoy adorned him with many autobiographical character traits. He’s considered a bit of an eccentric, because he prefers to live in the countryside instead of in the city. Those who know him well, know he has a heart of gold. He’s in love with Kitty. Like the Shtcherbatskys, the Levins are an old aristocratic family from Moscow. He’s fairly rich.

Kitty

Kitty, (the young) Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shtcherbatskaya, also called Katya. In spite of what the title suggests, Kitty is the real heroine of this novel. She’s the youngest daughter and after some confusion she finds her true love, and has a fairytale wedding (Harry & Meghan, move over!). She too has a heart of gold and quickly becomes the reader’s favourite.

Vronsky

Vronsky, Count Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky. A very handsome and very wealthy officer. This eligible bachelor has a bossy mother. The reader can never quite see through him, but his overall impression is not so good.

Karenin

Karenin, Alexey (yes, there are two Alexeys) Alexandrovitch Karenin, Anna's husband and a very important politician in Petersburg. Alexey Alexandrovitch cares a lot about his good name. He is distant, a workaholic and extremely religious. In other words: a total bore.

The Shtcherbatskys

The old Prince and Princess, the Shtcherbatskys. Although they bicker all the time, they are loving parents and it's a warm and close family.

Brothers

Levin’s brothers, Nikolay Dmitrievitch Levin and Sergey Ivanovitch Koznishev. Nikolay is an alcoholic who's in poor health, he lives with Masha. Their half brother Sergey is a famous writer and intellectual. Although Levin feels closer to Nikolay, he doesn't see Nikolay as often as Sergey, due to Nikolay’s problems.

The Lvovs

The Lvovs, Natalia Alexandrovna Lvova and Arseny Lvov. Natalia is Dolly and Kitty’s sister. She and her husband, a diplomat, have two children.

Vronsky's mother

The old countess Vronskaya, Vronsky’s bossy mother and Vronsky’s brother Alexander. Vronsky is not exactly close with his family, he is as polite with them as with complete strangers, if not even more so.

Yashvin

Yashvin, described by Tolstoy as “a gambler and a rake, a man not merely without moral principles, but of immoral principles,” he's Wronsky’s closest friend in the regiment, which of course says a lot about Wronsky.

Countless countesses

Countess Betty, she's Wronsky’s aunt and Anna’s friend. Countess Lidia, she's Karenin’s friend. Both countesses like to gossip, but Lidia belongs to the highest Petersburg circles. And then there's Kitty’s friend Countess Nordston.

Agafea Mihalovna

Agafea Mihalovna, Levin’s old nurse. Until Levin is married she's his housekeeper. And that doesn't mean that she's the cleaning lady, but it means that she runs the household at Levin’s country estate. Nurses had a very special position in Russian aristocratic families, they were often looked after until they died, in return for their selfless devotion to the children.

Varenka

Mademoiselle Varenka, Varvara Andreevna. She keeps the elderly Madame Stahl company and helps poor and ill people. She becomes Kitty’s good friend. Not to be confused with Princess Varvara, one of Anna's friends.

Veslovsky

Vassenka Veslovsky, a distant cousin of the Shtcherbatskys. A cheerful and enthusiastic young man with the tact of an hippopotamus.

Children

Children: Anna's: Seryozha and Annie. The Oblonskys’: Grisha, Tanya, Nikolinka, Masha, Vassya. Levin’s: Mitya.

Staff

The staff: Annushka, Anna's maid; Kapitonitch, the Karenins’ porter and Seryozha’s great friend; Matvey, Oblonsky’s valet; Korney, Karenin’s valet; Lizaveta Petrovna, the midwife.

Dogs

And finally the dogs: Laska, Levin’s dog and Krak, Oblonsky’s dog. They are clever and loyal hunting dogs and because Tolstoy employs the omniscient narrator technique, we know exactly what they are thinking. As a matter of fact you'll think that Tolstoy had a pensieve so that he could look inside your head too. This is a novel to be enjoyed by men just as much as by women, it is not without reason that it always ends up in the top 10 of the best books ever. Happy reading!


© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo

 

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 .

 

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


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