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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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.

A Valentine’s Day Ode to Alexander Pushkin

Last year around Christmas I was in a bookshop looking for presents. It was there that I found, not completely coincidentally, Pushkin’s collected love poems. I could of course have given this little book to my love in a romantic gesture, but he appreciates Russian airplanes more than poetry. And so for him I managed to find the autobiography of aircraft designer Yakovlev. It turned out to be a fine example of communist propaganda, that sent him to sleep after reading just a few lines. Off to dream about tumbling through the skies like a young pioneer in the newest Yak.

Love Poems

The poetry book I kept for myself. It was even more enjoyable than expected. The translator and editor Roger Clarke has made very informative and amusing notes for each of the poems. He has researched when and, more importantly, for whom each poem was written. Pushkin started writing poetry at a young age and continued to do so up to his untimely death.

Pushkin definitely loved women and had many infatuations and affairs before he got married. This collection gives us an amusing overview of his love life. Some of the poems are funny, some are risqué and others are truly beautiful, no doubt in sync with the nature of the addressee.

Pushkin deadly wounded in duel

In 1837 Pushkin died at the age of 37 as a result of a duel with a French officer who threatened his wife Natalya’s honour. Even though he himself had had several affairs with married women, he found it apparently unbearable when he became the deceived husband. He was after all extremely passionate…

Pushkin was one of those brilliant minds to whom writing came naturally. His poetry (and other genres too) just seems to have flowed from his pen effortlessly. There is nothing artificial about it and that makes it a pleasure to read, even in translation. His best known poem is I loved you. The addressee of this particular poem is unknown. Probably the love remained unanswered. Most Russians know it by heart:

I loved you, and a trace of that love’s passion

unquenched within my soul may yet remain;

but my desire is not in any fashion

to sadden you or bring you further pain.

I loved in silence, hopelessly, but dearly,

now shyly, now with jealousy aflame;

I loved you, yes, so fondly, so sincerely –

God grant to you another’s love the same.

1829

Translated by R.H. Morrison

A book to treasure for ever:

Love Poems, Alexander Pushkin, edited by Roger Clarke

A Passion for Pushkin

One of the nicest things about Pushkin is his simple writing style. When I first read his work at university, I immediately noticed that his Russian was very easy to understand. Even for a relative beginner like me. Now that is precisely his legacy: Pushkin was the first Russian writer to use clear, modern Russian for typically Russian subjects.

Exile

In 1820 Pushkin was sent into exile to the south because of his political opinions. First to the Caucasus and the Crimea, later to his mother’s estate. He was only 21 years old. There our young hero didn’t have as many (female) distractions as he would have had in his hometown St Petersburg. During these five years living in exile, he was able to fully concentrate on developing his literary talents. He learned English and Italian, and read many books, he particularly liked Byron. His environment proved inspiring too.

Eugene Onegin

Pushkin started writing on his most famous work, Eugene Onegin in exile. This novel in verse is generally considered to be the turning point in Russian literature. It is the most printed book in Russian history. Every self respecting Russian knows it. Eugene is actually an anti-hero, he is rich, bored, and a poet, like Pushkin. The sweet and romantic Tatiana falls head over heels in love with him. But does he love her back? Eugene Onegin is an irresistible mixture of western romanticism and Russian folklore. Like all Pushkin’s work (and come to think of it, many other Russian books), you have to read it primarily with your heart.

Pushkin’s influence

Later Russian literature is full of references to Eugene Onegin. All the Tatianas and poets you’ll meet there, all the duels that take place, they all refer to and pay tribute to Pushkin’s masterpiece. In Russian literature these kind of references are always considered as a form of flattery and never seen as plagiarism.

Pushkin developed the standard style of writing in modern Russian. A super simple but subtle way of telling stories, and that specific sense of humour and satire that became so synonymous with the golden age of Russian literature. Sending Pushkin into exile certainly turned out to be invaluable for modern Russian literature!

Before Pushkin hardly anything of any literary value had been written. After Pushkin came the other giants of literature: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

 

 

Books to enjoy:

Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse (I read Nabokov’s translation)

Boris Godunov, a historic drama

The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, short stories (I see here a reference from J K Rowling, with The Tales of Beedle the Bard)

And plenty of other stories, poems and fairy tales.