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Dueling, kidnapping, and murder combine with drawing-room flirtation, deception, and betrayal to create the intense, thought-provoking narrative of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. The novel recounts the adventures of Grigory Pechorin, an enigmatic Russian officer stationed in the Caucasus Mountains in the 1830s. Soldiers and civilians, Russians and mountain tribes-people mingle and clash in this semi-tamed frontier territory in southern Russia. Despite its nineteenth-century provincial setting, A Hero of Our Time is a remarkably modern novel with great appeal for contemporary readers. It offers a fascinating psychological study of Pechorin, as well as intriguing tales of love and war in the Caucasus, a region that continues to resist Russian authority today.
Mikhail Lermontov is regarded as one of the foremost masters of Russian prose on the singular basis of A Hero of Our Time, his only novel. Many also consider him Russia’s second-greatest poet after Alexander Pushkin. Lermontov was poised for even greater literary success when he was killed in a duel at the age of twenty-six.
Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov was descended on his father’s side from a Scottish mercenary named Learmonth, who served the Russian tsar in the early seventeenth century, and on his mother’s side from two prominent Russian families, the Arsenievs and the Stolypins. Although his mother, Mariya Arsenieva, was a plain and sickly young woman, her wealth made her an attractive catch for the dashing Captain Yuri Lermontov, who had few assets of his own. The pair married in 1812 against the wishes of Mariya’s widowed mother. Mikhail Yurevich, the couple’s only child, was born in 1814.
In 1817, when young Misha was only three years old, his mother died of consumption. His grandmother, Elizaveta Arsenieva, offered to name the boy as her sole heir and loan her son-in-law a large sum of money in exchange for the right to raise Misha until he reached maturity. If Yuri Petrovich reclaimed his son before the boy came of age, she would leave her entire estate to Misha’s Stolypin cousins. Although this arrangement may seem cold-hearted, it was made in Lermontov’s best interest since wealth and family connections were critical to a young man’s chances for success in the rigidly hierarchical society of imperial Russia. His father agreed to the deal, leaving the boy in his grandmother’s care. Misha moved to Tarkhany, his grandmother’s estate (now called Lermontovo) in Penza Province, about 350 miles southeast of Moscow. His father returned to his family home in Tula Province, where in 1831 he died at the age of forty of tuberculosis. Lermontov only saw his father a few times after their separation.
As a child, Lermontov traveled to the Caucasus in 1818, 1820, and 1825, accompanying his grandmother to visit her sister in Vladikavkaz. It was a rough and dangerous trip of some 600 miles, made before the days of train travel, on roads not suitable for the well-appointed carriages ordinarily used for transport by the wealthy. The last stage of the journey required a Cossack escort to protect the travelers from raids by local tribesmen. For nineteenth-century Russians, the Caucasus region was the equivalent of the American Wild West, a perilous, exotic frontier territory that conjured up romanticized images of noble savages and feats of military heroism. The Caucasus came under the tsar’s dominion in the early years of the nineteenth century when Georgia recognized Russian suzerainty and Russia was victorious in wars against Persia and Turkey. For decades to come, though, native mountain tribes employed guerilla tactics to resist Russian authority. For Lermontov, these trips to the Caucasus were the highpoints of his childhood, and they nurtured his artistic temperament. In Vladikavkaz he encountered Circassians, Tatars, Ossetians, Karbardins, Chechens, and other Caucasian peoples, and he avidly listened to tales of their bravery and brutality. He also fell in love with the rugged mountain landscape.
Lermontov’s grandmother made sure that he received a suitable education for a young nobleman. As a boy he had foreign tutors from whom he learned French, German, and English, and later he enrolled in the elite School for the Nobility in Moscow. When he was fifteen, Lermontov discovered Byron, the British Romantic poet whose extravagant, larger-than-life persona was as attractive as his verses to the moody Russian teenager. Lermontov consciously modeled himself after Byron, cultivating personality traits he shared with the poet. He also began writing his own poetry, emulating both Byron and Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), who was already considered Russia’s greatest poet.
In 1830, Lermontov entered Moscow University. Despite his interest in poetry, painting, and music, he did not take part in the university’s vibrant cultural life. Lermontov observed and evaluated people in a way that made them uncomfortable, and his arrogance and sarcastic, sometimes cruel, wit tended to alienate people. Although he had a few close friends and was something of a prankster, he largely kept to himself. He preferred to read poetry or novels during lectures, and he was dismissive of his fellow students and his professors. After two years of study, Lermontov attempted to transfer to St. Petersburg University, but was denied credit for his Moscow coursework. So instead, in November 1832 he entered the elite School of Cavalry Cadets in St. Petersburg. He graduated in 1834 with the rank of cornet (second lieutenant) and joined the Life Guard Hussars stationed at nearby Tsarskoe Tselo.
Lermontov swaggered through the St. Petersburg social whirl, flirting for flirting’s sake and bragging about his conquests. He wrote to a friend, “Now I do not write novelsI live them.” Lermontov broke at least one woman’s heart in a manner reminiscent of Pechorin’s treatment of Princess Mary: adoring her in private while ignoring her in public. But he in turn was hit hard by news of his friend Varvara Lopukhina’s marriage to a much older man. Lermontov had met Varvara, the daughter of family friends, when he was thirteen. Although their friendship never turned romantic, he shared his poetry with her, and she was perhaps the only woman he truly loved. He modeled Vera, Pechorin’s lover, after her.
In 1837, Lermontov became an overnight sensation thanks to his poem “Death of a Poet” memorializing Pushkin, who was mortally injured in a duel on January 27, 1837, and died two days later. Lermontov wrote his poem on January 28 while Pushkin still clung to life, and hand-written copies immediately began to circulate in Moscow society. A week after Pushkin died, Lermontov added an inflammatory postscript accusing the imperial court and high society of complicity in the poet’s death, naively signing the poem with his own name. His grandmother, who knew full well that such a foolhardy act could have terrible consequences, vainly attempted to retrieve all the copies. Nonetheless, Lermontov was arrested, interrogated, and threatened with a reduction in rank (which would have meant losing his noble status). Ultimately he was transferred to the Caucasus with no reduction in rank as punishment for his brazen provocation.
But for Lermontov, exile to the Caucasus was scarcely punishment. He did not see military action, so he had plenty of time to write, to sketch and paint the dramatic landscape, and to take part in provincial society. He also met some of the Decembrists, who had been banished to the Caucasus after their failed uprising in 1825. The Decembrists were a group of liberal army officers and other young aristocrats who sought to establish a constitutional system in Russia that would guarantee basic freedoms and bring an end to serfdom. (Pushkin was a Decembrist sympathizer.) They were disappointed by Tsar Alexander I, who came to the throne as a liberal reformer in 1801 but grew increasingly reactionary. When Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825, Russia was thrown into a dynastic crisis because the tsar had no sons or grandsons and loyalties were divided between his brothers, Constantine and Nicholas. The young rebels took advantage of this moment of uncertainty to stage an uprising in St. Petersburg involving about three thousand troops in December 1825 (hence the name Decembrists). The rebellion was quickly suppressed by troops loyal to Nicholas, who had proclaimed himself tsar. The Decembrist uprising set the tone for the repressive, thirty-year reign of Nicholas I, who played an active role in determining the fates of the rebelsand any others (including writers)he deemed a threat to the status quo.
In late 1837, thanks in part to his grandmother’s intervention, Lermontov was pardoned by the tsar, and he returned to St. Petersburg and rejoined the Life Guard Hussars in early 1838. He began publishing poetry regularly, which turned him into a celebrity. He also wrote A Hero of Our Time, which was published in April 1840. But Lermontov was bored by St. Petersburg society. If it weren’t for his grandmother, he would have preferred to return to the Caucasus. And before long, he did go back. In February 1840, Lermontov took part in a duel and was once again transferred to the Caucasus without loss of rank. This time he saw action on the battlefield, and was recommended for medals in recognition of his extraordinary bravery.
Lermontov returned to St. Petersburg on leave in February 1841 confident of his future literary career. In October 1840, a collection of his poetry had been published to popular acclaim, and a second edition of A Hero of Our Time was about to come out. His work had been praised by the preeminent literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, among others, and it was fashionable to recite his poems. But in March 1841, his recommendation for medals was turned down, and despite his grandmother’s best efforts, the tsar did not rescind his military orders.
So in April 1841, Lermontov set out once again for the Caucasus, stopping en route for several months in the spa town of Pyatigorsk, where he livened up the provincial scene. A frequent target of his snide wit was the thin-skinned Nikolai Martynov, a self-important dandy who strutted about in Caucasian dress. Lermontov called him a “highlander with a big dagger” [montagnard au grand poignard], which provoked Martynov to challenge him to a duel. Lermontov did not take Martynov’s challenge seriously, and until the last moment, he seemed to expect that they would reconcile. But Martynov refused to back down and the duel was arranged for the following morning, July 15, 1841. Lermontov had the first shot; supposedly he aimed at the sky, declaring, “I will not shoot at that fool.” Hearing his words, Martynov took full aim and fired, killing Lermontov instantly. Mikhail Lermontov was twenty-six years old.
When Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time, Russian literature was still coming into its own. Only in the late eighteenth century did the nobility begin to compose and read poetry and prose in Russian rather than French. Whereas Pushkin, writing in rich and versatile vernacular Russian in the 1820s and 1830s, was the transitional link between that early era of Russian literature and its golden age later in the nineteenth century, Lermontov represents the transition from the age of poetry to the age of prose. Although Pushkin published stories and novellas, it was his poetry, above all his “novel in verse,” Eugene Onegin, that placed him at the pinnacle of Russian literary achievement. Lermontov was quickly acknowledged as Pushkin’s heir because of the power and beauty of his melodious poetry, but ultimately he achieved greater renown as a writer of prose fictionsolely on the basis of his only novel.
Many critics consider A Hero of Our Time the first Russian psychological novel, and some even regard it as the first true novel written in Russian. Despite its setting in provincial Russia in the early nineteenth century and its patriarchal and colonial perspective, A Hero of Our Time is a strikingly modern novel. Its nonlinear structure, its use of multiple narrators, its unsympathetic, self-absorbed, and self-analyzing central character, and its exploration and dissection of the protagonist’s psychology are all familiar to twenty-first-century readers. Indeed, its episodic structure, shifting timeframes, and varying points of viewas well as its “exotic” Caucasian settinggive the novel a cinematic flavor. But when A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840, these aspects of the novel were highly unconventional, jarring, and even disturbing to Russian readers.
A Hero of Our Time comprises five linked stories that are presented out of sequence. (A roughly chronological order would be: “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” “Bela,” “The Fatalist,” “Maksim Maksimych.”) According to the literary scholar John Garrard, “The sequence in which the sections of A Hero of Our Time are arranged has a dual advantage: it both arouses the reader’s curiosity and appears to satisfy it. The work focuses upon Pechorin’s personality, and the narration moves from external to internal in delineating it.”[i] Or as Vladimir Nabokov notes, the novel’s “structural trick consists in bringing Pechorin gradually nearer and nearer until he takes over; but by the time he takes over he is dead.”[ii] Moreover, Lermontov does not provide a single reliable narrator, and thus Pechorin ultimately remains inscrutable.
Pechorin shares with his creator the simultaneously attractive and repellent dark charisma of the Byronic hero. He can be charming, but also casually cruel, especially toward women. He is self-involved, contemptuous, and jaded. He constantly seeks distractions, but is quickly bored by everything, and is even inured to battlefield slaughter. In other words, he is a very modern character. Pechorin is also mercilessly self-aware: “For a long time now I have been living, not with my heart, but with my head. I weigh, analyze my own passions and actions with severe curiosity, but without sympathy. There are two personalities within me: one livesin the complete sense of the wordthe other reflects and judges him .”
But Pechorin is more than a Byronic “bad boy.” He claims that he has always been misunderstood, and thus deserves pity. He is a sensitive soul, even an idealist, albeit with a jaundiced eye and a hardened heart. The novelist Gary Shteyngart has pointed out that Pechorin is a “superfluous man.” This is a familiar type in nineteenth-century Russian literature; the writer Ivan Turgenev coined the expression in 1850 to describe a man who is both unable and unwilling to play an active role in society. Such a man lacks sufficient rank and wealth, but also “refuse[s] to partake in a stilted, rigid, and provincial culture which rewarded mediocrity, conformity, and an empty obeisance to the tyranny of the Tsarist state.”[iii] Pechorin has talents, desires, and ambition, but he has no productive outlet. Yet all that energy must go somewhere. A Hero of Our Time reflects the frustrated state of mind of the post-Decembrist generation.
The reader initially encounters Pechorin at two removes. In the first story, “Bela,” an unnamed narrator tells of hearing about Pechorin from a Russian veteran of the Caucasus. The old soldier introduces Pechorin and the puzzle of his character, recounting how he masterminded the abduction of a beautiful Circassian girl, Bela, and set about making her fall in love with him. Once Bela succumbed, Pechorin grew bored with her, and when she died, he did not (or perhaps could not) mourn her because his own heart was dead.
In the second story, “Maksim Maksimych,” the narrator encounters Pechorin in person and witnesses his snub of his former comrade in arms, one of the most painful moments in the book. The narrator offers his own description and impression of Pechorin, whose eyes “never laughed when he laughed a sign either of an evil disposition or of deep and constant grief. From behind his half-lowered eyelashes they shone with a kind of phosphorescent gleam which was not the reflection of a fervid soul or of a playful fancy, but a glitter like to that of smooth steel, blinding but cold.”
The three following stories, “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” and “The Fatalist,” are presented as excerpts from Pechorin’s personal journal published after his death. “On reading over these notes,” the narrator writes in his introduction to the excerpts,
I have become convinced of the sincerity of the man who has so unsparingly exposed to view his own weaknesses and vices. The history of a man’s soul, even the pettiest soul, is hardly less interesting and useful than the history of a whole people; especially when the former is the result of the observations of a mature mind upon itself, and has been written without egotistical desire of arousing sympathy or astonishment.
Yet even a diarist presents a particular perspective on and interpretation of events. One senses in reading the journal extracts that Pechorin is writing for an audience, perhaps even with a mind to publication, and thus may not be entirely honest. Although the journal gives us access to Pechorin’s thoughts, he is not a reliable narrator.
In “Taman,” which takes place first chronologically, Pechorin is a man of twenty-five, still capable of being mastered by lustand duped by a pretty girl. He has not yet developed the hardened shell, impervious to human feeling, that is evident in “Bela” and “Maksim Maksimych.”
In “Princess Mary,” which comprises the longest section of the novel, Lermontov introduces a parody of a Byronic hero: Grushnitsky, a ridiculous, self-absorbed fop who limps about moodily in the greatcoat of a common soldier. Grushnitsky intentionally fosters a mysterious, romantic image of himself. According to Pechorin, “His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel.” For his own part, Pechorin plays at puppetmaster, manipulating others for his own amusement but at great cost to his victims. He desires to put Grushnitsky in his place, and he uses young Princess Mary to do so, derailing their budding romance by inducing the girl to fall in love with him instead. A friend tells him, “In her imagination you have become the hero of a novel in a new style.” Yet Pechorin has no real feelings for Princess Mary; she is merely a distraction that enables him to spend time with his lover, Vera, while also thwarting Grushnitsky. But his manipulation turns deadly when Grushnitsky challenges Pechorin to a duel. (The duel scenes are frequently remarked upon as an eerie foretelling of Lermontov’s own death.)
“The Fatalist” is a romantic, almost mystical tale of predestination versus free will that serves as a sort of coda to the rest of the novel. When Lieutenant Vulich proposes to test “whether a man can of his own accord dispose of his life, or whether the fateful moment is appointed beforehand for each of us,” Pechorin responds by offering a wager. Later in the story, Pechorin tempts death himself and comes out the winner, at least in this encounter. Nevertheless, in keeping with his character, he remains skeptical:
But who knows for certain whether he is convinced of anything or not? And how often is a deception of the senses or an error of the reason accepted as a conviction! . . . I prefer to doubt everything. Such a disposition is no bar to decision of character; on the contrary, so far as I am concerned, I always advance more boldly when I do not know what is awaiting me. You see, nothing can happen worse than deathand from death there is no escape.
In exploring the existential question of fate versus chance, Lermontov gives A Hero of Our Time a deeper resonance. Pechorin may represent a type, even a whole generation, but he is also a human being. Although he is an extraordinary man whose character ultimately remains an enigma, he too is doomed to share the common human fate.
A Hero of Our Time was shocking in both style and substance to the elite Russian reading public of the 1840s. “Pechorin, and Lermontov, treat society and the military exactly as they find them,” notes critic Christopher Hitchens. “Thus the scandal of the novel was occasioned by a young officer of good family who said, in effect, Here is a mirror. Look into it if you care to, but don’t be hypocritical about what you see.”[iv] Perhaps the novel’s most important reader was Nicholas I. Unsurprisingly the tsar did not care for the book, as he wrote in a letter to his wife:
I have now read and finished the Hero. I find the second volume odious and quite worthy to be fashionable [a la mode] as it is the same gallery of despicable, exaggerated characters that one finds in fashionable foreign novels. It is such novels that debauch morals and distort character, and whilst one hears such caterwauling with disgust, it always leaves one painfully half-convinced that the world is only composed of such people whose best actions apparently are inspired only by abominable or impure motives.[v]
Nicholas goes on to say that “the author suffers from a most depraved spirit, and his talents are pathetic. The Captain’s character is nicely sketched. In beginning to read the story I had hoped, and was rejoicing, that he was the Hero of our Times. In his class there are indeed many more truly worthy of this titles than those too commonly dignified with it.”[vi] (It is worth noting that when Nicholas learned of Lermontov’s death, his response was, “a dog’s death for a dog.”) The tsar’s viewpoint was shared by many Russian readers who did not understand the irony of the title and were repelled by the idea that a man like Pechorin could be called a hero. Moreover, many took Pechorin as Lermontov’s self-portrait.
Lermontov felt compelled to address these criticisms, so when a second edition of the novel was published in 1841, he added a preface that is highly critical of Russian readers. In his view, the Russian reading public was “Unable to see a joke, insensible to irony, it has, in a word, been badly brought up.” He explains that Pechorin “is in fact a portrait, but not of one man only: he is a composite portrait, made up of all the vices which flourish, full-grown, amongst the present generation.” Russia’s elites had been cosseted for too long, and thus “bitter medicines, sharp truths, are therefore necessary.” The novelist Doris Lessing has pointed out that in his preface Lermontov “was far from apologetic and spoke out with that sense of responsibility and authority then possessed by Russian writers . [who] saw themselvesand were generally regardedas a public conscience.”[vii]
Despite his small body of work, Lermontov has had a significant impact on Russian culture. His poetry influenced two of Russia’s greatest poets of the twentieth century, Alexander Blok and Boris Pasternak, and also inspired many composers, including Rubinstein, Mussorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov, and Glinka, as well as the symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel, who created a series of works based on Lermontov’s famous poem “The Demon.” Meanwhile, A Hero of Our Time has had a profound influence on Russian literature. According to John Garrard,
Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov were all influenced by Lermontov’s prose. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the Caucasus, his battle scenes, his satire against high society, all go back to Lermontov. Dostoevsky developed Lermontov’s antihero and his interest in metaphysical questions. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky carried the psychological novel initiated by Lermontov to perfection. For Chekhov, Lermontov was the great stylist, the writer of perfect stories.[viii]
In contrast to Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov, who was often brashly iconoclastic in his criticism of Russia’s literary giants, disparages Lermontov’s prose style in A Hero of Our Time as “inelegant,” “dry and drab,” and marked by trite expressions and repetition.[ix] Nevertheless, he also notes that “if we regard [Lermontov] as a storyteller, and if we remember that Russian prose was still in her teens, and the man still in his middle twenties when he wrote, then we do marvel indeed at the superb energy of the tale and at the remarkable rhythm into which the paragraphs, rather than the sentences, fall.”[x]
There is no telling what further literary heights Lermontov might have scaled had he lived longer. As John Garrard points out, “If Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had died at the same age as Lermontov, they would scarcely merit a footnote in the history of Russian literature.”[xi] Although A Hero of Our Time is the work of a young writer, it reveals a profound understanding of human nature. In Pechorin, Lermontov created a strikingly fascinating character, and the novel still makes for compelling reading.
[i] John Garrard, Mikhail Lermontov (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), p. 132.
[ii] Vladimir Nabokov, “Translator’s Foreword” in Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time, translated by Vladimir Nabokov in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958), p. vii.
[iii] Gary Shteyngart, “Introduction” in Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time, translated by Marian Schwartz (New York: Random House Modern Library, 2004), p. xiii.
[iv] Christopher Hitchens, “A Doomed Young Man,” The Atlantic Monthly (June 2005), p. 117.
[v] Laurence Kelly, Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus (New York: George Braziller, 1978), pp. 99–100. Original in French, translated by Kelly. Quoted in Emma Gerstein, Sud’ba Lermontova [The Fate of Lermontov] (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel, 1964), pp. 467-468.
[vi] Ibid., p. 100.
[vii] Doris Lessing, “Foreword” in Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time, translated by Hugh Aplin (London: Hesperus Classics, 2005), p. vii.
[viii] Garrard, p. 145.
[ix] Nabokov, p. xiii.
[x] Ibid., p. xix.
[xi] Garrard, p. 149.