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Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (October 15th 1814 – July 27th 1841), a Russian Romantic writer and poet, sometimes called "the poet of the Caucasus", was the most important presence in Russian poetry after Alexander Pushkin's death until his own death in a duel four years later, at the age of 26. In one of his best-known poems, written on January 1, 1840 he described his poetry as "iron verse steeped in bitterness and hatred."
Lermontov was born in Moscow to a respectable family of the Tula government, and grew up in the village of Tarkhany (in the Penza government), which now preserves his remains. His family traced descent from the Scottish Learmonths, one of whom settled in Russia in the early 17th century, during the reign of Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov.
The family did not fare well for long, however, and Lermontov's father, Yuri Lermontov, like his father before him, entered military service. Having moved up the ranks to captain, he married the sixteen year old Mariya Arsenyeva, to the great dismay of her mother, Yelizaveta Alekseyevna. A year after the marriage, on the night of October 3rd, 1814, Mariya Arsenieva gave birth to Mikhail Lermontov. Soon after his birth, some discord between Lermontov's father and grandmother erupted, and unable to bear it, Mariya Arsenieva fell ill and died in 1817. After her daughter's death, Yelizaveta Alekseyevna devoted all her care and attention to little Mikhail and his education, always in fear that his father might sooner or later run away with him.
As a young child Lermontov listened to stories about the outlaws of the Volga region, and his imagination was enraptured by their reportedly great bravery and wild country life. Unfortunately, at ten years of age he fell sick, and to soothe his illness, Yelizaveta Alekseyevna took him to the Caucasus region. There, young Lermontov for the first time fell in love with a girl he would later describe as having golden hair and a "pair of angelic eyes".
The intellectual atmosphere in which he grew up differed little from that experienced by Pushkin, though the domination of French had begun to give way to a preference for English, and Lamartine shared his popularity with Byron. In his early childhood Lermontov was educated by a Frenchman named Gendrot; but Gendrot was a poor pedagogue, and Yelizaveta Alekseyevna
decided to take Lermontov to Moscow to prepare him better for the gymnasium. In Moscow, Lermontov was introduced to Goethe and Schiller by a German pedagogue, Levy, and shortly afterwards, in 1828, he entered the gymnasium. Mikhail showed himself to be an incredibly talented student, once completely stealing the show at an exam by first impeccably reciting some poetry, and then successfully performing a violin piece. At the gymnasium he also became acquainted with the poetry of Pushkin and Zhukovsky, and one of his friends, Katerina Hvostovaya, later described him as "married to a hefty volume of Byron". This friend had at one time been an object of Lermontov's affection, and to her he dedicated some of his earliest poems. At that time, along with his poetic passion, Lermontov also developed an inclination for poisonous wit, and cruel and sardonic humor. His ability to draw caricatures was matched by his ability to pin someone down with a well aimed epigram or nickname.
After the academic gymnasium, in the August 1830, Lermontov transferred to Moscow University. That same summer the final, tragic act of the family discord played out. Having been struck deep by his son's alienation, Yuri Lermontov left the Arseniev house for good, only to die a short time later. His father's death on such a note was a terrible loss for young Mikhail, and is reflected in several of his poems: "Forgive me, Will we meet again?" and "The Terrible Fate of Father and Son".
Lermontov's career at the University was short-lived. While there, he was known for his aloofness and arrogant disposition; Mikhail attended lectures faithfully, but would often read a book in the corner of the auditorium, and rarely took part in student life. What brought his time at the University to an end was a prank a group of students pulled against the obnoxious professor Malov. Once, after the professor had begun a lecture with his favorite phrase, "the man, who," a group of students that had already gathered there from various departments started to applaud and yell: "Fora! Excellent!" At this, Malov coiled up, crawled off the podium, and quickly walked out onto the street, where the students followed and threw a pair of shoes at him. Lermontov, who had attended this "event", paid dearly for it, and some consider this to be the reason for his departure.
The events at the University led Lermontov to seriously reconsider his career choice. From 1830 to 1834 he attended the cadet school in Saint Petersburg, and in due course he became an officer in the guards. There Lermontov got a chance to show off his incredible strength and prankish character: he and another junior officer would tie steel ramrods, as if they were simple ropes, into knots, until they were caught at this task by General Schlippenbach. When he caught them doing it, he became enraged at such immature behavior. At that time he began writing poetry imitative of Pushkin and Byron. He also took a keen interest in Russian history and medieval epics, which would be reflected in the Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov, his long poem Borodino, poems addressed to the city of Moscow, and a series of popular ballads.
To his own and the nation's anger at the loss of Pushkin (1837) the young soldier gave vent in a passionate poem the latter part of which was explicitly addressed to the inner circles at the court, though not to the tsar himself. The poem all but accused the powerful "pillars" of Russian high society of complicity in Pushkin's murder. Without mincing words, it portrayed that society as a cabal of self-interested venomous wretches "huddling about the throne in a greedy throng", "the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory" about to suffer the apocalyptic judgement of God. Cleaving the repressive atmosphere of 1830's Russia like a lightning bolt from a still sky, the poem had the power of biblical prophecy.
The tsar, however, seems to have found more impertinence than inspiration in the address, for Lermontov was forthwith sent off to the Caucasus as an officer in the dragoons. He had been in the Caucasus with his grandmother as a boy of ten, and he found himself at home, with feelings deeper than those of childhood recollection. The stern and rocky virtues of the mountain tribesmen against whom he had to fight, no less than the scenery of the rocks and of the mountains themselves, were close to his heart; the tsar had exiled him to his native land.
Lermontov visited Saint Petersburg in 1838 and 1839, and his indignant observations of the aristocratic milieu, wherein fashionable ladies welcomed him as a celebrity, occasioned his play Masquerade. Otherwise, his unreciprocated attachment to Varvara Lopukhina was recorded in the novel Princess Ligovskaya, which he never finished. His duel with a son of the French ambassador led to his being returned to the army in the Caucasus, where he distinguished himself in hand-to-hand combat near the Valerik River.
By 1839 Lermontov completed his only full-scale novel, A Hero of Our Time, which prophetically describes the duel in which he lost his life.
On July 25, 1841, at Pyatigorsk, fellow soldier Nikolai Martynov, who had been the butt of Lermontov's jokes, challenged Lermontov to a duel. The duel took place two days later at the foot of Mashuk mountain. Lermontov deliberately chose the edge of a precipice for the duel, so that if either combatant was wounded, he would fall and his fate would be sealed. Lermontov was killed by Martynov's first shot. Much of his best verse was posthumously discovered in his pocket-book.
Lermontov's life must be viewed as one of the most epic and dramatic in the history of literature. After attacking the tsar as complicit in the de facto assassination of Pushkin, Lermontov himself fell in a duel that many believe was also the work of a tsarist conspiracy designed to silence nascent rebellion. His major works, which can be readily quoted from memory by many Russians, suffer from the generally poor quality of translation from Russian to English - Lermontov therefore, remains largely unknown to English-speaking readers. But his poem "Mtsyri" ("The Novice") tells the story of a young man who finds that dangerous freedom is vastly preferable to protected servitude, and speaks as eloquently as anything written by Thomas Jefferson for the spirit of the American Revolution.
Lermontov's poetic development was unusual. His earliest unpublished work that he circulated through his friends in the military was pornographic in the extreme, with elements of sadism. His subsequent reputation was clouded by this, so much so that admission of familiarity with Lermontov's poetry was not permissible for any young upper-class woman for a good part of 19th century. These poems were published only once, in 1924, as part of a scholarly edition of Lermontov's complete works (edited by Irakly Andronikov).
During his lifetime, Lermontov published only one slender collection of poems (1840). Three volumes, much mutilated by censorship, were published a year after his death. His short poems range from indignantly patriotic pieces like Fatherland to the pantheistic glorification of living nature (e.g., Alone I set out on the road ...) Lermontov's early verse has been termed by some puerile, for despite his dexterous command of the language, it usually appeals more to adolescents than to adults. But like Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom he is often compared, he attempted to analyze and bring to light the deeper reasons for this metaphysical discontent with society and himself.
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