Mikhail Lermontov

(redirected from Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich)
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Lermontov, Mikhail Iur’evich


Born Oct. 3 (15), 1814, in Moscow; died July 15 (27), 1841, in Piatigorsk. Russian poet.

Lermontov was the son of retired captain Iu. P. Lermontov (1787–1831) and M. M. Arsen’eva (1795–1817). He lost his parents early and was raised by his grandmother, E. A. Arsen’eva, who gave her grandson a well-rounded education. Lermontov’s childhood was spent on her country estate, Tarkhany (now the village of Lermontovo, Penza Oblast), where the future poet observed scenes of peasant life and rural nature and listened to folk songs and legends about Stepan Razin and Emel’ian Pugachev. Trips with his relatives to the Caucasus (in 1818, 1820, and 1825) left a deep imprint on Lermontov’s memory.

From 1828 to 1830, Lermontov studied at the Boarding School for the Nobility in Moscow. He turned to poetry and wrote his first narrative poems (Circassians and Prisoner of the Caucasus), which were imitative of A. S. Pushkin’s work. Lermontov’s years at Moscow University (1830–32) were significant ones in the formation of his world view. His contemporaries at the university were V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, and N. P. Ogarev, whose influence on the general intellectual level of the students was pronounced even then. In that period, Lermontov wrote lyrical poetry, narrative poems, and plays, including the drama A Strange Man (1831), which expressed hatred of despotism and serfdom.

Clashes with reactionary faculty members led Lermontov to abandon the university, move to St. Petersburg, and enter a school for second lieutenants in the guards and cavalry junkers, where he spent “two dreadful years” full of military drilling. Secretly, in snatches, Lermontov worked on the novel Vadim, which depicted episodes from the Pugachev uprising. Leaving the school as a subensign, or cornet (1834), Lermontov served in the Life Guards Hussar Regiment stationed in Tsarskoe Selo but spent considerable time in St. Petersburg. His critical observations of aristocratic society there formed the basis of his play Masquerade (1835), which, despite several revisions, was not allowed to be staged.

The Death of a Poet (1837), a wrathful response to Pushkin’s death, was a watershed in Lermontov’s work and destiny. The poem, which blamed not only the killer but also the court aristocracy for the tragedy, circulated throughout Russia. Lermontov was arrested and transferred to the Nizhny Novgorod Dragoon Regiment in Georgia. During his exile, he met banished Decembrists and the Georgian intelligentsia and took a lively interest in the folklore, life, and language of the mountain peoples. Caucasian themes took a permanent place in Lermontov’s work as writer and artist (he was a talented sketcher and painter). Early in 1838, as a result of intercession by Arsen’eva and V. A. Zhukovskii, Lermontov was transferred to the Grodno Hussar Regiment stationed outside Novgorod, but he made a stop in the capital on the way to his new post; in the spring of 1838 he was returned to the Life Guards Hussar Regiment. The two years that Lermontov spent in St. Petersburg (1838–40) coincided with the flowering of his talent.

Lermontov’s poetry began to appear regularly in print. The historical narrative poem Song About Tsar Ivan Vasil’evich (published in 1838; the author’s name was withheld by the censor) enjoyed great success. Lermontov made friends among the editors of the journal Otechestvennye zapiski and became acquainted with Belinskii.

In February 1840, because of a duel with E. Barant, son of the French ambassador, Lermontov was court-martialed and again sent on active army duty in the Caucasus. As a participant in the heavy fighting at the Valerik River in Chechen, he was twice recommended for decorations, but the tsar refused, not wishing to ease the poet’s lot. In February 1841, Lermontov was permitted a brief leave in the capital to see his grandmother; but soon, filled with gloomy presentiments, he was again forced to return to the regiment. In the last months of his life, Lermontov wrote his best poems: “Motherland,” “The Cliff,” “The Argument,” “A Leaf,” and “No, it is not you that I love so fervently.” The poet’s last work was “The Prophet.”

On the way to join his regiment, Lermontov delayed in Piatigorsk to take a cure; secret enemies, knowing how Lermontov was regarded in court circles, provoked a quarrel between Lermontov and another officer, N. S. Martynov, and did not prevent the duel that ended the poet’s life. Belinskii wrote: “A new, great loss has bereaved poor Russian literature” (Otechestvennye zapiski, 1841, no. 9, section 6, p. 2). Lermontov was buried in the Piatigorsk town cemetery on July 17 (29), 1841. Later the body was transferred to Tarkhany and buried in the Arsen’ev family vault on Apr. 23 (May 5), 1842.

Lermontov appeared in Russian literature as Pushkin’s successor in an era (after the Decembrist movement was crushed in 1825) when the gentry’s revolutionary spirit sought new paths of development. Even Lermontov’s juvenilia was imbued with a passionate dream of freedom and calls to action—for example, “The Turk’s Complaint” and “Monologue.” The weakening of the social movement gave a pessimistic coloring and tone to his work but also formed his sharply critical view of contemporary conditions. Even his early verses voiced Lermontov’s longing for the ideal.

While developing many of Pushkin’s artistic principles, Lermontov’s works reflected a new stage in the development of Russian social consciousness, and this defined the profound originality of his poetry, as Belinskii subtly noted: “Nowhere is there any of Pushkin’s revelry at the feast of life; rather, everywhere there are questions that darken the soul and chill the heart.... Yes, clearly Lermontov is a poet of a completely different era, and his poetry is a completely new link in the chain of our society’s historical development” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 4, 1954, p. 503).

Lermontov’s work was nurtured by the tradition of the romantic lyric poetry of the Decembrists, and he had an affinity for Byron’s stormy verse. Romantic art corresponded to Lermontov’s nature as a poet, helping him to express libertarian ideals and to reaffirm the idea of the freedom of the individual. His romanticism, far removed from any contemplative meditation, was filled with tragically intense emotions and thoughts. It also contained elements of the realistic vision of the world that gradually became an important aspect of his poetry. Thus, at the core of the romantic narrative poem Mtsyri (The Novice; 1839) are a real theme from contemporary Caucasian life and a topical ideological clash. A free mountain dweller is captured by a tsarist general and incarcerated in a monastery; his unquenchable thirst for freedom was read as a vivid protest against all forms of oppression and suppression of the individual.

The history of the narrative poem The Demon, on which he worked from 1829 almost until the end of his life, reveals Lermontov’s development. The artificially romantic setting of the poem gradually gave way to lifelike, concrete descriptions, and each new variant of the poem further clarified the author’s main purpose—to create in the Demon a powerful allegorical incarnation of the rebellion of the individual against the injustice of the “world order.” That was precisely the way that progressive contemporaries understood the poem. The Demon was the apogee of Russian romantic poetry. Yet the final editions of the poem reveal ever more clearly the dead end awaiting egocentric “demonism” and emphasize themes of spiritual rebirth through the love of a soul “open to goodness.”

In the second half of the 1830’s, Lermontov’s work had more variety in content and was richer in genre and style. While working on new romantic narrative poems, Lermontov also wrote verse novellas of contemporary life (Sashka and The Tambov Paymaster’s Wife) that satirically depicted daily life and mores. Important problems of contemporary life, the fate of his generation (”Thought,” 1838), the tragic solitude of the lover of freedom, and the moral condition of society became part of Lermontov’s poetic world. In “Poet” (1838), Lermontov expounded the high ideals of civic poetry, which should inspire “the fighter to battle.” As realistic elements increased in his work, so did his affirmation of folk themes, his interest in oral epic poetry, and his depiction of the Russian national character—for example, in Song About Tsar Ivan Vasil’evich, Borodino, (1837), “Last Testament” (1840), and “Motherland” (1841).

The novel A Hero of Our Time (1840), profoundly accurate in its social and psychological insights, was the crowning achievement of Lermontov’s realism. Its hero, Pechorin, shown against the vast canvas of Russian society, is an artistic creation of unfading significance. Lermontov used the devices of realism to expose the tragic contradiction between Pechorin’s deep nature and shallow actions. Lermontov’s intellectual and creative maturity is evident in the novel’s artistic innovations, construction, and psychologically sound character development, as well as in its incomparably precise and pure language, which delighted Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.

Civic, philosophical, and subjective, deeply personal themes are closely intertwined in Lermontov’s art. He introduced the “iron line” of verse, distinguished by unprecedented energetic expression, into Russian poetry. Answering the basic needs of the spiritual life of Russian society and the liberation movement, Lermontov’s poetry and prose laid the groundwork for a new flowering of national literature. Lermontov’s influence can be traced in the work of N. A. Nekrasov, I. S. Turgenev, L. N. Tolstoy, and F. M. Dostoevsky, as well as in Soviet poetry (A. A. Blok and V. V. Mayakovsky). His dramaturgy played a significant role in the development of the Russian theater. Lermontov’s legacy was widely interpreted in painting, theater, and cinema. His poems enriched Russian music, inspiring an opera (A. G. Rubinstein’s The Demon), symphonies (S. V. Rachmaninoff’s The Cliff and A. A. Spendiarov’s Three Palms), and art songs, by such composers as A. S. Dargomyzhskii and M. A. Balakirev; several poems became folk songs, including “I go out alone on the road.”

Soviet scholarship has explored Lermontov’s life and the complex intellectual and artistic questions inherent in his work. Texts have been reexamined and annotated; the poet’s biography has been almost rewritten on the basis of materials that were unknown or inaccessible to earlier researchers. Memorial museums have been founded in the village of Lermontovo (Penza Oblast), where the poet spent his childhood years, and in Piatigorsk, where Lermontov spent the last months of his life.


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–5. Petrograd, 1910–13.
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–5. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935–37.
Sochineniia, vols. 1–6. Moscow-Leningrad, 1954–57.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1964–65.
Sobr. soch. v chetyrekh tomakh, vol. 1—. Moscow, 1975.


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Venok M. Iu. Lermontovu: Iubileinyi sb. Moscow-Petrograd, 1914.
Durylin, S. N. Kak rabotal Lermontov. Moscow, 1934.
Kirpotin, V. Ia. Politicheskie motivy v tvorchestve Lermontova. Moscow, 1939.
Ginzburg, L. Ia. Tvorcheskii put’ Lermontova. Leningrad, 1940.
Rozanov, I. N. Lermontov—master stikha. Moscow, 1942.
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Andreev-Krivich, S. A. Lermontov: Voprosy tvorchestva i biografii. Moscow, 1954.
Sokolov, A. N. M. Iu. Lermontov, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1957.
Mikhailova, E. N. Proza Lermontova. Moscow, 1957.
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Mersereau, J. M. Lermontov. Carbondale, 111., 1962.
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Kempa, W. A. “Lermontow w Polsce: Szkis bibliograficzny.” Slavia orientalis, 1964, no. 4, pp. 459–80.
M. J. Lermontov v české literature: Bibliografie. Prague, 1965.
Manuilov, V. A., M. I. Gillel’son, and V. E. Vatsuro. M. Iu. Lermontov: Seminarii. Leningrad, 1960.
Kandel’, B. L. “Bibliografiia perevodov romana Geroi nashego vremeni na inostrannye iazyki.” In M. Iu. Lermontov, Geroi nashego vremeni. Moscow, 1962.
Istoriia russkoi literatury XIX v.: Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
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V. V. ZHDANOV [14–1032–1; updated]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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