The familiar panoramic views of the Caucasus Mountains filled television screens around the world during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. While these mountains are recognized for their natural beauty, they were formerly a place of banishment during the days of Imperial Russia. One literary figure, Mikhail Lermontov, used his time in exile to write about the folk traditions and scenery of the area. He became known as the “poet of the Caucasus.”
Lermontov (1814-1841) was born in Moscow to a poor military officer father and a wealthy aristocratic mother. After his mother died when he was very young, his grandmother brought him to live at the family estate in the central Russia region of Penza. He grew up living the life customary of the Russian aristocracy including private schooling at home, speaking fluent German and French, music lessons and painting. His grandmother took him to the Caucasus several times because of his poor health. The change of climate, mountains and mineral springs helped. While there, he was impressed with the natural beauty of the area.
He began writing poetry while studying at Moscow University. After dropping out, he moved to Saint Petersburg and enrolled in military school. He completed the required two years and accepted a position with a regiment in the city. As an officer, he had access to the ballrooms and parlor gossip of the upper class which helped him continue his pursuit as a poet. When the poet Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837, Lermontov wrote a poem accusing the Russian aristocracy of being involved in his death. The Death of a Poet created such an uproar that Lermontov became famous. However, the poem also angered the tsar who ordered the young poet into exile. He was sent to the Caucasus which, despite the natural beauty, was a standard place of banishment during Imperial Russia.
During his exile, he wrote what are considered to be some of his best poems. One, popularly translated as Native Land, described the Caucasus from the folklore to local languages spoken in hamlets. He wrote about how the winter ice covering the steppes changed to springtime flood waters: “her dreary steppelands wrapped in icy silence,” the birch trees, thatched roofed huts and villagers celebrating.
He returned to the upper-class life in Saint Petersburg with the help of his grandmother’s influence and published many of the poems he’d written during his exile. This brought him widespread acclaim and he started working on his only novel, A Hero of Our Time. The story is considered partly autobiographical and centers around tales of a bored young nobleman. In real life, Lermontov and the son of a French ambassador fought over a socially prominent young woman. The poet was once again sentenced to the Caucasus, only this time, he was sent to fight local tribesmen on the front lines.
After proving himself to be a worthy soldier in combat, he was granted a two-month leave and returned to Saint Petersburg. He was hoping to return permanently so he could spend his time writing. The tsar refused his request for a discharge and refused to award him for his bravery. He was sent back to the army; his sharp wit prompted a challenge to a duel which proved fatal for him. He was killed at the foot of Mashuk Mountain in the North Caucasus at the age of 26.
Lermontov’s contribution to Russian poetry and literature is ranked closely with Pushkin. While Pushkin is considered the founder of Russian literature, Lermontov is the founder of the Russian psychological novel. Both of them had spent time in the Caucasus and both had written some works that were temporarily banned. Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated author of such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, also spent time in that area when he was in the army.
The Caucasus Mountains represented natural beauty but were also a place of banishment during the Golden Age of Imperial Russia. Each of the three, Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy, combined their aristocratic upbringing with their experiences in the Caucasus to produce some of Russia’s greatest literature.
By: Cynthia Collins