Carusel Tours
29 June 2021

The Best of Russian Literature: Poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov

Portrait of A. Pushkin by V. Tropinin (1827)
Two most famous Russian poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov lived in the first half of the 19th century and they influenced the style of all the Russian writers who followed them – Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov…

Both were shot at the duel at a young age and both had "exotic" ancestors who came to Russia from far away. Alexander Pushkin's great grandfather Abram Hannibal was of African origin, he was kidnapped as a toddler and sent to Constantinople, where Russian ambassador found him and presented at the Russian court – Peter the Great personally became the godfather of the baby and turned him into a Russian nobleman.

Mikhail Lermontov's distant relative was George Learmonth, a Scottish mercenary who served in the Polish army in the 17th century where he was captured by the Russians during the Russian-Polish War. Subsequently he went to serve in the Russian army and settled down there. He was also granted with the Russian nobility title.

Portrait of A. Pushkin by V. Tropinin (1827)

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Pushkin for Russians is like an alphabet when you learn to write – he stands at the origins of the modern literature and modern language. In his short life, he wrote many masterpieces - poems, verses, fairy tales for children, a novel in verses and short stories in prose – everything in a very beautiful, witty and simple language that is a pleasure to read.

For the rest of the world Pushkin's most famous work is Eugene Onegin, thanks to the opera of the same name with divine music by another genius, Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky. Pushkin's magnificent language is very melodious, and when we listen to the arias of this opera, we often anticipate each phrase that the singer sings - this is how this novel is in our heads. I strongly advise you to listen to the opera or, even better, see it live, and, of course, read the novel.

Eugene Onegin Opera, Mariinsky Theatre Production
Eugene Onegin Opera, Mariinsky Theatre Production

Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin is written in verses, and when you read it in original, you memorize some of its parts almost automatically word by word even without realizing it. This is the magic of Onegin stanza, a special form, invented by Pushkin, that comes close to the natural melody of speech.

If you read it in other languages, you might choose either a translation in verses or in prose, that would follow the meaning of each phrase more precisely, but lack the original structure of the novel.

The novel is set in the aristocratic society of early 19th century. It gives us a witty and curious description of the Russian life of that time, with its habits and fashions, but it is much more than that. At the core of the novel is the romantic development of the feelings between quiet day-dreaming Tatiana and Eugene Onegin, selfish Byronic type, a dandy in his 20-s, already disappointed in life. Young romantic landlord Lensky, Onegin's neighbour, Tatiana's sister Olga and Tatiana's nurse are other important characters. Pushkin writes about all of them as if he were acquainted with them personally. From the very beginning we feel that author's sympathies are on Tatiana's side.

Here and there Pushkin puts charming digressions about, for instance, graceful female legs that once conquered his heart (the poet was a great admirer of women), his thoughts and advice.

Illustration to the duel between Onegin and Lensky by I. Repin
Illustration to the duel between Onegin and Lensky by I. Repin

The central event of the novel is the ridiculous duel between Onegin and Lensky where one of them dies. Duels were very common in the upper society of that time, even though they were forbidden, and Pushkin himself was forced to accept a challenge to a duel where he was mortally wounded at the age of 37.

In the first part of the novel Tatiana is in love with Onegin, but he is not ready to accept her feelings. In the end it turns all the way around - Onegin gets passionately in love with Tatiana, once from a shy provincial girl she turns to a famous socialite, but it is already too late.

The novel is short and easy to read, you will enjoy spending several evenings or a weekend with it, and I am sure that you will take quite a few insights from this gem of Russian literature!

Self-portrait of Pushkin with Onegin
Self-portrait of Pushkin with Onegin
Alexander Pushkin became so attached to his Eugene Onegin that he even imagined them walking together along the Neva River in St. Petersburg arm in arm, as if he were Pushkin's good acquaintance.
The Belkin Tales

These are 5 captivating short stories that are written in prose. Belkin's Tales tell us stories from various classes of Russian society of that time. These stories are presented as real ones, they were supposedly collected by the landowner Belkin and wrote by him before he died.

Each story is written in two dominant styles of that epoch, either sentimental or romantic. In Belkin Tales Pushkin first touches upon the theme of a small man, that would soon become very important for the Russian literature.
"A small man" is a humble person who holds a minor position somewhere and very often he has no opportunity to change his life or answer his offenders. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and other Russian writers would later invent their own stories of "small men".
Lifetime portrait of Emelyan Pugachev, author unknown (1774)
Lifetime portrait of Emelyan Pugachev before execution, author unknown (1774)

The Captain's Daughter

Captain's Daughter is a very romantic story about a young noble man, Pyotr Grinyov, and his unbelievable adventures during the Pugachev Rebellion in the 1770-s.

Pushkin prepared a research about Pugachev Rebellion for the Russian emperor and he was granted with an access to the classified documents for that. Emelyan Pugachev's story inspired Pushkin to write the Captain's Daughter. Grinyov had a real prototype, but Pushkin embellished his story and made it much more "cinematic". Pushkin portrays Cossack Emelyan Pugachev, the leader of the peasant revolts against Catherine the Great's reign, with a great sympathy, a very brave choice for the writer in Imperial Russia.

The events in this story are developing very rapidly and you won't have time to get bored. It is one of Pushkin's last works, he was shot at the duel several months later.

 Natalia Goncharova, painted by A. P. Brullov (1830-s)
Natalia Goncharova, portrayed by A. P. Brullov (1830-s)
According to an unwritten code of that time it was almost impossible for Pushkin to avoid the duel with the French subject d'Anthès, who kept provoking the poet by expressing unequivocal interest to his beautiful spouse, Natalia Goncharova. What made things even more scandalous was that d'Anthès married Natalia's sister shortly before the duel.

However, most contemporaries of Pushkin believed that d'Anthès was only a figurehead and emperor Nicholas I himself stood behind the duel. Nicholas I was a womaniser and he had a lot of mistresses – he wanted to make Natalia one of them. The possibility of that affair infuriated Pushkin.
Lermontov's portrait by P. Z. Zakharov-Cechenets (1834)
Lermontov's portrait by P. Z. Zakharov-Chechenets (1834)

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)

Another greatest Russian poet, who was also killed in a duel, was Mikhail Lermontov. He lived a very short life, by the time of his death he was only 26, but he managed to leave us an impressive heritage - several poems, a lot of verses, a play and one of the greatest novels in Russian literature. I can't help wondering how is it possible, that the literary works written almost by an adolescent according to our modern believes could be so deeply meaningful and keep influencing people of all ages? Anton Chekhov, who admired Lermontov, was asking himself the same question.

Lermontov came into fame with the Death of the Poet, a bitter poem written soon after the death of Alexander Pushkin and filled with the reproach towards the society and government, who let the genius to be killed. The poem spread all over Moscow and St. Petersburg in manual copies over the course of several days. Lermontov was only 22 and by that time he had already written several poems and verses that were published later.

Straight away he was sent to the army in the field in the Caucasus. There Lermontov spent a lot of time as a child at healing waters and there later as an officer he wrote some of his most famous works and painted amazing landscapes. The Caucasus became the main protagonist for Lermontov-writer and Lermontov-painter.

Demon Seated by M. Vrubel
Mikhail Vrubel, a talented Russian artist, was fascinated by Lermontov. He created some of the best illustrations to Lermontov's works, but his main point of interest was the Demon from the poem by Lermontov with the same name.

kept painting various versions of Demon throughout his life. His most famous Demon is now on display in the Vrubel Hall of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow
A Hero of Our Time

Lermontov's poetry is deeply romantic, but his only finished novel in prose, A Hero of Our Time, is often called the first Russian psychological novel.

This tiny novel is one of the most loved literature works in Russia. Of course, when we get acquainted with it at school, we see it in a completely different light, but it is the book that most of us re-read later in life. It is astonishing to realise that Lermontov published it when he was only 25 and it took him a couple of years to write it.

A Hero of Our Time consists of several stories, mixed up chronologically. The main character in all stories is the same – young Russian officer Pechorin, who served in the Caucasus at the time when most events described in the book took place.
Pushkin derived the surname of his Eugene Onegin from the Onega River that flows in Archangel Region of Russia. Lermontov, who had the image of Onegin in mind while creating his novel, named Pechorin after River Pechora, that also flows in the Northern Russia.
Illustrations to the novel by M. Vrubel

Lermontov goes further and makes his main character Grigory Pechorin an even less pleasant type than Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and calls him ironically a hero of his epoch. Each story from a book is set up in a different location and they all end up dramatically – Pechorin destroyes a well-established routine in the lives of other people who happened to be around them – contrabandists, fellow officers and aristocrats, Caucasian highlanders. At the same time Pechorin's thoughts are incredibly deep and they get into the heads of readers, make us think on the eternal questions of human existence.

In addition to the mixed up chapters of the novel, in A Hero of Our Time you will find 3 narrators – Maxim Maximych, a kind Russian officer, who served in the fortress where Pechorin was exiled to after a duel, the author, and Perchorin himself. These literary devices are brilliant as they let us see the adventures of Pechorin from different perspectives and keep us puzzled all the time. We first get acquainted with Pechorin from the narration of other people and only after that we get to know him more deeply from his own diary.

There is an intrigue in each story of the novel, no matter who the narrator is, and they are all read in one breath and with impatience. They could have been independent works should have the author decided to publish them separately.

Anton Chekhov's favourite story from A Hero of Our Time was Taman. He was saying "I cannot understand <…> how he, being so young, could have done this! I wish I could write such a thing and a good vaudeville, then I could die!"

At the same time, Vladimir Nabokov thought that "Taman is the worst story in the whole book"; everything in it irritated him and seemed unreal.
And what is your opinion? Please share it with us!

Mount Elbrus and wild flowers
A Hero of Our Time has absolutely breathtaking descriptions of the nature of the Caucasus, they seem to be painted, not written. Lermontov was a good painter and you can feel it when you read them.

There is one very curious detail – in Russian we have more main colours than in other languages. The light-blue colour or goluboj in Russian is the colour that is missing in colour palettes of most European languages and that is precisely the colour that Lermontov uses a lot, also in diminutive forms, when describing the sky and the mountains. What a hard work for translators!
Aeolian Harp Pavillion in Piatigorsk
Lermontov's favourite spot in Piatogorsk, North Caucasus

I hope that this post will inspire you to read our classics, Pushkin and Lermontov, who greatly influenced all the greatest Russian writers who followed after them!

We are looking forward to your comments and suggestions for our next literature posts and let us know if you want us to design Pushkin or Lermontov Tour for you when you are in Russia!

Text by Alexandra Carusel Tours
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