Mikhail Lermontov straddled the mountain ridge of Russian creative culture, between poetry of the ‘intelligentsia’ during the days of high empire and the period of prose that both was led by and inspired the revolutionary time of Russia’s coming of age. Specifically, the period between the December Revolution and the October Revolution, those hundred years when Russia finally abandoned its absolute monarchy in favor of a more modern type of government. Specifically, a government that recognized the humanity and ‘equality’, at least relative equality, of all its citizens.
Lermontov was born into the nobility, but like Herzen or Turgenev he had a profound sense that something was wrong in Russia. The attempts by Tsars Alexander I, II, and III, and Nicholas I and II to hold onto absolute power in the face of a world that was changing was proving futile, but extremely dangerous. In those early years between revolutions, it was the writers, mostly coming from the nobility, who were leading the charge against the Tsars. This led Lermontov to get into trouble on more than one occasion. And he was exiled to the Caucasus, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. Russian writers are inspired by the Caucasus (in fact all writers are, I think). And his one novel “A Hero of Our Time”, set in the Caucasus, has all the imagery and the savagery and the smells of those mountainous lands.
It’s hard not to be moved by the mountains. Mountainous, mountain inspired literature is better; literature that comes from cold environments, from people struggling to make their way and survive the elements, and somehow the deep internal reflections that are produced by the natural environments of the mountains make the literature more meaningful. Just compare Pasternak with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Depth of spirit, juxtaposed against vulgarity.
We writers are haunted by mountains. Which makes “A Hero of Our Times” extraordinary, even read now, 200 years after it was written.
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