‘His forehead was bisected by a lightning bolt scar.’

‘Mongo’ Stolypin describing Lermontov to Leo Tolstoy, years later.


This is a story that begins with a book. That book is Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a novel which has, at its dark core, Grigory Pechorin, a character who if he has been met will be remembered as a cynical, alluring, at times sadistic, young cavalry officer.

The novel’s climax is a duel, as celebrated as any in Russian literature, which of course bristles with them like so many homicidal tennis matches. Lermontov’s features Pechorin vs. Grushnitsky. It occurs on a mountain pathway outside the Caucasian party town of Pyatigorsk.

Grushnitsky is an acquaintance of Pechorin’s, even a friend, but is viewed as a poseur, a ridiculous half-baked Byron, who struts about the spa town, with an affected limp in his soldier’s greatcoat, letting it be understood he is a nobleman demoted to the ranks (in fact he isn’t). Pechorin treats him with mockery and derision and steals the heart of the woman with whom he is smitten.

In the inevitable duel, Grushnitsky, via his seconds, dabbles in chicanery (involving the failure to load Pechorin’s gun) and is exposed. Pechorin kills him:

I fired.
When the smoke cleared Grushnitsky was not on the ledge.
There was a faint swirl of dust hanging over the edge of the cliff.
Everyone cried out.
“Finita la commedia,” I said to Werner.
He made no reply and turned away in horror.
I shrugged my shoulders and, with a bow to Grushnitsky’s seconds, I left.
As I went down the path I saw Grushnitsky’s blood-stained body among the clefts in the rocks. I involuntarily closed my eyes.
I untethered my horse and set off slowly home. My heart was like lead, the sun seemed to have lost its brightness, and I felt no warmth from its rays.

Plainly Lermontov is not endorsing the idiocy of the convention that was the duel.

This becomes very strange when it is learnt that a year after his novel was published, Mikhail Lermontov, then Russia’s greatest poet and a bad boy banished to the Caucasus, was himself killed in a duel fought outside Pyatigorsk with pistols, for mocking the man it seems Grushnitksy was possibly modelled upon. They were old friends, too. It goes without saying a woman was involved.

But that is only part of the total strangeness of Mikhail Lermontov’s peculiar death.


A confession: for all the wrong reasons, I’ve long admired Lermontov’s dark little masterpiece. But until recently I hadn’t appreciated the novel’s full savage ironies. Then I chanced upon an old biography of the poet.

It was sitting inside the dusty window of an antique shop in Battery Point, that early toe-hold of British settlement in Tasmania, so named for the guns that formed a vital part of Hobart’s defences against an attack that, needless to say, never came.

That morning, a cold west wind was playing in the street. It breathed an icy rain. And there in the shop’s window I saw Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus. I immediately stopped walking to contemplate the cover.

That day I was planning on climbing a mountain, K-Col, two hours up the river. Fortunately I bought and took that Lermontov biography with me. For when I started ascending the lower slopes, the sky was already very forbidding. A colossal bank of cloud was rolling over the rocky ridges, in great gliding towers of grey and burnished silver.

On the alpine plateau above, the boulders were dusted with snow. A biting wind blew mizzling rain across the mountainside.

Soon fingers of mist were descending. I decided to halt at the nearest mountain hut. Now I was watching drenching rain fall through cold fog. I would be trapped there for quite a while, and made myself a cup of warm smoky tea, Russian Caravan as it happened….

I began reading toward the end of the book.


Here, then, are a few postcards from the last months of Lermontov’s life:

In April, during his last leave in St. Petersburg, Lermontov, who wants out of the army, asks a famous fortune-teller whether the Czar will grant his wish? She replies: ‘You’ll get a retirement after which you’ll never ask for anything.’ Lermontov laughs.

In May, Lermontov is travelling to Dagestan to join operations against the Circassian tribes. With him is his cousin ‘Mongo’ Stolypin, so called because he is a large affable fellow, just like his favourite Newfoundland dog, ‘Mongo’, whom he so much resembles. They are at a crossroads. Lermontov, pleading illness (possibly it was scurvy?), suggests they disobey orders and head to the playground that is Pyatigorsk. Stolypin disagrees. Lermontov insists they toss a coin. The half-rouble lands on tails. Lermontov shouts: ‘To Pyatigorsk! To Pyatigorsk! The bags are packed.’

They arrive. That very first afternoon, Lermontov, freshly attired in white linen and a majestic green silk dressing gown, appears and informs his cousin: ‘Well, then, even ‘Martyshka’ is here. ‘Martyshka’ is here,’ he repeats. ‘I told the hotelier they should send for him.’

‘Martyshka’ is Nikolai Martynov, a retired army officer, old school friend, and the man who would kill him.

The words of a fortune-teller, a coin tossed at a crossroads, a fateful encounter lurking down the road, Lermontov’s last days can seem replete with the lustre of doom. But any retrospective sense of conspiring fate is undoubtedly misleading.

For it is Mikhail Yurievitch Lermontov himself (b.1814, d.1841, from a single bullet clean through the chest) who is in control of the chain of events that will lead to his death, even if he is not in control of himself. He was, after all, just a young man, and a young man with a dangerous tongue, dangerous to others, dangerous to himself.

The basic story:

Good-looking and a little dim, Martynov (just like Grushnitsky in the novel) likes to strike a pose. Lermontov (like Pechorin) likes to ridicule him. In particular, Martynov is fond of shaving his head like a Tartar, dressing up in Circassian attire and sporting a big dagger. Lermontov invariably addresses him as, ‘Monsieur Sauvage Homme,’ and ‘le chevalier des monts sauvages.

There is a deeper current, though: Lermontov himself once liked to dress up in Circassian attire – a case of Russian Byronism de rigueur – and in mocking Martynov, he is partly mocking the empty skin of his own discarded self.

It is July. Lermontov is still malingering in Pyatigorsk. Things are coming to a head, although the next moments are somehow ridiculous, indeed might be incidents from a micro-farce called Martynov and Lermontov, written by the madcap Russian absurdist, Daniil Kharms:

Scene 1.

Lermontov and Pushkin’s little brother Lev are at a soiree. A piano is playing loudly. Martynov, as usual in Circassian dress and wearing an enormous dagger, is chatting to a young woman, Nadejda Verzilin, feasting his eyes on her and periodically muttering, “Charmant! Delicieux!”

LERMONTOV TO PUSHKIN as the piano stops: Montagnard au grand poignard! [What a mountainman! What a jolly big blade!]

Martynov pales and strides over to Lermontov.

MARTYNOV: I have told you many times to cease your jokes in front of the ladies!

Lermontov makes to speak but Martynov strides away.

LERMONTOV TO PUSHKIN: It’s all nonsense, he’ll be my chum in the morning.

Scene 2.

Next morning Martynov appears at Lermontov’s door.

MARTYNOV: I have told you many times to cease your jokes in front of the ladies!

LERMONTOV: What – are you going to challenge me to a duel over it?

Scene 3.

A mountain path outside Pyatigorsk. Barriers are set up and Martynov and Lermontov are about to duel.

But I will stop there because the third scene isn’t really a farce.


There are enough layers, enough intriguing omissions, in the early laconic accounts of Lermontov’s death as to drain the ink cartridge of any good literary detective. Most of the eyewitnesses maintained their silence. But Lermontov’s second, Prince Vasiltchikov, did spill the beans decades later to his son. So the facts would seem fairly clear.

Late that sultry afternoon, Lermontov rides off to a hillside outside Pyatigorsk, accompanied by his cousin, ‘Mongo’, and a friend, Mikhail Glebov, who will act as second for Martynov. Was he conscious of the uncanny echoes of the duel from his fiction?

We mounted and set off. In no time we had galloped past the fort, through the suburb and into the gorge along which the road twisted. The road was half overgrown with tall grass and continually crossed by a rushing stream, which had to be forded.

Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time

Seemingly not. Glebov afterwards said that, as he rode to his death, Lermontov was in a jovial mood, ‘as though going to a party,’ discussing plans for two novels (one not unlike War and Peace). There was no sense his life was at risk.

Three horses were tethered in the bushes at the foot of the cliff.
We tethered ours by them and made our way up a narrow path.

Something similar happens here. Lermontov, Stolypin and Glebov rendezvous with Martynov and the Princes Vasiltchikov and Trubetskoy, cream of St Petersburg society. All are friends who run in the same fast circle.

In a meadow, the seconds mark off a distance of thirty paces, dropping a hat at either end as barriers. Glebov loads the pistols. Perhaps Lermontov, like Pechorin, absorbed the surrounding panorama, so beautifully evoked in the novel, as he waited?

The duellists were directed to commence.


But now life and art diverge dramatically.

It seems there was an expectation neither man would shoot at the other, but would fire into the air to save face, which is why what happened next evidently shocked Lermontov’s friends. Without stepping forward, Lermontov raised his pistol to the sky, but turned to his audience and said so loudly that Martynov had to hear:

‘I have no intention of shooting at that idiot!’
The words reverberated in Martynov’s head:
‘I have no intention of shooting at that idiot!’
Incensed, Martynov pulled the trigger.

‘The bullet crossed the body from right side to left, and pierced the heart.Lermontov lived for only five minutes and could not utter another word,’ recorded a certain Colonel Traskin (Chief of Staff to the commanding officer in Stavropol) who in the ensuing days took control of the situation. Traskin suggested, ‘Their animosity makes one think they were settling other differences.’

Perhaps. Nevertheless, in the clear view of the only eyewitness to speak, Lermontov, in the moment of the duel, perversely goaded poor Martynov to kill him.

It doesn’t feel like a joke gone sour. Suicide seems too strong a word. Surely recklessness is closer to the mark? There are, after all, poseurs and poseurs. ‘To live and die before the mirror,’ is the dandy’s creed says Baudelaire somewhere. Wasn’t Lermontov, in his last moments, flaunting his scorn and indifference to Martynov’s gun, as much the dandy as Martynov in his laughable Circassian attire, as the fictional Grushnitsky with his affected limp? Wasn’t Lermontov, in fact, the ultimate dandy, playing a game that said: Let’s experiment with not giving a damn about my life? ‘Of course, he was still quite young,’ was the verdict of the old Decembrist, Mikhail Nazimov, who was fond of him. And perhaps it was as simple as that.


A few last threads:

Czar Nicholas I when he heard of Lermontov’s death notoriously remarked, ‘A dog’s death for a dog. He got what he deserved.’ Soviet scholars were wont to speculate the affair was a put-up job.

As for Martynov he suffered the classic fate of the conventional dandy – that is, a good marriage, a successful career, many children, and ultimately a seat on the local council. As an old man he supposedly could not forgive himself for killing in a fit of temper Russia’s greatest poet after Pushkin.

If anybody ever does write a play called the Death of Lermontov, there is a final scene that should be included. No words are spoken. It reads as follows:

Glebov remains alone with the body. He is sitting on the grass in pouring rain. It is night. The head of the poet rests on his knees. There is the sound of tethered horses neighing, rearing, pawing the ground with their hooves. Glebov attempts to lower the head carefully onto his greatcoat, but this movement only causes Lermontov to yawn convulsively. Glebov freezes. He remains motionless in the dark until the police cart comes.

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