Last reviewed: June 2018
Russian writer and poet
October 15, 1814
July 27, 1841
Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, who carried Alexander Pushkin’s lyricism further into the European Romantic current, is in many ways the Russian counterpart of Giacomo Leopardi, Alfred de Musset, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Born in Moscow into the family of a retired captain, he lost his parents very early and was raised by his grandmother on her country estate, Tarkhany, where he began writing poetry. Mikhail Lermontov
From 1828 to 1830, Lermontov studied at the boarding school for the nobility in Moscow, and in 1830 he entered Moscow University, from which he withdrew in 1832 to enroll in military school in St. Petersburg. He underwent two years of military training there, and served in the Life Guards Hussar Regiment in Tsarskoye Selo. He lived a hard and active life, frequently being engaged in duels.
Lermontov began writing as a precocious child of twelve; he first achieved fame with his 1837 ode on the death of Pushkin. This poem, containing accusations against the court, could not be printed but was circulated in written copies; it brought Lermontov a sentence of banishment to a regiment stationed in the Caucasus. Early in 1838, Lermontov was transferred to the Life Guards Hussar Regiment in St. Petersburg, where he spent his most productive two years writing poetry and plays. His earliest work was Byronic in style, gloomy and proud, and was strongly lyrical in its sense of independence. His poem The Demon, planned at fifteen, contains the essence of his visionary loneliness in the story of a lost angel who hopes to find paradise in the love of a woman but who is cheated by her death. In this work, as in others, he draws largely upon the Caucasian setting of his army life.
Many of Lermontov’s shorter poems, such as “The Angel” and “The Sail,” have attained lasting popularity in Russia. “The Novice,” the story of a Circassian orphan published in 1840, and A Song about Tsar Ivan Vasilyevitch, His Young Body-Guard, and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnikov, written as a folk tale in concrete and extremely realistic phrasing, are two of his best longer poems, but he also mastered the form of the novel in A Hero of Our Time. This, the first psychological novel in Russian, is mostly autobiographical, full of Lermontov’s own passion for love and violence in the person of an officer in the Caucasus. In February 1840, Lermontov was exiled to the Caucasus again for having fought a dual with the son of a French ambassador, and he was killed in another duel there on July 27, 1841, at the age of twenty-six.