Literary Journeys into the Past: Empire and Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov, Tiflis.  1837.  Wikimedia Commons.

By Paige Ross

Understanding Russian Imperialism: Conceptions of Empire in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1838-40) is a remarkable work of fiction that contributed not only to the “golden age” of Russian literature, but that also helped Russians to make sense of a rapidly growing empire. Lermontov came of age in the “spirit of 1812” and helped to bring about a literary work dedicated to the framework of Russia at the time. Through the adventures and conquests of the fictional character Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, Lermontov examines various conceptions of Russia and Russianness, as well as gives context to the ways that Russia’s expanding empire incorporated the “different-ness” of territories outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow. A Hero of Our Time provides a glimpse of Russia’s complex and expanding empire and helps to illustrate popular sentiments among Russians about the nature of the vast territories, various peoples and ethnicities, and civilization, as well as beliefs about religion and the fluidity of social class. For these reasons, Lermontov’s novel is an indispensable key to understanding the Russian empire and its peoples during the expansion of imperialism.

A crucial element of empire examined in A Hero of Our Time is that of the “civilizing mission” of various peoples and ethnicities on the periphery of imperial Russia. This examination of a “civilizing mission” and the issue of Orthodoxy is first presented in the story of Bela, a beautiful Circassian woman “with black eyes like a mountain goat’s that looked right inside you” (13). In the opening story, Pechorin orchestrates the stealing of a horse for Bela’s brother, Azamat, and in return, he demands to have Bela for himself. Maxim Maximych confides to the unnamed narrator, “I told Pechorin so afterwards, but he only answered that an uncivilized Circassian girl should be glad to have a nice husband like him, since, after all, according to their ways he would be her husband’” (19). Lermontov’s assertion of Bela and the Circassian people in general as in need of civilization illustrates the pervading assumption among Russians that the periphery of the empire contained savage people incapable of being independently civilized. However, Lermontov adds a touch of irony to the story of Bela and the issue of her “civilization” in the fact that it was Russians who ordered her family killed and disappeared.

The second element of empire illustrated in the story of Bela is the issue of Orthodoxy and the bringing of religion to “uncivilized” peoples. After she is brutally stabbed by a vengeful Kazbich, Bela is near death and begins to contemplate the role religion might play for her in the afterlife. Maxim tells the narrator, “She [Bela] said she felt sad that she wasn’t a Christian and that her spirit would never meet Pechorin’s in the next world and some other woman would be his sweetheart in heaven. I thought of getting her baptized before she died and suggested it to her. She looked at me, not sure what to do. She couldn’t speak for a long time, but in the end said she’d die in the faith she’d been born in” (39-40).  Lermontov’s illustration of Maxim’s dilemma as to whether or not to have Bela baptized in order to save her soul depicts the fundamental conflict that many Russians faced when attempting to understand ethnic “others.” This conflict is examined once more after Bela dies and Maxim struggles with whether or not to add a cross to her grave. He tells the narrator, “Early next morning we buried her near the spot where she had last sat, outside the fort by the stream […] I wanted to put up a cross, but didn’t like to somehow. After all, she wasn’t a Christian” (41). Maxim’s discomfort in assigning Bela a religion post-mortem also introduces the possibility that there may very well have been a kind of ambiguity in this conflict of faith, and questions as to what to do about bringing religion to those peoples deemed “uncivilized,” may have had multiple variations.

The second crucial element examined in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is that of the geography, the physical scope, of empire in Russia. Using various geographical markers and depictions, Lermontov allows us to garner the general feelings about one place or another in the minds of Russians based on the narrator’s attitudes about the place. The larger context with which these vast territories are examined and explained illustrate the ever-present fascination among Russians about the “periphery” of the empire. The allure of any given geographical location in the novel determines both the behavior of the people involved as well as the “kind” of place it is: welcoming, warm, cold, sunny, vast, bleak, etc. Lermontov allows the reader to gather a sense of Russia, a taste for the “good” and “bad” within the empire, the scenery and the beauty of these new lands, as well as the general complexity of the regions encompassed by imperial Russia during the 19th century.

Beginning with the unnamed narrator in part one, A Hero of Our Time opens with travel in the Caucasus, and more specifically, the valley of Koyshaur. The narrator exclaims, “What a glorious place that valley is! Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva—joining in embrace with some nameless lesser torrent that roars out of a black, mist-filled gorge—stretches glistening like a scaly snake” (5). From his description, the reader can infer the sheer beauty of the valley and feel a sense of majesty and appreciation about the place. The valley of Koyshaur represents the beauty of the empire as well as the range of physical features possible and present in any given region of the Russian-held territory.

In stark contrast to the valley of Koyshaur, Pechorin presents the story of his time in Taman, “the foulest hole among all the sea-coast towns of Russia” (57). The town is situated on the very western edge of the Russian empire, directly bordered on one side by the Sea of Azov, and the other by the Black Sea. In Taman, Pechorin writes, “We passed through a lot of filthy back-streets, seeing nothing but ramshackle fences” (57). In Taman, Pechorin experiences thievery at the hands of a clever blind boy and is nearly drowned by a girl of eighteen. The scope of the town is described in poor condition, and a majority of Pechorin’s experiences in the town occur during the night, which adds to the mystery, suspicion, and intrigue of the place. Taman is clearly indicative of Russian views of the periphery of the empire, where Lermontov may have exaggerated conditions and stretched details, in order to present the town as a realm outside of the center where uncivilized people with bleak morals dwell.

The final geographical space examined in-depth in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is that of the spa town Pyatigorsk, where Pechorin meets and courts Princess Mary. It is in this space that the majority of the novel takes place and where the majority of the plot develops as well as unfolds. The events of Pyatigorsk are told to the reader through Pechorin’s journal, and when he arrives high up at the foot of Mashuk, he describes opening the window of his dwelling and “the room filled with the scent of flowers from the modest garden outside. […] to the west lies Beshtau with its five blue peaks, like ‘the last cloud of the dying storm’; to the north Mashuk towers like a shaggy Persian cap, filling the whole horizon; to the east the view is gayer—below me, in a splash of colour, lies the little town, all neat and new, with the babbling of medicinal springs and the clamour of the multi-lingual throng” (70). The town is presented not only as vibrant and colorful, but also as a space containing many different ethnicities and languages, further illustrating the vastness of the Russian territory in Lermontov’s time. Pechorin writes, “It’s a delight to live in a place like this. Every fibre of my body tingles with joy. The air is pure and fresh, as the kiss of a child, the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more can one want? What need have we here of passions, desires, regrets?” (70). Once more, Pyatigorsk is illustrated as a clean, fresh, sunny, and overall joyous space, giving the reader a positive picture of life in the town.

The geography of empire in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time gives context and meaning to the vast territories Russia encompassed during the 19th century, as well as illustrates popular sentiment and attitudes about particular spaces in that vast empire. While Lermontov frames the valley of Koyshaur and the town of Pyatigorsk as beautiful, clean spaces and conveys a sense of deep appreciation for this beauty, Taman exists as the contrast to the former. Lermontov’s decision to illustrate any given place in a positive or negative light allows the reader to garner a greater sense of the scope of Russia, as well as allows for interpretation and bias about any given space within the empire. The framing of geographical spaces in the Russian empire is a critical piece of the importance of the novel and frames how one understands the territorial spaces that the imperial power encompassed.

The final, and perhaps most critical element in Lermontov’s examination of empire in A Hero of Our Time is the plight of minority peoples and the treatment and prejudices these groups experienced as a part of the larger Russian empire. These disparate peoples helped to make up diverse and sprawling territory from the beginning of the empire onwards. Groups such as the Cossacks, Chechens, various Asiatics, Circassians, and Ossestes all appear in one context or another in the novel, providing for the reader an accurate picture of the opinions and sentiments towards these various peoples at the time. Lermontov reveals through dialogue as well as behavioral analysis and inner thoughts how ethnic Russians came to view those peoples considered “different” and “exotic.”

The first group discussed broadly is that of the “Asiatics” in the opening section, Bela. Through a conversation between the unnamed narrator and a fellow traveler in the Caucasus, the latter exclaims: “Fearful rogues, these Asiatics are. Do you really think they’re doing any good with all that shouting? […] You hitch up twenty bullocks if you like, but they won’t budge an inch when they shout at them in that language of theirs. Dreadful scoundrels they are!” (6). Utilizing the conversation above, a reader could come to understand that these “Asiatics” are on the periphery of empire, and that Russians are more civilized and dominant in contrast to the less evolved Asiatic peoples on the edges of the imperial territory. The characterization of these peoples as “fearful rogues” and “dreadful scoundrels” gives a sense of unsophistication and blurred morals. In the passage, the traveler goes on to describe how the Asiatic workers scam and otherwise pressure travelers into giving them tips. The depiction of these peoples as dishonest and rogue furthers the narrative of the “uncivilized” other while associating these people with unstable moral compasses.

As the unnamed narrator continues his travels that day, he has yet another conversation with a traveler and the narrator expresses his obvious disdain of the groups traveling with them. The exchange is telling of the view of various peoples in terms of intelligence, cleanliness, and ability. “They’re a pathetic lot,’ I said, pointing to our filthy hosts, who were watching us in a sort of dumb stupor.” The traveler with him then asserts: “As stupid as they come! Believe it or not, but they’re absolutely useless. Say what you like about our friends the Kabardians or the Chechens—robbers and vagabonds they may be, but they’re plucky devils for all that. Why, this lot don’t even bother about weapons. You’ll never see one of them wearing a decent dagger” (9). In the exchange, the Georgian hosts and others are labeled “stupid” and “absolutely useless” while the Kabardians and Chechens are “robbers and vagabonds.”

In yet another conversation, the subject of the Circassians arises: “Take these Circassians, for instance,’ he went on. ‘Once they get drunk on buza at a wedding or funeral, it’s sheer murder” (10). Lermontov’s choice to describe the Circassians as unruly, lawless drunkards advances the “uncivilized” trope that pertained to the “other” peoples in the empire, further separating them from ethnic Russians. While relatively degrading ethnic minorities in the vast scope of the empire, Lermontov utilizes the unnamed narrator to compare Russians to the others, elevating Russians to a superior position in the grand scheme of empire: “I couldn’t help being struck by this capacity of Russians to adapt themselves to the ways of peoples they happen to live among. I don’t know if this is a praiseworthy quality or not, but it does show wonderful flexibility and that clear common sense that can forgive evil wherever it is seen to be inevitable or ineradicable” (25). This “wonderful flexibility” to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and the benevolent forgiveness of evil paints the ethnic Russian as a superior counterpart in both diplomacy and emotional intelligence to the lesser, uncivilized, savage others. In painting a picture of empire, Lermontov illustrates the inferiority of other ethnicities in the hierarchy of social order in imperial Russia during the 19th century.

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is an indispensable piece in the broader understanding of Russia as a nation, Russian identity, and Russian imperialism during the 19th century. Lermontov utilizes fiction as a method to help Russians understand the civilization (or lack thereof) on the periphery of empire, the mission of Orthodoxy, the vast geographical territories, and the ethnic minorities that encompassed this empire. From his novel, one can begin to paint a picture of the broader attitudes, sentiments, and behavior of Russians in relation to civilization, religion, geographical space, and ethnic minorities. Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time situates Russia and Russianness in the context of empire and provides a framework for the mindset of Russians and Russian history that is crucial to understanding the imperial 19th century in Asia.


About Stephen Norris