Lermontov: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (part III)

Lermontov’s Prison and Home

As ethnography was carving out the truth from the realm of the imagined, and literature made its way through the thorns of Caucasian landscape (or, possibly, the other way around), in parallel, the invisible work of spatial appropriation was taking place over the decades of 1820s to 1840s[1]. While literary devices persisted, and were visible, the positioning in the Caucasus was no less visible but fluent and volatile. By the 1930s the character of the war theatre changed considerably, compared to 1920s. To survive and confront Ermolov’s terror, many of the previously discordant tribes, which used to lead their resistance campaigns each on their own, gradually consolidated into a single entity, which raised its flag in 1929 as the Caucasian Imamate, a theocratic Islamic state. The newly proclaimed state’s declared mission was gazawat, a holy war against the infidels. The rhetoric of gazawat, though, was not confined to matters of belief – it was unequivocally directed against Russia. In other words, the Caucasian gazawat was a struggle for independencу from the Russian Empire, in which Islam started serving a unifying role.

The history of religious-liberation movement in North Caucasus covers several decades but it was imam Shamil’ whose name became really became synonymous with this crusade. Shamil’s total dedication to the cause earned him unabating and absolutely unprecedented veneration in the Caucasus. The military pursuit, though, often obscures the fact that Shamil’ was also an innovative and devoted governor. His self-professed mission and his main deed in the civil plane was to enforce a ubiquitous conversion from adats, which he deemed to be the root of internecine strife and dissent in the Caucasus, to shariah. Under his rule, a universal legal code, which came to be known as ‘Shamil’s nizam’, was introduced.[2] Some of his other enterprises were the educational campaign of enormous intensity (which rocketed the level of literacy in Dagestan beyond all measure even judging by European standards); multiple innovations in the army[3]; and the creation of a fairly elaborate and advanced state machinery[4].

With due regard to Shamil’s modernizing attempts, though, a state whose main source of income was that of guerilla raids and thus could not be relied upon, and whose army size totaled fifteen to forty thousand at best, was no rival to an empire, which could afford to cordon some two hundred thousand well-equipped soldiers at the frontier. Paradoxically, though, since the very beginning, the rebellious Imamate contrived to successfully rebuff and combat imperial troops, and gradually won back significant strategic landmarks.

As this political confrontation grew, a very curious process was triggered in the literary treatment of Caucasus. Susan Layton notes that ‘still subtle when the war was barely underway in the 1920s, the geographical imagery of Caucasian antagonism to Russia would become increasingly oriental in the next decade when the jihad flared up.’ Picking up where Pushkin left, the writers of 1930s and 1940s continued to work with, and develop a picture, heavily romanticized, orientalized, or, in Layton’s words, ‘invented rather than recorded.’[5] In fact, these two decades became the ‘golden age’ of romantic literary imagery of the Caucasus, the 1940s especially being so prolific that Zhirmunsky labeled it the ‘Caucasian epidemic.’[6]

Lermontov’s oeuvre protrudes very noticeable against this literary background. The time he spent in the Caucasus certainly resulted in his solid knowledge of the actual ethnographic features of the world so many of his works take place in. At the same time, favoring realistic optics over romantic stance was not only a matter of background knowledge but also that of conscious artistic decision. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, for once, also took his military service in the Caucasus and was well familiar with this land. However, the way Bestuzhev-Marlinskii and Lermontov handled their personal experience and re-constructed it in their texts draws a principal difference between their work and their stance vis-a-vis the Caucasus as a literary setting.

Bestuzhev-Marlinskii’s oeuvre makes him the very centre of that ‘golden age’ of romanticized, orientalized Caucasus literature Zhirmunskii somewhat ironically described. Lermontov’s work demonstrates a wide range of aesthetic approaches and experiments, from some pen trials of equal flamboyance and obscureness to the relative compromises between factual imagery and literary fashion. At his most mature stage, however, Lermontov’s was a definitely anti-orientalist, anti-hyperbolic literary position. Layton, in fact, argues that Bela was designed by Lermontov as a parody against the genre of ‘oriental tale’, which was at the time often featured in the monthly literary journal Biblioteka dlia chteniia – and specifically against a particular tale, called The Bedouine woman, which was published in 1838 (Bela published in 1839).[7]

When comparing Pushkin’s and Lermontov’s images of the Caucasus, a metaphor comes in useful: what was a foreign land for Pushkin, was home for Lermontov, and one where he really made himself comfortable. Despite some of his controversial attitudes, Lermontov’s work shows a high degree of factual accuracy. The few instances where it seems that a mistake did insinuate itself into the text, are actually worth special attention since they may turn out to be examples of the author’s particularly intricate narrative work rather than mistakes. My favourite example among the ones I have discovered is a phrase Pechorin drops about Grushnitskii parading a sabre and a pair of pistols: ‘Damy na vodakh eshe veriat napadeniiam cherkesov sredi belogo dnia’. It may seem a casual bravado, making fun of a hapless rival, especially given that following this phrase comes an outright ridiculing comment: ‘On byl dovol’no smeshon v etom geroiskom oblachenii.’

While it is clear, on the one hand, that active military operations unfolded a long way off Piatigorsk, nonetheless, the ladies’ preoccupation should have sounded anything but groundless. While its time frame is not clearly specified, A Hero of Our Time is most likely set in the 1830s, probably, in the second half of the decade. At no point during that decade was Russia’s relationship with the Caucasus, or the success of its campaign such that abiding in those lands could be fully deemed safe – on the contrary, during the later 1830s, the Caucasus War was in full swing. In fact, in 1837 – the year when some pages of A Hero of Our Time could have been taking place – Nicholas I visited Caucasus for the first time, and was strongly unimpressed by how little progress had been made after years of warfare – a fact which is indicative of the degree of tranquility and serenity a susceptible, delicate young lady could be sure of in the Caucasus at that time. The coming years did not work to consolidate that confidence.

There is little chance, though, that Lermontov had poor understanding of what the actual situation was in the Caucasus in the period he was describing. What comes out of this is that the mistake is not the author’s but his protagonist’s. Since Pechorin comes across as a very closed, reserved personality, hard to penetrate both for those sharing the fictional space with him, and the readers, it is hard to judge what his overconfidence and arrogance are based on, and whether they do hide a softer, more agreeable a personality. However, realizing there is a gap between Pechorin’s self-fashioning and his actual personality, knowledge and temper, and that his judgement of himself and others should not be taken for granted, unexpectedly reveals an amuzing side in this character.

On many occasions Lermontov demonstrates a great degree of cultural sensitivity towards the people and the world he writes about – something, which The Fatalist can demonstrate beautifully. In the novel’s structure, The Fatalist stands apart from the rest of the chapters. It seems to fall out of the main narrative line, and make no contribution to it in any significant way. The designation of this chapter, though, is to deepen the portrait of Pechorin, and so connect to the rest of his story.

The focus of The Fatalist is on the bet between Pechorin and Vulich, whose Serbian origin clearly implies a reference to Turkey and the Islamic world. Vulich advocates some ‘musul’manskoe pover’e, budto sud’ba cheloveka zapisana na nebesakh,’[8] while Pechorin argues there is no ‘fate’. In other words, this is a compressed philosophical debate on predetermination and free will. European rational philosophy is introduced as the foundation behind Pechorin’s position directly through his spelling out the names of Descartes and Voltaire. Vulich, on the other hand, speaks for the doctrine of predetermination, which is central to Islam.

The concept of divine destiny, or qadar, constitutes one of the six parts of arkan al-iman (articles of faith in Islamic teology) ascending to the text of the Quran[9] and the Hadith of Gabriel. While predetermination is one of the most complicated issues in the science of Islamic dogmata, most theologians agree that a human mind is incapable of fully perceiving the idea of the divine foreordaining. Therefore, as Ali- Zade argues, the ulama (Islamic scholars) recommend not to attempt going into the heart of the matter[10] but merely follow the general guidance that Allah has an a priori knowledge of any and all human’s choices and actions to be ever made.

The night of the bet Vulich is killed in a nonsensical accident; the same night, Pechorin tries his fate yet another time: he recklessly attacks the cossack’s murderer, and not only seizes him but himself remains unhurt. Pechorin is deeply shaken by the situation and acknowledges doubting his former convictions: ‘Proishestvie etogo vechera proizvelo na menia dovol’no glubokoe vpechatlenie i razdrazhilo moi nervy; ne znaiu navernoe, veriu li ia teper’ predopredeleniiu ili net, no v etot vecher ia emu tverdo veril: dokazatel’stvo bylo razitel’no.’ [11]

Even though Lermontov focuses the story on the ‘Muslim superstition’, which seems to be verified by what happens to Vulich, The Fatalist makes an interesting narrative case for a different reason. In the beginning of the story where the bet is only being made, Pechorin notes as he is looking at Vulich: ‘na litse cheloveka, kotoryi dolzhen umeret’ cherez neskol’ko chasov, est’ kakoi-to strannyi otpechatok neizbezhnoi sud’by’.[12] In other words, he makes a prediction based on what he sees in the Cossack’s fate. This is what I think to be one of the instances, demonstrating how far cultural sensitivity can take an author into the realms of the foreign world he is describing, even without him realizing this.

The very act of reading one’s fate on his face immediately brings up strong associations with a phenomenon of Muslim, or, to be even more specific, Sufi culture, called the hurufiyya. Hurufiyya is a mystical doctrine, whose central idea is that letters have a divine nature, and that their interpretation is the key to opening the sealed book of the Quran. Hurufites believe that that God is present in the Quran (the Word, the alphabet), and in the human. Human, thus, is a link between the God and the letters; he is the replica of the divine, and conceals in himself the path to haqiqah (the fourth stage in Sufism discussed earlier). Consequently, one of the practices of hurufiyya is the practice of reading letters in men’s faces as if those were a scroll. It is believed that through this, a person’s fate can be read on his face similarly to what Pechorin read on Vulich’s.

It is extremely unlikely Lermontov knew of this mystical teaching spread among the Sufi in the Caucasus and used the image of reading fate in once’s face consciously. However, this detail showing up in his work and, what is more, in the story, which is dedicated to the Muslim belief in predetermination, suggests that he had in mind some non-verbalized, imperceptible cluster of notions and images associated with Islam, and that he could only acquire this store during his time in the Caucasus – perhaps by unconsciously observing and recording things and information. In other words, he communicated something, which was not part of his actual knowledge but rather was acquired in a different community through the ability and readiness to perceive this information. This is a phenomenon observed and recognized in anthropology; Veve Clark coined a similar concept of ‘diaspora literacy,’[13] meaning by this the ability to understand multiple layers of cultural phenomena beyond the immeadiate meanings assigned by ‘Western or westernized signification’.

I, thus, suggest that it was this quality of sensitivity or literacy, which accounted for Lermontov’s finesse and his home-felt imagery of the Caucasus. The way he constructed his relationship with the Caucasus is indeed highly interesting and has been commented on by many scholars. Paul Austin, developing his idea of the exotic prisoner, argues that Lermontov transformed his relationship with the Caucasus, making it both his prison and his home. The imprisonment, of course, is of a very different nature than Pushkin’s since it is imposed and wilfull at the same time. Layton suggests that a large contribution to Lermontov’s construction of the Caucasus’s image as home was his conceiving the ‘tsarist conquest as a maker of orphans.’[14] She argues that war casualties, which left families across the empire shattered and thousands of children orphans and penetrated Lermontov’s closest circle, strongly affected the way he saw the Russian conquest and the land it developed in. I would also add that at the same time, Caucasus was the place where thousands of young people were sent or went to voluntarily to perform their military duty. For these young men, whose possibly most intense life experiences came to be inevitably related to the Caucasus, it was bound to become a place of special significance, which captured their lives yet failed to endow them with the feeling of belonging there.

Pechorin is, in fact, one of such young men. A strong sense of orphanage acts as a pivotal element for Pechorin’s character, and the mixture of loneliness, non-belonging, and simultaneous detention is persistent throughout the novel. Particularly striking in this respect is one episode in Kniazhna Meri, following Pechorin’s duel with Grushnitskii. With the desperate hope of overtaking Vera, Pechorin rushes to Kislovodsk, but his horse cannot bear the strain, and Pechorin is left alone in the steppe, crushed and dispirited. In this scene, the cold and distant tone, instantly recognizable throughout the novel as Pechorin’s signature trait, suddenly shifts to a forceful, emotional narrative as he falls to the ground, sobbing ‘like a child.’ This is one of the very few episodes in the novel where we see the impervious image of Pechorin ripple and reveal an actual full-fledged range of emotions the reader already resolved to deny him at this stage in reading.

Lermontov’s mentioning of childlike behavior seems to be of importance here since it speaks very strongly to the dubious relationship between the hero and the space. Susan Layton argues that A Hero of Our Time ‘imbues nature with maternity by attributing filial love to the observer.’[15] She points out to a sequence of episodes throughout the novel where the observer sees or addresses nature in a ‘childlike’ way that ascribes or, rather, imposes motherly role onto it. And while the key quality of homelessness, adding to other components of Pechorin’s outlook which show through far and wide in the text (such as his emotional incapability and a very questionable sense of morals), really pins him down as a trickster, the understanding of his special relationship to the liminality he is suspended in appears to be very important in our analysis. For this, Kniazhna Meri provides a perfect opportunity, since the contours and qualities of liminality stand out in this story like nowhere else in the novel.

Set in Piatigorsk, this chapter is notable for the atmosphere of a spa town whose flippant, easy tone and loosened social etiquette allow for some liberties impossible in a different setting. Pechorin’s diary distinctly indicates that some of the situations the characters finds themselves in, are a deviation from their standard behavioral code.

Ia totchas podoshel k kniazhne, priglashaia ee val’sirovat’, pol’zuias’ svobodoi zdeshnikh obychaev, pozvoliaiushchikh tantsevat’ s neznakomymi damami.[16]

Ja voshel v peredniuiu; liudei nikogo ne bylo, i ia bez doklada, pol’zuias’ svobodoi zdeshnikh nravov, probralsia v gostinuiu.[17]

Treating bodily ailements is the apparent designation of the spa resort. However, along with the ‘visible’ function, resorts also bear another role: augmenting and sustaining spiritual heailth. This, rather than the more conventional notion of physical treatment, is what defines the role spa resorts usually play in literature. Just like Tolstoy’s Kitty leaves to take the waters and cure her soul, so do Nikulich’s Mimochka, and Chekhov’s Anna Sergeevna, and many other characters – not to mention their authors themselves. One aim of the resort, then, is to create an environment extraordinarily perceptive to one’s emotional needs. Consequently, its important quality is the relative freedom and porousness of its social structure.

In this respect, a spa resort serves as a very neat showcase of what Turner called a ‘communitas’ – the type of unstructured community whose members share a common experience in a situation where social boundaries cease to be definitive and allow for members of different groups and strata to mingle. To give an example, in A Hero of Our Time this non-hierarchical feature of a resort is evident in the degree of familiarity Grushnitskii is able to reach with Princess Mary – an affinity, which he admits he would not be permitted in Saint Petersburg society. Saint Petersburg, to which the personages refer a lot, plays the role of the other, habitual society – which Turner defines as ‘structured’. With its elaborate and rigid hierarchy, Saint Petersburg wields the unrivaled authority of model social order. And while some of its subjects willingly escape the capital and easily accept a less constrained order, it is only possible due to the fleeting nature of resort communities; beyond and above these little indulgences, Saint Petersburg is what has shaped and continues to define their standards on a permanent basis.

Communitas, to return to Turner, is linked to liminality; in fact, liminality is built into communitas as its defining constituent. And since spa resort is by definition an unusual setting, further to unlikely social connections, it gives grounds to various other breaches of codified behavior, like this phrase Grushnitskii addresses at Princess Mary:

Zdes’ moia zhizn’ protechet shumno, nezametno i bystro, pod puliami dikarei, i esli by bog mne kazhdyi god posylal odin svetlyi zhenskii vzgliad, odin, podobnyi…[18]

The tone of the phrase is heavily overdone; moreover, the crude description of Grushnitskii’s fate in the Caucasus is also so clichéd that it leaves no doubt this flowery phrase is anything but random. In fact, it vividly refers to the already discussed stream of popular romantic fiction, which flooded Russian literature after Pushkin, and which Lermontov intended to parody in A Hero of Our Time. ‘Dikari’, ‘svetlyi zhenskii vzgliad’ and galloping life are one instance of such parodying. To Princess Mary, however, the phrase does not come across as unusual; on the contrary, she takes the phrase seriously, it embarrasses her and makes her blush. Pechorin alone can appreciate the grotesqueness of this affected manner of speaking. The rest of the spa society seems to share and accept such behavior and talks; moreover, Grushnitskii gradually assumes a central role in this society. Surrounded by other young people who see him as their leader, he goes as far as to manipulate them and use this sympathy against his rival Pechorin. And this deems logical, since some abnormality of behavior may not be perceptible inside the communitas but should be visible to the outsider, which Pechorin is. However, despite his outsider status, Pechorin continues to mesmerize both Grushnitskii and Mary, and even though Grushnitskii’s authority in communitas, and his newly gained retinue can make him look like an actual player in this party, the balance of power still lies with Pechorin.

Pechorin’s character seems to have a major deficiency, as he is indeed, as symptomatic for a trickster, unable to engage in deep human relationship. He shows his inability to change this and make a move neither towards the world he has come from (represented by Princess Mary and Vera) not to fully cross the line separating him from the new world (represented by Bela in another chapter). He probably gets the closest to crossing this line in the scene where he understands that Bela is gone, and notices Kazbek taking her away. Maksim Maksimytch comments that in that moment, Pechorin ‘vzvizgnul ne khuzhe liubogo chechentsa’[19] – however, since Pechorin, with his trickster nature, is ineherently unable of actually transgressing the line, this ends in tragedy for all those he got involved into it.

Among all the characters in the novel, Pechorin seems to get along best (if temporarily) with Maksim Maksimytch, and the latter is probably the character who has successfully sustained himself close to Pechorin for the longest time. I ascribe this to that quality of Maksim Maksimytch, which has been noted by Lotman: his ability to adapt and accept without judging. Maksim Maksimytch seems to offer a fairly successful case of settling in the Caucasus, which he probably owes to the simplicity and unpretentiousness of his character. Maksim Maksimytch accepts the mountaineers’ lifestyle, acknowledging their right to set their rules in their own land; this flexibility and openness help him adapt to the new environment with an ease a rigid character like Pechorin cannot achieve. At the same time, it proves him to be more resistant towards Pechorin, and even though Maksim Maksimych clearly falls under Pechorin’s charismatic influence, he balances it as much as he balances his relationship with the foreign environment in the Caucasus.

Yet even for Maksim Maksimytch, the connection to Pechorin turns out to be destructive. The episodes describing his protracted waiting for Pechorin’s visit, ending in a brief and superficial interaction, carried, moreover, with an ice-cold neglect on Pechorin’s side, are among the most hurtful scenes of ‘malen’kii chelovek’ in Russian literature. Pechorin’s behavior and destructiveness in this situation are motivated and prompted by his having moved closest to crossing the borderline of the suspended state the Caucasus has kept him in. As we know, his meeting with Maksim Maksimytch takes place on his way to Persia – which continues his trajectory from a very Europeanized past life to getting trapped and suspended in the Caucasus (Russia’s own ‘Asia’) to attempting to break out of his captivity and move to Persia (Asia proper). This breakaway attempt results in his tragic death; however, on the verge of his transgression he once again comes into contact with Maksim Maksimytch, who is no longer strong enough to resist Pechorin’s strong destructive influence, strengthening in the face of his imminent death.

Despite his heartbreaking disillusionment, Maksim Maksimytch nonetheless remains for the most part unaffected by Pechorin’s influence. The rest of the characters are subject to Pechorin’s destructive power whenever he attempts to go outside his limits and move back to his old universe, or forth to the new world; strives to ascend to the level of human relationships or emotions he is incapable of; or merely trifles with his very original understanding of morals and ethics which clearly do not coincide with those of heroes around him. In the end, he ruins the lives of Bela, Vera, and Mary, Grushnitskii and those ‘chestnye kontrabandisty’ who he only gets in contact with incidentally; he makes the fatal bet with Vulich; and even in the case of very brief and shallow interaction, like the one he had with Verner, he manages to cause damage.

Despite this chain of destruction tailing after him, Pechorin still comes across as a tragic character, provoking the pity and sympathy of many around him, including the readers – even if this attitude seems poorly motivated or unwarranted altogether. His false charisma, after all, is not only damaging those he gets in touch with; first and foremost, his story is the story of self-destruction, whose sinister aura is omnipresent in the novel. Pechorin’s whole personage is conditioned by the properties of the space he is placed into; it is the ‘fixed’ liminality, which determines the limits of his capacities, emotional, physical, and metaphysical, and sets the tone for every and each interaction he may have with others. Equally ‘fixed’ is Pechorin’s fate. The ominous spirit of future keeps haunting him and everyone he nears. In fact, its presence in the novel is so strong, and imminence so deeply embedded in the texture of the narrative that it fully answers the classical narratological question as to why the chapters of A Hero of Our Time are sequenced in a wrong order. The peculiar arrangement, as we now see, does affect the way Pechorin’s inner world is shaping in our mind, but it does not in any way affect our understanding of whether the novel ends with tragedy, or not: everything in the way the narrative develops, conveys this knowledge to us.

[1] See Layton, 53.

[2] It was based solely on shariah, with the proviso that Shamil’ clarified and expanded certain clauses that were not entirely clear or needed refinement as applied to his state.

[3] Such as universal military conscription for example; a pioneering artillery; hiring foreign specialists for training, and even building a cannon factory.

[4] Which introduced a strong administrative-territorial division, and could also boast such innovations as proper secret surveillance and even had a designated exile place – Chetl’, a mountainous village, notoriously known as ‘aul bez solntsa’.[4]

[5] See Layton, p. 38.

[6] Quoted in S. Layton. Russian Literature and Empire (Cambridge: 1994), p. 36.

[7] See Layton, p. 215.

[8]See Lermontov M. Sobranie sochinenii v 6 t., v. 6 (Moscow: 1954-57), p. 373.

[9] Multiple ayat in the Quran speak to is, e.g. surah 54:59 of Al-Qamar, surah 17:23 of Al-Israh, surah 57:22 of Al-Hadid, surah 8:23 of Al-Anfaal, and others.

[10] See A. Ali-Zade. ‘Kadar i Kaza’ in Islamskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (Moscow: 2007) [available online at] http://islamicencyclopedia.narod.ru/articles/402.html

[11] See Lermontov, p. 343;

[12] Ibid, p. 375.

[13] See V. Clark. Developing Diaspora Literacy and Marasa Consciousness (Spillers: 1991), p. 42.

[14] See Layton, p. 136.

[15] See Layton, p. 221.

[16] See Lermontov, p. 339.

[17] Ibid, p. 356.

[18] Ibid, p. 343.

[19] Ibid, p. 233.

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