Eurasian Mélange in A Hero of Our Time

Mikhail Lermontov, Tiflis, 1837

By Mckenzie Howell

It is impossible to categorize Russia as strictly European or as strictly Asiatic. The fact of the matter is that Russia is an expansive country, home to numerous cultures influenced by both the West and the East. That said, Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel, A Hero of Our Time, effectively demonstrates nineteenth-century Russian identification with and emulation of Western Europe. Lermontov’s rather westernized perspective reinforces the othering of Caucasian cultures throughout the novel. Nonetheless, Lermontov’s perspectives still illustrate Russia’s Eurasian mélange.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self Portrait, 1837

            Identification is an interesting subject within A Hero of Our Time, as Lermontov relays information through several layers of narration. The novel is the story of Grigory Pechorin, a restless, brooding noble officer stationed in the Caucasus.  Told through several narrators, Pechorin represents a Russian Byronic hero but also a quintessential man of empire.  The escapade with Bela, a Caucasian Princess “given” to Pechorin, is retold by Maksim Maksimich to the unnamed narrator; later this same narrator edits and frames the reader’s introduction to Pechorin’s journal. These characters continually influence the reader’s perspectives on events as well as other characters. It is therefore notable that these characters share a specific trait: their upper-class European Russian identity.

            The Western influence is arguably evident first and foremost in the various narrator’s attitudes toward representations of the Asiatic. In “Bela”, the unnamed narrator continually regards his Caucasian surroundings with derision, declaring at one point: “What wretched people!” (Lermontov, 8). In fact, he bonds with Maksim Maksimich over their shared low opinions of these people, the latter disparaging Asiatics as “rascals” and “fools” who scam travelers out of money and cannot be educated (Lermontov,4-8). According to David Schimmelpennick van der Oye, “Asia was the one place where Russians could be the Europeans’ equals.” (Oye,4) With that in mind, disparaging remarks such as these from our European Russian narrators might be interpreted as attempts to see the Caucasus as the Western Europeans do; that is to say, as inferior and Other.

More deliberate cultural and linguistic references to the West, particularly to France, persist throughout the novel. The unnamed narrator refers to his luggage as a “valise”, a French term which seems to have been employed solely for its perceived elegance. Later, the unnamed narrator also references the works of Balzac and Pechorin references les Jeunes-France, another needless French flourish (Lermontov,56,73). Later still, Pechorin and Grushnitski demonstrate their Romantic repertoires by exchanging barbs in French (Lermontov,87-8,108). They eventually escalate to a more deadly exchange of western origin: their duel (Lermontov, 155-6). In these displays, there is a demonstrated effort by the characters to emulate Western fashion and all its drama.

It is then interesting to note that the narrators demonstrate similar patterns in regard to Asiatic culture, if perhaps more unwittingly. Almost as early as the unnamed narrator refers to his “valise”, he notes Maksimich’s “Circassian shaggy cap”, a subtle symbol of Caucasian influence on the character (Lermontov,4). Maksim Maksmich himself makes a show of his – rather limited – knowledge of the local languages in a manner which evokes the throw-away references of other narrators to Western European culture (Lermontov,11,14,16-7,20). This is certainly more subtle than the Western influence, but it is nonetheless evidence of cultural overlap.

In short, while A Hero of Our Time captures a period of westernization in upper-class Russian culture, it is evident that Russia is not completely devoid of Asiatic influence at this time. Russian characters such as the unnamed narrator and Pechorin may disparage the Caucasus, but the character of Maksim Maksimich represents an unwitting Eurasian mélange of culture. A Hero of Our Time acts as an ideal entryway to understanding Russia’s empire and with it, Russian imperial attitudes.

Mckenzie Howell is a senior majoring in French and International Studies

Bibliography:

Lermontov, Mikhail. A Hero of Our Time. Translated by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and Dmitri Nabokov, Ardis Publishers, 2002.

Oye, David Schimmelpenninck van der. Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration. Yale University Press, 2010.

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