“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

'A Hero of Our Time'

ONCE THE ROMANTIC poet Lord Byron had once and for all finished travelling around Europe womanising, man-ising, running up debts and dabbling in revolutions, a fashion began in literary Russia for stories which featured a very particular sort of antihero at their centre. This ‘Byronic’ hero shared the characteristics of his creator. Like Byron himself he was often sensitive and yet cynical, physically attractive and yet solitary, born into wealth but resentful of privilege and authority, and haunted by some crime or tragic event in the past. The trope was immortalised in Byron’s description of his most Byronic of Byronic heroes, Conrad, the pirate hero of The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain––but he deem’d

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid

Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.

He knew himself detested, but he knew

The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.

Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt

From all affection and from all contempt:

Fifteen years after Byron succumbed to syphilis in Missolonghi, Mikhail Lermontov wrote what can be said to be the first of the great Russian psychological novels, A Hero of Our Time, at the centre of which is the bored young nobleman Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


A Hero of Our Time opens in the Caucasus mountains, where a young and unnamed Russian army officer is documenting his travels for later publication. Shortly after his introduction he meets the veteran Captain Maxim Maximych, who has been stationed in the region for years, and who tells him stories about the characters he’s encountered during his time there. The narration now falls to Maximych, who entertains his young companion with tales of the enigmatic Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin and, once finished, gives him Pechorin’s diaries. Through his diary entries, Pechorin narrates the rest of the book.

The main success of the novel, of course, is its antiheroic lead, the titular ‘hero of our time’ and Lermontov, who was acutely aware of the magnetism of such a character, introduces the reader to him slowly, and indirectly. It isn’t until mid-way through the book that Pechorin takes the narrative reigns, though the reader is beginning to form an idea of him long before. Pechorin is, to begin with at least, characterised a sort of swashbuckling romantic hero, who is undeniably arrogant and self-obsessed but also interesting and likeable and, of course, relatable: he is the ‘composite of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development’, according to Lermontov, and therefore the ironic ‘hero’ of the author’s time, but equally, as the director and screenwriter Neil LaBute identifies, a ‘vivid’ portrayal of the male ego. Pechorin is something of an exaggerated version of Lermontov, who was also an army officer stationed in the Caucasus, who also got into romantic adventures (albeit with less success than his creation) and who was also, famously, involved in a duel. Lermontov shrugged off this connection as a ‘sorry old ruse’ but it’s impossible to deny the similarities between the pair.

Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas TamanPrincess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


A Hero of Our Time is also exceptional for Lermontov’s rolling descriptions of the Caucasus, which is as much a character as Pechorin. Take the following passage from the first page:

What a glorious place, this valley! On every side there are unassailable mountains and reddit promontories, hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane trees; there are yellow precipices, covered with the lines of gullies; and right up high: a gold fringe of snow. Below, the Aragva River, having gathered another nameless rivulet which noisily unearthed itself from a black and gloomy chasm, extends like a silver thread, glittering like a scaly snake.

And this description, from page twenty-eight:

Indeed, it is likely that I shall never again see the likes of this panorama: the Koyshaursky Valley lay below us, intersected by the Aragva River and another small river, like two silver threads. A light bluish mist was crawling along it, fleeing the warm rays of morning to the neighbouring canyons. On the left and the right, the hackles of the mountains, one higher than the next, were criss-crossing and stretching along, covered in snows, bushes. In the distance, there were similar hills, where no two rock-faces were alike––and the snows burned with a rosy luster, so uplifting, so bright, that it seems you could live here before. The sun was just showing itself from behind the dark-blue mountains, which only an accustomed eye could discern from the thunderclouds; but there were blood-red streaks above the sun, to which my comrade was paying particular attention.

Lermontov later became known as the ‘poet of the Caucasus’. After he published Death of the Poet he was exiled to the region for allegedly accusing the ‘pillars’ of Russian high society of complicity in Alexander Pushkin’s death and later wrote that ‘all spleen has gone to hell’ since his arrival. The landscape Lermontov describes in A Hero of Our Time is at once beautiful and wild, and made almost as vivid as the sublime landscapes and seascapes of the Romantic period. The Caucasus, of course, is also as opaque and unknowable as Lermontov’s moody protagonist, who, you feel, might just be as much a hero of our time as well as of Lermontov’s.

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