My book club is currently reading A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov – widely considered the first great Russian novel – and so a couple of us (with our three toddlers in tow) thought it would be rather fun to do a walk around central Moscow taking in some of the places associated with him.
Lermontov was born in Moscow in 1814 and, as the house where he was born no longer stands, we started our walk near the Metro station Biblioteka Imeni Lenin.
From here (or perhaps for a better view from slightly along Vozdvizhenka Ulitsa) you can see the Ivan the Great Bell Tower (the tallest building inside the Kremlin Walls) which Lermontov commemorates in his poem Panorama of Moscow:
He who has never climbed on the top of Ivan the Great,
who has never had an opportunity to take in the whole of the ancient capital at one glance from end to end,
who has never admired that majestic panorama, stretching almost beyond that range of vision,
knows absolutely nothing about Moscow.
For Moscow is not an ordinary city like thousands of others;
Moscow is no silent immensity of cold stones piled one upon other to form symmetrical patterns,
no indeed! It has its own soul, its own life.
You can still follow literally in Lermontov’s footsteps and climb the tower (for a fee) when you visit the Kremlin.
From there we followed Mokhovaya Ulitsa towards Tverskaya Ulitsa stopping at number 11.
These are the oldest buildings of Moscow University founded in 1755 – and are still occupied by them (photo at top of page). Lermontov studied here and recalled it in his poem Sashka:
‘A scared place, I remember, like a dream, your departments, auditoriums, corridors, your sons’ arrogant debates’.
Chekov, who studied at the Medical Facility of the University, was somewhat less complimentary:
“the dilapidated University buildings, the gloomy corridors, grimy walls, bad light and the cheerless stairs, coat racks and benches, have undoubtedly played a key role in shaping the history of Russian pessimism.”
Other famous Russians who have studied here include Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Pasternak, and the physicist and Noble Peace Prize winner, Andrei Sakharov.
We then continued along Mokhovaya Ulitsa crossing Tverskaya Ulitsa to Bolshaya Dmitrovka 1.
[Actually, with our three strollers we discovered that we couldn’t cross at the bottom of Tverskaya and instead crossed close to number 7 Tverskaya (which was in any case one of the stops on our tour) in order to reach Bolshaya Dmitrovka]
“in the hall of the Club of the Nobility five thousand people would meet twice a week. Young people would meet each other here; marriages were arranged. Moscow was as famous for its brides as Vyazma for its honey cakes.”
Pushkin overestimated the capacity of the hall – but it could apparently accommodate 3000 people nonetheless.
It is recorded that Lermontov came here at least three times including to a performance by an Irish pianist which was attended by Tsar Nicholas I. He also came here on New Year’s Eve 1831 to a masquerade ball dressed as an astrologer and carrying a large book under his arm in which were verses dedicated to some of his friends. Lermontov also mentions the Club in A Hero of Our Time when Maxim Maximych describes Bela’s dancing:
and how she danced! I have seen our provincial gentlewomen, and once I was in Moscow at the Club of Nobility…but what of them! They were nothing in comparison!
From the Soviet era onwards the building has been known as the Hall of Columns, and was the place where the body of Lenin lay in state.
We then continued north and turned left into the pedestrianised (and café-lined) Kamergerskiy Pereulok continuing until Tverskaya Ulitsa. We crossed the road (the underpass is to the left) and stopped at the Central Telegraph Office at Tverskaya Ulitsa 7.
In the nineteenth century this was the site of a school (pension) for children of the gentry who were studying for entry into Moscow University. Lermontov was a student and wrote a number of his poems while studying here including first drafts of the poem Demon. During Lermontov’s time, Tsar Nicholas I made an unannounced visit following concerns about the liberal attitudes in the school – including that banned works were being passed around and read. His concerns were obviously not eased because shortly afterwards the school was closed and turned into an ordinary gymnasium. Lermontov said of the Tsar’s visit that it made him aware of the “sergeant-major on the throne”.
We then continued up Tverskaya and turned left under the archway at Byusov Pereulok. We turned right into Eliseevskiy Pereulok and followed it round turning right again at Leontyevskiy Pereulok and then left into Shverdskiy Tupik. We crossed into the rather lovely tree-lined and pedestrianised part of Tverskoi Boulevard (which meant the children could safely stretch their legs) and stopped at number 18.
This building was partially re-built in the 1900s (by the vodka magnate Smirnov who owned it at the time) and so no longer looks as it did in Lermontov’s day, but this was where he had his last meeting with Varvara Lopukhina, the great love of his life. He had met her while studying at school, wrote poems to her and painted pictures of her. In 1837 she married and Lermontov was devastated. His cousin A P Shan-Girei described the moment Lermontov received a letter telling him the news of her engagement:
“[Lermontov] began to read it, but his expression suddenly changed, and he went pale. I was alarmed and wanted to ask what it was, but handing me the letter…he left the room”.
Varvara is said to be the inspiration for a number of Lermontov’s characters including Vera in a Hero of Our Time.
We continued down to the junction with Bolshaya Nikitskaya [where there is a lovely playground and where for the sake of the smallest members of our party we had quite a long stop!] and then crossed over the road to reach the Church of the Grand Ascension on Pl Nikitskie Vorota
It was here that the poet Pushkin, one of Lermontov’s great heroes, was married. Some six years later on the 29th January 1837, Pushkin died following a fatal duel in defence of his wife’s honour. Shortly after hearing the news of Pushkin’s untimely death, Lermontov wrote the poem “Death of a Poet” of which these are the opening lines:
The Poet’s dead! – a slave to honour –
He fell, by rumour slandered,
Lead in his breast and thirsting for revenge,
Hanging his proud head!…
The Poet’s soul could not endure
Petty insult’s disgrace.
Against society he rose,
Alone, as always…and was slain!
The poem propelled Lermontov to fame but when he added lines accusing society of being complicit in Pushkin’s death, including: “You, greedy hordes around the throne, Killers of Freedom, Genius and Glory” it also led to Lermontov being exiled to the Caucasus.
To reach our final stop we continued along Bolshaya Nikitskaya and turned left into Nozhovyy Pereulok. We continued as far as Povarskaya Ulitsa and crossed the road taking the slight left into Bolshoy Rzhevskiy Pereulok. Lastly we turned left into Ulitsa Malaya Molchanovka until we reached number 2.
This was Lermontov’s home between 1829 and 1831 where he lived with his grandmother. The house has been preserved as a museum (currently closed) and includes Lermontov’s journals and a number of his paintings including a self-portrait that he had given to Varvara Lopukhina as a gift.
Lermontov died tragically young in a duel in July 1841 at just 27 years of age.