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Lermontov: "Bela" and "Ashik-Kerib"

Information and Questions for Reading

Mikhail Iurevich Lermontov (1814-1841) is almost as well-known and well-studied as Pushkin, so I'll assume you can easily find information if you want it. Important facts: he was educated to become an officer; he started writing poetry very early (so early that a lot of his early stuff isn't very good) and seems to have found associating with poets a relief from spending time with military colleagues; in 1837 he published "The Death of the Poet" (or "Death of a Poet"), an indignant condemnation of all those who had allowed Pushkin to risk his life in a duel (Pushkin was shot in January 1837 and died a few days later - modern medicine would have saved him). The Russian tsar and his court were not amused, and Lermontov was banished to the Caucasus as an officer in the dragoons (at least they didn't strip him of his rank, as they had done to Bestuzhev-Marlinsky). It is there that he wrote Hero of Our Time, which was tremendously influential on the development of Russian prose. Lermontov himself died in a duel in 1841, aged 26 - apparently he infuriated his challenger by teasing him about the size of his dagger.

Lermontov is best known as a poet, and Hero of Our Time does not really read like the prose of a poet. Other interesting facts: the surname Pechorin comes from the river Pechora, which flows north into the Arctic Sea through a northern part of Russia. We can assume that the name is chosen to evoke the chilly north and to underline the contrast with the hotter south, where the action is taking place. 


"Ashik-Kerib" was written in 1837; in keeping with its subtitle (Турецкая сказка, "A Turkish Folktale") it is now often presented as a piece of children's literature. You'll note that our edition has numbers interspersed in the text; this would allow you to cite the published version (data given at the top of the tale) if you wish to do so in a paper or other official place. The action begins in the city of Tiflis - the Russian name for the Georgian city Tbilisi.

1) In what ways is this tale a typical folktale? In what ways (if any) does it differ from a folktale?

2) Saint George is one of the patron saints of Georgia (in Georgia, the country is called Sakartvelo, and I've read that its name in the West was a transformation of the Persian "Gurj," which referred to the people living there). What is the effect of having a saint save the day in this way? How do Christian elements and Muslim elements balance in the tale?

3) What kind of hero is Ashik-Kerib? How would a child reading this be likely to feel about the characters?


1. "Bela" is the first chapter of the novel Hero of Our Time, which is composed of several short narratives. It comes right after a brief introduction from the author in which he points out that the reader should not assume that HE is Pechorin; in the chapter "Bela," the narrator makes it clear that he is a writer, deeply interested in other people's stories and eager to invite them to tell him those stories. Later in the work the reader is given narratives written by Pechorin himself. "Bela" is the first step on a series of readings that takes the reader closer to Pechorin and his inner life.

2. How does it impact the reader that Bela herself is held at such a distance - told about by Maksim Maksimich, in a story that is interrupted (as the narrator underlines!) and largely subordinated to the need to spark the reader's interest in Pechorin, the titular (and ironically named?) hero of our time.

3. Maksim Maksimich is supposed to be a hardened military man - though from a social class that will prevent his ever getting promoted too high. What is the impact of his constant disapproving and stereotyped comments about "Asiatics," or taxonomy of how the different Caucasian and Trans-Caucasian peoples differ from one another?

4. What are the gender politics in this story? How do women compare to horses?