The Scottish Roots of Renowned Russian Writer Mikhail Lermontov
My wife, Victoria, is Russian and ever since we met, have always been intrigued by the various cultural links between our two countries. One day while watching TV we discovered ‘Brian Cox’s Russia’ on the BBC iPlayer, a show exploring the various Scots who made an impact on Russia’s vast history.
We learned that Charles Cameron was architect to Empress Catherine II, General Patrick Gordon was Peter the Great’s chief military adviser, Prince Mikhail Barclay was commander during the Napoleonic wars, and Admiral Samuel Greig reformed Russia’s Baltic fleet. But rather surprisingly, our jaws dropped once we found out that Mikhail Lermontov, the most important Russian writer after Alexander Pushkin, descended from the Learmonth’s of Fife.
Mikhail Lermontov in 1837. Image Source
One of Russia’s favourite sons - Mikhail Lermontov, was born in Moscow on Oct. 15, 1814. Two hundred years later, a bronze memorial in honour of Lermontov was unveiled in the tiny village of Earlston in Scotland. The monument was part of an international festival to celebrate the writer’s birthday and is the first monument in my homeland dedicated to a Russian literary figure.
Mikhail Lermontov can be traced back to George Learmonth of Fife, who, descended from the 13th-century poet - Thomas the Rhymer. According to legend, Thomas predicted bloody battles, and even the union of Britain’s thrones. But not even he could have foreseen that Earlston would one day lay claim to the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism.
Earlston - shown pinpointed on a map.
George Learmonth was an adventurous military man who decided to seek fortune in eastern Europe. Having served as an officer in the Polish-Lithuanian army, he eventually settled in Russia during the 17th century after being captured by Russian troops. Recruited by Tsar Mikhail Romanov, he enjoyed many successful campaigns in the Caucasus and was rewarded with estates for his successes on the battlefield. He changed his name to Lermontov and founded the prominent dynasty into which Mikhail was born.
The writer's house museum on the Tarkhany estate in Lermontovo. Image Source
Lermontov coat of arms. Image Source
Mikhail’s father, Yuri, also pursued a military career. After progressing the ranks to captain, he married Maria Arsenyeva, a wealthy heiress from a powerful aristocratic family. On October 15, 1814, Maria gave birth to Mikhail in Moscow.
Maria Lermontova, the mother of the Mikhail. Image Source
Mikhail cherished his Scottish connection and said that he owed a debt to Sir Walter Scott. It was also epitomised in his poem “Yearning”, where, as a Raven, he flew over the land of his ancestors:
Westwards, ever westwards would I fly,
Where flourish the lands of my forbear,
Where in an empty castle, on mist clad mountains,
Rest their forgotten remains.
Valley of the River Tweed - Earlston, Scotland. Image Source
As well as inheriting his poetic genes from Thomas the Rhymer, Mikhail foresaw the Russian revolution in his poems - but his link to Thomas remained unknown in Scotland until 2011. One day, Gwen Hardie, who runs a poetry group in Earlston, answered her door to two visitors from Russia, one of whom was researching a book on Mikhail Lermontov. The following year, Gwen had another Russian visitor, Maria Koroleva, a descendant of Lermontov through her maternal line. Likewise cherishing her Scottish connection, Ms. Koroleva learned Gaelic, changed her first name to the Scots variant, Màiri Òg, and now teaches the Highland language at Moscow State University.
Lermontov 200 tartan - Designed by Màiri Òg Koroleva. Image Source
With the 200th birthday of the writer approaching, it was fitting that the Lermontov monument would erect in Earlston. Though, building it would prove to be difficult. The first prototype had been abandoned because it was largely unsuitable for a small village. Then plans for a modest attempt almost failed after funding fell through. But eventually, sculptor, Stepan Mokrousov-Guglielmi, offered to work for free and Ms. Koroleva raised enough money on her own for the bronze.
Mikhail Lermontov Monument in Earlston. Image Source
Lermontov's work made an impact at a very early age, which is just as well as he died in a pistol duel with a fellow army officer when he was 26. Ironically, five years earlier, the same death had befallen the great Alexander Pushkin with whom Lermontov stands comparison. Many argue that if Lermontov had lived longer, he may have even produced works to surpass Pushkin.
Also a well renowned painter - an 1837 landscape by Lermontov, Tbilisi, 1837. Image Source
Today, Russia has thousands of Lermontov’s, and many of their ancestors have also left their mark throughout Russian history. That list includes, Julia Lermontova, the first Russian female doctor in chemistry and the third woman to have been given a doctorate in Europe, and Alexander Lermontov - a distinguished Imperial commander who successfully served during the ottoman wars.
This specific link between our two countries was fascinating for us to learn about. Now that we have our own family, we have developed a wish to explore our own ancestry just as Maria did. I’m interested to discover the lineage beyond Victoria’s Armenian Grandmother, and Victoria is fascinated by the UK's medieval history. Who knows what ancestry we may discover, and many years from now, will families descended from our own be equally curious about how their Scottish surname came to Russia?