Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov was born in Moscow on 15th October (New Style) 1814. He was the son of an impoverished landowner and retired army captain and of the only daughter of Elizaveta Arseneva; a member of the wealthy Stolypin family and thus socially superior by far to Mikhail's father. When Lermontov was three his mother died of consumption and he was left completely in the care of his maternal grandmother, who lavished so much care on him as to make him regard his own ego as the most important thing in the world from a very early age. However, due to the loss of his mother and to the draconian rule of his German governess, he also developed a keen sense of loneliness and a deep-seated hatred of any enforced authority.
The young Lermontov was well-educated by the standards of the day, but more importantly perhaps even than this in his youthful development were the three visits he made with his grandmother before the age of twelve to the vicinity of the spa-town resort of Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus. It was an area that Lermontov was later to consider the land of his "heart's desire" and which was to figure prominently in his literary work, adult life and, eventually, his death.
From the age of fourteen Lermontov spent two years as part of the acclaimed "Pension Noble" attached to Moscow University, where he excelled in both the writing and translating of poetry and indulged in extensive reading of the best Russian, French and German authors of the time. Importantly, he also learned enough English to enable him to read Byron in the original.
In 1830 Lermontov entered Moscow University and it was at this point that he first reached a peak of poetic activity, at least in terms of sheer quantity if not quality of work. He also experienced his first loves, falling in love with several of his young cousins or second cousins, most of whom did not take him seriously. However, possibly the most serious and perhaps the only true love of Lermontov's life was that which he had for Varya Lopukhina, who betrayed his feelings in 1835 when she suddenly married the much older and mediocre but wealthy N. F. Bakhmetyev. Lermontov as a result of these snubs developed a cold and bluffly ironical attitude towards women, although it seems that he never got over his love for Varya.
During his two years at the university Lermontov deliberately avoided becoming involved in groups or societies that would mean having to come into contact with other students, preferring instead his own company and that of his pen and paper. For although at this time he did not intend to submit any work for publication, between 1828 and 1832 he wrote about three hundred poems, seventeen Byronic tales in verse and three plays. And although these works were often somewhat immature and overly indebted to Byron, many certainly show an emotional and intellectual precocity that was soon to be fully exploited in his more mature works.
For reasons unknown Lermontov left Moscow University in 1832 and went to St. Petersburg. On discovering that the two years that he had spent studying in Moscow would not be taken into account if he entered university in Petersburg, he decided to give up on university altogether and instead entered the School of Cavalry Cadets, where for two years he indulged in the usual round of drinking and bawdy behaviour before continuing the much the same after his promotion to ensign in the regiment of Hussars stationed near to St. Petersburg at Tsarskoe Selo.
All this time however, Lermontov was still perturbed by his unrequited love for Varya, and even complained in a letter to a friend that he was not able to continue normal sexual relations with the serf-girls on his estate "because they stink"! Another complication for him at this time was also his ambiguous social standing, for despite his grandmother's wealth and connections, his father had been from the lower strata of the Russian gentry, and therefore Lermontov was never able to enter the inner circles of high society of which he was so fond even though he ridiculed them.
During his military training and immediately after Lermontov's poetic output was much decreased, but in 1837 he gained fame and notoriety with his poem The Death of a Poet, which dealt with the controversial subject of the poet Alexander Pushkin's death in a duel at the hands of Baron d'Anthes, the bastard son