For death or honor: 5 classic duels involving Russian writers

A graffiti with Aleksandr Pushkin.

A graffiti with Aleksandr Pushkin.

V. Vizu/
Feb. 10 marks the 179th anniversary of the death of great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was killed in a duel. To commemorate this tragic date, RBTH looks at five of the best-known duels involving Russian writers.

1) Alexander Pushkin vs. George D'Anthès, Feb. 8, 1837

Russia’s greatest poet was a man of violent temperament: By the age of 37, he had been involved in at least 15 duel-related incidents, three of which ended in actual fighting.

Pushkin fought duels over jocular poems, quarrels at balls or at the gaming table, but his duel with George D'Anthès, a French nobleman serving in Russia, was caused by Pushkin’s young wife, considered one of the most beautiful women at the imperial court in St. Petersburg. Pushkin’s jealousy was not unprovoked: Natalya Goncharova was indeed taken by D'Anthès.

Pushkin challenged the Frenchman: The duel took place to the north of St. Petersburg, on the Chernaya Rechka (the Black River), the opponents shooting at each other at a distance of 20 paces. D'Anthès was the first to shoot and his bullet hit Pushkin in the stomach. Falling into the snow, Pushkin fired his pistol and seeing his opponent fall too, cried out: “Bravo!” The wound D'Anthès received turned out to be light, whereas Pushkin died of his two days later.

L-R: Portrait of Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky; Source: Opens sources, RIA NovostiL-R: Portrait of Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky; George D'Anthès. Source: Orest Kiprensky; Alexey Varfolomeev/RIA Novosti

2) Mikhail Lermontov vs. Nikolai Martynov, July 27, 1841

Mikhail Lermontov, another well-known Russian poet of the 19th century, and Nikolai Martynov were fellow officers fighting in Chechnya and Dagestan. In the summer of 1841, while in the North Caucasus city of Pyatigorsk, both were courting the daughter of General Verzilin, Emilia.

One day, chatting to her in the general’s house, the poet made a couple of jokes about Martynov. A quarrel ensued and just a day later, the two fellow officers were fighting a duel. After the first countdown, neither fired his pistol and then one of the seconds cried: “Shoot or I shall cancel this duel!” To which Lermontov replied: “I am not going to shoot at this fool!” “I got angry,” Martynov later wrote in his account to the investigator, “and pulled the trigger.” A couple of minutes later the poet was dead.

L-R: Portrait of Lermonov by Petr Zabolotsky; Martynov by Thomas Wright. Source: FineArt images, opens sourcesL-R: Portrait of Lermonov by Petr Zabolotsky; Martynov by Thomas Wright. Source: Leemage/Vostock-Photo; Thomas Wright

3) Kondraty Ryleyev vs. Konstantin Shakhovskoi, Feb. 1824

Kondraty Ryleyev, a poet and a participant in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, defended the honor of his illegitimate stepsister Anna, who was being amorously pursued by 19-year-old Prince Konstantin Shakhovskoi. Having decided that the young man’s intentions were not honorable, Ryleyev challenged Shakhovskoi to a duel. However, the latter refused to fight until Ryleyev spat him in the face in public.

The duel was very tough: There were no “points” marking the distance at which the opponents were to shoot at each other and the two men, who fired their pistols simultaneously at their seconds’ signal from a distance of just three meters, twice hit each other’s weapons. One of the bullets wounded Ryleyev in his foot.

Portrait of Ryleyev by an unknown artist. Source: Alexander Pushkin State MuseumPortrait of Ryleyev by an unknown artist. Source: Mikhail Ozerskiy/RIA Novosti

4) Alexander Griboyedov vs. Alexander Yakubovich, Nov. 4, 1818

The author of the well-known comedy Woe from Wit, Alexander Griboyedov, was involved in a type of duel in which the seconds fought each other too. The original quarrel was caused by ballet dancer Avdotya Istomina, whose attentions were sought after by two young counts, Vasily Sheremetyev and Alexander Zavadovsky.

A challenge followed, Zavadovsky mortally wounded Sheremetyev, after which the latter’s second, Yakubovich, took out a bullet, showed it to Griboyedov, who was Zavadovsky’s second, and said: “This one is for you.” The seconds’ duel was postponed and took place a year later. Griboyedov missed, while Yakubovich wounded him in the hand.

From then on the writer wore a special pad on his injured little finger and it was by that injured finger that his mutilated body was identified in 1829: Griboyedov was killed when an angry mob attacked the Russian embassy in Tehran.

L-R:  Yakubovich by Nikolai Bestuzhev; Griboyedov by Ilya Kramskoy. Source: Private collection of Ilya Zilbvershtein, The State Tretyakov GalleryL-R: Yakubovich by Nikolai Bestuzhev; Griboyedov by Ilya Kramskoy. Source: Pavel Balabanov/RIA Novosti; RIA Novosti

5) Nikolay Gumilyov vs. Maximilian Voloshin, Dec. 5, 1909

Two Russian Silver Age poets, Nikolai Gumilyov and Maximilian Voloshin, fought a duel over another poet, Lilya Dmitriyeva. She had rejected Gumilyov and he made some insulting remarks about her. Voloshin stepped in to defend the lady’s honor.

The two poets had their duel on the Chernaya Rechka using Pushkin-era pistols. On his way to the venue, Voloshin lost one of his galoshes and declared that he would not leave the spot until he found it. The galosh was found, Gumilyov fired his pistol first and missed, while Voloshin’s pistol misfired twice. The two poets patched up relations only 12 years later.

L-R: Gumilyov; Voloshin. Source: RIA Novosti L-R: Gumilyov; Voloshin. Source: RIA Novosti

Read more: 10 quotes to help you convince others you read Russian literature

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