Monday, February 8, 2016

"A Hero of Our Time" and "Brother" Wild, Wild West in Russia

I just finished the book "A Hero of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov.  If you like Western novels, or War novels, this book will make you smile.  I laughed out loud at some of the conversations among soldiers in this book.  So why does a novel with Russian soldiers as main characters make me think of "Western" novels and movies?  For the same reason the first Star Wars movie (1977) made me think Western: the setting an scenery is the frontier and civilization is somewhere else.  

"Hero" is set in the Caucuses mountains, near Georgia on the southern frontier of Imperial Russia about 200 years ago.  The soldiers in frontier outposts are there to protect the borders and and to stop the locals from rising in rebellion against their new masters.  The Russian soldiers trade with the locals and try to stay on peaceful terms, but they do not think the natives are fully human.  Just as the American soldiers in frontier outposts tried to keep the peace, but were ready to fight.

The novel is really several related stories revolving around the main character Pechorin and an old soldier named Maxim.  

The first time I read this book was in the summer of 1980 in a Russian Literature class at Penn State Harrisburg.  The professor loved this book.  He was a Serbian, a World War 2 veteran who fought the Germans and their allies the Croatians.  Professor Djordjevic was a 60-year-old chain smoker with not much longer to live when I met him.  He escaped to America through Hungary in 1956.  He fought the Nazis from the Serbian mountains and escaped the Russians who occupied Serbia through those same mountains.  Professor Djordjevic was a mountain soldier and clearly identified with "Hero."

"Brother" is related to "Hero" because for me it had that same feel of the lone hero/cowboy on the frontier.  In the case of Brother, all the action is in St. Petersburg, Russia, so the setting is not the frontier.  But it is in the 1990s in the midst of the economic collapse and lawlessness after the fall of the Soviet Union.  And the main character of Brother is a veteran of the nasty Chechen war of 1994.  The action at the end of the movie has many links to gunfights in traditional Western movies and watching Brother load his own shotgun shells will delight Western fans.

Russia, like America, started as a small country that grew by conquering and settling neighboring areas.  It had a "Louisiana Purchase"-like expansion in the 1600s when it bought Siberia for a price as cheap as the one America got.  Many of the problems Russia has had relate to rapid expansion and trying to hold on to conquered territory, just like the Wild, Wild West here in America.

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