Franz Kafka

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Emelyan Pugachev (Емелья́н Пугачёв): myth and representation in Pushkin's novel "The Captain's Daughter"

Emelyan Pugachev, engrave by  Гравюра Лаврентия Серякова, 1881
First published in 1836, The Captain's Daughter is a romanticized, historic account of Pugachev's Rebellion (1773-1774), under the reign of Catherine the Great, and one of the most highly recognized works in prose of Aleksandr Sergyevic Pushkin.

Set in the time of the  greatest peasant revolutionary unrest in imperial Russia, it narrates the story of Emelyan Pugachev, the false czar, who impersonates Peter the Third. As he claimed his right to the throne, and rallied a multitude of people (the Cossacks, the Tatars, the nomadic Bashkirs, the Buddhist Kalmyks, the Kalmyks, the Muslims Kazakhs),  mostly peasants, promising the serfs land of their own and freedom from their masters. This analysis points out the representation of the controversial figure of Emelyan Pugachev sketched by Pushkin. Notwithstanding  the Cossack leader's intriguing historical figure—embittered enemy of  the czarina, posing a dreadful threat to the empire, in a time where Russia was already at war with the Ottomane Empire—and his army and followers—that were indeed depicted as brutal, cruel thugs, blood-thirsty murderers, despicable thieves  and so forth—Pushkin paints a portrait that bounds to feed the myth of the revolutionary leader.

Let's read together, in our humble English translation,  a few key passages of the narration—keeping in mind Pushkin's own struggle with power and censorship:

Pugachev, acting as a deus ex machina, intervenes three times to save the protagonist Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov: by rescuing  him from a dreadful snow storm, sparing his life from the gallows, and freeing from captivity  his bride-to-be, Mar'ja Ivanovna, Masha, the captain's daughter.
In the steppe—"The road is right here", he said. "I'm walking on the beaten track. What do would you need it for?". "Listen to me, sir" said I "are you familiar with the area? Would you be able to lead us somewhere we can shelter for the night?". "I know these places," answered the vagrant, "thanks to the Lord, I have crossed them, by and large, by feet or by horse. But look at the weather: we'd end up stranded anyways. Better stay here, and wait for the storm to ease. As soon as the sky clears, we'll find our way following the stars." I felt reassured by the vagrant's calm. I had already resigned myself to passing the night in the steppe, when suddenly the vagrant mounted resolutely on the coachman's seat an ordered: "Take to the right! Thanks to the Lord, the houses are not far."

"And why would I take to the right? Where is it you see the road? These aren't your own horses; easy to say: take and go!" I thought that the coachman was right. "In fact," said I, "why does it seem to you that the houses are not far?" "Because the wind has turned, it now blows from there, and you can smell the smoke; it means the village is nearby." His acumen and subtle intuition stunned me a great deal...

The gallows—"Hang him!" said Pugachev, without even looking at me. They put the noose around my neck. I began praying in silence, offering God my sincere repent for all my shortcomings and invoking the salvation for all those dear to my heart. They brought me under the gallows. "Don't be afraid, don't be afraid..." said my hangmen, perhaps with a true intention of heartening me somehow...—then Pugachev moved to compassion upon the supplication of Pyotr Andreyich's servant Savelich—Pugachev made a sign, and immediately I was untied. "Our Lord gave you his mercy", they were saying around me. I can't say to have rejoiced for my salvation in that very moment, but neither to have regretted it." My feelings were too confused. They took me again to the impostor and made me kneel before him. Pugachev offered me his gnarled hand. "Kiss his hand!" said the people. Yet I would have rather preferred the most terrible torment to that infamous humiliation.  "My Lord, Pyotr Andreyich," whispered Savelich from behind, pushing me. "Don't be stubborn. What does it cost you? Don't think about it and just kiss the hand of that scoundr...whoops... well, his hand." I didn't move. Pugachev took back his hand, and said to me with a sardonic smile: "Your Lordness must evidently feel foolish with happiness. Get him up!"

In the fortress, rescuing Mar'ja Ivanovna—"Listen," said I as I noticed his good disposition. "I do not know how shall I call you when I addressing you, nor want I know it...but God is my witness that I am ready to pay with my life for all you did for me. Just don't ask me what is against my honor and against the Christian conscience. You are my benefactor. Finish what you started; let me and that poor orphan go where God may want us lead to. And wherever you will be, and whatever will happen to you, we will pray to God every day for the salvation of your sinner soul." Pugachev's cruel soul appeared to be touched. "Let it be as you wish!" he said. "Punishing or forgiving, when I have to do it, I always do it to the endthis is my rule. Take your girl with you, and go wherever you want, and may God concede you both love and judgment."

The Captain's Daughter (Russian: Капитанская дочка, Kapitanskaya dochka), 1836
With Pushkin's own struggle with power and censorship in mind, we may perhaps wonder at today's Russia, and the narrow path for those who still profess freedom of speech and the right to express their independent views...

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