Magazine article The Spectator

The Godfather of the Steppes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Godfather of the Steppes

Article excerpt

THE CAPTAIN'S DAUGHTER by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with a foreword by Elaine Feinstein Hesperus, £6.99, pp. 131, ISBN 9781843911548 £5.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

First published in 1836, this novella shows Alexander Pushkin's mastery of almost any form. The following year -- after a miraculously productive short period -- he died in a duel over the alleged adultery of his wife with the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador.

Evocative, swashbuckling, romantic and sentimental, The Captain's Daughter centres on the peasant rebellion, 1773-75, of the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachov. Pushkin had already written A History of the Pugachov Rebellion published in 1834 in two volumes, one describing the events, the second consisting of the source materials. A bear for work, in the year he was reading and travelling to inform himself about Pugachov, Pushkin also wrote three of his greatest works -- the poems published as Stone Island, The Queen of Spades and The Bronze Horseman. Amazingly, Tsar Nicholas I, who permitted the publication of this subversive work and ordered a government loan to underwrite the costs, accepted from Pushkin a confidential addendum, which stated, 'All the common people were with Pugachov Only the nobility was openly on the side of the government.' The story is a simple one, very well told, showing that, like Tolstoy, Pushkin could turn his hand to anything, including, again like Tolstoy, a picture of the non-Russian peoples who to this day are a burr under the saddle of whoever is trying to rule Russia from Moscow. In his old age, Pyotr Grinyov relates the story of himself as a young nobleman of 16, looking forward to a dissolute career in a smart regiment. Instead, his father, hoping that this will straighten out the young wastrel, sends him into the boondocks.

Along the way, in the midst of a blizzard, he encounters a strange peasant who guides him to an inn. The peasant is very cold, so the young officer gives him his hareskin coat. Of course this mysterious figure later turns out to be Pugachov, who now, having captured Pyotr and massacred almost everyone else, spares his life because of the harefur coat and gives him a sheepskin one in exchange. In the meantime Pyotr has fallen in love with Masha, the daughter of the captain at the outpost to which he had been sent, which Pugachov seizes and where he hangs the captain and his wife.

Pugachov comes over as off-handedly cruel and open-handedly generous and sympathetic when his fancy is touched. …

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