Pugachev’s Rebellion was an uprising that took place from 1773 to 1775, during the reign of Catherine the Great. Yemelyan Pugachev may not have been expecting it to go far, but after some initial success he claimed to be the Tsar Peter III, who was supposedly assassinated in 1762, after a short six-month reign. Some claim it was at the behest of his wife and successor to the throne, Catherine. Pugachev’s rebellion was apparently the largest peasant revolt in Russian history. Over half a century later, Pushkin took readers to this time and to this rebellion in his short novel, The Captain’s Daughter (1836; tr. from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, 2007), which is just out in a new edition from NYRB Classics.
I didn’t know a thing about Pugachev or his rebellion before I read this book. I’d never heard his name. I’d heard of Catherine the Great, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about her. I didn’t even know a thing about The Captain’s Daughter before I simply dug in. I don’t even think I’d paid much attention to the back of the book, so all of this was new — and surprising — to me. I was absolutely delighted when, after just a few pages, I was completely engaged with this book and with its subject matter. It is lively and humorous, as well as dark and tragic
We meet up with our narrator (this is presented as his memoir), Pyotr Grinyov, who, at seventeen, is about to embark on his military service, which was always his fate:
Thanks to the good offices of a close relative, Prince B., a major in the Guards, I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonov regiment while still in my mother’s womb. Had mother — God forbid! — given birth to a daughter, Father would have notified the authorities of the death of the sergeant who had failed to report for duty — and that would have been the end of it. I was considered to be on leave until I had completed my studies.
The book’s first chapter takes us into those early years of study, again with quite a bit of humor. We see that Grinyov has a bit of rebellious streak; well, rebellious isn’t quite the right word, as it suggests a hint of disloyalty, and Grinyov is fiercely loyal when he’s dedicated himself to a cause: Grinyov is a bit headstrong when it comes to his causes. Skipping ahead quite a bit, Grinyov’s central cause is to wed the Captain’s daughter, Masha. Fortunately, for the most part, this does not go against his other causes, such as his loyalty to Catherine the Great, though it does cause a great rift in his family.
But his family is in the background through most of the book. His love for Masha is the catalyst for a great many of Grinyov’s problems: his rivalry with a fellow officer named Shvabrin, for one; and, later, the fact that Masha is being held in a town that is under the control of the rebel Pugachev. Just how will Grinyov save Masha and wed her in these terrible times.
And, though I’m being a bit light-hearted, I don’t want to downplay the fact that these are terrible times, and Pushkin doesn’t shy away from sudden, fatal violence. Indeed, he is so quick to turn from a bit of teasing to the death of a favored character that one does not know who is going to survive and who will be left a dimming memory in the pages.
I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel, smuggling it wherever I went for a day on the off-chance I had a moment to follow Grinyov a bit further on his adventure.
While I cannot speak to how this translation compares to other translations of this tale, I can say that I enjoyed it a great deal. It felt completely natural and clever, which is something I’ve come to expect from the work of Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. Further, this edition comes packed not only with Robert’s extensive notes but also with an omitted chapter, Robert’s introduction and two of his essays: “Pushkin and History” and “Coats and Turncoats: Translating the Wit of The Captain’s Daughter.” I know that some people find the supplemental material unnecessary or even outright annoying. I almost never do and generally appreciate it, but in this particular instance, where I was so interested in the subject, the context, and, yes, the wit, I was thrilled to read more even when I was finished.
Great, great all around.