This chapter focuses in its entirety on the infamous Pugachev rebellion — an insurrection started by Cossacks under the leadership of Emelyan Pugachev in the South-East of the Russian Empire in 1773-74 — and in particular on one event of it, the siege of Orenburg. As a matter of fact, this episode had preoccupied Alexander Pushkin, one of the most prominent Russian classical authors who lived in the first half of the 19th century and wrote poems, plays, and, later in his short life, novels. Pushkin’s novel The Captain’s Daughter, which is available in English translation (click on the image), takes place around the time of the siege. Pushkin also wrote a documentary account of the rebellion, titled The History of Pugachev (also available in English).
Naturally, The Captain’s Daughter relates to The History of Pugachev as story relates to life. It is a construct made of plot, where twists and flips of fate abound. More curiously, the character of Pugachev, undoubtedly a center of gravity of the plot, performs random acts of magnanimity and mercy (incidentally, this played into the Communist Russia’s veneration of Pugachev as a folk hero, a liberator). Perhaps Pushkin was just poking at the establishment by sneaking in a merciful Pugachev. Perhaps he entertained a more “balanced” view as an intellectual exercise. Perhaps he used Pugachev as a plot device. Regardless, his History of Pugachev is nothing like The Captain’s daughter. It is an impressively meticulous catalog of a bloody, brutal, violent mess, insofar as any mess can be cataloged. As Pushkin says in one place, “…and the rest were pardoned, only their ears and noses were cut off.” Imagine what was done to those who were not pardoned.
Anyhow. While working on The History of Pugachev, Pushkin amassed a trove of notes: archival excerpts, tales of surviving eye witnesses, folk tales, family tales, etc. My story relies on these notes as well as on the 1981 Russian edition of The History for all the general and specific details — names, distances, places, dates. By the way, the circumstances under which Alexander meets Ivan Kuznetsov, an astronomer’s assistant, are also inspired by a true story. Pugachev’s bandits once ran into a traveling party of an astronomy professor. Upon learning who the professor was, they hanged him high, so that he’d be “closer to the stars,” they said.
Go on to chapter 4