Pugachev, Pushkin, Tsvetaeva: A Ramble

by Eric Byrd

6a00d8341c562c53ef01b7c7075bdb970b-800wiLike Ségur's account of the retreat from Moscow and Grant's mostly martial memoirs, Pushkin's History of the Pugachev Revolt narrates a welter of suffering – axe-armed mobs, corpulent gentry flayed alive, a total civic breakdown in which “the simple people did not know whom to obey” – in an coolly “classical” style; that is, a style terse, spare, unemphatic, and above all swift. Pushkin moves the story along, notes, but does not dwell on the bizarre, and merely hints at the picturesque. Suvorov's cavalry, pursuing Pugachev's nucleus of mutinous Cossacks across the steppe, stops to interrogate the hermits. Steppe hermits! What an occasion for Byronic pathos, for Delacroix's palette! Pushkin tells us in what direction the hermits pointed the horsemen – and that is all. The narrative rides on. The hermits recede in the dust of the cavalcade. Pushkin could have colored them – he knew the Imperial archives, and did months of fieldwork in the formerly rebellious regions – but his style would not indulge him. “Classical” styles ache with the suggested; they trace around mysteries. D. S. Mirsky said that Pushkin straddles European definitions of “Classic” and “Romantic” – and his prose shows it.

Mirsky also said that Pushkin was, at heart, too much an eighteenth century classicist narrator to analyze the grievances behind the revolt to the twentieth century's satisfaction. Certainly – but the book contains plenty to trouble the chauvinist. Nicholas I, Pushkin's personal censor, demanded the original title, The History of Pugachev, be changed to The History of the Pugachev Revolt — because “a rebel,” said the Czar, “could not have a history.” Nicholas like all autocrats plugs one leak merely to open another. To reduce Pugachev to an opportunistic bandit is the raise the question of his opportunity. And Pushkin is very clear that his opportunity was the fundamental discontent of the landless:

Pugachev was fleeing, but his flight seemed like an invasion. Never had his victories been more horrifying; never had the rebellion raged with greater force. The insurrection spread from village to village, from province to province. Only two or three villains had to appear on the scene, and the whole region revolted. Various bands of plunderers and rioters were formed, each having its own Pugachev…

Pushkin's novella The Captain's Daughter elevates the revolt onto the even more ambiguous plane of romance. The background of the revolt falls away. The novella only fleetingly mentions the series of mutinies, going back decades, of the Cossack and other steppe horse tribes that had entered the Czar's service as guards of empire's fluid frontiers with the Ottoman sultan and the Shah of Persia, only to be robbed and oppressed by local officialdom. It says nothing about a significant portion of the Pugachev hordes, the “factory peasants,” serfs uprooted and sent to toil in the mines, foundries and arsenals of the military-industrial base Peter the Great had established to equip the armies and fleets of this newly modern, European state. On the other hand, the Pugachev of The Captain's Daughter is attractive, honorable and merciful at key moments, and thereby spellbinding – the very stuff of Nicholas' censorial nightmares. “It was my first encounter with evil,” Marina Tsvetaeva wrote – The Captain's Daughter was a children's book when she was a child – “and evil proved to be good. After that I always suspected it of good.”

Marina_02I remember The Captain's Daughter as one of the most boring books I was assigned in college. I re-read it on the heels of The History of the Pugachev Revolt, and in preparation for “Pushkin and Pugachev,” Tsvetaeva's critical essay on the two works, and companion to her astounding My Pushkin. “Criticism” is a poor word for Tsvetaeva's ecstatic communion with Pushkin, for the intensity of imagery that even in translation made me slightly dizzy. Brodsky once said that while Tsvetaeva may have deigned to prose, she was never prosaic. Tsvetaeva declares that for her The Captain's Daughter has no captain, and he has no daughter. She had an exalted contempt for the conventional romance and farcical spousal comedy that frames or distracts from what she saw as the prophetic demonism, the sacred spell of Pushkin's Pugachev:

Oh, how thoroughly is that classical book—magical. How thoroughly—hypnotic (for Pugachev, all of him, in spite of our reason and conscience, is forced upon us by Pushkin—breathed into us: we don't want to, but we see him; we don't want to, but we love him), so much is that book like sleep, like dreaming. All [Grinyov's] encounters with Pugachev are from that same region of his dream about the killing and loving peasant. A dream prolonged and brought to life. It is because of that, perhaps, that we do give ourselves over to Pugachev, because it is a dream, that is, we are in the complete captivity and complete freedom of a dream. The commandant, Vasilisa Egorovna, Shvabrin, Catherine—all that is bright day and we, reading, remain of sane mind and memory. But as soon as Pugachev enters the scene—all that is over: it is black night. Not the heroic commandant, nor Vasilisa Egorovna who loves him, nor Grinyov's love affair no one and nothing can over come in us Pugachev. Pushkin has brought Pugachev on us…the way you bring on sleep, a fever, a spell…

In the first half of the novella, the young officer Grinyov falls in love with Masha, the eponymous daughter, fights a duel with her former suitor, and eludes the counsels of his manservant, a C-3PO of fretful prudence; the genial torpor of garrison life, a staple of Russian fiction, and the snooze I remember. But then the revolt starts, and villages are on fire, captives swing from gibbets, and you're cowering at the boots of a rebel chieftain. “Pugachev gave a sign and I was instantly untied and set free. 'Our father has pardoned you,' they said.”

Tsvetaeva nestles between The History of the Pugachev Revolt and The Captain's Daughter, between Pushkin the historian and Pushkin the romancer. The contrast of the two Pugachevs—the low killer in the documents and the magnanimous, great-souled rebel of fable—inspires her reflections on documentary versus imaginative truth, poetic “rightness” versus accuracy; our health versus our fate. She knows that the need of mythic symmetry is fatal, but its own truth, undeniable and inevitable. She affirms the supremacy of symbols and fairy tales – “For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record.” She first read The Captain's Daughter at age 7. The Pugachev of The Captain's Daughter is a sublime or childish terror, fearsome but incapable of inflicting suffering:

Pushkin showed us the Pugachev of the Pugachev Revolt, he infused us with Pugachev of The Captain's Daughter. And no matter how much we may have studied, no matter how often we may have re-read The History of the Pugachev Revolt, as soon as the unknown thing looms black in the snowstorm of The Captain's Daughter—we forget everything, all our bad experiences with Pugachev and with history, exactly the same as in love—all our bad experiences with love.

…the infallible feeling of the poet for…well allright, maybe not what was, but what might have been. What ought to have been…

It can be said that The Captain's Daughter was being written within him simultaneously with The History of the Pugachev Revolt, was co-written with it, that it grew out of every line of the latter, outgrew every line, was being written above the page, formed an order above it, an order, a structure in itself, freely and lawfully, as a living refutation created here by the poet's hand: of the untruth of the facts—the work wrote itself.

A deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low facts.

Tsvetaeva reworks Eliot's “mankind cannot bear much reality” as if to say: Russians cannot bear a Pugachev who tears out peoples' eyeballs or shoots children. “The fate of Kamitsky [strangled and thrown into the Volga] is the potential fate of Grinyov himself: here is what would have happened to Grinyov if he had met up with Pugachev not in the pages of The Captain's Daughter, but in the pages of The History of the Pugachev Revolt.”