Taking History by the Wig: Puškin’s Captain’s Daughter as a Locus of Russia’s Historical, Cultural, and Ideological Differences

Maksim Y. Klymentiev, University of Southern California

Aleksander Puškin’s fascination with history – both national and personal – toward the end of his life is well known to critics. Yet another subject of Puškin’s intense interest in the 1830s was his attention to, and inquiries into, the nature of what could be called native, or pre-Petrine, Russian culture. My report will concentrate on how these two tendencies reach a maximum convergence in his short novel The Captain’s Daughter. The novel stands out among Puškin’s later prose output as a work where a particular historical narrative, namely that of the Pugačev revolt of 1773-74, was combined with a fictional plot to produce a highly peculiar amalgam of the cultural, historical, and literary issues that are, in my opinion, instrumental for understanding the later Puškin.

            My report makes two major claims that can have repercussions for how we view Puškin’s biography in the 1830s. The first concerns the way in which the Pugačev rebellion has been interpreted by historians. I will argue that the nature of the insurrection was informed not so much by class struggle or economic causes as by cultural issues that directly stemmed from Peter the Great’s reforms. Russia’s westernization started by the tsar some 70 years earlier reached its hiatus, both historically and geographically, during the reign of another greatest westernizer of Russia – Catherine II. As Russia’s westernization could only proceeded toward the country’s Eastern areas (where the insurrection took place), I will argue that the Pugačev rebellion was the last attempt of cultural forces representing the pre-Petrine Muscovy (who included Old Believers, Cossacks, and huge masses of Russians displaced in the wake of Peter’s reforms) to halt and possibly reverse the country’s changing civilizational paradigm.

My second claim will be that Puškin, himself a major Pugačev historian, was able to discern the cultural thrust of the rebellion and to reflect it in both his capacity as a historian and a man of letters. More specifically, I will argue that such cultural awareness on Puškin’s part provides an important and overlooked context in which The Captain’s Daughter, as well as a number of other Puškin’s works from the 1830s should be placed. In addition, I will argue that Puškin was one of the first to view the rebellion not as just a particular event in history but as the major symbol of what in my view constitutes the major problematic of modern Russian culture – Russians’ fundamental uncertainty about their cultural affiliation with either West or East. I will provide ample evidence of how this problematic permeates The Captain’s Daughter on the level of its plot, cast of characters, and use of language. Treating culture as a broad phenomenon comprising religion, ideology, language, native customs, dress, food, etc., I will show how the novel’s narrative is governed by an agglomerate of divides that run along the threshold created in Russian culture and history by Peter the Great’s cultural revolution.

The figure of Peter The Great constituted an object of Puškin’s intensive interest in the 1830s as reflected in his History of Peter the Great, The Bronze Horseman, as well as in his unfinished novel of the tsar-reformer. I will argue that the possible causes for his fascination for, or perhaps even obsession with, Peter the Great are more biographical and cultural than purely literary. Providing evidence from Puškin’s works and correspondence of the period, I will suggest that Puškin’s personal literary, ethnic, and hereditary status in the 1830s made him look at Peter as the main cause not only of Russia’s cultural dilemma but also of his, Puškin’s, own uncertainty of his ethnic and cultural origins. The above perspective will then enable me to interpret The Captain’s Daughter as an enactment of both Russia’s major cultural problematic and Puškin’s personal dilemmas.