I looked all around, expecting to see fearsome bastions, towers, and earthworks, but saw nothing except a little village surrounded by a wooden stockade. On one side lay three or four haystacks, half covered in snow; on the other, a crooked windmill with bark wings, lazily lowered. "Where's the fortress?" I asked in surprise. "Why, there it is," said the coachman, pointing to the village, and with these words we drove inside. By the gates, I saw an old cast-iron cannon; the streets were cramped and winding, the houses low and roofed mostly with thatch. I ordered the coachman to drive toward the commandant's house, and a minute later the coach stopped in front of a wooden house built on an elevated spot, by a church, also of wood.One of the most persistent motifs in nineteenth-century Russian literature is the opposition between the center and the periphery of imperial space. In Eugene Onegin, this takes the form of the contrast between St. Petersburg and the village; in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, the Caucasus plays the role of periphery instead. Unsurprisingly, this opposition serves as a rich field for the deployment of country/city rhetoric. The center is associated with wealth, vice, power, luxury, and so on; the periphery is wilderness, ignorance, "culture" (as opposed to civilization), and either extreme danger or extreme idleness. This motif is so omnipresent that many works simply assume that the reader sees the world in these terms and develop a narrative without ever establishing it explicitly. (Something like this happens in Turgenev's The New-Plowed Field.)
No one came out to greet me. I entered the mudroom and opened the door to the parlor. An old invalid was sitting on a table and sewing a blue patch on the elbow of a green uniform coat. I ordered him to report my arrival. "Come in, good sir," the invalid responded, "they're at home." I entered a neat little room decorated in an old-fashioned style. In the corner stood a cabinet with dishes; on the wall hung an officer's diploma, framed behind glass; next to it there were some prints depicting the capture of Kistrino and Ochakovo, as well as the selection of the bride and the burial of the cat. By the window sat an old woman in a quilted jacket and a shawl. She was untangling some threads, held on outstretched hands by a lame old man in an officer's uniform. "How can we be of service, good sir?" she asked, without laying down her thread. I replied that I had come to serve in the fortress and wanted to pay a visit to the captain; with these words, I turned to the old man, taking him for the commandant, but the old woman interrupted the speech I had memorized. "Ivan Kuzmich isn't home," she said, "he's visiting Father Gerasim; but no matter, good sir, I'm his wife, at your service. Sit down, good sir." She called a servant girl and ordered her to call the constable. The old man gazed at me inquisitively with his lone eye. "If I may be so bold as to inquire," he said, "which regiment were you pleased to serve in?" I satisfied his curiosity. "And if I may be so bold," he said, "why were you pleased to transfer from the Guards to garrison service?" I replied that such was the will of the commanders. "I expect it was for conduct unbecoming an officer of the Guards," continued my indefatigable interrogator. "Quit your yapping," the captain's wife said to him, "don't you see the young man is tired from his travels? He doesn't have time for you... (hold those hands straight, will you?). And you, my good sir," she continued, addressing me, "don't be sad that they sent you to our backwater. You're not the first, you won't be the last. You'll get used to it."
- Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter
This motif is not simply a spatial one, however. Especially in the early part of the century, it possesses an additional dimension: the chronological. In Griboedov's "Trouble Comes From Being Too Smart," the overbearing father character is a man who belongs entirely to the eighteenth century. Accordingly, he is painted as crude, patriarchal, and traditional. Turgenev's book features a couple that has maintained its way of life since the days of Catherine the Great; although this depiction is rather more rosy, it is also chock-full of traditional "country" signposts. The Captain's Daughter, set in the late 1770s, is a longer and more in-depth exploration of the very same thing. The backwater fortress where Grinev finds himself--full of hokey characters who talk like straw-chewing rednecks--is in effect a metonymic representation of the eighteenth century itself. Pushkin was writing only a half-century later, and for most Russians life had not changed significantly in that time--and yet those of his works that are set in 18** have a palpably less musty air.
If we read The Captain's Daughter while keeping in mind its invisible nineteenth-century double, certain things emerge much more clearly. In particular, the novel sees relationships of political power as deeply personal. The Court generally appears in Pushkin's other work as a kind of invisible center gathering around itself the social circles of the aristocratic and military elite. Here, its presence is felt much more directly. Neither Pugachev nor Catherine are absent prime movers, setting armies and events in motion at a distance from the narrative. This is made especially clear in the fairytale final chapter, when Grinev's wife goes to the capital in order to prevent his exile to Siberia. She tells her story to a lady she meets at court, whom she takes for an ordinary aristocrat. As it turns out, the unassuming figure is the empress herself, and she is so deeply touched by the Grinevs' plight that she sees to his exoneration. It would be difficult to imagine Alexander I or Nicholas I appearing in a similar light.
Within the context of the novel, this view of power provides the explanation for Pugachev's rebellion as well. When questioned, Pugachev repeatedly references Grishka Otrepyev, one of the more successful pretenders to the throne during the Time of Troubles. If we view the revolt from a nineteenth-century point of view, it appears absurd: what could a ragtag peasant army do against the powerful apparatus of the imperial administration? But Pugachev, like Otrepyev, is just one human being endowed with personal authority facing another; the two differ in quantity of power more than in quality. The novel works to establish the symmetry between Pugachev and Catherine, both of whom appear as ultimately fair and beneficient, if capricious and arbitrary, dispensers of personal power.
Like many examples of "country" rhetoric, this is a nostalgic point of view more than a pragmatic one. Pushkin looks back on the eighteenth-century Gemeinschaft as almost another world--and for all intents and purposes, it was. The legend that Alexander I retired to become a pious hermit is instructive, because it suggests that the tsar in power could no longer be endowed with the down-to-earth human qualities of Pushkin's Catherine. One of the king's bodies had forced out the other.