THE CAPTAIN’S DAUGHTER
by Alexander Pushkin
translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
NYRB, 170 pages
reviewed by Derek M. Brown
Writing in the February 5 edition of The New York Review of Books (“A New Policy to Rescue Ukraine”), financier and philanthropist George Soros says that the U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Russia, put in place in lieu of going to war over Russian aggression in Ukraine, “have worked much faster and inflicted much more damage on the Russian economy than anybody could have expected.” This economic warfare, he says, in arguing for significant economic aid to Ukraine, has not only severely disabled the Russian economy, but as in real war, has inflicted significant damage on Europe, “helping to turn the threat of deflation in the eurozone into a reality.”
In making this argument, it appears Soros had been reading New York Review Books’ new edition of the Alexander Pushkin Russian classic, The Captain’s Daughter. Those who are “ignorant of [his] people or else hard-hearted men who care not a straw about either their own lives or the lives of others,” warns Pushkin, endeavor to plot against Russia.
Often considered Russia’s greatest poet and the progenitor of modern Russian literature, Pushkin’s penchant for fairytale-like serendipity leads the reader toward lessons once derived from morality tales—such as the necessity that a young man “fall in love and receive his parents’ blessing.” These narrative cadences, in which conflict is seamlessly resolved and events unaccountably fall into place, arrive like predictable, yet immensely satisfying closing phrases to musical passages.
Originally published in 1836, The Captain’s Daughter is a fictionalized account of a historical rebellion against the administration of Catherine II. The novel first appeared in English as Marie: A Story of Russian Love. In this edition, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler defy the sentiments of Robert Frost, who once declared that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” In this edition, all the richness, humor, and poetry for which Pushkin is celebrated, is lovingly preserved. The Chandlers’ translation will undoubtedly carry mass appeal for a modern readership.
In The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s protagonist, Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, the son of a lieutenant colonel, is “enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonov regiment while still in [his] mother’s womb,” that he may be placed in a regiment befitting someone of his class and rank upon the completion of his studies, which he undertakes while “on leave.” Expecting to serve in the Guards, which he equates with “freedom and the joys of life in Petersburg,” his temperamental father is determined to have him “serve in the real army,” where he will “toil and sweat and smell gunpowder.”
Under the care of his father’s huntsman, Savelich, he is taken to a remote village, where he falls in love with his captain’s daughter. Soon, chaste pursuits in an idyllic setting, replete with snow-covered steppes, are interrupted by the intervention of a brigand, Pugachov, who has assumed the name and identity of the late emperor, Peter III. Intent upon overthrowing the imperial family and demolishing the nobility, Pugachov appeals to the disenfranchised and radicalizes them much as criminal organizations and terrorist groups do today. Although Pyotr’s fortress is eventually sacked, he is spared by this imposter, whom he unwittingly saved from freezing after giving him a hare-skin coat during a violent snowstorm preceding the emergence of his rebellion.
The acts of violence perpetrated by the rebel forces in this text will no doubt strike a chord with those following the upheaval that continues to proliferate in the same part of the globe. Indeed, the same fanaticism that persists and possessed Pugachov’s forces is characterized by the rebel leader’s favorite song, once beloved by peasants and Cossacks alike:
All praise to you, young son of a peasant
That you thieve truly and that you speak true words.
And your reward, young lad, young son of a peasant,
Is a tall mansion in the open fields;
Your reward is two poles and a crossbeam.
This celebration of the gallows is one of the more mordant exhibitions of Pushkin’s sense of humor, which is otherwise typified by subtlety and impeccable comedic timing, as evidenced by a note Pyotr’s father has written and which accompanies him to Orenburg, where he is stationed. Encountering his general, for whom the letter is written, he offers to clarify expressions that escape the German’s understanding as he reads the letter aloud. Among the requests his father makes is that the boy be held “with hedgehog gloves.” Turning to Pyotr to elucidate, the general is told it means “to treat someone gently, not to be too severe with them, to give them free rein.” The following line begins with the request that the general “not give him too free a rein.” “Zeze hedgehog gloves does not mean vot you say…”
While Pushkin fills the story with humor and lands at a predictably improbable ending, it’s also tempting to wonder if Pushkin is suggesting that his protagonist’s moral integrity is accountable for his success and eventual happiness. Pyotr is uncompromising in his resolve and, though he is willing to fall on his sword and defy seemingly impossible odds, he is firm in his conviction that “the best and most enduring changes are those that come about as a result of an improvement in morals, without any violent upheavals.” Perhaps everyone involved in the Ukraine crisis should take heed. Soros’s call for significant economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine would doubtless prove far more effective and enduring than the pattern of violence that continues to this day.
Derek M. Brown is an English major at Columbia University. He is also a singer/songwriter and performs regularly throughout New York City.