Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Captain’s Daughter

The Captain’s Daughter
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin

PLOT SUMMARY: In The Captain’s Daughter, Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov reflects on his youth and relays a comedic yet somewhat tragic narrative of his experiences during the time of Pugachev’s rebellion. The story begins when Grinyov hopes to be sent to the Semyonovsky Regiment in St. Petersburg. While traveling, Grinyov becomes stuck in a snow blizzard but an anonymous stranger saves him. As the pair travel together, Grinyov has a dream about his father who transforms into Pugachev (Grinyov’s anonymous savior at the time).

     After his arrival, Grinyov meets Captain Ivan Miranov and finds that the soldiers stationed there are a sight for sore eyes. Unhappy with his place, he finds the diamond in the rust meeting Masha, the captain’s daughter at dinner. Quickly falling for her, he finds that she has rejected many of the men including Officer Shavbran, an officer he has originally befriended. A love triangle ensues with Shavbran trying to keep Masha and Grinyov apart. As this dramatic love story develops, Pugachev arrives to take over the fort, killing the captain and his wife. Shavbran quickly changes loyalty and tries to get Pugachev to kill Grinyov; however, it turns out the stranger who saved Grinyov in the blizzard was Pugachev, and as a result, he saves Grinyov. Eventually, when Grinyov explains he cannot change his loyalty, Pugachev has mercy on him and sends him ahead to warn Orenberg that Pugachev is coming to overtake the city.

     Masha is left and Shavbran tries to force her to marriage but Grinyov explains his plight to Pugachev (as he was captured once again by Pugachev’s men but then released) and they rescue Masha. On their way back, Pugachev and Grinyov go back and join their respective armies, where Pugachev ultimately loses. Shavbran uses this opportunity to switch sides once again and claims Grinyov is a traitor. Not wanting to involve Masha, Grinyov accepts his fate. However, Masha goes to St. Petersburg to please Grinyov to the Empress. They are able to convince her of the truth resulting in them later watching Pugachev’s beheading.

ANALYSIS: The Captain’s Daughter allows the reader to observe the events of the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775 through a fictional but historically based lens. Pushkin explores a complex relationship between Grinyov and Pugachev. They are on opposite sides of the battle, yet they develop a close relationship almost immediately when they meet and it is only strengthened through their future encounters. It is unclear how much of this relationship is based on fact; However, given Pushkin’s materials that inspired this novel, it seems safe to assume that Pushkin created this relationship. He adds tragedy and nuance to the story and to the rebellion as a whole when he humanizes Pugachev and paints both sides of him, a merciless rebel as well as an almost caring father life figure or friend.

     Taking into consideration the period this novel occurs in, Pushkin pushes back against a black-and-white, good-versus-bad narrative. As is seen through the criminalization of Russians in prisons, criminals are more than criminals, or people who break the law. Everyone has moral standards even if it’s not fixed to the society, which we see through Pugachev’s actions towards Grinov.

BIOGRAPHY: Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin is internationally known by literary critics as “Russia’s greatest poet, author, and the founder of modern Russian Literature” (Ernst 2020). Born on June 6, 1799, into a noble family with African lineage on his maternal side, he began his literature journey at a young age, studying and writing poetry at the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo. Graduating in 1817, he continued to write while engaging with politics, which can be seen in his poetry. These controversial themes covered “love, racism, social injustice, and political humor” (Ernst 2020). As a result of this type of commentary in his writing and his mock epic Ruslan and Liudmila (1820) reaching widespread recognition, a political investigation began in April 1820. After further review, Pushkin was sent into exile for his “liberal views in [his] “revolutionary”” literature; many other Russian literary and aristocratic individuals during that time faced a similar fate (Arndt 1965; Poetry Foundation).

     While in exile, Pushkin continued to write. Some of his more well-known works from this period are “The Gypsies,” the first and second chapter of the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, and the play Boris Godunov. He was released from exile after petitioning Nicholas I. However, he was not given the same freedom and independence in writing he had before being exiled. He was questioned thoroughly any time he attempted to write or participate in literary circles. In September 1830, while he was in quarantine for three months in east-central Russia where he wrote his five short stories of “The Tales of Belkin; the verse tale "The Little House in Kolomna"; his little tragedies, "The Avaricious Knight," "Mozart and Salieri," "The Stone Guest," and "Feast in the Time of the Plague"; "The Tale of the Priest and His Workman Balda," the first of his fairy tales in verse; the last chapter of Eugene Onegin; and "The Devils," among other lyrics (Shaw 1967). After this period, Pushkin married his wife, Natalya Goncharova, whom he chose due to her exceptional beauty. Unfortunately, the beauty she had was admired by many and resulted in a young French royalist, Georges d’Anthes-Heeckeren, pursuing her. Thus, ending his life with a duel over his wife, Pushkin died on January 29, 1837 (Shaw 1967).


Pushkin, A. The Captain's Daughter. Trans. Paul Debreczeny. Alma Books. 2018.

“Alexander Pushkin.” Poetry Foundation,

Ernst, Alina. “Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) 7 Feb. 2020,

Pushkin, A. S. The Letters of Alexander Pushkin. Translated by J. Thomas Shaw. Vol. 1. University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.


“My first thought was fear lest my father should be angry with me… The terrible peasant called to me kindly, saying: “Don’t be afraid, come and let me bless you.” (15)

“One may suffer, but one gets accustomed to it.” (34)

“God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless. Those who plot impossible upheavals among us, are either young and do not know our people, or are hard-hearted men who do not care a straw either about their own lives or those of others.” (176)


Heier, E. (1987). “Direct and Indirect Literary Portraiture in Pushkin’s Works.” Canadian Slavonic Papers, 29(2-3), 184-197.
Heier investigates the historical characters in Pushkin’s works, like Pugachev and Grinyov, and Heier explores the way Pushkin portrays them in his various works, such as History of the Pugachev Rebellion and The Captain’s Daughter. Ultimately, Heier argues that Pushkin began the Russian Realism movement in literature.

Rikoun, P. (2007). “Grinev the Trickster: Reading the Paradoxes of Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter". The Slavic and East European Journal, 16-34.
Rikoun further explores the highly debated protagonist Grinev in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. Here, Rikoun examines Grinev in the context of tricksters in Russian folklore, how Pushkin was familiar with the trickster archetype and how this may have fueled his writing of the protagonist. However, Rikoun finds that Pushkin pushes the archetype of trickster past its literary molds in creating a character that is both a trickster and a hero, uncommon in Russian folklore of the time.

Todd, W. M. (1986). Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin: Ideology, Institutions, and Narrative. Harvard University Press.
In his book, William Todd analyzes the many changes in early nineteenth-century Russia that inspired Pushkin’s literary works. Analyzing Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, and Gogol's Dead Souls, Todd connects Pushkin’s literature to contemporary societal changes. 

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