Although Peter Andreitch Grineff is registered as a sergeant in the Semenovsky regiment when he is very young, he is given leave to stay at home until he completes his studies. When he is nearly seventeen years old, his father decides that the time comes for him to begin his military career. With his parents’ blessing, Peter sets out for distant Orenburg in the company of his faithful servant, Savelitch.
One night, the travelers put up at Simbirsk. There, while Savelitch goes to make some purchases, Peter is lured into playing billiards with a fellow soldier, Zourin, and quickly loses one hundred rubles. Toward evening of the following day, the young man and Savelitch find themselves on the snowy plain with a storm approaching. As darkness falls, the snow grows thicker, until finally the horses cannot find their way and the driver confesses that he is lost. They are rescued by another traveler, a man with such sensitive nostrils that he is able to scent smoke from a village some distance away and lead them to it. The three men and their guide spend the night in the village. The next morning, Peter presents his hareskin jacket to his poorly dressed rescuer. Savelitch warns Peter that the coat will probably be pawned for drink.
Late that day, the young man reaches Orenburg and presents himself to the general in command. The general decides that there is a danger that the dull life at Orenburg might lead the young man into a career of dissipation; therefore, he sends him to the Bailogorsk fortress garrison under Captain Mironoff.
The Bailogorsk fortress, on the edge of the Kirghis steppes, is nothing more than a village surrounded by a log fence. Its real commandant is not Captain Mironoff but his lady, Vassilissa Egorovna, a lively, firm woman who sees to the discipline of her husband’s underlings as well as the running of her own household.
Peter quickly makes friends with a fellow officer, Alexey Shvabrin, who has been exiled to the steppes for fighting a duel. Peter spends much time with his captain’s family and grows deeply attached to the couple and to their daughter, Maria Ivanovna. After he receives his commission, he finds military discipline so relaxed that he is able to indulge his literary tastes.
The quiet routine of Peter’s life is interrupted by an unexpected quarrel with Shvabrin precipitated by his having shown his friend a love poem he wrote to Maria. Shvabrin criticizes the work severely, and when he makes derogatory remarks about Maria they quarrel and Peter finds himself challenged to a duel for having called him a liar. The next morning, they meet in a field to fight but are stopped because Vassilissa Egorovna learns of the duel. Peter and Shvabrin, although ostensibly reconciled, nevertheless intend to carry out their duel at the earliest opportunity. Discussing the quarrel with Maria, Peter learns that she once rejected Shvabrin.
Having assured themselves that they are not watched, Shvabrin and Peter fight their duel the following day. Wounded in the breast, Peter lies unconscious for five days after the fight. When he begins to recover, he asks Maria to marry him. Shvabrin is jailed. Peter’s father writes to say that he disapproves of a match with Captain Mironoff’s daughter and that he intends to have his son transferred from the fortress so that he might forget his foolish ideas. Savelitch denies having written a letter home, so Peter concludes that Shvabrin was the informer.
Life would have become unbearable for the young man after his father’s letter arrived if Captain Mironoff...
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had not one evening informed his officers that the Yaikian Cossacks, led by Emelyan Pougatcheff, who claims to be the dead Emperor Peter III, are rising and are sacking fortresses and committing outrages everywhere. The captain orders his men to keep on the alert and to ready the cannon.
The news of Pougatcheff’s uprising quickly spreads through the garrison. Many of the Cossacks of the town side with the rebels, so Captain Mironoff does not know whom he can trust or who might betray him. It is not long before he receives an ultimatum from the leader of the Cossacks ordering him to surrender. The Mironoffs decide that Maria should be sent back to Orenburg, but the attack comes early the next morning before she leaves. Captain Mironoff and his officers make a valiant effort to defend the town, but with the aid of Cossack traitors inside the walls, Pougatcheff is soon master of the fortress.
Captain Mironoff and his aides are hanged. Shvabrin deserts to the rebels. Peter, at the intercession of old Savelitch, is spared by Pougatcheff. The townspeople and the garrison soldiers have no scruples about transferring their allegiance to the rebel leader. Vassilissa Egorovna is slain when she cries out against her husband’s murderer.
When Pougatcheff and his followers ride off to inspect the fortress, Peter begins his search for Maria. To his great relief, he finds that she was hidden by the wife of the village priest and that Shvabrin, who knows her whereabouts, did not reveal her identity. He learns from Savelitch that the servant recognizes Pougatcheff as the man to whom he gave his hareskin coat months before. Later, the rebel leader sends for Peter and acknowledges his identity. He tries to persuade Peter to join the Cossacks but respects his wish to rejoin his own forces at Orenburg. The next day, Peter and his servant are given safe conduct, and Pougatcheff gives Peter a horse and a sheepskin coat for the journey.
Several days later, the Cossacks attack Orenburg. During a sally, Peter receives a disturbing message from one of the Bailogorsk Cossacks that Shvabrin is forcing Maria to marry him. Peter goes at once to the general and tries to persuade him to raise the siege and go to the rescue of the village. When the general refuses, Peter and Savelitch start out once more for the Bailogorsk fortress. Intercepted and taken before Pougatcheff, Peter persuades the rebel to give Maria safe conduct to Orenburg.
On the way, they meet a detachment of soldiers led by Captain Zourin, who persuades Peter to send Maria to Savelitch’s family under his protection, while he himself remains with the troops in Orenburg. The siege of Orenburg is finally lifted, and the army begins its task of tracking down rebel units. Some months later, Peter finds himself near his own village and sets off alone to visit his parents’ estate. Reaching his home, he finds the serfs in rebellion and his family and Maria captives. That day, Shvabrin swoops down upon them with his troops. He is about to have all of them except Maria hanged, when they are rescued by Zourin’s men. The renegade is shot during the encounter and taken prisoner.
Peter’s parents change their attitude toward the captain’s daughter, and Peter is able to rejoin Captain Zourin with the expectation that he and Maria will be wed in a month. Then an order comes for his arrest. He is accused of having been in the pay of Pougatcheff, of spying for the rebel, and of having taken presents from him. The author of the accusations is the captive, Shvabrin. Though Peter easily can clear himself by summoning Maria as a witness, he decides not to drag her into the matter. He is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in exile in Siberia.
Maria, however, is not one to let matters stand. Leaving Peter’s parents, she travels to St. Petersburg and goes to Tsarskoe Selo, where the court is located. Walking in the garden there one day, she meets a woman who declares that she goes to court on occasion and will be pleased to present her petition to the empress. Maria is summoned to the royal presence the same day and discovers that it is the empress herself to whom she spoke. Peter is pardoned, and soon afterward he and the captain’s daughter are married.