Pugachev Emelian

The sculpture is extraordinary for its marriage of traditional forms of artistic expression such as the language of the human body with material attributes with an almost autonomous existence. As is well known Pugachev was sent in a wooden cage under the guard of Alexander Suvorov, from the town of Yaitsk (now Uralsk) and Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), where preliminary investigation had been carried out. This cage, crafted so realistically as to border almost on the brutal, is probably one of the most impressive elements of the composition. Its unbreakable solidity and oppressive narrowness enhance the image’s tragic overtones. At the same time, Pugachev’s powerfully-built figure confined within conveys not so much despair as the sheer will power of the suffering yet heroic man. The tightly-twisted body ready but unable to straighten because of the lack of space is full of potent energy.

The oppositely-directed compositional axes of the figure together with the lines of the cage create complex rhythms, urging the viewer to circle the composition in order to properly appreciate it. Each new vantage point reveals a new shade of the meaning, a new side to Pugachev’s convoluted character – sometimes heroic and assertive, sometimes passive, sometimes rebellious, sometimes depressed. The hands tied up by the knots of a thick rope transgress the boundaries of the space enclosed by the cage, as if groping for, and failing to find, an escape from the dramatic situation. The turn of Pugachev’s head reveals to the viewer a face searching for light and eyes full of anxiety and hope, and lays bare the complex currents of meaning in the forthcoming farewell scene before the execution, when Pugachev would cross himself and ask forgiveness from God and the people.


Brief annotations to the image

PUGACHEV, EMELIAN IVANOVICH (circa 1742 — 10th (21st, Old Style) January, 1775) was a Cossack from the Don who fought in the Seven Years' War (1756—1763) and Russo-Turkish war (1768—1774) in the rank of “khorunzhii” (cornet). In 1773 he publicly announced that he was Emperor Peter III and incited the Yaik Cossacks to start a revolt, which marked the beginning of the Peasants’ Wars of 1773—1775, called, after their leader, the “Pugachevshchina”. In the course of the wars, Pugachev displayed an exceptional energy, courage, natural wit, and extraordinary gift as a military chief and organizer. On September 8 1774 he was arrested on the steppe near the Volga by a group of conspirators who delivered him to the authorities. He was sentenced to death by the Senate’s order approved by Catherine II and executed on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow.