Back to homepage

Project B6


National Hero and Folk Hero: Alexander Suvorov and Yemelyan Pugachev from the 18th to the Early 20th Century


Prof. Dr. Dietmar Neutatz
Dr. Reinhard Nachtigal

Department of History

Focusing on two heroic figurations this project studies the historical trends of different models of the heroic in Russia from the late 18th to the early 20th century. It also aims to determine what the involved groups (officer’s corps, Cossacks, peasants, intellectuals, and revolutionaries) derived from these figurations for their self-understanding.

During his own lifetime General Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (1729-1800) was a war hero. He is still one of the greatest Russian national heroes today. He has been an officially celebrated hero in all political systems in Russia from the time of the tsars through Stalinism to Russia today. Yemelyan Pugachev (1742-1775), leader of a massive rebellion against Catherine the Great, personifies another type of hero: He was a folk hero and simultaneously regarded as an unperson by the state until 1917, having incited a rebellion. For his crimes he was sentenced to death. The historical trends of his heroization therefore progress differently. Despite state censorship he was heroized by peasants and Cossacks, but also by parts of the intelligentsia. Idealized traditions of Cossack life constituted the context in which this construction was possible, for instance, the concept of the return of the rightful sovereign (Pugachev claimed to be Peter III, who had been murdered in 1761, and held court) and the defense of the true faith (Pugachev was an Old Believer). The veneration of Pugachev is closely related with that of Stepan Razin whose reputation was much greater having led a rebellion one hundred years prior. Officially Pugachev was first heroized after 1917 when the Communists adopted him as a leading figure for the proletariat.

These two figures, Suvorov and Pugachev, are suitable for comparison for several reasons: They lived during the same era and their paths crossed in dramatic fashion. Both fought in the Seven Years’ War and in the wars against the Poles and the Turks, Suvorov as an officer, Pugachev as a Cossack. In 1773 and 1774 Pugachev led a rebellion against Catherine the Great and after his defeat he was taken in a cage as a prisoner to Simbirsk by General Suvorov. Pugachev was sentenced to death, executed and any public mention of him was thereafter suppressed. Suvorov, on the other hand, earned great fame in the Russo-Turkish War from 1787 to 1792; in the fight against the insurrectionary Poles under Tadeusz Kościuszko in 1794 and in the campaigns against Napoleon and his armies. He was ultimately promoted to field marshal and generalissimo. Shortly before his death, however, he fell out of favor for voicing opinions objectionable to the sovereign.

This project can show the different ways and forms in which heroes were canonized in Tsarism and how the changing political climate in the early Soviet Union subsequently determined their canonization. Furthermore, this project can elucidate how heroes became model figurations and how the social and cultural range of the heroic developed. By examining contemporary and later historical, literary and artistic accounts as well as archival sources the historical trends and changes in the heroization processes in both cases will be analyzed together with the heroisms which build upon them. These trends and changes are then set in relation to the changing political and societal conditions in Russia. Its method concentrates on lifeworlds, communication, medialization and practices of heroization and heroism.