The narrative in the story is written on behalf of the 50-year-old Peter Andreyevich Grinev, who recalls the time when fate brought him with the leader of the peasant uprising, Emelian Pugachev.
Peter grew up in the family of a poor nobleman. The boy practically did not receive education – he himself writes that only by the age of twelve, with the help of Uncle Savelich, he was able to “learn to read and write.” Up to the age of 16, he led a life of lowliness, playing with village boys and dreaming of a cheerful life in Petersburg, as he was recorded by a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment at a time when his mother was pregnant with them.
But his father decided in another way: he sent the 17-year-old Petrushu not to Petersburg, but to the army “to smell gunpowder,” to the Orenburg fortress, instructing him “to cherish the honor from the youth.” Together with him in the fortress went and his tutor Savyelich.
At the entrance to Orenburg, Petrusha and Savelich fell into a snowstorm and lost their way, and only the help of a stranger saved them – he led them to the road to housing. In gratitude for the salvation of Petrush, he gave the stranger a sheepskin coat and gave him wine.
Petrusha comes to the service in Belogorsky fortress, not at all like a fortified structure. All the forces of the fortress are several “disabled”, and as a formidable weapon is the only gun. Manages the fortress Ivan Kuzmich Mironov, not distinguished by education, but a very kind and honest man. In truth, all affairs in the fortress are led by his wife Vasilisa Yegorovna. Grinev closely resembles the commandant’s family, spending a lot of time with them. At first, his friend becomes and officer Shvabrin, serving in the same fortress. But soon Grinev and Shvabrin quarrel over the fact that Shvabrin is unflattering about Mironov’s daughter – Masha, who is very fond of Grinev. Grinev summons Shvabrin to a duel, during which he is wounded. Taking care of the wounded Grinev, Masha tells him, that once Shvabrin asked for her hand and was refused. Grinev wants to marry Masha and writes a letter to his father asking for a blessing, but his father does not agree to such a marriage – Masha is a non-dowry.
October is the year 1773. Mironov receives a letter informing the Don Cossack Pugachev, who claims himself to be the late Emperor Peter III. Pugachev had already assembled
a large army of peasants and captured several fortresses. Belogorsky fortress is preparing to meet Pugachev. The commandant is going to send his daughter to Orenburg, but does not have time to do it – the fortress was captured by the Pugachevites, whom the villagers greeted with bread and salt. All employees in the fortress are taken prisoner and must take an oath of allegiance to Pugachev. The commandant refuses to swear an oath and is hanged. His wife is also ruining her. But Grinev is suddenly at large. Savelich explains to him that Pugachev is that same stranger to whom Grinev once presented a hare sheepskin coat.
Despite the fact that Grinev openly refuses to swear allegiance to Pugachev, he lets go of him. Grinev leaves, but Masha remains in the fortress. He is sick, and the local priest tells everyone that she is her niece. Commandant of the fortress appointed Shvabrin, swore to Pugachev, which can not but disturb Grinev. Once in Orenburg, he asks for help, but does not receive it. Soon he receives a letter from Masha in which she writes that Shvabrin demands that she marry him. If she refuses, he promises to tell the Pugachevites who she is. Grinev with Savelich go to Belogorsk fortress, but on the way they are captured by the Pugachevites and again meet with their leader. Grinev honestly tells him where and why he is going, and Pugachev unexpectedly for Grinev decides to help him “punish the orphaned offender.”
In the fortress Pugachev frees Masha and, despite the fact that Shvabrin tells him the truth about her, lets her go. Grinev takes Masha back to his parents, and he returns to the army. Pugachev’s speech fails, but Grinev is also arrested – in court Shvabrin says that Grinev is Pugachev’s spy. He is sentenced to eternal exile to Siberia, and only Masha’s visit to the Empress helps to obtain his pardon. But Shvabrin himself was sent to hard labor.