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In 1770 Russia, Catherine II rules the vast country with an iron grip on the destitute Cossacks and tribesmen, insisting that her aristocratic generals quash the frequent revolts. Upon reviewing candidates for her Imperial Guard, the lusty queen chooses the most handsome to serve her personally. Offended by what he calls Catherine's "harem," Ensign Peter Andreas Griniev gets drunk and topples from the line of guardsmen, incurring his queen's wrath and earning him banishment to the country post of Fort Bielogorsk. Despite the trepidation of his loyal servant Savelic, Peter is pleased for the opportunity to see the "real" Russia, and they set out into the freezing wilderness. Soon they come upon a man lying prone in the snow whom Peter insists on rescuing, and when they lose their way soon after, the revived man leads them to a warm home nearby. There, the strong, rough man shows contempt for Peter's wealth and berates him for failing to see the suffering of the masses. In the morning, Peter offers the man a ride and after he refuses, Peter gives him his warm fur coat and travels on to the fort. There, he is shocked to see that the commanding officer, Capt. Ivan Mironov, is a coarse man who wears his bathrobe to train his troops and whose eccentric wife Vasilisa smokes a pipe. Soon, however, Peter realizes that the Mironovs are fine, patriotic people. In contrast, fellow ensign Svabrin immediately clashes with Peter, jealous over the attention that the Mironovs' daughter Masha affords the handsome new officer. At dinner that night, Vasilisa reveals that Svabrin has recently proposed to Masha, and when her daughter runs outside in embarrassment, Peter follows. Although she is attracted to him, Masha worries that she will be only a temporary dalliance for him during his brief exile. Weeks later, upon receiving a letter from his father berating him for dating a country girl, Peter realizes that Svabrin has informed the elder Griniev, and challenges the ensign to a duel. During the fight, Peter has the opportunity to kill Svabrin but refrains, after which Svabrin slashes him cruelly with his sword. The Mironovs arrive in time to arrest Svabrin and minister to Peter, who flourishes under Masha's care. Soon, they declare their mutual love, although she still assumes that he will leave her when spring comes. As the months pass, the rebel uprisings move closer to the fort, led by the peasant general Pugacioff, who claims to be Czar Peter III and promises land and bread to all who follow him. At the fort's spring festival, Peter has just proposed to Masha when Pugacioff's army attacks, offering a chance to surrender. Mironov is vastly outnumbered, but insists on defending the fort, which is quickly razed. While the local priest hides Masha, Pugacioff calls the Imperial officers before him, but Peter fails to recognize the general as the freezing man he saved months earlier. Svabrin immediately swears his allegiance to the rebel leader, but Mironov is hanged for refusing to bow, and when Vasilisa curses them, she, too, is killed. As Peter bravely vows his allegiance to Catherine, Pugacioff recognizes and spares him. At his victory feast, Pugacioff, intrigued by his courageous rescuer, tries to convince Peter to join his cause, arguing that he gives the people hope and dignity. Peter remains loyal to the throne, however, earning Pugacioff's ire and admiration, and winning himself two horses on which to leave the fort. Although Peter wants to take Masha with him, he cannot leave Savelic behind, and so the two travel to the nearest Imperial stronghold, Fort Oremburg, where Peter's warnings that Pugacioff could threaten the throne are considered treasonous. When Peter leaves to rescue Masha, he is considered a deserter and is soon on the run from both the Imperialist and Pugacioff's armies. On the way back to Fort Bierlogorsk, Peter and Savelic are captured by Pugacioff's men, but the general is pleased to see his brave friend again and reveals that he is off to join his cavalry and the Tartars, who have recently allied with him, in order to fight Catherine's general, Suvorov. Surveying Pugacioff's large army, Peter concedes that his ideas have justice and his men are loyal, but continues to disapprove of his violent ways. They reach Bielogorsk together and there Pugacioff orders Svabrin to bring Masha to him. When he asks the girl to choose between her two suitors, she embraces Peter. Soon, news arrives that Suvorov has crossed the river unexpectedly, cutting off Pugacioff from the Tartars and the main body of his cavalry. Although trapped in a valley, the general leads his people into the crossfire, promising that all who survive will see a new Russia. He does not realize, however, that Suvorov has already destroyed the cavalry and is marching forward with a huge militia. Pugacioff puts up a brave resistance but is soon defeated and imprisoned. Meanwhile, Svabrin attacks Peter and when Peter prevails, mortally wounding him, Svabrin brands Peter a traitor before dying. Catherine's soldiers hear him and imprison Peter, who instructs Savelic to bring Masha to his father. In St. Petersburg, while Pugacioff waits in the prison, Peter is court-martialed and sentenced to hang. Masha urges Griniev to plead to Catherine on Peter's behalf but Griniev refuses, prompting Masha to approach the queen herself. At court, Catherine, impressed with Masha's courage, visits Pugacioff to discern whether or not Masha is telling the truth about Peter's loyalty. After the general affirms that Peter was never treacherous, Catherine releases the ensign and then, admiring Pugacioff's composure, orders the guards not to torture him. As Peter and Masha kiss, Pugacioff is led to the guillotine, the prisoners chanting his name as they hail their hero.