Illustration accompanying the French edition of the story, ca. 1843
The plot concerns the relationships of an aristocratic young woman named Marya Gavrilovna and the unusual coincidences that accompany them. The following is copied from the program notes by Ledbetter (see sources):
In 1811, a seventeen-year-old girl, Marya Gavrilovna, falls in love with a young officer. Her parents disapprove of the relationship, which continues into the winter through correspondence. Finally they decide to elope, marry quickly, and then throw themselves at the feet of her parents to beg forgiveness (confident that a marriage entered into the Russian Orthodox Church would be regarded as eternal and unbreakable).
The plan was for Marya Gavrilovna to slip out in the middle of a winter's night and take a sleigh to a distant village church, where her love would meet her for the wedding. On the night in question, a blizzard was raging, but the girl managed to do all she had promised and to reach the church. Her lover, on the other hand, driving alone to the rendezvous, became lost in the dark and the storm, arriving at the church many hours late to find no one there.
The next morning, Marya was once more at home, but very ill. In a feverish delirium, she said enough to make it clear to her mother that she was hopelessly in love with the young officer. Her parents, deciding that this was a fated love, gave their permission for a wedding. But when they wrote to inform the officer of this fact, his reply was almost incoherent. He begged their forgiveness and insisted that his only hope was death. He rejoined the army (it was now the fatal year of 1812, when Napoleon made his famous attack on Russia), was wounded at the battle of Borodino, and died.
Meanwhile, Marya's father died, leaving her the richest young woman in her region. Suitors pressed for her hand, but she refused to accept anyone. She seemed to be living only for the memory of her lost love.
Finally, though, she made the acquaintance of a wounded colonel of the hussars, Burmin, who was visiting the estate near hers. Burmin was a handsome man who had once had a reputation as a notorious rake, but who was now both quiet and modest in his personality. The two developed a warm friendship, and it became very clear that he was so restrained that he never made any declaration of love or formal proposal to her. Marya purposely arranged a situation in which they would be able to talk freely with no one else near. Finally he breaks his silence: He loves her passionately but cannot hope for any happiness with her because he is already married, has been married for four years, to a woman whom he does not know and whom he cannot expect ever to see again.
To the astonished Marya, he explains that, in the winter of 1812, he was trying to rejoin his regiment, when a terrible blizzard came on. Riding in a troika with a guide, they became lost in unfamiliar country. Seeing a light in the distance, they drove toward it and found themselves at a village church where people were crying out "This way!" When he stopped at the church, he was told that the bride had fainted and that the priest did not know what to do. When they saw the young soldier, they asked him if he was ready to proceed. Burmin, the young rake, noticed the attractiveness of the bride and decided to play a prank by going through with the ceremony. The church was dark, lit only by a few candles, and everyone in it was little more than a shadow. When, at the end, he was told to kiss his bride, she realized that it was not her intended and fainted dead away. As the witnesses stared at him in horror, he raced out and drove off.
He explains to Marya that he was so thoroughly lost that he still does not know the name of the village where he was married, or who the bride might have been. As the tale ends, Marya Gavrilovna takes the hand of the man she has come to love and identifies herself as the long-lost bride.
Georgy Sviridov's suite ("musical illustrations to Aleksandr Pushkin's story"), while mostly unknown in the Americas, is very popular in Russia. Based on the film score that he wrote for Basov's film, the movements of the suite are as follows: