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The Bronze Horseman Statue: cultural and ecological significance



Catherine the Great unveiled her monument to Peter the Great in 1782. Designed by the French sculptor Falconet, it quickly became a focal point and symbol of the city. Half a century later, when Pushkin’s poem was published posthumously in 1837, the sculpture acquired the name by which it is best known today, “The Bronze Horseman.”

Unveiling the statue, 1782 --

The monument to the city’s founder was the subject of much creative attention in the mid-eighteenth century. One proposal featured a giant fountain with a statue of Peter surrounded by an allegorical ensemble (Reason, Diligence, Justice, and Victory), but Falconet opted for something more lifelike and dynamic retaining the classical motif only in the tsar’s clothing and the laurel wreath on his head. Allegory was confined to the figure of the snake, writhing under the horse’s hooves, and the solid piece of granite that supports the statue (“Peter” comes from the Greek for “rock) (Rakov 33-34). Many legends attempt to explain Peter’s pose, with his arm outstretched toward the Neva. One has him urging his horse up onto a boulder in order to leap across the Neva, in an attempt to rescue one of his generals from the Swedish army (Sindalovsky 104). The Polish poet Adam Mizciewicz saw the gesture as one of blessing the Russian people. Pushkin’s poetic interpretation, that the tsar is declaring his intention to defeat the Swedes and build a great city on this spot, is the one that has captured the public imagination.

photo by M. Ignatieva

The Bronze Horseman. Photo by M. Ignatieva

The monument as a physical object embodies an enormous investment of energy, in the sculptors’ time and creative effort, in natural resources (metals, granite, and fuel), and in manpower. It took Falconet and his assistant, Marie Anne Collot, nine years to complete the model, in 1775. The statue required about 27 tons of copper and 4.5 tons of iron. After a month of pouring metal into the mold, an accident occurred that nearly destroyed the entire project. A courageous master founder rescued most of the work, but it was another three years before the sculpture was completed to Falconet’s satisfaction (Rakov 32-34).

--Hauling the Thunder Rock

The huge piece of granite that forms the pedestal for the monument was moved to its present spot from the forest near the village of Lakhta on the Gulf of Finland. According to legend, the rock had broken off a larger outcropping in a thunderstorm, and it was therefore popularly known as Thunder Rock (grom-kamen’). It took hundreds of men almost an entire year to move the 1400-ton rock to the shore, where it was put on a special barge and slowly towed upstream to its present location. The investment in human energy and lumber for rolling, prodding, and floating the rock is incalculable.

The Bronze Horseman stands on Decembrists’ Square or Senate Square. Until the 1750’s this was the location of the old St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The cathedral had been built too close to the water and its foundation was crumbling. Eventually it was torn down and, in the 1830s, the new cathedral was built farther back from the river. What remained was a huge open space paved with cobblestones, with the Senate and Synod buildings on one side and the Admiralty on the other, and, for a while, a pontoon bridge across the Neva.

left: Old St. Isaac's Cathedral, detail from an engraving. Note how close it stands to the wooden embankment.


Above: Senate Square as it appeared in Pushkin's day. Detail from a guache by I-V-G Bart, 1810s.


This was the site, on December 14, 1825, of an uprising against the newly-crowned Tsar Nikolai I by a group of army officers who opposed the autocracy. The rebellion was quickly quashed and its leaders executed or sent into exile, and harsh domestic crackdowns ensued. It was a watershed moment for Pushkin, who had friends among the “Decembrists,” and who suffered from strict censorship imposed after the rebellion. The aura of that brave but quixotic event still hovers over the empty square, which became a site of pilgrimage for those who sympathized with the rebellion. (In Soviet times Senate Square was renamed Decembrist Square, in honor of the earliest Russian “revolutionaries.”) Pushkin’s choice of the Bronze Horseman for his poem about the human costs of autocracy is no coincidence. As one historian puts it, “the Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square, washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825 and covered with cobblestones, not with lawns, bushes, and flowerbeds” (A. N. Savinov, 83).

Dec. 14, 1825. Detail of a watercolor by K. I. Kol'man, 1820s.

The Bronze Horseman remains a favorite tourist site in St. Petersburg, though the square is now choked with traffic. Wedding parties go there to be photographed, school groups flock there for field trips, and tours of the city invariably include a stop at this site. Thus the concentrated energy flow to this part of the city that began with the building of the monument to Peter the Great continues, if in less concentrated form, to this day.


A wedding party beside the statue--

Further topics and interdisciplinary essays

The Statue of Peter I: History and Symbolism

The River and the Poem: Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman"

The Poetics of Urban Ecology

References and links

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