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

When Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin wrote the epic poem “The Bronze Horseman” in 1833, he could not have been thinking about the issue of ecological sustainability. Yet his poem about the great Petersburg flood of 1824 gives powerful expression to the symbiosis between a river and a city. So powerful, in fact, that the poem itself contributes significantly to the city’s energy balance and makes a good case for the inclusion of poetic and artistic energy in the calculus of urban ecology.

It was some time after Pushkin’s early death that his contemporaries began to be concerned about environmental degradation in Russia, particularly deforestation and the dramatic decline in bird populations. Sustainability would not have been part of his vocabulary, enormous as it was. But he did have a playwright’s eye for the drama of natural events and a poet’s instinct for the metaphorical and allegorical significance of the uneasy rapprochement between city and river.

Flaunt your beauty, Peter’s
City, and stand unshakeable like Russia,
So that even the conquered elements may make
Their peace with you; let the Finnish waves
Forget their enmity and ancient bondage,
And let them not disturb with empty spite
Peter’s eternal sleep!

Peter’s peaceful rest depends on the river being vanquished, but the fact that this is mere rhetoric lies hidden in the unlikely suggestion that the Neva River will “forget” its enmity before Peter the Great does. In portraying the flood as an epic clash between nature and humanity, Pushkin depicted the river as a living, emotional organism, not a “conquered element” at all but a force greater than all the power, ingenuity, and will that had gone into the city’s creation.


[H]arried by the gale
Out of the gulf, the Neva turned back, angry,
Turbulent, and swamped the islands. The weather
raged more fiercely, Neva swelled up and roared,
Bubbling like a cauldron; suddenly
Hurled herself on the city like a beast. (251)

In other words, Peter is not the great conqueror of nature he believed himself to be, and he is not entitled to sleep peacefully in his grave. At first glance, Pushkin’s message not only takes Peter down a peg (the Tsarist authorities who banned the poem in his lifetime clearly found it anti-autocratic), but also belittles the city by saying it was not really “unshakeable, like Russia.”


A closer reading suggests, however, that the poet was taking aim at one-sided and overblown rhetoric about Peter’s invincible citadel, proposing instead a more realistic and dynamic view of the ongoing relationship between river and city. Pushkin lived at the moment when Russian national sentiment was first forming and was conscious of his role as a national poet. Among his contributions to Russian literature was a recognition of the country’s unembellished natural setting as important to the national self-image. In “The Bronze Horseman” the city and its natural setting become joined in a kind of proto-ecological symbiosis, both vulnerable, both majestic, both seemingly alive.

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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