NEVA PROJECT: SITE 1
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 citys energy balance
and makes a good case for the inclusion of poetic and artistic energy
in the calculus of urban ecology.
was some time after Pushkins 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 playwrights eye for the drama of natural events and a poets
instinct for the metaphorical and allegorical significance of the uneasy
rapprochement between city and river.
Flaunt your beauty,
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
Peters eternal sleep!
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 citys creation.
[H]arried by the
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, Pushkins
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 Peters 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
countrys 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.