2. The Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman

Questions to consider:

The Bronze Horseman: Beginning with Pushkin’s 1833 poem “The Bronze Horseman,” the equestrian monument to Peter the Great has embodied Russia’s bifurcated national identity, oscillating between its rational foundation as a modern European city and the uncontrollable “Eastern” world beneath the Western façade. The statue comes to life in Pushkin’s poem as well as in Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg as if to suggest the unleashing of this power from beneath the confines of civilized reason. Thus the Bronze Horseman has become an ambivalent marker of East and West, and acquired a mythical status in Russian culture. Peter himself as the founder of St. Petersburg, his statue the emblem of the city, already exemplifies this duality – his westernizing vision was accompanied by his “Eastern” despotism and bureaucracy.

The two guidebooks: Both the Baedeker and Otto Keller’s descriptions of Peter the Great’s monument are concise. Neither guidebook refers to the monument as “the Bronze Horseman” thus overlooking its importance in Russian cultural and literary history. In contrast, late twentieth-century guidebooks have adopted a double appellation for the statue calling it simultaneously the Bronze Horseman and Peter the Great. How – and why – has the tourist’s perception of the statue changed over time? Is Peter’s statue construed as a marker – and site – of imperial power and Western civilization rather than of local lore? And finally, can we see this omission as another gesture of appropriation by the Western traveler? And yet, what do we make of Keller’s strategic typographic mistake in rendering the Tzar’s title?

The Baedeker’s introduction offers a succinct account of Peter’s role in Russian history. Peter’s Westernizing reforms are summarized in the following note:

“Peter I, the Great, sole ruler of the Empire. Far-reaching innovations; introduction of W. European customs and culture. Northern War (1700-1721), carried on in alliance with Frederick IV of Denmark and Augustus II of Poland, against Charles XII of Sweden. Victory of Poltava, 1709. Loss of Azov, 1711. By the treaty of Nystad (1721) Russia gained Livonia and Estonia. Foundation of St. Petersburg, 1703. War with Persia. Russian dominion extended to the S. shore of the Caspian Sea. Peter’s son Alexis (Alexei) dies in 1718. Assumption of the imperial title, 1721.”

In his section on Petersburg’s origins and history, Keller acknowledges Peter’s role in “creating” Petersburg. His statement echoes both Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman” which initiated the cultural myth of Peter’s statue, and one of the notions underlying Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg – that Peter willed the city into existence. Keller writes:

“Only Peter the Great’s genius could conceive so gigantic a scheme and only his compelling energy, his arbitrary and autocratic power could carry it out victoriously against apparently insurmountable difficulties…Centuries after his death his creative will prevails.” Keller seems to attribute Petersburg’s existence not only to Peter’s creative force but also to his despotic rule. The city’s existence thus connotes both Peter’s Westernizing agenda and his “Oriental” tyranny.

Again, Baedeker focuses on the statue’s measurements and gives precise figures for its dimensions and cost. Both guidebooks display a propensity for interesting details – for instance, both recount that the Emperor’s head was executed by a woman, Marie Collot, who later became Falconet’s daughter-in-law. The cost of the monument constitutes another curious detail marked by both texts. Why do both guidebook include Marie Collot’s name and fail to acknowledge the statue’s mythical status in Russian culture? To what extent is their narrative shaped by the tourist’s need for curious yet accessible information?

Baedeker cites correctly the Latin and the Russian inscription on the monument. On the other hand, Keller gives the Latin text and its English translation whereby he shortens it to “Екатерина II” (instead of writing out the original “Екатерина Вторая”). Keller employs a kind of shorthand to reproduce the inscription. Moreover, he translates it for the tourist ignorant of both Russian and Latin.

Postcard Gallery

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The Bronze Horseman (1)


The Admiralty & Gardens
The Main Map
The Senate and Synod