“The Bronze Horseman”
From Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 18
“The Bronze Horseman” is a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin based on the statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg and the great flood of November 1824. While it was written in 1833, it was not published until after his death, as his work was being censored due to the political controversy of his other writing. It is considered one of the most influential works of Russian literature, and is one of the reasons that Pushkin is often called the “founder of modern Russian literature.”
“The Bronze Horseman” is divided into three parts: A Foreword, Part I, and Part II.
The foreword begins with Peter the Great standing on the edge of the Neva River planning the creation of his new city that will “strike terror in the Swede.” He mentions how the city is in unknown territory, but will become a valuable port to Europe. The introduction then shifts to first person where the narrator praises the city and boasts about its military strength. Finally the narrator describes the threatening waters of the Neva and that he will tell us a story about “a dreadful time, we keep / Still freshly on our memories painted.”
Part I opens with a description of the raging waters of the Neva. The narrator then introduces us to Yevgeny, the hero of the story whose last name is of no importance. After coming home from a party, Yevgeny lies in bed thinking of his poverty and how he hopes his fate will change for the better. He dreams of his love, Parasha, but fears the storm will keep him from her for several days. The poem then returns to the description of the Neva, which fiercely floods the city. It destroys all of the structures, leaving the people without food or shelter. Czar Alexander I is similarly helpless against the flooding Neva. Then Yevgeny wakes up to find himself sitting on the statue of two sentry lions. Surrounded by the turbulent waters, he is unable to move.
In Part II, the Neva begins to recede, and, by luck, Yevgeny encounters a ferryman. The two travel to Parasha’s house to find that everything has been destroyed by the flood. Yevgeny becomes mad as he laughs at his misfortune. He wanders for months without returning home and his clothes becoming frayed, drawing the attention of “the malicious boys” who pelt Yevgeny with stones. As he continues to roam, Yevgeny confronts the bronze horseman statue and threatens it. The statue then comes to life and follows Yevgeny that night. Yevgeny is consumed by fear as he hears the galloping horsemen tracking him. Nevertheless, he continues to wander past the square, but can no longer look at the statue. The poem ends with a group of fisherman discovering Yevgeny’s dead body on a desolate island.
Biography of Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin was born in Moscow on May 26, 1799. He had African ancestry as his maternal great grandfather, from Abyssinia, was the adopted grandson and personal secretary to Peter the Great.  Pushkin was raised by his tutors, house maids, and nanny, Arina Rodionovna, as his parents neglected him.  In his teenage years, he lived in Lycèe of Tsarkoe Selo outside of St. Petersburg, which was later renamed Pushkin in his honor.  There he associated with a group of radicals, including the central figures in the Decembrist uprising, and wrote several controversial poems, leading to his exile in 1820 to the south of Russia.  After several relocations, Pushkin’s exile was ended in 1826 by Tsar Nicholas I, who took on the role of Pushkin’s personal censor.  After his initial meeting with Pushkin, Tsar Nicholas told the deputy minister of education that he had just spoke with “the cleverest man in Russia.” 
In 1829, Pushkin served in the Russian army against the Turks, but his time in the service was brief. He was know for his many travels including visits to Transcaucasia, Boldino, and the Urals.  Pushkin married the young Natalya Goncharova in 1831, with whom he had four children. The couple belonged to the Russian nobility, but had difficulty maintaining its demanding lifestyle and were constantly plagued by money problems.  In addition to his wife’s expensive tastes and the family debt that he inherited, Pushkin was a compulsive gambler and made poor business decisions. Additionally, he visited brothels and engaged in several extra-marital affairs.  Pushkin was widely considered crude, selfish, and impulsive, and would often dress in outrageous outfits. His genius and strange behavior have drawn comparisons with Mozart. 
Pushkin suspected George D’Anthes, adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador, of having an affair with his wife.  To convince Pushkin this was not the case, D’Anthes married Pushkin’s sister in law, but continued to court Natalya, who was known as a flirt.  Eventually, Pushkin challenged D’Anthes to a duel. Although Pushkin had engaged in several prior duels, which were illegal in Russia but not uncommon, he is said to have lost his skill for shooting.   D’Anthes, on the otherhand, was known as the best shot in his military Academy. . Although both men were injured in the duel, Pushkin’s wounds proved to be fatal as he died on this death bed two days later on January 29, 1837, at the age of 37.  Because duels were considered a form of suicide, Pushkin violated Christian commandments, and the Church initially protested giving Pushkin a Christian burial. Eventually permission was given, which speaks to Pushkin’s importance, and his funeral service was held in Konushennaya church. Although authorities tried to keep the funeral discrete, fifty-thousand people gathered to participate in the proceedings. 
Despite his questionable personal behavior, Pushkin is widely heralded as the greatest poet in Russian history. Historian A.D.P. Briggs compares Pushin’s influence in Russian literature and culture to that of Shakespeare in England and Goethe in Germany. Over his short life, Pushkin wrote over 800 poems including a dozen longer narratives.  His poetry is marked by his ability to create rhyme and rhythm from everyday speech, most commonly employing iambic tetrameter.  Pushkin uses a variety of tones in his work, but is perhaps most remembered for his satirical humor and sociological criticism.  The verse-novel Evgeny Onegin may be perhaps Pushkin’s best piece. According to Briggs it “is capable of being read as a love story, a celebration of nationhood, a psychological study or even as a cultivated person’s guide to good literature, with its constant nods and winks towards the world’s best writers.”  In his final four years, Pushkin shifted his focus from poetry to prose. His historical novel The Captain’s Daughter was his final masterpiece.  Regardless of genre, Pushkin’s linguistic genius is obvious and his influence on Russian writers is unparalleled.
The territory along the Neva river, which is currently the location of St. Petersburg, had been occupied throughout its history by Russians, Swedes, Finns, and other ethnic groups.  In 1703, Peter the Great engaged Sweden in the Northern War to regain this territory. After conquering the area, Peter the Great built a fortress to protect it. Despite the poor quality of surrounding land, the fortress quickly grew into a major city because of its important strategic location, becoming the capital in 1712. 
Flood of 1824
On November 7th of 1824, St. Petersburg experienced a flood that, to this day, is considered the worst in its history. The winter had been uncharacteristically cold that year, causing a part of the Neva River to freeze and the unfrozen water to build up behind what was essentially a dam of ice. When the weather briefly warmed in the beginning of November, the ice melted and the water was released, flooding St. Petersburg. About 10,000 people died, including 400 soldiers, both due to being carried away in the flood as well as the perilously low temperature of the water.
Siege of Leningrad
Shortly after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. The Siege of Leningrad during World War II marks arguably the most tragic period in the city’s history. On September 8, 1941, Nazi troops occupied the city only several months after entering Russia.  The Siege would last for 900 days until January 24, 1944. During that time, Leningrad’s population of nearly 3 million refused to surrender. They had almost no food or electricity.  Over the course of the siege, over 641,000 people died, including 200,000 during the unusually cold winter of 1942, but the city was able to survive. 
Leningrad flourished during the 1970s, despite the limited political freedom of its citizens. After the reforms made by the Communist Party known as the Perestroika, which some argue led to the fall of the Soviet Union, the city sunk into a period of economic turmoil.  In 1991, the name was restored to St. Petersburg. Today the city is trying to climb out of a recession, but is continuing to attract businesses and benefits from its strong tourism. The total population of St. Petersburg is just under 5 million people, making it the second largest city in Russia, behind Moscow. 
Peter the Great
Peter the Great (June 9, 1672 – February 8, 1725) was born as Pyotr Alekseevich Romanov in Moscow, as the son of the Tsar of Russia. At the age of 10 in 1682, after his elder brother passed away, he and his half-brother Ivan were forced to rule in name together, although their sister Sophia was given actual power. In 1696, when Ivan died and Sophia had been overthrown and exiled, Peter became the sole monarch of Russia.
Peter the Great is known for his reforms in an attempt to modernize Russia, which, in the late 17th century, was considered almost medieval. His attempts at modernization went hand-in-hand with his desire to increase the power of the central government, or more specifically, the power of the tsar. In the social aspect, Peter the Great instituted a beard tax which decreed that those who had beards would have to pay a tax, as well as ordering the people to wear Western styles of dress. He also reformed the Russian Orthodox Church, linking it to the state. By doing so, Peter the Great made the church support the power of the state, as opposed to challenging it. Additionally, he asserted more control of the economy; the government began fixing prices, taking goods from private businesses, and choosing which industries should be developed.
Peter the Great saw his army as extremely weak in comparison the armies of Western Europe. He introduced the new concept of a standing army, recruited more soldiers, and began a program of harsh training and discipline within the army. Furthermore, he created a Russian naval force.  Using the naval force, he allied with several Western European countries to oppose to the Ottoman Empire. Seeking peace with the Ottoman Empire, Peter the Great then successfully attacked Sweden in what became known as the Great Northern War. One of the key results from this war was the founding of the city of St. Petersburg, which Peter the Great made the capital during his reign. After the Great Northern War, he renounced the peace he had kept with the Ottoman Empire and attacked them. In order to fund his military reforms as well as his many military endeavors, Peter the Great relied on taxation of the people.
The Decembrist Revolt
The Decembrist Revolt, or the Decembrist Uprising, refers to a protest by the Russian army officers and soldiers that took place on December 14, 1825. The uprising was a protest against the virtual autocratic rule that the tsars had over the nobles, and in turn, that the nobles had over the serfs. The soldiers were therefore trying to overthrow the government and make Russia a constitutional monarchy by preventing Nicholas I from taking the throne. Ultimately, the revolt failed and Nicholas I ascended the throne.
Pushkin was connected to the leaders of the Decembrist Revolt between 1817 and 1820, and though he was not actively part of the revolt because he was under house arrest, his liberal poetry caused him to be implicated as being part of the revolt. After the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas I censored Pushkin’s writing heavily, and Pushkin took to supporting the state in his writing, at least on a surface level.
Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was a Polish poet and the leader of Polish Romanticism. One of the works for which he is best known is Forefathers’ Eve, in which he attacked his formerly good friend, Alexander Pushkin, for the complacent role that he played in the Decemberist Revolt and “political toadying” Thus, Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman” is often seen as a retort to Mickiewicz’s attacks.
Statue of the Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman is a statue currently located in the Decembrists’ Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, facing the Neva River and surrounded by the most important religious and civil buildings of pre-revolutionary Russia. The name of the statue comes from the title of Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Bronze Horseman.” The statue depicts tsar and founder of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great, astride his horse, riding uphill, while the horse’s hind hooves are trampling a serpent. The trampling of the serpent is said to either symbolize the power and assertion of Peter the Great, who essentially trampled over all enemies of his many reforms to lead Russia into modernization, or Peter trampling on the backwardsness of pre-modernized Russia. It is also interesting to note that in Mickiewicz's "Forefathers' Eve," he uses a silent snake as a metaphor for himself. Peter is depicted with his arm reaching out towards the Neva River, an action that has been interpreted in many different ways. Pushkin’s view in his poem “The Bronze Horseman,” which is currently the most popular interpretation, is that the Peter the Great is asserting his desire to defeat the Swedes in the Great Northern War and to build a great city on that spot. 
The pedestal of the statue is a 1,500-ton granite block known as “The Thunder Stone” and is the “largest stone ever moved by man.” It is carved into the shape of what is either a breaking wave or a cliff. This slab of rock is also allegorical, in that “Peter” comes from the word meaning “rock” in Greek. The statue was created between 1770 and 1782 by a French sculptor, E.M. Falconet and was commissioned by Empress Catherine the Great. It is said that Catherine the Great commissioned the statue to be made because as a German princess who married into the Romanov family and ruled only after the death of her Romanov husband, she was eager to prove her legitimacy and loyalty to Russia. Due to this, on the pedestal, the words “Peter the First. Catherine the Second. 1782” are inscribed, both in Latin and in Russian.
Analysis“The Bronze Horseman” explores the conflict between the common people, represented by Yevgeny, and state, portrayed by Peter the Great. However, Pushkin’s resolution of this conflict remains vague, leaving much to the readers’ interpretations. In one reading of the poem, Yevgeny’s attempts to challenge the ruthless authority of the tsar that ultimately fail as he dies stands for the state growing and prospering at the expense of the common people. This interpretation argues that Pushkin is supporting the status quo because although many common people are hurt and destroyed, it is still for the collective good for the state to keep things the way that they are. Contrasting this view is the critique of Merezhkovskii, who points to the lines,
“He came, sick-hearted, / Out on his balcony, and in pain / He said: <<No czar, ‘tis sure, is mater / Over God’s elements!>> In thought / He sat, and gazed on the disaster / Sad-eyed, and on the evil wrought”and argues that it is a defeat for the state, as the tsar, Alexander, is forced to reflect upon himself and essentially what little he can do in the face of the flooding of the Neva.. A third approach, laid out by Briusov, interprets the poem as a war with no winners; he argues that while Yevgeny loses to the state in that he runs endlessly and ends up cold and on the ground, the state likewise loses because the tsars come to the realization that they can never overpower nature.
Psychoanalytic Analysis of "The Bronze Horseman"
Daniel Rancour-Laferrier’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the poem revolves around the fantasy of male childbirth; in other words, he suggests that Pushkin’s representations of Peter the Great portray his desire to reproduce. First, Pushkin, in describing Peter’s creation of St. Petersburg, writes, “‘Here cut’—so Nature gives command,” giving the sense of a parallel between human childbirth with his own version of creation, as instead of it being an action of freewill, it is dictated by Mother Nature. Additionally, Rancour-Laferrier argues that the Neva River, which Peter the Great wants as a representation of himself, is another symbol through which Pushkin’s fascination with male childbirth can be seen. Rancour-Laferrier first draws the parallel between the river and Peter through the blame that Yevgeny places upon the bronze horseman, or Peter the Great, instead of the Neva River for taking away his love, Parasha. He argues that Peter the Great thus accepts responsibility for all of the suffering that Yevgeny experiences because he must accept that responsibility in order to receive credit for the Neva’s other actions, including the flooding of the river. The flooding of the river is key, Rancour-Laferrier suggests, because the rush of waters is symbolic of the birthing process. In other words, he believes that the flooding of the city is a tangible symbol of Peter the Great’s desire to reproduce.
Man’s Position in Relation to Nature
Pushkin explores the idea of man versus nature in his poem, both in the obvious conflict between the man-made objects and in the idea of free will versus fate. In the former conflict, the water in the flood destroys any man-made object (i.e. “the wicked waves, attacking /… / And timbers, roots, and huts all shattered”). Not only does nature clearly have the power to, in one quick sweep, annihilate all of man’s hard work, but it also has the power to use man to destroy man; for example, Pushkin writes, “The boats stern-foremost smite the glass [of the windows],” which supports the conflict of free will versus fate, as it shows man being manipulated by nature to destroy man. Moreover, Pushkin complains of idle folk being “lucky and lazy, not too brightly gifted, [who] lived easily and lightly,” while others who toiled consistently could not get ahead because God had not granted him “better brains and pay.”
This theme supports the idea that man therefore has no choice; nature, when choosing to assert its power either in the concept of fate or through more tangible forces, has the power to destroy man as well as pit man against one another. Despite the fight that man may put up against the awesomeness of nature, Pushkin asserts that man will also remain a mere puppet.
Pushkin highlights the difference between immortality and mortality in his poem, particularly through the contrast of the dying men and the two objects made of solid stone: the lions and the Bronze Horseman. In the poem, all of the people who die are seen as a single unit, without individual opinions or voices. On the other hand, the sentry lions “stood at guard / Like living things, and kept their ward / With paw uplifted,” an act that they will continue to perform for essentially eternity. In the same vein, the Bronze Horseman is also an immortal figure, stable on a slab of granite. When Yevgeny begins to flee from the figure, he realizes that, “no matter / Where he may wander at his will, / Hard on his track with heavy clatter / There the bronze horseman gallops still.” This represents the idea that Peter the Great, while dead, will in essence be able to live on and remind the people the things for which he stood through the immortality of the statue.
However, Pushkin attempts to give a voice to the common people, represented by Yevgeny, through the writing of the poem. In a sense, he is immortalizing the beliefs and views of these people, who otherwise would not have been heard, especially centuries later. He therefore is creating his own “bronze horseman,” this time standing for the common people.
Ambiguity and the Melding of Opposites
In the poem, not everything is straightforward; in fact, most of the concepts introduced by Pushkin are extremely ambiguous. For instance, as shown by the fact that many interpretations differ on whether the common people or the state ultimately triumphs, Pushkin relates the idea that at times, a victory by the state or by the people can be indistinct. At times, a victory by the state can mean that the state will have the authority to do what it believes is best for the people, even if the people cannot see it themselves, while at other times, a victory by the people means a change in state, which can also mean reform and progress for the state as a whole. Similarly, the images that Pushkin presents depicting the beauty and horror of St. Petersburg are vague as well. In the foreword of the poem, Pushkin describes the area as “desolate,” “lonely,” and “[having] no share / Of sunshine.” However, it transforms into a city “in pride and splendor blazing.” The reference to St. Petersburg’s dark and lonely history gives the impression that while the city was, at that time, great and full of glory, it had just recently been the opposite and insinuates that greatness, grandeur, and power can change in extremely short periods of time. In doing so, Pushkin therefore relates the idea that power and obscurity are, in fact, much more interrelated than they appear to be.
"The Bronze Horseman" in Video and Audio Format
A link to the reading of "The Bronze Horseman" in Russian: http://russian.cornell.edu/horseman/index.htm
Other Notable Works
- Poetry (Publication Date)
- Ruslan and Liudmila (1820)
- Gabriel: A Poem (1926)
- The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1895)
- The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1827)
- Count Nulin (1827)
- The Gypsies (1827)
- Poltava (1829)
- The Little House at Kolomna (1833)
- The Tale of the Dead (1833)
- The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (1833)
- The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1833)
- The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (1834)
- Eugene Onegin (1825-33)
- Peter the Great's Negro (1828-41)
- Kirdzhali (1834)
- The Queen of Spades (1834)
- The Captain's Daughter (1836)
- Dubrovsky (1841)
- Egyptian Nights (1841)
- History of the Village of Goryukhino (1857)
- Boris Godunov (1831)
- Mozart and Salieri (1832)
- The Feast in Time of the Plague (1833)
- The Water Nymph (1838)
- The Stone Guest (1839)
- The Covetous Knight (1852)
Did Pushkin inspire Wolverine?
- ↑ http://www.utexas.edu/courses/russian/rus330-sp04/presents/horseman.pdf
- ↑ http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/484291/Aleksandr-Sergeyevich-Pushkin
- ↑ Briggs, A.D.P. Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study. London & Canberra: Croom Helm, 1983., p. 120.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Garebian, Keith. "Alexander Pushkin." salempress.com/store/pdfs/pushkin.pdf
- ↑ 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 Briggs, A.D.P. Alexander Pushkin: A Celebration of Russia’s Best-Loved Writer. London: Hazar Publishing, 1999.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Reid, Allan. “Russia’s Greatest Poet/Scoundrel.” http://www.worldandi.com/newhome/public/2004/March/bkpub1print.asp
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Druzhnikov, Yuri. The Life and Death of Alexander Pushkin: A Genius at Odds with Himself. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006.
- ↑ http://www.saint-petersburg.com/history/pre-history.asp
- ↑ http://www.saint-petersburg.com/history/foundation.asp
- ↑ http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thousands-perish-in-st-petersburg-flood
- ↑ http://www.alexanderpalace.org/petersburg1900/20.html
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 http://www.saint-petersburg.com/history/siege.asp
- ↑ http://www.petersburg-lodging.com/st-petersburg-russia-population.htm
- ↑ http://www.saint-petersburg.com/history/peter1st.asp
- ↑ 15.0 15.1 http://www.nndb.com/people/599/000078365/
- ↑ 16.0 16.1 http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/peter_the_great2.htm
- ↑ http://www.geographia.com/russia/rushis06.htm
- ↑ http://it.stlawu.edu/~rkreuzer/pfancher/Exile.html
- ↑ http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/mickie.htm
- ↑ Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature. Yale University Press: 1991., pg. 348.
- ↑ http://www.saint-petersburg.com/monuments/bronze-horseman.asp
- ↑ 22.0 22.1 22.2 http://enspire.syr.edu/nevaproject/site1/statue.html
- ↑ 23.0 23.1 http://web.archive.org/web/20061231022939/http://www.tcaup.umich.edu/stpetersburg/bronzehorseman.html
- ↑ http://www.slavic.ucla.edu/people/faculty/koropeck/BJ.pdf
- ↑ 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 25.6 25.7 25.8 25.9
- ↑ http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/pdfplus/3194520.pdf?acceptTC=true
- ↑ 27.0 27.1 27.2 Bethea, David M. “Puskin Today.” Indiana University Press: 1993., pg. 73.