The Enigma of the Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman (Photo credit: wikimedia)

The story behind the city’s most beloved and feared monument

St Petersburg’s State Museum of Urban Sculpture (Музей Городской Скульптуры) is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to the history and incarnation process of one of the city’s most famed landmarks, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great. The exhibition is being held in order to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the legendary statue’s creator: French sculptor, art historian, caster and engineer Etienne Maurice Falconet.

The two- floor exhibition intends to provide viewers with a 12-year chronology of the development process of the statue. It features models, graphics, archived photographs, and specific documents from the museum’s collection to illustrate the most important moments of the statue’s history as well as little-known facts about the statue’s modern life.

“The statue itself and the fate of its creator can be characterised by one word—‘overcoming’,” comments deputy director of the Museum Nadezhda Efremova.

“Falconet was underrated in Russia. Not in terms of finance—the empress had paid him generously. He had to overcome attacks, skepticism, and offers to start the work all over again. He did not stick around to wait for the triumph—the grand opening of its creation.”

Catherine’s engraved legitimacy

Catherine's name can be seen chiseled on the thunder stone (Photo credit: Retlaw Snellac)
Catherine’s name can be seen chiseled on the thunder stone (Photo credit: Retlaw Snellac)

Efremova’s words about the difficulties Falconet faced may not come as surprise when considering the sheer physical size of the statue and the historical motivation behind its initial incarnation. Standing on the Thunder Stone, which weighs about 1250 tonnes and maintains the world record of being the largest stone ever moved by humans, The Bronze Horseman was first commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1766. The six-metre-tall (20 feet) statue depicts Peter the Great heroically sitting on a horse, with his hand symbolically outstretched toward the Neva in the west.

Originally a German princess who had married into the Romanov line, Catherine asserted her position as tsarina through a palace coup. Catherine believed that commissioning such a grandiose statue of Peter the Great would better connect her with the former tsar, thereby securing her legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public.

Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman comes to life (Photo credit: Alexandre Benois)
Painting by Alexandre Benois (Source: wikipedia)

“Overcoming” was not the only word used in association with this statue. In 1833, Russia’s favorite poet Alexander Pushkin wrote what was later to be considered one of his greatest narrative poems, The Bronze Horseman.

One of the most analysed Russian works of literature, the poem deals with a number themes including the dichotomous relationship between the Russian common man and authoritarian leadership, the symbolism behind St Petersburg as the “window to the west”, and the expense of human life for the sake of imperial greatness.

The narrative follows a young St Petersburg dweller who attempts to survive a devastating flood, and at a certain point begins to allegedly hallucinate that the statue has come alive to chase him.

Pushkin’s poem was arguably inspired by the ambiguous look of the statue itself. Joseph de Maistre, a French statesman, once commented in his travelogue to St Petersburg that he could not figure out “whether Peter’s bronze hand protects or threatens.”

The poem is now considered a “national epic”, and the statue itself was only later referred to by its name from the poem.


Event: State Museum of Urban Sculpture lectures and tours
About: The museum will hold lectures and guided tours on the 3, 4 and 10 December. On the 11 December, the museum will host a poetry slam, and on the 13 December, the winner of the “selfie with the statue contest” will be announced at 4pm. Follow the #новыйвыставочныйзал hashtag on Instagram.
When: 2, 4, 10, 13 December
Where: Ploschad Aleksandra Nevskogo metro station, 179 Nevsky Prospekt, 191167 St Petersburg
Price: 50-150 roubles

Check out the hashtag #новыйвыставочныйзал in an example below

More from Aron Ouzilevski

The Enigma of the Bronze Horseman

The story behind the city’s most beloved and feared monument St Petersburg’s...
Read More