Most people visiting St. Petersburg make a point to walk across the famous Bank Bridge over Griboyedov Canal. It's the one adorned by four winged lion statues with gilded wings.
Last week, however, the pedestrian bridge was the location of a street sketch: people in ancient greek robes clashed with the "vandals" – a ragtag group in zombie makeup. Quite a strange sight for Russia's "cultural capital," but it was in fact organized by the city's culture department. Restorers keeping watch over the statues got simply fed up with the continuous flow of locals and tourists who want to get their hands on the winged lions. Literally.
The performance was called #толькобезрук (Hands Off) and set in the mythical ancient Petropolis, a city protected by winged lions. The vandals attempting to damage the statues were to be harshly punished by the ancient Greek goddess of retribution, Nemesis, the culture department warned in its announcement of the flashmob.
Why go to so much trouble? Apparently, it's very difficult to get people to stop touching the statues. For decades, an urban legend persisted that rubbing the lions brings good luck and possibly financial good fortune as well. So the statues have taken a beating: their gilding has worn off, while their insides have been filled with coins and paper notes. Following the most recent renovation – from 2017 to 2019 – it was only a few months before the goldleaf had become scratched and worn by the bridge's luck-seekers.
"Often ,tour guides use these myths to make their tours more interesting," one restorer Yekaterina Makeyeva from the St. Petersburg museum of city sculpture told local website Moika78. "Imagine, a bus pulls up, 60 people exit and all of them start rubbing the golden statues."
Needless to say, the lions on Bank Bridge are not the only statues suffering from excessive attention. In Moscow, the most famous such example is the German shepherd at the Revolution Square metro station. The dog (or, actually, four identical dogs sitting near border guards in the socialist sculptural ensemble at the 1938 station) may be even less lucky than the fantasy winged lions, as it gets rubbed right on its nose. And, after decades of rubbing, even bronze wears down. Moscow's Architecture Museum also attempted to launch an internet campaign #НеТриНос (Don't Rub the Nose), seeking to dissuade people from "turning the german shepherds into bulldogs." We asked the museum about this particular urban legend.
Before, this "tradition" only existed in small communities, among students for example. But with the influx of tourists, you see whole groups observing this ritual, touching of the dogs' noses. The results are well-known: their snouts have been polished to the point where only small holes remain where once there were noses.
We believe it is. Damaging an object under cultural protection (which the whole station is) is an offense punishable by a fine. So we should observe the law. But, at the same time, we should enlighten people. Because many people simply don't know the value of works of art and don't understand the importance of saving them for the future. For them, it's more important to "touch" it for luck, carrying out some pagan ritual while obeying a herd instinct.
Other observers say that the fact that some statues became an object of love cannot be simply edited out of their history. "The fact that some beliefs grew up around these statues is an important part of their biography," said anthropologist Mikhail Maizuls. "And it is proof of how they function in the city. Of course, a monument should be protected from destruction. But a statue in the metro is not a museum object kept behind glass in a vacuum."
Although the Moscow Metro has promised to begin educating passengers with videos on screens inside trains, efforts have seemingly fallen flat so far. Muscovites continue to touch the nose for good luck.
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