August 18, 2019

The Enigmatic Horseman

The Enigmatic Horseman
The Bronze Horseman. Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1782, the Bronze Horseman was unveiled in St. Petersburg. One of Petersburg’s most famous monuments, it is also one of its most enigmatic.

In Pushkin’s eponymous poem (which gave its name to the statue, not the other way around), the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, that famously raises one hand towards the Neva while curbing his steed with the other, comes to life:

One arm stretched up, on headlong course,
After him [the poem’s protagonist] gallops the Bronze Rider,
After him gallops the Bronze Horse.
So all night long, demented strider,
Wherever he might turn his head —
Everywhere gallops the Bronze Rider
Pursuing him with thunderous tread.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the Bronze Horseman looked like Napoleon Crossing the Alps. But the Horseman is much subtler than that. If you visit the Horseman in Petersburg, what will draw your eye is probably not Peter’s face (which is too far away to see clearly), or the horse, or even the granite stone. What will draw your eye is the space around the statue. Looking up at Peter, you see nothing above him except the sky. A completely flat square stretches out before him, and beyond that, the wide Neva. The horse’s hoofs pause high above the ground, enacting a visual gasp. Stare for too long, and you start feeling anxious. When are the hooves coming down? Will they ever come down?

The Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman in September. / Tiffany Zhu

The Bronze Horseman’s design is laden with ambiguity. Take Peter’s fashion style. Peter is clearly dressed in regal European clothing. But try pinning his clothes to a single era or a single region, and you’ll find yourself struggling.

This sartorial ambiguity is by design. When Catherine the Great commissioned Étienne-Maurice Falconet to sculpt the statue in 1766, Falconet had to juggle many political concerns. Catherine saw herself as a great Westernizer, fraternizing with Enlightenment figures and championing neoclassical architecture around the city. But, in addition, she needed to legitimize herself, and the surest way to do so was by tying herself to Russia’s past. Any work of sculpture that she commissioned had to reflect both principles. So Falconet couldn’t lean too heavily on what was then standard in Western sculpture. Through Peter’s clothes, he had to draw attention to Peter and Catherine’s fondness of the West without visibly breaking too much with Russian tradition.

Later, Falconet wrote that he chose to dress Peter in clothes “of all nations, of every man in any time,” that is, a “purely heroic” outfit. Peter’s clothes are clearly not traditional Russian, but neither do they exactly call to mind Western European royalty. They look universally respectable. They suggest that its wearer was down to earth, knew his worth, nodded at the West but did not slavishly copy it. By extension, it implied that Catherine was these things as well.

Giving Peter clothes that couldn’t be pinned down to any one period or area accomplished many purposes, political and artistic. It also created possibilities, space for people to imagine where Peter fit in Russian history. To what extent did he really “Westernize” the empire? Was this Westernization good or bad? Is there still anything left of Russian identity?

Bronze Horseman
Another angle of the Bronze Horseman. / Wikimedia Commons

Stories thrive on ambiguity. Thus have two works of classic Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, taken the Bronze Horseman’s enigmatic image and run with it. Both works read even more meaning into the monument, exploring Peter as a figure transcending time and reality.

The plot of Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” is simple but memorable (in fact, it has inspired a series of illustrations, a ballet, and a symphony). A young Petersburger, Yevgeny, loses his girlfriend in the tragic Neva flood of 1824. Wracked with grief, eventually evicted and penniless, he walks by the Bronze Horseman statue, near which he had taken shelter on the night of the flood. Recalling how Peter had built the city in this dangerous place just because he wanted to, Yevgeny gives the Horseman a verbal middle finger. But then he recoils in fright:

Ему, что грозного царя,
Мгновенно гневом возгоря,
Лицо тихонько обращалось…

He had the impression
That the grim Tsar, in sudden race
Of blazing anger turned his face
Quietly and without expression…

It’s never clear whether the Horseman actually gallops after Yevgeny, or whether the “безумец бедный” hallucinates him. On the physical plane, the Horseman may be just a statue, but in Yevgeny’s nightmares, he takes on life and personally directs his wrath at Yevgeny. Not content with flaunting itself publicly, Peter’s will imposes itself on individuals’ private lives.

Benois' illustration of Pushkin's poem
One of Alexandre Benois’ illustrations of Pushkin’s poem. / Wikimedia Commons

In Bely’s Petersburg, set almost a hundred years after Pushkin’s poem, the Horseman continues to defy the borders between dream and reality, and between public and private space. But Bely also probes at Peter’s legacy as a Westernizer. Peter was fond of Dutch shipbuilding and military organization; accordingly, in the novel the Horseman is associated with the Flying Dutchman legend. But the Horseman’s end goal is not the Western notion of progress and rationality. In fact, it is the annihilation of the world, including the West and Russia. His signature phrase is “I doom irrevocably”; he stalks, terrifies, and drives people to murder. In one of Petersburg’s most famous passages, the narrator connects the Bronze Horseman to Russia’s fate:

"Russia, you are like a steed! Into the darkness, into the emptiness your two front hooves have raced; and firmly in the granite soil have struck root — your two back ones."

After lengthy self-interrogation, the narrator foresees that Russia, along with the Horseman, will “leap over history,” not without causing chaos and possibly an existential battle between East and West. It’s hard to read anything more certain into this prophecy. But that is all the more fitting for a monument cloaked in layers of meaning. From sartorial choices to the space under its hooves, the Bronze Horseman statue invites as many questions as it answers. As it did with many a literary character, maybe it’ll get inside your head, too.


  • Andrei Bely, Petersburg, translated by David McDuff. For more analysis of Petersburg, start with Olga Matich’s website at
  • W. Bruce Lincoln, Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia.
  • Alexander Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman,” translated in The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin, vol. 5.

You Might Also Like

Defending One Sixth of the Earth
  • May 01, 1996

Defending One Sixth of the Earth

On the occasion of May Day, when Russia celebrates its most important victory, over Nazi Germany, we look at the place of the military in Russia today.
My Pushkin, Our Pushkin
  • June 01, 1999

My Pushkin, Our Pushkin

There are many Pushkins. But only Russia can truly claim him as its own. For Pushkin made Russian literature what it is. Included in this piece are amazing photos from films based on Pushkin's works, plus excerpts, in Russian and English, from his most famous works.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602