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.

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