The Bronze Horseman of Pushkin's famous poem is Falconet's equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg. It was ordered by Catherine the Great (Petro primo Catharina secunda). Modelled on the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, it was meant to evoke the wise emperor extending a main protectrice. Joseph de Maistre commented that one doesn't know whether this hand protects or threatens. The statue celebrated Peter's building of St Petersburg, that symbol of Russia's Westernisation which Francesco Algarotti called her window on Europe (Pushkin cited Algarotti in a note: Pushkin's various notes are not fully reproduced in D.M. Thomas's new translation, nor in Sir Charles Johnston's of 1981). But ambiguity has always surrounded the statue, along with its imperial subject. The city which stood for a modernised and liberalised Russia was said to have cost a hundred thousand lives in the building, and the intended manifestation of Enlightenment was often seen, in the words of the Polish poet Mickiewicz, as 'A tribute to a tyrant's cruel whim'. The Europeanising Tsar retained in some eyes what a student of Mickiewicz and Pushkin has called 'the traits of an Asiatic despot'.
LRB 1 April 1983 | PDF Download