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

22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.
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...
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.

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