The Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman
“The Bronze Horseman” is a narrative poem by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Originally written in 1833 and titled “Mednyi Vsadnik,” it was not published until 1841, after Pushkin's death, and it was printed as a stand-alone piece. The delay was due to the disapproval of Tsar Nicholas I, who objected to its themes and portrayal of his royal ancestor, Tsar Peter I. One frequently used English translation (which is also used throughout this entry), is by the British novelist and poet D. M. Thomas (Alexander Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems, 1982), which, as of 2007, is out of print, but second-hand copies are available. The poem is also available in an English translation by Robert Powell-Jones (Alexander Pushkin, Bronze Horseman, Stone Trough Books, 1999).
The poem's background theme is the building of the Russian city of St. Petersburg on the orders of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great, 1672-1725) on marshland on the banks of the river Neva. The city was built by forced labor, and thousands of peasant builders are said to have died in the harsh conditions. This bloody history of the city informs the themes of the poem, which include the conflict between the interests of the state or historical destiny and those of the common man, a conflict that prefigures the struggle that was to rage in Russia for the next century. The main event of the poem is the flood that occurred in St. Petersburg in November of 1824.
The poem has three main characters: Tsar Peter I, who appears first as a historical person and then as the bronze equestrian statue of Tsar Peter I, that stands in the city (which has been known since the poem became popular as the Bronze Horseman), and the humble clerk Yevgeni. It is widely considered a masterpiece, and has helped to cement Pushkin's reputation as Russia's greatest and most influential writer of the early nineteenth century.
The Russian poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer Alexander Pushkin was born on June 6, 1799 in Moscow, Russia, the son of Sergei Lvovich, an army officer, and Nadezhda Osipovna Pushkin. (Some sources predate the dates given here by several days, giving Pushkin's birth date, for instance, as May 26. This is because until 1918, Russia followed the Julian calendar, which was several days behind the Gregorian calendar used in Europe. The Julian calendar dates are often referred to as Old Style and the Gregorian calendar dates as New Style. Dates given here are New Style.)
Pushkin's family was descended from aristocracy, though it no longer held the prestige it once enjoyed. Pushkin was proud of his maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Hannibal (sometimes spelled Gannibal), a black Abyssinian prince who became a favorite of Tsar Peter I and a renowned general and engineer.
From 1811 to 1817, Pushkin attended the Lyceum school at Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg. After graduating, he was given a sinecure as a civil servant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg.
Pushkin finished his first major poem, “Ruslan and Lyudmila,” in 1820. He was remarkable for writing in Russian at a time when most Russian literary figures wrote in French and English. In Tsarist Russia, royalty and aristocracy (including Pushkin himself) usually spoke French, and Russian was considered the language of the peasants. Thus, Pushkin has acquired the status of a founder of Russian literature. He was also instrumental in moving Russian literature away from the sentimentality of eighteenth-century works and towards a realistic and psychological approach that would be taken
up by later writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In 1820, Pushkin's liberal political views and his biting satires about Tsar Alexander I and his officials led to his being interrogated and exiled to South Russia. He also traveled to the Caucasus and Crimea. This proved a productive time for Pushkin. During three years in Kishinev (in contemporary Moldova), he wrote verse narratives in the style of the English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. These included “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1822). He also started his verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was written in the period 1823-1831, published serially beginning in 1825, and published in full in 1833.
In 1824, officials intercepted a letter in which Pushkin supported atheism. He was sent into deeper exile, to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoe in north Russia, where he spent two years under surveillance. In this period he wrote a narrative poem, “The Gypsies” (1827) and the drama Boris Godunov (completed in 1825, though censors prevented it from being published until 1831).
In 1826, Pushkin petitioned Tsar Nicholas to release him from exile. The Tsar agreed, and told Pushkin that he personally would be the censor of his works. Pushkin at first believed that he would be free to publish and to travel freely. However, he soon found that without advance permission he could do neither, and he was repeatedly questioned by the police about his poems.
In 1830, Pushkin was betrothed to Natalia Goncharova, a society beauty. He traveled to his father's estate at Boldino to make arrangements for his father's wedding gift to him of half the estate, and found himself trapped there for three months in quarantine due to a cholera epidemic. During this period, Pushkin wrote dramas, including Mozart and Salieri (first produced in 1832) and The Stone Guest (first produced in 1847). He completed “The Bronze Horseman” in the fall of 1833 during another stay at Boldino. The poem was first published individually in 1841 as Mednyi Vsadnik.
Pushkin married Natalia in Moscow in 1831. The couple briefly settled in Tsarskoe Selo and then in St. Petersburg, where they lived until Pushkin's death. Pushkin intended to live simply, but the proximity of the royal family and Natalia's expensive tastes meant that he became dependent on favors from Tsar Nicholas. The marriage, while it produced four children, was unhappy. Natalia's interests lay in leading an active social life in court circles, and her flirtations provoked frustration in Pushkin. In 1834, Natalia miscarried after dancing at a ball. An indignant letter from Pushkin to his wife, who was convalescing in the country, was intercepted by the Tsar's police. A furious Pushkin handed in his resignation from the civil service, though he soon retracted it due to fear of the Tsar's displeasure.
Pushkin was burdened by managing his father's estate, which he took over in 1834, and by the debts of his brother, which he had undertaken to settle. He asked the Tsar either to let him retire to the country or to grant him a large loan; the first request was refused, but the second granted. In 1836, the Tsar agreed to let Pushkin publish a journal, The Contemporary, which involved Pushkin in more debt and trouble with the censors.
In 1834, Natalia met Baron Georges d'Anthès-Heeckeren, a French émigreé who worked in the Russian service. Rumors of an affair circulated. In the fall of 1836, Pushkin received an anonymous letter accusing him of being a cuckold. He challenged d'Anthès-Heeckeren to a duel, which took place on February 8, 1837. Pushkin died of his bullet wounds two days later at his home in St. Petersburg. D'Anthèes-Heeckeren was slightly wounded, and court society sympathized with him, though ordinary people felt differently. They flocked by the thousands to the dying Pushkin's bedside. The authorities, fearing a public revolt, shifted his funeral from St. Isaac's Cathedral to a small and secluded church, and secretly sent his body for burial at night. He was buried near his mother at Svyatye Gory Monastery near Mikhaylovskoe.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This lengthy narrative poem is divided into three sections, the Introduction and parts 1 and 2. The opening stanza of the Introduction to “The Bronze Horseman” (lines 1-8) portrays an unnamed man (the historical Tsar Peter I) standing on the banks of the river Neva. He is gazing into the distance and is “Full of high thoughts.” As becomes clear in the second stanza, he is planning to build a great city on this site. That city is St. Petersburg, which Tsar Peter I founded in 1703, so the Introduction is set at an unspecified date before this. For now, the place consists of dark forest and inhospitable marshland dotted with small huts inhabited by Finnish people (St. Petersburg is located on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Finland, with Finland's coastline on the northern shore).
The second stanza (lines 9-16) describes the man's vision. He aims to found a city that will thwart Swedish expansionist aims in the Baltic Sea (the Gulf of Finland connects the Baltic Sea with St. Petersburg). The city will be Tsar Peter's “window through to Europe” and will attract ships from every country. The vision concludes with Tsar Peter's vision of joyful Russian seafarers celebrating the success of the scheme at some point in the future when the city is built.
In the third stanza (lines 17-31), the poem jumps forward in time one hundred years. The man's vision has been fulfilled: the city of St. Petersburg has been built. Where once Finnish fishermen plied their trade, now huge palaces and towers have sprung up. Ships from all over the world come to the harbors, and the banks of the river Neva are encased in granite. The poet likens the city to “a new empress” who makes the previous capital, Moscow, seem like a pale old widow in comparison. The widow wears purple because this was the royal color of the Byzantine Empire. The poet is connecting Russia with Constantinople, the centre of the Byzantine Empire, which shared its Orthodox Christian faith. The city is likened to a widow bowing before a new empress because Tsar Peter I has abandoned her: Tsar Peter I made St. Petersburg the capital of Russia in 1712, taking that title from Moscow.
The fourth stanza (lines 32-62) changes to an odic tone (an ode is a lyric poem that expresses exalted or enthusiastic emotion to praise a person, place, quality, or object). The poet addresses St. Petersburg directly as if he were speaking to a beloved woman, and for the first time, the unnamed man is identified as Tsar Peter I: “I love you, Peter's creation.” The poet describes aspects of the city's beauty. He notes the phenomenon of the White Nights. St. Petersburg is so far north that in summer, the nights remain light enough that he can read and write without a lamp. He sees the spire of the Admiralty (constructed between 1806 and 1823) shining. He lists other sensory impressions of the city, including the sight of girls in sledges coursing along the frozen river, their faces bright with cold; the hiss of foaming goblets at the balls; and the sight of military drills on the city's parade ground, the Field of Mars. The poet addresses the city as “martial / Capital,” referring to the cannons at the Peter and Paul Fortress being fired to mark the birth of a son to the Tsarina, a Russian victory over an enemy, or the melting of the river Neva in spring.
The fifth stanza (lines 62-68) has the flavor of a prayer. The poet invites the city to flaunt its beauty and stand “unshakeable like Russia,” so that even the “conquered elements,” the sea and river that have been captured within the granite banks of the city, can make peace with it. Here, the poet calls into question the sense of invincibility of Tsar Peter's creation that has been built up in the previous sections.
In the sixth stanza (lines 69-71), the poet announces that he will recount a sad tale of a dreadful time.
Part 1 consists of the poet's dramatized account of a historical event on November 19 (New Style), 1824, when a catastrophic flood occurred in St. Petersburg. Here, the city is called by the alternative name, Petrograd, which translates as Peter's town. In the first stanza (lines 1-17), the scene opens on the river Neva, tossing in the darkness “Like a sick man in his restless bed.” The focus shifts to inside a house, on the window of which the rain is beating. The house is that of a young man, Yevgeni, who has just returned home after visiting friends. He lives in Kolomna, a working-class area of St. Petersburg, and has an undistinguished job. The poet suggests that Yevgeni's family may have been important in ancient times but has declined in influence: his family name may have featured in traditional legends or in the Russian author Nikolai Karamzin's History of the Russian State (1818), which ended its chronicle in 1613.
The second stanza (lines 18-33) recounts how Yevgeni goes to bed, but lies awake worrying about his poverty. He thinks that he will have to earn his independence by hard work, though for some, life is easy. He has been a clerk for two years. He is concerned about the worsening weather. The river is rising, and he fears he will be cut off from Parasha, the woman he loves and hopes to marry.
The third stanza (lines 34-43) focuses on Yevgeni's thoughts as he plans out his future with Parasha. His desires are humble: a simple house in which he and Parasha will enjoy a quiet life. He will have a job, children, and in time, grandchildren. The fourth and fifth stanzas (lines 44-49) describe Yevgeni going to sleep as the wind howls and the rain beats around him.
The sixth stanza (lines 50-67) describe how the wind, coming in from the Gulf of Finland, fights against the river Neva, which is flowing towards the Gulf. By morning, the gale has turned the river back, and it has swamped the islands on which the city stands. The river sweeps along everything in its path, and the city's canals reach the height of the railings. The city is referred to by its Greek name of Petropolis (Peter's city). Because it is half submerged in water, it is likened to Triton, who in Greek mythology is the messenger of the ocean and son of the sea god, Poseidon.
The seventh stanza (lines 68-74) likens the flood to a siege, and the waves to sly thieves that climb into buildings through windows. Street hawkers' equipment, pieces of huts, and even coffins unearthed from the cemetery float along the streets.
In the eighth stanza (lines 75-77), the poet shifts his attention to the people of the city. They gaze at the flood, which is portrayed as God's judgment, and await their end. They have no food or shelter.
In the ninth stanza (lines 78-88), the poet turns his attention to Tsar Alexander I. The Tsar's palace (known as the Hermitage) has been spared flooding, but has become an isolated island. The Tsar reflects sadly that “Tsars cannot master / the divine elements,” and then sends his generals on a dangerous mission through the streets to save the people drowning in their homes. It is the generals who are the heroic men of action, while the Tsar passively philosophizes. The fact that the Tsar is shown standing on his balcony, as well as the island status of his palace, denotes his removal from the common people.
The tenth stanza (lines 89-109) tells how Yevgeni escapes the flood. He sits on top of a huge sculpture of a stone lion, one of a pair of guardian lions that flank the staircase of the mansion of the Lobanov-Rostovsky family in Senate Square, where the statue of Peter the Great is located. The poet here calls Senate Square “Peter's square,” after its creator and the statue of Tsar Peter I. Senate Square was renamed Decembrist Square in 1925, after the Decembrist Revolt that took place there in December 1825.
Yevgeni is afraid not for himself, but for Parasha. He strains to see the ramshackle house where she lives with her widowed mother, and notes that it is close to the waves. He recalls his “dream” of marrying Parasha, but then asks a bitter question as to whether life itself is “Nothing but an empty dream, heaven's jest?”
The eleventh stanza (lines 110-15) describes Yevgeni's terror at his realization that he cannot get down from the lion, as there is water all around him. Across the flooded river, its back turned to him, is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, with arm outstretched: the Bronze Horseman.
Part 2 marks a transition forward in time to when the flood has retreated and the waters have begun to fall. The first stanza (lines 1-10) likens the river to violent robbers who plunder a village and flee, dropping their plunder as they go.
The second stanza (lines 11-21) describes how, as the waters slowly fall, the road becomes visible. Yevgeni rushes to the river bank and hires a boatman to row him across the river.
The third stanza (lines 22-47) tells how, fighting against the current, the boatman at last delivers Yevgeni to the opposite bank. Yevgeni runs down the street where Parasha lived, but sees only devastation. Houses have collapsed, and corpses are strewn around, as on a battlefield. Reaching the spot where Parasha's house stood, Yevgeni sees that it has been swept away. He walks around, talking to himself, then strikes his forehead with his hand (a gesture that perhaps denotes a bitter realization) and laughs. This is the first sign that Yevgeni may be losing his reason.
The fourth and fifth stanzas (lines 48-60) portray night falling on a terrified people, and the next day dawning on a return to normal life for the survivors. The purple color describes the dawn sky, but also recalls the purple-wearing widow of the Introduction. In both instances, the color purple denotes imperial power: in this instance, the reference denotes a return to imperially imposed order after the devastation wrought by nature. The streets have been cleared of debris. The people are in a state of cold indifference; government officials go to work; and a merchant whose cellar has been robbed of goods by the flood cynically hopes to make good his loss at his neighbor's expense.
The sixth stanza (lines 61-63) notes that Count Khvostov, a poet and contemporary of Pushkin, has already begun composing verses on the disaster. The poet begins the seventh stanza (lines 63-82) with an expression of pity for the traumatized Yevgeni and goes on to describe his state of mind as “tormented” by “Some sort of dream.” In Yevgeni's head, he can still hear the sounds of the wind and the flooding waves from the night of the flood. He wanders the streets as a tramp, living on scraps that people hand to him through windows. The landlord of the house where he lived lets his room to a poor poet. He seems to live a half-life, neither in the world of the living nor of the dead.
The seventh stanza (lines 83-101) jumps forward in time to a year after the flood, which would place the action just before the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. The poet recounts how one night, Yevgeni is sleeping on the banks of the Neva when he wakes with a start. Filled with fear, he wanders to Senate Square, where the lions and the Bronze Horseman, the statue of Tsar Peter I, still stand.
In the eighth stanza (lines 102-116), Yevgeni recalls his ordeal in the flood. He gazes at the statue of Tsar Peter I, and muses on him, by whose “fateful will” the city was “founded on the sea.” He wonders where the horse will gallop, and plant his hooves, next. He addresses Tsar Peter I as “mighty master of fate,” and notes that as he is making his horse rear up by pulling on the iron curb bit, he also “reared up Russia” out of the sea by means of his indomitable will.
The ninth stanza (lines 117-38) tells how the furious Yevgeni presses his face against the railings that surround the statue of Tsar Peter I and issues an unspecified threat to the dead Tsar before running away. As he runs across the square, he feels that the statue's face is flaring up with rage and that the statue is galloping after him. Yevgeni runs all night, but wherever he goes, he feels that he is followed by the Bronze Horseman.
The tenth stanza (lines 139-44) jumps forward in time. The poet tells how, ever since that episode, whenever Yevgeni wandered into that square, he would hastily press his hand to his heart to ease the torment, and doff his cap in deference to the statue, without looking at it.
The eleventh and last stanza (lines 145-56) jumps forward in time once more. The poet describes a small island that can be seen from the banks of the Neva, where occasionally a fisherman stops to cook supper. The island is so barren that not a blade of grass grows there. The flood drove “a ramshackle little house there”: Parasha's. The poet notes that last spring, a barge carried away the wreckage. By the threshold of the house, Yevgeni's body was found. He was buried in that spot.
Conflict between the Needs of the State and the Desires of the Individual
The main theme of “The Bronze Horseman” is the conflict between the needs and desires of the imperial state, as embodied by Tsar Peter I and symbolized by his statue, and the desires of the individual, as embodied by Yevgeni.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Consider Pushkin's portrayals of Tsar Peter I and Yevgeni in “The Bronze Horseman.” Write an essay showing how the poet elicits or alienates the reader's sympathy for each character. Where do your own sympathies lie? Why?
- Research the literary movements of neoclassicism, romanticism, and realism, and list the primary characteristics displayed by works belonging to each movement. Analyze the characteristics from each movement as they appear in “The Bronze Horseman.” Does the work fit into any one movement, or does it contain elements from two, or all three movements? Give a class presentation on your findings.
- Research the lives and history of three of Russia's autocratic rulers from any time in the country's history (Tsarist or Soviet periods). An autocracy is a government in which one person (in the case of Russia, the Tsar or Soviet leader of the country) has unlimited authority over others. Write an essay comparing and contrasting their methods of government and the lives of different social classes under their rule. Use your findings to draw contrasts or comparisons with contemporary government in your own country.
- Research the history of St. Petersburg, Russia, from the events leading up to its foundation in 1703 to the present day. Write an essay (using illustrations if you wish) detailing some of the events and influences that shaped the city.
- Research the 1824 flood in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the 2005 flood in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. Write a report comparing and contrasting the causes and effects of the two events. Possible areas of examination might include social, political, economic, environmental, and public health aspects. Include in your report any measures that are currently being taken in both cities to try to prevent future floods, as well as any measures that you believe should be, but are not being, implemented.
Yevgeni's fate symbolizes the sacrifice of the thousands of peasants who, drafted in as forced labor by Peter, perished in the building of the city. This story of the peasant builders is not directly recounted in “The Bronze Horseman.” Instead, the poet shows Peter planning the construction of the future capital of the Russian Empire, and then jumps forward in time a hundred years, when the city is already built. This deliberate omission of important events is a narrative device called ellipsis. However, the story of the peasants is vividly present in the poem in symbolic form, portrayed by the fate of Yevgeni. In deliberate contrast with Peter's grand vision, Yevgeni has simple desires: marriage to his beloved Parasha, a house, children, and grandchildren. Yet he is denied fulfillment of these desires by Peter I's act of will in constructing a city on flood-prone, low-lying land. Peter wanted the city in this place because it was strategically important, both for stopping Swedish expansion in the Baltic region and for trade and cultural exchange with Europe. In Peter's view, Europe was commercially, technologically, and artistically more advanced than Russia.
The Vulnerability of the Poor and Powerless Compared with the Strength of the Wealthy and Powerful
Pushkin makes clear that it is the poorer residents of the city, such as Yevgeni, who suffer most in the flood. In Part 1 of “The Bronze Horseman” he identifies the detritus that is being washed away as street hawkers' trays, fragments of huts, and “The chattels of pale poverty.” The poor people's houses were made of wood, which made them especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Parasha's house is completely swept away, ending up washed up on an island outside the city. Yevgeni makes a pathetic attempt at defiance of Peter's hubristic vision, issuing a vague threat to the dead Tsar's statue. When the statue seems to come alive and chase Yevgeni through the streets, Yevgeni is cowed with fear at this royal rebuke of his insolence. He loses his mind and ends his life at the threshold of his sweetheart's broken-up house. Thus, symbolically, the poor and insignificant, along with their desires and aspirations, are terrified by the powerful into submission, before being swept away and forgotten as utterly as the peasants who died in the building of the city.
Moving up the socioeconomic scale, the middle-class merchants' houses, more solidly constructed of stone, are left intact by the flood. The merchant loses his goods, but there is a chance that he may make good his loss at a neighbor's expense. At the top of the social scale, the houses and monuments of the rich and influential, such as the sculptural lions, the grand mansions, and the Bronze Horseman itself, emerge from the flood untouched. The poem contrasts the resilience of absolute power with the vulnerability of the ordinary people, and shows that this is as true at the time of writing as it was in 1703, when Peter founded the city.
Conflict between Nature and Civilization
A subsidiary theme in the poem is the conflict between nature and civilization, as represented by the elemental water of the river and rain, and the stone of the city. This theme is first presented in the Introduction, when Tsar Peter I invokes nature as a partner in his grand scheme: “By nature we are fated / To cut a window through to Europe.” This image is of the river's banks being encased in granite on the orders of Tsar Peter I. Tsar Peter I has imposed his will on nature, but nature fights back. The river breaks out of its manmade boundaries and overwhelms the city. Even absolute temporal power, as embodied in the Tsars of Russia, is ineffectual against the uprisings of nature's elements. Tsar Alexander I is shown reflecting that “Tsars cannot master / The divine elements.”
Even when the flood subsides, Yevgeni is awoken from his sleep on the embankment to the sound of the “sullen wave … reproachfully / Grumbling and beating against the smooth steps.” The image suggests that the river's power is only temporarily latent, but is not defeated, even by Tsar Peter I's mighty will. While civilization has in the short term won a battle against nature, the war continues. Thus, while the poem shows the relative vulnerability of the poor and powerless, it also emphasizes the fragility of all human endeavor, whether it be that of a powerful Tsar such as Peter I or an ordinary person such as Yevgeni.
The Heroic or Epic Poem
The heroic (otherwise known as epic) mode of poetry was popular in eighteenth-century Russian literature. It is characterized by an elevated style of language, and involves a warrior or statesman protagonist whose actions determine the fate of an empire. In Russia, it was commonly used to praise Tsars and their generals or officials. Pushkin uses the heroic mode in the Introduction of “The Bronze Horseman” to describe Tsar Peter I and his grand vision of building the city of St. Petersburg on the marshes. However, he departs from the heroic tradition by juxtaposing the heroic or epic mode with the realistic mode, which is used to describe the humble Yevgeni's activities.
Russian romanticism began to emerge from eighteenth-century sentimentalism around 1815. Its early proponents included the poet, writer of fairy tales, and translator Vasilii Andreevich Zhukovsky, whom Pushkin acknowledged as a major influence, and the poet Konstantin Batiushkov. Romanticism reached its heights in the 1820s and 1830s with writers such as Mikhail
Lermontov and by the early 1840s was being displaced by realism, in the works of writers such as Nikolai Gogol (who is, however, primarily classed as a romantic).
Pushkin is usually classed as a Romantic writer. It is true that he influenced Russian romantic writers such as Lermontov, and that his writings include the major themes of European romantic writers. These include the special role of the poet, the importance of freedom from social and political restrictions, the value of emotion and the subjective experience as a means to truth, and an interest in folk literature. A special emphasis of Russian romanticism was a nationalistic pride. Examples of romantic themes in “The Bronze Horseman” include Pushkin's acknowledgement of the role of the poet Count Khvostov in immortalizing the flood in verse; the sympathy he shows for Yevgeni's suffering under the tyrannical will of Peter I; the emphasis on the emotions experienced by Yevgeni, Tsar Alexander, and Peter I; and the poet's pride in the city of St. Petersburg and in the history and achievements of Russia. Aspects of the romantic stance apparent in “The Bronze Horseman” include irony and a sympathy with Yevgeni's opposition to the existing order.
Nevertheless, Pushkin's poem also exemplifies classical virtues such as clarity, rationality (both Peter I's and Yevgeni's viewpoints are presented and honored), and moderation, in that the poet does not identify himself with extremes of emotion, but stands apart from it and observes it. The poem, in common with the rest of Pushkin's works, also lacks the passion borne of moral commitment that has come to be associated with Russian romanticism and which passed into Russian realism.
Rather than classifying Pushkin as a romantic writer, it may be more accurate to call him primarily a romantic writer with strong elements of classicism and realism.
Throughout the poem, the river Neva is personified (personification is a literary device in which an inanimate object is given the attributes of a person). In the Introduction, the poet states that in the construction of the city, the river has been encased in granite. This is presented as nature's elements being “conquered.” The water appears to resent its “enmity and ancient bondage,” as the poet pleads with it to forget this history of conflict with Peter and avoid disturbing his “eternal sleep” with its “empty spite.” “Bondage” refers explicitly to the tamed river, but Pushkin's Russian readers would also have made the connection to the enslaved peasant builders of the city. In this poem, the original peasant inhabitants of the area are presented almost as part of the landscape, as part of nature: their huts are “Like black specks on the mossy, marshy banks,” merging with the natural surroundings. Thus the enmity and memory of bondage that threatens Peter's rest (and his city) is held by the river and possibly by the thousands of dead peasant builders.
Initially, at the start of the storm that will create the flood, the river Neva seems to be on the side of the city, struggling to flow out to sea against the gale-force winds blowing in from the Gulf of Finland. But when its struggle proves futile, the river becomes “maddened” and “Hurled herself on the city like a beast.” Here, the river is personified as a hostile and violent attacker. This is reinforced by the description of the flood as “Siege! Assault!” Then the poet shifts to describing the flood waves as cunning thieves that climb into houses through windows and steal people's goods. While this image seems to condemn the river, it is subsequently portrayed as the deliverer of God's wrath: “The people gaze upon the wrath of God / And await their doom.” It is not explicitly said why God is angry with the city, but one possible answer is suggested by the other religious imagery of the poem, the description of Peter I as “The Image.” The Russian word for “Image” is kumir, a word that normally designates a pagan idol. While Pushkin was not religious in the orthodox sense, he may have been suggesting that Peter blasphemously (and in defiance of the laws of nature) elevated himself to godlike status in his hubristic act of founding his city so close to the water.
It would, however, be wrong to conclude that Pushkin was condemning the creation of the city. His paean to the city beginning “I love you, Peter's creation,” detailing the beautiful sights and sounds of St. Petersburg, is heartfelt and sincere. It is more accurate to suggest that Pushkin, like many Russians, had an ambivalent attitude to the city. He was able simultaneously to maintain gratitude to Peter for his creation of St. Petersburg, and his sense of outrage committed against nature and thousands of peasant laborers in the process of creation.
Personification is also used in the poem to animate the Bronze Horseman, the statue of Peter I, into a character embodying his spirit. The scene in which the statue seems to come to life and pursues Yevgeni through the streets in retribution for his defiance emphasizes the all-powerful nature of Peter's regal authority, undaunted even by death.
The Founding of St. Petersburg
Tsar Peter I founded the Russian city of St. Petersburg on May 27, 1703 (New Style) on land, in an area known as Ingria, won back from Sweden in the beginning of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Historically, Ingria was populated by the Finnic peoples, which is why the Introduction to “The Bronze Horseman,” mentions Finns living at the site of the future St. Petersburg.
The story of how Peter I founded St. Petersburg is well known in Russia. Using his prerogative as Tsar, he drafted in forced labor, specifying a quota of 40,000 peasants per year. The peasants left their homes and walked to the site under armed guard, often for hundreds of miles. They had to supply their own tools and food, and many were shackled to prevent desertion. They raised Peter's city out of inhospitable marshland under brutal climatic conditions. Thousands died from exposure, starvation, and disease, meaning that in any one year, losses through mortality would amount to fifty percent and the total workforce would number 20,000. Thus it is said in Russia that St. Petersburg is founded on the bones of the peasants who built it. In “The Bronze Horseman,” the fate of Yevgeni is symbolic of that of the laborer peasants, in that they are all seen as victims of Peter I's autocratic will.
Peter's aims in building St. Petersburg were fulfilled, in history as in the poem. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, St. Petersburg was a leading trading port and industrial center which was instrumental in lifting Russia out of the medieval state. Because Peter employed the greatest European architects and planned the city as a unified whole, the city is a model of town planning and is famed for its beautiful and impressive baroque architecture.
The Flood of 1824
The flood in St. Petersburg that is recounted in “The Bronze Horseman” took place on November 19 (New Style), 1824. It remains the most serious flood in the recorded history of the city. Pushkin was in exile in South Russia at the time. His source for the facts of the flood was V. N. Berch's A Detailed Historical Account of All the Floods That Occurred in St. Petersburg (1826), which Pushkin had in his library. Assessments of the fatalities that occurred in the 1824 flood vary widely, but the “St. Petersburg Flood Protection Barrier Environmental Impact Assessment Study: Executive Summary” cites a figure of over 300 people.
Autocracy in Russia
Peter I was largely responsible for making Russia an autocratic state. He abolished the old Boyar Duma, or advisory Council of Nobles, and replaced it with a senate, to which he assigned the job of collecting taxes on his behalf. He also abolished all vestiges of local government and forced all nobles into state service. This autocratic model of monarchy was followed by subsequent Tsars of Russia and prevailed in Pushkin's time. Two great revolutions against autocracy occurred in 1825 (the Decembrist Revolt) and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The latter revolution abolished the monarchy and marked the beginning of communist rule in Soviet Russia. Autocratic rule flourished under communism, with dictators such as Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) establishing near total control over society and centralizing the power base. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rise of a multiparty system led to a decentralization of power, though President Vladimir Putin, who came to office in 1999, has been criticized for reversing this liberalization process.
The Decembrist Revolt
The Decembrist Revolt or Uprising took place on December 26, 1825 (New Style). The trigger for the revolt was the conservative Nicholas I's assuming the throne after his older brother Constantine relinquished his claim to the succession. A group of liberal Russian army officers led three thousand soldiers in a protest in Senate Square, St. Petersburg. They refused to pledge allegiance to the new Tsar, instead demanding a constitution. The Tsar's troops easily suppressed the revolt. Afterwards two hundred and eighty-nine Decembrists were tried. Five were executed, thirty-one imprisoned, and the rest exiled to Siberia. They were viewed as martyrs by later generations of Russian dissidents. Because the revolt occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists. In 1925, to mark the centenary of the revolt, Senate Square was renamed Decembrist Square.
Pushkin was not directly involved in the revolt as he was in exile in South Russia, though he realized that he was implicated when Decembrists were found to have copies of his early political poems. Pushkin destroyed all of his papers that he felt were dangerous and escaped retribution, later concluding that fate had singled him out as the sole survivor of his generation's best hopes. For the rest of his life, however, Nicholas I had Pushkin closely watched and had his works censored.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1830s: Tsar Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855) is known as one of the most autocratic of Russian monarchs. After the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas tightens control over education and publishing, and runs an efficient network of spies and informers against his own people.
Today: In 2004, Russia's President Vladimir Putin alarms some international observers when he tightens the presidency's control over parliament, civil society, and regional government.
- 1830s: Tsar Nicholas I censors works of literature, including Pushkin's “The Bronze Horseman,” and has its author watched closely.
Today: International concern rises over the unsolved murders of Russian journalists, many of whom are known to be critical of President Vladimir Putin and his regime.
- 1830s: St. Petersburg suffers annual floods sufficiently serious to inundate streets and basements in low-lying areas of the city.
Today: St. Petersburg continues to flood with what appears to be increasing frequency. The St. Petersburg Flood Prevention Facility Complex (also known as the St. Petersburg Dam) is under construction to try to prevent serious floods in the future. President Vladimir Putin has set a target of 2008 to finish the dam.
The Decembrist Revolt had a profound influence on Russian romantic literature. Russian writers such as the playwright Alexander Griboyedov and the poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov came to view themselves as adversaries of the existing order. Pushkin makes a heavily veiled reference to the Decembrist Revolt in part 2 of in “The Bronze Horseman,” when he takes up Yevgeni's story a year after the November 1824 flood, in the fall of 1825. All of his readers would have known that Yevgeni's final angry yet futile confrontation with Peter I's statue (“All right then, wonder-worker, just you wait!”) took place just before the Decembrist Revolt. This adds a special pathos to Yevgeni's body being found soon afterwards at the threshold of Parasha's ruined house: he becomes symbolic of the fallen Decembrists. The fact that his body is found and buried on an island outside St. Petersburg is a symbolic reference to exile, which became the fate of many writers (including Pushkin) and intellectuals in both Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
The equestrian statue of Peter I that stands in Decembrist Square (formerly Senate Square) in St. Petersburg is by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791) and was commissioned by Tsarina Catherine II (Catherine the Great, reigned 1762-1796) to commemorate her royal predecessor. The statue faces west, in the direction of Europe, symbolizing Peter's determination to westernize Russian culture and technology. The statue has come to be known as the Bronze Horseman, after Pushkin's poem, and is a symbol of the city in the same way in which the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of New York City.
According to Andrew Kahn in Pushkin's “The Bronze Horseman,” Pushkin indicated in a footnote to the poem that his description of the statue of Peter I forms a response to a work by the Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). The work is Mickiewicz's verse drama Forefather's Eve, which recounts the narrator's travels to St. Petersburg and his philosophical musings on the capital. “He ponders what will happen to the statue, which he calls a ‘cascade of tyranny,’ when the warm sun of freedom begins to shine on Russian society.” The narrator sees the city as the whim of an aristocrat rather than an organic product of Russian culture, and as a symbol of the inhuman quality of life in Russia.
Although Pushkin is widely considered to be the most influential Russian writer of the early nineteenth century, his work is rarely read outside Russia, largely because it is difficult to convey the power and music of his verse in English translation. Nevertheless, in Russia and internationally, “The Bronze Horseman” is generally viewed as one of Pushkin's greatest works, second only to Eugene Onegin, his novel in verse.
One of the first readers of “The Bronze Horseman” was Pushkin's censor, Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas objected to Pushkin's portrayal of his royal predecessor, Peter I. He insisted that references to the statue as “The Image,” a pagan idol, be removed. He objected to the passage about Moscow's decline, and wanted to cut the crucial final confrontation between Yevgeni and the statue. Pushkin refused to make the cuts and withheld publication. The poem was published in bowdlerized (censored) form, with changes largely in line with the Tsar's requests, in 1841, four years after Pushkin's death. The cuts severely distorted the poem's meaning. This version formed the basis of its critical reception throughout the nineteenth century. Many editions published after 1841 also feature versions that were censored to some degree, and it was not until Pavel Shchegolev's 1924 edition that the text was reconstructed as Pushkin had intended it. The discovery of new material and variants of the poem among Pushkin's manuscripts led to the publication of as precise a version as possible in N. Izmailov's edition of 1978.
The stature of the poem has grown with these attempts to restore its integrity. It was barely noticed until the 1870s, though as early as 1832, Pushkin himself was lauded as the “Russian national poet” by another famous Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, in his essay “A Few Words About Pushkin.” In his essay (reprinted in the Russian Literature Triquarterly) Gogol writes: “All the richness, power, and versatility of our language is contained in him.” The influential critic Vissarion G. Belinsky (1811-1848), using the censored version of the poem, emphasizes the positive portrayal of Tsar Peter I in the Introduction. Indeed, according to Andrew Kahn in Pushkin's “The Bronze Horseman,” Belinsky sees “in its celebration of the Petrine creation an argument that the practical ends (Westernisation) justify the political means (tyranny).” Further, Belinksy writes of the poem: “meek in our heart we admit the triumph of the general over the individual without forfeiting our empathy for the suffering of that individual.”
Leonid Grossman (cited by Kahn), in his biography of 1939 titled Pushkin, continued the tradition of interpreting the poem in a pro-Petrine manner. In language reminiscent of contemporary eulogies of the then Russian leader Joseph Stalin, Grossman draws attention to “the mighty creative energy of Peter's character.”
In a 1992 article for Partisan Review, John Bayley notes that Pushkin “saw through” authority “and yet was fascinated by it, and in a sense admiring.” He adds that the poem is as much a celebration of Peter I “as it is a cry of pity and protest from underneath, for the little man who only wants to marry his sweetheart and live a quiet life.” Bayley notes how this ambivalence became a characteristic feature of Russian realism as exemplified by writers such as Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy.
Peter I. Barta, in his 1995 Reference Guide to World Literature essay, draws attention to the poem's role in contributing to the myth of St. Petersburg. Barta emphasizes the ambiguity in the poet's treatment of the city, which Barta sees as defined by dichotomies: “European splendour and Russian poverty; urban civilization and unsuitable climatic conditions”; and “the fantastic city in which human aspirations come to nought.” Alexandra Smith notes in Two Hundred Years of Pushkin, Volume II: Alexander Pushkin: Myth and Monument that Pushkin himself was ambivalent about the city. Though he chose to settle there after his marriage, when he received news of the flood in 1824, he wrote to his brother that this was “the very thing for cursed Petersburg.”
The poem continues to attract critical praise and attention, with many critics focusing on the poem's elements of psychological interest and irony.
Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a former teacher of English literature and creative writing, and is currently a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Robinson explores how Pushkin uses the heroic and realistic modes to comment on the action and characters in “The Bronze Horseman.”
In “The Bronze Horseman,” Pushkin uses two distinct modes: the heroic and the realistic. The heroic (otherwise known as epic) mode prevailed in eighteenth-century Russian literature. It is characterized by an elevated style of language, and involves a warrior or statesman protagonist whose actions determine the fate of an empire. In Russia, it was commonly used to praise Tsars and their generals or officials. Pushkin uses the heroic mode in the Introduction of “The Bronze Horseman” to describe Peter I, and his grand plan. Peter I is described as “Full of high thoughts” aimed at strengthening Russia's strategic position. Then the poet moves to the odic style (often used in heroic verse) to praise the city: “I love you, Peter's creation.” At the end of the Introduction, the poet addresses the city as if in a prayer: “Flaunt your beauty, Peter's / City, and stand unshakeable like Russia.”
Unlike his predecessors, Pushkin was not content to rest with the heroic mode. He juxtaposes the heroic with the realistic mode. The realistic mode, introduced in part 1, is used to describe the humble clerk Yevgeni, and his actions. The style is very different from the one Pushkin uses to describe Peter I and his actions: it is everyday, conversational, and ordinary. He writes as if chatting to the reader: “We'll call / Our hero by this name. It's pleasant, and / Has long been congenial to my pen.” With wry humor, he describes the mundane, unsung, and day-to-day nature of Yevgeni's existence: he “works / Somewhere, avoids the paths of the famous, mourns / Neither dead relatives nor the forgotten past.” These facts are all in contrast to the lives of great people like Tsar Peter and Tsar Alexander, whose actions are far from anonymous and affect numerous people, and who derive their power from ancient bloodlines (dead relatives and the past).
Pushkin then brings together the heroic and the realistic, with revealing results. Having described the flood in realistic mode, he introduces Tsar Alexander with a reminder of the heroic mode: “the late Tsar in his glory.” All the glorious Tsar can do, however, is to stand on his balcony at a remove from the people and reflect sadly on the disaster. He concludes, rightly, that “Tsars cannot master / The divine elements.” All the imperial power in the world is ineffectual against the workings of nature. As for Peter, who at this point in the poem is symbolized by his statue, he only turns his back on the suffering of Yevgeni and his fellow townspeople: “his back turned / To him, in unshakeable eminence.” He maintains his imperious gesture, his hand outstretched in command, but he has no power to command the elements. Thus Pushkin undermines the traditional heroic mode with the realistic mode.
One way in which Pushkin undermines the heroic is by the use of ironic parallels: he mirrors a heroic event or gesture with a decidedly unheroic counterpart in a way whereby the latter comments on the former. Such parallels include themes and images.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Collected Stories (Everyman's Library edition, 1999), by Alexander Pushkin, presents Pushkin's most highly regarded and accessible prose works, including “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin,” “The Captain's Daughter,” and “The Queen of Spades.” Written in his clear, spare style, these stories encompass romantic, melancholy, humorous, and psychological themes.
- The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (2003), by N. V. Gogol and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, offers Gogol's most notable short stories, set in the Ukraine and St. Petersburg. Gogol was a famous Russian writer who was influenced by Pushkin. Elements that these works have in common with Pushkin's “The Bronze Horseman” are supernatural mystery and a sympathy for the ordinary man, although the experiences of Gogol's average men are infused with the extraordinary.
- Lord Byron: The Major Works (2000), by George Gordon Byron and edited by Jerome J. McGann, contains the major poetry and prose of the English romantic writer. Byron had a significant influence on Pushkin in terms of ironic style and rebellious, alienated attitude. Readers new to Byron may consider beginning with the narrative poems “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage” or “Don Juan.”
- St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (1997), by Solomon Volkov, offers a fascinating overview of the writers, artists, and composers who contributed to the cultural evolution of St. Petersburg from its founding in 1703 into the modern age. Individuals featured include writers Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Anna Akhmatova; and composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin.
- In Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia (2002), W. Bruce Lincoln traces the story of the city's beginnings, then depicts the glorious buildings of eighteenth-century Tsars, followed by the rise of industrial slums, disaffection, violence, intellectual ferment, and revolution. Lincoln also recounts the heroism of the city's 900 days under siege in World War II.
An example of a parallel theme is that of the dream. Both Peter I and Yevgeni have a dream. Peter dreams of founding a great city that will check the Swedes and serve as Russia's window onto Europe; Yevgeni dreams of a quiet life in a humble house with Parasha and their children. The contrast between the two dreams is stark. Though on the surface, it would seem that Peter's dream would be the most difficult to fulfill, as it turns out, it is Yevgeni's most basic and unambitious dream that proves impossible. Yevgeni's unfulfilled dream is swept away by Peter's fulfilled dream. Peter builds his city on a flood plain, and the flood destroys Yevgeni's beloved and, indirectly, his entire life. After the flood, Yevgeni's dream of life with Parasha turns into a despairing thought that the whole of life is “Nothing but an empty dream, heaven's jest.”
An example of a parallel image is that of the equestrian statue, two versions of which are present in the poem. The first is the bronze horseman, the statue of Peter I that stands in Senate Square. This statue is referred to in the poem as “The Image,” reminiscent of a revered idol. The statue portrays Peter with arm outstretched in a gesture of command, as if decreeing, godlike, the creation of St. Petersburg. His horse rears up under the force of Peter's “iron curb,” the harsh bit that can cause a horse pain if insensitively handled and can make it rear in an effort to escape the pressure on its mouth. Pushkin draws the analogy explicitly: this action is likened to the way in which Peter “reared up Russia” with his indomitable will. It is an act of violence and tyrannical power. What is more, the horse rears “on the precipice's brink,” as the statue stands on a huge rock that resembles a cliff face. This connotes the enormous risk that Peter took in building his city on marshland prone to flooding, an exercise that in modern parlance might be termed brinkmanship. The statue shows the supreme confidence that attends absolute power such as Peter enjoyed. It is a godlike power, extending over the life and death of the citizens of St. Petersburg, as is shown in the fate of Yevgeni.
The ironic counterpart to the equestrian statue is the statue of the lion on which Yevgeni perches to escape the flood. Yevgeni's state of mind and the physical attitude he adopts are in direct contrast to Peter's: where Peter is confident, Yevgeni is terrified; where Peter gazes into the distance “Full of high thoughts,” Yevgeni gazes into the distance trying to see Parasha's house; where Peter's arm is outstretched in command, Yevgeni's arms are crossed tightly in a defensive pose. Even the lion takes on an ironic tone: it is a guardian lion, but its guardianship is selective: while the mansion outside which it stands outlasts the flood, Parasha's house and the goods of the city's poor are swept away. The contrast between the two equestrian images is between imperial power and Yevgeni's helplessness, though much irony lies in the fact that imperial power is as helpless as the humble clerk in the face of nature's forces. Imperial power, when faced with something it cannot control, simply assumes an attitude of indifference, as symbolized by the image of Peter's statue with its back towards Yevgeni. While imperial power is ineffectual in assisting the ordinary people, it is also “unshakeable.”
Reinforcing this idea of the intransigence of power, in the Introduction, an implied analogy is drawn between Peter I and God as creator. Peter is not referred to by name, but only, reverentially, as “he,” recalling the Old Testament proscription against mentioning the name of God. Peter's building of the city reflects the creation of the universe as described in the Bible's Book of Genesis, in which God first creates light out of darkness. The site on which Peter builds St. Petersburg is described in images of primordial darkness: even the forest, a place of “gloom,” is “never visited by rays / Of the mist-shrouded sun.” The poet characterizes the built city, on the other hand, as a place of light. He describes the White Nights, during which he can read and write without a lamp; the streets “shine clearly,” “the Admiralty spire / Is luminous,” girls with bright faces travel in sledges along the frozen river, the balls are full of “sparkle” and the light blue flames of burning punch.
The effect of this likening of Peter I to God is to suggest that his will is no less than Russia's historical destiny, and to bear out his claim that “we are fated / To cut a window through to Europe.” Once more, a bringing in of the light (Europe was considered to be a higher civilization than Russia at the time) to a Russia sunk in medieval darkness is suggested in the image of the window.
Although Peter gains his window onto Europe, he cannot banish the forces of nature, symbolized by darkness. Peter's heroic aspirations are set against the realistic forces of nature. As Tsar Alexander is shown stating in the poem, Tsars have no power over the elements, which are equally as “divine” as Peter's omnipotent will. The flood threatens Peter's creation: it is described as occurring at night, in “darkened Petrograd.” When Yevgeni realizes that Parasha's house has been swept away in the flood, this moment is followed by a description of the darkness of night falling on the city, and of the people discussing the terrors of the disaster. With the dawn light comes an apparent restoration of Peter's order, with no trace of the disaster remaining. In reality, however, the losses of the night have not disappeared, but have merely been “covered by a purple cloak,” the cloak of Imperial power and will.
Nature's elements have been temporarily suppressed, but not conquered, any more than day conquers night. Nature and civilization, like darkness and light, the common people and their rulers, and the realistic and the heroic, are destined to coexist in Pushkin's Russia, sometimes in an uneasy truce, and at other times in open conflict.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on “The Bronze Horseman,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy
… Both Evgenii and Ichabod, in the parallel passages in which they elaborate their visions of future marital bliss, reveal their powers of imagination. While Evgenii's musings (“Zhenit'sia? Nu … za chem zhe net? …” [Get married? Well … why shouldn't I? …]), in which he envisions the course of his life to the grave, are pointedly prosaic, this passage is prefaced by the remark, “i razmechtalsia kak poet” (and, like a poet, set to musing), cautioning us not to dismiss his ability to dream too lightly. In the corresponding passage from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod reveals himself as a restless Yankee, his heart set more on the bounty Katrina represents than on the young woman herself. He confuses Katrina with the property owned by her father and dreams of the liquidation of these holdings, the transformation of the place into movable assets, disclosing an imagination as fertile as the land he covets:
Both Evgenii's and Ichabod's dreams of course come to naught, defeated by the competing visions of their more powerful rivals.
In this context I would finally point to what to my mind is the most significant convergence between the Pushkin and Irving works: the nature and function of the “supernatural” horsemen. In both cases, the figure represents an incursion of the past into the present. Moreover, the Headless Hessian, like the Falconet statue of Peter the Great, embodies a historical moment of revolutionary social upheaval, the effects of which shape contemporary life just as the Petrine “revolution” has created not only the physical setting but the social context that determines the sad course of Evgenii's life and demise. The confrontations between Ichabod and the Headless Horseman, on the one hand, and between Evgenii and Peter, on the other, thus represent a clash of historical forces that, despite appearances, leaves the “victor” and his “victory” in an ethically and even ontologically and aesthetically ambiguous position.
… We might do well to emulate Irving's critics in suggesting that the prevailing sociopolitical, historical, and even religious readings of The Bronze Horseman may yet not exhaust the interpretive possibilities of the poem. I have argued elsewhere that there is sufficient evidence in Pushkin's poem that Evgenii may be read as a poet figure. I will not repeat that argument here, but will merely adduce briefly the evidence I believe supports a reading that views Evgenii as a “writer” caught in the same net of constraints that conditioned Pushkin's own literary endeavors. Pace any number of scholars on The Bronze Horseman, I am not suggesting that Evgenii be read “autobiographically” (although autobiographical parallels between Pushkin and his protagonist support my argument). Evgenii “is” no more Pushkin than the comically preposterous Ichabod Crane “is” Washington Irving. Rather, I am suggesting that Pushkin placed Evgenii in a situation with unquestionable resonances with his own literary context.
In this regard we must first recognize that the confrontation between Evgenii and the tsar, autocrat and subject, constitutes at least as much a writer's problem—that is, specifically a defining condition of the literary culture of Pushkin's day—as it does a purely political issue. Pushkin's own tormented relationship with the tsar is too well documented to demand revisitation here, except to recall the extent to which it dominated Pushkin's literary fortunes. In this respect, The Bronze Horseman offers a characteristic case in point. Pushkin was counting on the profits from the sale of the works he hoped to produce at Boldino in the autumn of 1833 to ease his ever precarious financial position, as evidenced by the letter he wrote to the tsar on 30 July of that year requesting leave to absent himself from the capital:
In the course of the past two years I have been occupied with historical research alone, not writing a single line of the purely literary. I must spend a month or two in complete isolation, in order to rest up from my very important occupations and to finish a book I began a long time ago, and which will bring me money I need. I am myself sorry to waste time on vain pursuits, but what can I do? They alone bring me independence and a means of living with my family in Petersburg, where my labors, thanks to the sovereign, have a more important and useful goal.
Nicholas I's fundamental objections to the publication of The Bronze Horseman dashed Pushkin's hopes. Thus, while Irving lamented the absence of aristocratic patronage of the arts left at the mercy of the growing commercialism of American literature, Pushkin in essence found himself between these two worlds: his dependence on the tsar (a vestige of the old patronage system) and his need to live primarily off his own works in a cultural economy that favored potboiler prose over “gentleman poets.” Moreover, Pushkin's distaste for the “rabble” of the reading public, given voice most famously in such works as his “Razgovor knigoprodavtsa s poetom” (Conversation between the bookseller and the poet), are echoed in The Bronze Horseman as well. If Evgenii is to be viewed as a representative of the “people,” then the callous indifference of the Petersburg narod to his fate appears all the more jarring, particularly Pushkin's insistence on its mercantile nature:
… (And order was again restored. / With cold insensitivity / The masses walked upon the streets / So recently freed by the waters. / Emerging from their past night's shelters, / Officials hurried to their jobs. / The fearless merchant, not despairing, / Opened up his plundered cellar / And counted up his heavy losses / For which he planned to wreak revenge.)
In the final analysis, Evgenii is a “writer,” a clerk who “serves” (sluzhit) the state for money, a sad comedown for the scion of a noble family that once “shone beneath Karamzin's pen” (pod perom Karamzina … prozvuchalo) and a sad commentary on the writer's abasement, not only before the public, but also before the state for his livelihood.
Let us then turn to the crucial confrontation between Evgenii and the statue. First of all, we should note that Evgenii's challenge to the statue—“Dobro, stroitel' chudotvornyi! … Uzho tebe!” (Just wait, proud miracle creator!)—constitutes the sole instance of direct speech in the poem, and his words are specifically addressed to Peter the Great as the miraculous builder of the city, the poser, dare I say, of a creative challenge. The Bronze Horseman's response to Evgenii's challenge lends itself to two possible interpretations: either the statue really comes alive or the event transpires only in Evgenii's imagination. I would argue, however, that the latter, “naturalistic” explanation yields a richer reading of the poem. If the statue comes alive only in Evgenii's mind, then the poor clerk becomes a poet surrogate who not only forces a reaction from the hitherto impassive statue but in essence “rewrites” Peter in the Gothic mode, “displacing” the statue out of material reality into the realm of the poet's fantasy. It would seem, then, that the poema presents us with two symmetrical creative acts—Peter's at the beginning and Evgenii's at the end—the juxtaposition of which suggests a mode of being for the writer in the autocratic state. Thus, Pushkin seems to suggest, the creative imagination may yield to political reality on the historical plane—Peter's city will remain standing long after Evgenii's fleeting moment of poetic inspiration has passed. Yet, at the same time, the artistic act—intangible though its fruits may be—has the power to transform, to “displace” the matter of the historical world. In the confrontation between poet and tsar, the poet emerges victorious in the invisible space of the mind.
Let me conclude by reiterating that, hardly surprisingly, both Pushkin and Irving address in what are among their most enduring works the forces that shaped and circumscribed their own careers as writers, standing at the beginning of the emergence of their national literatures on the world stage, haunted by the specter of the overtowering legacy of the western European cultural past. Clearly the threats posed to literature by their respective cultures were different, as history has generously demonstrated. Equally clearly, Pushkin's knowledge of America was limited and his attitude toward the new democracy, as he would express it several years after completing The Bronze Horseman and only shortly before his death, mixed grudging admiration with distinct hostility. Yet in Irving, it would seem, he found a kindred spirit, or, perhaps more to the point, a fellow writer caught, like himself, in the growing pains of a young literary culture to which he, like Pushkin after him, gave enduring shape through his works.
Source: Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, “Pushkin's ‘The Bronze Horseman’ and Irving's ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’: A Curious Case of Cultural Cross-Fertilization,” in Slavic Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 337-51.
Barta, Peter I., “The Bronze Horseman: Overview,” in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2nd edition, edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.
Bayley, John, “Pushkin's Tales,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 197-215.
Gogol, Nikolai, “A Few Words about Pushkin,” in Russian Literature Triquarterly, Vol. 10, 1974, pp. 180-83.
Gutsche, George J., “Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 205: Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Poetry and Drama, edited by Christine A. Rydel, The Gale Group, 1999, pp. 243-80.
Kahn, Andrew, Pushkin's “The Bronze Horseman,” Bristol Classical Press, 2006, pp. 9-11, 99-100.
NEDECO, St. Petersburg Flood Protection Barrier Environmental Impact Assessment Study Executive Summary, August 16, 2002, pp. 1-2.
Pushkin, Alexander, “The Bronze Horseman,” in The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems, translated with an introduction by D. M. Thomas, Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 247-57.
Smith, Alexandra, “Pushkin's Imperial Image of St Petersburg Revisited,” in Two Hundred Years of Pushkin, Volume II: Alexander Pushkin: Myth and Monument, edited by Robert Reid and Joe Andrew, Rodopi, 2003, pp. 117-38.
Feinstein, Elaine, Pushkin: A Biography, Ecco, 2000.
This book by a British poet and novelist is one of the more readable biographies of Pushkin, detailing his turbulent personal life, love affairs, and the events that led up to the duel in which he died.
Gore, Al, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, Rodale Books, 2006.
Many climate scientists believe that natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts are increasing because of an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by man's burning of fossil fuels, a phenomenon known as global warming. Gore's book (and his film of the same name) brings together the scientific evidence for manmade climate change in an easily understandable form, and puts forward practical solutions to the problem.
Kahn, Andrew, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
This book provides a collection of essays by leading scholars discussing Pushkin's work in its political, literary, social, and intellectual contexts.
Massie, Suzanne, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, Simon and Schuster, 1980.
This popular and meticulously researched book provides an accessible and engaging overview of Russian history and culture from 987 to 1917. It has become a seminal text for anyone who wants to understand the Russian nation and people.
McQuaid, John, and Mark Schleifstein, Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, Little, Brown, 2006.
In 2005, the United States suffered its own catastrophic flood on a par with the St. Petersburg flood of 1824. This book examines the events leading up to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans, and shows how a series of mistakes over 300 years culminated in this preventable disaster.
Shvidkovsky, Dmitri O., St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, with photographs by Alexander Orloff, translated by John Goodman, Abbeville Press, 1996.
No study of St. Petersburg is complete without an exploration of its architecture, and the best way of achieving this in the absence of a personal visit may be to study this book on the buildings constructed by the Tsars since the time of Peter I. The text is informative and the sumptuous photographs do justice to the beauty and harmony of this planned city.