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Peter's City

May 14, 2009 at 9:26 am
By Kenny Bendiksen & Nikki Reich

Overlooking the Neva river stands an impressive and imposing statue of Peter the Great on horseback.  Every element of the monument is deliberate, speaking to the power of Peter to impose his will on nature and the magnificence of his vision to transform Russia. The horse is rearing up on its hind legs, but Peter remains implacable with hand outstretched in a gesture of control and command. The statue, designed by Frechman Etienne-Maurice Falconet, was unveiled in 1782 as a gift from Catherine II in memory of her predecessor Peter the Great. But don’t think that the same Catherine who killed off her own husband to gain power suddenly went soft: Catherine’s statue is more of a gift to herself, a conniving way to link herself with all the greatness, authority, and success of Peter’s rule.

The Bronze Horseman 

More than just a symbol of the monarchy’s authority, the statue also represents the tension between east and west that has marked the city since its founding. Peter wanted for Russia a “window to the west” and a transformation of his country to bring it into accordance with European ideals, fashions, and ways of life in a time when Russia was very much a separate entity with strong historical connections to roots in the East. But Petersburg was to redefine the character of Russia: the city was envisioned as the “Northern Rome.” The streets are logically laid out in a grid providing much-needed relief from the ring system of Moscow--even Carleton students found their way around without a map. Even the location of the city is important: first, the city overlooks the Gulf of Finland making it the westernmost major city in Russia.
As Peter’s “ideal city,” St. Petersburg (as demonstrated through the Bronze Horseman) represents the conquering of nature and imposition of human will. The city was built on a marsh and the construction process itself cost many lives. Plus, until the addition of a drainage system in the 20th century, the city suffered from constant flooding. The stubborn move to go ahead with construction on such a foundation well represents Peter’s modus operandi. We see this resolution to overcome natural barriers and replace the wild with the orderly (and European) in the statue as well as the horse crushes a serpent with its hind legs.

Bronze Horseman - Serpent

Sunday, June 22, 1941 changed the history of Peter’s city forever: Operation Barbarossa had begun with 4.5 million Axis troops advancing into Russia. As for the Bronze Horseman, the people of what was then, Leningrad, had piled sandbags around the statue as they safeguarded the city against the ensuing invasion. Yet again the Bronze Horseman symbolized the conquering of the uncontrollable, but this time, instead of the elements of nature, it was the German army. After 900 days of unimaginable human struggle, the people of Leningrad succeeded in holding off the Germans and drove them out of the environs on January 14, 1944. The people of Leningrad believed that as long as the statue stood, the city would never fall.

The Bronze Horseman - WWII

The memorial to the siege was itself quite striking. Two pavilions with information inside bore witness to the living conditions during the siege, and behind them extended out a long walkway leading up to a wall with a commemorative poem. All along the walkway on either side were mass graves with only the years to identify them and a symbol to designate civilian or military deaths. The records indicated at least three thousand dead per day. There was funereal music playing, creating an atmosphere of solitude yet strength. People wandered through the trees and rows of mass graves, leaving flowers at different spots--clearly these people were paying visit because of a personal connection to a loved one and not out of a sense of more general duty. The number of these visitors demonstrated just how many people were affected--even today, more than 60 years later, almost every Petersburg family can recall a loved one lost.