“The Bronze Horseman” (1833)
Pushkin’s comment on Peter the Great’s project of modernization, a century after his reign (and eight years after the Decembrist Revolt, the failed attempt by liberal officers in the army to force the Tsar to accept a constitutional monarchy.)
- Threatened by Islamic peoples in the Russian Southeast and Catholic peoples in the Russian Northwest, Peter had to act to modernize the military or he faced the reduction of Russia to a bit player in European power politics and even the prospect of the eventual dissolution of the Russian nation.
- In his youth Peter had been schooled in the necessity of exercising terror in royal power politics.
- In his early manhood, Peter traveled extensively in the European West where he observed the military might of governments which had achieved sovereignty within their borders: England’s parliamentary system and France’s absolutist system had begin their duel for the domination of world trade.
- Modernization of Russian army and navy
- Raising taxes more efficiently (cutting out the middle men) by rationalizing the state bureaucracy: creation of a ‘meritocracy’(Table of Ranks) in place of an aristocracy which rewarded individual initiative over simple blind loyalty.
- Creation of St. Petersburg as the new power center of his empire
- Subduing the church and making it into the ideological arm of the state
- Keeping order through the exercise of terror
- Ruthlessly squeezing the peasantry for the wealth necessary to underpinning the whole project
Peter’s enlightened despotism created St. Petersburg and set Russia on its particular course of modernization. (A determinist would argue that this course was the only option.)
Peter made Russia into a player in European power politics by consolidating the tsar’s power.
opened Russia to the West, to the science of government and high tech
methods of waging war (artillery). However, by opeing Russia to the
West Peter also exposed people to the ideas which drove political
movements with sought to free the nation’s citizens from exploitation
Judgments of Peter:
Opening Russian thought to Enlightenment science
Westernizers did not like:
of tyrannical rule unconstrained by law
a strong tsar who improves national security and expands the empire by building a world class military
Slavophiles did not like:
the weakening of church influence
the opening of the Russian mind to alien ideas (which rushed into the country like a flood).
the tightening grip of the autocracy
November 19, 1824 The Neva flooded 13.5 feet over the flood level. 462 house were destroyed and 569 people were killed. The floods resulted from poor planning in the initial design of the city. The city had flooded over 270 times in the hundred years of its history. This was the biggest catastrophe.
The poet Karamzin had written a sentimental elegy commemorating the flood. Pushkin begins The Bronze Horseman with his parody of that poem.
The Decembrist Uprising (1825)
On December 14, 1825, the officer corps of the military had gathered at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to pledge their loyaly to the new tsar, Nicholas I. A number of liberal officers, influenced by their experiences in the West during the Napoleonic Wars, sought to pressure the tsar into forming a constitutional government based on liberal conceptions of the rights of the individual and separation of power between different institutions of government. Tsar Nicholas had loyal troops fire on the rebels, and the rebellious officers were arrested and either executed or exiled to Siberia.
This abortive rebellion shook Nicholas, and in response he banned all open dissent or criticism of the regime. To enforce his rule, Nicholas formed the Third Section, a secret police which would seek to infiltrate any organized resistance to autocratic rule.
By 1828, Nicholas I had recalled Pushkin from exile and made him a favourite at court. Nicholas I served Pushkin as his personal censor and gave the poet access to the historical archives at court. Pushkin wrote many works in different forms that were the result of his work in the archives. He researched the era of Peter the Great and wrote a patriotic poem celebrating the tsar's victory in the Battle of Poltava. He began a novel titled The Negro of Peter the Great in which he explored the life of his famous ancestor Abram Petrovich Gannibal who was a black African that served Peter the Great and was made a noble. Pushkin studied the era of the Pugachev rebellion during Cahterine the Great's reign and wrote a historical novel about the upheavel.
So, The Bronze Horseman should be considered in the context of Pushkin's complicated relationship with Nicholas I. Any criticism of the tsar could only be discerned within the sub-text of his poetry and fiction.
The famous statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg which is the subject of Pushkin’s poem was commissioned by Catherine the Great as a tribute to her predecessor and sculpted by the French artist Falconet in 1782. Falconet depicts Peter on horseback rearing atop a pedestal of red granite shaped like a cliff. The horse crushes a snake beneath one hoof. The pedestal is the famous Thunder Stone, claimed by St. Petersburg legend to be the largest stone ever moved. City legend also has it that the city will never be conquered while the horseman stands. During the 900 day siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during the Second World War, the statue stood in place- protected by sandbags- and survived unhurt.
Close Reading of Poem
The Idea! (140)
Evgeny the Hero (142-43),
The Flood of the Neva (143-44)
Tsar Alexander Contemplates the Storm (144)
The Neva Recedes (146)
Parasha is Dead (146-47)
Scoundrel Time (147)
Evgeny Goes Mad. (148)
Evgeny Homeless (148)
Accusing the Bronze Horseman (149-50)
The Statue Comes to Life (150)
Evgeny Drowns in the Neva (151)