The Figure of Peter the Great in Alexander Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

There are certain personages in each nation's history who so powerfully affect the course of that nation's history that any artist who strives for major status in that nation's literature must address them. Peter the Great is such a figure in Russian literature, since he almost singlehandedly reformed much of Russian culture, forcing the nobility to give up their traditional Russian ways and adopt the ways of the Western aristocracy. As the first great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin could hardly avoid dealing with the figure of Peter the Great in his literary works. Peter the Great looms large in Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, and thus it is interesting to examine how Pushkin treats the figure of Peter the Great in this poem.

Peter the Great is the first character to appear in the poem, entering in the second line. He stands motioness on the shore and gazes at the countryside, only his mind active as he plans the city that he will raise from the barren swampland. Pushkin shows him here with certain attributes that are almost divine, as though he were one of the gods of classical antiquity. Compared to Peter the Great, the Finn in his skiff (the only other human being in this opening scene) is reduced to an almost pitiful insignificance. It is interesting to note that Pushkin does not name Peter the Great, but instead simply as "on"(he.) And more significantly, in Pushkin's original manuscript the initial letter of the pronoun was capitalized, as is customary only for the Deity. One might almost suspect that Pushkin were planning to go so far as to compare Peter the Great to the Christian God, but the printers shrank from what might be perceived by some as blasphemy and limited Pushkin's image to a comparison with the classical gods. Also, the fact that Peter the Great is shown as being motionless is significant, for it is as if he were already a statue, as he will be when we meet him once again.

Then Pushkin switches from the mode of the mythmaker to that of the historian as he describes the city of Peter's creation standing on the banks of the Neva River. The figure of Peter is no longer present, but his personality continues to make itself felt in every aspect of the city that he created. After all, if it had not been for him, there would be no Petersburg, only so much empty swamp as had been there for untold centuries before Peter decreed that a city should be built there to be Russia's new capital.

When Peter the Great once again appears in the poem, he is no longer the tsar gazing over the swamp and envisioning the city that he will cause to rise from the soggy ground. Rather he is now the equestrian statue which Catherine the Great had made in his honor, the Bronze Horseman of the title. At first we do not actually see him, when Eugene is sitting on the back of one of the lions in that square, for Eugene's back is turned to the statue itself. But for any Russian reader familiar with Petersburg, the reference to the statue would be perfectly clear. And Eugene's pose on the lion is a sort of parody of the statue.

When the Bronze Horseman actually makes his appearance, Pushkin calls him a towering idol, bringing the image of Peter-as-god full circle. If Peter was a classical god in the prologue, his statue now is the idol at which the Russians worship him. And certainly the statue retains many of the godlike attributes of Peter as Pushkin showed him in the prologue. As Peter's godlike stature reduced the Finn to insignificance, the statue makes Eugene all the more pitiful a figure, like a mere insect. Even as Eugene reviles the statue of the Tsar, he calls Peter a "wonder-worker," recognizing even in his madness the great things that Peter accomplished. As the statue comes to life and chases Eugene through the streets to his doom, we are reminded of the many myths in which a foolish mortal seeks to mock the shrine of a god, only to have the god animate the idol which then destroys the would-be desecrator. Yet Pushkin is too much of a modern rational man to allow it to be "real" and instead leaves the description of the scene ambiguous, leaving open the possibility that it is nothing more than a delusion of Eugene's tormented mind that drives him to his doom.

Thus we can see that Pushkin treats Peter the Great as something more than human, a superman so vast and powerful that he crushes mere mortals beneath him by his sheer greatness. Eugene was first deprived of his family and then his life by the works of Peter the Great. This is how Pushkin treats the figure of Peter the Great.

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Originally written for a class in Ninteenth Century Russian Literature taught by Associate Professor Richard V. Tempest, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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