The Bronse Horseman Медный всадник 1782.

The Bronze Horseman (Медный всадник)

One of the most iconic monuments of Russia is the Bronze Horseman in St. Petersburg.

The Bronze Horseman is a famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great – the first emperor of Russia.

The statue was unveiled in 1782 at Senate Square (Сенатская площадь) in Saint-Petersburg, where the history of different periods and rules and uprisings is preserved and remembered in breathtaking works of sculpture and architecture. Formerly, it was called the Decembrists’ Square (Площадь Декабристов) in memory the bloody Decembrist Revolt (Восстание декабристов,1825).

Decembrist Revolt depicting the murder of Mikhail Miloradovich by Pyotr Kakhovsky painted by Vasily Perov

The Statue

The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great and was sculpted by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet.

This may sound surprising, but Russia has been highly influenced by art and tastes outside of it’s borders and incorporated and often transformed them into its own unique style. Opera is one area where Russia was heavily influenced by Europe. Russian opera is among one of the great Operatic traditions alongside Italian, French, and German opera and is loved by many outside of Russia. There are a lot of European influences in the architecture of Saint-Petersburg in particular.

Russia is not closed off and isolated as many people believe, but for hundreds of years has been creating magnificent works of fine art that and was influenced by the West. In addition to having various cultures within its own enormous land mass, Russia has also been influenced by different cultures while preserving its own unique culture and art.

In fact, two of the most famous ballets in the world, The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик) and Swan Lake (ебеди́ное о́зеро), are Russian.

Catherine the Great had the statue inscribed with “Петру перьвому Екатерина вторая, лѣта” in Russian and in Latin (Petro Primo Catharina Secunda).

Both inscriptions mean ‘To Peter the First from Catherine the Second.’

If you’re learning Russian like me, you may notice the letter ‘ѣ’ stand out. This is known as pre-reform orthography which saw standardization and major changes to the rules of orthography of the Russian language in 1918.

The pedestal of the statue is made from a single piece of red granite in the shape of a cliff.

This makes me think of one of my favorite Russian songs by the beloved bard Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (Владимир Семёнович Высоцкий) – Fastidious Steeds (Кони привередливые) I have lost count of how many times I have listened to this song and so many times I have gotten goosebumps. I actually first heard it when I still in school and was watching the film White Knights (Бе́лые но́чи,1985) featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov (Михаил Николаевич Барышников) (regarded as one of the best ballet dancers and choreographers of all time), where he dances an interpretation of this song.

That was my first taste of Vystoksky’s music. I was taken aback by the power of the emotion in the songs, how expressive they were and his unique voice. Even though I didn’t and still don’t know what many of his songs mean I can still feel the emotion in the songs, the pain.

The song can be seen as an allegory to addiction and the narrator not being able to stop this stead, which is charging towards the cliff’s edge. He knows that it will take him off the edge, and cannot stop it. Vystoksky was in bad health and struggled with an addiction so this was a personal song when he was already sick and probably knew his addiction would kill him.

I’m not implying that this is the meaning of the statue – the statue portrays Peter I as a hero in a strong and powerful posture. The symbol of horses is prominent in Russian art and culture whether it’s songs, paintings or statues.

Because of the importance of Peter the Great, and the reception of the statue, it has been adapted into various forms and was even put on the National Coat of Arms of the Russian Federation.

The foot of the statue is named the Thunder Stone. It was considered the largest stone moved by man. It originally weighed 1500 tonnes but was carved down to 1250 to make it more manageable to transport. This is a symbol of Peter the Great’s might and strength but was also a symbol the strength of the Russian Empire.

Coat of Arms of the Russian Federation

The serpent upon which the horse tramples helps keep the statue stable, and is symbolic of defeating evil. This is a special symbol to Russia, which is Orthodox Christian, referencing St. George. You can also see this on the National Coat of Arms of the Russian Federation. You can see this same symbolism on the Coat of arms of Moscow featured below as another example.

Coat of arms of Moscow

Works Inspired By The Bronze Horseman

The city of Saint-Petersburg’s official film studio, Lenfilm Ленфильм, 1914, has long used the bronze horseman covered by two searchlights as its registered trademark. Lenfilm was named from the city of Leningrad (Ленинград), a previous name of Saint-Petersburg. The studio has created such memorable films as Heart of a Dog, (Собачье сердце, 1988) and White Sun of the Desert (Белое солнце пустыни,1969).

Lenfilm studio logo

The Bronze Horseman inspired a famous poem by the legendary poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin (Александр Пушки) with the same title.

I read this poem and really enjoyed it. Prior to this poem I had only read translated short stories by Pushkin, but this was the first time reading a poem of this length. It is at times bizarre and funny.

I read this version which is from Edinburgh University Press.

The artist and historian Alexandre Benois (Александр Бенуа) also created an illustration for Pushkin’s poem, The Bronze Horseman. Benois was co-founder and member of the World of Art (Мир искусства) collective which was a counter movement to The Itinerants (Передви́жники) whose members included some of my favourite artists. These movements sought to be free of the constraining rules of the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint-Petersburg. Alexandre Benois was very influential on ballet art and exerted a considerable influence on ballet and stage design.

“Members of the World of Art Movement”, by Boris Kustodiev (1916-1920)

The Bronze Horseman also inspired a painting by one of my favourite Russian painters – Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (Василий Иванович Суриков)

The Bronze Horseman painted by Vasily Surikov

His paintings have a grit and detail that showcased the hardness of life, in exquisite detail.

The first painting I saw of his was when I bought a CD when I was in school. It was of the Oratorio titled Stephan Razin (Стенька Разин) by Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович), one of my favourite composers. The cover had the painting Stephan Razin by Vasily Surikov which was painted in 1906. Coincidentally it is also about an attempted overthrow, but of a rebel that tried to mount a coup and was publicly executed. Stephan Razin part of Russian mythology and history. The oratorio has incredibly beautiful choruses and is one of my favorite choral works.

There is also a ballet by Reinhold Glière with the same subject. It has been performed by the prestigious Marinskii Theatre (Мариинский театр), which is based in Saint-Petersburg and has been operating since 1860.

The Bronze Horseman by Reinhold Glière with illustration by Alexandre Benois.

The statue is sometimes referred to as the Copper Horseman – I have encountered different explanations for this, but I don’t know the real reason.

I love how Russia has so much culture and beauty and art around individual topics, people, or events. There is a statue on a square where a bloody revolution happened with an execution and later a massacre, there is a poem, there is a ballet, there are paintings.

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