No Comment, Quotation — October 24, 2010, 1:19 am

Pushkin – The Bronze Horseman

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For now he seemed to see
The awful Emperor, quietly,
With momentary anger burning,
His visage to Yevgeny turning!
And rushing through the empty square,
He hears behind him as it were
Thunders that rattle in a chorus,
A gallop ponderous, sonorous,
That shakes the pavement. At full height,
Illumined by the pale moonlight,
With arm outflung, behind him riding
See, the bronze horseman comes, bestriding
The charger, clanging in his flight.
All night the madman flees; no matter
Where he may wander at his will,
Hard on his track with heavy clatter
There the bronze horseman gallops still.
Thereafter, whensoever straying
Across that square Yevgeny went
By chance, his face was still betraying
Disturtance and bewilderment.
As though to ease a heart tormented
His hand upon it he would clap
In haste, put off his shabby cap,
And never raise his eyes demented,
And seek some byway unfrequented.
A little island lies in view
Along the shore; and here, belated,
Sometimes with nets a fisher-crew
Will moor and cook their long-awaited
And meager supper. Hither too
Some civil servant, idly floating,
Will come upon a Sunday, boating.
That isle is desolate and bare;
No blade of grass springs anywhere.
Once the great flood had sported, driving
The frail hut thither. Long surviving,
It floated on the water there
Like some black bush. A vessel plying
Bore it, last spring, upon her deck.
They found it empty, all a wreck;
And also, cold and dead and lying
Upon the threshold, they had found
My crazy hero. In the ground
His poor cold body there they hurried,
And left it to God’s mercy, buried.

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, from the conclusion of ?????? ???????: ????????????? ??????? (The Bronze Horseman) first published in excerpt in ?????????? ??? ?????? (1834)(W. Lednicki transl. 1955)


Russians refer to the dramatic equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg as “the copper horseman,” and that’s because of this poem by Pushkin, which first used the moniker (English translators substituted “bronze” for copper, an act of alchemy apparently intended to improve on the original). It may well be one of the most important political poems in the Russian language, and in any event it has exercised an enormous influence on the politics of the Russian world of letters for a considerable period. In the poem, a young man laments the death of a beloved in floods that struck St Petersburg. Why, he demands, filled with anguish and confronting the statute of Peter I, did you choose to build your capital in such a god-forsaken place? But then the poem is charged with an element of the surreal that suggests that the young subject has been driven insane. The protagonist finds himself chased through the city by the copper horseman, who has come down from his pedestal. The plaintive voice goes silent; we learn that his body also turns up, a victim to the same waters that had claimed his beloved.

Pushkin’s poem uses a number of themes from the standard Romantic repertoire, including early death and death in water, but it’s the political element that gives his poem its backbone. It’s plainly about the relationship between the state (manifested in that strangely threatening equestrian statue) and the individual. The fact of the statue’s outstretched hand focuses the inquiry. Just what does it mean? The archconservative diplomat and political philosopher Joseph de Maistre had remarked on this before Pushkin wrote his poem: does the outstretched hand promise protection to the citizen (as a main protectrice) or is its real intention to threaten, to remind the subject of his duty to obey and keep silent? It suggests that the state, pursuing the goal of betterment for society as a whole, will take steps that may be tragic and unfair to individuals, even causing death, but the presence of an authoritarian ruler is essential to order and development of society. That summarizes de Maistre’s great-power conservative take. But just what is Pushkin’s attitude? His poem is a very careful exercise in planned ambiguity.

An attentive reader can find two distinct and irreconcilable threads in it. In the Soviet period both of these threads were recognized and an effort was made to synthesize them. Pushkin would routinely be seen as a heroic idealist who rallied against the tyranny and autocracy of the tsars–which is certainly true at some level. Yet this poem was also regularly viewed as acceptance of the civilizing force of the state–the need for it to assume a transforming mission which might entail enormous sacrifice by individuals, but which would mean a brighter future for society as a whole. Peter’s decision to drain the swamps in the area between the Neva and the Baltic Sea and to anchor there a new capital that would look westwards towards Europe was a perfect example of this force; and the massive public works projects of the Bolsheviks were a continuation of this tradition. There’s no doubt that Pushkin’s relationship with the legacy of Peter the Great is complex–for instance, he was terribly proud to have been descended from a Black servant of the great Westernizer. But in the end this laudatory construction seems improbable. Pushkin is living in a budding police state. The Decembrist uprising has been suppressed. Pushkin stayed clear of it despite some secret sympathies for the conspirators. But he has to cope with the roaming eye of the tsar, ever on the lookout for domestic enemies, particularly among the privileged elites. It is thus far more likely that Pushkin has simply cushioned his sentiments in a bit of ambiguity. Plainly, Pushkin is critical of the role of autocrats, even those possessed of a splendid vision for society’s future. He cherishes a society that places more value on the individual and assures him more personal freedom. He is suspicious of too many demands placed on the individual in the name of the state. He is resentful of the state’s heavy handed repression of the intelligentsia. In any event, we can be reasonably confident that Count Benckendorff, the head of the tsar’s secret police, read the Pushkin poem this way–which is why he initially suppressed it, leaving it to appear in its entirety only after the great poet was dead.

And thus Vasily Grossman is right to single out this poem in his novel Everything Flows: it points to the rise of a national security state that threatens to crush the individual and the creative seed within him, but it is cunning enough to package this message in ambiguous language that will allow its survival. It thus highlights the historical paradox faced by Russian thinkers intent on crafting an appeal for freedom that can be published and can survive in a state with deep authoritarian roots.


Listen to a 1953 performance of the aria “They Guess the Truth” (???? ??????!) from Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (????? ?? ????)(1836) – in a military conflict with Poland in the early seventeenth century, a patriotic Russian sacrifices his own life to insure the personal safety of the tsar. The opera presents the ideal of the authoritarian state in which every subject should be prepared to sacrifice his own life for that of the autocrat. It is roughly contemporaneous with Pushkin’s poem but presents the diametrically opposed, and officially sanctioned viewpoint.

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