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"The Bronze Horseman': The Exploration of The Image of Peter The Great

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The story of “The Bronze Horseman: A Tale of Petersburg” by Aleksandr Pushkin illustrates the power of the Tsar, Peter the Great, who brings his glorious city into fruition. The city continues to thrive, however, not without the obvious ill-treatment of its citizens. Soon St. Petersburg begins to outshine its older sister, Moscow. Seemingly untouchable, the great St. Petersburg and its citizens, are thrust into chaos by a flash flood. This brings to light that, although the Tsar is thought of as “all-powerful” in Russia, “The Bronze Horseman” explores how nature is the one who truly is.

The generosity of nature was what granted Peter the Great with the canvas on which to create his extravagant city in Russia. The landscape he thought so great as to build his city on it and where “Here we at Nature’s own behest, Shall break a window to the West”. That is, he saw the building of his city as some will of nature; that nature agreed with his royal plans. After the war with the Finnish and Swedes, Peter decides to build a city that will be the “Crown gem and marvel of the North”. The city grows into a flourishing town of its time. One with “bustling banks” and “well-ordered ranks, Of palaces and towers;”. Pushkin continues to describe how St. Petersburg grows to outshine the older Moscow. The city seemingly shone so brightly, the narrator can “read and write lampless” in his room at dusk. He goes on to tell St. Petersburg to thrive and “flaunt its beauty”. Although being sent into exile by Alexander I, even Pushkin can appreciate just how glorious the city has grown to be. However, he warns the city to “Stand…Till floods and storms from chafing duty, May return to peace with thee at last”. That is, the city should continue to thrive until nature sees it fit to demolish both the city and its untouchable legacy. This is seen as foreshadowing to the events later in the story. Despite the city’s magnificence, Yevgeny, in his broken state, chastises Peter the Great as, by his will, “the city by the sea was planted”. As picturesque as this site would make for a powerful city, its dangers were very clear; much like the unpredictability of nature’s will.

In the same fashion, there is an obvious power inequality between the people of Russia and the nobility, much like Peter the Great and nature. The lifestyles of those living in St. Petersburg contrast shockingly. Though not a serf, Yevgeny is still a member of the humble emerging class comprising of civil servants who have yet to find their place in the Russian hierarchy. In the line “I’m young and strong, Content to labor hard and long” we see that Yevgeny both acknowledges and is content with his place in Russian society. The Tsars and the ruling class lead entirely different, more privileged and comfortable lives. This can be seen in the mere fact that Peter the Great simply chose a place for his dream city to be built and there it continues to live to this day. Notably, Pushkin uses Yevgeny and the statue of the Bronze Horseman not only as class symbols for the people populating the city but also the city itself. The awe-inspiring public spaces, such as the palaces and statues, also shared the city with numerous overcrowded, poverty-stricken cottages. Furthermore, Pushkin’s method of introduction for both characters add emphasis to the power each man, and by extension, each class holds. Peter is introduced as the visionary, who amidst fighting and winning a war, sees through the birth of a magnificent and powerful city. Yevgeny, however, was met as he was wandering home soon to be filled with thoughts “That he was poor, and by his labor must secure, A portion of esteem and treasure”.

Consequently, what of the Tsar during the disastrous flood? While the lower-class citizens suffered, the nobility was still virtually safe. For instance, the line “The palace stood, Like a lone cliff the waters riding” illustrates how the palace, and those in it, are so high above and detached from the chaos ensuing below. Similarly, Yevgeny came face-to-face with the bronze horseman who was seemingly unaffected by the flood. This reflects just how the lifestyles of the nobles and the lower-class result in the effects of the flood on both parties being vastly different. After seeing that his love, Parasha, and her mother’s house was washed away, it seems to dawn on Yevgeny how truly insignificant he and the rest of his class are in comparison to the nobles. “Distraught and somber, He paces back and forward there, Talks to himself aloud, soon after, Bursts out abruptly into laughter, And slaps his forehead.”. This appears to be what initiates his hallucinations of the Bronze Horseman chasing him.

Upon his second encounter with the Bronze horseman, Yevgeny verbalizes how influential the Tsar was. Calling him “Destiny’s great potentate”, destiny’s ruler with the power to shape the country’s fate; and shape it he did! Not only with the city’s defenselessness against floods despite its location, but the fact that one man’s will was realized at the cost of thousands of lives. However, despite the vast power inequity between the classes in Tsar Russia, nature soon shows who truly holds the unchallenged power.

Although Peter the Great was triumphant at creating the marvellous city he envisioned, it was never truly as unrivalled as he would have hoped. Even though he, and the other Tsars of Russia, had unsurpassed power over the people, nature was one thing they all remained a slave to. The leaders’ defences against the floods that frequented the city were still not powerful enough to withstand the intensity of the November 19, 1824 flood. The Neva easily overtook the city “like a frenzied beast”. The same city that Peter the Great had to fight a war to obtain. The Tsar at the time could do nothing but peer off his balcony and watch the sight as “For czars, there is no pitting, Their power against the Lord’s”. In Part Two of “The Bronze Horseman”, the first stanza relates the intensity of the Neva’s rampage on the city to that of a highwayman who would have plundered and robbed the town at gunpoint. The flood not only destroyed the city but killed many citizens along the way. Their bodies scattered like corpses on a battleground, a battle with nature that they lost. Those who survived were left to withstand the grief of what had happened. For example, Yevgeny, after the loss of his love, “A week – a month – and still, Astray from home”. He did not even retrieve his belongings as he was in such a state of despair at the flood’s destruction. In the end, both Yevgeny’s dreams of simple contentment and Peter the Great’s grandiose plans for his city were crushed by the whim of the Neva. After a brutal display of power, the Neva recoils into a pacified state, leaving the citizens of St. Petersburg to pick up the pieces of their mighty city.

To conclude, though the Tsar has been thought of as “all-powerful” in Russia, “The Bronze Horseman” explores how nature is the one who truly is. The fact that nature was the one that gave Peter the Great the space in which to create this great city should not be ignored. This city, however, flourished into one with great injustice. The unrivalled power of the Tsar is pressingly obvious. Still, the effects of the flood on the Tsar’s creation and the citizens brought to light who is truly unmatched. This creates the idea that, despite common belief, the Tsar is still as human and as vulnerable as the rest in the face of nature.   

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