Peter the Great
Peter the Great (the Bronze Horseman), the historical figure Peter the First, known in the West as Peter the Great. He ruled Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725. An enormous man of vast talents and brutal rages, he set out to make Russia a truly European power by sheer force of will and imperial decree. His reforms affected every aspect of government—military, administrative, and fiscal—and every aspect of society and culture. This meant that, among other changes, centuries-old habits of dress and manner sanctified by religious custom were ordered cast aside in favor of Western styles. The czars hitherto had been perceived as God’s righteous, anointed rulers, the embodiment of all that was Orthodox Russia. Such decrees as Peter’s therefore led many to believe that he was an impostor, perhaps even the Antichrist himself. No act was more symbolic of the cataclysmic changes Peter brought on Russia than was his founding of a new capital, St. Petersburg, in 1703, the act with which the poem begins. In his role as creator and conqueror, he chooses a site well suited to his strategic and political aims but utterly unsuited to human habitation. The marshy delta of the Neva River is unformed, unstable land, a floodplain that will claim thousands of lives as the capital is being built and later thousands more from disease and natural disaster. What Peter sees is a fortress, a port, an elegant city, a “window hacked through to...
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