The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Peter the Great, astride his bronze horse, stands on the desolate Baltic shore on the northwest borders of his domain and gazes off into the distance. The very landscape around him seems unformed, unclear: the land soft and marshy, the sun shrouded in mist, the Finnish huts flimsy and temporary. Peter’s design, however, is quite clear. Here, on the delta of the river Neva, out of nothing, he will build St. Petersburg, a fortress against the powerful Swedes, a new capital, a magnet to ships of all nations, a “window into Europe.”

One hundred years passed, according to the narrator, and the city grew into a busy port, into a strategic fortress, and into a network of granite-faced rivers and canals lined with palaces, parks, and gardens, a metropolis whose power and elegance put dowdy old Moscow, the “dowager” capital, decidedly in the shade. It is all Peter’s creation: the majesty of the architecture, the vast expanses of the city lit by the “white nights” of early summer, the sounds of winter—of sleighs and lavish balls—the sights and sounds of imperial troops on parade. Let the city flaunt its beauty, and let Peter’s eternal sleep go undisturbed, says the narrator. However, there is a certain, terrible time and a sad story to be told.

On a dark November evening in 1824, a young man named Evgeny lies in his rented rooms in an unfashionable suburban quarter and listens to the rain and wind. He cannot sleep, and he thinks idly that it would be nice to have more brains and money or at least to have someone else’s better luck. However, he does not bother mourning his more illustrious ancestors or envying them,...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russian city built by Peter the Great in which the poem’s entire narrative is set. Czar Peter moved his capital to St. Petersburg in 1703 after capturing the formerly Swedish territory. His intent, in addition to claiming the conquered territory, was to create a “window to the West” and modernize Russia by providing her with a western port. Russia at that time was a deeply tradition-bound country, suspicious of western influences. Peter’s iron will clashed with entrenched societal forces such as the church, landed gentry, and peasants. Those opposing Peter the Great bristled at his total disregard for tradition and his vaunting pride—even to the point of blasphemy. A theme in Russian literature is that St. Petersburg is a cursed city. The legend is that Peter the Great established the city, rashly built on a marsh and at such a northern latitude, solely to impose his will on the Russian people. In his overweening pride, he rebelled against God and nature, and the city and its inhabitants must suffer as a result. As proof of this “curse,” the city is said to be built on the bones of the 100,000 men who died during its construction. The city is considered “cold” in comparison to Moscow, center of old Russia. Additionally, the city floods at the whim of the Neva River, showing that although Peter could build a city, it is still subject to forces superior to any human.

*Neva River

*Neva River. River running through St. Petersburg. Just as the river runs through the great Russian city, it also threads through the poem, responsible both for giving life to the city, as well as destroying Yevgeny.

*Senate Square

*Senate Square. Government center in St. Petersburg. In the poem, called “Peter’s Square,” after the statue of Peter the Great, “The Bronze Horseman,” overlooking the Neva. Yevgeny waits out the flood here and after discovering that his fiancé has perished in the city’s low-lying, poorer regions, he returns half-crazed for his final encounter with the “Horseman.” Yevgeny’s plight echoes that of Pushkin. Socially liberal military officers and friends of Pushkin staged a putsch on this square demanding the emperor enact wide-ranging social reform. They were brutally suppressed, though Pushkin was unscathed due to his social proximity to the emperor.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bayley, John. Pushkin: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971. This study looks at Pushkin in the context of both Russian and European literature, with special attention given to Shakespeare and the English poets. The chapter on Pushkin’s narrative and historical poetry uses The Bronze Horseman as a standard of comparison both with Pushkin’s own earlier poems such as Poltava and with Lord Byron’s treatment of some of the same themes. There is an extensive discussion of The Bronze Horseman in its own right.

Briggs, A. D. P. Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983. A thorough introduction to Pushkin’s work, with an entire chapter devoted to The Bronze Horseman. Briggs gives an overview of the poem’s sources, themes, devices (including rhyming patterns), and structure.

Gregg, Richard. “The Nature of Nature and the Nature of Eugene in The Bronze Horseman.” Slavic and East European Journal 21 (1977): 167-179. Offers a slightly different view of Evgeny as an individual caught between two opposing forces, and argues for the notion that character as much as circumstance dictates individual fate.

Lednicki, Wacaw. Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman”: The Story of a Masterpiece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955. The only book-length study in English and still an invaluable resource. Appendices include a translation of the poem itself, of the works of Adam Mickiewicz, and of other sources.

Vickery, Walter N. Alexander Pushkin. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. A revised edition of an earlier book by the same author, it incorporates new scholarship and is a brief but highly readable introduction to Pushkin’s life and work. The section on The Bronze Horseman includes a synopsis, brief comments on style, and a discussion of major themes.