A Window To The West


A Window To The West Essay, Research Paper

History has it that the United States capital city of Washington D.C. was

designed with the intention of intimidating visiting foreign heads of state. The

creation of this city had purpose and reason; neither of which are very natural or

human. St. Petersburg was viewed by the Russian people in this context.

Typically a city grows from a small town to a massive metropolis with years and

years of expansion outward. The Russian people already plagued with

xenophobia, could not accept Peter the Great’s new city designed with Western

ideals and made by Western minds.

Peter the Great sought to bring his country into the modern and more

western world. By means of taxing old dress, and creating a table of ranks by

which upward mobility is possible and higher education institutions. Through his

travels throughout Europe Peter, yearned to update and facilitate Russia as a

respected power and as a modernized country.

In order to westernize Russia a physical connection had to be established

between the Old World Russia and the rest of Europe. The only way to

accomplish this feat, was to create trade and travel routes between the West

and Russia. After securing his borders, the next task “of expanding Russia’s

contacts and territory, especially in ways that would liberate Russia from its long

isolation as a landlocked country.”(Thompson 98) Contact with the west was

limited because of Russia’s lack of access to warm water seaports where trade

and travel between Russia and the West could take place. The need for warm

water seaports therefore shaped Peter’s foreign policy.

Peter attempted to gain access to the Baltic Sea by defeating Sweden,

the most powerful force in north central Europe. War with Sweden raged on for

twenty-one years during which Peter gained enough access in the Baltic to

establish a city he named St. Petersburg, his “window to the West.”(Thompson

98) . Indeed Peter’s efforts helped create a window to the Western Europe but

like all windows the rest of Europe could look into Russia as mush as Russia

could look out to Western Europe. Peter wanted to create a city that showed

Europe Russia’s prestige.

The premeditated creation of the city, through

Peter’s will to carve for himself a “window on the

West” overshadowing the old capital of Moscow

and steering the country away from its cultural

and religious traditions, led to the notion that the

city’s life had a rootless, unreal quality. Leiter 5

Petersburg was seen as an unnatural city to many of the Russian citizens.

Physically situated upon a march on the Neva River, the plan of the city was

planned and created according to the plan of Peter’s. “The terrain on which St.

Petersburg rose was a marshy coastal plain divided into many islands by the

branches of the Neva.”(Shvidkovsky 20) This site, for all of its obvious flaws,

should have never been developed into a city making the physical plan of the

city unnatural. Culturally and socially Peter planned the city also, not allowing

the inhabitants choose to come to the new city, as all other cities usually became

occupied. “Peter issued a decree stipulating that a 1000 noble families, a 1000

merchant families, and a 1000 artisan families were to emigrate” to his new

capital and only the “best candidates should settle. The urban planning was not

so much for aesthetic principle as a means of social organization.”(Shvidkovsky

22) Peter planned the city from its culture, its inhabitants, its architecture and its

economics before construction even began.

Being a country consumed with xenophobia, most Russians saw the

construction of St. Petersburg as unnatural to their nation also. “The

architectural aspect of Petersburg was entirely the work of foreign architects. At

that time there was not a single Russian master capable of shaping the city’s

style”(Shvidkovsky 24) according to Peter. Yet he felt that his people were good

enough to slave over the construction of the city and die laboring for his cause. It

was not uncommon for a building to be designed by an Italian, under the

supervision of a Dutchman, continued by a German and so on until its

completion. Each of these workers contributed their own racial and national

characteristics to each of their roles in building the city. Peter wanted his capital

and “window” to be laid out and built along the lines of a great Occidental

capital. The Russians saw this development of a Western capital in their Russia

as an abandonment of their past and as an invasion of the West; consequently,

St. Petersburg was not accepted and feared by the rest of Russia. “[St.

Petersburg] had to be as different as possible from the old metropolis which

symbolized Old Mother Russia, and which the plebeian classes still considered

their capital.”(Voyce 12)

The capital of Russia commonly was seen as overly Western and could

not effectively and accurately represent Russia as a nation. Not only were so

many Russian lives were taken by the city in its construction. But the graves that

lay underneath the pillars supporting the city were remembered and martyred, so

much so that some Russians believed that the city was built upon the destruction

of Russia and its people. Peter’s vision of his Western city was at the expense of

many of the Russian citizens involved in the physical dangers of building the

city, and the dangers of living in the city. Annually the city of St. Petersburg

commonly succumbed to floods of the river Neva. The Slavophile view of the city

was that of an accursed monument to the impending destruction of Russian

culture.(Leiter 34) The inhabitants of the capital were often victimized by this

natural disaster, contributing more to the mythology of Petersburg as an

unnatural and evil city. This was also how Pushkin, the author of The Bronze

Horseman, a work seen as “the greatest poem in Russian History,”(Lavrin 114)

felt about “the dark-hued, unreal city.”(Leiter Preface)

Pushkin’s main character, Evgeny, represents the beguiled and exploited

occupants of St. Petersburg’s wrath. In Pushkin’s introduction he explains the

history of the city, in which he sets his tale. Peter’s campaign to westernize

Russia, the decline of the old capital of Moscow and its Old Russian values in

lieu of the rise of Petersburg as the new capital with its new values and culture.

As the introduction comes to a close, Pushkin addresses the inhuman aspect of

the city when he states, “Even the elements by your hand/ have been subdued

and made surrender.”(Pushkin 120) Pushkin’s reference to the elements is

pertinent to this story, for he is referring to St. Petersburg survival of the flooding

of the Neva river while human life cannot survive.

Pushkin’s account of the flood is coupled with the internal story of the fate

of Evgeny, the “little man.” Evgeny, a penniless man, witnesses the damaging

effects of the flood, and, more importantly, we learn that the flood has swept

away “a widow and his dream, her daughter,/ Parasha.”(Pushkin 124) These

floods plaguing the capital were seen by the Russians as the wrath of the

Westerners. Peter built the city for the soul purpose of establishing a “window to

the West” and these floods were seen as the West once again attempting to

destroy Mother Russia. “Fear of the sea was perhaps to be expected among an

earthbound people whose discovery of the sea coincided with their traumatic

discovery of the outside world.”(Billington 368)

After the natural attack ceased, “The purple radiance of the morning had

covered up the dire event,”(Pushkin 126) and the rest of Petersburg woke to

rebuild what they had lost and to go on with the happenings of everyday life;

however, Evgeny, who puts himself before the state, cannot do so. As St.

Petersburg endures, Evgeny cannot continue on with everyday life; Petersburg

and its wrath have defeated him. “Spare some pity/ for my poor, poor Evgeny,

who/ by the sad happenings in the city/ had wits unhinged.”(Pushkin 126-7)

Evgeny takes the streets of the city as his new residence. After months of

assaults by children, bouts of hunger, and other demoralizing attacks by the city,

Evgeny is demoralized to the point that he exists as “neither beast nor man-/ not

this, nor that – not really living/ nor yet a ghost.”(Pushkin 127) Life continued in

this such way until a fateful night when Evgeny began to stare “with an

insensately/ wild look of terror on his face”(Pushkin 128) at the bronze statue of

the city’s founder.

After Evgeny’s life comes unraveled, he curses the bronze statue of Peter

for building the city near the Neva river in the wake of danger.

The statue of Peter the Great, in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, represents

both the city of Petersburg and its founder, “has a supernatural, unfathomable

power.” The statue also becomes “an incarnation of some spirit or

demon”(Jakobson 5) and “an enduring symbol of both the majestic power and

the impersonal coldness of the new capital.”(Billington 232) “In his sudden

madness Evgeny clairvoyantly perceives that the real culprit is the guardian of

the city.”(Jakobson 7)

After Evgeny is through with his threats and curses, the statue comes to

life. “The animated statue leaves his block and pursues Evgeny.”(Jakobson 7)

Evgeny attempts to flee the mounted Tsar, “but hears behind him, loud as guns/

or thunderclap’s reverberation,/ ponderous hooves,”(Pushkin 129) behind him

chasing after him. This pursuit continues throughout the night: Evgeny running

from the figure “one arm stretched” of the “Bronze Rider,/ after him clatters the

Bronze Horse.”(Pushkin 129) Wherever Evgeny goes following him is the

incessant sound of the galloping Tsar. Evgeny days and nights following the

personification of the statue, become entrenched with loneliness and even more

so, fear.

And from then on, if [Evgeny] was chancing

at any time to cross that square,

a look of wild distress came glancing

across his features; he would there

press hand to heart, in tearing hurry,

as if to chase away a worry. Pushkin 129

Eventually Evgeny perishes at the shores of the Neva, that brought him

so much pain and suffering. “Mad Evgeny there they found…/ His cold corpse in

that same-self ground.”(Pushkin 130) Evgeny eventually “became the model for

the suffering little man of subsequent Russian fiction- pursued by natural and

historical forces beyond his comprehension, let alone his control.”(Billington

332) Although the flood managed to destroy Evgeny’s life, it only momentarily

set back Petersburg, for the city, although damaged, remained long after the

death of the little man. Petersburg was unnatural in its existence, because of this


The human aspect of the city did not exist; its indestructible yet,

murderous ability was regarded as evil to all of the little men of Russia. The “little

man” represents the Russian people and the culture and values of Old Russia.

With the death of Evgeny, so comes the death of Old Russia. With this passing

of the old system of values and culture, comes Westernized and unnatural

Russia. In The Bronze Horseman Peter, embodied through the Bronze

Horseman created “the image of the poem as of the city and destiny;”(Bayley

128) his city and he victimize, abandon, exploit, terrorize, and kill “the little man”

in Evgeny, and all the little men of Russia.

Bayley, John. Pushkin: A Comparitve Commentary. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1971.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of

Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Jakobson, Roman. Pushkin and His Sculptural Myth. Trans. John Burbank.

Paris: Mouton & Co., 1975.

Larvin, Janko. Pushkin and Russian Literature. New York: Macmillan

Company, 1948.

Leiter, Sharon. Akmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Press, 1983.

Pushkin, Alexander. “The Bronze Horseman.” An Anthology of Russian

Literature from the Earliest Writings to Modern Fiction. Ed. Nicholas

Rzhevsky. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996. 118-31.

Shvidkovshy, Dmitri. St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars. Trans. John

Goodman. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1996.

Simmons, Ernest J. Pushkin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Thompson, John M. Russia and the Soviet Union: An Historical Introduction

from the Kievan State to the Present. 4th ed. Boulder: Westview Press,


Voyce, Arthur. Russian Architecture: Trends in Nationalism and Modernism.

New York: Greenwood Press, 1948.

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