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
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.
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University Press, 1971.
Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of
Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
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Paris: Mouton & Co., 1975.
Larvin, Janko. Pushkin and Russian Literature. New York: Macmillan
Leiter, Sharon. Akmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
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.
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