The Amazing Story of St Petersburg’s Bronze

Photo of the Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman – an impressive monument to the founder of St Petersburg, Peter the Great – is one of St Petersburg’s most famous monuments. Standing on Senatskaia Ploshchad (Senate Square), it faces the Neva River and is surrounded by the Admiralty, St Isaac’s Cathedral, and the buildings of the former Senate and Synod (the civil and religious bodies that governed pre-revolutionary Russia).

The monument was built by order of Empress Catherine the Great as a tribute to her famous predecessor, Peter the Great. She ordered that an inscription be placed on the monument that reads in both Latin and Russian: Petro Primo Catharina Secunda (To Peter the First from Catherine the Second).

This equestrian statue of Peter the Great, created by the famous French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, depicts Peter the Great as a Roman hero. The pedestal is made of a single piece of red granite carved into the shape of a cliff. From the top of this ‘cliff’, Peter gallantly leads Russia forward, while his horse steps on a snake, which is believed to represent the enemies of Peter and his people.

It took 12 years (1770 to 1782) to create the Bronze Horseman. The tsar’s face is the work of the young Marie-Anne Collot, then just 18 years old. She used his death mask as a model, along with numerous portraits she found in St Petersburg.

On 18 August 1782, the finished statue was unveiled in a ceremony attended by thousands of onlookers. The statue itself is about 20 feet tall, while the pedestal it stands on is another 25 feet tall, giving a total of approximately 45 feet.

The pedestal on which it stands has its own story to tell. Known as the Thunder Stone, this enormous granite boulder was found at Lakhta, about 4 miles inland from the Gulf of Finland in 1768. The job of transporting it to St Petersburg fell to a Greek from the island of Kefallonia called Marinos Carburis, who was serving in the Russian Army and who had studied engineering in Vienna.

He developed a metal sledge that slid on bronze spheres (like ball bearings) over a track. All the labor was done by men – no animals or machines were used. It took 400 men nine months to move the stone, during which time master stonecutters continuously shaped the enormous granite monolith. They averaged over 150 m of progress a day on level ground.

Upon arrival at the sea, an enormous barge was constructed which had to be supported on either side by two warships. After a short voyage, the stone reached its destination in 1770, after nearly two years of work.

It was an amazing feat of engineering. The weight of the Thunder Stone was determined to be around 1500 tonnes.

According to a 19th-century legend, enemy forces will never take St Petersburg while the Bronze Horseman stands in the middle of the city. During the Second World War, the statue was not taken down but was protected with sandbags and a wooden shelter. As a result, the monument survived the 900-day Siege of Leningrad virtually untouched.