Romancing the Stone

The inscription reads “Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782”

It was a monument to make a pharaoh preen. St. Petersburg’s equestrian statue of Tsar Peter the Great was the brainchild of Prussian-born Tsarina Catherine II in an ambitious effort to ingratiate herself to the Russian people. Like the legendary tsar himself, the project proved to be audacious, unprecedented and a colossal piece of work. It started smoothly enough, with Catherine commissioning French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet who began work in 1770. While he designed the horse and the tsar’s torso, his apprentice, Marie-Anne Collot, only 18 years old, was given the daunting task of recreating Peter’s face which she modeled after his death mask and various portraits. Calamity struck when the mold split while the twenty-foot-tall statue was being cast, spewing molten bronze and setting the studio ablaze. Workers fled in terror, all except master caster Emelyan Khailov who risked his life to rescue what remained of the aborted casting. It had to be melted again and recast, but the “Bronze Horseman,” named after the famed Alexander Pushkin poem, finally emerged intact.

An illustration accompanying Pushkin's poem, "The Bronze Horseman."

An illustration accompanying Pushkin’s poem, “The Bronze Horseman.”

Statues need pedestals of course, and producing one appropriate for such a monumental work was, well, a monumental challenge. Falconet had settled on an enormous boulder found a few miles inland from the Gulf of Finland. Nicknamed “thunder stone” because a chunk had been blasted away by lightning, it seemed ideal, but when he proposed sculpting the stone on site, Catherine, with characteristic imperiousness, commanded that it be brought instead to Decembrist (now Senate) Square in the city. It would prove a Herculean task as the stone measured roughly 42 x 21 x 27 feet and was half buried in swampy soil. It weighed a staggering 1650 tons!

Moving "Thunder Stone" was a pharaohnic task.

Moving “Thunder Stone” was a pharaohnic task.

Since this was the largest single stone ever moved by man, a new method for transporting it had to be invented. (The largest Egyptian obelisk weighed a mere 455 tons.) A Greek engineer advised waiting until winter so the stone could be dragged over frozen ground. Using capstans and a metal sledge sliding over six-inch bronze spheres acting like ball bearings, which were not yet invented, the stone was moved not with draft horses or machines but manpower alone. For nine months, with Catherine occasionally visiting to breathe down their necks, some 400 men inched the boulder four miles along 300 feet of track continually dismantled and re-positioned as needed. The workmen managed about 450 feet a day while, along the way, master stone-cutters whittled away some 300 tons as they smoothed and beautified the rock into a pedestal suitable for the statue of a rearing horse and rider. The next obstacle was the Bay of Finland where a barge had been built specifically for thunder stone. Because of its monstrous load, the barge had to be cradled by two Russian warships as it floated the short distance up the Neva River to the heart of St. Petersburg. On August, 1782, Peter the Great’s magnificent bronze likeness was finally unveiled to an awed public. Reaching a height of 45 feet, the tsar was presented on a stallion seeming to rear at the edge of a cliff. Peter’s right hand points west toward Europe which he wanted his empire to emulate, and his steed tramples a snake which, depending on who you ask, represents either his enemies or those simply resisting his westernized ideals.

The statue was carefully protected during the Nazi siege.

The statue was carefully protected during the Nazi siege.

For the citizens of St. Petersburg, it was love at first sight, and the iconic statue remains the city’s unofficial symbol. Newlyweds are fond of posing alongside, as tradition holds that their marriage will be blessed. The legend also endures that as long as the statue stands, the city will not be conquered. This was put to the ultimate test when St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) endured the Nazi siege for 872 horrific days and despite civilian casualties as high as 1.5 million (the figures remain disputed), the city never capitulated. Sadly, Falconet fell into disfavor with the empress and was ordered to leave Russia four years before the statue was unveiled. As the years passed, the brilliant sculptor was forgotten as Catherine claimed accolades for the work as though she had executed it herself. Time would reveal she had worried unnecessarily about her popularity. Her brilliance as a ruler propelled tsarism to its zenith and glorified her with the name given to Peter, Catherine the Great.


The Romanovs figure prominently in my next time time travel book, Past Time. 



1 Comment

  1. Liz
    Jul 15, 2015

    In addition to always enjoying the bit of lore or history you share with your readers, I must confess to really loving the way you make use of recognizable titles and put them to fresh, good use!
    Thanks, Michael.

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