Chizhik-Pyzhik: A Monument to the “Common Man”

Chizhik-Pyzhik is one of St. Petersburg’s lesser-known monuments, often dwarfed in stature and popularity by the massive Bronze Horseman, Alexander Column, and Narva Gate. It was crafted by the Georgian puppeteer and sculptor Revaz Gabriadze, who runs the Tbilisi Puppet Theater. He paid for the installation of the sculpture himself, and unveiled the tiny bird on November 9, 1994 (Thompson 1). Chizhik-Pyzhik is a bronze model of a siskin and stands at only eleven centimeters in height, making it the smallest monument in St. Petersburg. Located halfway down an embankment wall where the Fontanka and Moika Rivers merge, it is not easy to find.  Chizhik-Pyzhik is part of a new trend of whimsical monuments in St. Petersburg, all of which are sponsored by the Golden Ostap Humor Festival and which frequently reference literary works or traditional Russian folktales (Thompson, 1). It is still unclear, however, what exactly this monument is memorializing. It was most probably  not crafted with a single representation in mind, but rather as a commemoration of the daily lives and traditions of the typical St. Petersburg resident through its references to folktales, local history, and contemporary custom.

In many ways, Chizhik-Pyzhik represents the “common man” far better than any Soviet colossus constructed in their honor. Consider the “Worker and Collective Farm Women” monument in Moscow.  Its purpose is to glorify the efforts and pursuits of the Soviet “common man,” but due to its size and grandeur it is associated much more closely with Soviet elites and their political agendas, and particularly with Stalinist “gigantomania.”. It stands as a symbol of governmental power to the residents of Moscow and foreign tourists. Chizhik-Pyzhik is a monument for the locals installed by locals, hidden away on the side of an embankment only for those who know of its existence. It represents many aspects of daily life and culture that matter to the typical St. Petersburg resident. Superstition, the persistent drinking culture, Russian literature (often as it pertains to the Russian soul), and the common person’s perception of Russian elites are all major influences on the average Russian’s daily life and culture. Chizhik-Pyzhik encompasses all of these facets of Russian life, expressing them humorously and without grandiosity. It also represents an increasing trend of anti-monumental culture, initiated as a backlash against the communist government’s plethora of massive monuments throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg bent on influencing the ideology and values of the general population.

The Lower Classes’ Perception of Elites

Chizhik-Pyzhik represents a perception of the Russian elite that is not usually portrayed in monumental culture; it expresses the impact that the residential elites, mainly the students who attended the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, had on the lower and middle classes. The Imperial School of Jurisprudence was established in St. Petersburg in 1835 by Pyotr Oldenburgsky. It was the most prestigious school for the sons of the nobility, and was disbanded during the October Revolution. Chizhik-Pyzhik marks the spot where the school used to stand. The siskin was chosen to represent the students and institution because the colors of the school were green and yellow, and the general opinion was that the comical uniforms the students wore  made them look like siskins. Furthermore, on weekends the students frequented the local tavern owned by the merchant Nfydov (Titova, 2). The popular rhyme entitled “Chizhik-Pyzhik” is a mockery of their drinking habits and reflective of how the residents of the area perceived the students:

Чижик-пыжик, где ты был? [Chizhik-Pyzhik, where were you?]
На Фонтанке водку пил.          [On the Fontanka drinking vodka.]
Выпил рюмку, выпил две —     [Took a shot, took another]
Зашумело в голове. [Got a headache.] (Smirnova 1).

This form of remembrance for such a prestigious school is unusual, since elites are usually the forces behind the creation and installation of monuments. The Soviet period had an interesting impact on the development of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence’s legacy, however. The October Revolution disbanded the school and tore down the social hierarchy which had elevated these students to noble status. During the Soviet period and even after its fall, noble status derived from the tsarist period was not something to be proud of, and was officially disparaged.   The old socio-economic system was destroyed, and the respectable legacy of the school was destroyed along with it. All that remained in 1994 when Chizhik-Pyzhik was created and unveiled to the public was the mocking rhyme and the memory of the students’ comical uniforms. Chizhik-Pyzhik is one of the few monuments that commemorates an institution from the point of view of the lower classes rather than the elites. It is unlikely that it would have been created without the social reconstruction that occurred during the Soviet period and its successive collapse which allowed for a loosening of expression throughout St. Petersburg.

Drinking Culture

The “Chizhik-Pyzhik” rhyme has become very popular in drinking culture in St. Petersburg, and is known by most city residents. It is a humorous acknowledgement of what many currently see as a pressing social problem.  Official statistics reveal an average annual consumption of alcoholic beverages in Russia of 7.5 liters per capital, an amount far in excess of the World Health Organization’s admonition that an annual alcholol consumption exceeding 5 liters per capita threatens a country’s national security (BBC News, 1). Binge drinking is very common in Russia and has become a major component of social life. Hard liquor is typically preferred to beer or wine, which creates a much greater risk for alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related accidents. In 2001, “some 47,000 people died of alcohol poisoning in Russia” (BBC News, 1). Chizhik-Pyzhik was installed in St. Petersburg in 1994, just before the Russian government and segments of the population began to acknowledge the dangerous effects of these drinking habits on national security, economic prosperity, and the general welfare of the Russian population. In 1997, three years after Chizhik-Pyzhik was put in place, ITAR-TASS News Agency in Moscow released an article titled “Increased Alcohol Production Helps Russia’s State Budget.” The article discusses how the duty taxes collected from a one hundred per cent increase in Russia’s output of alcoholic beverages will bring in a huge increase in monthly budget revenue (BBC News, 1). In contrast,  a 2009 article titled “Russia Tries, Once Again, to Rein in Vodka Habit,”  discusses Medvedev’s desperate efforts to curb vodka consumption in particular, as alcoholism is contributing to the low life expectancy of males in Russia and a predicted 20% decline in the population by 2050 (Levy, 2). In the last decade, huge strides have been made to institute stricter regulations on alcohol production and educate the younger generation about the dangers of binge drinking, although these efforts have yielded  minimal success in transforming the drinking culture. Chizhik-Pyzhik stands as a symbol of the drinking culture that was persistent in the early 1990s and still exists today. The majority of St. Petersburg residents still view drinking as a major component of social life and Russian cultural identity. Such entrenched traditions will not be quickly transformed by top-down government initiatives. When the popular culture, such as the Chizhik-Pyzhik rhyme, changes to embrace a healthier drinking style, it will be a sign that the lifestyle of the typical Russian citizen is finally changing as well.

Superstition

The transition period from a communist to democratic government during which Chizhik-Pyzhik was created brought significant political, social, and economic upheaval to Russia. It was a time when uncertainty ruled most aspects of daily life, and Chizhik-Pyzhik acts as a physical acknowledgement of this turbulent atmosphere. Superstition is born of fear and uncertainty; when the events of everyday life are beyond control, humans have repeatedly turned to mystical explanations, or superstition, to make life manageable (Saenko, 2-3).

According to its creator, Chizhik-Pyzhik “helps students get through unhappy love affairs and get around on public transport without tickets” (“Saint-Petersburg.com”, 1). It is a focal point of superstition in the city of St. Petersburg. According to local folklore, if you manage to drop a coin from the top of the embankment and it lands on the statue, you will have good luck. It is also believed that if you pour a shot of alcohol into the river next to the statue, you can cure bad habits. During their rounds of the city’s most prominent monuments, newlyweds frequently visit Chizhik-Pyzhik to secure good luck for their marriage. Beggars especially love the tradition surrounding Chizhik-Pyzhik, because they are known to swim in the canal at night collecting the rubles and kopecks that are dropped on and around the small bird. During the mid-1990s, citizens of St. Petersburg had an enormous vacuum to fill in their lives which the failed Soviet government had previously filled. It had acted as a constant for the residents, stabilizing not only politics and the economy, but society as well. When the Soviet government collapsed, superstition partially filled that hole and was reinforced in Russian culture. In this way, the monument remains a functioning part of the daily life of St. Petersburg, as it was intended to by Revaz Gabriadze. A large part of the statue’s purpose is not to commemorate an event or a person, but rather to give a group of people an outlet for the stress of the era.

The Theft of Chizhik-Pyzhik

Since it was installed, Chizhik-Pyzhik has significantly increased the police workload in the 79th precinct, which is in charge of protecting the small monument. It is frequently stolen by people seeking the valuable bronze for profit, the statue for its artistic value, or those who want to take the monument just for amusement (Titova, 1).  There is no consensus regarding how many times the bronze bird has been stolen, but by 2003 estimates ranged between four and seven times (Titova, 1).  In 2002, a Muscovite attempted to visit Chizhik-Pyzhik after it had been recently stolen, only to see an abandoned platform on the embankment wall. Angered by the absence of the statue, he donated a large sum to re-cast the bird and replace the stolen one. St. Petersburg sculptors made multiple replicas and since then the custom has been to quickly replace the statue when it is stolen, so the city does not have to live without its good luck charm for long (Titova, 2). Currently there are over a dozen copies of Chizhik-Pyzhik waiting to be installed whenever the statue is stolen. Security cameras have also been set up to monitor the little bird, but thus far they have not been very successful in deterring thieves or tracking them down once the statue is stolen.

Initially installed by an individual at his own expense and then replaced by a philanthropic (and frustrated) Muscovite, care for the monument largely falls into the hands of individuals, which is one of its most interesting characteristics. This creates a situation in which the monument is very detached from governmental influence and remains a “monument of the people,” more responsive to local culture than governmental proselytizing.

The Nose

Chizhik-Pyzhik is only one piece of the long trend of whimsical monuments installed around the city in the last fifteen years: “About fifteen years ago small, amusing monuments started to appear in Russian cities and they became extremely popular with both locals and visitors. The ideas for sculptures of this kind were usually taken from well-known literary works, local folklore, or special regional or historical events” (Smirnova, 1).  Behind Chizhik-Pyzhik, the next most famous of these monuments is the marble sculpture called “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story which goes by the same name (Thompson, 1). “In Gogol’s famous short story, “The Nose,” a Major Kovalyov wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has vanished and is wandering around St. Petersburg wearing his uniform” (Bigg, 1). This monument, like Chizhik-Pyzhik, was erected in 1994 and similarly is subject to frequent thefts. While the thefts of the siskin can be partially attributed to the value of the bronze which makes up the statue and fetches a few thousand rubles in local metal markets, thefts of The Nose are puzzling because the marble is not only extremely heavy and difficult to move, it is also worth next to nothing (Titova, 2). This is why an understanding of local literature and culture is necessary to analyze the trend that is developing around the theft of the monument. In 2002, the 100 kg monument was stolen from the wall on which it was mounted in the streets of St. Petersburg (Thompson, 2). Ten months later, the police finally tracked it down in a St. Petersburg apartment, where it became clear that the theft was in pursuit of amusement, not wealth (Reuters, 1). In the story on which the sculpture is based, the protagonist must frantically search throughout the city for his missing nose, and luckily finds it right before he moves to Latvia. The theft recreated this plotline in reality, necessitating a police pursuit of The Nose around the city before it was finally recovered (Reuters, 2).

The frequent thefts of the two monuments and their inherent humorous nature represent a new attitude towards government and monumental culture in contemporary Russian society. These monuments are not about reinforcing government power or commemorating elites. They are made by the people for the amusement of the people, playing on references to traditional culture and daily life. “Official memorials, monuments, and museums play a unique role in the creation of national identity because they reflect how political elites choose to represent the nation publically” (Forest, 1). Chizhik-Pyzhik and The Nose  break from the traditional monumental culture by expressing the views of the  middle and lower classes. They could be representative of a new generation of thinkers in Russia, who are trying to break the tradition of the past and change the perception of Russia to the world and among Russians themselves (Smirnova, 1). The bronze and marble sculptures also seem to spur a trend of disrespect for monuments in general, as residents of the city make it a sport to steal the monuments for reasons other than the value of their materials. These monuments are not attached to the power of the government, and perhaps are more accessible and easier targets for theft because of this disassociation.

The Creation of a New National Identity

It is difficult to assign a particular cultural or political ideology to monuments such as Chizhik-Pyzhik, The Nose, the Happy Hippo, Wandering Poet, Clever Hare, and Stray Dog, and so it should be. These modern monuments are deliberately separated from the past tradition of ideologically loaded monuments full of political elite-sponsored symbolism and political messages. During the Soviet period, for example, the massive monuments commonly idealized the proletariat and prominent government officials. Elites who installed the monuments meant to influence the common man’s perceived “heroes” in order to reinforce their own power. These monuments, however, represent a sharp break from that approach. The new monumental trend in the city is funded by individuals, not the government or even religious institutions. They are reshaping national identity from the lower classes up, rather than from the government down.

Works Cited