Mikhail Chemiakin’s Monument to Peter the First: A Site of Post-Imperial Self-Reflexivity

Caitlin Oakley (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

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Over the course of the past two decades, Mikhail Chemiakin’s statue of Peter the First has received mixed responses.  At its unveiling on 7 June 1991, people were appalled at the monument’s irreverent representation of emperor, but in more recent years, some Petersburgers have developed if not liking at least some strange attachment to the statue. Despite being only 20 years old, the monument is already surrounded by legends and traditions.  The monument even received a nickname, the “Bronze-Stay-At-Home”.  My research seeks to compare and contrast the evolving representations of the monument in current travel guides, cultural histories, and oral accounts produced by the locals and international tourists.

The uncertainty and heated debates which surrounded Mikhail Chemiakin’s creation of a monument to Peter the Great, 20 years ago, still persist today.  Many in St. Petersburg, whether they are an artist, historian, tour guide, tourist, citizen etc., has their own take and strong opinion on what Chemiakin’s statue represents and whether it is a positive or negative mark on the city landscape.

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Russians express their opinions about Chemiakin’s monument

 

Mikhail Chemiakin is a non-conformist artist who started his career during the Thaw.   In the late 1950s, he and his comrades created a dissident art association called “Sankt-Petersburg” (Volkov and Bouis 486).  During and after the Stalin Era, avant-garde art was considered considered a pernicious Western influence and was only marginally accepted within mainstream Soviet culture after Stalin’s death (Volkov and Bouis 486).

Chemiakin with Russian Poet Vladimir Vysotsky in Paris

In 1971, Chemiakin, along with other “Soviet troublemakers” were forced to emigrate from the USSR.  First he settled in France and eventually ended up in New York (Volkov and Bouis 513).  Decades later, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of “glasnost” or “openness”, many Leningrad émigrés, like Chemiakin, were given the opportunity to “be published, to perform, or to exhibit in the homeland” (Volkov and Bouis 541).

Chemiakin did not only return to Russia, but also brought back his sculptures.  On June 7, 1991, the life-size, bronze sculpture of Peter the Great was unveiled in Fortress of Peter and Paul (the Russian Bastille), the square across from the cathedral where many Russian tsars are buried (Wilson 207).  One of the major proponents of erecting the unconventional monument to the city’s founder was the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg Anatolii Sobchak.  The unveiling of the statue was a largely attended, solemn ceremony that took place at exactly noon, with musicians dressed in uniform and playing music from Peter’s lifetime (Volkov and Bouis 541).  As the model for his sculpture Chemiakin used Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s famous wax figure of Peter. [1]  Bronze casting has been done by Tallix Art Foundry in Beacon, New York. For Chemiakin the return of his art to Petersburg symbolized the spirit of democracy, free exchange of ideas, reintegration of St. Petersburg in the global art scene.

Chemiakin’s statue also sparked great controversy, because unlike previous monuments to Peter the Great, above all The Bronze Horseman, this statue depicted the emperor irreverently, like a common man, with a focus on bodily details that had nothing to do with his imperial status.  The sculpture represented Peter without his wig, and with a “puffy face, and huge hands” (Volkov and Bouis 542).  As opposed to the conventional representations of the emperor, Chemiakin’s Peter sitting down,  not on horseback or standing.  A recent travel guide describes Chemiakin’s Peter the Great statue, in the following way: an “unfamiliar and mysterious Emperor who reminds one of a criminal awaiting his execution in the electric chair is comfortably arranged in a large bronze chair with armrests, and seemingly ready to jump out of his chair and remind all around him that he is the ruler of his country” (Saint Petersburg Sights 2011).

Many Russians were shocked at this depiction of Peter.  In their minds, Chemiakin’s creation undermined the myth of the heroic founder of St. Petersburg, incarnated above all in Falconet’s Bronze Horseman (Zinovieff and Hughes 36).  Many were outraged at the “naturalism” or thought that this interpretation of Peter the Great was insulting (Volkov and Bouis 542).  St. Petersburg citizens felt the statue threatened the enigma of the first Russian emperor (Evdokimova xiv).  Even 286 years after his death, the heroic image of Peter the Great means a lot for Russian national identity and the way in which Russians make sense of their nation’s connection with the West as the story of embracing some Western values and at the same time challenging Western cultural supremacy (Evdokimova xiv).   The statue unveiled in 1991, questioned the myth of the tsar who created the great empire (Volkov and Bouis 542).  The construction of Chemiakin’s statue became a symbol of the empire’s dissolution and cultural changes that it brought to Russian people.  An avalanche of new information and artwork came to Leningrad during this time (Volkov and Bouis 542).  The controversy encompassing Chemiakin’s statue, along with artwork of this period, embodied a fragment of a much larger reevaluation of Soviet and Russian life, art, and culture.  Three months after the installment of Chemiakin’s statue, on October 1, 1991, these events culminated in the renaming of the city of Leningrad to its original name—that of St. Petersburg (Volkov and Bouis 542).

After the end of the Soviet Union, Russian artists created monuments that told new stories of Soviet and Russian past.  Chemiakin’s statue was part of this “gigantic wave of post-Soviet monumental sculpture that is swamping the streets, often dedicated to neglected heroes and equally often of mixed quality” (Howard and Belinsky 46).  This sculpture construction, created at a “Peter-like pace,” became part of the entire series of “all kinds of exhibitions, festivals, installations, and performance and video art” (Howard and Belinsky 46).

While not all sculptures were talented or apt creations, Chemiakin’s statue definitely was a successful addition to the Petersburg community of monuments and quickly became an integral part of Petersburg folklore of recent years (St. Petersburg Sights 2011).  This same travel guide contends that over the past two decades, disputes about the controversial statue have somewhat subsided and that St. Petersburg residents now affectionately refer to the statue as the “Bronze Stay-At-Home” or “Peter IV” (Saint Petersburg Sights 2011). [2]  Also in recent years, people have created traditions associated with the monument (Saint Petersburg Sights 2011).  Many, especially young people, lay flowers on the monument or desire to touch Peter’s shiny bronze hands and legs for good luck (Saint Petersburg Sights 2011).  They believe in visiting the statue St. Petersburg’s founder that they might “get a glimpse of the head that conceived of the window to Europe” (Goscilo and Norris 82).  However, despite the assertions made by the travel guide, “Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia”, and many like it, it is clear even after 20 years, that Chemiakin’s statue of Peter the Great still is the subject of controversy and the spark of fervent debate.

Many travel guides, for example Saint Petersburg Sights 2011, showcase the statue as a monument not to be missed while touring or visiting St. Petersburg.  These travel guides explain the significance of the location of the statue, which happens to be inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul and close to the cathedral, which holds the remains of Russians tsars.  This section of St. Petersburg is the site of St. Petersburg’s primal scene so to say.  The construction of the city began with the construction of the fortress.  The fact that Chemiakin’s monument was selected for placement in such close proximity to these other historical sites, speaks to the importance of this monument for Russians in 1991 at the dawn of yet another new era.

Other great source of scholarly interpretations of the monument to Peter the Great, include cultural histories of St. Petersburg focusing on the periods of perestroika and reforms of the 1990s. [3]  Many of these studies examine Chemiakin’s statue as an example of new approach to urban monuments.  Svetlana Boym, for example, views his monument to Peter and his sphinxes across the Neva river from the Kresty Prison as the monuments that attempt to defamiliarize the façade of the former imperial capital: “Chemiakin recreated Peter’s head according to exact proportions of his death mask to uncanny effect.  The tsar’s head appears too small for elongated body. Deprived of his hair and mustache, Peter looks unfamiliar; he does not resemble his own monumental image” (Boym 164).

Continuing my study of Chemiakin’s monument in St. Petersburg, I have conducted three video interviews with the members of the art coop, Pushkinskaya 10: Sergei Kovalsky, Boris Koshelokhov, and Valentina Kirichenko.  Chemiakin was close to the members of this community ideologically.  Kovalsky, a co-founder of Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center, said that although Chemiakin was not involved in founding Pushkinskaya 10 (because he emigrated to France before the center was founded) but his art contributed to the art scene, from which the Pushkinskaya 10 community emerged.  Kovalsky and Chemiakin are good friends and Chemiakin has donated a painting to the art center.  Kovalsky believes that the statue of Peter the Great is a great contribution to St. Petersburg’s cultural landscape.  He views it as an informal monument and antithesis to monuments created during the Soviet times, because it is not made in the former “cookie cut” style.  Kovalsky concludes that Chemiakin’s monument of Peter the Great and his pair of sphinx statues, are the artist’s major contribution into the process of creating and reinventing the Petersburg myth (Kovalsky).

When interviewed on Chemiakin’s statue Boris Koshelokhov, another resident and early member of Pushkinskaya 10, stated, “I am a cunning guy, so I have a cunning answer to this question.”  He says that he does not like Chemiakin’s statue of Peter the Great. He even compared the statue with a piece of dog poop in the middle of St. Petersburg.  What transpired in Koshelokhov’s rather incoherent answer is his lack of acceptance of the artistic work that has a clear political/ideological stance.  Koshelokhov favors ambiguity and avoids political engagement in art (Koshelokhov interview).

Valentina Kirichenko, the director of Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center, notes that she once witnessed a conversation that has helped her understand Chemiakin’s statue of Peter the Great.  A woman was angry that Chemiakin depicted the Emperor in such a humiliating way and that the statue made Peter look like a monster.  A man responded to the woman that Peter was quite a cruel ruler and caused harm to the Russian people.  Kirichenko said that this exchange helped her to understand why Chemiakin’s monument matters for Russians.  Chemiakin captured in his monument the eclectic and grotesque as two key elements of Petersburg myth.  Chemiakin’s monument examines Peter as the creator of the city where the power of reason exists in an uncanny alliance with insanity, as the emperor who created the city-repository of European humanist art via methodical extermination of the empire’s population.  Every fourth subject of the Russian Empire died in wars and construction projects initiated by Peter (Kirichenko interview).

Two history students, Vladimir Rozov of St. Petersburg State University and Dimitri Meshcheriakov, a student of Moscow University, commented on Chemiakin’s statue of Peter the Great and how it redefines the nation’s collective memory of the emperor’s rule.  Rozov believes that the monument is an accurate portrait of Peter’s appearance.  However, despite the fact that Chemiakin’s statue, along with Falconet’s Bronze Horseman, used Carlo Rastrelli’s original wax figure of Peter the Great, the precision is not perfect because sculptors are above all artists, not historians.  Rozov believes that artists favor their own vision over historical accuracy.  Meshcheriakov claims that the moment when the statue was unveiled is the key point of the monument’s story.  It was the  period of dismantling totalitarian rule.  Meshcheriakov also points out that Peter the Great is a historical character who continues to trigger arguments among Russians.  On the one hand, according to Meshcheriakov, he was a great emperor who created strong armed forces, on the other hand Peter interfered with the natural course of Russia’s history.  Meshchriakov also notes that St. Petersburg is a city built on bones by the tyrant.  Both Rozov and Meshcheriakov claim that Chemiakin’s statue is too young to be included in St. Petersburg folklore.  However, according to them it is located at a very historically significant place, the Peter and Paul Fortres and urban legends about the monument will inevitably appear (Rozov and Meshcheriakov Interviews).

I also conducted an interview with a historian Pavel Geskin who presented a talk about the role of Peter the Great in Russian history at the Francois Rabelais Humanities Club. [4] Geskin contends that Peter impeded Russia’s evolution into a modern European nation by the wars that he started.  He says that Chemiakin’s depiction of Peter as a monster is an accurate vision of Peter’s contribution to Russian history.  Geskin believes that the statue should be located in the fortress because this is where St. Petersburg was founded and because Peter and Paul is the Russian Bastille.  For Geskin Peter was a tyrant above all. During the interview he also quoted Leo Tolstoy, who once said that Peter was a nightmare and a horror of Russian history and that people should try to forget him, not make monuments to him (Geskin Interview).

The Inscription on Falconet's Monument

The monuments to Peter the Great construction during the imperial period created a clear and coherent story of the Emperor gathering the provinces into the strong superpower.  For example, Catherine the Great ordered the famous Bronze Horseman to emphasize that she was the heiress to the legacy of the great emperor and continued expanding his empire.  The numbers on the monument speak for themselves: “To Peter the First Catherine the Second.”  Chemiakin’s monument does not have a clear story to tell.  It is overtly ambiguous about its message and the responses to this monument are much more diverse.  What unites these responses is the fact that the commentators do not argue much about Chemiakin’s art but more about the role of the first emperor in Russian history.  The fall of the Soviet empire (the grotesque heir to the  tsarist one) created multiple narratives of Russia’s past that do not come to a clear and unanimous conclusion.

 


Special thanks to Anastasia Vasilyeva (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Анастасии Васильевой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.

ENDNOTES

[1] The wax figure created by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli is now located in the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg in the special building dedicated to the early period of the palace history.  On a tour, a guide described her reverence for the lifelike depiction of Peter the Great.  She told me the history of the figure’s creation, which reminded me simultaneously the history of embalming of Lenin’s body and the stories about the veneration of the remains of Russian saints.  The guide felt that this wax figure is the accurate depiction of Peter and somehow captures the epic spirit of the emperor. The figure was used to create the first monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Maurice Falconet’s Bronze Horseman (Volkov and Bouis 541).  The tour guide believed that Chemiakin, in his statue, “The Bronze Stay at Home”, distorted Peter’s image and that it is an insult to his legacy.

[2] The second name, “Peter IV”, refers to the fact that it is the fourth monument to Peter the Great in the city.   The first monument in St. Petersburg to Peter was the “Bronze Horseman”, sculpted by Etienne Maurice Falconet and unveiled in 1782.  The second monument to Peter is the “Monument to Peter the Great”, which stands opposite the Mikhailovsky Castle and was commissioned in 1716, by Peter himself.  The statue was sculpted by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli during the next eight years, but after the death of Peter, the monument was not erected until 1800.  The third statue to Peter is “The Tsar Carpenter”, was sculpted by Leopold Bernstam in 1909, and which now stands on the Admiralty embankment.  (Reference: “Monuments and Memorials in St. Petersburg”)

[3] Svetlana Evdokimova’s Pushkin’s Historical Imagination,  Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris’s Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia, and Solomon Volkov and Antonina W. Bouis’s, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History.

 

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