The Hare and the Flood: Forces of Nature at Work in St. Petersburg

On the way out to Peter and Paul Fortress, along Ioannovsky Bridge, a 58-centimeter high statue of a rabbit stands on one of the pilings in the water. Marks on the piling indicate the height of some of the floods that inundated St. Petersburg in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This monument, referred to as “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” stands for the people and animals that perished in such floods (Saint-Petersburg.com). Other than this scanty information, the origins of this whimsical statue remain largely a mystery. Made from a mixture of selumine and aluminum (“Unusual Monuments in St. Petersburg”), it was placed in 2003 during one of the many renovations of Ioannovsky Bridge (Saint-Petersburg.com). Not much information about the sculptor exists other than his name–V. Petrovichiev (BaikalNature). This statue, however enigmatic, connects to larger concepts in Russian history and culture–for example, the impact of flooding in St. Petersburg, as well as the prevalence of the hare in Russian culture as a symbolic figure. The reactions of people to this statue reflect its small stature and whimsical nature.

The broader location of the statue has much significance. Ioannovsky Bridge, as its many renovations indicate, is the oldest bridge in the city, and was built in the same year as the city itself, if not exactly in its present location  (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Ioannovsky Bridge extends to Peter and Paul Fortress, the point of origin for the city. The island upon which Peter and Paul Fortress stands is known as “Hare Island” (Zayachy Ostrov)  due to the large number of hares that used to live there (Saint-Petersburg.com). A local legend ties these components together: during a flood, one of the hares from the island supposedly jumped into Peter the Great’s boat to avoid the rising waters (Saint-Petersburg.com). The statue symbolizes this legend quite well; the hare statue stands on a piling that rises far above the rest. Thus, this decade-old statue not only sits in the oldest part of St. Petersburg, but it also ties together the significance of the sites around it.

Beyond this basic legend regarding Peter the Great, hares have enjoyed a long and deep cultural symbolism in Russian history. Hares appeared frequently in Russian animal tales as a “cowardly animal.” As with all other animals in stories, storytellers used stock phrases to refer to hares, such as “the hare who runs away,” “the little gray fellow,” or “the rascally hare” (Sokolov, 436). The hare certainly lived up to these characterizations in folktales; for example, in a tale entitled “Who is More Cowardly Than the Hare?,” a hare on the verge of drowning himself due to his cowardliness chose not to after observing that a frog was afraid of him (Haney, 63). In another tale, “The Fox, the Hare, and the Cock,” a fox living in an ice house drove out a hare living in a bark house when the ice house melted. The hare sat around in despair, until a cock came and drove out the fox with a scythe (Gerber, 28).  Hares were not always simply cowards, however; as the phrase “the rascally hare” suggests, hares could also act swiftly and trickily. In the tale “The Fox and the Hare,” the hare is “poor in strength, [but] he’s frisky at running and full of youthful pranks” (Haney, 33). This tricky nature of the hare was not necessarily negative; as noted by Russian folktale scholar Vladimir Propp, “Trickery presupposes the dominance of the crafty over the stupid or simple. From our point of view, trickery is morally reprehensible. In animal tales, on the contrary, it arouses delight, as a form of expression of dominance of the weak over the strong” (Propp, 298). Trickery, in other words, formed an essential part of survival and therefore did not necessarily appear as a negative quality. Thus, the legend regarding the hare who jumped into Peter the Great’s boat follows the tradition of Russian folk tales. Elements of the legend may have even stemmed from the symbolism in Russian folk tales. The hare may have jumped into Peter the Great’s boat out of cowardice, but the statue celebrates the “rascally hare’s” instinct to survive.

These characteristics associated with hares–trickery, cowardice, fleetness–have endured up to the present. One example of the “rascally hare” appeared in the Soviet children’s cartoon Nu, Pogodi!, which followed the adventures of a wolf attempting to capture and presumably eat a hare. While this show bears some comparison with the American cartoon Tom and Jerry, the characters of the wild hungry wolf and the tricky hare conceivably could have been drawn from old Russian folk tales. Other more negative examples of the hare as a coward rather than a trickster have occurred more recently. In 2009, a series of “hare” protests occurred in St. Petersburg in response to increased local transportation fees. The term “hare” (zayats) has become slang for a person who uses public transport without paying by dodging the fees (Chernov). The forty or so protestors wore hare masks and stenciled hare skulls on the walls of the office of the Transport Committee. This incident shows that the negative aspects of the character of the hare have endured just as much as the more positive “trickster” aspects. A hare, a bear and a leopard all stand as mascots for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky had this to say about them: “The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare a coward who always runs away” (Bratersky). Thus, both the negative and positive characteristics of the hare have endured. These characteristics made it a much more appropriate choice for the statue than, for example, a fox or a bear (both of which also appeared quite often in Russian animal tales).

Besides the wider cultural significance of the hare, the statue also addresses a vital part of St. Petersburg’s history: flooding. Flooding has continually shaped the physical and cultural landscape of St. Petersburg, from the very first floods that washed away the flimsy dwellings of Peter the Great’s forced laborers (New York Times) to the devastating flood of 1824 that killed more than 200 people (Patterson). Pushkin immortalized the flood of 1824 in his poem “The Bronze Horseman.” In November 2010, St. Petersburg experienced its 308th flood (“Russia Beyond the Headlines”), nearly a flood a year since the city has existed. In 2011, the Russian government officially completed and opened a dam meant to protect St. Petersburg from rising water (The Voice of Russia). This reflects an ongoing desire to control the forces of nature in St. Petersburg; after all, in 1703, Peter the Great sought to engineer a city on a most inhospitable piece of land, persevering despite those foreboding first floods. More than three centuries later, the Russian government finally completed a project that would further tame the forces of nature and ensure the continued flourishing of St. Petersburg. Plaques around the city indicate the high water marks of some of the past floods (Patterson). With these constant reminders, flooding has also managed to dominate the cultural landscape of the city. The tiny statue of “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” then, does not stand entirely on its own but rather makes up a larger part of this flood commemoration trend.

Interestingly enough, however, when compared to other flood markers, this hare statue stands apart in one important respect. The marks on the piling that represent the heights of floodwaters are not very visible at all, in contrast with the stark line on, for example, the plaque marking the infamous flood of 1824. The visual emphasis of the hare statue is therefore on the hare and not necessarily on the piling (and faint marks) below it. The attitude of the crowds of Russians and tourists alike crossing Ioannovsky Bridge reinforces this assertion; these crowds regard the pilings immediately around the statue as lucky landing spots for tossed kopeks. The pilings even occasionally serve as a climbing spot for carefree children playing in the waters below the bridge in the summer.  Thus, this mysterious statue, while representing larger concepts, has managed to root itself in people’s minds as a cute and whimsical spot to throw coins at before continuing on to Peter and Paul Fortress.

 

Works Cited

Bratersky, Aleksander. “Putin’s Favorite Selected as Olympic Mascot.” The St. Petersburg Times [St. Petersburg, Russia] 2 March 2011: 7. Web.

Chernov, Sergei. “Local Transport Fares Up Leading to ‘Hare’ Protests.” The St. Petersburg Times [St. Petersburg, Russia] 20 Jan. 2009: 3. Web.

Gerber, Adolph. Great Russian Animal Tales. 1891. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970. Print.

Haney, Jack. Russian Animal Tales. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999. Print.

“Hare Island.” St. Petersburg Encyclopedia. 2004. Web.

“Ioannovsky Bridge.” St. Petersburg Encyclopedia. 2004. Web.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. “Sunlight at Midnight: Peter the Great and the Rise of Modern Russia.” The   New York Times 26 August 2001. Web.

“Monument ‘the hare.’” BaikalNature. n.p. Web. 2009.

Patterson, Simon. “In Memory of the City’s Most Dangerous Floods.” The St. Petersburg Times {St. Petersburg, Russia] 3 July 2001. Web.

“Photo of the Day: Flood Strikes St. Petersburg.” Russia Beyond the Headlines. Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Web. 16 November 2010.

Propp, Vladimir. The Russian Folktale. Trans. Sibelan Forrester. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. Print.

Sokolov, Yuri. Russian Folklore. Trans. Catherine Smith. Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1971. Print.

“St. Petersburg Gets Protecting Dam.” The Voice of Russia. Web. 12 Aug. 2011.

“The Hare Escaping Flooding.” Saint-Petersburg.com. Web. 2013.

“Unusual Monuments in St. Petersburg.” Prosveshcheniye Publishers. Web. 27 July 2012.