The Anichkov Bridge & The Horse Tamers: An Exploration of Human-Environment Interaction in Russian Thought (Kayla Celeste Shirley)

As public concerns for environmental conservation mount, statesmen’s reactions have been lukewarm at best, especially among the nations with the highest levels of carbon emissions.  The Russian Federation, which is the fourth-largest producer of greenhouse gases,[1]provides a prime example.  When asked about the impacts of climate change on Russia, President Vladimir Putin responded positively to the prospect, stating that an increase in temperatures meant that Russians “could spend less on fur coats.”[2]  Many delegates humored him, and jested in kind.

This event highlights a much deeper issue in Russian society.  Ask any Russian citizen, recite any Russian poet, or read any Russian writer; the worship of the Siberian wilderness, the taiga[3], is ever-present within the culture.  The economic policies and daily practices of the nation, however, tell a much different story.  History is fraught with Russian attempts to bring nature under Man’s control, not to pursue a symbiotic relationship.  The most prominent example is the very existence of Saint Petersburg, a city that should not be habitable under natural circumstances.  Peter the Great built his namesake city atop an inhospitable swamp, and its citizens have been fighting this inhospitable environment ever since.  This reveals a paradox in how Russians consider their relationship with Nature— while many claim that the cultural rhetoric is to respect and worship the wilderness, art and literature illustrate that there is actually a desire to conquer Nature and bring it to heel.

I argue that this narrative, depicted by the Anichkov Bridge and Klodt’s Horse Tamers,  actually represents the complicated Russian belief in Man triumphing over the untamed, a philosophy that has existed since the age of Peter the Great.  To do so, after explaining my methodology of research, I will begin by outlining the place of environmentalism in Russian memory, and how it is commonly contradictory in its treatment of Nature. Then, I will analyze the symbolism represented by Klodt’s Horse Tamers, arguing that like many other pieces of art in Russian history, this metaphor can be traced to back to the Petersburg Myth. Finally, I will explain Anichkov Bridge’s physical history within the city, and how this physical placement lends to its resonance with Russians.

In his effort to create his “Venice of the North,” Peter the Great designed a city connected by bridges.  Nowadays, Saint Petersburg has 342 bridges within its city limits[4].  Many of these bridges, such as the oldest of the Fontanka River— the Anichkov Bridge— have been there since the city’s founding, a testament to Saint Petersburg’s devotion to the preservation of its art.  Indeed, many natives of Saint Petersburg, regardless of age, responded positively to my mentions of the Anichkov Bridge in particular.  They described it as “beautiful” and a “must-see,” pausing only to ask if I had heard any of the local legends surrounding it[5].  The citizens of Saint Petersburg feel protective of the art that the city has to offer, a trait that they explain sets them apart from Muscovites, who are more accustomed to their city’s monuments changing to reflect the current political backdrop. It became evident to me that they think just as highly of the “functional” art pieces as the citizens of Tsarist Russia did.  The Anichkov Bridge is a grand example of this idea, with its seemingly simple form being adorned with cast-iron railings sculpted into the forms of mermaids.  The addition of the Horse Tamer statues atop each pillar, designed by Pyotr Klodt, make it an easily recognizable symbol.

But is the Anichkov Bridge a simple piece of functional art, or does it represent something much deeper in Russian memory?  Does this city-wide display of pride stem only from a love of art, or is there a meaning within that makes an even more poignant statement?  I argue that the Anichkov Bridge and its Horse Tamers represents the aforementioned uncertainty in Russian culture towards the relationship between Man and Nature.  While there is an expressed desire to preserve the environment, the desire to establish dominance over it wins out more often.  This rhetoric interferes with Russia’s ability to conserve its own historical and natural treasures; by understanding it, scholars can develop a way to address environmental issues while also heeding cultural concerns.


In order to fully address Russia’s relationship with the Wild, the Anichkov Bridge must be analyzed from both the lens of the present and that of the past — physically and culturally.  The oldest and most famous bridge in Saint Petersburg, the Anichkov Bridge has grown and evolved with the city.  Under the orders of Peter the Great, the first iteration of the bridge was finished in 1716, designed by Domenico Trezzini and engineered by its namesake, Mikhail Anichkov.  By 1721, plans were already made to reconstruct the bridge as a drawbridge to handle more boat traffic.  The bridge underwent another reconstruction in 1841, gaining Pyotr Klodt’s first two Horse Tamers statues in the process. The fourth and final iteration was not for resizing, but to reinforce the failing stone arches, between 1906 and 1908. Since then the bridge has remained as one of the city’s most identifiable landmarks.  It took considerable artillery fire during World War II, as the Nazis invaded in 1941; however, the bridge has been fully restored, except for one pillar that retains the shell marks as a memorial.

It is important to note that, during my preliminary studies, I found a distinct lack of in-depth information, whether it be about the Anichkov Bridge itself, the Horse Tamers, or their sculptor, Pyotr Klodt.  Cultural representations of the bridge — paintings and figurines, in particular — are much more widespread than clear, focused photos of the subjects themselves.  Therefore, much of my primary research was to fill these gaps by taking photos, observing the bridge and monuments from various angles, and watching everyday pedestrian and motor traffic.  As I stated before, the citizens of Saint Petersburg were willing to discuss the beauty of the bridge, but rarely did they know the history of the bridge, or the statues’ meaning aside from the local legends that surround them.  Indeed, these legends probably sprang forth from the mysteries of the bridge, or accepted meaning of Klodt’s horses — especially since no official narrative was established.


            Researching the environmental rhetoric of Post-Soviet Russia has led to conflicting, and often confusing, results.  Laura A. Henry, in her analysis of environmental activism, asserts that the natural conditions in the nation “remain poor, [but] public concern about green issues is high”[6].  Indeed, the country itself embodies a paradox, where although more than half the population lives in territories deemed insufficient to standards of ecological safety[7], Russia has been praised as an “environmental donor” on the international stage[8].  Henry cites Marxist-Leninist thought as a potential catalyst to this divide, which claims that nature exists to fuel the pursuit of industrialization[9]. Trotsky himself wrote in 1925 that the natural state of Russia could not be considered final[10].  By contrast, the early Post-Soviet years spelled optimism for green activists in Russia, as Yeltsin’s weak state capacity allowed these environmentalists to operate without harassment from state officials[11]. Incentives were given to companies that pledged to lower environmental impact as well. Add in the Russian Federation’s vast amount of wildlife preserves and pristine wilderness (including being the largest protectorate of boreal biomes)[12], it would seem that the country was in rapid pursuit of a greener future.

Vladimir Putin’s recent actions as President, however, do not support this claim. In addition to his comments in 2003 referenced in the introduction, Putin has not moved many conservation efforts forward.  In fact, many of the incentives and pro-environment laws passed under Yeltsin were dissolved by his regime[13].  Although the Russian Federation backed the Paris Agreement[14]in 2015, their actions on climate change have been the lowest among participating countries, deemed “critically insufficient” with no established long-term climate goals[15].  As the concern for activism mounts on a small, individual level, the issues more often are exacerbated at the state level.

Many native Russians have the impression that to be Russian is to have nature on one’s side.  This philosophy is illustrated historically— from Napoleon’s failure to pierce the Russian winter to Hitler’s[16].  This coupled with Russian survival through various Saint Petersburg floods[17]and polar weather patterns leads to the aforementioned Petersburg Myth— a phenomenon that explains the presence of the municipal legends and tales in the cultural consciousness[18].  This includes the almost mythological traits of the “living” Saint Petersburg, including the seemingly sentient presence of the Wild within the city.  It is no surprise that this philosophy trickles down into art as well as daily life.

If a philosophy similar to a country-wide application of the Petersburg Myth was the sole school of thought present, I argue that Putin’s agenda would logically be one of conservation and humble respect for the natural resources the nation possesses.  This is not the case.  This subtle shift in environmental thought occurred over the span of the past few centuries.  While there were still intellectuals, such as Pushkin, who gave nature a godlike power in the literary world, the imperial path of Russia embodied the power of Man, not the power of God or the Wild.  These conflicting influences would explain the conflict in Russian memory on the role of Nature in the development of the nation’s culture.  This is especially evident in the rule of Peter the Great, who defied the floods and swampland to build his namesake city, and was the same man to commission Anichkov Bridge and the Horse Tamers.


In order to understand how the Horse Tamers represent the Russian perspective on Man versus Nature, I first analyze the narrative put forth by Pyotr Klodt.  To do so, I have created an illustration of the Anichkov Bridge for reference.


Figure 1. This is a top-down diagram of the Anichkov Bridge, with perspective as if approaching Liteyniy Avenue to the north. The Horse Tamer statues are titled after their cardinal position in this view

From this point forward, I will refer to each of the statues by their cardinal positions, as detailed in Figure 1.  My detailed shots of each of the Horse Tamers comprise Figures 2-5.  Statue SW illustrates the tamer with a strong, upright gait, with the horse fully saddled and accepting the rein and bit.  Statue NW portrays the tamer kneeling beside the struggling horse, pulling against its force.  Statue NE shows the tamer now fully on the ground, holding on to the rein with only one arm.  And finally, statue SE shows the man pulling the horse back with the his arm on the reign nearest to the bit, as the horse rears back.

Statue SW, completed 1841

Figure 2: Statue SW, completed 1841

Statue NW, completed 1849

Figure 3: Statue NW, completed 1849

Figure 4. Statue NE, completed 1850

Figure 4. Statue NE, completed 1850

Figure 5. Statue SE, completed 1841

Figure 5. Statue SE, completed 1841

Statues SW and SE were sculpted almost a decade before statues NW and NE, so I explore the narratives set forth by the bridge both before statues NW and NE were installed, and afterwards.  Keeping this in mind we can more accurately construct the timeline that Klodt intended.

At first observation, it seems simple to assume the narrative order of the Horse Tamers; we begin with statue NE, move on to NW, then to SE, and end with SW. Indeed, statue NE portrays the tamer fully on the ground, and each stage that follows portrays the tamer slowly rising, until the horse is fully reined and saddled.  This portrayal illustrates a narrative of Man taming the wild horse fully and steadily. There is no struggle in the compositions, and so the tamer seems to slowly gain the horse’s trust and respect, and they walk off together, side by side.  This would seem like a narrative arc which supports the cultural ideal of Nature fighting and working alongside the Russian man, as we see in pieces such as Pushkin’s celebrated “Bronze Horseman”[1], and the Petersburg Myth that so often accompanies it.

When we take into account the timeline of Klodt’s work, however, we see the more complete — and nuanced — picture.  Statues SW and SE were sculpted and erected in 1841, at which point the bridge displayed only two men, both standing beside their respective horses.  Statue SW is a man who walks alongside his horse, with straight posture and a long, confident gait.  Furthermore, the horse is saddled with an animal pelt, and the bit rests straight in the horse’s mouth.  Statue SE shows more motion, and more struggle.  The tamer is leaned into the action with his arm held high, near the horse’s mouth; indeed, it seems as though he is attempting to rein the horse in by inserting the bit into its mouth.  With this analysis in mind, statue SE must come before statue SW in the continuum.

But with the physical timeline of Klodt’s sculpting in mind, where would we place his more recent pieces, statues NW and NE? Both portray the tamer in a sedentary state, and by that logic the narrative of the tamer rising from the ground makes sense.  But would Klodt choose to keep the entire first half of his narrative hidden for a decade?  From an artistic point of view, it makes more sense to either create the beginning of such a linear story first, or to create the beginning and end, and flesh the middle out later.  With this in mind it only makes sense to place statues NW and NE in the middle, between SE and SW, and so I argue that this was Klodt’s intention all along. The result is a more nuanced story, with the tamer in a constant state of flux — first he thrusts the bit into the horse’s mouth, as seen in statue SE, then he is knocked down and struggles to reorient himself against the might of the imposing horse, as in NW and NE. Finally he conquers the horse and saddles it, as in SW. Here we see a much more interesting narrative, one of struggle and of success.  From this angle the arc generates an ideal of pride and power, rather than one of humility and equality.  This account more accurately fits the long-standing metanarrative: that Man triumphs over Nature, often forcibly.


Anichkov Bridge is a point of great pride for the city of Saint Petersburg, mentioned in the works of Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky[2]. Crossing over the Fontanka river, the bridge supports heavy automotive traffic as well as pedestrians.  Boat tour guides usually set up at each corner due to the heavy foot traffic  that runs through the area, and their megaphoned voices can be heard from down the street.  Indeed, in addition to being a functional part of life for many Russians, the bridge serves as a reminder of Russian pride.  The bridge and its sculptures represent the beauty of the imperial age of Russia, dating back to the age of Tsar Nicholas I.  During the bridge’s drawbridge and stone eras, it was one of the popular attractions of Nevsky Prospekt, becoming the subject of many illustrations and paintings.  Figure 6 illustrates Charlemagne-Baudet’s take of daily life on the bridge, specifically the foot and carriage traffic that mimics the modern motion we would see today.  In fact, much of the bridge’s original appearance has been preserved.

Figure 6. Joseph-Maria Charlemagne-Baudet, Saint Petersburg. 1850s. Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace and Anichkov Bridge

Figure 6. Joseph-Maria Charlemagne-Baudet, Saint Petersburg. 1850s. Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace and Anichkov Bridge

More than that, however, the sculptures themselves remind the passerby of a much more recent time: the siege of Leningrad from 1941-44, beginning exactly a century after the first Horse Tamer was erected.  The pillar on which statue SW stands is adorned with a plaque detailing the event.  Figure 7 shows it hanging near obvious cracks and weathering on the pedestal.

Figure 7. The plaque hangs on the SW statue beneath Klodt’s dedication

Figure 7. The plaque hangs on the SW statue beneath Klodt’s dedication

It reads:

These are the markings from some of the 148478 shells released by the Fascists in Leningrad from 1941-44.

Not only do the markings stand as monuments, but the story of the statues during the siege illustrates the Russians’ love for the sculptures.  When the Nazis approached the city, civilians took the Horse Tamers down from their pedestals and buried them in the nearby Anichkov Garden, so that the invaders would not think to destroy the monuments. After the war, the statues were dug up again and replaced atop the four points of the bridge as a sign of triumph.

The fact that these actions were taken, especially by everyday civilians rather than city officials, speaks volumes of the cultural impact of the bridge and its monuments.  It has ascended to the level of worship as Russia’s literary leaders, such as Gogol and Pushkin. This illustrates the presence the bridge and its statues have within the national consciousness, and by extension, the aforementioned narrative put forth.


            Anichkov Bridge and its Horse Tamers embody a nuance in Russian memory that is vital to understand if the nation wants to move forward with programs of preservation.  While the accepted “Russian” perception of Nature paints it as a protector of the nation, there are further narratives that influence Russian memory, and they further twist this perspective. Anichkov Bridge and its Horse Tamers, for example, push the perspective that Nature is not a guardian, but instead an obstacle to Russian advancement that must be brought to heel. In order to move past this, the role Nature fulfills within Russian culture must be analyzed. Anichkov Bridge illustrates that this perception of Nature and the Wild is so ingrained in modern Russian society, that it is impossible to ignore.  Commuters and pedestrians cross this bridge every day, and see it as the pride of their city — and its narrative enforces a perspective that Man is set up against Nature and is destined to conquer it, not exist alongside it.

[1]Palmer, Brian. “The Putin Puzzle.” NRDC. December 3, 2015. Accessed 20 April, 2018.
[2]Pearce, Fred.  “Global warming ‘will hurt Russia.’” NewScientist. October 3, 2003.Accessed 20 April, 2018.
[3]Thetaigais also defined as the “snow forest,” and is the world’s largest biome. The largest locales are occupied by Russia and Canada.
[4]“Anichkov Bridge”. Best Bridge. Accessed August 04, 2018.
[5]Local legends include Tsar Paul I’s face being etched into various parts of one of the horses(the most popular places are under the tail and the penis).  Another claims that Klodt’s death resulted from his horror that one of the horses was molded without a tongue.
[6]Henry, Laura A. Red to Green: Environmental Activism in Post-Soviet Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. 4.
[8]Henry.Red to Green. 34.
[9]Henry.Red to Green. 36.
[10]Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: International Publishers. 1924.
[11]Henry.Red to Green. 42.
[12]Colwell, Mark A., Alexander V. Dubynin, Andrei Yu. Koroliuk, and Nikolai A. Sobolev. “Russian Nature Reserves and Conservation of Biological Diversity.” Natural Areas Journal17, no. 1 (1997): 56-68.
[13]Henry.Red to Green. 43-44.
[14]The Paris Agreement is a pact within the United Nations where member nations have pledged to emissions mitigation, adaptation, and financing, beginning in 2020.
[15]“Russian Federation.” Climate Action Tracker. 2017. Accessed August 15, 2018.
[16]Referencing the invasions of 1812 and 1941, respectively.
[17]Referencing the floods of 1824, 1903, 1924, and 1967, among others.
[18]Hugaeva, M. G. “St. Petersburg Myth.” Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia.
[1]“The Bronze Horseman” describes the great flood of 1824 in Saint Petersburg, in which the equestrian statue represents the sense of strict order Peter the Great meant to instill on the city.
[2]Buckler, Julie A. Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.