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GP 18 July 2007: The Bronze Horseman

Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men. – Goethe

Cityscape.  How does one capture the whole of a great city in a cosmic view, that kaleidoscopic vision that evades all cameras, poets, perhaps even the gods?  For New York City it’s a low-altitude trip down the East River in a helicopter, finally brushing up against the Statue of Liberty, before darting off to Kennedy for a B747 to the West Coast.  We had just that piece of luck during the air-traffic controller’s strike when Ronald Reagan faced down all the fellows hidden in radar rooms about the country who somehow keep us from crashing into one another.  Our whirlybird pilot one day could take an exhilarating route of his choosing, with so little traffic around, and he did for us. Such a roof-hugging journey tells just how much is compressed into the Borough of Manhattan, and just how the other boroughs pale in its shadow.

Washington, hatched as a Constitutional compromise to help bring the Union into being, never seems great from any perspective: it’s a small town and strangely banal.  Shanghai eludes one for a different reason: the skies are so filled with yellowish pollution and the ground dotted with yet another hundred buildings coming into being, that it mainly seems unfinished, a place where the air has yet to clear.

On one side of the Baltic, there’s Stockholm, best comprehended in a leisurely sail through the magnificent archipelago of 24,000 islands that takes you into its simple harbor.  It is a city illuminated and overshadowed by its beautiful surroundings.  On the other side of the Sea, past Finland, however, is St. Petersburg, the capital Peter the Great built for himself, both as a strategic outlet for landlocked Russia and as means to indulge his great passion for all things maritime, first ignited by Dutch ship carpenters in his youth.  In his very short life (1672-1725) he managed to consolidate both Russia and the powers of the tsar; in an even shorter time, he constructed his magic city, launching it in 1703, at the beginning of the 18th century.

Venice of the North.  He purposely made it hard to get around the city, except by boat.  And shallow draft boats, more than in other places, even more than in gondola-rich Venice, are the way to see the palaces, the gold basilica-style domes, the Neva, the blue and red and green and yellow bridges, this city of majesty.  Peter had a vision, and you must capture it the way he intended.  It was meant to be viewed close up from a ship’s deck.

Everything in this metropolis is suffused with greatness.  Spanning the Moika River is the Blue Bridge, some 99.9 meters wide and claiming anyway to be the world’s broadest.  We have heard that a Finnish lady, taking the Metro, which apparently is buried some 85 meters down, asked to stop under the river in order to see the fishes.  “Due to the city’s unique geology, the Saint Petersburg Metro is the deepest subway system in the world.  Serving nearly three million passengers daily, it is also one of world’s busiest subway systems.”  Her guides could do little for her.  At every turn in St. Petersburg you encounter something larger than life, realizations that dwarf their creators.

The Bronze Horseman.  Catherine the Great, trying to legitimize her own reign by association with Peter, constructed a very dramatic statue of him a century and one half after his death in Decembrists Square near the Admiralty that has come to be known as the Bronze Horseman, after Pushkin’s poem about it written in 1833.  It took 14 years to construct, and its pedestal alone required stupendous exertions.  Known as the Thunder Stone, it was moved with super-Herculean effort from the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, its voyage by sledge taking 2 years.  Such dramatic enactment, in this case the sweeping gesture from Peter and the flaring nostrils of the horse, recurs frequently in St. Petersburg, where statue after statue communicates grand design.

Peter and the Russian state seem to always have made huge demands on the Russian people, the price of greatness.  Pushkin, in his poem, captures the ambivalence the Russian feels towards the nation, sometimes angered by the demanding leader, but, in the end, submitting with fear and loyalty to his demands.  Yevgeny, his hero, is angry at Peter for building a city whose floods consume his family, but, in the end, falls into his thrall:

For now he seemed to see
The awful Emperor, quietly,
With momentary anger burning,
His visage to Yevgeny turning!
And rushing through the empty square,
He hears behind him as it were
Thunders that rattle in a chorus,
A gallop ponderous, sonorous,
That shakes the pavement. At full height,
Illumined by the pale moonlight,
With arm outflung, behind him riding
See, the bronze horseman comes, bestriding
The charger, clanging in his flight.
All night the madman flees; no matter
Where he may wander at his will,
Hard on his track with heavy clatter
There the bronze horseman gallops still.

Russia on Top.  Robert Massie’s Peter the Great, a Pulitzer Prize winning account of Peter’s gigantic achievement, manages to capture some of his spirit and some of the flavor of his towering accomplishment.  Be warned, of course, that Massie lacked a real editor on his manuscript, and that Knopf did not do its job as publisher: the book is twice as long as it should be.  Since he did so much research, he was determined to stick it all in the book, failing to stay clearly focused on the joust with Charles XII of Sweden, which really is the main theme of the book.

But what emerges from this account is that this era probably was Russia’s zenith, and that everything that has followed has been trivial by comparison.  Even today when one speaks with Russians, you feel a sadness.  They seem to know that things reached an apex in the 18th century, and that it has been downhill ever since, right into the present day.

These days the Russian Mob is suppose to be riding high.  One has to watch out for crime, and is best served to travel around with a guide.  That said, the Mafia will let you alone.  One wag remarks: “Oh, the Mob doesn’t bother with the tourists: they’re not rich enough.” A recent visitor to St. Petersburg remarks:

We were there in February—cold, slushy, but fewer tourists and gypsies.  Watch your ass, wallet, and handbag.  Don’t get into a taxi with more people than one driver.  Cops can be thugs.

The huge Peter was six feet or better, and towered over his countrymen.  Vladimir Putin would probably come up to his navel.  Peter only lived til 53.  The Soviets managed to extend the Russian lifespan by many years, but it is in rapid decline now, as the country regresses and public services erode.

We have mentioned before Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, where the NYU professor argued that our times would be considerably enriched if we could embrace the 18th century in the present moment.  Of course, he was talking about Western Europe, so his compass was rather narrow.  Russia needs to drink in its 18th as well, and the world might be better for it.

Red Sails Day.  It’s not only Russia’s tradition of greatness that could enrich our lives.  When you get beyond the bureaucracy, as present today as under the Soviets, the rich fantasy life of this emotional people capture’s one’s heart.  Just last month, the streets of St. Petersburg were livened by Red (or Scarlet) Sails Day, a celebration that went well into the night, although it is not on the chart of holidays put out by officialdom.  The myth behind the day derives from a novel of Alexander Grin called Scarlet Sails.  A little girl named Assol meets a wizard who tells her a ship will arrive and take her away to a happier life.  A son of a local nobleman grows up to become a sea captain and falls in love with her.  Sure enough, he decides the way to win her heart is to unfurl red sails and head into port.

All the partying is, on the one hand, to celebrate the graduation of students from various universities.  But the myth and the merriment go deeper than that.  An American couple in St. Petersburg recently wrote about this “Insanity in SPB.”  “Of course, the dramatic climax was the entrance of the Scarlet Sails, with a crescendo of fireworks and ‘The 1812 Overture.’”

The Love for Three Oranges.  Life and fantasy are woven together at every turn, lifting people out of the daily grind, giving vent to their passionate characters.  At 6 p.m. of a summer night, the locals in St. Petersburg might go off to the Mariinksy to see a Prokofiev opera.  The prince in this tale travels to distant lands in pursuit of 3 oranges, each containing a princess.  Incidentally, a rather gay spinster attended one recent Mariinsky performance, reveling in every nuance of the opera, telling those next to her that she is celebrating her birthday by coming out for this entertainment.  In St. Petersburg, there’s the feel that ordinary people turn out for the opera, not just the fat cats who fill up the seats in the West.  The prince winds things up by 8 p.m., takes several extended bows, and the audience is able to go out for a late dinner, intoxicated by the gaiety and family-life atmosphere at the theater, suffused in summer light which lasts until the late hours of the night.

Hidden Treasures.  Russia today has an overlay of the pedestrian and mediocre which one has to penetrate.  When Soviet times become more of a distant memory, one hopes the Russians themselves can put it aside.  In St. Petersburg your guide, for instance, will probably be an alumnus of Intourist , the onetime-official tourist agency, and will not be inclined to take you off the beaten path.  For starters that means mediocre food, nobody knowing about “Polovtsev Mansion,” a rather delightful restaurant set in an old mansion within easy reach of the Astoria Hotel.  An adept jazz pianist will play an array of American show tunes but with his own Russian lilt.  The fare at guided tour restaurants is not so memorable.

Most likely, one will traffic out to see Peter’s suburban palace Peterhof.  The fountains are marvelous, but one does not really have to see the interiors.  Instead one should move on to Oranienbaum, the country digs of Peter’s right-hand man Prince Menshikov.  There, by special appointment, one can see Catherine’s Chinese Palace which is now under restoration.  But this requires special effort on the part of your guide, so you’re liable to miss it unless you press for a visit.

These days some of the tourist services will say you cannot even visit the Kuznechny Market, where you find a wealth of greens, fish, cheeses, etc. that will delight the eye.  Adjacent is the Dostoevsky Museum if one is a literary buff.  On the corner sits Our Lady of Vladimir Church, not much remarked upon, though it is wonderfully proportioned and beautiful to behold.

In St. Petersburg—and in the country as a whole—one must uncover these gems to remind oneself that the country is not just about magnificence and scale, but of soulful beauty as well.

The Lessons of Russia.  In the present day, we are likely to regard Russia as an unpleasant annoyance that we don’t understand.  But it’s certain that it has something to offer us besides warheads, overpriced oil, and mischief in the Middle East.

Even now the nation has the memory of greatness, and how greatness can be achieved with very limited resources.  In the Russian case, it has always demanded terrible sacrifice.  And it has depended on a rich fantasy life that substituted for a life that is often threadbare.

Greatness is not the stuff of modern life.  About us, politicians and marketing factotums try to convince us less is more, all the while lessening our expectations for our existence and that of our sons and daughters.  Despite all, Russia—that mysterious country that combines East and West, the worst and the best—has written on its Orthodox soul the concept of greatness.  We need to be reminded that the goal is to exceed our most extravagant dreams with creations that seem to be the works of the gods.

P.S.  The mixed record of the Russian economy continues.  The overthrow of the Communist state put it in reverse, but oil prices in recent years have fueled an unstable resurgence, as well as helping politicians to flex their muscles on the world stage.  As in the time of Peter, raw materials continue to be a strongpoint, since the country is well endowed with resources.  It is a large presence in the offshore software market, ranking number three after India and China in this marketspace.  In line with ancient tradition, Putin has been at great pains to assert his control over large industries such as oil, buying some social stability but slowing the reforms necessary for spectacular growth.  The key consideration for the economy is that Russia stumbles on as a divided, factionalized state.  Putin is not strong enough to bring it to heel.

P.P.S.  Plato, the author of The Republic, put to us that we are eternally trying to recapture images and ideas of the gods which are shadows, barely remembered, in this human existence.  This includes ‘ideas of greatness’ which elude us in daily experience.  It would seem that some ages are more forgetful about perfection than others.  Around the world we have raised a whole generation that has never been touched by greatness.

P.P.P.S.  Great men have great fathers.  In Peter’s case that was Alexis.  Like Peter, he achieved great love with a second marriage—the union which gave birth to Peter.  Peter’s own liking for simple quarters, his selection of great consorts such as Catherine and Menshikov who sprung up from very rude beginnings, and his restless energy probably stem from Alexis.  Alexis I had an immense love of falconry and amassed 200 falconers, 3,000 falcons and 100,000 pigeons.

P.P.P.P.S.  Inevitably big nations on the way up feel impelled to project their power around the globe.  Peter the Great, starting from zero, put together a great navy.  China today has done the same, building a considerable force of submarines and a fleet of airplanes to match.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Over the last 20 years, nation after nation has downsized its industries and cheapened its wares.  Now your major appliances, which once served for a lifetime, may last only four years, and you realize there’s “no there, there.”  “In 2001, the German electronics retailer Saturn introduced the advertising tagline ‘Stinginess is cool!’—in German, ‘Geiz si geil!’  This slogan became popular throughout Germany” (New York Times, July 16, 2007, p. C5).  “At the least, the slogan was very un-German by the country’s standards of consumerism, which have always emphasized paying for quality.”  Saturn is now phasing out the phrase, and, with a better economy, it is becoming fashionable in Germany to spend again.  The question is whether quality, which went down with the pennypinching, will recover.  Prices in other developed countries have been rising, but product durability and quality have not.  Recapturing greatness and quality after you have cut to the bone is no easy task.  Rapid obsolescence, incidentally, is an outmoded economic policy, no longer fitting in the age of sustainability where we are called upon to be more friendly to our environment and much less profligate with scarce, expensive resources.  Mercedes, by the way, continues to lag Lexus and Porsche in the J.D. Power Quality Ratings.  The Germans are always heavy handed, even when hatching slogans.  One American bluegrass player would have said, instead: “Tight is right.”

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