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The fate of Russia changed when German Sophie, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst (21 April [2 May new style] 1729 – 6 November [17 November] 1796) married in 1745, Peter Fyodorovich, Grand Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the throne. Sadly, the enmity between the couple culminated in her coup d'état in June 1762 and the suspicious death of her husband, Emperor Peter III, one month later. Unlike her husband, she was known to have vision, confidence, and ambition to be an 'enlightened' monarch. Catherine II's legacy was interdependent on her ability to bridge Russia's historical past with that of her own desires and accomplishments. Peter the Great (1672 – 1725), the Tsar and first Emperor of Russia, wanted to commission a large monument to himself in his own lifetime. At his invitation, Florentine sculptor Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1675 – 1744) produced detailed sketches and studio models but with the death of the tsar in 1725, the plans were never realized. After the death of Rastrelli, his assistant as well as his son completed a cast in 1747; however, with Catherine's loss of enthusiasm, funding was not sufficient to include a pedestal and the statue became forgotten. While Catherine proclaimed that she would refuse any monument built to glorify her, she exploited the myth of Peter the Great to legitimize her reign. Although the Senate reminded the empress of Rastrelli's mothballed statue – thereby saving a great deal of money – she declared it unworthy and wanted an entirely new monument. This was to be one of her most brilliant decisions.
In 1764, Catherine commissioned the famous French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716 – 1791) to complete this masterpiece. Catherine "wanted a monument that would impress with the scale of Peter the Great's vision and at the same time bear the stamp of her efforts to further that vision." Falconet's original design was to make the horse in the pose bondissante and to place it at the elevated end of a natural stone runway. Instead, a large monolith was used as a plinth for the sculpture. Finally, after twelve years of labour, the sculpture was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance by the Empress on 7 August 1782 – the centennial anniversary of Tsar Peter's coronation. This was an historic event as it was the "dedication of the first monument ever to be erected in Russia and a joint tribute to the only monarchs in modern Russian history who were deemed worthy of the epithet 'Great.'" In addition to the superb bronze statue and the impressive pedestal cliff, this sculpture arguably also includes "the most ingenious monument inscription ever designed." A sublime coda was written in bronze lettering across the faces of the pedestal: "To Peter the First, Catherine the Second, 1782" – with Latin facing the west and Russian facing the east. By engaging the local population, its nation, and Europe at that time, in developing, constructing, and celebrating what is considered Russia's first modern national memorial – Catherine achieved not only the just tribute to her famous predecessor but also her memorialization that she mutely desired. Depicted is a post card dated 1 November 1909 from Saint Petersburg to Madame J. Charles in Paris illustrating the "Bronze Horseman" monument to Peter the Great.
It is interesting to note that Catherine's earlier decision to dismiss Rastrelli's 1747 equestrian cast of Peter the Great was reversed by her son Emperor Paul I (1754 – 1801) when he ordered it mounted on a pedestal and installed in 1800 in front of the main entrance to the Mikhailovsky Castle, St. Petersburg. Paul carried on his mother's novel idea of a personalized inscription on a commemorative monument and this time instructed the following words to be included in Russian only: "to great-grandfather from great-grandson." While the 1747 Rastrelli statue is the first equestrian statue cast in Russia, it is Falconet's 1782 sculpture of Peter the Great that is considered Russia's first public modern national memorial.
On this day, 7 August 2022, we commemorate the 240th anniversary of the dedication of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great.
André M. Levesque