Last weekend I travelled to St Petersburg to start research on a new book and I thought I’d share my equestrian shots. I was only in this fascinating, complicated city for two and a half days and did not venture out of the very heart of it but I still found some horse history of interest – and some living horses too. There aren’t many hours of sunlight at 60 degrees north in December, so the photos are a bit brooding and murky – be warned. Also murky, the information in this blog post as my Russian is very, very limited and I can’t find guidebooks that really meet my horsey needs. Anyone with local historical knowledge is welcome to step in and correct what I’ve managed to tap out here!
This (above) is St Petersburg’s most famous horse. He carries “the Bronze Horseman”, a statue of the city’s founder, Peter the Great, erected by Catherine the Great in 1782. The French sculptor Etienne Falconet intended it to be more allegorical than your average equestrian statue – the horse is Russia and under its feet it tramples a serpent that represents any treasonous opponents to Peter’s sweeping reforms. The repercussions from Peter’s rule and the subsequent history of the city have been embodied in references to the Bronze Horseman in literary works by great writers from Pushkin to Anna Akmatova. Quite often the horseman in these stories pursues deranged literary heroes through the city.
You know that the Hermitage was the Russian royal family’s palace and is now an enormous compendium of a museum. You maybe didn’t know that its stables are still standing and currently under restoration. This is Konyushennaya Ploschchad or Stable Square, about ten minutes walk away along the Moyka river on icy, sloping pavements. It once housed a “stables museum” featuring the family’s carriage and sleigh collection as early as the 1820s. According to this piece on the Hermitage’s website by Igor Arsentyev, there are now over 40 vehicles in the collection and the ceremonial harness to go with them:
A coupé acquired from [leading carriage builder Johann Conrad] Buchendal for Catherine II in 1793 was reproduced in miniature in 1897 by craftsmen working for the firm of Carl Fabergé; this little gem was then placed inside an Easter egg commissioned by Nicholas II for his wife, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. A sledge for ten passengers, also made by Buchendal in 1793, was intended for trips around the park by the imperial family during the cold Russian winters. Eight horses were required to pull it and as well as the coachman required postilions riding on the first two pairs.
One charming piece is a mechanical droshky made in Nizhny Tagil between 1785 and 1801 by the craftsman E.G. Kuznetsov. Its mechanism includes a little organ that plays six melodies as the wheels turn and a verstometer (to measure distance) of ingenious construction (a similar principle underlies the speedometers used in modern forms of transportation).
I cannot work out if these carriages are currently on display in the main museum or will go on display in Konyushennaya Ploschchad. This site says the stable building is currently being decontaminated (having housed a petrol station) and converted into “a place for interaction between the city and its citizens, including a public communication centre, an exhibition hall, shops, cafés and a Start Up Center” but a word of caution – I was unable to verify this information or find much else in English about the old stables. What’s more, I’m not entirely sure that they are the Hermitage’s stables. Bear with me.
About five minutes walk from the Konyushennaya Ploschchad is the Mikhailovsky Palace, now a branch of the Russian Museum (which is not the same thing as the Hermitage). Construction began on it for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich in 1819, and the German traveller Johann Georg Kohl, who described it in a book published in 1841, was impressed by not just the building but its surroundings, including a nearby stables and riding arena:
this quarter of the city might almost be called [the Grand Duke’s] kingdom. Here are the dwellings of his officers, his stables, his riding-school, etc. The latter deserves particular mention, as the finest of the kind that exists any where. In the establishment fifty young people are instructed in riding and in all arts that have the remotest reference to horse or rider; for this object, and for the carousels in the fine riding-house, at which the count is often present, a number of the finest horses are kept, and both horses and riders are so well lodged and fed, that it is a pleasure to pass through the range of clean and elegant sleeping-rooms, sitting, and school rooms, saddle-rooms, stables, &c. All these apartments have double folding-doors in the centre, which stand open the whole day. A long carpet is laid along all the floors down to the stable, and the inspector at a glance can overlook every thing; can satisfy himself whether the beautiful white Arabian Asir, so celebrated for his silken hair and broad forehead, and the fiery Haimak of English blood, out of a mare from the Orloff stud, are in good condition; at the same time he can see what the young cadets, who value themselves so much on their rosy cheeks and sprouting beards, are doing in their chambers. It is wonderful how pure the air is kept in spite of this slight separation; it is as if the stud were perfumed with eau de Cologne, as well as the cadets.
The riding school contained six mirrors large enough for horsemen to see their entire position. While, as Kohl proudly notes, it was Germans who brought the art of riding to Russia, the Russians had recrafted it in their own form. It took six years to prepare each cadet to become a riding master in the army. However, the high standards required were brutal on the horses themselves, who, though dazzling in quadrilles, were soon broken down by keeping up “parade paces”.
Kohl then writes about the “colossal Exercising-house”, and the description makes me wonder if it’s under that rounded roof on the Konyushennaya Ploshchad:
This manege covers a space, unbroken by a single pillar, of 650 feet long, and 150 wide; a regiment can go through its evolutions there with perfect convenience; a battalion may manoeuvre there, and two squadrons might fight a battle there. This establishment originated, as did nearly all such places in St. Petersburg, in the time of Paul. Sixteen giant stoves warm the buildings and the walls are lined with thick woollen-cloth. The roof with its appendages presses on the thick walls with a weight of 300,000 hundred weight; the iron rods alone weigh 12,840,000 pounds, and to this must be added 3000 great trunks of trees made use of in the woodwork, and 2,000 square fathoms of iron plates with which the whole is covered without. The Circassians may be generally seen here busied in their feats of horsemanship, or shooting at a mark, at which times a student in acoustics may make many interesting observations. A pistol-shot awakens so prodigious an echo, that heard from the street one might fancy the whole building falling in one crash.
At this point, anyone who can sort out this mess of the Hermitage and Mikhailovsky Palace stables for me is begged to step forward and save me in the comments. Meanwhile, here’s a more easily identifiable manège:
This is the old Horse Guard’s Manège (Konnogvardeyskiy Manège), now an exhibition hall. It was built between 1804 and 1807 and is guarded by twin statues of Castor and Pollux of the “youth trying to stop a rearing horse” variety. They are copies of originals that stand at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, and according to this site they had to be moved to the rear of the manège for a long period after the priests at St Isaac’s cathedral (just over the road) complained about their nudity and pagan nature. You can see some shots of the interior as it is today here, along with a potted history of the building and some earlier images.
It looks as though the facade has lost its more elaborate decorations in the course of the twentieth century. I am not sure if this was the cavalry school at which the famous English écuyer James Fillis taught after Grand Duke Nicholas poached him from the Ciniselli Circus but it seems highly likely. As for non-military riding in the city, Mrs Alice Hayes, one of my favourite sidesaddle authors, spent some time in Russia later in the nineteenth century than Kohl and was unimpressed. In The Horsewoman she comments:
Although the riding schools of Paris are not to be compared to those of Berlin, the worst of them is far superior to the two miserable civilian riding schools in St. Petersburg, where riding is almost entirely a military function. Very few Russian women ride, although history tells us that Peter III. kept a pack of hounds, and that his wife, Catherine II., according to her memoirs, listened to the loving solicitations of Soltikov while they were riding together “to find the dogs.” A saddle belonging to this amorous lady, which I saw at the Hermitage, was like an Australian buck-jumping saddle, with large knee rolls and a high cantle. It was covered with red velvet and decorated with cowrie shells. The side saddle appears to have been first used in Russia by the daughters of the Emperor Paul.
So where were the civilian riding schools? Where did people ride in summer? Where were the horses kept? And what about the ordinary working horses rather than the fancy parade horses and hunters? The standard housing unit appears to be a series of courtyards, as in Berlin (I wrote about these buildings here in a post on Clever Hans) – could there have been stable buildings in the courtyards? How did people keep horses of all kinds in such low temperatures? How did they cope with the slippery winter conditions?
Had I the Russian I could have asked someone. There are still horses in the very heart of St Petersburg – trotting smartly across terrain that I needed hiking boots and much concentration to cover. Before I caught a glimpse of one, I saw here and there piles of horse manure left neatly on the pavements – once even in a plastic bag, as if it were dog poo (I guess if the manure freezes on the road itself it becomes a hazard). The horses themselves appeared in due course, albeit in a rather more romantic fashion than their road apples.
The time difference of two hours between St Petersburg and Berlin is not large but it is annoying. Combine it with overexcitement about being in a city you’ve dreamed of visiting since you were a teenager and, well, not much sleep is had. My hostel room looked out over the Griboyedov canal – also frozen and much frequented by skating hooded crows – at the Kazan Cathedral and was just around the corner from Nevsky Prospect, which is the Oxford Street of St Petersburg. Despite that I woke groggily early on Saturday morning to the sound of hoofs on icy road, and got to the window in time to see a dark horse trot by pulling a battered black droshky with a bale of hay in the foot well.
I caught up with the droshky horse that afternoon in Konyushennaya Ploschchad – he’s on the left of this photograph, in the background. Squint and you can make out a little red square over the grey horse’s neck. That’s a prop banner being used to film a crowd scene in a period drama. I’m not sure if the droshkies were involved or just hanging out, but they didn’t get hustled behind the cordon with the rest of us when filming began, and they were also patiently standing in a fog or pall of smoke being generated by the film crew’s machines.
I haven’t had the chance to look into many Russian equestrian sources for the nineteenth century, but even my scanty reading of Russian literature suggests that horses of all kinds were just as culturally important there as in Europe. What about the infamous horse race in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or his tale of Kholstomer, the talking horse? The most disturbing literary set piece is Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment, written some twenty years after Kohl’s account of the city. In it he revisits a childhood scene in the town where he was born:
He always liked looking at those great cart-horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it. But now, strange to say, in the shafts of such a cart he saw a thin little sorrel beast, one of those peasants’ nags which he had often seen straining their utmost under a heavy load of wood or hay, especially when the wheels were stuck in the mud or in a rut. And the peasants would beat them so cruelly, sometimes even about the nose and eyes, and he felt so sorry, so sorry for them that he almost cried, and his mother always used to take him away from the window.
As the child-Raskolnikov watches in the dream, the sorrel’s driver begins to beat her as more and more bystanders climb into the cart, laughing. As the old mare struggles, her driver hits her harder, and soon loses all control – eventually battering her to death with an iron bar (I did warn you it was awful). The mare’s death foreshadows Raskolnikov’s later murder of the elderly money lender Alyona Ivanovna. I should have read Crime and Punishment before I travelled as it turned out that I was staying on the same street where the novel was both set and written – the Griboyedov canal outside my hotel winds its way south west through Kolomna, where Ivanovna, Raskolnikov and Doestoevsky all lived.
Our German traveller Kohl saw peasant horses bought and sold at “Zimnaia Ploshchad” at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Though less literary than Dostoevsky, he also made a parallel many critics have made between the sorrel in Crime and Punishment and the beleagured peasants of the empire:
The horses sold in this market are duly imbued with the national character. Like their masters they are small, but active and supple; with long manes and beards, ragged hair, delicate joints, and iron constitutions. In the stable they are dull and heavy, but in harness full of spirit, unwearied in the race, and even after the hardest labour tricksy and playful. Cold, heat, hunger, and thirst, they endure with a patience truly admirable, and often receive their dirty straw with more apparent relish than their German brethren do the golden corn. Yet after all, there is but little energy in the Russian horse. He knows not how to husband his force, and if unable to clear the hill at a gallop he remains hopelessly fixed in the mud.
He noted that well-to-do Russians preferred Tartar coachmen – indeed, a visiting Duke of Devonshire even took one home as a souvenir – and that much of the vocabulary for coaching and driving was Mongolian or Tartar. These full-bearded men dressed typically in “a fine blue cloth caftan, fastened under the left arm with three silver buttons, and girded round his middle by a coloured silk sash.” Their postillions were “pretty boys, from twelve to fourteen years of age”. Kohl later comments that literacy was gaining pace in Russia and many servants aspired to learn the alphabet and read, for “even the little postilions may often be seen in a corner of the stables diligently forming the letters with their frozen fingers.”
Mrs Alice Hayes might not have been impressed by Russian ladies but she has nothing but praise for Russian cab men – quite something when one considers the reputation cab horses had for suffering:
… the Russian ishvoshik (cabman), treat their equine charges with far greater sympathy and kindness than our English grooms and cab-drivers do. … When passing through London on my return from a visit to Russia, we put up at an hotel in Oxford Street, where the night was rendered hideous to me by the brutal slashing of cab horses; for one hears nothing of that kind in Russia, and yet we English people pride ourselves on being a horse-loving nation! The speed of Orlov trotters is very great, but no whip is used in driving them; the coachmen drive with a rein in each hand, like the drivers of American trotters, and shout after the manner of firemen to clear the road, for these animals seem to require a good deal of holding. The Russian cabby uses a small whip like an ordinary dog-whip, which he tucks away somewhere under his seat, and when his horse is taking things too easy, it is only necessary for him to show it him, for he is driven without blinkers, to cause him to at once hasten his pace. Very often the man is unprovided even with this toy thing, in which case he obtains a similar result by abusing the animal’s relations! During the whole time that I was in Russia, I never once saw a cabby hurt his horse with the whip. Russia is the last country to which one would go to learn anything about the treatment of human beings, knowing what we do of her past and present history; but we certainly should emulate the Russian coachmen in their kindness to horses, and not shock our neighbours by exhibitions of brutality which may be seen daily in the London streets.
Kohl had a more nuanced take on this:
The Russian cannot be said to illtreat his horse. He rarely flies into a rage against his animal, and expends at all times far more words than blows upon it; on the other hand, however, he bestows but little care upon it, and spoils it as little with over-cherishing as he is himself spoiled with kindness by those in whose school he has been trained and broken in.
So this was a hasty little insight into Russian horses high and low in St Petersburg. As I wrote the bare bones of it I began to Google and turn up more sources that required cross-matching and confirming, and the whole piece began to spiral out of control, so it’s best if I stop now before I accidentally write 10,000 words and forget to write up my notes on the research I actually flew there to do. I’ll leave you with a final Petersburg scene.
At 3am on the Sunday morning I was awake again. The couple in the room next door had argued for hours and were now snoring. Outside, young men were screeching along the Nevsky Prospect in cars whose booming stereos rattled the window just above my head. Women were screaming at their boyfriends and drunks were raging. And then there was a brief lull and I heard hoof beats again – nippy, trotting hoof beats. I hauled myself up to the window sill and poked my head through the curtains.
The road was covered in patches of brown ice two inches thick. On it, trotting south along the Griboyedov canal towards where the droshky horse had come from and the homes of Dostoevsky, Raskalnikov and Alyona Ivanovna, was a bare-headed man with a heavy hood hanging down his back, mounted on a dark horse that moved without fear or hesitation past the neon-lit bars and kiosks and away into the pitch-black early morning.