I moved to St Petersburg a few months ago, and I’ve been trying my best to see as many of the достопримечательности (I’m not kidding – that’s the Russian for “sights”) as I can. This is no mean feat, since Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and pretty much saturated with statues, museums, galleries, parks, cathedrals, churches, cemeteries, plaques and other such Instagram-worthy stuff.
Unfortunately, although I’ve been studying Russian for two and a half years now, my grasp of the language is still, if I do say so myself, only slightly better than dreadful. At the main sights, of course, information is translated into English; but since I’m meant to be immersing myself, I try to divert my attention to the Russian original.
So what do I do when, as often happens, my patchy Russian fails? How do I fill in the blanks?
Simple. I make shit up.
It started off as a way to cope with the fact that I don’t understand 70% of what I read, but since then it’s become something of a hobby of mine. Maybe I’m a product of this “fake news” age, but I do find fiction much more attractive than fact.
Let’s take, for example, one of Petersburg’s most famous sights: the gigantic statue of Great Peter, also known as the Copper Rider.
Made from over fifty thousand melted kopecks, this imposing figure stands on the banks of the Neva, a stone’s throw from the Winter Palace.
Great Peter, here depicted sitting on his faithful steed Loshad, is the very same Peter who gave his name to the ‘berg, who put the Petro in Petrograd. But what, I hear you ask, made Pete so great?
Well, for one thing, he drove all the snakes out of the city, just like St Patrick did in Ireland. I’m not 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure Peter did it first, which makes Patrick something of a follower on. This particular achievement is immortalised in copper; if you look closely, you can see a snake being trampled under the hooves of the mount.
When Peter founded Petersburg, the place was awash with snakes. You couldn’t move for them. It was like that film, Snakes on a Plane, except instead of being on a plane, the snakes were everywhere. You’d reach to wipe the sweat off your brow and come away with a fistful of snakes. You’d have to shake out your jumpers before you put them on and twenty or thirty snakes would come pouring out.
Like, it was really stupid how many snakes there were.
I know what you’re thinking – why did Peter decide to build his capital in an actual nest of snakes? Why’d he not pick somewhere overrun with a nicer thing, like puppies or artisan bakeries? I’ll tell you why. That bastard was tenacious. He wasn’t gonna let a little thing like a million snakes stop him from breaking a window into Europe.
What makes Peter’s Pied Pipering of the serpents so spectacular, though, is the way he got rid of them. In a display of diplomacy that boggles the mind, Peter actually entered into talks with the head snake (the so-called King Cobra). Instead of forcibly exiling the snakes, he reached an historic compromise, according to which the snakes would leave the city in return for a hefty monthly donation of mice.
The snake trampled under the horse’s feet, therefore, is somewhat misleading: a more realistic statue would show a snake and Peter sitting at a desk, hours deep into exhausting peace negotiations. Whatever, though. Artistic license always seems to take preference over hard, cold facts.