The Saga of Peter the Navigator


At the junction of Mockva River and Voodootvodnyy Canal stands a large, awkward statue of Tsar Peter the Great with his back to the Kremlin. For me, the statue–completed in 1997, to commemorate the Founding of the Russian Fleet by the said tsar–is a validation of all stereotypes about Russia, nepotism, bureaucratic mismanagement, anarchy and just plain weirdness.

When the city of Moscow decided to commemorate Tsar Peter and the Russian Fleet, it started a design competition and one Zurab Tsereteli won, not because his design was stellar but because he was friends with the mayor and the city council.

Not only was his design not stellar, but it had also been used. A few years earlier, Tsereteli was asked by the Russian government to create a Columbus statue as a present to the United States, as the token of the new-found rapprochement between two nations. When it was completed, the statue was so disproportioned and wieldy that the U.S. government absolutely refused to accept it. (The finished statue was banished to somewhere unknown).

So when the next nautical project came along, Tsereteli–coupled with a fit of laziness that would make the fellow Russian Oblomov proud–submitted the same design, changing only the statue’s face (in fact, he probably didn’t have to try at this either, since no one actually know how Columbus or Tsar Peter looked like). Hey, he knew he was going to win, so why bother.

Why bother indeed. So on the river, the statue of Tsar Peter, in a full Conquistador grab, holding aloft his royal edict to conquer the New World, was cast. It stood on the iron pedestal, which was supposed to be (and also too small to be) the deck of Santa Maria. Even before the statue was finished, the public was so outraged at this scar on the face of Moscow that they protested for its demolishing.

However, the Duma noted that by this point, it would be more costly to dismantle the half-finished statue than to finish it, so the monstrosity was allowed to be completed. Complete it did in 1997, but its first few years were plagued with disaster. Instead of flowers and wreaths that adorn many another statues’ plinths, dynamite sticks and threats to blow it up to smithereens were frequently found at Tsar Peter’s base.

So, the police and military security had to be called in to protect the statue. Now twelve years on, the furore had died down, but on the river, the statue still stands, still wearing that anachronistic armour, still holding its arm outstretched for the hurdled masses who want to destroy it.


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