Soaring 315 feet over the Moscow River, opposite the Kremlin, Zurab Tsereteli’s colossal bronze monument to Peter the Great places an outsize Peter astride a toylike ship, all borne aloft on a busy rostral column crowned with a fringe of waves. Erected in 1997 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy, the statue has been a magnet for controversy ever since. Public campaigns have sought its removal, and one group even tried to blow it up. This past fall, after the abrupt toppling of powerful Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, efforts to banish the sculpture appeared to have escaped the realm of oppositionist fantasy. The altered sociopolitical climate, as commentators have remarked, has broad implications for the future of public art in Moscow, for the city’s esthetic image, and for Russia’s most prominent monumental sculptor.
Tsereteli himself is famously garrulous and affable, holding forth in broken Russian still accented with his native Georgian after decades in Moscow. A prominent figure in the Soviet period, he swiftly befriended the new rulers in post-Soviet Moscow, becoming Luzhkov’s “court artist.” His efforts were so successful that they gave rise to a new word, as people began to speak of the “Tseretelization” of Moscow. His major commissions included a monument to the war against fascism in a prominent Moscow location (removed after a public outcry) and the decoration of Moscow’s chief house of worship, the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Last September, Luzhkov was dismissed by the Kremlin in disgrace. Interim mayor Vladimir Resin, long Luzhkov’s right-hand man, made a flurry of moves to distance himself from his former mentor and, less than a week after Luzhkov’s ouster, publicly suggested that Tsereteli’s Peter the Great, the emblem of Luzhkov’s Moscow, be shipped out of town—perhaps “regifted” to Saint Petersburg.
The floodgates opened. Saint Petersburg’s mayor and legislature quickly issued separate preemptive public refusals. Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house, suggested that “this monument would look splendid in the middle of the Gulf of Finland,” just outsideSaint Petersburg. Leonid Yarmolnik, a famous actor, proposed a more discreet setting in the gray vastness of the Moscow suburbs. Another film star, Aleksei Batalov, insisted that the huge sculpture “should be melted down and the proceeds returned to the nation.”
The popular author Sergei Minaev, who agreed that the statue should be removed, suggested that Marat Guelman, one of the city’s most prominent art dealers and Tsereteli’s chief nemesis, might foot the bill. When a city official warned that moving the work might cost $17 million (that number has been contested), Guelman countered that he could easily assemble a consortium of bankers to finance it in return for nothing but the gratitude of Muscovites.
Public opinion gravitates toward three general positions. Many want the sculpture removed or even melted down. Others worry that Russia has a disturbing history of pulling down public sculpture. These latter usually add that despite early detractors the world grew accustomed to the Eiffel Tower.
And some commentators, like Moscow preservationist Oleg Khromov, would defer the question of what to do with the sculpture, since “this initiative isn’t a priority for the city currently, but could require serious expenditures from the treasury.”
Tsereteli told ARTnews that “the proposal to move Peter is all [Moscow] politics.” He claimed that the issue was created artificially “to shift attention to me and to Peter,” presumably from political matters of darker import.
Notably silent are supporters of the monument. In an interview on the website openspace.ru, Tsereteli offers one explanation: “Backing me up are 40,000 artists, but I’m restraining them, because if you heard their outrage about Peter… they’re saying what they think about Peter and demanding that it be published too, but I’m holding them back.”
Tsereteli makes clear his own view of those who attack his sculpture. “You have no ear,” he responds, “but you applaud, shouting: ‘Oh, how good Tchaikovsky or maybe Beethoven sounds!’ But you have no ear. Art is Chinese to you. What a color scheme, volume, plasticity, vertical and horizontal composition are—you don’t know anything, but you shout anyway.”
Criticisms of the sculpture by professional observers focus on mismatched proportions and excessive size (Guelman once said that “Tsereteli has mixed up the history of art with the Guinness Book of World Records“) as well as nonsculptural composition, fit only for frontal viewing, and what they call expressionless figures in wooden poses.
When Sergei Sobyanin was appointed Moscow’s new mayor in October, the sculpture’s much-anticipated move was shifted to the back burner. Still, Aleksandr Morozov, head of Moscow’s Center for Media Studies, believes that “they might still dismantle Peter. Sobyanin could do it. But society would have to attack the mayor’s office again for that to happen.” As of press time, no attack had taken place, and a city official announced that the statue would not be moved after all, as the proposal hadn’t garnered sufficient public support.
That announcement, however, may be just enough to reanimate the opposition. Liudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow office of the Helsinki Group human rights organization, immediately weighed in, saying that the issue was far from dead, while Rustam Rakhmatullin, coordinator of the organization Architectural Oversight, asserted that the city official’s announcement was “only one man’s private opinion.” Roman Tkach, coordinator of the Public Coalition to Protect Moscow, agrees that real hope exists for opponents of the monument, “not right now, but possibly in the spring.”
Meanwhile, the political landscape of Moscow has changed, and with it, the future of the cityscape. “Luzhkov-style” projects have been halted in a number of places.
“I think that [Tsereteli’s] monuments will remain where they are for the time being,” Khromov says. “But today it seems clear that new Tsereteli creations will not be appearing on Moscow’s streets any time soon. The changes in the city government can already be seen in the attitude of the authorities and of society to the sculptor’s work. In Russia, the era of Zurab Tsereteli’s ‘high art’ is over.”
John William Narins is a writer and independent scholar.