The memory site I’m examining in St. Petersburg, is Mikhail Chemiakin’s monument to Peter the Great. The statue opened to the public inside the Peter and Paul Fortress (Peter’s creation and the former prison known as the Russian Bastille) in 1991, the year when the Soviet Empire fell. Chemiakin’s representation of Peter the Great has sparked a lot of controversy over the years because the statue is a very unconventional representation of the city’s founder.
While traditional monuments of the emperor depict him either on horseback or standing in an assertive pose, Shemiakin’s statue depicts Peter sitting, with long hands and feet, and small head. The artist obviously has strong reservations about the traditional story of Peter’s rule as the time when the ideas of European enlightenment finally reached medieval Muscovy. Many people whom I asked about Shemiakin’s sculpture told me that they think Chemiakin does not understand Peter and the statue is an insult of the emperor’s memory.
During my stay in Russia I focused on the reception of Chemiakin’s statue by the residents of the city. I interviewed historians, artists, tourists, and city residents about the significance of Shemiakin’s statue and their memories of the times when it was constructed and open. I also observed with the help of my camera how people interact with the statue. I’ve spent a good amount of time videoing the tour groups who stop to take pictures with the monument and sit in its bronze lap. They were groups speaking Italian, Russian, Spanish, English, German, Chinese and Japanese.
While the groups visiting the famous Bronze Horseman, usually pose for the photograph as a line of tiny human figures at the foundation of the monumental sculpture, the tourists who visit Shemiakin’s Peter hug the sculpture, rub its hands for good luck, or sit in the emperor’s lap.
I would definitely say I’ve conducted my favorite interview with Anastasia Vasilyeva from the School of Journalism of St. Petersburg University inside of the fortress next to the statue. Anastasia collaborates with me on the production of a short documentary about Shemiakin’s monument to Peter the Great.
The statue is at a prime spot for tourists from all over the world making their way through the fortress. While I was conducting the interview and I asked her question about her experience with the statue of Peter as a tour guide and as a resident of St. Petersburg, a Japanese tourist came up to Anastasia, pointed and said in English, “You, me. Picture?” Well Monika and I thought this was hilarious the first time, soon the entire Japanese tour group ended up taking photos with Anastasia one, by one. We were cracking up and taking pictures of them taking pictures with Anastasia. Apparently, the tour group wanted a picture with a real Russian beauty with blond hair and blue eyes! Anastasia definitely distracted this tour group from enjoying Shemiakin’s creation 🙂