The majestic Alexander Column is a monument to the victory of Russia in the war of 1812 with Napoleonic France. The project was put forward by Auguste Montferrand and approved in September of 1829.
It took three years to hew the shaft of the column from a cliff in one of the bays of the Gulf of Finland. The 704 ton monolith was brought to St. Petersburg in a barge built specially for this purpose. In August 1832, more than two thousand soldiers, veterans of the 1812 war, and 400 contractors, using a complicated system of pulleys, rolled it onto a high platform, then lowered it onto a pedestal. The final finishing and polishing of the column was carried out after it had been set up. It was completed in 1834 and on August 30 of that year it was unveiled at a grand ceremony.
The Alexander Column - a single shaft of red Finland granite, eighty-four feet in height and fourteen feet in diameter, and the largest monolithic monument of modern times. The base consists of another huge block of granite twenty-five feet in height; while the capital, which is surmounted by a winged figure of Hope, consists of bronze smelted down from Turkish cannons captured by the generals of Alexander L, in whose honour the column has been erected.
John Geddie, The Russian Empire, 1900
The monument is crowned by the figure of an angel sculptured by Boris Ostrovsky and symbolizing the peace that settled upon Europe after the victory over Napoleon. The angel has a cross in his left hand, and points to the sky with his right hand.
The Alexandrine column outweighs Trajans column and the column of Pompeii by its height, mass and proportions.
The pedestal is decorated with bas-reliefs, the main one facing onto the Winter Palace, portraying an old water-carrier and a woman leaning on an urn, the symbolic depiction of the Niemen and Vistula, the two rivers crossed by the Russian army during its pursuit of Napoleans troops. This composition includes old Russian weapons (precise copies of those kept in the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin).
The column of the Emperor Alexander stands in the great place, formed by the south facade of the Winter Palace, and the buildings of the Etat-Major. The shaft is one magnificent block of red granite, surmounted by an angel in bronze, bearing in one hand or rather supporting against his shoulder a cross, and pointing to Heaven with uplifted arm. The column is one of the best and most graceful monuments in the city; it was erected about ten years ago to the memory of "The Amiable Alexander," and bears the simple inscription, " To Alexander the First — Grateful Russia." A soldier of the late Emperors favorite regiment mounts guard at the foot of the noble monument, raised to the memory of his master, and they still wear the uniform of the period of the Emperors death. It was designed by Montferrand, the present architect of the Izaak Church; though the whole is chaste and grand, I cannot exactly see why the Angel is emblematical of the deeds of the late Emperor; and a stranger ignorant as to whose memory it had been erected, would suppose it rather to be a monument raised to the virtues and sufferings of a martyr, than to the glories of an absolute and victorious prince.
Richard Southwell Bourke, 1891
The bas-relief on the Admiralty side depicts Peace and Justice. The other two bear Wisdom and Plenty, Victory and Peace recording in the annals of history the memorable years of the 1812 war. All the bas-reliefs are the work of the sculptors Pyotr Svintsov and Ivan Leppe based on sketches by Giovanni Scotti.
Alexander Column is the Tallest Free-Standing Monument in the World
At 47.5 meters, the column is one of the tallest monuments of its type. It is not attached to the pedestal in any way - only the force of gravity keeps it in place. People actually feared it might fall and the architect had to show by example - walking his dog daily around the column - that their fears were unfounded.
In no part of Europe have we seen any thing worthy of being compared with the remarkable pillar lately erected here, in honour of the Emperor Alexander. If we admire Napoleon's column in Paris, or the Melville column in Edinburgh, composed of separate stones put together in the usual way, what shall we say of this stupendous work, which consists of only one stone, and yet is considerably larger than those monuments?
Robert Bremner, Excursions in the interior of Russia, 1837
A French King Once Asked for a Similar Column for Himself
It is said that the French King, Louis Philippe, once asked the Emperor Nicholas for a similar column from his Finland quarries. The Tsar, however, begged to be excused. “I do not wish,” he said, “to send you a smaller one, a similar one I cannot afford, and a larger one it is impossible to obtain.”
Alexander Column in Urban Folklore
In the urban legend folklore, it is a place of special significance to the newlyweds. The couple will have as many children as the number of times they circle around the column.
A marvel of engineering
The column was raised using wooden portal cranes. At the time, this method had already been known. A similar system of pulleys was applied in 1586 for installing the 325-ton Vatican Obelisk that was 26.5 metres high. The length of the Alexander Column is 25.58 metres, and its weight is 650 tonnes (or 704 tonnes according to alternative sources). From the landing stage, the column was rolled up on sledges along wooden rollers of an inclined wooden scaffold bridge to the platform 10.5 metres high and measuring 37 square metres. In the middle of the platform, a single-arched wooden crane was mounted. The opening under the crane was designed for the column to descend through before setting on the pedestal. A pit 5.1 metres deep (or 5.25 metres as cited in other sources) was dug for the foun¬dation of the column. Into its bottom, 1 250 wooden piles measuring 26 cm in diameter and 6.4 metres in length had to be driven. A wooden tower with a ram that weighed 830 kg (or 1 200 kg, on other evidence) was built for it. The ram was being risen by a horse-driven capstan. It took three months to drive all the piles into the ground over an area of 23 square meters. On that basement, a foundation was laid consisting of 12 rows of granite blocks 40 to 60 cm thick. The foundation was reinforced with granite and marble rubble filled in with grout. A granite monolith six square metres in size and weighing 410 tonnes was put on the foundation; this was to be the pedestal of the column. It was pulled towards the edge of the platform and carefully lowered down onto the sand. It then had to be lifted by 90 cm in order to place grout between the monolith and the foundation. The stone did not get into the required position and had to be shifted using two capstans. Two more monoliths weighing 203 and 215 kilograms, together with smaller blocks were then placed on the base stone.