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Monday, 15 October 2012
The Alexander Column, St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

St.Petersburg has a record that few are aware of. It’s the Alexander Column on Palace Square – the tallest construction of this kind in the world. Standing at 47.7 metres, it is higher than Vendome Column in Paris, Rome’s Trajan’s Column, Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria. Few know that the Bolsheviks, upon seizing power, wanted to decorate it with a statue of… Lenin wearing a peaked cap!

The Alexander Column was erected in august 1834 in line with a project drafted by architect August Monferran and on orders from Emperor Nicholas I to commemorate the victory of his elder brother, Emperor Alexander I, over Napoleon in the war of 1812. The column is crowned with a sculpture depicting a gilt angel with the face of Emperor Alexander I. In its left hand the angel holds a cross, while the right is raised towards the heavens. The monument took four years to build, with 1250 piles in the foundation, while a huge chunk of pink granite was brought over by barge. Two thousand soldiers and 400 workers were required to raise the column with the help of ropes. The operation itself continued 100 hours in the presence of a crowd of onlookers. As the gigantic monolith was elevated to the pedestal, a hush set in – everyone feared the tightly-drawn hemp ropes might snap under the weight. However, when the critical moment passed, the delighted Emperor quietly told the pale with worry architect: “Monferran, you have immortalized your name!”

The Alexander Column is one of the most unique constructions in the world, since its huge granite monolith weighing 600 tons is not secured in any way, and not even dug into the ground. It is held in place on the pedestal by means of its own weight, thanks to precise engineering design. Even though the Petersburg residents were well aware of that, nonetheless, some showed little faith in the architect’s daring calculations, and preferred not to walk too close to the column. In a bid to dispel these fears, when walking his dog in the morning, Monferran, would leisurely stroll around the base of the column. Moreover, he was committed to this daily routine to the day he died.

In Soviet time, when the Bolsheviks unleashed a campaign to demolish churches and monuments, there was talk of removing this “symbol of Czarism”, as they branded it, and replacing it with a “monument to comrade Lenin”.

The instigator of the absurd idea was Grigory Zinoviyev, who was heading the Petrograd council at the time. Failing to garner support for his idea of burying Lenin in Petrograd, speedily renamed into Leningrad also at his insistence, Zinoviyev launched a campaign to “immortalize the Soviet leader’s memory”. At his instructions in 1924 a special committee was established to oversee “modification of the so-called Alexander Column”. It was planned to grace the construction with a bronze figure of Lenin in jacket and peaked cap, to replace the angel holding a cross. However, soon the committee members, some of whom were acclaimed sculptors and painters, began to realize the absurdity of the concept. That is when a different, no less odd suggestion was put forward – to replace the angel on top with a figure of a worker or soldier dressed in empire style vestments. Luckily, a majority acknowledged this would look extremely ridiculous. Besides, when they calculated the costs of such a project, it amounted to an exorbitant sum, so it was decided to postpone it.

Other revolutionary hot heads of the time suggested the column be torn down entirely. However, experts issued warnings that when the huge granite monolith collapsed to the ground, the impact would be such that nearby buildings, including the Winter Palace, would most certainly sustain a certain degree of destruction.

In 1952 Leningrad’s leading architect received a “top secret” directive from Moscow: in the course of a month to replace the angel and cross with a bust of Comrade Stalin. Architects put their heads together, puzzling over how to achieve this – back in those days it would have been highly self-destructive to procrastinate with the execution of such an order. However, they succeeded in finding a way of dodging the project altogether, arguing the extreme difficulty of its execution.

To the 300th anniversary of St.Petersburg around the column pedestal they reconstructed a beautiful cast-iron railing, removed by the Bolsheviks because its ornament contained double headed eagles with crowns.

© The Voice of Russia. 14 October, 2012



Posted by Paul Gilbert at 7:59 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 15 October 2012 11:10 AM EDT
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