Thursday, 24 August 2017

Cracks in the Alexander Column on Palace Square

Count Georg von Cancrin, the elderly and influential Minister of Finance, enjoyed evening walks. Crossing palace square in 1841, he noticed a vertical crack in the granite of the Alexander Column that had been erected on August 30th 1834.

Grigory Chernetsov’s painting (below) of Palace Square on August 30th 1834

With his knowledge of mineralogy, he understood the danger of water seeping through the cracks and mixing with granite. Although stringent in controlling the state budgets, Cancrin proposed to cover the column with copper and was willing to fund the project.

Alphonse Bichebois’s painting (below) of Palace Square on August 30th 1834

Court officials were reluctant to acknowledge that there were any defects in the recently installed monument. To avoid a scandal as the minister was respected by the Emperor Nicholas I, a committee of the original builders was formed.

They concluded ‘after a most thorough examination that the column was found to be in perfect order. Some granite crystals had crumbled and formed small rough depressions that were not glossed. These hollows appear to be cracks’. It was an ‘optical illusion’. It is unknown if Nicholas was deliberately deceived by the builders hiding the flaws with their work.

Twenty years later the problem became dire. Alexander II established another committee in1861 of experts including engineers, scientists, professors and architects to inspect the column. They agreed that ‘cracks appeared even before the column was put in place and were skillfully filled with mastic [resin from the mastic tree used as putty-like filler and sealant] that later fell out’.

Photograph c1870s (below) of the Alexander Column with the wooden gates to the Winter Palace’s large inner courtyard

The column was repaired using a solution of Portland cement mixed with liquid glass and then polishing the surface. As it was necessary to annually inspect the column to seal up any damage, four copper chains with rings at the end were attached at the top for lifting and lowering a worker.

Photograph (below) of the Angel representing Alexander I at the top of the column


  1. Wonderful images! Very interesting to see the temporary staircase erected against the facade of the palace; I've never seen the Winter Palace "amended" that way. Did this occur more than once, frequently, or was that the only time this was done? (There's a painting of a big soirée at the Tuileries Palace in 1867 that shows a temporarily grand staircase leading from the Salle des Maréchaux in the Pavillon de l'Horloge down into the gardens.)

    I expect that even today they need to keep a close eye on the column?

  2. Prior to the 1837 fire, a wooden balcony is mentioned in memoirs through the years during various ceremonial occasions. The palace and admiralty squares were used for military parades. Note one of the awnings over the gates that I write about in my book.

    They used the wrong granite for the Alexander column that they were careful to change with future monuments. The column would continue to be monitored.

  3. Excellent early CGI work on the masses of soldiers.

    What a blessing the Bolshies moved the capital to Moscow--and that they maintained and even rebuilt the palaces instead of erasing them.