How vodka helps achieve a great erection

I don’t want to know what you were thinking about, but I am obviously referring to the erection (the action of erecting) of a monument, more specifically the The Alexander Column (Russian: Алекса́ндровская коло́нна) in Saint Petersburg, to erect which vodka played an indispensable role!

The Alexsandrovskaya Kolonna (also the “Pillar of Alexandria” , according to Alexander Pushkin’s poem Monument) was erected in 1834 by architect Auguste de Montferrand by decree of Emperor Nicholas I in memory of the victory of his elder brother Alexander I over Napoleon.

An open competition for the creation of a monument was officially announced on behalf of Emperor Nicholas I in 1829 to celebrate the memory of the “unforgettable brother”. Auguste de Montferrand initially responded to this competition with a project to erect a grand granite obelisk. Taking into account the size of the square, de Montferrand did not consider options for a sculptural monument, realizing that, without having colossal dimensions, he would simply be lost in her ensemble.

Aerial view of the Palace Square, between the Winter Palace (bottom) and the Building of the General Staff (top). Source.

The second project, which was later implemented, was to install a column that was higher than the Vendome column erected in Paris in honor of Napoleon’s victories. As sources for his project, de Montferrand used the columns of Trajan and Antonius in Rome.

The narrow scope of the project did not allow the architect to get away from the influence of world-famous designs, and his new work was only an easy modification of the ideas of his predecessors. De Montferrand refused to use additional decorations like bas-reliefs spiraling around the core of the ancient column of Trajan, since, according to him, contemporary artists could not compete with the ancient masters, and settled on the version of the column with a smooth surface made of a giant polished 25.6 meter high pink granite monolith . The bottom diameter of the column is 3.66 m and the top is 3.19 m (10 feet 6 inches) . The pedestal and base are almost unchanged from the column of Trajan .

Together with the pedestal and crowning sculpture, the total height of the monument is 47.5 m – the highest among all existing monolithic columns. The project was finally approved by the emperor on September 24, 1829 and a few days later, de Montferrand was appointed as builder of the column.

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The granite monolith was excavated in Puterlak’s quarry, which used to be part of Russian’s Vyborgsky District, but it is in the present day Finnish municipality of Virolahti. The same method for extracting and transporting the material was used as for the massive columns of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, but on an even (much) larger scale: the final weight of the main part of the Alexander column was 613 tons compared to “only” 114 tons of the columns for St. Isaac’s Cathedral. After the separation of the column blank, the stones for the monument’s foundation and a large stone to be used for the pedestal of the column weighing about 25 thousand pounds (more than 400 tons) were also cut from the same rock. 

A special barge with a payload of 1,100 tons was designed and built to transport the granite, from a specifically constructed pier measuring 50 by 40 meters (165 by 131 feet). Towed by two steamers, the barge went to Kronstadt and from there to the Palace Embankment of St. Petersburg

Meanwhile, since 1829, work had begun on the preparation and construction of the foundation and pedestal of the column on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg.

First, a geological survey was carried out , as a result of which a suitable sandy continent was discovered near the center of the area at a depth of 17 feet (5.2 m). In December 1829, the place for the column was approved and a ditch measuring 14×14 fathoms and a depth of 2 fathoms (1 fathoms approximately 2.13 meters) was dug under the foundation of granite blocks.

The foundation of the monument was built from stone granite blocks of half a meter thickness. It was raised to the horizon area with a wall laying. A bronze box with coins minted in honor of the 1812 victory was laid in its center.

After laying the foundation, an enormous four hundred ton monolith was planted on it. To install the monolith on the foundation, a platform was built, on which it was pumped using rollers on an inclined plane. The stone was piled on a pile of sand, previously poured near the platform.


The Alexander Column in scaffolds” (1832-1834), by Grigory Gagarin. (Public domain)

After the props were brought under the monolith, the workers removed the sand and placed the rollers. The stone rolled into the foundation and set exactly. Ropes thrown over the blocks, pulled nine capstans and lifted the stone to a height of about one meter. They took out the rollers and poured a layer of a slippery solution, very peculiar in its composition, on which they placed the monolith.

And here is, finally, where vodka comes into play!

Since the work was done in winter, I ordered the cement to be mixed with vodka and add a tenth of the soap. Due to the fact that the stone initially sat incorrectly, it had to be moved several times, which was done with the help of only two capstans and with particular ease, of course, thanks to the soap, which I ordered to mix into the solution
– O. de Monferrand

The temperature in winter is so cold that water could not be used to mix the cement, which would have otherwise frozen solid in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The solution of this problem was found by using a very Russian liquid: vodka, which is about 40% alcohol, meaning it does not freeze until -40 degrees Celsius (which is also -40 in Fahrenheit).

The rise of the column on the pedestal took place on August 30, 1832 – on the day of the namesake of Alexander I.

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