Saturday, January 23, 2016

What was the Decembrist Revolt? (Part 1)

Decembrist Revolt by Vasily Timm
Autocracy ruled in Russia under the command of the Romanov Tsars for centuries. But in the 19th century was a century of change and Russia was no immune. Explore how a pursuit of change led to revolt of men called the Decembrist.

The Decembrist Revolt of December 26, 1825 was sparked by noble young men who served in the army during the Napoleonic War. The Napoleonic War influenced Russian troops with the ideas of the Enlightenment, which question autocratic rule and its foundation of divine right. These ideas threatened the very existence of the autocratic power held by Romanovs. And indeed, it stroke a blow at the heart of the Tsarist regime itself.

Prologue to the Revolt

Russia before the revolt was a major power in Europe. Its army was one of the greatest in Europe. Russia’s territory stretched from Poland to Alaska and from the Arctic Sea to the Caucasus. The aristocracy enjoyed enormous benefits and privileges. It came under Catherine the Great’s rule and her so-called benevolent absolutism or enlightened despotism. But for the peasants and serfs, all remained constant if not worse. Nevertheless, Catherine’s rule became a beacon and a model for some of her successor including his grandson Alexander I.

The ideas of the Enlightenment founded the reign of Russia’s benevolent despots or so they claimed. The ideas espoused by the writers Voltaire, Rousseau and others promoted liberty, equality and humanism. In 1791, these ideas exploded in a revolution that ended absolute rule in France. Europe trembled and scrambled to end the revolution and reinstate absolute monarchy. However, the coalition faltered when Napoleon Bonaparte led the French army in conquering Europe and spreading the ideas of the Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Russia under Alexander I joined the allies in crushing Napoleon. After decades of fighting, in 1815, Napoleon was defeated and exiled. Although Napoleon’s conquest ended the ideas that he promulgated continued to spread across Europe. And even the Russian winter failed to prevent the entry of these ideas as it did to Napoleon. Military officers, mostly young and from the educated nobility, exposed themselves to the ideas of the Enlightenment during their campaigns in Europe.

Enlightenment among Russians

Young Russian officers and members of the nobility became strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, liberal, and reformist ideals. Many of them saw the freedom and liberties that the Enlightenment taught differed greatly from the strict and constrained Russian society. Most especially, they started to criticize the most controversial institution in Russia other than autocracy – serfdom. With great vigor and energy of youth, they actively in shared their views with other like-minded individuals and formed societies.

Union of Salvation

The Union of Salvation was founded by these young veterans of the Napoleonic War. Established in 1816 and also known as the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland, it included several experienced officers from the lesser nobilities of Russia. It included men like Nikita Muraviev (Muravyov) and his cousin Alexander Muraviev, Sergei Trubetsko, Ivan Yakushkin, the brothers Matvei and Sergei Muraviev-Apostol, Peter Kakhovsky, the poet Kondrati Ryleyev, Mikhail Bestuzhev Riumin, and finally a strong radical colonel named Pavel Pestel. Together they planned on how to reform and improve Russia towards a freer society. In 1818, the organization changed its name to Union of Welfare. However, as the years passed, differences in their ideas of reform split the group in 1821 and two societies emerged.

The Decembrist Societies

Northern Society

The Northern Society, centered in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, took a moderate stand on the type of government that Russia should have. Nikita Muraviev emerged as its leader and included members from ancient boyar families like Sergei Trubetskoi, Evgeny Obolensky, and Alexander Odoevsky.

Their group desired to abolish Russian autocracy and revert back to the situation that Empress Anna had in 1730.  Muraviev himself wrote a constitution that they planned to promulgate once they had the chance. It called for a constitutional monarchy and federal type of government.

According to Muraviev’s Constitution, Russia would have 13 states and two provinces, each having their own capital and governor exercising greater local autonomy. It called for the creation of a bicameral legislature composing of the Supreme Duma and the House of Representatives. It also promised greater personal liberties such as freedom of worship and expression. Most importantly, it abolished slavery and ancient old institution of serfdom.

The Northern Society continued to support social hierarchy with a powerful wealthy elite ruling at the top. The Muraviev Constitution codified a caste system based on an individual’s wealth. Suffrage or right to vote was meant only for the highest echelons of the new social hierarchy. They resisted massive agrarian reforms such as land redistribution. Although reform-minded, liberal and constitutionalist, the Northern Society continued to give importance to the status of the wealthy and privilege in Russia.

Southern Society

The Southern Society, meanwhile, differed in belief with the Northern Society. Centered in Tulchin, a headquarters for a Russian army in Ukraine, it had more radical and extreme view in reforming Russia. Pavel Pestel took the prominent role as its figure.

Pastel, a colonel who received education from Dresden, was heavily influenced by the works of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. In 1824, he published his famous work, the Russkaya Pravda or Russian Truth, a manifesto of Pestel’s view. Here, he attacked the idea of Federalism that the Northern Society wanted, citing that Federalism made laws from the central government as advices, loyalty to the state meant loyalty to one’s region, and that enforcing compliance to the law could bring civil war.

He wanted, instead, to establish a strong centralized republican government. He did not want the Romanovs to remain either. He wanted to exterminate all of them at all cause in order “to destroy any obstacle in the creation of a Russian Republic,” A radical move that made Pestel an extremist in the eyes of many. Pestel envisioned the creation of a unicameral legislature with the State Duma with 5 members elected for 5 year terms. Alongside the State Duma was Supreme Council of 120 members to serve as judicial and supervisory body.

In addition to a republican government and regicide, he was against any further social stratification and called for all men to stand equal in the eyes of law. He promoted universal suffrage regardless of wealth. Pestel as well called for the abolition of serfdom and slavery alongside the implementation of free trade and deregulation. 

Nevertheless, Pestel took a harsh stand when it came to other beliefs and expression. He showed intolerance and wanted to outlaw and persecute any ideas deviating from his. He also desired the strengthening of Russian identity, where he wanted minorities and immigrants to assimilate to Russian culture or leave the country. Henceforth, he showed great hostilities towards Jews. Pestel wanted the Jews, who refuse to assimilate, to be deported.

On the other hand, he took a different view when it came to Poland. He saw Poland as an ally and made a pact with Polish nationalists that once the Southern Society succeeded, they would grant Poland its independence under the condition it follows the society and government they would impose over Russia.

For years, this groups waited to find the right opportunity to enact their reforms. In 1825 an event occurred that led to what became known as the Decembrist Revolt.

Russian Autocracy and Death of Tsar Alexander I

Autocracy guided the rule of the Tsars in Russia for centuries. The Romanovs used this to enact their will with no question. Dissension meant death or exile to Siberia. The words of the Romanovs were the law of the land. In 1762, Catherine the Great, an admirer of the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, started to rule under the slogan of Benevolent Despotism or Absolutism. With her absolute power, he allowed liberal policies such as lesser censorship and greater freedom of movement and cultural activities.  But she continued to stomp out criticisms on the power of the Tsars especially during her last years. Although she wanted to be popular, her reforms’ benefited only the privileged and the elite. 

Alexander I followed her grandmother's example. Nevertheless, when riots by the Semenovsky Regiment began in 1820 due to the strict life brought by his unpopular military settlement. It caused a wave of reactionary policies that made life more constraining in Russia. Liberal societies were watched closely by the authorities.

Death of Alexander I

The death of Alexander I on November 19, 1825 and the confusion that followed was a signal for the societies to act. In 1825, while taking a respite in the southern city of Taganrog, Alexander I contracted typhus and passed away. The late Tsar left no heir and the throne naturally went to his younger brother Konstantine (Constantine). However, years before, Constantine already made clear to Alexander that he had no desire on becoming a Tsar. Alexander understood him, because he himself knew the burdens of becoming a Tsar. And so he created a secret will, known only to some, passing the throne to their younger brother Nicholas – a engineering enthusiast, military man, authoritarian, and unpopular to soldiers. When news of Alexander death arrived in St. Petersburg, however, it took days before the secret will went public and recognized. Nicholas himself did not knew about it and pledged his allegiance to his older brother. After which, some army units took their oath of allegiance to Constantine as well. But Constantine refused to accept the throne and the secret will was announced. Nicholas refused to accept its contents and riders from St. Petersburg rode to Warsaw, where Constantine served as the viceroy of Poland, to make the situation clear.

Eventually, on December 10 (Old Calendar), dispatch from Warsaw returned confirming Constantine’s renunciation of the throne. The half-month duration of Russia’s leaderless status and the confusion over the succession ignited the Northern Society to move.

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General References:

"Society of United Slavs." In Historical Dictionary of Ukraine. Edited by Ivan Katchanovski et. al. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013.

Gleason, Abbott. "Russian Decembrist Revolt (1825)." In The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions. Edited by Jack Goldstone. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998.


Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, Volume I: 1917-1918. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Julicher, Peter. Renegades, Rebels and Rogues Under the Tsars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008.

Mohrenschildt, Dimitry Von.  Toward a United States of Russia: Plans and Projects of Federal Reconstruction of Russia in the Nineteenth Century. East Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.

Raleigh, Donald (ed.). The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs. New York, New York: Routledge, 1996.

Walicki, Andrzej. A History of Russian Thought: From the Englightenment to Marxism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1979.


Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online, s. v. "Pavel Ivanovich Pestel", accessed November 21, 2015,

Granville, Johanna. "Muraviev, Nikita." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. (November 21, 2015).

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