Saturday, January 23, 2016

What was the Decembrist Revolt? (Part 2)

Decembrist Revolt by Karl Kolman
With the death of Tsar Alexander I and all of Europe rattled by liberal-inspired movements, the Northern Society prepared to make their own. But how would their plan, so quickly conceived, work out?

With the death of Tsar Alexander I and all of Europe rattled by liberal-inspired movements, the Northern Society prepared to make their own. But how would their plan, so quickly conceived, work out?

Other Enlightenment-Inspired Movements

The Northern Society had been agitated to make their move as other liberal movements began to fight for their liberties. In Spain, Ferdinand VII faced a revolt by liberals wanting to reinstate the 1812 Cadiz Constitution. In Greece, Greek revolutionaries began to fight for their independence against the Ottoman Empire. In Latin America, the colonies rose up in revolution, toppling down their respective colonial governments and established their own republics.

The Revolt

The Plan

With these events that transpired, the Society hastily planned their coup d’etat to topple down the incoming new Tsar Nicholas I. With the aim of establishing a constitutional monarchy, they would use the confusion in succession to their advantage to instigate a coup by the army. They would demand that Constantine be the new Tsar instead of Nicholas who they saw as arrogant and very conservative. Leading members of the Northern Society would persuade different military units to rebel against Nicholas by standing that Constantine was the rightful heir and they would fight to defend his right to the throne. Then they would coerce important government institutions such as the Senate in order to enact reforms, such as the creation of a Constitution.
Nicholas, on the other hand, prepared for his coronation. On December 13, 1825, he issued his manifesto accepting his duties as Tsar. On the following day, he prepared to accept the oath of loyalty of various military units.

The Execution

On December 14, 1825, the day when Nicholas I expected the oath of loyalty of several units, the Society began to move. At 7:30 am, the Moscow Guards Regiment refused to swear their oath. Few royalist officers within the regiment had been beaten before the guards marched out of their barracks and into the Senate Square. The soldiers shouted as they march: “Constantine and Constitution.” Many of the soldiers thought they were fighting for the birthright of Constantine and his wife Constansia instead of Constantine and a binding document that ruled over the land. In short, most of the soldier had been dupe in the protest. At 11:00, the rebel soldiers declared Sergei Trubetskoi as their leader. However, Trubetskoi himself disagreed with the coup and rejected the leadership by hiding in the house of his friend, the Austrian Ambassador. At 2:00 pm, other units from the Marines and the Grenadier Guards Regiment joined. All in all, 3,000 soldiers mobbed the Senate Square alongside with civilians, women and children who joined and sympathized with the rebels.

Meanwhile, Nicholas mobilized his loyal troops to contain and quell the revolt. He attempted to persuade the rebels first into dispersing by sending the Metropolitan Bishop Serafim to negotiate in vain. Then he sent the Governor General and a respected Napoleonic War veteran Mikhail Miloradovich to convince the rebels to stand down. However, Peter Kakhovsky shot Miloradovich and another officer, Colonel Ludwig von Sturler. For the last time, Nicholas sent his own brother Mikhail to ask the rebels to leave the square. And for the last time, they refused.

The End

Nicholas then decided to end the revolt at all cost. He personally led 9,000 troops from the Finland Life Guard, Preobrazhensky and Ismailovsky Regiments to surround the rebels. Nicholas, ordered four cannons to fire blank first as a warning shot. After which, cannons fired grape shots towards the rebels. After the first fatal shots, the rebel soldiers and civilians ran and scattered for their lives. After few minutes, the Senate Square had been cleared leaving 60 people dead. Following the carnage in the plaza, authorities arrest the ring leaders one by one. The Northern Society failed in their coup.

Meanwhile the Southern Society attempted to stir up their own revolt.

The Involvement of the Society of United Slavs

The Society of United Slavs dedicated themselves to the idea of Pan-slavism or unity of all Slavic people. It was founded in 1823 by the brothers Andrei and Peter Borisov, both were officers coming from a poor background in Ukraine, and surprisingly by a Polish nationalist Julian Lublinski. They then enlisted another influential member to their cause, Ivan Gorbachevsky. The Society had 50 officers from military units in the Volhynia and Kyiv Regions of Ukraine, most came from humble backgrounds as well.

They made their society strong by reciting an oath of loyalty, which embodied the ideals of the organization. The vision of the society was to create a republic of various Slavic people and to unite them under a federation. They named the Russians (including Ukrainians and Belarusians), Poles, Hungarians, Bohemians, Croats, Dalmatians, Serbs, and Moravians as part of the whole Slavic family. Besides ethnic unity, the Society also wanted to abolish serfdom, an institution that the Borisov Brothers despised after seeing the abuses done to the serfs.

Society of United Slavs and Southern Society Alliance

In 1825, the Southern Society needed to bolster the support for their group. They then intended to unite with the Society of United Slavs to achieve it. They chose the Society due to the fact that they wanted to get rid of Russian autocracy and create a republican form of government.

The two groups, however, differed greatly in some aspects. The Southern Society wanted a strong centralized government while the Society of United Slavs wanted republics for various Slavs then create a federation composed of these republics. In the means of removing autocracy, the Society wanted moderate methods rather than regicide and violence.

Nevertheless, even with these differences, negotiations between the two groups pressed on. Barisov Brothers and Gorbachevsky went to talk to Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin and Sergei Muraviev-Apostol of the Southern Society. They deliberated well throughout for days. Finally, in September 1825, disregarding temporarily their differences, the Society of United Slavs agreed to unite with the Southern Society.

For the following months, the Society of United Slavs became active in gaining more support from the troops stationed in Ukraine. Through different pamphlets and speeches, they convinced a regiment to their cause.

Southern Society Revolt

When the Decembrist Revolt erupted in St. Petersburg in December, the Southern Society and the Society of United Slavs prepared to resist government crackdown. Late in December, the leader of the Southern Society, Pavel Pestel was arrested. But even with the loss of their leader, the Southern Society and the Society of the United Slavs continued resisting the government along with the Cherniv Regiment in December 29. The resistance, however, proved to be futile, and the leaders of the Society and the Southern Society were arrested within a month.

The Aftermath

A thorough investigation followed after the quelling of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Nicholas personally led the investigation and he wanted to look into what caused the revolt that occurred within the heart of the Russian Empire. He set up a Special Committee on December 17 to look into the grievances of the rebels. The investigation led to the interrogation of over 600 individuals. Eventually, most had nothing to do but only sympathized with the Decembrist.

121 faced trial on a special court called the Supreme Criminal Court created especially by Nicholas on June 1, 1826. Trials went quickly and most defendants had no time to put up a proper defense. In the end of the trials, 31 were sent to labor camps in Siberia. About 85 faced lower sentences, such as demotion, imprisonment, or confiscation of property.

On July 10, 31 faced death sentences by hanging, including the leader of the Northern Society Nikita Muraviev. And another 5, including Pavel Pestel, Kondrati Ryleyev, Sergei Muraviev-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin, and Peter Kakhovsky, faced death by quartering. But in the end, the Tsar showed mercy by commuting the sentences of the 31, including Muraviev who was sent to work in a mine in Siberia. The other 5 sentenced to death by quartering also got their sentence commuted, from quartering their method of execution was turned to hanging. On July 18, 1826, Pavel Pestel, Kondrati Ryleyev, Sergei Muraviev-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin, and Peter Kakhovsky who shot General Miloradovich saw their end in the gallows of the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress.

Almost 25 years after the Decembrist Revolt, in 1856, 29 surviving Decembrist in Siberia received news that Tsar Alexander II, son and successor of Nicholas I in 1855, allowed them to return to western Russia except in the capital and Moscow.

The Effect of the Decembrist Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt had a profound effect in Russian history. It inspired literary works. It led to reactionary policies by the government. In long-term, it became a symbol against autocracy and the Tsarist regime as a whole.

After the event on December 14, 1825, many free-thinking artist who sympathized with the Decembrist dedicated works to them. Alexander Pushkin became the most prominent of this artist. He dedicated a poem to those who were sent to Siberia.

The government of Nicholas I set its reactionary policy firmly due to the Decembrist Revolt. It convinced him to enact strict and tight laws against liberal and anti-Tsarist views. He instituted strict censorship and surveillance of liberal-minded activist. He also established his infamous Third Section in the Chancellery Office, which served as his secret police. His reign found stability throughout but it became known to many as a time of conservatism and reaction.

In the long-run, the Decembrist Revolt marked the beginning of a more active and different movement against Russian autocracy. Unlike other rebellions led by peasants and Cossacks who disagreed with the policies of the Tsar, the Decembrist movement came from the lesser nobility and veterans. They were young, educated, and connected. With this it meant that the Enlightenment ideas no longer belonged only to the Tsar but to all range of society. The rise in numbers of supporters and sympathizers to this movements gave rise also to the issue of Serfdom, which liberal ideals abhorred. Liberals found an ally in form of Tsar Alexander II who finally abolished serfdom. 

Alexander II also embraced the ideas of Enlightenment and forgave those Decembrist who were alive and exiled in Siberia. His successors, did not, however, shared his sentiments. Especially after the radical anti-Tsarist assassinated Alexander II. Eventually, reactionary and conservative autocrats regained ground. Only in 1905, when another Revolution by the elite and the people led to the weakening of autocracy. But the following events, like World War I, ultimately led to another revolution that finally ended Russian autocracy, the Romanov Dynasty and the lives of the last imperial family of Russia.

In conclusion, the Decembrist Revolt later grew to become a Revolution. As the reforms espoused by the Decembrist Revolt was not fulfill and the Romanovs continued to refuse to consider such reforms, became disillusioned only found answers in form of radicalization. Many then believed that the only for Russia to develop was through a revolution, which happened in the early 20th century. These revolutions, the 1905, 1917, and 1918 took its roots from the Decembrist Revolts.

Explore also:


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).

No comments:

Post a Comment