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Decembrists at Peter's Square
Decembrists at Peter's Square

The Decembrist revolt or the Decembrist uprising (Russian: Восстание декабристов, tr. Vosstanie dekabristov) took place in Imperial Russia on 26 December [O.S. 14 December] 1825. Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Tsar Nicholas I's assumption of the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession. Because these events occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists (Dekabristy, Russian: Декабристы).

The uprising, which was suppressed by Nicholas I, took place in Peter's Square in Saint Petersburg. In 1925, to mark the centenary of the event, the square was renamed Decembrist Square; but in 2008 the name was changed back to its original name, Senate Square.

Union of Salvation and Union of Prosperity


At first, many officers were encouraged by Tsar Alexander I's early liberal reformation of Russian society and politics. Liberalism was encouraged on an official level, creating high expectations during the period of rapprochement between Napoleon and Alexander. The major advocate for reform in Alexander's regime was Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky. During his early years in the regime, Speransky helped inspire the organization of the Ministry of the Interior, the reform of ecclesiastic education, and the formulation of the government's role in the country's economic development. Speransky's role increased greatly in 1808. From then until 1812, when they feared him as a liberal similar to Napoleon invading of Russia, Speransky developed plans for the reorganization of Russia's government. Returned from exile in 1819 Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky was appointed as the Governor of Siberia, with the task of reforming local government. Equally, in 1818 the Tsar asked Count Nikolay Nikolayevich Novosiltsev to draw up a constitution.[1] The abolition of serfdom in Baltic provinces was in 1816–1819.[2] However, internal and external unrest, which the Tsar believed stemmed from political liberalisation, led to a series of repressions and a return to a former government of restriction and conservatism.

Meanwhile, spurred by their experiences of the Napoleonic Wars, and realising many of the harsh indignities through which the peasant soldiers were forced,[3] Decembrist officers and sympathisers displayed their contempt for the ancien régime by rejecting court lifestyle, wearing their cavalry swords at balls (indicating their unwillingness to dance), and committing themselves to academic study. This new lifestyle captured the spirit of the times, as a willingness to embrace both the peasant (i.e., the 'Russian way of life') and ongoing reformative movements abroad.

The motivations for the reformist movement are outlined, in part, by Pavel Pestel:

Historians have also noted that the United States Declaration of Independence and the American revolution may have influenced Decembrists.[5] The most correct name for Decembrists could be Russian Americanophiles. The Constitution written by Nikita Muravyov was essentially the translation of the US Constitution. But Decembrists were against US slavery. Any slaves and serfs from all countries were to become free in Russia immediately.[6] Pestel and his followers were against the US federation model in peaceful times as threatening by the split of the would-be Russian/United Slavic federation and approved the US revolutionary model only.[7] But while conceding with Pestel that the American revolutionary model of the federal government could be the best form for Russia, the Polish patriotic society would not agree with participating in the establishment of a federation, wanting an American-style republic or other state with the inclusion of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine into a unitary Poland (i.e. more or less the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), without any Russian involvement in the affairs of these territories.[8]

In 1816, several officers of the Imperial Russian Guard founded a society known as the Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland. The society acquired a more revolutionary cast after it was joined by the idealistic Pavel Pestel, dreaming of the mass repressions against different ethnic and class groups and the total annihilation of the imperial family. The charter was similar to charters of the organizations of carbonari. Pestel was supported by Yakushkin when there were rumours that the emperor had intended to transfer the capital from Saint-Petersburg to Warsaw and to liberate all peasants without the consent of Russian landlords which could not influence the government being in Warsaw. Yakushkin was to kill the emperor even before the revolution thus. When the society consisting of Russian landlords had refused to kill an emperor because only of rumors Yakushkin left the society. More liberal Mikhail Muravyov-Vilensky created a new charter similar to that of Tugendbund and without any revolutionary plans of the society called now the Union of Prosperity though still illegal similar to masonic lodges. (The small Order of Russian knights excepting its prominent member Alexander von Benckendorff also joined the Union of Prosperity together with the members of the Union of Salvation.[9]) After a mutiny in the Semenovsky Regiment in 1820, the society decided to suspend activity in 1821. Two groups, however, continued to function secretly: a Southern Society, based at Tulchin, a small garrison town in Ukraine, in which Pestel was the outstanding figure, and a Northern Society, based at St Petersburg, led by Guard officers Nikita Muraviev, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy and Prince Eugene Obolensky.[10] The political aims of the more moderate Northern Society were a British-style constitutional monarchy with a limited franchise, though it could be replaced with a republic in the future but only according to the will of the people, assuming the legislative assembly and excluding the execution of the imperial family, the abolition of serfdom according to the interests of Russian landlords, i. e. with land in the ownership of landlords mainly still similar to the abolition of serfdom in Baltic provinces, and equality before the law. The Southern Society, under Pestel's influence, was more radical and wanted to abolish the monarchy, establish a republic, similar to the Union of Salvation, and contrary to the Union of Salvation plans, to redistribute land: taking half into state ownership and dividing the rest among the peasants.[10][11] The Society of United Slavs (also known as the Slavic Union - Pan-Slavism) was established in Novograd-Volynsky in the Ukraine in 1823. Its never written-down program was similar to that of the Southern Society but the main emphasis was on the equal federation of Russia (including Ukraine), Poland, Moldavia (including Bessarabia) with the attachment of Wallachia, Transylvania, Hungary (including Slovakia, Slovenia, Vojvodina, the Carpatho-Ukraine aka Zarkarpattia), Croatia, Serbia, Dalmatia, the Czech lands of Bohemia & Moravia i.e., all Slavic & Vlach countries with the exception of Bulgaria and Macedonia, in the future. This society joined the Southern Society and adopted its program in exchange for the recognition of the Slavic federation zeal by the Southern society in September 1825.[12][13] Б

At Senate Square


When Tsar Alexander I died on 1 December [O.S. 19 November] 1825, the royal guards swore allegiance to the presumed heir, Alexander's brother Constantine. When Constantine made his renunciation public, and Nicholas stepped forward to assume the throne, the Northern Society acted. With the capital in temporary confusion, and one oath to Constantine having already been sworn, the society scrambled in secret meetings to convince regimental leaders not to swear allegiance to Nicholas. These efforts would culminate in the Decembrist Revolt. The leaders of the society elected Prince Sergei Trubetskoy as interim ruler.

On the morning of 26 December [O.S. 14 December], a group of officers commanding about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square, where they refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Constantine and their Decembrist Constitution. They expected to be joined by the rest of the troops stationed in Saint Petersburg but they were disappointed. The revolt was further hampered when it was deserted by its supposed leader Prince Trubetskoy. His second-in-command, Colonel Bulatov, also vanished from the scene. After a hurried consultation the rebels appointed Prince Eugene Obolensky as a replacement leader.[14]

For hours there was a stand-off between the 3,000 rebels and the 9,000 loyal troops stationed outside the Senate building, with some desultory shooting from the rebel side.

After spending most of the day in fruitless attempts to parley with the rebel force, Nicholas ordered a cavalry charge which slipped on the icy cobbles and retired in disorder.

Arrests and trial


While the Northern Society scrambled in the days leading up to the revolt, the Southern Society (based in Tulchin) took a serious blow.

On 15 January [O.S. 3 January] 1826, the rebels met defeat and the surviving leaders were sent to Saint Petersburg to stand trial with the northern leaders. The Decembrists were taken to the Winter Palace to be interrogated, tried, and convicted. The shooter Kakhovsky was executed by hanging, together with four other leading Decembrists: Pavel Pestel; the poet Kondraty Ryleyev; Sergey Muravyov-Apostol; and Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin. 31 Decembrists facing the death penalty were instead imprisoned. Other Decembrists were exiled to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East.

Suspicion also fell on several eminent persons who were on friendly terms with the Decembrist leaders and could have been aware of their clandestine organizations, notably Alexander Pushkin, Aleksander Griboyedov, and Aleksey Yermolov.

Decembrists in Siberia


On 25 July [O.S. 13 July] 1826, the first party of Decembrist convicts began its exodus to Siberia. Among this group, were Prince Trubetskoi, Prince Obolensky, Peter and Andrei Borisov, Prince Volkonsky, and Artamon Muraviev, all of them bound for the mines at Nerchinsk.[19][20] The journey eastward was fraught with hardship; yet for many, it offered refreshing changes in scenery and peoples, following imprisonment. Decembrist Nikolay Vasil’yevich Basargin was unwell when he set out from St. Petersburg, but he recovered his strength on the move; his memoirs depict the journey to Siberia in a cheerful light, full of praise for the "common people" and commanding landscapes.[21]

Not all Decembrists could identify with Basargin’s positive experience.

Fifteen out of 124 Decembrists were convicted of "state-crimes" by the Supreme Criminal Court, and sentenced to "exile-to-settlement."

Of all those exiled, the largest group of prisoners was sent to Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, to be transferred three years later to Petrovsky Zavod, near Nerchinsk.[19] This group, sentenced to hard labor, included principal leaders of the Decembrist movement as well as Polish revolutionaries. Siberian Governor-General Lavinsky argued that it would be easiest to control a large, concentrated group of convicts,[19] and Emperor Nicholas I pursued this policy in order to maximize surveillance and to limit revolutionaries’ contact with local populations.[22] Concentration facilitated the guarding of prisoners, but it also allowed the Decembrists to continue to exist as a community.[19] This was especially true at Chita. The move to Petrovsky Zavod, however, forced Decembrists to divide into smaller groups; the new location was compartmentalized, with an oppressive sense of order. Convicts could no longer congregate casually. Although nothing could destroy the Decembrists’ conception of fraternity, Petrovsky Zavod forced them to live more private lives.[21] Owing to a number of imperial sentence reductions, exiles started to complete their labor terms years ahead of schedule. The labor itself was of minimal travail; Stanislav Leparsky, commandant of Petrovsky Zavod, failed to enforce Decembrists’ original labor sentences, and criminal convicts carried out much of the work in place of the revolutionaries. Most Decembrists left Petrovsky Zavod between 1835 and 1837, settling in or near Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Kurgan, Tobol’sk, Turinsk, and Yalutorovsk.[22] Those Decembrists who had already lived in or visited Siberia, such as Dimitri Zavalishin, prospered upon leaving Petrovsky Zavod’s confines, but most found it physically arduous and more psychologically unnerving than prison life.[21]

The Siberian population met the Decembrists with great hospitality.

Upon arrival at places of settlement, exiles had to comply with extensive regulations under a strict governmental regime.

Despite extensive restrictions, limitations, and hardships, Decembrists believed that they could improve their situation through personal initiative.

Wives of many Decembrists followed their husbands into exile.

During their time in exile, the Decembrists fundamentally influenced Siberian life.

On 26 August 1856, with the ascent of Alexander II to the throne, the Decembrists received amnesty, and their rights, privileges, and titles restored.

Assessment


With the failure of the Decembrists, Russia's autocracy would continue for almost a century, although serfdom would be officially abolished in 1861. Though defeated, the Decembrists did effect some change on the regime. Their dissatisfaction forced Nicholas to turn his attention inward to address the issues of the empire. In 1826, Speransky was appointed by Nicholas I to head the Second Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery, a committee formed to codify Russian law. Under his leadership, the committee produced a publication of the complete collection of laws of the Russian Empire, containing 35,993 enactments. This codification called the "Full Collection of Laws" (Polnoye Sobraniye Zakonov) was presented to Nicholas I, and formed the basis for the "Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire" (Svod Zakonov Rossiskoy Imperii), the positive law valid for the Russian Empire. Speransky's liberal ideas were subsequently scrutinized and elaborated by Konstantin Kavelin and Boris Chicherin. Although the revolt was a proscribed topic during Nicholas’ reign, Alexander Herzen placed the profiles of executed Decembrists on the cover of his radical periodical Polar Star. Alexander Pushkin addressed poems to his Decembrist friends, Nikolai Nekrasov wrote a long poem about the Decembrist wives, and Leo Tolstoy started writing a novel on that liberal movement, which would later evolve into War and Peace. In the Soviet era Yuri Shaporin produced an opera entitled Dekabristi (The Decembrists), about the revolt, with the libretto written by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre on 23 June 1953.[43]

To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne, but many Decembrists also wanted to implement either classical liberalism or a moderate conservatism contrary to the more Jacobin, centralizing program of Pavel Pestel or the pan-Slavic confederation-advocating revolutionaries of the "Society of United Slavs" [44]. The majority of Decembrists were not members of illegal organizations similar to the participants of palace revolutions [Unclear. Needs source]. Some were members of the Union of Prosperity only, sympathetic to an official, pro-governmental fairly conservative program. But their revolt, unlike previous Romanov palace revolutions, has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The uprising was the first open breach between the government and reformist elements of the Russian nobility, which would subsequently widen.[45][46]

"Constantine and Constitution" anecdote


There was an anecdote that soldiers in Saint Petersburg were said to chant "Constantine and Constitution", but when questioned, many of them professed to believe that "Constitution" (which is grammatically female in Russian Konstitutsiya) was Constantine's wife.[47]

Pyotr Kakhovsky in a letter to General Levashev, mentioned the anecdote and denied it:

"The story told to Your Excellency that, in the uprising of 14 December the rebels were shouting 'Long live the Constitution!' and that the people were asking 'What is Constitution, the wife of His Highness the Grand Duke?' is not true.

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