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The Decembrist Revolution Of The 18th Century History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Decembrist revolution of 1825 represented a new epoch in the historical narrative of revolutionary activity in Russia. Even though Russian revolutionary activity predated the Decembrist movement, the Decembrist revolt occurred as a result of the social awakening of the more privileged members of Russian society. Prior to the Decembrist revolution, rebellions such as the one’s carried out by Stenka Razin in 1670 or by Emelyan Pugachev in 1774-5, were led by individuals who did not possess the political or economic acumen to actually pose a serious threat to the autocratic regime. That changed with the Decembrist rebellion of 1825. The conspirators who carried out the Decembrist revolution were not merely members of the peasant class; rather they belonged to the highest social stratums of Russian society – the nobility and the officer corps. The Decembrist’s chief concern was the political reorganization of the country; they wanted to free Russia from the yoke of autocratic repression. The emancipation of the peasantry also dominated their reformist agenda; however the Decembrists failed to develop any practical means by which to bring about that freedom. [1] The Decembrists ultimately failed in achieving their goals as the rebellion was easily put down by government forces loyal to the Tsar. However courageous the Decembrists may have been, the rebellion was doomed to failure from the outset. There was a lack of unity among the leadership, including no clear agreement on policy or aims. In addition to a lack of unity, the leadership group was extremel, decisions were poorly executed and the plans that were carried out were rushed. Finally, the Decembrists failed to capture the support of the masses, the people whose very plight they sought to alleviate. In order to better understand why the rebellion failed, it is necessary to begin with the very founding of the Decembrist movement and the atmosphere that precipitated the rise of the secret society.

The Background of the Decembrist Movement

By the turn of the nineteenth-century, Russians had increasingly been exposed to Western European liberal thought. It was not uncommon for the children of Russian nobles to study abroad and to therefore be well-versed in, and heavily influenced by liberal teachings. Even more important than western education was to the development of Russia’s emerging intelligentsia was the involvement they had in the Napoleonic wars fought against France in 1812-3. While in France, these young men were exposed to western ideas and lifestyles that were free from autocratic repression. They interacted with allied German troops and developed a thorough understanding of liberally-oriented social and political institutions. While in France, they debated the merits of constitutionalism in various lodges and salons. Russian soldiers were impressed not only by the nascent political ideologies that they were being exposed to, but also by the behaviour of the Western Europeans. They saw them as free, dignified, and independent. They contrasted that with the behaviour of Russians which they viewed as morose and depressed. They concluded that it was the rule of law that existed in Western Europe that provided a sense of security to the populace; they were free from the arbitrary brutality and abuse of the government. [2] 

When the soldiers arrived back in Russia they were appalled at what they saw. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the returning soldiers were reminded of the backwardness of their homeland immediately upon their return from France. Yakushkin was one such returning soldier who lamented the scene he witnessed immediately upon his return. He stated that while during a prayer to commemorate the returning soldiers, “The police were mercilessly beating the people who attempted to draw nearer to the lined-up troops. This made upon us the first unfavourable impression when we returned to our homeland.” [3] They similarly witnessed the brutality of the Tsar, who to the astonishment of the soldiers, unsheathed his sword in order to attack a peasant who had crossed in front of him. [4] The soldiers were thoroughly discouraged by what they witnessed. Historian Anatole Mazour stated, “The masses who had been told that they were fighting Napoleonic despotism came back to find at home a regime more despotic than Napoleon’s had ever been.” [5] The returning soldiers desperately wanted to turn Russia into a progressive and liberal society, free from the tyranny of autocratic repression. It was under such dire conditions that the eventual founding of the Decembrist Society occurred.

The origins of the Decembrist Society can be traced back to the formation of the Union of Salvation, which was established in St. Petersburg in 1816. The founders of that organization were all members of the nobility or the officer guard. Due to internal dissention the organization was forced to reorganize, develop a new constitution, and reappear as the Union of Welfare in 1818. The constitution of the Union of Welfare was extremely conservative and made no mention of political activity. [6] Pavel Pestel, who was always the most radical leaning member of the organization, acquiesced to the constitution however he always retained his French-inspired, Jacobin political ideologies. In 1818, Pestel was transferred to the south of Russia as commander-in-chief of the second army. That represented the beginning of the formation of two distinct branches within the organization, and would eventually result in the leaders of the two branches promoting radically different policies. The North remained conservative while the South developed a much more radical outlook The lack of unity between the two branches and an inability to agree on policy were one of the main causes behind the failure of the rebellion.

The Northern Society was headed by Nikita Muraviev; he was aided by Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, Kondraty Ryleev, and Prince Obolensky. Muraviev was a republican at heart but due to the conservative nature of the majority of Northern members, Muraviev felt it more expedient to propose a conservative platform. [7] He therefore advocated for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and called for Russia to become a federal republic. In addition to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the federal principle, the Northern Society also sought the emancipation of the peasantry; the abolition of social ranks and distinctions; freedom of speech and of the press; religious tolerance; and the right to be tried by jury. The most significant element of the Northern Society’s constitution regarded the plans surrounding emancipation. The land was to remain in the hands of the landlords, leaving the peasants free, but without land and at the mercy of exploitative landlords. [8] 

The Southern Society was headed by the radical Pavel Pestel. He was influenced more by French Jacobins than German ideologists. He advocated the seizure of power from the state and the establishment of a temporary dictatorship. He wanted to set up a military dictatorship for a period of up to ten years, during which time a full fledged republic would be established. Whereas the Northerners were federalists and did not desire nor expect all minorities to assimilate, Pestel thought all nationalities should be assimilated into a single monolithic Russian nationality. On the issue of minorities Pestel stated, “They must all become assimilated, adopt the Russian culture and language – in a word, they must become Russian in every sense.” [9] Like the North, The Southern Society was also committed to the emancipation of the serfs and Pestel developed his own solution for solving the land problem. Pestel opined that all the land should be held by the state and split into two categories. The first category of land would be made available to all peasants and would ensure that everyone had a plot of land to till. The second category of land would be used by the state to generate surplus income. It could be sold off as the government so desired. [10] The Northern and Southern Societies’ divergent aims and policies represented an organizational cleavage that proved too wide for reconciliation.

The Revolt

On November 19, 1825, Alexander I died while in southern Russia. His death presented the Decembrists with their best opportunity to initiate their revolution and overthrow the government. Alexander I was to be succeeded by his brother Constantine, however Constantine had secretly renounced the throne. Constantine’s younger brother Nicolas worried that if he was to be crowned tsar ahead of Constantine people would assume that he usurped the throne; Nicolas wanted Constantine to renounce the throne publicly. Communication was slow in Russia and the renunciation would take weeks as Constantine was in Poland. There was a period of general confusion as no one was leading the empire during the interregnum. In all that confusion the Decembrists decided to act. On December 14th, 1825, three thousand soldiers marched into Senate Square in St. Petersburg chanting the slogan, “Constantine and constitution.” Nicolas responded with nine thousand troops of his own and after much failed negotiations with the rebels, Nicholas ordered his troops to open fire. The rebels were quickly dispersed by the cannon fire and the leaders of the rebellion were promptly arrested.

Why the Decembrists Failed

As has already been alluded to throughout the essay, the main cause for the failure of the rebellion was the lack of unity between the two branches and their inability to agree on policy. The nature of their disagreement was extremely deep-seated and lay in the two groups’ different socio-economic backgrounds. The Northern Society was conservative as its members were wealthy landlords who had a vested interest in maintaining the monarchy. They were unlikely to adopt the radical republicanism advocated by the less affluent Southern leaders [11] . Pestel often criticized the North for essentially putting forward a constitution that amounted to little more than “legalized aristocracy” due to the high property qualifications necessary for enfranchisement. [12] The Northern plan for peasant emancipation without land meant that the peasants would remain impoverished and would have little choice other than to remain economically dependant on unscrupulous landlords. Even though the Southern Society’s solution to the land problem involved providing all peasants with land, it involved heavy state interference and did not provide peasants with true economic independence. The two societies even failed to agree on whether they were willing to use violence to accomplish their aims. The Southern Society advocated regicide, including the killing of the Tsar’s entire family, while the Northern Society was naïve enough to believe that violence may not be necessary at all, and that they could get the Emperor to voluntarily consent to limitations being placed on his traditionally absolute powers. [13] 

In addition to a lack of unity and agreement between the two organizations, the leadership was inadequate and was unable to inspire confidence in the mutinous troops. In order for the rebellion to have had a chance to be successful, strong leadership was a prerequisite. However the day before the rebellion was to occur, the man chosen as leader, Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, realized that the uprising was futile and no longer wished to lead. [14] While the mutinous troops were stationed in Senate Square Trubetskoi, who should have been there leading the troops, failed to show up and instead avoided the Square all together. He began wondering aimlessly around the streets filled with a sense of fear and dejection. [15] The troops, lacking a competent leader, fell into a state of confusion and disorder. Even Trubetskoi’s right-hand man Colonial Bulatov was lacking in mental fortitude. Upon realizing the futility of the uprising, Bulatov took an oath of allegiance to the new tsar and surrendered to the authorities. [16] When it was finally realized that Trubetskoi could no longer be relied upon, the task of leadership fell to Prince Obolensky. Unfortunately he too was weak and lacked the initiative and the authoritative presence needed to reassure the troops. Lacking leadership, the troops remained in a state of confusion, thoroughly discouraged by the lack of command and order. [17] Without strong leadership, the revolution was destined to fail.

Finally, the Decembrists failed to obtain the support of the masses – the people whose very plight they sought to alleviate. The Northern and Southern Societies were not able to reach a consensus on many issues; however one issue that they were able to reach an agreement on was that the revolution was not be carried out by the masses, rather it was to be led by a small military group. The Decembrists modelled their revolution after the Spanish revolt of 1820. [18] Historian Waclaw Lednicki argued that the Decembrist Revolution was merely a class revolution and that it was bound to fail as Russian society was indifferent towards the movement. [19] He added: “Without the masses the upheaval was impossible, but at the same time the Decembrists expressed no desire to involve the masses.” [20] The Decembrists never considered cooperation with the masses and thought that involvement of the masses would only serve as an obstacle to the fulfillment of their goals. Historian Mikhail Zetlin stated that like most liberal-oriented men of their generation, Decembrist leader Pavel Pestel had an “instinctive fear of the masses.” [21] The Decembrists feared that the involvement of the masses in the rebellion would result in the failure of the revolution. Had the Decembrists been able to obtain the support of the masses, the outcome of the revolution could very well have been different.

Even though the rebellion was a failure and did not result in the immediate political reorganization of Russian society or the emancipation of the peasants, the Decembrists set in motion a process of revolutionary liberalism that could not be stopped until the eventual overthrow of the autocratic regime in 1917. While liberal thought in Russia can be traced back to the founding of Masonic lodges in the eighteenth-century, the Decembrist revolutionaries were the first liberally-oriented organization that possessed clear political aims. They sought the political reorganization of the country and the emancipation of the peasantry. Russian poet and fellow Decembrist Kondraty Ryleev believed that the revolutionaries acted out a deep sense of “civic honour and patriotic duty” and were “incapable of dragging on their youthful years in shameful indolence, in the embrace of lust, and of letting their passionate soul waste away under the heavy yoke of tyranny.” [22] However noble the aspirations of the Decembrists were, the revolutionaries were destined to fail from the very beginning. There was never unity within the organization; the leadership was lacking; the planning was haphazard at best; and they failed to obtain the support of the masses. The Decembrists failed in achieving their ultimate goals; however their impact on future generations was not lost. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks acknowledged the Decembrists as the forebearers of their movement and looked to them for inspiration in their own revolutionary struggles almost a century later.

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