Decembrists


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Decembrists

(dĭsĕm`brĭsts), in Russian history, members of secret revolutionary societies whose activities led to the uprising of Dec., 1825, against Czar Nicholas INicholas I,
1796–1855, czar of Russia (1825–55), third son of Paul I. His brother and predecessor, Alexander I, died childless (1825). Constantine, Paul's second son, was next in succession but had secretly renounced (1822) the throne after marrying a Polish
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. Formed after the Napoleonic Wars, the groups comprised officers who had served in Europe and had been influenced by Western liberal ideals. They advocated the establishment of representative democracy but disagreed on the form it should take; some favored a constitutional monarchy, while others supported a democratic republic. Their poorly organized rebellion was precipitated by the confusion surrounding the succession to the throne on the death of Alexander IAlexander I,
1777–1825, czar of Russia (1801–25), son of Paul I (in whose murder he may have taken an indirect part). In the first years of his reign the liberalism of his Swiss tutor, Frédéric César de La Harpe, seemed to influence Alexander.
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. The more moderate members persuaded several regiments in St. Petersburg to refuse their oath of allegiance to the unpopular Nicholas and to demand that his elder brother, Constantine, who had secretly renounced the throne in 1822, be made czar and grant a constitution. The rebels marched to Senate Square and were crushed by artillery fire. Five of their leaders were later executed. The Decembrists' insurrection made a profound impression on Russia. It led both to the increasing police terrorism of the czarist government and to the spread of revolutionary activity among the educated classes.

Decembrists

 

Russian revolutionaries who stirred up a rebellion against the autocracy and serfdom in December 1825. (Their name came from the month of the uprising.)

The Decembrists were revolutionaries from the gentry, and their class limitations were manifested in the movement, which was antifeudal in its slogans and was conditioned by the maturation of the preconditions for bourgeois revolution in Russia. The disintegration of the feudal serf system, which was clearly evident as early as the second half of the 18th century and which gained force in the early 19th century, was the basis for the growth of the movement. V. I. Lenin called the era of world history between the Great French Revolution and the Paris Commune (1789-1871) “an epoch of bourgeois-democratic movements in general and of bourgeois-national movements in particular, an epoch of the rapid breakdown of the obsolete feudal-absolutist institutions” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 143). The Decembrist movement was an organic element of the struggle of this epoch. The antifeudal movement in the world historical process frequently included revolutionary elements from the gentry; they were strong in the English Revolution of the 17th century and the Spanish liberation struggle of the 1820’s and were particularly evident in the Polish movement of the 19th century. In this regard, Russia was no exception. The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie contributed to the fact that members of the revolutionary nobility became the “pioneers of freedom” in Russia. The Patriotic War of 1812, whose participants accounted for virtually all of the founders and many of the active members of the future Decembrist movement, and the succeeding foreign campaigns of 1813-14, were to a certain extent a political school for these people.

In 1816 the young officers A. Murav’ev, S. Trubetskoi, I. Iakushkin, S. Murav’ev-Apostol, M. Murav’ev-Apostol, and N. Murav’ev founded the first secret political society, the Union of Salvation, or the Society of the True and Faithful Sons of the Fatherland. Later, it was joined by P. Pestel’ and others—a total of about 30 people. The efforts to improve the program and to find more perfect methods of action to eliminate absolutism and abolish serfdom led in 1818 to the disbanding of the Union of Salvation and the founding of a new, broader association called the Union of Welfare (about 200 members). This new group viewed as its main task the formation of the country’s public opinion, which appeared to the Decembrists to be the major revolutionary force influencing the development of social life. In 1820 a conference of the executive body of the Union of Welfare (which was called the Fundamental Council) unanimously endorsed the idea of a republic on the basis of a report by Pestel’. It was decided to make the army, which members of the secret society were to lead, the main force of the revolution. The action that took place within the Semenovskoe regiment (1820) in St. Petersburg right before the eyes of the Decembrists convinced them further that the army was ready for the movement. (The soldiers of one company protested their criminal treatment by the commander of their regiment, Shvarts. The company was sent to Petropavlovsk fortress prison. The other companies also refused to obey their commanders, and the entire regiment was then sent to the fortress and subsequently disbanded.) In the opinion of the Decembrists, the revolution had to be carried out for the people, but without the participation of the people. The Decembrists regarded it as essential to eliminate active popular participation in the coming revolution in order to avoid the “horrors of a popular revolution” and maintain for themselves a position of control in revolutionary events.

The ideological struggle within the organization, the intensification of its working out of a program, and its search for better tactics and more effective organizational forms demanded a profound internal restructuring of the group. In 1821 a congress of the Fundamental Council of the Union of Welfare held in Moscow proclaimed that the society was dissolved, and under cover of this decision, which facilitated the sifting out of unreliable members, began to form a new organization. As a result, the Southern Society of Decembrists took shape in 1821 (in the Ukraine, in the region where the Second Army was quartered), and the Northern Society of Decembrists, centered in St. Petersburg, was established shortly thereafter.

Pestel’, one of the outstanding Decembrists, became the leader of the Southern Society. The members of the Southern Society were opponents of the idea of a Constituent Assembly and supporters of the dictatorship of the Provisional Supreme Revolutionary Authority. In their view, it was precisely this latter body that had to take power into its own hands after the successful revolutionary coup and introduce the constitutional structure that had been prepared in advance, the principles of which were set forth in the document later called Russkaia Pravda. According to this document, Russia would be proclaimed a republic and serfdom would immediately be abolished; the peasants would be freed with land. However, the agrarian draft program of Pestel’ did not envision a complete abolition of landlord landownership. Russkaia Pravda insisted upon the necessity of abolishing the estate structure and establishing the equality of all citizens before the law; it proclaimed all the basic civil liberties—freedom of speech, press, assembly, and worship, equality before the law, freedom of movement, and freedom in the choice of an occupation. Russkaia Pravda recognized the right of every man of 20 years or older to participate in the country’s political life, to vote, and to be elected without meeting any property or educational qualifications. It did not favor women having the right to vote. Each year, a Popular Land Assembly was to convene in each volost (small rural district); this assembly would elect deputies to permanently active local authoritative representative bodies. The unicameral Popular Veche (a Russian parliament) would have absolute legislative power in the country; executive power in the republic would belong to the Duma of the State, which was to consist of five members elected by the Popular Veche for terms of five years. Each year, one member would leave office and a new one would be elected to replace him; thus, a continuity, succession, and constant renewal of state power would be ensured. The member who was spending his last year in the Duma of the State would become its chairman—in effect, the president of the republic. This ensured that it would be impossible to usurp supreme power, because each president would occupy his post for only one year. The third and rather unique supreme state body of the republic would be the Supreme Assembly, which would consist of 120 members elected for life and paid regularly for the fulfillment of their duties. The sole function of the Supreme Assembly was to be control, or “order.” It would see that the constitution was strictly observed. The future territorial composition of the state was indicated in Russkaia Pravda; Russia would include the Transcaucasus, Moldavia, and other territories the acquisition of which Pestel’ considered to be essential for economic or strategic reasons. The democratic system was to be extended with complete uniformity to all Russian territories, regardless of the nationality of the people inhabiting them. However, Pestel’ was a firm opponent of federation: according to his draft, all of Russia was to constitute a single, indivisible state. An exception was made only for Poland, which would be granted the right to secede. It was supposed that Poland would participate along with Russia in the revolution conceived by the Decembrists and would carry out at home the same revolutionary reforms that were proposed for Russia by Russkaia Pravda. The Russkaia Pravda of Pestel’ was repeatedly discussed in congresses of the Southern Society, and its principles were adopted by the organization. The surviving editions of Russkaia Pravda are testimony to the continuous work that was carried out to perfect it and develop its democratic principles. Although it was essentially the creation of Pestel’, Russkaia Pravda was edited by other members of the Southern Society too.

The Northern Society of Decembrists was headed by N. Murav’ev; its nucleus included N. Turgenev, M. Lunin, S. Trubetskoi, and E. Obolenskii. The draft constitution of the Northern Society was worked out by N. Murav’ev. It defended the idea of a Constituent Assembly. Murav’ev emphatically opposed the dictatorship of the Provisional Supreme Revolutionary Authority and the arbitrary introduction of a revolutionary constitution approved beforehand by a secret society. In the opinion of the Northern Society, only the future Constituent Assembly could draw up a constitution or confirm one of the draft constitutions that had been submitted. N. Murav’ev’s draft constitution was supposed to be one of the latter. His Constitution was a significant ideological document in the Decembrist movement. Class limitations were expressed much more strongly in Murav’ev’s draft than in Russkaia Pravda. The Russia of the future was to be a constitutional monarchy and at the same time a federal state. The principle of a federation similar to that existing in the USA completely disregarded the national aspects of the problem and instead emphasized those of a territorial nature. Russia was to be divided into 15 federal units, or states (oblasts). The program stipulated the unconditional abolition of serfdom. Estates would be abolished. Equality of all citizens before the law and equal justice for all would be established. However, N. Murav’ev’s agrarian reform was limited in its class character. According to the final text of the Constitution, the peasants were supposed to receive only their homestead land and two desiatinas (2.18 hectares) of arable land per household, while the rest of the land would remain the property of the landlords or the state. The federation’s political structure called for a bicameral system (a special kind of local parliament) in each “state.” The upper chamber in the “state” would be the Duma of the State; the lower house, the Chamber of Elected Deputies of the state. The federation as a whole would be united by the Popular Veche, a bicameral parliament. Legislative power would belong to the Popular Veche. Participation in elections to all representative institutions would be contingent on high property qualifications. Executive power would belong to the emperor, the supreme official of the Russian state, who would receive a large salary. The emperor had no legislative power; however, he would have the right of suspensive veto—that is, he would be able to delay the adoption of a law for a certain period of time and return it to the parliament for a second round of discussion, but he would not be able to reject a law altogether. N. Murav’ev’s Constitution, like the Russkaia Pravda of Pestel’, proclaimed the basic civil liberties: freedom of speech, press, assembly, worship, movement, and so forth.

During the last years of the secret Northern Society, the struggle among the internal tendencies was manifested with increasing sharpness. The republican current again gained force: it was represented by the poet K. F. Ryleev, who joined the society in 1823, E. Obolenskii, and the Bestuzhev brothers (Nikolai, Aleksandr, and Mikhail). The entire weight of preparing the uprising in St. Petersburg fell on the shoulders of this republican group. The Southern and Northern societies were in constant contact discussing their differences. A congress of the Northern and Southern societies, at which general constitutional principles were to be worked out, was set for 1826. However, the situation taking shape in the country forced the Decembrists to act prior to the planned time. In the context of preparations for open revolutionary action, the Southern Society joined with the Society of the United Slavs. The latter emerged in its initial form as early as 1818. Having gone through a number of transformations, it established as its ultimate goal the abolition of serfdom and autocracy and the establishment of a democratic Slavic federation, to include Russia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary (it considered the Hungarians to be Slavs), Transylvania, Serbia, Moldavia, Walachia, Dalmatia, and Croatia. Members of the Slavic group were advocates of popular revolution. The “Slavs” adopted the program of the Southerners and joined the ranks of the Southern Society.

Tsar Alexander I died suddenly in November 1825. His older brother Konstantin had long before renounced the throne, but the royal family kept his renunciation secret. Alexander’s brother Nicholas, who had long been hated in the army as a crude martinet and a sympathizer of Arakcheev, was to succeed him. In the meantime, the army took the oath to Konstantin. However, shortly thereafter, rumors began spreading that a new oath was to be administered—to Emperor Nicholas. The army was in a state of agitation, and discontent grew throughout the country. At the same time, it became known to members of the secret society of Decembrists that spies had discovered their activity (the denunciations of I. Shervud and A. Maiboroda). It was impossible to wait. Because the crucial events of the interregnum were played out in the capital, that city naturally became the center of the impending coup. The Northern Society decided on an open armed action in St. Petersburg and set the date of Dec. 14, 1825—the day when the oath was to be taken to the new emperor, Nicholas I.

The plan for the revolutionary coup, worked out in detail at meetings held by the Decembrists in Ryleev’s apartment, envisioned preventing the taking of the oath, stirring up the troops who were sympathetic to the Decembrists, leading them to Senate Square, and, if negotiations were to no avail, by force of arms barring the Senate and State Council from taking the oath to the new emperor. A deputation of Decembrists was to force the senators (by armed force, if necessary) to sign a revolutionary manifesto to the Russian people. The manifesto proclaimed the overthrow of the government, the abolition of serfdom, the elimination of recruitment to 25 years of active service, the establishment of civil liberties, and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, which was to decide definitively the question of the constitution and form of government in Russia. Prince S. Trubetskoi, an experienced soldier and participant in the War of 1812 who was well known to the Guards, was chosen the “dictator” of the impending uprising.

The first insurgent regiment (the Moscow Life Guards) went to Senate Square under the command of A. Bestuzhev, his brother Mikhail, and D. Shchepin-Rostovskii at about 11 A.M. on December 14. The regiment formed ranks near the monument to Peter I. Only two hours later was it joined by the Grenadier Life Guards regiment and the naval Guards. In all, about 3,000 insurgent soldiers were assembled under the banners of the rebels in the square; they were commanded by 30 Decembrist officers. The crowd of sympathizers was substantially larger than the number of troops. However, the goals set by the Decembrists were not achieved. Nicholas I had managed to administer the Senate and the State Council to the oath before dawn, when Senate Square was empty. The “dictator” Trubetskoi did not appear on the square. The volleys of the insurgents repulsed several charges by the Guards cavalry loyal to Nicholas. The attempt by governor-general Miloradovich to change the minds of the insurgents was unsuccessful. He was fatally wounded by the Decembrist P. Kakhovskii. By evening, the Decembrists had chosen a new leader, Prince Obolenskii, the chief of staff of the uprising. But by this time it was too late. Nicholas had managed to gather troops loyal to him on the square and surround the rebels; fearing lest a “disturbance be transmitted to the mob,” he commanded that case-shot fire be used against the rebels. According to the obviously understated government figures, more than 80 “mutineers” were killed on Senate Square. By nighttime the uprising had been suppressed.

News of the rout of the uprising in St. Petersburg reached the Southern Society after December 20. By this time, Pestel’ had already been arrested (on Dec. 13, 1825), but nevertheless, it was decided to start the uprising. The uprising of the Chernigov regiment was led by lieutenant colonel S. Murav’ev-Apostol and M. Bestuzhev-Riumin. It began on Dec. 29, 1825, in the village of Trilesy (about 70 km southwest of Kiev), where the fifth company of the regiment was quartered. The insurgents (a total of 1,164 men) captured the city of Vasil’kov and moved from there to link up with other regiments. However, not a single regiment supported the initiatives of the rebellious Chernigov regiment, although the troops were, no doubt, in a state of ferment. The detachment of government troops sent out to meet the insurgents opened case-shot fire on them. On Jan. 3, 1826, the Decembrist uprising in the south was crushed. In the course of the uprising in the south, the Decembrist proclamations were disseminated among the soldiers and to some extent among the people. The revolutionary Catechism written by S. Murav’ev-Apostol and Bestuzhev-Riumin freed the soldiers from the oath to the tsar; it was imbued with the republican principles of popular government.

Five hundred seventy-nine people were investigated and brought to trial in the Decembrist episode. The investigations and judicial proceedings were carried on amid great secrecy. On July 13, 1826, five leaders—Pestel’, S. Murav’ev-Apostol, Bestuzhev-Riumin, Ryleev, and Kakhovskii—were hanged. A total of 121 Decembrists were sent to Siberia with sentences of hard labor and banishment. More than 1,000 soldiers were made to run the gauntlet, some were banished or sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, and more than 2,000 soldiers were transferred to the Caucasus, where military operations were being conducted at the time. The newly reformed Chernigov penal regiment, as well as a new regiment made up of active participants in the uprising, were also sent to the Caucasus.

The Decembrist uprising holds an important place in the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia. It was the first open armed action for the purpose of overthrowing the autocracy and abolishing serfdom. V. I. Lenin begins the periodization of the Russian revolutionary movement with the Decembrists. Its contemporaries, too, understood the significance of the Decembrist movement: “Your mournful work shall not be wasted,” wrote A. S. Pushkin in his epistle to the Decembrists in Siberia. Their successors in the revolutionary struggle learned the lessons of the Decembrist uprising: Herzen, Ogarev, and the succeeding generations of Russian revolutionaries who were inspired by the Decembrists’ deed. The profiles of the five executed Decembrists on the cover of Herzen’s Polar Star were the symbol of the struggle against tsarism.

The actions of the wives of the Decembrists sentenced to hard labor who voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberia make up a remarkable page in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. Overcoming numerous obstacles, M. N. Volkonskaia, A. G. Murav’eva (A. S. Pushkin sent his epistle to the Decembrists, “In the Depths of the Siberian Mines,” with her), and E. I. Trubetskaia were the first to arrive at the mines of Transbaikal, in 1827. Between 1828 and 1831, Annenkov’s fiancee, Polina Gebl’ (1800-76), Ivashev’s fiancee, Kamilla Le Dantiu (1803-39), and the Decembrists’ wives A. I. Davydova, A. V. Ental’tseva (died 1858), E. P. Naryshkina (1801-67), A. V. Rozen (died 1884), N. D. Fonvizina (1805-69), M. K. Iushnevskaia (born 1790), and others arrived at Chita and Petrovskii Zavod. In going to Siberia, they forfeited their privileges as members of the gentry and acquired the status of wives of deportees, limited in their rights of movement, correspondence, control over their property, and so forth. They were not allowed to take their children with them, nor were they always permitted to return to European Russia even after the deaths of their husbands. Their heroic actions were given poetic expression by N. A. Nekrasov in his poem “Russian Women” (initially entitled “The Women Decembrists”). Many other wives, mothers, and sisters of the Decembrists persistently sought permission to go to Siberia but were refused.

The Decembrists made a significant contribution to the history of Russian culture, science, and education. K. F. Ryleev was one of the prominent poets of the early 19th century; his work is permeated by revolutionary and civic motifs. The poet A. Odoevskii was the author of the Decembrists’ poetic response to Pushkin’s epistle to Siberia. From this response Lenin took the words “the spark will kindle a flame” as an epigraph for the newspaper Iskra. A. A. Bestuzhev was the author of many works of fiction and articles of criticism. The Decembrist poets left a significant literary legacy: among them were V. K. Kiukhel’beker, V. F. Raevskii, F. N. Glinka, and N. A. Chizhov. N. A. Bestuzhev, who left works of fiction and scientific treatises on history and economics, as well as valuable technical inventions, was a man of comprehensive education. Works on questions of the economy of Russia issued from the pens of the Decembrists G. S. Baten’kov, M. F. Orlov, and N. I. Turgenev. Problems of Russian history were reflected in the works of N. M. Murav’ev, A. O. Kornilovich, P. A. Mukhanov, and V. I. Shteingel’. The Decembrists D. I. Zavalishin, G. S. Baten’kov, N. A. Chizhov, and K. P. Torson made important contributions to the development of Russian geographical science. The Decembrist materialist philosophers included V. F. Raevskii, A. P. Bariatinskii, I. D. Iakushkin, and N. A. Kriukov. N. M. Murav’ev, P. I. Pestel’, and I. G. Burtsov left a number of works on military affairs and military history. The Decembrists’ activity in the area of Russian culture and science very powerfully influenced the development of many social ideas and institutions in Russia.

The Decembrists were ardent partisans of enlightenment. They fought for the acceptance of progressive ideas in the area of pedagogy, constantly propagating the idea that education should be made accessible to the people. They defended progressive, antischolastic methods of teaching that were adapted to child psychology. Even before the uprising, the Decembrists (V. Kiukhel’beker, V. Raevskii) took an active part in the spreading of Lancastrian schools, which pursued a goal of mass education for the people. The educational activity of the Decembrists played a great role in Siberia.

SOURCES

Vosstanie dekabristov: Materialy i dokumenty, vols. 1-12. Moscow-Leningrad, 1925-69.
Dekabristy i tainye obshchestva v Rossii: Ofitsial’nye dokumenty. Moscow, 1906.
Dekabristy: Neizdannye materialy i stat’i. Moscow, 1925.
Bunt dekabristov. Leningrad, 1926.
Dekabristy i ikh vremia, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1928-32.
Pamiati dekabristov: Sb. materialov, vols. 1-3. Leningrad, 1926.
Dekabristy: Pis’ma i arkhivnye materialy. Moscow, 1938.
Tainye obshchestva v Rossii v nachale XIX st.: Sb. materialov, statei, vospominanii. Moscow, 1926.
Dekabristy-literatory, books 1-2. Moscow, 1954-56. (Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vols. 59-60.)
Dekabristy: Novye materialy. Moscow, 1955.
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Volkonskaia, M. N. Zapiski, 2nd ed. Chita, 1960.
Annenkova, P. Vospominaniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1932.
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WORKS

Izbr. sotsial’no-politicheskie ifilosofskie proizvedeniia dekabristov, vols. 1-3. Moscow, 1951.
Dekabristy: Poeziia, dramaturgiia, proza, publitsistika, literaturnaia kritika. Moscow-Leningrad, 1951.

REFERENCES

Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5, p. 30.
Lenin, V. I. Ibid., vol. 26, p. 107.
Lenin, V. I. Ibid., vol. 30, p. 315.
Plekhanov, G. V. “14 dekabria 1825 g.” Soch., vol. 10. Moscow-Petrograd, 1924.
Shchegolev, P. E. Dekabristy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.
Gessen, S. [Ia.] Soldaty i matrosy v vosstanii dekabristov. Moscow, 1930.
Aksenov, K. D. Severnoe obshchestvo dekabristov. Leningrad, 1951.
Dekabristy v Sibiri. Novosibirsk, 1952. (A collection.)
Gabov, G. I. Obshchestvenno-politicheskie ifilosofskie vzgliady dekabristov. Moscow, 1954.
Ocherki iz istorii dvizheniia dekabristov: Sb. st. Moscow, 1954.
Nechkina, M. V. Dvizhenie dekabristov, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1955.
Ol’shanskii, P. N. Dekabristy i pol’skoe natsional’noosvoboditel’noe dvizhenie. Moscow, 1959.
Chernov, S. N. U istokov russkogo osvoboditel’nogo dvizheniia. Saratov, 1960.
Zheny dekabristov: Sb. st. Moscow, 1906.
Gernet, M. N. Istoriia tsarskoi tiur’my, 3rd ed., vol. 2. Moscow, 1961.
Shatrova, G. P. Dekabristy i Sibir’. Tomsk, 1962.
Bazanov, V. G. Ocherki dekabristskoi literatury: Publitsistika; Proza; Kritika. Moscow, 1953.
Bazanov, V. G. Ocherki dekabristskoi literatury: Poeziia. Moscow, 1961.
Lisenko, M. [M.] Dekabrysts’kyi rukh na Ukra’ini. Kiev, 1954.
Dvizhenie dekabristov: Ukazatel’ literatury, 1928-1959. Moscow, I960.

M. V. NECHKINA

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