The Decembrist Uprising

On December 26th, 1825 some 3000 members of military staged an uprising against the newly-appointed Tsar Nicholas I, in opposition to his conservative views. The results of this revolt would soon grow into something much larger and would lead to the beginning of revolutionary sentiment among the people of Imperial Russia.

The Decembrist revolution has it’s beginnings during the coming crowning of Constantine Pavlovich, who was next in line to take the throne as Tsar, he was popular among some for his liberal views and his general openness towards enlightenment ideas and the prospect of a free Russian state. Desiring a constitutional monarchy, these people believed this would come to reality.

Unfortunately, after the death of Alexander I, it was discovered that three years earlier, Constantine had been removed from the order of succession for his marriage of Joanna Grudzinska in 1822, a Polish woman who lacked royal blood. Feeling that Constantine had been cheated out of his rightful place as Tsar, the rebels began to organize.

The organization of these people had it’s origins during Alexander I’s reign in 1816 when several members of the Russian Imperial Guard founded the Union of Salvation, or known to some as the Union of Faithful and True Sons of the Motherland. Pavel Pestel, one of the group’s more influential members, had joined soon after the union’s creation.

The elements that inspired the Union and it’s structure are something of interest. The leaders and followers of the Union were highly influenced by the romanticist and enlightenment movements of the west, most visibly shown by the style of dress in their portraits. The 30-some group of people were unified in the interest of bringing change to Russia, much in the same way it was brought to Britain and France, and like other liberal revolutionary groups of the time, the Decembrists were said to have been heavily influenced by the political works of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.

But what really made the Union of Salvation noteworthy was it’s connections to Freemasonry. It’s a well-known fact among researchers of this Union that several of the high members were freemasons themselves, belonging to the lodge of Three Virtues which would explain why the Union adopted from them a system of several rituals and vows for the induction and promotion of low-ranking members. The group was also very secretive about it’s purpose and only the two upper categories of membership, the boyare (boyars) and the muzhi (men) knew the true aims of the society, while the third category, the bratya (brothers) were only instructed to follow the orders of those above them. It is thought the integration of Freemasonry was the Union’s first official leader, Sergei Trubetskoy’s doing.

Trubetskoy was a man of interesting backgrounds. Trubetskoy was born in 1790 to a noble family, with his mother being the daughter of a Georgian prince. Unlike most nobles, Trubetskoy received home education and only began obtaining a formal education in 1806 when he began attending lectures at the Moscow University. Two years later, he entered the Leib Guard’s Semyonovsky regiment, where he would then participate in several battles during the French invasion of Russia.

In 1816, he became a member of the Lodge of Three Virtues, a Masonic organization. He later was known to be one of the founders of the Union of Salvation and later the Union of Prosperity. Like the other members of the Union, he worked towards the abolition of serfdom, the creation of a constitution, and the removal of class privileges.

In 1817, the Union made it’s first major step as an official charter was drafted by Pavel Pestel, it stated the goals of the Decembrists including the need to help the overall population, prevent social evils, and denounce the abuse of soldiers, disrespect for human dignity, rule by foreigners, unfair trial, common ignorance, and extortion. Several other documents would be created later in the Union’s existence. Unbeknownst to most at the time, the Union had wanted to establish a representative government rather than simply enact social change.

The Napoleonic Wars were one of the reasons the Decembrists had come to o ppose the monarchy. Seeing the conditions the peasant soldiers were forced to endure, the Decembrists believed that changes must be made. In 1818, their wish had almost come to fruition as liberalization was slowly taking hold in some aspects of Russian society, at one point the Tsar had even contemplated writing an official constitution, although he later feared this caused tension among the country which led him to repress the growing liberal mindset, agitating the Union.

In protest, the Union had taken inspiration from the French Revolution and would copy the wearing of cavalry swords and uniforms at balls, implying their refusal to dance as the revolutionaries did in France. Their rejection of the court traditions had begun to show their interest in reformative movements from other nations and their desire to embrace the peasant population, which they felt was being abused by a monarchy with too much power. Part of the Union’s ideas regarding the serfdom were outlined by Pavel Pestel:

“The desirability of granting freedom to the serfs was considered from the very beginning; for that purpose a majority of the nobility was to be invited in order to petition the Emperor about it. This was later thought of on many occasions, but we soon came to realize that the nobility could not be persuaded. And as time went on we became even more convinced, when the Ukrainian nobility absolutely rejected a similar project of their military governor.”

In 1818, a new union, the Union of Prosperity was formed. By this time, formal membership had numbered to about 200. The Union of Prosperity sought to give the youth of the nation a further Christian upbringing and the elimination of serfdom.

In 1821, the Union of Prosperity had split in two, following a mutiny in one of it’s regiments and ceasing activities the year before. The southern society, based in Tulchin and Kiev was led by Pavel Pestel, who sought to abolish the monarchy entirely through radical means and establish a republic, so that land may be properly divided among the state and peasant population. The Northern society, led by Guard officers Nikita Muravyov, Sergei Trubetskoy, and Evgeniy Obolensky, wished to create a constitutional monarchy, basing their ideology on the British government. It was this group of people that would start the uprising.

When it was learned that the officers of the military would swear allegiance to Tsar Nicholas I at the Senate Square in St. Petersburg, the members of the union acted to meet with leaders of the regiments in order to convince them to revolt during the ceremony, this resulted mostly in success and would allow for a sizable amount of people to participate in the uprising.

On the 26th December, the Union put their plan into motion. On this day, members of the military were to swear allegiance to the new Tsar at Senate Square outside the Winter Palace. Refusing to accept Nicholas I as their new leader, some 3,000 men at the command of their officers began to revolt. Not wanting to begin his reign by massacring his subjects, the Tsar sought to find a peaceful resolution.

A standoff between the rebels and the 9,000 loyal troops ensued for several hours, the silence only being broken by the occasional discharge of firearms and shouts praising the Constantine and the Constitution from the rebel side. A squad of grenadiers, led by Nikolai Panov had also attempted to take the Winter palace although his attempts were futile and he eventually retreated. all the while, the loyal members of the military continued the standoff.

Finally, Nicholas sent famous war general Mikhail Miloradovich to reason with the rebels. Unfortunately while giving a speech to the rows of troops, he was shot by Pyotr Kakhovsky and fatally stabbed by Evgeniy Obolensky. Realizing there would be no peaceful to this uprising, Nicholas I sent a cavalry squad to quell it, but this failed after the cavalry’s initial charge failed due to icy ground. Finally, several cannons were brought in and fired on the rebels.

Lacking proper leadership, the rebels retreated and later attempted to regroup on the surface of the Neva River, which was frozen at the time. This too, ended in disaster as the ice was broken by artillery fire, casting the remaining rebels into the frozen depths of the river, subsequently ending the revolution. This uprising claimed the lives of 1,271 people, several of those being onlooking civilians.

The failure of this uprising was due to a number of reasons. Firstly, the Northern Society’s appointed Dictator, Sergei Trubetskoy and his second-in-command, decided not to attend what would be the uprising, perhaps because they had already known what the outcome of such an act of rebellion would be. Because of this, the plan of action for the rebels was not completely known and would result in chaos and disorder. Secondly, the revolutionaries had assumed that they would be joined by the rest of the military at the ceremony, of course their assumption was wrong and it resulted in the Decembrists being largely outnumbered. Although the amount of rebels at the square were only a third of the loyalists, most of the blame can be placed to the Decemberists’ lack of proper leadership or organization, something which would have allowed them to properly react to the artillery fire by Nicholas I’s troops.

A day prior, Pavel Pestel was arrested on charges of treason, it would be only ten days later until the members of the Southern Society learn of the failed revolution in St. Petersburg. Fortunately, the Southern Society had formed an alliance with the Society of United Slavs, a nationalistic group who wished to create a federation of democratic Slavic republics, abolishing serfdom and the monarchy in the process. The United Slavs came to the Decemberists’ aid by forcibly releasing Muravyov-Apostol from captivity in Trylesy. This had convinced to the two parties to unite and stage a second revolt, led by freed Decembrist Sergei Muravyov-Apostol. This would be known as the Chernigov Regiment revolt.

Muravyov-Apostol had taken control of Kuzmin’s fifth company, and later the second. With all of the regiment’s forces combined, it numbered up to a force of about 1000 men. On January 12, the army had left Vasylkiv for Brusylkiv. As night approached, the regiment made a stop at Motovylivka to rest and plan ahead. After hearing that one of Muravyov-Apostol’s lieutenants had influence over the 17th Jager’s regiment the village of Bila Tserkva, he rerouted the march there. The following day however, the 17th Jager Regiment was found to have already moved to Skvila, which would mean the Chernigov regiment would have to march another, all the while morale and discipline among the troops was failing.

Finally, on the last day of the rebellion, the regiment had decided to march back to Trylisy. Although on the way there, the rebels met up with government forces led by Friedrich Caspar von Geismar, with a force of 400 men, four squadrons of Hussars and two field cannons. A skirmish ensued. Shortly after, 869 rebel soldiers surrendered without resistance while 75 others had been killed. The loyalist side however, suffered no casualties.

After this second failure, Pavel Pestel and Sergei Muravyov-Apostol were sent to St. Petersburg to be tried with the leaders of the northern uprising. Convicted, these five were sentenced to execution by hanging (in what would be the last public execution in the Russian empire) while the rest were exile to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East. Interestingly enough, because of an inexperienced executioner, the ropes that were used to hang the Decembrist leaders broke, saving their lives. One of the rebels, breaking his leg from the fall, remarked “they can’t even hang a man properly in Russia.”. An old tradition in the country dictated that any prisoner who survives an execution is to be set free, unfortunately Nicholas I ignored this and hanged the rebels once more, this time killing them.

Since then, these five men had become the most recognizable symbol of the Decembrist revolution, since the events, their profiles have been commonly used on a number of stamps and memorials to the Union of Salvation. But these revolutionaries weren’t just figureheads, most had prestigious backgrounds with the military and strangely, Freemasonry.

The first rebel, Pavel Ivanovich Pestel, was born in St. Petersburg on July 5, 1793 and was of German ancestry, he would become the ideological voice of the Decembrists. At the age of 12, Pestel was sent to Dresden until he was 16. In 1810, he became a student at the Page Corps, a well-known school which prepared aristocratic children for service in the military.

After graduating, he was sent to the Lithuanian regiment of the Leib Guard and would later participate in the defense of Russia during the French invasion of 1812 where he was awarded a golden sword or his efforts at the Battle of Borodino and several other campaigns during 1813-1814. Two years later he joined the Union of Salvation, beginning his activity with the Decembrists, although he did not formally announce it. Like other members of the Union, he was a Freemason, and joined in 1816, probably at the same time he became a Decembrist.

In 1821, he was given the title of commander over the Vyatka Infantry Regiment in Tulchin where he met Pavel Kiselyov. Later that year, he engaged in a socio-economic reform project titled Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth) which advocated such things as the emancipation of the serfs, limits to land ownership, elimination of class privileges, and other democratic policies. Several years later, after the failure of the St. Petersburg uprising and his own rebellion in Ukraine, he was sent to court and tried as a criminal.

The youngest of the Decembrists was Mikhail Pavlovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who was born in the village of Kudryoshky on June 4, 1801 and was the son of mayor of the town of Gorbatov. Bestuzhev-Ryumin began his first military training at the Horse-Guard Regiment and later continued on to the Semenovsky Regiment, where he would remain until his transfer to the Poltava Infantry Regiment.

Joining the Union in 1823, Bestuzhev-Ryumin was known for a number of things. Unlike the other members, he dressed in lower-class clothes and frequently spoke of the need to kill the royal family and to violently abolish the monarchy. In 1825, he became an assistant to Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, and participating in the Chernigov Regiment Uprising before his capture and subsequent execution.

Sergei Ivanovich Muravyov-Apostol was a leading Decembrist as well. Muravyov-Apostol was born on October 9, 1796 and spent the majority of his childhood in Paris and Hamburg. He later graduated from the St. Petersburg institute of Road Engineers. He later served in the Russian Army, taking part in many battles during the Patriotic War with France in 1812, most notably the Battle of Paris, where he was awarded the Order of St. Anna.

After leading the Semenovsky and Poltva Regiments, he was transferred to the Chernigov Regiment which would play a large part in the Decembrist revolution. Between the years of 1817 and 1818, he was a Freemason and a ritual-keeper for the Lodge of Three Virtues. During his time in the Union, Muravyov-Apostol maintained relations with the Society of United Slavs and wrote the catechesis of the Decembrists. He was also responsible for the Chernigov Regiment Uprising, in which he was critically wounded by a cannon shot on the last day of the rebellion. After the rebellion was quelled, he was captured and eventually sent to the Petropavlovsk Fortress where he and the four other revolutionaries were executed.

Kondraty Fydorovich Ryleyev was arguably the most interesting of the group. Born on September 29, 1795 in the village of Batovo, Ryleyev was the son of  an impoverished nobleman who lacked much property or reputation. Although despite this, he was eventually able to enter the Page Corps. Graduating, he participated in several campaigns during 1814 and 1815. Leaving the military, he became a tutor for the children of Tevyashev, a wealthy landowner. Following this, he married Tevyashev’s daughter, Natalya and fathered two children.

In 1820, he gained fame for a poem he wrote criticizing an unpopular official. Later, he joined the Lodge of the Three Virtues where he met several members of what would be the Union of Salvation. A year later he joined the Free Society of Russian Literature Lovers to continue his interest in literature. He later worked with Alexander Bestuzhev on a literary periodical titled The Polar Star. After Ryleyev’s death, he and the other four Decembrists were featured on the cover of one of it’s editions. In his time, he was quite a popular poet.

But his work as a poet could not support his family which was why between the years of 1821 and 1824 he worked as an assessor in the St. Petersburg criminal court. During this time, he met a well-educated Ukrainian serf named Aleksandr Nikitenko, who was struggling to achieve freedom. Since then, Ryleyev worked to obtain freedom for Nikitenko by contacting various officials and friends. Finally on October 11, 1824, Count Sheremetev freed Nikitenko. After Nikitenko’s emancipation, Ryleyev left the court and found new work as the head manager of the St. Petersburg office of the Russian American Company.

In 1823, Ryleyev was brought into the Northern Society of the Union. Although he personally didn’t believe the Decembrist revolution would succeed, he felt that if he and his comrades died in the process, it would awaken Russia, and in a way he was correct. One of his poems, Nalevaiko’s Confession, he vaguely described his willingness to die for the cause.

“Say not, thou holy man, again
That this is sin, thy words are vain,
Be it fearful mortal sin
Worse than all crimes that ever have been,
I care not – for could I but see
My native land at liberty,
Could I but see my race restored
To freedom from the foreign horde
All sins would I upon me take
Try not with threats my mind to shake,
Persuasive words no change can make
I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate – but say
When, when has freedom won her way
Without the blood of martyrs shed,
When none for liberty have bled?
My coming doom I feel and know
And bless the stroke which lays me low
And, father, now with joy I meet
My death, to me such end is sweet.”

Finally, during his last days as member of the Decembrists, he was witness to the rebellion at the Senate Square, finally confirming his belief that the revolution would ultimately fail, which he reflected in a remark during the standoff saying “What we foresaw will happen. Our last moments are near, but they are the moments of our liberty. We have lived them and now I willingly forfeit my life.”

After he and the other four were brought to court, he volunteered to be the only one to be executed among the Decembrists, one quote of his states “If an execution is needed for the good of Russia, I am the only one who deserves it. I have long prayed that it will stop at me, and that the others will be returned by God’s mercy to their families, their fatherland, and their noble Tsar.”. It is said that Ryleyev was executed holding a book of the poetry of Lord Byron’s poetry.

Finally, Pyotr Grigoryevich Kakhovsky is the fifth and final high member of the Decembrists. Born in the Smolensk Governate to an impoverished noble family. Beginning his education in the Moscow University Boarding School, he began his first service in the military as a junker (military student) at the Leib Guard in 1816 but was later demoted to Private because of “rude behavior in the house of Mrs Vangersgeim, not paying his debt to a candy shop, and laziness in military service.”

For the next few years until 1821, he worked his way up to the rank of a poruchik while serving in the 7th Ranger Regiment, later leaving because of an illness. After searching for medical treatment in western Europe, he returned in 1823, he joined the North Society of the Decembrists and became an assistant to Kondrady Ryleyev. During the Decembrist uprising at the Senate Square, he was the most violent of the five main members, killing war general Mikhail Miloradovich, colonel Sturler and wounded officer Gastfer. Suffering the same fate as the other five, he was sentenced to hanging at the Petropavlovsk fortress.

The rest of the rebels, as in the ones who were exiled, had a much brighter conclusion. Most notably, the rebels who were sent to live in Irkutsk were able to be accompanied by their wives and live a life of non-conformity, in that they were able to be amongst peasants, dress like them, and wear untrimmed beards, contrary to what noble fashions dictated. Although conditions were often times brutal, the exiled rebels contributed much to cities they were sent to live and even chose to spend the rest of their lives there, even after their sentence had expired.

The most famous example of the Decembrist wives was Maria Volkonskaya, wife of exiled noble Sergei Volkonsky. Upon learning of her husband’s exile into Siberia she wrote to him saying “I can assure you, whatever your fate, I shall share it.” before embarking to her husband’s whereabouts. As further example of her dedication to Sergei, she willfully signed a document renouncing her rights, titles, and possessions, among these things was her son, who was forbidden to be brought to Siberia. She now had nothing except the life she would build with her husband.

As her life in the city of Irkutsk began, she and the wives of other Decembrists were only allowed to see their husbands twice a week at first. At these times, they attempted to reason with the guards to allow for less brutal conditions and worked with the families of the other rebels so that they may support each other in times of need.

As her influence spread, she would later be responsible for the creation of a new concert hall and theater in the city as well as he reformation of a local hospital. Although Sergei had practically given up on life during the later years of his life in exile and the romance between him and Maria soon faded. Despite this, they stayed married until the end of their lives.

But she was not the only one with such a story, others such as Ekaterina Trubetskaya and Pauline Gueble had similar experiences. Because of this, there exists a term in Russia, that being Decembrist’s wife, which is used to describe a wife of a man who will go to great lengths for him.

Another group of Decembrists were exiled to the southeastern city of Chita, which gave it the name ‘City of Exiles’. Unlike in other places, life for the exiles was illustrated by several Decembrists, most of these displayed the Petrovsky factory, which the exiles were forced to work in and spend most of their day in.

But because the Decembrists were middle-class intellectuals, they were able to help the town and the surrounding area for the better. Besides educating them, they convinced the locals of the town to take up trade. This would later lead to Chita becoming a major trade center in Siberia due to it’s abundance of resources including gold, uranium, and lumber. For these few, their fates were not as painful as those of others.

Others, however, were not so fortunate, as some were sent to labor in Siberia. One of the Decembrists’ closest friends, Aleksandr Pushkin, was upset to hear of this and continually remained in contact with them throughout his life and even write several poems to them to raise their spirits in a time of oppression, In the Depths of the Siberian Mines was one such poem:

In the depths of the Siberian Mines, let naught
Subdue your proud and patient spirit.
Your crushing toil and lofty thought
Shall not be wasted – do not fear it.

Misfortune’s sister, hope sublime,
From sombre dungeon pain will banish;
Joy will awake and sorrow vanish…
Twill come the promised, longed-for time;

The heavy locks will burst – rejoice! –
And love and friendship ‘thout delusion
Will reach you in your grim seclusion
As does my freedom-loving voice.

The prison walls will collapse… freedom!
At the entrance it will gladly wait to meet you;
Your brothers, hastening to greet you,
To you the sword will gladly give.

The Decembrist revolution led to further discontent with the monarchy and began Tsar Nicholas’ lifelong fear of liberal revolutions. These two things would lead him to control more aspects of public life. To enforce stricter censorship and restrictions, the Tsar founded the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery or simply the Third Section, a network of agents and spies who were tasked with eliminating any threats to the government, much in the form of a secret police. For a time, these officers were more effective in stopping crimes than the police itself.

In review, one might argue the Decembrists contributed more to the people of Russia spiritually than politically. Although many didn’t agree with the views of the Union of Salvation, partly due to their connections with freemasonry, many had written of their work, Leo Tolstoy had even began writing a book which centered around a Decembrist who returned from exile in Siberia and his life, although it was never completed.

Unlike the storming of Bastille in France which began a long and bloody revolution, the two rebellions by the Union of Salvation failed in instilling liberalism and actually led to very opposite. In fact, it would only be until the 1900’s when a major liberal movement would be created and gain some sort of influence among the people.

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6 responses to “The Decembrist Uprising

  1. Interesting article, though it wasn’t the last public execution in Russia. The People’s Will members were executed publicly in 1881 (after assassination of the tsar), including a woman: The new tsar’s son’s whole family will pay dear for that in 1918.

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