The Decembrists

Russia has had a huge history as a country most of that history has been spread with a vast range of revolutionary activity, aimed at over throwing the autocratic governments of Russia. For the most part, the early revolts were provoked by the common folk who lacked functional knowledge of politics and economic to implement reforms had the revolutionaries had succeeded. In the early nineteenth century, however, the tides changed directions as revolutionary ideas began to build in the hearts and minds of young noblemen if Russia, who having witness the benefits of delivered by the constitutional governments to the countries in western Europe. The young noble men after having the idea implanted in there heads decided it would be good idea to free the motherland of its tyrannical iron fisted autocratic oppression. These men were named after the unsuccessful uprising of December 14, 1825, these men from now on would be written down in the history books as Decembrists (Venturi 2). Although the Decembrist mutiny completely failed, it was none the less the first attempt in modern Russian history to overthrow the absolutory rule The small group of leader had in mind specific political goals for there motherland: a reorganization of the government and abolition of serfdom. For the first time in the entire history of Russia, there existed an influential group of society that held the conception of Russian state as distinct and separate from the ruler and his administrative institution.Intoxicated with the progressive ideas of Western Enlightenment, these young men undertook an onerous task of eradicating the absolutist regime and backwardness of their country. In the process wrote themselves in to the history book as the fathers of the revolutionary time in Russia weather they knew it or not.

Socially, nineteenth century Russia developed along the lines very different from those of Western Europe. General backwardness of the Russian society, particularly evident in the dominance of agriculture and enslavement of the peasantry, contrasts sharply with the rise of modern urban capitalistic state in the countries of Western Europe. The impact of the delayed progress was not as sadly perceived until the War of 1812 and subsequent exposure to the Western culture soaked with sentiments of individual rights and freedoms and fashioned in the manner of a modern industrial state. During the victorious march of the troops across Europe, many of the latter-day Decembrists became familiar with ideas of Enlightenment as well as a lifestyle devoid of autocratic repression and degrading institution of serfdom.Upon their return, however, they were thrust back into the totalitarian Russian society. A wave of resentment and humiliation began to boil over the troops in response to the unjust treatment of the people at the hands of Alexander I, who earlier summoned his subjects to repulse “Napoleonic despotism yet imposed a regime more tyrannical than Napoleon had been.” (Zetlin 35) Mikhail Fonvizin reflects on the powerful impression produced by the Western culture on the minds of his cohorts and the desire to transform Russian into a liberal, progressive state:
“During the campaigns through Germany and France our young men became acquainted with European civilization, which produced upon them the strongest impression. They were able to compare all that they had seen abroad with what confronted them at every step at home: slavery of the majority of Russians, cruel treatment of subordinates by superiors, all sorts of government abuses, and general tyranny. All this stirred intelligent Russians and provoked patriotic sentiment.” (Mazour 55)
Politically, Russia was pushed to the back burner due to its staunch adherence to autocratic government structure long abolished by the modernized, constitutional European countries. While the progressive ideas of Enlightenment were dramatically changing social and political order of European society, Russia remained firmly unshakable in the ancient principles of absolutism partly due to tradition and partly due to isolation of the intellectual strata from the state affairs. Under the traditionally overbearing Russian monarchs, the nobles were victimized by the arbitrary display of monarch power as much as the peasants since their social and economic well-being depends on the unusual goodwill of the czar who controls the economic status of the nobility through regulation of their estates. As members of nobility began to claim their independence from the czar, a schism developed between the state and the aristocracy (Raeff, Origins 78). Failure of the monarchy to take nobility into its confidence resulted in estrangement of the latter from state affairs producing an irremediable gap between the czar and the nobles. However, the widening gap between the monarchical and the aristocratic band allowed for the birth of a new social group within the Russian society known as intelligentsia (Venturi 109). Comprised of the most intellectually advanced people of the time, intelligentsia issued its the first challenge to the absolutist authority in the form of the Decembrist uprising.

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Masonic lodges served as a springboard for many Decembrists into a deeper pool of political action (Ulam 6). Although many of them joined the lodges seeking a place to vent their liberalism, their interest in the establishments quickly soured as Masonry proved too narrow a field for the politically ambitious young men. Dissatisfied with philanthropic formulae of the Masons, Alexander Muraviev organized the Union of Welfare that attracted the most prominent figures of the movement–Pavel Pestel, Sergei Trubetskoi and Nikita Muraviev (Mazour 66). Denial of freedom of speech as well as the perpetual suspicion with which the state viewed any efforts of nobility to consolidate necessitated establishment of the Union as a secret organization for whereas the government tolerated mild activities of the Masons, it would not permit an openly operating political party. The chief goals of the Union consisted of political reorganization of the government and abolition of serfdom. However, the difficulty to establish organizational and programmatic continuity within the Union resulted in cripplingly underdeveloped platforms that are rooted more in political theory than reality of Russian society and lead to the Union’s dissolution in 1820, followed by establishment of separate political camps in the North and in the South (Mazour 76-77). Unlike, their French and English revolutionary counterparts, who basked in the political tradition of participation in the government through assemblies of the Estates General and Parliamentary meetings, the Decembrists were terribly removed from the political arena and thus lacked the practical knowledge of political campaigning to implement their proposals effectively. The Northern Society situated in St. Petersburg consisted of moderate reformists who lean toward establishment of the constitutional monarchy, modeled after the English version, and it was headed by Sergei Trubetskoi and Nikita Muraviev (Mazour 78). By contrast, the Southern Society instituted by Pavel Pestel in Tulchin gathered under its wings the more radical members of the movement who demanded complete eradication of the existing system and establishment of a republic upon its ruins (Ulam 27).

In terms of political development, the Northern Society followed the pattern of nineteenth century liberalism as its members required to protect the person and property of individual citizens by imposing limitations on the up till now arbitrary power of the monarch. As a reflection of the views of mild reformists desiring to preserve the traditional framework of the Russian society with monarch and aristocracy in tact, Trubetskoi and Muraviev’s Constitution rests on the principles of equality before law rather than equality among classes. Even though Muraviev designates people as “the source of sovereign power” (Schapiro 89), he does not imply a democratic composition of the society since in order to receive franchise, an individual has to satisfy eligibility requirements consisting of high property qualifications. Essentially, this proposal limits participation in the government to wealthy landowners, as with aristocracy preserved, Russian peasant cannot hope to accrue the wealth required to subsidize his participation in the election process. Composed primarily of men of ancient noble origin, who rarely contacted with the populace, the members of the Northern Society were mostly concerned with the aristocratic elite and improvement of its social status hence neglecting the lower class, leaving it dependent on the wealthy proprietors as under the czarist regime. In its attempt to augment nobility’s influence in the affairs of the state, the Northern Society is striving to compress the gap of political alienation created by centuries of autocratic rule. Removed from the political arena for a significant portion of its existence, the nobility was now essaying to establish itself as the dominant ruling force consequently subjugating the monarch to its will, as it had previously been subordinated to his rule. The composition of the government outlined by Muraviev in the document is distinctly influenced by Montesquieu’s political theory of division of powers as it introduces the system of bicameral legislation and checks-and-balances (Agnew 223). The sentiment of nobility’s dominance over the monarch is clearly established through the system of checks-and balances whereby the veto of the executive power may be overridden by sufficient vote of the legislative branch. Reversal of the roles is unmistakable for nobility ceases to be a plaything of the whimsical ruler and assumes the domineering part itself stripping the monarch of his powers and reducing him to a game piece in the hands of victorious gentility. The blatant naivet of the Northerners is depicted in their sincere belief that the traditionally absolute monarch would willfully acquiesce to the limitations on his power introduced by the Constitution. Although the Northerners desired to eliminate autocracy, they nonetheless harbored a belief in the benevolence and broadminded of their monarch. Muraviev, as did his adherents, sincerely credited Alexander with submission to constitutional government once he became acquainted with its enlightened principles.

The members of the Southern Society, led by the “Russian Jacobin” Pavel Pestel, perceived the political situation more clearly and less naively that their Northern counterparts (Venturi 384). Composed primarily of impoverished nobility with the exclusion of Pestel and Muraviev-Apostol, the Southerners discarded the rose-tinted view of the benevolent czar, sheltered by Trubetskoi and Muraviev, pointing to the despotic rule of Alexander I as the source of wide spread decadence and misery. Therefore, Pestel’s constitution offers a less liberal and more radical method for eviction of autocratic rule–physical extermination of the royal family. Cooperation with the tyrant as well as the concept of constitutional monarchy appalled Pestel who insisted it to be a clever means to deceive and lull people into obedience through democratic masquerade of equality in the parliament. Pestel’s argument bears significant weight when considering Muraviev’s proposal for property franchise which would launch the wealthy elite on the path to becoming the ruling clique of the state, working exclusively toward its own social and economic betterment, while allowing the peasantry to remain in political obscurity. However, although Pestel extended universal male suffrage to all men exceeding age 21, there was no equality in Pestel’s Russia due to his intention to establish authoritarian government (Venturi 110). Whereas Muraviev advocates government rule through people yet restricts franchise to the wealthy aristocracy, Pestel in extending unrestricted male suffrage proposes a government that governs in the name of the people but is not controlled by their votes. In actuality, both platforms fall considerably short of their high-soaring aspirations as notions of freedom and equality become nebulous and are transformed into a privilege or are obliterated altogether (Venturi 69,105).

Locke’s theory of social contract, consisting of a pact between the government and the people, figures prominently in Pestel’s vision of the government structure and his division of society into two distinct groups: those who command and those who obey. Says Pestel in his testimony, “This distinction is unavoidable, for it is derived from human nature and consequently exists and should exist everywhere. The former is the government the latter is people. Government’s role is to secure the welfare of people and for this reason it has the right to demand obedience from the people. People have the duty to obey the government and the right to demand it serves them without fail.” (Raeff Decembrist 125)
Furthermore, Pestel’s entire constitution is strongly permeated with socialistic spirit apparent in the proposals for a classless society, total annihilation of aristocracy and the merchant guilds as well as partial nationalization of land. According to Nechkina, Pestel’s political doctrine is somewhat reminiscent of Lenin’s political ideals and methods (Nechkina 175). Both men exhibit a striking degree of similarity in the approach to reconstruction of the government through regicide, attainment of the equality in society by liquidation of the class system and subsequent establishment of a classless society and introduction of a dictatorial government that would insure a smooth transition from one political system into another.Whereas the naivet of the Northerners resided in their belief in a benevolent czar, the blindness of the Southerners is located in the conviction that dictatorship is capable of instituting equality in the society. Such political ambition proved to be of chimerical quality when in 1917 Lenin’s Provisional Government became the ruling clique of Russia and merely replaced one form of empire with another. Lenin, however, takes into notice the cardinal miscue of Decembrists–failure to cooperate with the masses. Writes Lenin,
“…We see three generations, three classes at work in the Russian revolution. First, come the gentry and landowners, the Decembrists. The circle of these revolutionaries is narrow. They are terribly far from the people.” (Yarmolinsky 102)
The partial source of the Decembrists’ failure is to be located precisely in their removal from the populace whose alleviation they were campaigning. Although the Decembrists sincerely desired allayment of the yoke of serfdom from the necks of the peasantry, the idea of cooperation with the mob was repugnant even to the most liberal Decembrists. As they confined themselves to the intellectual circle, the Decembrists developed erroneous perceptions of what freedom means to the Russian peasant. Although they have lived side by side with the serfs from childhood, none of the Decembrists truly understands the mind of the peasant. Consequently, inability to identify with him, vividly illustrated by the emancipation projects, and involves him into the revolutionary process results in the absence of popular support to produce a successful large-scale revolution.

Nurtured by the lofty ideals of natural freedom that deem any infringement on individual’s inalienable rights as degrading, Muraviev proposed emancipation from serfdom without allocation of land to the liberated peasants. Liberty itself is to be their greatest reward (Venturi 110). Lack of familiarity with the economic concepts and the traditional ties of Russian peasants to the land are clearly perceived in the ethereal foundation of this platform. Implementation of such proposal would yield mass pauperization, as there was no industry in Russia large enough to absorb the excess rural population. Under the liberal laissez-faire economy, the emancipated peasants either would perish from famine or forced to hire themselves out on miserable wages to their former masters. In either circumstance, the economic condition of the peasant remains as impecunious as under the czarist regime. Furthermore, liberated without land, the peasants would inevitably revolt against the government that robbed them of their most precious attachment. Land represented a life elixir for the Russian peasant who was not able to picture himself apart from it and hence could not submit to the system that deprived him of it.

Pestel’s emancipation project is equally unbalanced, as it pays more heed to the economic status of the peasant than his social freedom. While Pestel allocates a plot of land to the liberated serf, he at the same time traps him within the fences of a centralized economy whereby the farmer is subjected to the rigid rules of production and is prohibited from obtaining profit. Both these types of emancipation have one thing in common: neither gives the serf complete freedom One offers him personal freedom but limited means to procure living, the other seeks to secure his economic status but denies personal freedom.

Lack of agreement and coordination between the Northern Society and the Southern Society as well as paralyzing underdevelopment of the liberation projects and governmental schemes revealed itself in the hopeless failure of the uprising on the December 14, 1825. Even though the political confusion within the Russian state, created by Alexander’s death and ensuing dispute pertaining to succession, generated a favorable atmosphere for a rebellion, the Decembrists were not able to seize the opportunity due to these very reasons. As a result the only regiment that lend its support to the insurgents was easily disbanded by a few shots from the Czarist troops followed by the arrest of the leaders. The revolt in the South, which took place two weeks later, is just as easily suppressed, its leaders being arrested as well.
The Decembrist revolt marked a turning point in the history of Russian revolutionary movement due to its introduction of influential and intellectually advanced individuals into the battle against autocracy. Unlike their predecessors, who lacked functional knowledge of politics and economics to implement concrete reforms upon victory, Decembrists devised definitive platforms outlining the future course of the Russian state. Although for the most part these platforms were underdeveloped and conflicting in agenda, their significance lies in their being first concrete political documents in Russian history proposing a specific reform of government and the opus of society. The failure of the uprising to eliminate absolutism, does not constitute cheeping of the revolutionary seed planted by the Decembrists. The Decembrists, in fact, came to be regarded as the forefathers of the Russian revolutionary movement by the future insurgent, including Herzen, Petraschevsky and Lenin who looked to the Decembrists as an inspiration in their fight against the autocracy (Ulam 27). The Decembrist have now written themselves into the history book as the fathers of moder Russian revolution. Weather they wanted to or not, did they know an uprising in the middle of December would write a new page in history for Russia. No but that revolution was like a stoned being dropped in a pool there ripple effect is still being carried out in the newly democratic Russia.
.Mazour, Anatole. The first Russian revolution. Stanford CA: StanUlam, Adam. Russias failed Revolutions. New York: Basic Book Inc, 1981ford University Press,1967.