Written by Vladimir Moss



     The wave of revolutionary violence rolling through Southern Europe reached Russia after the supposed death of Tsar Alexander I on November 19, 1825.[1] During the interregnum, on December 14, a group of army officers attempted to seize power in St. Petersburg. Already in 1823 Alexander I had been given a list of the future “Decembrists”. But he refused to act against them. Archpriest Lev Lebedev explains why: “‘It is not for me to punish them,’ said his Majesty, and cast the paper into the fire. ‘I myself shared their views in my youth,’ he added. That means that now, in 1823, Alexander I evaluated these diversions of his youth as sin, which also had to receive their retribution. Neither he nor [Grand Duke] Constantine [his brother] had the spiritual, moral right to punish the plotters, insofar as both of them had been guilty of the plot against their own father! That was the essence of the matter! Only he had the right to punish who had in no way been involved in the parricide and the revolutionary delusions – that is, the younger brother Nicholas. It was to him that the reins of the government of Russia were handed.”[2]

     The Decembrist conspirators were divided into a Northern Society based in St. Petersburg and a Southern society based in Tulchin, headquarters of the Second Army in the Ukraine. “In the ideology of the Northern Society especially,” writes Andrzej Walicki, “there were certain elements reminiscent of the views of the aristocratic opposition of the reign of Catherine II. Many of the members in this branch of the Decembrist movement were descendants of once powerful and now impoverished boyar families… Nikita Muraviev claimed that the movement was rooted in the traditions of Novgorod and Pskov, of the twelfth-century Boyar Duma, of the constitutional demands presented to Anne by the Moscow nobility in 1730, and of the eighteenth-century aristocratic opposition. The poet Kondraty Ryleev painted an idealized portrait of Prince Andrei Kurbsky (the leader of the boyar revolt against Ivan the Terrible) and even devoted one of his ‘elegies’ to him…In his evidence before the Investigating Commission after the suppression of the revolt, Petr Kakhovsky stated that the movement was primarily a response to the high-handedness of the bureaucracy, the lack of respect for ancient gentry freedom, and the favoritism shown to foreigners. Another Northern Decembrist, the writer and literary critic Aleksandr Bestuzhev… wrote that his aim was ‘monarchy tempered by aristocracy’. These and similar facts explain Pushkin’s view, expressed in the 1830’s, that the Decembrist revolt had been the last episode in the age-old struggle between autocracy and boyars…

     “The Decembrists used the term ‘republic’ loosely, without appearing to be fully aware that there were essential differences between, for instance, the Roman republic, the Polish gentry republic, the old Russian city states, and modern bourgeois republics… Muraviev modelled his plan for a political system on the United States… The theorists of the Northern Society made no distinction between criticism of absolutism from the standpoint of the gentry and similar criticism from a bourgeois point of view. Hence they saw no difficulty in reconciling liberal notions taken largely from the works of Bentham, Benjamin Constant and Adam Smith with an idealization of former feudal liberties and a belief in the role of the aristocracy as a ‘curb on despotism’. The theoretical premise here was the ‘juridical world view’ of the Enlightenment, according to which legal and political forms determined the revolution of society.”[3]

     The Northern Decembrists were in favour of the emancipation of the serfs. However, they insisted that the land should remain with the gentry, thereby ensuring the continued dependence of the serfs on the gentry. “The conviction that the peasants ought to be overjoyed merely at the abolition of serfdom was shared by many Decembrists. Yakushkin, for instance, could not conceal his exasperation at his peasants’ demand for land when he offered to free them. When they were told that the land would remain the property of the landlord, their answer was: ‘Then things had better stay as they were. We belong to the master, but the land belongs to us.’”[4]

     The Northern Decembrists worked out a new interpretation of Russian history conceived “as an antithesis to Karamzin’s theory of the beneficial role of autocracy”. “An innate Russian characteristic, the Decembrists maintained – one that later developments had blunted but not destroyed – was a deep-rooted love of liberty. Autocracy had been unknown in Kievan Russia: the powers of the princes had been strictly circumscribed there and decisions on important affairs of state were taken by the popular assemblies. The Decembrists were especially ardent admirers of the republican city-states of Novgorod and Pskov. This enthusiasm was of practical significance, since they were convinced that the ‘spirit of liberty’ that had once imbued their forbears was still alive; let us but strike the bell, and the people of Novgorod, who have remained unchanged throughout the centuries, will assemble by the bell tower, Ryleev declared. Kakhovsky described the peasant communes with their self-governing mir as ‘tiny republics’, a living survival of Russian liberty. In keeping with this conception, the Decembrists thought of themselves as restoring liberty and bringing back a form of government that had sound historical precedents.”[5]

     This reinterpretation of Russian history was false. Russia was imbued from the beginning with the spirit of Orthodox autocracy and patriarchy: the “republics” of Pskov and Novgorod were exceptions to the historical rule. And if Kievan autocracy was less powerful than the Muscovite or Petersburg autocracies, this was not necessarily to its advantage. Russia succumbed to the Mongols because the dividedness of her princes precluded a united defence. And there can be little doubt that she would not have survived into the nineteenth century as an independent Orthodox nation if she had not been an autocracy.

     The leader of the Southern Society, Colonel Pavel Pestel, had more radical ideas in his draft for a constitution, Russian Justice, which was based on two assumptions: “that every man has a natural right to exist and thus to a piece of land large enough to allow him to make a basic living; and that only those who create surplus wealth have a right to enjoy it. After the overthrow of tsarism, therefore, Pestel proposed to divide land into two equal sectors: the first would be public property (or, more accurately, the property of the communes); the second would be in private hands. The first would be used to ensure everyone a minimum living, whereas the second would be used to create surplus wealth. Every citizen was entitled to ask his commune for an allotment large enough to support a family; if the commune had more land available, he would even be able to demand several such allotments. The other sector would remain in private hands. Pestel felt that his program ensured every individual a form of social welfare in the shape of a communal land allotment but also left scope for unlimited initiative and the opportunity of making a fortune in the private sector.

     “Pestel believed that his program had every chance of success since land ownership in Russia had traditionally been both communal and private. Here he obviously had in mind the Russian village commune; it should be emphasized, however, that Pestel’s commune differed essentially from the feudal obshchina in that it did not restrict its members’ movement or personal freedom and did not impose collective responsibility for individual members’ tax liabilities.”[6]

     The Decembrist rebellion was crushed through the courage of the future Tsar Nicholas I. On the investigation committee into the crimes of the conspirators he placed Count Alexander Khristoforovich Benckendorff, future head of the Gendarmes and secret police. At the first interrogation Benckendorff gathered all the accused and said to them: “You affirm that you rebelled for the sake of freedom for the serfs? Very praiseworthy. I ask those of you who gave this same freedom to the serfs – who did not cast them out on the street to die as homeless dogs, their heads under a fence, but released them from the land while helping them to relocate – to raise your hands. If there are such people among you, then their case will be shelved, since they have truly acted in accordance with their own conscience. I’m waiting. Nobody? How strange…

     “I released my serfs in Lithuania in 1816, and those in Tambov in 1818. They all left the land with funds to make a new start. I paid the taxes of each one of them for five years in advance to the state purse. And I do not consider myself to be a liberal or liberator! It’s more advantageous to me this way. These people work better for themselves. I earn on grinding and timber-felling – and from my former serfs. I have already covered all his expenses and made a profit on all that And I don’t come out onto the square with made declarations and protests against his Majesty or, even less, the Empire? And so there is no way you can prove that this affair is political. We will judge you as rebels and traitors of the Fatherland like Emelyan Pugachev. And now, all of your, to your cells! You will go on the same convoy with the criminals, you swine!”

     579 people were arrested and brought to trial. 40 were given the death sentence and the rest – hard labour. In the end only five were executed.[7] The soldiers were flogged. In August, 1826 Tsar Nicholas confirmed the ban on Masonry.

     “And so for the first time in Russian history,” writes Lebedev, “a rebellion of the nobility had as its aim not the removal of one sovereign by another, but the annihilation of tsarist power altogether… It became clear that [the Decembrists’] links in ‘society’ were so significant and deep, and the sympathy for them so broad, that one could speak of a betrayal of the Throne and Church – or, at any rate, of the unreliability – of the noble class as a whole.”[8]

     V.F. Ivanov writes: “As an eyewitness put it, the rebellion in Petersburg shocked the general mass of the population of Russia profoundly. In his words, ‘the attempt to limit the Tsar’s power and change the form of government seemed to us not only sacrilege, but an historical anomaly; while the people, seeing that the plotters belonged exclusively to the upper class, considered the nobility to be traitors, and this added one more sharp feature to that secret hatred which it nourished towards the landowners. Only the progressives and the intelligentsia of the capital sympathized with the unfortunate madmen’ (Schilder).

     “The best people turned away from the affair in disgust and branded the work of the Mason-Decembrists that of Cain. In the words of Karamzin: ‘Look at the stupid story of our mad liberals! Pray God that not so many real rogues are found among them. The soldiers were only victims of a deception. Sometimes a fine day begins with a storm: may it be thus in the new reign… God saved us from a great disaster on December 14…’”[9]

     In 1826 Karamzin wrote: “Liberals! What do you want? The happiness of men? But is there happiness where there is death, illness, vices, passions?… For a moral being there is no good without freedom: but this freedom is given not by his Majesty, not by Parliament, but by each of us to ourselves, with the help of God. We must conquer freedom in our hearts by peace of conscience and trust in Providence!”[10]

     In the same year Metropolitan Philaret said : It is becoming clearer and clearer from what horrors and iniquities God delivered us, when he strengthened His Majesty on December 14. Pray that this evil will be completely annihilated by righteousness and wisdom. But there are people who, after talking previously about the visitation of God, are now talking about the wrath of God on us.[11]

     The Decembrist rebellion was important not only for what it represented in itself but also for the halo of martyrdom which its exiles acquired. They were romantic dreamers rather than hardened revolutionaries. Thus one of their leaders, the poet Ryleev, mounted the scaffold with a volume of Byron in his hands,[12] and another, Count Sergius Volkonsky, remained a monarchist to the end of his life, breaking down in tears on hearing of the death of Nicholas I.[13]

     But of course they were not monarchists: as Alexis Khomyakov said, they “preferred the tyranny of an armed minority to one-man rule”. And their naivety did not diminish the evil effect of their words and deeds on succeeding generations. From now on, Russian liberals could appeal to the example of the “heroic” Decembrists in their struggle against the Orthodox autocracy…

[1] According to a rather strong tradition, his death in Taganrog was staged, and he in fact became a hermit in Siberia under the name Theodore Kuzmich until his death in 1864. See Tainstvennij Starets Feodor Kuzmich v Sibiri i Imperator Aleksandr I (The Mysterious Elder Theodore Kuzmich and Alexander I), Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1972 (in Russian)., and Alexis S. Troubtezkoy, Imperial Legend. The Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I, Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2003.

[2] Lebedev, Velikorossia, St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 291.

[3] Walicki, A History of Russian Thought, Oxford: Clarendon, 1988, pp. 58, 59, 60.

[4] Walicki, op. cit., p. 61.

[5] Walicki, op. cit., p. 67.

[6] Walicki, op. cit., pp. 62-63.

[7] One of those executed was Sergius Ivanovich Muraviev-Apostol, a leader of the southern society. In his Catechesis we find a strong Christian element, but a tirade against the tsars for having “seized the people’s freedom” and a confession that he wanted to kill the tsar (

[8] Lebedev, op. cit., p. 318.

[9]Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo: ot Petra I do nashikh dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia and Masonry from Peter I to our days), Harbin, 1934, Moscow, 1997, pp. 307-308.

[10] Yakovlev, op. cit., p. 143.

[11]Yakovlev, op. cit., p. 130.

[12] Benita Eisler, Byron, London: Penguin books, 1999, p. 753.

[13] Figes, Natasha’s Dance, London: Penguin, 2002, p. 143. He also petitioned to serve as a private in the Crimean war, which he saw as a return to the spirit of 1812. Figes sees Volkonsky as the link between the Decembrists and the Populists of a later generation. He wrote to his son in 1857: “I gave my blessing when you went into the service of the Fatherland and the Tsar. But I always taught you to conduct yourself without lordly airs when dealing with your comrades from a different class (op. cit., pp. 143-143). For more on the Decembrists and their wives (from a pro-Decembrist perspective), see Christine Sutherland, The Princess of Siberia, London: Quartet Books, 2001.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company