The Decembrist Revolt

Protests in early Russia seem to follow a similar trend of poor organization and consequently utter failure.The revolt against Nicholas I in December of 1825 follows this same doctrine despite it being organized by army officers and soldiers. The Monarchy handled the rebellion quite quickly and it quickly lost support. Despite this, I believe that the message behind the revolt did carry some weight.

Although the autocracy continued to rule for some time to come, Nicholas undoubtedly was forced to realize the issues within the empire. Mikhail Speransky, a close advisor of Alexander and after for Nicholas, started to devise a new code of Russian laws. The uprising exemplified a shift of ideas towards a more progressive state. A big reason that this is such a unique rebellion is the fact that there were many nobles involved. It was a breach between the government and a reformist noble class. Solely because of the social class involved, I believe the ideas had great influence. After the revolt, a committee was set up to modernize socio-economic systems in Russia. This eventually led to reforms in serfdom and efforts to improve the life of the peasant class.

The power struggle exemplified by the Decembrist Revolution brought the need for change in Russia’s government. The need for reform from the conservative ruler Nicholas became apparent and I believe he took note of this.

The Decembrist Revolution

The Decembrists failed at their mission (namely to overthrow Nicholas and place Constantine on the throne as tsar) because of poor leadership and a small following. After marching upon Senate Square, the soldiers merely stood there, waiting for orders and additional supporters, both of which never came.

Nicholas handled the uprising swiftly, surrounding Senate Square and eventually opening fire on the crowd, which quickly dissipated. He gathered up the officers involved in the failed revolution and jailed them, sending a clear message to all others who dared to question his legitimacy to the throne.

Most interestingly, Nicholas’s elder brother, Constantine, renounced his claim to the throne in the 1820s, not even five years prior to the tsar’s death. His renunciation, however, was kept secret from the public until after Alexander’s death.

Speculation exists as to why this crucial bit of information was kept from the general public. Was it Alexander’s attempt to quell any potential riots, as the public loved Constantine? Did Alexander plan on announcing Constantine’s renunciation, but just wanted to wait for the right political moment?

Regardless of Alexander’s decision to hide Constantine’s renunciation, the Decembrist Revolution exposed Russia to a glimpse of its future. The Decembrists ideologically opposed the Russian autocracy and sought to establish Western sensibilities within the Russian government. This was the first revolution founded on a dramatic shift of ideas.


The Decembrists

The Decembrists were, however unfortunately for themselves, just another group of revolutionaries that failed to make an impact or bring about a change.  They fought to put the rightful heir, Constantine, on the throne, rather than Nicholas. The strange part of the revolution is that Constantine renounced his claim to the throne years before, but Alexander kept this secret from the public until his death.

After the passing of Alexander in December of 1825, a small group of officers and soldiers (numbering about 3000) marched on the palace. Their hope was to overthrow Nicholas, who wasn’t yet fully recognized as the next tsar, and have Constantine take the throne. The Decembrists were quickly and easily defeated by forces loyal to Nicholas, but their actions caused a small amount of other units in South Russia to rebel as well. These units were also stopped quickly.

Despite the ease with which Nicholas defeated the revolt, it needn’t have happened at all. In 1823, Constantine legally denounced his claim to the throne, making Nicholas the next tsar in line. Alexander did not reveal this information, though; rather, it was kept secret from the public until the time of Alexander’s passing.

I think that Alexander kept this information a secret because he expected a revolt to occur upon the public finding out that Constantine would not be his successor. This way, should any group try to make a move to take the throne from Nicholas and put Constantine on it, they would not have had the time to prepare properly. Without having months to prepare a coup d’etat, any conspirators would not have the support, the structure, or the plans to be successful.