The Fathers of the Russian Revolution

The Decembrist Revolt of 1825, although an immediate and clear failure, succeeded in setting the stage for later revolutionaries to topple the Russian autocracy. The Decembrists were a group of disgruntled, educated elite calling for the security of the individual in Russian society and the improvement of Russian administration, particularly in regards to the corrupt judiciary. Most of these men were young, some even adolescent, and their age showed in the uprising’s lack of organization. The three thousand men who formed in Senate Square assumed that their cause would attract other guard units who were angered and confused by the succession of Nicholas to the throne, but no additional mutineers rose up and Nicholas quashed the display without a problem. The Decembrists were largely the product of European influence and domestic disappointment about the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia helped to foster significant amounts of nationalist pride within the country. When he was ultimately defeated, many of the countries he previously occupied, including Poland, received constitutions. Many of the enlightened Russian elite felt snubbed as some of Tsar Alexander’s prior reforms bred optimism about Russia moving towards a constitutional monarchy, but this did not come to fruition. Raeff attributes the distinction between the Decembrists and the generation before them to this optimism, which led to disappointment when Russia remained largely stagnant. The static nature of Russian culture starkly contrasted Western Europe. Much of the Decembrists inspiration came from the enlightenment and other Western ideals so the changes abroad became increasingly important in the actions of Russian Revolutionaries.

Enlightenment ideals developed into the Decembrist distrust for autocracy. The young men who orchestrated this uprising were the dregs of the previously powerful Russian nobility, but they found themselves increasingly at odds with their all powerful ruler. The rise of the bureaucracy had absorbed most of the responsibilities and powers previously reserved for the nobility and the threat of obsoletism was real. Despite the issues surrounding their decline in prominence, these young elite truly took on the ideals of the enlightenment. They felt the plight of the serfs in Russia and most believed the abolishment of serfdom was a necessary part of making their society just. The physical act of the Decembrist Revolt closely mimicked many of the eighteenth-century coups put on by palace guards, but their ideals set them apart and gave them a lasting legacy. Their sincere desire to better the lives of all their fellow Russians earned them the title of “the fathers and first martyrs of the Russian Revolution.”


Works Cited


Raeff, Marc. The Decembrists.


The Story of the Decembrists

Russia went through a number of rebellions in its past, but somehow the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825 had a different feel to it than some other rebellions. Maybe it was that the philosophy and nature of the rebellion was different from what one is often accustomed to.

I, for one, am accustomed to looking at peasant rebellions like the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1774, but the Decembrists were demographically the absolute opposite of the Pugachev Rebellion. The Decembrists, in other words, were actually a group of intellectual elites rebelling over the fact that the ideals of the French Revolution have not infiltrated into Russia.[1] Another demographic note about the Decembrists (and a striking one as well) was the fact that many of them were very young, so young that they were viewed as being child-like in a lot of ways.[2]

The best way to describe the Decembrists’ aims was this: they wanted the political system in Russia to change drastically. From their wanting to rid the government of certain elements of autocracy, to wanting to eliminate serfdom, the Decembrists clearly wanted to shake the Russian government up.[3]

These aims were not achieved by the Decembrists. Yet, in spite of their failures, Nicholas did not execute them all. To the contrary, many of the Decembrists were allowed to live on an talk freely about their experiences.[4] Raeff thinks that maybe the decision to allow the Decembrists to live on transformed the fate of their actions from an obscure part of Russian history to a really important part of Russian history.

[1] Marc Raeff, The Decembrists: 11

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 27.


Raeff, Marc. The Decembrists.

Nicholas and the Decembrists

At the very beginning of his reign, Nicholas I faced rebellion as his succession to the throne was called into question.  3,000 members of the Russian military stood against the state on the date which subjects were to pledge fielty to the new emperor.

As Alexander I had no heirs before his sudden death, the next logical successor was his brother Constantine.  Constantine was favored by Russian subjects as they viewed him to be more liberalized, mainly because he was living in Poland and isolated from St. Petersburg society.  A reign under Constantine would have been interesting, as he was the Viceroy of Poland, had more training to rule than his younger brother, Nicholas, and was married to a catholic Polish commoner.  Arguably, Constantine had the makings to be another reforming monarch; however, Constantine would never rule as he privately refused to rule.  Since Constantine’s decision not to become the next emperor, Russian subjects were left in the dark about the decision for Nicholas to rule instead.  As a result, rumors spread that Constantine may have been forced to denounce his rule, or that he was waiting to gather full support of the Polish army before taking the throne.

Either way, the Russian public, especially members of the Russian army, did not want Nicholas to come to power.  They witnessed his brash manner in the barracks, a dull personality, unnessecary brutality towards soldiers, and even the compete displacement of military groups as a part of “paradomania.”  This led to the formation of officer-led rebel groups within the ranks of the Russian army, which, unfortunately, were all defeated by Nicholas’ troops.

What was perhaps most interesting, as Marc Raeff mentions in The Decembrists, is that the Decembrists recognized the main issue with the state was the institution of Serfdom.  All agreed it needed to be abolished; however, no one could come up with a solution that would benefit both serfs and landowners.  Many were sore about how Alexander I had acknowledged the issue during his reign, but never acted upon ending it, like his grandmother, Catherine II.

Nicholas’ reign, as the Decembrists predicted, would be problematic in regards to the abolition of serfdom.  He had no training in statecraft, and his reign was one of conservatism and restrictions instead of progressive reform.  The start of his reign set a tone of reaction toward rebellion or notions of disapproval, meaning that instead of making state or social progress, he trammeled it severely.  Because of this, it pull Russia further into “backwardness” and continue the oppression of Russian serfs.

The Decembrists

The Decembrist Revolt was a result of and consisted of a state of confusion. Russians in whole did not have a firm understanding of the line of succession, and so when Nicholas came to power rather than Constantine many people felt betrayed. The Decembrists revolt came from a group of people in the Russian army who decided to make a public statement by not swearing allegiance to Nicholas as their loyalties were with Constantine. However, because the declaration of Nicholas as tsar was abrupt the organization of the revolt was as well (“poorly and hastily planned, inadequately executed… no other units joined them”). There was some hierarchy in the design (from the various officers in the army) but in general there was no order. Nicholas suppressed this revolt quickly by ordering the artillery to fire against them, and many leaders that survived were either forced into exile along with their families or were hanged. This event determined much of Nicholas’s mentality toward his reign. This was his very first experience as tsar: To see a lack of loyalty towards the imperial rule and a lack of respect towards the hierarchy of the state proved to him that he must strictly enforce his will. His entire regime was a reactionary tactic against people who didn’t support him (censorship for the intellectuals, secret police for the underground societies, supporting serfdom for the peasants) because he viewed his reign as constantly being pushed back against by the people- and the more he pushed back, the more the people disapproved of his rule

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 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.