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 Decemberist Uprising

On December 14th, 1825, a group of about 3,000 soldiers amassed on Senate Square in protest over the crowning of Nicholas I.  Nicholas, hesitant at first, commanded his artillery to open fire.  All the revolt’s leaders were arrested and all the participating soldiers were ordered to stay in their barracks. The Decemberist Uprising was first true test of Nicholas I mere days after taking the throne.  What had caused such discontent in the ranks of the military to warrant such a large protest over their new commander?

The basis for the revolt came about after the death of Alexander I.  Having no successor, Alexander’s younger brother, Constantine, was to take the throne; however, Constantine quietly relinquished his claim, telling only the church and his close relatives.  This unique situation caused some nobles and elites to pause and speculate why Constantine would do something so significant, and tell no one.  Thus, the elites were skeptical of Nicholas’ claim.

Since Nicholas was the third in line to the throne, he had little training on how to govern and rule, and was only schooled in military tactics.  Thus, he had very little charisma and was a harsh general.  Soldiers grew to loathe Nicholas’ “petty and harsh disciplinary actions” (5).

The e fact that a new monarch was to take the throne also caused soldiers and officers to be fed up.  As a result of Russia’s campaign West in pursuit of Napoleon, soldiers and officers witnessed an Enlightened Europe.  These enlightened ideals took root within the soldiers and they became increasingly dissatisfied with their treatment and lack of acknowledgement.  These ideals took root within the military, and with the question of succession, some individuals considered establishing a provincial administration.


Nicholas’ actions during the Decemberist Revolt symbolized how his reign was going to be.  As a result of his general ignorance on how to rule a nation, Nicholas primarily ruled in a reactionary sense, that his implemented policies were created as a result of a negative event.  A prime example of this is the Restriction on Educational Opportunities for Nonpriveledged members of Russian Society.  As a result of the Decemberist Revolt, Nicholas sought to curb any new learning of the enlightened ideals that led the soldiers to protest, thus limiting education opportunities.  Additionally, Nicholas was not nearly as enlightened as the Tsars before him, especially Peter the Great or Catherine the Great.  Thus, his conservative tendencies were seen as repressive in the more modern Russia.  One such proclamation was his Manifesto on Peasant Unrest, which gave governors the authority to conduct surveillance over all the serfs in their region, as well as removing the peasantry’s right to petition, and instead, prosecute them.

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.