Decembrist Movement and Rebellion

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Secret society, active from 1816 to 1825 in Russia, named after its unsuccessful revolt in Saint Petersburg on December 14, 1825.

The Decembrist movement began as a secret society named the Union of Salvation, active from 1816 to 1818 in St. Petersburg. The Union of Welfare, created in 1818, followed. The latter existed until 1821, united more than two hundred members, and had branches in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kishinev, and other cities of the Russian empire. Both societies were organized by young officers who had recently returned from a foreign military campaign during the Napoleonic wars. Convinced that the Russian army had granted freedom to European people, these liberally minded and well-educated young members of the Russian nobility were disappointed by the politics of Alexander I, whose reforming plans outlined at the beginning of his reign were not realized. Observing the steep growth of nationalism in Europe, and following the tradition of "love for the fatherland" of the Russian educated nobility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Decembrists were inclined toward extreme patriotism. They imagined the Russian people as a nation and acted in its name. Taking as an example the German Tugendbund (Union of Virtue), active in Prussia throughout Napoleon's occupation, members of secret societies claimed the national revival as their main aim. In particular, this nationalistic tendency expressed itself in demands for the discharge of foreigners from Russian positions of authority. Freemasonry, with its idealism and moral imperative on the one hand and secrecy and ritualization on the other, also contributed to the movement. Many participants of Russian secret societies were simultaneously members of Masonic lodges.

The main goal of the Union of Welfare was to influence public opinion. Its members aspired to create favorable conditions for constitutional reforms in Russia aimed at the moral and spiritual improvement of the elite and society as a whole. Many members were engaged in the establishment of Lancaster's school system in Russia, as they believed it promoted enlightenment among the poor classes and in the army. Literature, playing an important role in Russian public life since the reign of Catherine the Great, was also an important field of activity for the Union of Welfare and other Decembrist societies. Many Decembrists contributed to Russian political lyrics and literary romanticism and were members of various literary societies. The conspirators Kondraty Ryleyev, Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker were famous writers of their time.

New secret societies created on the basis of the Union of Welfare were more conspiratorial and better organized. The Southern Society, with its absolute leader, colonel Pavel Pestel, appeared in 1820 in Tulchin; and the Northern Society was founded in 1821 in St. Petersburg. Nikita Muraviev and Nikolai Turgenev were the main figures of the latter society. In the summer of 1825 the Southern Society took members of the Society of United Slavs, hoping to create a Pan-Slavic confederation. The conspirators discussed projects of the Russian constitution and ways of performing an armed revolt and regicide.

Pestel's Russian Justice, accepted as a program of the Southern Society, and Muraviev's "Constitution" were the most representative of the Decembrists' constitutional projects. Both projects provided for the abolition of serfdom. Muraviev offered constitutional monarchy, a federal organization of the country, and property qualification at elections. Pestel's radical project provided for creation of a centralized Jacobin-like republic and specific land reform, dividing land into private and public sectors. According to Pestel's project, dictatorship of a provisional government was to last ten to fifteen years after the revolt, whereas the leaders of the Northern Society suggested early election of authority.

Immediate cause for the conspirators to act was the succession crisis. On November 19th, 1825, childless Alexander I died unexpectedly in the south of Russia in Taganrog, far from the capital. According to the law of 1797, the oldest of his brothers, Grand Duke Konstantin, Viceroy of Poland, was to become the successor. However, in 1820 Konstantin had entered a morganatic marriage, and in 1822, in a private letter to Alexander, he had abandoned his right to the Russian throne. In 1823 Alexander signed a manifesto wherein he proclaimed his next eldest brother Nicholas the successor. It is unknown why this document was kept secret from the public. When news of the death of Alexander reached the capital, the general governor of St. Petersburg, Mikhail Miloradovich, convinced Nicholas that the guards were not loyal to him and would consider his accession to the throne a usurpation. Nicholas and the army swore allegiance to Konstantin, who was residing in Poland. The latter was not willing to accept authority, and yet he did not renounce it publicly. In the dangerous situation of interregnum, Nicholas became emperor and set the new oath of allegiance for December 14.

Taking advantage of disorder in the troops and government, members of secret societies decided to persuade soldiers not to swear an oath to Nicholas. The plan of revolt was developed in Ryleyev's apartment on the night of December 13. The conspirators composed a manifesto to the Russian people, in which "the abolition of the former government" was proclaimed. Colonel Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, one of the leaders of the Northern Society, was appointed as the leader of the revolt.

Unfortunately for the conspirators, not all those officers and troops expected to participate in the revolt actually gathered. Trubetskoy seemed to lose nerve and did not lead the mutineers. About three thousand soldiers were lined up in combat readiness on the Senate Square with thirty officers as their leaders. The nearest streets were crowded with people. The troops loyal to Nicholas surrounded the square. For several hours the troops stood opposite each other. A few attempts to persuade the soldiers to return to their barracks were made, and General Governor Miloradovich was fatally wounded by retired lieutenant Pavel Kakhovsky. At last Nicholas gave an order to open fire, and the revolt was suppressed.

Despite the defeat in the capital, and despite Pestel's arrest on December 13, the southern conspirators, including the members of the United Slavs, decided to act. Sergei Muraviev-Apostol and Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin supervised the revolt. On December 29 the conspirators managed to persuade soldiers of the Chernigov regiment to start out for the capital. On January 3, 1826, the government troops stopped the mutineers and defeated them.

A special investigation committee was created to determine the circumstances of the conspiracy. The High Criminal Court condemned to death five Decembrists: Pestel, Ryleyev, Muraviev-Apostol, Kakhovsky, and Bestuzhev-Ryumin. They were hanged in St. Petersburg on July 13, 1826. Thirtyone officers were sentenced to lifelong hard labor. The other officers and soldiers were sentenced to different terms of hard labor, disciplinary battalions, and exile. By the amnesty declared in 1856 after Alexander II's accession, Decembrists were allowed to reside in the central part of Russia and regained their nobility privileges.

See also: freemasonry; panslavism; slavophiles


Mazour, Anatol. (1967). The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement, Its Origins, Development, and Significance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Raeff, Marc, ed. (1966). The Decembrist Movement. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hall.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas. (1976). A Parting of the Ways: Government and the Educated Public in Russia, 18011855. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Saunders, David. (1992). Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, 18011881. London: Longman.

Elena Zemskova