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Decembrist Revolt
Kolman decembrists.jpg
Decembrists at the Senate Square
Date 26 December 1825
Location Saint Petersburg, Russia
Result Government victory
Decembrists deported to Siberia
Russian Empire Decembrists Russian Empire Russia
Russian Empire Army officers Russia Nicholas I of Russia
about 3,000 soldiers of Imperial Russian Army Imperial Russian Army

The Decembrist revolt or the Decembrist uprising (Russian: Восста́ние декабри́стов) took place in Imperial Russia on 14 December (26 December New Style), 1825. Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I's assumption of the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession. Because these events occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists (Dekabristy, Russian: Декабристы). This uprising took place in the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg. In 1925, to mark the centenary of the event, it was renamed as Decembrist Square (Ploshchad' Dekabristov, Russian: Площадь Декабристов). The revolt was suppressed by Nicholas I.


The Union of Salvation

In 1816 several officers of the Imperial Russian Guard founded a society known as the Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland. The society acquired a more revolutionary cast after it was joined by the idealistic Pavel Pestel. After a mutiny in the Semyenov regiment in 1820 the society decided to suspend activity in 1821. Two groups, however, continued to function secretly: a Southern Society, based at Tulchin, a small garrison town in the Ukraine, in which Pestel was the outstanding figure, and a Northern Society, based at St Petersburg, led by Guard officers Nikita Muraviev, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy and Prince Eugene Obolensky.[1] The political aims of the more moderate Northern Society were a British style constitutional monarchy with a limited franchise, the abolition of serfdom and equality before the law. The Southern Society, under Pestel's influence, was more radical and wanted to abolish the monarchy, establish a republic and redistribute land: taking half into state ownership and dividing the rest among the peasants.[1]

At first, many officers were encouraged by Tsar Alexander's early liberal reformation of Russian society and politics. In 1819 Speransky was appointed as the Governor of Siberia, with the task of reforming local government. Equally, in 1818 the Tsar asked Novosiltsev to draw up a constitution[2]. However, internal and external unrest, which the Tsar believed stemmed from political liberalisation, led to a series of repressions and a return to a former government of restriction and conservatism.

Meanwhile, spurred by their experiences of the Napoleonic Wars, and realising many of the harsh indignities through which the peasant soldiers were forced[3], Decembrist officers and sympathisers displayed their contempt for the ancien régime by rejecting court lifestyle, wearing their cavalry swords at balls (indicating their unwillingness to dance), and committing themselves to academic study. This new lifestyle captured the spirit of the times, as a willingness to embrace both the peasant (i.e., the 'Russian way of life') and reformative movements abroad.

The motivations for the reformist movement are outlined, in part, by Pavel Pestel:

The desirability of granting freedom to the serfs was considered from the very beginning; for that purpose a majority of the nobility was to be invited in order to petition the Emperor about it. This was later thought of on many occasions, but we soon came to realize that the nobility could not be persuaded. And as time went on we became even more convinced, when the Ukrainian nobility absolutely rejected a similar project of their military governor.[4]

At the Senate Square

When Czar Alexander I died on 19 November (1 December New Style) 1825, the royal guards swore allegiance to the presumed heir, Alexander's brother Constantine. When Constantine made his renunciation public, and Nicholas stepped forward to assume the throne, the Northern Society acted. With the capital in temporary confusion, and one oath to Constantine having already been sworn, the society scrambled in secret meetings to convince regimental leaders not to swear allegiance to Nicholas. These efforts would culminate in the events of 14 December (Old Style). The leaders of the society (many of whom belonged to the high aristocracy) elected Prince Sergei Trubetskoy as interim dictator.

On the morning of 14 December, a group of officers commanding about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square, where they refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Constantine and the Constitution. They expected to be joined by the rest of the troops stationed in Saint Petersburg, but they were disappointed. The revolt was further hampered when it was deserted by its supposed leader Prince Trubetskoy, who had a last minute change of heart, and failed to turn up at the Square. His second in command, Colonel Bulatov also vanished from the scene. After a hurried consultation the rebels appointed Prince Eugene Obolensky as a replacement leader.[5]

For long hours there was a stand-off between the 3,000 rebels and the 9,000 loyal troops stationed outside the Senate building, with some desultory shooting from the rebel side. Also on the scene was a vast crowd of civilian on-lookers who began fraternizing with the rebels but who were not called on to participate in the action by the leaders of the revolt.[6] Eventually Nicholas, the new Tsar, appeared in person, at the square, and sent Count Mikhail Miloradovich, a military hero who was greatly respected by ordinary soldiers, to parley with the rebels. While delivering a speech, Miloradovich was shot dead by an officer called Pyotr Kakhovsky. At the same time, a rebelling grenadier squad led by lieutenant Nikolay Panov, entered the Winter Palace, but failed to seize it and retreated.

After spending most of the day in fruitless attempts to parley with the rebel force Nicholas ordered a cavalry charge which, however, slipped on the icy cobbles and retired in disorder. Eventually, at the end of the day, Nicholas ordered three artillery pieces to open fire, with devastating effect. To avoid the slaughter the rebels broke and ran. Some attempted to regroup on the frozen surface of the river Neva, to the north. However, here, also, they were targeted by the artillery and suffered many casualties. As the ice was broken by the cannon fire, many of the dead and dying were cast into the river. After a night-time mopping up operation by loyal army and police units the revolt in the north came to an end.[7]

Perhaps the revolt suffered because those in charge communicated poorly with the soldiers involved in the uprising. Soldiers in Saint Petersburg were made to chant "Constantine and Constitution," but when questioned, many of them reportedly professed to believe that "Constitution" was Constantine's wife. This may just be a rumor, however, because in a letter from Pyotr Kakhovsky to General Levashev, Kakhovsky says, "The story told to Your Excellency that, in the uprising of 14 December the rebels were shouting 'Long live the Constitution!' and that the people were asking 'What is Constitution, the wife of His Highness the Grand Duke?' is not true. It is an amusing invention."

Arrests and trial

Decembrist Revolt, a painting by Vasily Timm

While the Northern Society scrambled in the days leading up to 14 December, the Southern Society (based out of Tulchin) took a serious blow. On 13 December, acting on reports of treason, the police arrested Pavel Pestel. It took two weeks for the Southern Society to learn of the events in the capital. Meanwhile, other members of the leadership were arrested. The Southern Society, and a nationalistic group called the United Slavs discussed revolt. When learning of the location of some of the arrested men, the United Slavs freed them by force. One of the freed men, Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, assumed leadership of the revolt. After converting the soldiers of Vasilkov to the cause, Muraviev-Apostol easily captured the city. The rebelling army was soon confronted by superior forces armed with artillery loaded with grapeshot, and with orders to destroy the rebels.

On 3 January, the rebels met defeat and the surviving leaders were sent to Saint Petersburg to stand trial with the northern leaders. The Decembrists were taken to the Winter Palace to be interrogated, tried, and convicted. Kakhovsky was executed by hanging together with four other leading Decembrists: Pavel Pestel; the poet Kondraty Ryleyev; Sergey Muravyov-Apostol; and Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin. Other Decembrists were exiled to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East.

When the five Decembrists were hanged something unusual happened. The ropes that were being used to hang them parted before any of them actually died.[8] This caused a sigh of relief in the crowd because, according to a centuries-old tradition, any condemned prisoner who survived a botched execution would be set free. Rather than free these prisoners, Nicholas ordered new ropes and the prisoners were hanged again. This was the last public execution in Russian imperial history.

Monument to the Decembrists at the execution site in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Inscription on the monument to the Decembrists at the execution site in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Suspicion also fell on several eminent persons who were on friendly terms with the Decembrist leaders and could have been aware of their clandestine organizations, notably Aleksandr Pushkin, Alexander Griboedov, and Aleksey Yermolov. Wives of many Decembrists followed their husbands into exile. The expression Decembrist wife is a Russian symbol of the devotion of a wife to her husband. Maria Volkonsky, the wife of the Decembrist leader Sergei Volkonsky, notably followed her husband to his exile in Irkutsk. Despite the spartan conditions of this banishment, Sergei Volkonsky and his wife, Maria, took opportunities to celebrate the liberalising mode of their exile. Sergei took to wearing an untrimmed beard (rejecting Peter the Great's reforms[9] and salon fashion), wearing peasant dress and socialising with many of his peasant associates with whom he worked the land at his farm in Urik. Maria, equally, established schools, a foundling hospital and a theater for the local population[10]. Sergei returned after thirty years of his exile had elapsed, though his titles and land remained under royal possession. Other exiles preferred to remain in Siberia after their sentences were served, preferring its relative freedom to the stifling intrigues of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and after years of exile there was not much for them to return to. Many Decembrists thrived in exile, in time becoming landowners and farmers. In later years, they would become the idols for the populist movement of the 1860s and the 1870s, where their advocacy for reform and their anti-serfdom platform established a great admiration for their actions, including the writer Leo Tolstoy who was the grandson of Sergei Volkonsky.


With the failure of the Decembrists, Russia's monarchical absolutism would continue for almost a century, although serfdom would be officially abolished in 1861. Though defeated, the Decembrists did effect some change on the regime. Their dissatisfaction forced Nicholas to turn his attention inward to address the issues of the empire. In 1826, a rehabilitated Speransky began the task of codifying Russian law, a task that continued throughout Nicholas’s reign. Anecdotally, after being defeated in the Crimean War, Nicholas is said to have lamented that his corrupt staff treated him worse than the Decembrists ever had.

Although the revolt was a proscribed topic during Nicholas' reign, Alexander Herzen placed the profiles of executed Decembrists on the cover of his radical periodical Polar Star. Aleksandr Pushkin addressed poems to his Decembrist friends, Nikolai Nekrasov wrote a long poem about the Decembrist wives, and Leo Tolstoy started writing a novel on that liberal movement, which would later evolve into War and Peace. In the Soviet era Yuri Shaporin produced an opera entitled Dekabristi (The Decembrists), about the revolt, with the libretto written by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre on 23 June 1953.[11]

To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne, but because the Decembrists also wanted to implement a liberal political program, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The uprising was the first open breach between the government and liberal elements, and it would subsequently widen.


  1. ^ a b Peter Neville (2003) Russia: A Complete History: 120-1
  2. ^ Sherman, R and Pearce, R (2002) Pg. 23
  3. ^ Mirroring the liberal reaction following the Crimean war in 1854, leading to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861
  4. ^ Pestel, quoted in A.G. Mazour 1937, p. 8
  5. ^ Edward Crankshaw (1978) The Shadow of the Winter Palace. London, Penguin: 14-16
  6. ^ Edward Crankshaw (1978) The Shadow of the Winter Palace. London, Penguin: 15-16
  7. ^ Edward Crankshaw (1978) The Shadow of the Winter Palace. London, Penguin: 13-18
  8. ^ "It seems there had been a rain the night before and the ropes had shrunk", Peter Julicher has observed. See: Julicher, Peter. Renegades, Rebels and Rogues Under the Tsars. McFarland & Company, 2003. ISBN 0-7864-1612-2. Page 173.
  9. ^ When Peter introduced a more systematic form of administration in the Russian Empire through the 'table of ranks', he also reformed aristocratic culture. Bureaucrats now served the state, wore European dress and had to conform to certain presentational standards (i.e., they must not wear a beard, which was associated with the old aristocracy, or the Boyar)
  10. ^ Figes, O (2002) Pg. 97
  11. ^ Arthur Jacobs and Stanley Sadie (1996) The Wordsworth Book of Opera: 555

Further reading

  • Figes, Orlando (2002) Natasha's Dance: a Cultural History of Russia. London. ISBN 0-7139-9517-3
  • Mazour, A.G. 1937. The First Russian Revolution, 1825: the Decembrist movement; its origins, development, and significance. Stanford University Press
  • Rabow-Edling, Susanna (May 2007). "The Decembrists and the Concept of a Civic Nation". Nationalities Papers 35 (2): 369–391. doi:10.1080/00905990701254391.  
  • Sherman, Russell & Pearce, Robert (2002) Russia 1815-81, Hodder & Stoughton

External links



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