first decade of the nineteenth century, when Speransky developed
his plans for constitutional change, Russian society at large
did not yet display any deep political interest in the ideas of
reform. It was the war of 1812 with Napoleon which reawakened
active public consciousness and instilled the awareness that
Russia had a distinctive political system, different from other
leading European countries. The post-war era produced Russia’s
first revolutionaries - members of the Decembrist conspiracy.
Its participants are considered the first in a series of
revolutionary plotters out to overturn Russia’s social and
political system. They had been educated in the ideas of the
Enlightenment and drew their inspiration from the political
systems of Western Europe.
Many of the
plotters were aristocratic officers in elite guards regiments who
had served in western Europe during the Napoleonic wars and became
acutely aware of the backwardness of Russia based on autocracy and
serfdom. Several of the plotters were even members of the tsar’s
court and military entourage. All of them were disillusioned and
frustrated with Alexander I, who had apparently lost his early
interest in domestic reform.
Not long we basked in the illusion
Of love, of hope, of quiet fame;
Like morning mists, a dream’s delusion,
Youth’s pastimes vanished as they came.
But still, with strong desires burning,
Beneath oppression’s fateful hand,
The summons of the fatherland
We are impatiently discerning;
In hope, in torment, we are turning
Toward freedom, waiting her command—
Thus anguished do young lovers stand
Who wait the promised tryst with yearning.
While freedom kindles us, my friend,
While honour calls us and we hear it,
Come: to our country let us tend
The noble promptings of the spirit.
Comrade, believe: joy’s star will leap
Upon our sight, a radiant token;
Russia will rouse from her long sleep;
And where autocracy lies, broken,
Our names shall yet be graven deep.
Their disaffection with the regime and the burning desire
to serve the noble cause of freeing their country from ‘the
yoke of tyranny’ was powerfully captured in poetic form by
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s greatest poet and a
contemporary, sympathizer and personal friend of some of
the conspirators. The poem (“To Chaadaev”) was written in
1818 and deserves to be quoted in full for an insight it
provides into the spiritual world, hopes, aspirations and
motivation of the liberal-minded members of the Russian