by the lofty goal of overthrowing Russia’s age-old despotism,
the aristocratic revolutionaries set out to form their first
organization, the Union of Salvation, which was established in
St Petersburg in 1816. Over the next nine years, several
branches were set up in other parts of Russia. By the early
1820s the movement developed at two centers: St Petersburg and
the Ukraine. In St Petersburg the plotters formed the Northern
Society, while in the Ukraine, where a substantial part of the
Russia army was quartered, the officers, involved in the
conspiracy, established the Southern Society.
leaders of the two Societies - Nikita Muraviov and Colonel
Paul Pestel - worked out clear and detailed reform programs.
Muraviov in his ‘Constitution’ proposed to establish
in Russia. According to his plan, the tsar would remain head
of the executive, while the supreme legislative power would
be transferred to a Peoples’ Assembly, a parliament elected
on the basis of a high property qualification. Serfdom would
be abolished outright and each freed peasant would be given
a plot of land.
‘Russian Pravda’ (‘Russian Law’) was more radical. Russia was to be
transformed into a republic.
All branches of government - both a legislative Peoples’ Assembly
and an executive State Duma - would be formed on the basis of
universal franchise without any property qualifications. Serfdom
would be abolished and a public land fund would be created out of
the land previously owned by the crown and the church and partially
confiscated from the nobility. From this fund each peasant would
receive land sufficient to meet his basic needs.
Pestel also advanced the idea of a
that would be needed to maintain order and defend the
revolution. In this view he was a pupil of the French
Jacobins and a forerunner of Vladimir Lenin, who, in the
twentieth century, would put into effect the system of
dictatorship known as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.
The substantive difference, however, was that in Pestel’s
project it was to be a dictatorship of the liberal-minded
of these secret organizations of nobility regarded conspiracy and an
armed coup as the only method of struggle open to them. They
saw their chance in December 1825 when news came of Alexander I’s
death. The line of succession was in doubt. As Alexander had no
children, he was to be succeeded by one of his two brothers: Grand
Duke Constantine or Grand Duke Nicholas. The plotters in St.
Petersburg decided to stage a demonstration for the candidacy of
Constantine against the younger brother, Nicholas.
December (hence their name of the
Decembrists) members of
the Northern Society led some army units into the Senate Square in
St Petersburg trying to prevent the oath of allegiance to Nicholas
as a new tsar. The plotters had succeeded in convincing their
soldiers that the oath required of them was illegal, that they must
uphold the rights of Emperor Constantine and demand a constitution.
It was said that the simple peasant recruits thought konstitutsia
(Russian for ‘constitution’) was the name of Constantine’s wife.
The misapprehension of a single word speaks volumes about the tragic
divide that separated the noble conspirators from the illiterate
On 29 December
in the Ukraine the Southern Society made its move by attempting to
incite the Chernigov regiment to mutiny. Both revolts were
ruthlessly crushed by the authorities. Arrests and investigations
were immediately started. 120 men were tried, among them many
members of leading noble families in Russia. Although the sentences
were lightened by Nicholas, five ringleaders were hanged, among them
Paul Pestel, 31 were condemned to hard labor in Siberia, the
remainder were exiled to Siberia or committed to prison for various
periods of time.