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First Secret Societies

 

Inspired 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.  

 

 Nikita Muraviov

The 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 constitutional monarchy 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. 

Pestel’s ‘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. 

Paul Pestel 

Pestel also advanced the idea of a temporary dictatorship 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 aristocracy.  

The members 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.

On 14 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 masses.

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.

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