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The Crushing of the Conspiracy

 

The crushing of the Decembrist conspiracy opened the rift between the ruling groups and the progressive elements of society that would never be healed again. Many members of Russia’s intellectual elite had deep sympathy for the cause of the Decembrists. Their collective feelings were powerfully expressed by Alexander Pushkin in a poem written in 1827, soon after the conspirators had been sentenced. It encapsulates the vision of the Decembrists as the Titans in the struggle against autocracy and the belief in the righteousness of their cause and in its ultimate triumph: 

The execution of the five leaders of the Decembrists, including Paul Pestel

In deep Siberian mines retain
A proud and patient resignation;
Your grievous toil is not in vain
Nor yet your thought’s high aspiration.
 
Grief’s constant sister, hope is nigh,
Shines out in dungeons black and dreary
To cheer the weak, revive the weary;
The hour will come for which you sigh,
 
When love and friendship reaching through
Will penetrate the bars of anguish,
The convict warrens where you languish,
As my free voice now reaches you.
 
Each hateful manacle and chain
Will fall; your dungeons break asunder;
Outside waits freedom’s joyous wonder
As comrades give you swords again. 
 

The Decembrist revolt is justly regarded as the beginning of the nineteenth century revolutionary movement in Russia. Decembrism as a movement was a significant symptom of the social and political situation in Russian in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. At the same time, it contained within it the seeds of different political  and ideological trends that would develop more fully in the future: from conservative and liberal to ultra-revolutionary. The ideological freedom and diversity of Decembrism were the secret of its perennial appeal. The Decembrists were revered as martyrs, and the ideals and example of these aristocratic revolutionaries continued to inspire later generations of reformers, radicals and revolutionaries alike.

Alexander I’s reign of the first quarter of the nineteenth century contained within it different alternatives for Russia’s future. Presided over by a half-hearted ruler, the government vacillated between reform and stagnation and finally opted for the latter. The reawakened public movement contained both a moderate trend in favor of the transformation of tsarist autocracy into a constitutional monarchy, and a revolutionary strand advocating a violent overthrow of the existing order and its replacement by a new one. In the life of the Russian society of that era all of those trends were closely connected, as were the individuals who represented them. The advocates of change in government circles, like Michael Speransky, and in secret societies, like Paul Pestel, belonged to the same ruling class of the nobility and shared the same ideology based on the ideas of the Enlightenment. The impossibility to voice their ideas openly in public and thus form a broad reformist coalition led to a split between enlightened government officials, who elaborated their plans in the secrecy of government privy committees, and the progressively-minded members of the gentry who saw their only chance of effecting political change in the clandestine activities of underground movements.   

The crushing of the Decembrists was a national tragedy that had removed from active public life a whole generation of the country’s most talented, educated and honest people. Russia’s evolution along the Western European path of a constitutional, law-governed state was considerably delayed. The gulf between the government and society began to widen, turning more and more into an irreconcilable ideological confrontation and leading to the growing alienation of the ‘thinking minority’ from the state.

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