In order to understand the Decembrists mentality, it is important to understand the political and economic climate of the Russian empire in the early 19th century. Tsar Alexander I rose to power in 1801 with a motivation to end serfdom and drive political reform. Unfortunately, the young Tsar was not able to commit to his priorities. Although there was the implementation of laws which prohibited the sale of serfs in open markets, in reality; “a few bills were passed which tended to restrict serfdom, yet in some respects serfdom was even expanded, as the Law of 1804 and the Manifesto of 1810 indicate.”The Law of 1804 permitted merchants to buy serfs, but with land only, and the Manifesto of 1810 granted merchants the right to buy land from the state with peasants on it.
Despite Alexander’s failed attempt to end serfdom in Russia, the country was faced with an extreme high national deficit resulting in an accumulated debt, the army was in precarious conditions and in desperate need of reform, and the industry, which depended heavily on serf labor, was developing in a semi-feudal matter and proved inadequate for the drive towards industrialization. “This resulted in the formation of a class composed of laborers who might be called industrial serfs as distinguished from agricultural serfs- a class unknown in Western Europe.”In other words, the country was nearly bankrupt and Alexander’s decision to go to war against France and Napoleon only worsened this situation.
Following Russia’s liberation of Paris and victory in the Napoleonic wars of 1812-1814, the mentality of many Russians began to change. A growth of liberal ideas began to emerge, especially among the younger generation and also among the soldiers, those who were present in the regiments alongside Alexander and witnessed first hand the liberal western way of life in France. “At a time when throughout the Western world people were seeking to adjust themselves to post-Napoleonic reaction, in Russia there was growing up a generation kindred in spirit to that which, a score of years earlier, had made the French Revolution.” Among these young men was Pavel Pestel, who would later become leader of the Southern Society, and Muraviov-Apostol, who was to become one of the founders of the “Union of Salvation”, the backbone of the Decembrist movement.
Another liberal trend that began to emerge in Russia was Masonry and Masonic lodges. It first appeared in Russia in...