December 14th, 1825, a date Russia experienced its “first liberal revolution”. After the death of Tsar, Alexander I, intellectuals and former military men, revolutionaries known as the Decembrists attempted to overthrow the recent established reign of Nicholas I. This was the first attempt at overthrowing the absolute royal power in modern Russian history. Unfortunately for these men, the attempts failed and the revolt was suppressed by Nicholas I’s army, leading to deaths, arrests, the execution of five of its leaders, and the exile of more than one hundred men to Siberia. Divided into secret societies throughout the Russian Empire, the northern society led by Sergei Trubetskoy, and the southern society, led by Paul Pestel; the Decembrists had one main philosophy, fight for the complete abolition of serfdom, the only way to drive Russia’s economic and social progress. In regard to the Decembrist revolution of 1825, this paper will argue that although these revolutionaries weren’t successful in achieving their goal of overthrowing autocratic rule in Russia, their ambitions and beliefs towards socio-political national reforms; based on liberal and egalitarian western ideals towards the creation of a modern capitalist society along with national prosperity were not in vain. Although their failure was due mostly in part the failed unity between its societies, the Decembrist revolution and mentality stimulated political agitation and opened way for future revolutionary activities in the Russian empire.
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...
Bibliography: Masour, Anatole Gregory, “The First Russian Revolution 1825, the Decembrist Movement”, Stanford University Press, 1937.
Zetlin, Mikhail Osipovich, “The Decembrists”, International Universities Press, New York, 1958.
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