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The Decembrists and The Russian Intelligentsia

The Decembrists and The Russian Intelligentsia

[This paper is mounted, with the writer's consent, as an example of a
very good student term paper. A MS Word version is also available.
Copyright remains with the writer. ]


Larisa Ayrapetova
The West: Enlightenment to Present
HSRU 1000/Spring 1998
Professor Halsall

     The history of Russia encompasses a vast range of revolutionary activity, aimed at the overthrow of the

autocracy, from the unsuccessful uprising of Stenka Razin to the bloody upheaval of 1917.  For the most part, the early

revolts were provoked by the common folk who lacked functional knowledge of politics and economics to implement

concrete reforms had they succeeded.  In the early 19th century, however, the tide changed direction as

revolutionary ideas began to permeate the minds of young noblemen who, having witnessed the benefits delivered by the

constitutional government to the countries of Western Europe, were prompted to release their motherland from the

manacles of autocratic oppression.  Appropriately named after the unsuccessful uprising of  December 14, 1825, these

men entered the pages of history as the Decembrists. Although the Decembrist insurrection completely failed, it

was nonetheless the first attempt in modern Russian history to overthrow the absolutist regime whose leaders pursued

specific political goals:  reorganization of the government and abolition of serfdom.  For the first time in the history

of Russia, there existed an influential group of society that held conception of Russian state as distinct and

separate from the ruler and administrative institutions. Intoxicated with the progressive ideas of Western

Enlightenment, these young men undertook an onerous task of eradicating the absolutist regime and backwardness of their


     Socially, nineteenth century Russia developed along the lines very different from those of Western Europe.  General

backwardness of the Russian society, particularly evident in the dominance of agriculture and enslavement of the

peasantry, contrasts sharply with the rise of modern urban capitalistic state in the countries of Western Europe. The

impact of the delayed progress was not as poignantly perceived until the War of 1812 and subsequent exposure to

the Western culture saturated with sentiments of individual rights and freedoms and fashioned in the manner of a

contemporary industrial state.  During the victorious march of the troops across Europe, many of the latter-day

Decembrists became acquainted with ideas of Enlightenment as well as a lifestyle devoid of autocratic repression and

degrading institution of serfdom.   Upon their return, however, they were thrust into the asphyxiatingly

totalitarian Russia.  A wave of indignation and humiliation billowed over the troops in response to the squelching

treatment of the people at the hands of Alexander I, who earlier summoned his subjects to repulse "Napoleonic

despotism yet imposed a regime more tyrannical than Napoleon had been." [Zetlin 35] Mikhail Fonvizin reflects on the

powerful impression produced by the Western culture on the minds of his cohorts and the successive desire to transform

Russian into a liberal, progressive state:

     "During the campaigns through Germany and France our young men became acquainted with European civilization,

which produced upon them the strongest impression.  They were able to compare all that they had seen abroad with what

confronted them at every step at home:  slavery of the majority of Russians, cruel treatment of subordinates by

superiors, all sorts of government abuses, and general tyranny.  All this stirred intelligent Russians and provoked

patriotic sentiment." [Mazour 55]

      Politically, Russia was pushed to the backfront due to its  staunch adherence to autocratic government structure

long abolished in the modernized, constitutional European countries.  While the progressive ideas of Enlightenment

were dramatically changing socio-political composition of European society, Russia remained firmly entrenched in the

archaic principles of absolutism partly due to tradition and partly due to alienation of the intellectual strata from the

state affairs.  Under the traditionally domineering Russian monarchs, the nobles were victimized by the arbitrary

display of monarchical power as much as the peasants since their socioeconomic well-being depends on the whimsical
benevolence of the czar who controls the economic status of the nobility through regulation of their estates.  As

members of nobility began to claim their independence from the czar, a schism developed between the state and the

aristocracy [Raeff, Origins 78]. Failure of the monarchy to take nobility into its confidence resulted in estrangement

of the latter from state affairs producing an irremediable cleavage between the czar and the nobles.  However, the

widening gap between the monarchical and the aristocratic stratum allowed for the birth of a new social group within

the Russian society known as intelligentsia.  Comprised of the most intellectually advanced people of the time,

intelligentsia issued its the first challenge to the absolutist authority in the form of the Decembrist uprising.

     Masonic lodges served as a springboard for many Decembrists into a deeper pool of political action.

Although many of them joined the lodges seeking a place to vent their liberalism, their interest in the establishments

quickly soured as Masonry proved too narrow a field for the politically ambitious young men.  Dissatisfied with

philanthropic formulae of the Masons, Alexander Muraviev organized the Union of Welfare  that attracted the most

prominent figures of the movement--Pavel Pestel, Sergei Trubetskoi and Nikita Muraviev.  Denial of freedom of speech

as well as the perpetual suspicion with which the state viewed any efforts of nobility to consolidate necessitated

establishment of the Union as a secret organization for whereas the government tolerated  mild activities of the

Masons, it would not permit an openly operating political party.  The chief goals of the Union consisted of political

reorganization of the government and abolition of serfdom. However, the difficulty to establish organizational and

programmatic continuity  within the Union resulted in cripplingly underdeveloped platforms that are rooted more in

political theory than  reality of Russian society and lead to the Union's dissolution in 1820, followed by

establishment of separate political camps in the North and in the South.  Unlike, their French and English

revolutionary counterparts, who basked in the political tradition of participation in the government through

assemblies of the Estates General and Parliamentary meetings,  the Decembrists were terribly removed from the

political arena and thus lacked the practical knowledge of political campaigning to implement their proposals

effectively. The Northern Society situated in St. Petersburg consisted of moderate reformists who lean toward

establishment of the constitutional monarchy, modeled after the English version, and was headed by Sergei Trubetskoi and

Nikita Muraviev.  By contrast, the Southern Society instituted by Pavel Pestel in Tulchin gathered under its

wings the more radical members of the movement who demanded complete  eradication of  the existing system and

establishment of a republic upon its ruins.

      In terms of political development, the Northern Society followed the pattern of nineteenth century

liberalism as its members sought to protect the person and property of individual citizens by imposing limitations on

the hitherto arbitrary power of the monarch.  As a reflection of the views of mild reformists desiring to

preserve the traditional framework of the Russian society with monarch and aristocracy in tact, Trubetskoi and

Muraviev's Constitution rests on the principles of equality before law rather than equality among classes.  Even though

Muraviev designates people as "the source of sovereign power" [Schapiro 89], he does not imply a democratic

composition of the society since in order to receive franchise, an individual has to satisfy eligibility

requirements consisting of high property qualifications. Essentially, this proposal limits participation in the

government to wealthy landowners as with aristocracy preserved, Russian peasant cannot hope to accrue the wealth

required to subsidize his participation in the election process.  Composed primarily of men of ancient noble origin,

who rarely contacted with the populace, the members of the Northern Society were mostly concerned with the aristocratic

elite and improvement of its social status hence neglecting the lower class, leaving it dependent on the wealthy

proprietors as under the czarist regime.  In its attempt to augment nobility's influence in the affairs of the state,

the Northern Society is striving to compress the gap of political alienation created by centuries of autocratic

rule.  Removed from the political arena for a significant portion of its existence, the nobility was now essaying to

establish itself as the dominant ruling force consequently subjugating the monarch to its will, as it had previously

been subordinated to his rule.  The composition of the government outlined by Muraviev in the document is

distinctly influenced by Montesquieu's political theory of division of powers as it introduces the system of bicameral

legislation and checks-and-balances [Agnew 223]. The sentiment of nobility's dominance over the monarch is

clearly established through the system of checks-and-balances whereby the veto of the executive power may be

overridden by sufficient vote of the legislative branch. Reversal of the roles is unmistakable for nobility ceases to

be a plaything of the whimsical ruler and assumes the domineering part itself stripping the monarch of his powers

and reducing him to a game piece in the hands of victorious gentility.  The blatant naivete of the Northerners is

depicted in their sincere belief that the traditionally absolute monarch would willfully acquiesce to the

limitations on his power introduced by the Constitution. Although the Northerners desired to eliminate autocracy, 

they nonetheless harbored a belief in the benevolence and broadmindness of their monarch.  Muraviev, as did his

adherents, sincerely credited Alexander with submission to constitutional government once he became acquainted with its

enlightened principles.

     The members of the Southern Society, led by the "Russian Jacobin" Pavel Pestel, perceived the political

situation more clearly and less naively that their Northern counterparts.  Composed primarily of impoverished nobility

with the exclusion of Pestel and Muraviev-Apostol, the Southerners discarded the rose-tinted view of the benevolent

czar, sheltered by Trubetskoi and Muraviev, pointing to the despotic rule of Alexander I as the source of wide spread

decadence and misery.  Therefore, Pestel's constitution offers a less liberal and more radical method for eviction

of autocratic rule--physical extermination of the royal family.  Cooperation with the tyrant as well as the concept

of constitutional monarchy appalled Pestel who insisted it to be a clever means to "deceive and lull people into

obedience" [Zilliacus 112] through democratic masquerade of equality in the parliament.  Pestel's argument bears

significant weight when considering Muraviev's proposal for property franchise which would  launch the wealthy elite on

the path to becoming  the ruling clique of the state, working exclusively toward its own social and economic

betterment, while allowing the peasantry to remain in political obscurity.  However, although Pestel extended

universal male suffrage to all  men exceeding age 21, there was no equality in Pestel's Russia due to his intention to

establish authoritarian government.  Whereas Muraviev advocates government rule through people yet restricts

franchise to the wealthy aristocracy, Pestel in extending unrestricted male suffrage proposes a government that

governs in the name of the people but is not controlled by their votes.  In actuality, both platforms fall considerably

short of their high-soaring aspirations as notions of freedom and equality become nebulous and are transformed

into a privilege or are obliterated altogether.

     Locke's theory of social contract, consisting of a pact between the government and the people,  figures prominently

in Pestel's envisionment of the government structure and his division of society into two distinct groups:  those who

command and those who obey. Says Pestel in his testimony, "This distinction is unavoidable, for it is derived from

human nature and consequently exists and should exist everywhere.  The former is the government, the latter are

people. Government's role is to secure the welfare of people and for this reason it has the right to demand obedience

from the people.  People have the duty to obey the government and the  right to demand it serves them without

fail." [Raeff, Decembrist Movement 125]

     Furthermore, Pestel's entire constitution is strongly permeated with socialistic spirit apparent in the proposals

for a classless society, total annihilation of aristocracy and the merchant guilds as well as partial nationalization

of land.  According to Nechkina, Pestel's political doctrine is somewhat reminiscent of Lenin's political ideals and

methods [Nechkina 175].  Both men exhibit a striking degree of similarity in the approach to reconstruction of the

government through regicide, attainment of the equality in society by liquidation of the class system and subsequent

establishment of a classless society and introduction of a dictatorial government that would insure a smooth transition

from one political system into another.   Whereas the naivete of the Northerners resided in their belief in a

benevolent czar, the blindness of the Southerners is located in the conviction that dictatorship is capable of

instituting equality in the society.  Such political ambition proved to be of chimerical quality  when in 1917

Lenin's Provisional Government became the ruling clique of Russia and merely replaced one form of empire with another.

Lenin, however, takes into notice the cardinal miscue of Decembrists--failure to cooperate with the masses.  Writes


     "...we see three generations, three classes at work in the Russian revolution.  First come  the gentry and

landowners, the Decembrists.  The circle of these revolutionaries is narrow. They are terribly far from the

people." [Yarmolinsky 102]

     The partial source of the Decembrists' failure is to be located precisely in their removal from the populace whose

alleviation they were campaigning.  Although the Decembrists sincerely desired allayment of the yoke of serfdom from the

necks of the peasantry, the idea of cooperation with the mob was repugnant even to the most liberal Decembrists. As they

confined themselves to the intellectual circle, the Decembrists developed erroneous perceptions of what freedom

means to the Russian peasant.  Although they have lived side by side with the serfs from childhood, none of the

Decembrists truly understands the mind of the peasant. Consequently,  inability to identify with him, vividly

illustrated by the emancipation projects,  and involve him into the revolutionary process results in the absence of

popular support to produce a successful large scale revolution.

     Nurtured by the lofty ideals of natural freedom that deem any infringement on individual's inalienable rights as

degrading, Muraviev proposed emancipation from serfdom without allocation of land to the liberated peasants.

Liberty itself is to be their greatest reward, according to Trubetskoi [Andreeva 110]. Lack of familiarity with the

economic concepts and the traditional ties of Russian peasants to the land are clearly perceived in the ethereal

foundation of this platform.  Implementation of such proposal  would yield mass pauperization as their was no

industry in Russia large enough to absorb the excess rural population.  Under the liberal laissez-faire economy, the

emancipated peasants would  either perish from famine or forced to hire themselves out on miserable wages to their

former masters. In either circumstance, the economic condition of the peasant remains as impecunious as under the

czarist regime.  Furthermore, liberated without land, the peasants would  inevitably revolted against the government

that robbed them of their most precious attachment.  Land represented a life elixir for the Russian peasant who was

not able to picture himself apart from it and hence could not submit to the system that deprived him of  it.

      Pestel's emancipation project is equally unbalanced as pays more heed to the economic status of the peasant than

his social freedom  While Pestel allocates a plot of land to the liberated serf, he at the same time traps him within the

fences of a centralized economy whereby the farmer is subjected to the rigid rules of production and is prohibited

from obtaining profit. Both  these types of emancipation have one thing in common: neither gives the serf complete

freedom  One offers him personal freedom but limited means to procure living, the other seeks to secure his economic

status but denies personal freedom.

     Lack of agreement and coordination between the Northern Society and the Southern Society as well as paralyzing

underdevelopment of the emancipation projects and governmental schemes revealed itself in the hopeless failure

of the uprising on the December 14, 1825.  Even though the political confusion within the Russian state, created by

Alexander's death and ensuing dispute pertaining to succession, generated a favorable atmosphere for a

rebellion, the Decembrists were not able to seize the opportunity due to these very reasons. As a result the only

regiment that lend its support to the insurgents was easily disbanded by a few shots from the Czarist troops followed by

the arrest of the leaders.  The revolt in the South, which took place two weeks later, is just as easily suppressed,

its leaders being arrested as well.

     The Decembrist revolt marked a turning point in the history of Russian revolutionary movement due to its

introduction of influential and intellectually advanced individuals into the battle against autocracy.  Unlike their

predecessors, who lacked functional knowledge of politics and economics to implement concrete reforms upon victory,

Decembrists devised definitive platforms outlining the future course of the Russian state.  Although for the most

part these platforms were underdeveloped and conflicting in content, their significance lies in their being first

concrete political documents in Russian history proposing a specific form of government and composition of society.  The

failure of the uprising to eliminate absolutism, however, does not constitute withering of the revolutionary seed

planted by the Decembrists.  The Decembrists, in fact, came to be regarded as the forefathers of the Russian

revolutionary movement by the future insurgents, including Herzen, Petraschevsky and Lenin who looked to the

Decembrists as an inspiration in their fight against the autocracy. [Ulam 27]


Agnew, Krista. "The French revolutionary influence on the Russian Decembrists." Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 22 (1993).

Andreeva, Tat'iana "Russkoe Obshchevsto I 14 Dekabria 1825 Goda", Otechestvennaia Istoriia 3 (1993).

Mazour, Anatole. The First Russian Revolution: 1825, The Decembrists Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965.

Nechkina, M.V. Russia in the 19th Century Michigan: Edwards Brothers, 1953.

Raeff, Marc. Origins of Russian Intelligensia. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966

Raeff, Marc. The Decembrist Movement Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966

Schapiro, Leonard. Rationalism and Nationalism in Russian 19th Century Political Thought. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1967.

Ulam, Adam. Russia's Failed Revolutionaries: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents, New York: Basic Book, 1981.

Yarmolinsky Avrahm. Road to Revolution: a century of Russian Radicalism New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Zetlin, Mikhail. The Decembrists. New York: International Universities Press, 1958.

Zilliacus, Konni. The Russian Revolutionary Movement. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1905.

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