THE DECEMBRIST REVOLT IN RUSSIA

Abstract

In 1825, Russia was face to face with economic, political, and social problems. This crisis in the country caused a group of soldiers to revolt, which are called Decembrists. The Decemberist Revolt is the first revolution movement in Russian history. This movement caused the events that would trigger the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions. In this writing, the Decemberist Revolt is examined.

Key words: Decemberists, serfdom, Western ideas, Slavophiles, Westernizers, revolutionary movements.

Introduction

Russia is one of the oldest states in the world. Eastern Slavs, who lived as a clan for many years, founded the Russian state in 862 with the support of the Vikings. Moscow has become the political center since the beginning of the 14th century. Russian tsarism was established by uniting the principalities around Moscow. During the reign of Peter the Great, the name of the country was changed to the Russian Empire. After Peter the Great, the country began to develop and grow gradually. On the other part, problems of the country began to increase. In the 19th century, the public was dissatisfied with the situation. At the same time, the country had political, social, and economic problems. Therefore, in 1825, soldiers from noble families revolted against the tsar. This revolutionary movement, called the Decemberist Revolt, failed. However, it has dramatically affected Russian history. The revolutionary movement and events initiated by the declarations resulted in the 1917 Revolution. In this article, The Decembrist Revolt is dealt with in three aspects. Firstly, it focuses on the events that led to the uprising. Then, the revolt is explained. Finally, the results of the uprising are examined.

1. THE CAUSES OF DECEMBERIST REVOLT

In the 19th century, Russia was in a turbulent period. Events, such as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, were reflected in Russia. On the other hand, Russia’s historical problems were getting stronger. All these circumstances played a role in the emergence of the rebellion. This chapter concentrates on the three circumstances underlying the Decembrist Revolt.

1.1. Westernization

Peter the Great has a great role in the modernization of Russia. He took steps for the modernization and westernization of the country by implementing policies such as sending students to Europe. The monarchs who came after his death followed these policies. Thus, Western ideas began to permeate the high class. Especially, ideas of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, such as liberty, freedom, and revolution, spread in the young generation and shaped their thoughts. Also, during and after the Napoleonic Wars, officers had an opportunity to know Europe. They observed not only their ideas but also the social structure. When they compared their observations with their own countries, they realized that their country needed to change in many areas, especially peasants.

1.2. Serfdom

Serfdom, which is the term used for translation of krepostnoi krestyanin (крепостной крестьянин), means unfree peasant in the Russian Emperor. Gibson (2011) explains unlike a slave, serfs were peasants tied to the land. They could be bartered or sold when the landlord changed. In other words, they were seen as a commodity. They had no rights or liberties. He passed on his condition to his children through birth. Serfdom in Russia dates back to the 11th century. In time, slavery became stronger and became one of the problems of the empire. Even if some rulers, such as Alexander I, wanted to find a solution to this situation, they did not abolish slavery due to the reaction of the nobles.

Actually, Decemberists came from noble families. Some even owned land. The reason why they want slavery to be abolished is that they were in direct contact with the villagers and witnessed the bad conditions that the peasant lived in (Çiçek, 2017). Besides, they observed that the system of serfdom caused an agricultural crisis. According to them, serfdom had to be banned in order to develop agriculture and give the peasants a decent life.

1.3. Economic Problems

In the 19th century, the economy was exposed to major change under the influence of industrialization. In the first and middle ages, it is an observed economy based on agriculture, However, at the beginning of the 19th century, the industry took the place of agriculture. In fact, a new economy and society which were based on industry were formed. On the other side, Industrialization in Russia developed very differently from the rest of Europe. Çiçek (2017) argues that industry demands a new understanding of class as well as a free working class. Russia, on the other hand, did none of this. In Russia, the industry was trying to be created by slave peasants who were still tied to the land. This created a semi-feudal industrial structure. This rendered it useless. As a consequence, the industry based on serfdom was not very developed in Russia and caused economic problems. In addition to this, Yusufili (2021) claims that money was printed because the income was low. Economists explain that printing money causes inflation to increase. Furthermore, the value of money decreases. Similarly, life became more expensive in Russia as the value of money fell. Unsatisfied with this situation, the villagers began to revolt.

2. THE DECEMBRIST MOVEMENT

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian soldiers had a chance to know Western Europe. During their time in Europe, they compared European life with life in Russia. They started to think Russia needed to change. After returning from Europe, they first expected this movement of change from Alexander I because he was an emperor who was brought up with a Western education and was familiar with Western ideas. On the other hand, as his reign progressed, Alexander I adopted a more conservative management approach (Çiçek, 2017). Officers disappointed with the tsar were divided into groups among themselves, whose names are the Union of Salvation, the Union of Public Good Southern Society, and Northern Society. Although they were divided among themselves, they had common goals, such as freedom of the peasants and the abolition of class distinction by birth.

When the discontent among the people gradually increased in 1825, the societies were preparing to rise against Alexander I. However, Alexander died suddenly. Constantine, Alexander’s brother, was supposed to succeed him, but Constantine refused to take the throne because he was married to a woman who was a Polish aristocrat and Catholic (Walker, 1967). Hence, the throne was left to Nicholas I., the soldiers using this as an opportunity took action on December 26 (December 14 in Julian calendar). However, the rebel soldiers were suppressed by troops who adhered to the tsar. The leaders of the rebellion were executed while others were exiled in Siberia.

The Decembrist revolt at the Senate Square on December 14, 1825, by Vasily Timm

There are several reasons behind this failure. One of them is that while the rebels were approximately 3000, the soldiers loyal to the tsar numbered around 9000, which means that the troops which were loyal to the tsar were more numerous than the rebels. Another reason is that they did not get enough public support because supporters and rebels came from different social and economic backgrounds. One of the reasons is the lack of unity. The Decemberists were divided into groups. Even though these societies shared common goals, such as the abolition of serfdom, they could not fully form a union (Çiçek, 2017). In addition to this, they could not form an organization among themselves due to the lack of leaders.

3. THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE DECEMBERIST REVOLT

The revolt is a breaking moment in Russian history. It led to social and political changes in the Russian empire. Moreover, it caused the emergence of events dating back to the Russian Revolution. In this chapter, the three main consequences of the revolt are focused on.

3.1. Nicholas I’s Autocracy and Despotism

The Decemberist Revolt was trauma and shock for Nicholas I. The reason for this the rebels were officers from noble families, which caused him to begin to doubt the rebels (Çiçek, 2017). At the same time, he realized that he had to prevent monarchy from upsprings. Therefore, he exhibited an autocratic understanding of government during his reign. First of all, while the educated elites took over the civil service duties, Nicholas I replaced them with loyal bureaucrats (Kochetkova, 2010). Thus, the nobles moved away from the center of power.  He also resorted to methods to control society to prevent riots. For instance, to prevent secret communities such as the December, he established the Third Section of the Chancellery which was a secret policy organization that was the one of predecessors of KGB. In addition to this, because the tsar was afraid of ideas of revolutionary, strict controls on education were established. The government imposed restrictions on admission to universities and schools. Especially, children from the lower class were limited. This control was valid not only in education but also in the press. In other words, a strict policy of censorship was implemented during his reign. As a result of all this, Nicholas established an administration based on Russian nationalism, orthodoxy, and autocracy.

3.2. Abolish of Serfdom
The Announcement the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, by Boris Kustodiev

Nicholas I who showed a strict administration made reforms in many areas owing to the possibility of an uprising. One of these areas is about improving the condition of the slaves. In addition to the opening of hospitals and schools, vacant lands were allocated to the state villagers. On the other hand, these were not enough. Peasant revolts began to rise as well as economic problems. Unlike his father and predecessors, Alexander II preferred a revolutionary way rather than solving their problems with inadequate reforms. In 1861, he issued an edict abolishing serfdom. According to this edict, all villagers who were not legally free were granted freedom regardless of where they worked. Although this edict brought some problems, the villagers got their freedom back. Moreover, as the free peasants started to work in the industry at full capacity, the industrial understanding in Europe became widespread in Russia and Russia started to leap forward economically and industrially.

3.3. The Legend of Decembrists

After the revolt, Nicholas I used propaganda against the rebels and soldiers. As a result, the popularity of military service declined and people preferred to attend universities (Kochetkova, 2010). Young people who met new ideas here exchanged ideas so intellectual discussions began to increase. Many of them were not satisfied with Nicholas I and sought solutions to the country’s problems. Russian intellectuals were divided into groups according to the solution they found. One of these groups is Westernizers seeing Russia’s future in Westernization. According to them, if Russia wanted to develop, it had to follow Western ideas, technology, and liberal understanding.  Another group is the Slavophiles which are against Westernism. They supported Russian culture, Russian Orthodoxy, and traditional Slavic life in every way. According to them, the solution to Russia’s problems was based on Russian culture and traditions, not Western values. The reason they thought so was that European life and values did not coincide with the uniquely Russian character including Russian Orthodoxy, the autocracy of the tsar, and peasant commune. Moreover, they support Pan-Slavism. One of these groups is Narodniks which is the national socialist revolutionary movement, which had an understanding of serving the Russian peasants with devotion and faith (Pedler, 1927). They believed in the peasants and put the peasants at the center of the socialist revolution. They were also against Marx’s understanding of revolution. According to them, Russia could directly transition to socialism, so they started the “Going to People” movement and toured Russia to make propaganda. However, they failed due to reasons such as not knowing the villager very well and organizational problems. Afterward, a new generation of groups, such as Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, formed. The younger generation, tired of the oppressive rule of the tsars, especially Lenin, followed the footsteps of the 1825 revolutionary movement. In this recspect, the effects of the events, caused by the Decembrists, in the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions were great.

Even though these groups had different opinions, they had the same inspiration. This inspiration is Decembrists. Their thoughts have influenced on Russian people despite the failure of the revolt. Furthermore, they gained mythological character for people in time. Especially, Pushkin had an important role in their mythification. Ilıca (2016) states that Alexander Pushkin, founder of modern Russian literacy, was close friends with Decembrists. When the leaders were executed and some rebels were exiled, Pushkin wrote poems in which he portrayed them as heroes. The younger generations who read these poems were impressed by the heroism of the Decemberists. On the other side, the new generation learned from their mistakes as much as they were influenced by them. In this way, their organizational skills improved as they were well prepared.

CONCLUSION

Russia, which has a deep-rooted history, had deep-rooted problems, such as serfdom. In addition to these problems, new problems arose in the 19th century, new problems arose. While the country was in an economic and political crisis, he started an uprising with soldiers from noble families. While the country was in an economic and political crisis, he started an uprising with soldiers from noble families. Although the revolt failed, the Decembrist Revolt affected Russia in every way. In this writing, the Decembrist Revolt is evaluated in three aspects, which are causes of uprising, event, and results of revolt. In this study, it is observed that the revolution movements caused many events, such as the transition from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union.

REFERENCES

Çicek, A. (2017). The first Russian revolution – The decembrist movement and its impact on Russian political history. International Journal of Russian Studies, 2(6), 101-129. http://www.ijors.net/issue6_2_2017/articles/cicek.html

Gibson, R. P. (2021, March 21). Russia’s emancipation of serfdom. https://medium.com/exploring-history/russias-emancipation-of-serfdom-dacc9ad7e4e8

Ilıca, S. (2016). Puşkin ve Dekabristler. Avrasya İncelemeleri Dergisi, 4(2), 204-223. http://dergipark.org.tr/tr/pub/iuavid/issue/26143/275549

Kochetkova, I. (2010). What is Russian Intelligentsia. The Myth of Russian Intelligentsia, 11-21. https://www.routledge.com/The-Myth-of-the-Russian-Intelligentsia-Old-Intellectuals-in-the-New-Russia/Kochetkova/p/book/9781138862807

Pedler, A. (1927). Going to the People: The Russian Narodniki. Slavonic Review, 6(16), 130-141. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4202141

Walker, F. A. (1967). Constantine Pavlovich: An appraisal. Slavic Review, 26(3), 445-452. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2492727

Yusufili, İ. (2021, January 24). İmparatorluk Rusya’sında askeri bir ihtilal: Dekabrist (Arakçılar) isyanı. Anadolu Tarih. https://anadolutarih.com/imparatorluk-rusyasinda-askeri-bir-ihtilal-dekabrist-arakcilar-isyani/

VISUAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kustodiev, B. (1907). The announcement the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861 [Oil on canvas]. State Art Museum, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. History Today (2013). https://www.historytoday.com/archive/emancipation-russian-serfs-1861

Timm, V. (n.d.).  The Decembrist revolt at the Senate Square on December 14, 1825 [Oil on canvas]. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. Meisterdrucke (n.d.). https://www.meisterdrucke.uk/

Işıl SEZGİN

Middle East Technical University, Political Science and Public Management

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