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General -Major Sergey Volkonsky, 1816The history of Russia encompasses a vast range of revolutionary activity, aimed at the overthrow of the autocracy, from the unsuccessful uprising of Stepan 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 early19th 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 against Tzar Nicholas I, 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 country.

Desembrist Nikita Muraviev.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.

Politically, Russia was pushed to the backfront due to its staunch adherence to autocratic government structure long abolished in the modernized, constitutional European countries. Under the traditionally domineering Russian monarchs, the nobles were victimized by the arbitrary display of monarchical power as much as the peasants since their socio-economic 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.

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. 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.

Desember 1825 shooting. V. Timm, 1853.Decembrists, in Russian history, members of secret revolutionary societies whose activities led to the uprising of Dec., 1825, against Czar Nicholas I. Formed after the Napoleonic Wars, the groups comprised officers who had served in Europe and had been influenced by Western liberal ideals. They advocated the establishment of representative democracy but disagreed on the form it should take; some favored a constitutional monarchy, while others supported a democratic republic. Their poorly organized rebellion was precipitated by the confusion surrounding the succession to the throne on the death of Alexander I. The more moderate members persuaded several regiments in St. Petersburg to refuse their oath of allegiance to the unpopular Nicholas l and to demand that his elder brother, Constantine, who had secretly renounced the throne in 1822, be made Tsar and grant a constitution.

After some initial hesitation, Nickolas l firmly crushed the revolt and was recognized as undisputed ruler of the Russian Empire.

He firmly believed in the autocracy. Nickolas saw himself as God's general in charge of Russia's well-being and every citizen as his subordinate. He insisted his will be followed at all times and ruled the Empire personally. Unlimited power, such as held by Nickolas, would have been a disaster in the hands of an immoral or unscrupulous man. The new Tsar was neither. Nickolas was a convinced Orthodox Christian and truly felt he was accountable to God for his actions. He felt his own service to the nation was the prototype that all Russians should follow. Nickolas' attitude was rigidly military. His narrow-mindedness and egotism created the "Nickolas System", based on "One Tsar, One Faith, One Nation".

Tzar Nicholas l, in front of the Winter Palace on the Senate Square, before shooting Desembrists, V. Masutov, 1861.
Tzar Nicholas l, in front of the Winter Palace on the Senate Square, before shooting Desembrists, V. Masutov, 1861.

he uprising, ill-conceived and badly led, was a disaster. Over 3,000 of the soldiers were promptly arrested. Of these, five were hanged. As if to sum up the officers’ frustration with backward Russia, one remarked, upon only breaking his legs on the scaffold, "They can’t even hang a man properly in Russia." Over 120 of the conspirators were exiled.

Tzar Nicholas I.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.

When in 1917 Lenin's Provisional Government became the ruling clique of Russia, Lenin takes into notice the cardinal miscue of Decembrists - failure to cooperate with the masses. He 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."

The Decembrists’ insurrection made a profound impression on Russia. It led both to the increasing police terrorism of the tsarist government and to the spread of revolutionary activity among the educated classes.

Sergey Zaryanko. Portrait of Princess Trubetskaya, wife of the Desembrist Sergei Trubetskoy, 1856. Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Sergey Zaryanko. Portrait of Princess Trubetskaya, wife of the Desembrist Sergei Trubetskoy, 1856. Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Decembrists' Wives

Alexandra Muravieva, wife of Decembrist Nikita Muraviev. Watercolor, 1825, P.Sokolov.

In a show of loyalty to their husbands, nearly all the wives of Decembrists followed the men into exile.

Among them numbered eight prominent members of the aristocracy. The most famous of these are Ekaterina Trubitskaya and Maria Volkonskaya.

In order to strike the Decembrists totally out of their lives, the Church and State passed a law whereby the Decembrist's wives were considered widows and allowed to remarry within their husbands' lifetime without an official divorce. However, Yekaterina Trubetskaya turned down this offer, and so did the other Decembrist's wives. When they departed for Siberia, they left behind their privilegies as nobles and were reduced to the status of exiled prisoners' wives, with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership. They were not allowed to take their children with them, and were not always allowed to return to the European part of Russia even after their husbands' death.

Princess Maria Volkonskaya with son Nicholas in 1826.But nothing could stop these courageous women. Yekaterina Trubetskaya, wife of the General Sergey Trubetskoi, was the first to leave for Siberia (in July 1826).

The beautiful Maria Volkonskaya, daughter of the General N. Raevski, and a wife of General-Major Sergey Volkonsky, just had a baby when her husband was exiled. Without telling her family, she asked Tzar's permission to follow her husband to Siberia. Forced to renounce all her possessions and titles, she even had to leave her infant son behind. She followed her husband to the salt, silver and lead mines where the workers toiled from six in the morning until 11 at night, in chains. The portrait of her holding her baby son Nicholas was the only thing that reminded her of him during the 30 years that she spent in Siberia. (The baby died 2 years after her departure.)

Here, the wives were allowed to visit them twice a week. Eventually, the prisoners’ conditions improved.

Pushkin, a friend of many of the Decembrists, wrote a poem about them in 1827. He too was inspired by their tales of unconditional love. The female protagonist of "Eugene Onegin" is based on one of the wives.

ushkin wrote in "Eugene Onegin":
"Love tyrannises all the ages; but youthful, virgin hearts derive a blessing from its blasts and rages, like fields in spring when storms arrive."

Volkonskaya's room in Irkutsk.I
n an old wooden mansion in Irkutsk, Maria Volkonskaya would sit at her inlaid table, surrounded by her Empire furniture, her library of over three thousand books, her gilt Italian music box and her opera glasses for the opera she never again attended. Here, she would gaze out of the window and observe her husband, once a famous general, pottering eccentrically about his vegetable garden while the children of the poor which she had adopted scurried about the house.

Despite the charitable deeds, the bejewelled balls, the touching amateur dramatics, a sadness permeates the walls of the Volkonsky house. The wives of the Decembrists were still exiles, unable even to write to their relations for the first terrible years. They gave up everything. Staring absentmindedly out of the window, you can imagine her dreaming back to the glorious Saint Petersburg of her youth, to the balls of the immense Winter Palace, to another life which was denied her.

Decembrists' Wives Trubetskaya, Volkonskaya, Muravieva in Siberia.She died in 1863, seven years after the pardon Tsar Alexander II finally granted the Decembrists. The Volkonskys returned to the capital. But they were old now, and many of their friends had died. Life and the city had moved on, and they felt like strangers. At the end of her life she confided that she had been happy, and perhaps happier, in Irkutsk. Reading at her desk, dreaming of the opera, the sound of children’s games echoing around the house.

In 1839, Trubetskoy was deported to the small village of Oyok, thirty-eight kilornetres from Irkutsk, and Yekaterina Trubetskaya and their three daughters and son, who had been born in Siberia, went with him. Although their relatives sent them large sums of money, the family still had financial problems.

The Siberian soil tilled by the Decembrists became for some of them a place of eternal rest. In the graveyard of the Znamensky Monastery, there are small, modest monuments of Baikal marble on the graves of Decembrists N. Panov, P. Mukhanov, and V. Beschasny. Yekaterina Trubetskaya and her children are also buried here.

Click here to read more about Decembrists.
Another good website - Decembrists of Siberia.
Tours to Decabrists places in Siberia. V. Obolensky's article "Decembrists and Russian Freemasons".

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