The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 as a Tool to Assess the Modern Russian Call for Freedom. The Case of the Russian Protests of 2011-2012

A Comparative Historical Analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2016
42 Pages, Grade: 8,0


Table of Contents


CHAPTER I The Decembrist Revolt: Back in History for the First Russian Revolution
1.1 Causes of the Decembrist movement
1.1.1 Economic cause: financial crisis and serfdom
1.1.2 Political cause: conservatism and oppression
1.1.3 Inspiration from abroad: travelling, education, and literature
1.2 The development and growth of the Decembrist movement
1.2.1 The Semenovsky incident
1.2.2 The First Decembrist Society
1.2.3 The Union of Salvation
1.2.4 The Union of Welfare
1.2.5 The Northern and Southern Societies
1.3 The years after the division
1.3.1 The attitudes of the Decembrists - difference between the Northern and Southern societies
1.3.2 The last years before the Decembrist revolt
1.3.3 14th of December
1.3.4 Rebellion in the South
1.3.5 Trial
1.4 Aftermath of the Decembrist Revolt and conclusion

CHAPTER II The Russian protests of 2011-2012: background, dynamics, analysis and aftermath
2.1 The general chronology of the protests
2.1.1 The state of affairs and societal moods before the elections into the State Duma
2.1.2 Period of political scandals and developments
2.1.3 Alexei Navalny and rising public interest in the elections
2.1.4 The State Duma elections and the first protests
2.1.5 Dynamics of the protests before the presidential elections in March
2.1.6 Presidential elections and the continuation of the protests movement
2.2 Analysis of the protests
2.2.1 Infrastructure of the protests, influences, and public speakers
2.2.2 Peaceful character of the protests
2.2.3 Social portraits of the protesters
2.2.4 Reaction of the authorities
2.3 The aftermath of the protests
2.3.1 The aftermath
2.3.2 Why protests failed
2.3.3 Conclusion

CHAPTER III Discussion: differences and similarities between the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the Russian uprising of 2011
3.1 Comparative analysis of the Decembrist Revolt and the Russian uprising
3.1.1 Influence from abroad
3.1.2 Timeliness of changes
3.1.3 Economic situation
3.1.4 Interregnum
3.1.5 Western cultural-political influence
3.1.6 Social background
3.1.7 Audience
3.1.8 Political determination
3.1.9 Nationalism and patriotism
3.1.10 Ideological-spiritual content - comment on O.Karbasova
3.1.11 Respect of the law
3.1.12 Disapproval of violent revolution
3.1.13 Betrayal
3.1.14 Protest and leadership
3.1.15 The punishment
3.2 The aftermath and conclusion


List of References


The October Revolution of 1917 is considered the first significant revolution in Russian historiography as this revolution brought dramatic changes not only to the peoples of Russia but completely modified the whole world order and determined the course of history for the following seventy years. The aftermath of the October revolution can still be observed in current domestic, international and global politics, cultures, economies and societies.

Taking into account the consequences this revolution had on the history of Russia and other countries, not many people are aware of one more particular event that challenged the Russian society and became a premise for the revolution of 1917. Anatole G. Mazour refers to the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 as the First Russian Revolution in his cognominal book. The Decembrist revolt of 1825 was a revolt by Russian army officers and their soldiers (the so-called Decembrist movement) against Emperor Nicholas I in Peter’s Square (today’s Senate Square) in Saint-Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire of that time, on December, 14th. Before the actual revolt the Secret societies were created: the Southern Society, based in Tulchin, Ukraine, and the Northern Society, based in SaintPetersburg, forming together the Union of Welfare. The revolt was cruelly suppressed, and most Decembrists were either sentenced to death or life sentence in Siberia.

The Russian protests of 2011-2012 were the series of rallies and uprisings against the fraudulent elections and corruption that took place in 2011 and continued into 2012. It was the first time since 1990 when the USSR collapsed that so many people took part in political demonstrations. The main goals of the protesters were fair elections, fighting corruption, immediate release of all political prisoners, cancellation of the results of the previous elections and, as a consequence, implementation of new, more fair elections and a more democratic law on political parties and elections. The protests were suppressed, and many activists who took part in them were arrested and got imprisoned. In general, stricter measures were taken afterward when it comes to any form of opposition, and the state of democracy has largely deteriorated in the aftermath of the protests.

When looking at those two events, both of them seem to have things in common at the first sight: a group of well-educated middle-class people protesting against a single political leader calling for a very Western phenomenon - liberalism (in the 19th and 21st centuries) and democracy (in the 21st century). Both events had a similar background when Russians got acquainted with Europe and experienced problems with the domestic affairs. Both events were unsuccessful and oppressed resulting in no or little change. These and many more factors make it interesting and scientifically valuable to compare both events from various angles.

The main aim of this comparative analysis is to find out which lessons can be derived from the event that happened 190 years ago by searching for features that both events, the Decembrist revolt and the Russian uprising, have in common. Is it possible to imagine the future scenario of events in Russia in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 rallies, especially in the coming State Duma elections of 2016 and, most importantly, the presidential elections of 2018?

The main research question of this work is to what extent the Decembrist revolt of 1825 is related to the uprising in Russia in 2011-2012, or how the Decembrist revolt can offer relevant lessons from history for comparison. Comparing both events from the historical perspective, in this regard, means looking at the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the Russian rallies of 2011-2012 using the holistic approach, thus not focusing on one particular perspective, be it political, social, cultural or economical, but on all of them. The approach to this comparative study is rather multidisciplinary and general, which can be explained by a certain amount of reasons. First of all, this particular study is original in this sense since the Russian uprising in 2011-2012 is a relatively recent event that still requires time to be fully perceived both by the society and scholars in all humanitarian fields. Secondly, limitations, as well as possibilities for future research, are unknown. The only way to discover which perspectives, fields or questions (economic, social, cultural, political) are coherent within the Decembrist revolt and the Russian uprising is in looking at both events from a more general perspective, or a historical perspective, by covering the above-described fields. This study will be an introductory work which can outline gridlocks in the research and suggest which fields should be explored and compared more specifically.

The following sub-questions, corresponding with the chosen perspectives, will be answered upon: how similar was the historical background during the times of the Decembrist movements and the Russian political protests in 2013-2012? This question will cover political, economic and socio- cultural problems of the era. Which features did the Decembrist movement in 1825 and the non- systematic and systematic opposition in Russia in 2011-2013 have in common? Here, it is important to look at the general flow of preparation and actual content of the protests, their inspirations, influences and main ideas. Finally, looking at the aftermath of the Decembrist revolt and the immediate actions of the Russian government after the uprising in 2011-2012 may help to make predictions in the future scenario of Russia if the research proves that both events have much in common.

For Chapter I, which is about the Decembrist revolt, secondary sources will be used in assessing the Decembrist revolt, such as books of A.G.Mazour and A.B.Ulam. Both born at the beginning of the 20th century in Ukraine, Mazour and Ulam emigrated to the USA as people who disapproved of the Soviet regime. They are both well-known specialists in Russian history, especially the Decembrist revolt. Books by these authors were chosen because the authors represent the class of imperial intelligentsia and when writing these books were not biased and influenced either by the Soviet propaganda (as Soviet authors were) or the new paradigm of Russian patriotism. They used only original sources from 1800-1880. After having observed articles in the Russian language from the 1990s, it became clear that those could not be used as a trustworthy source due to the fact that the authors referred to Soviet authors.

For Chapter II, the fact that the Russian uprising happened recently calls for using primary sources - speeches, interviews and manifestos of non-systematic and systematic opposition, as well as scientific articles, for example the most recent report on the Russian protests by Levada Centre, a research institute of the current Russian affairs, and the book by a famous journalist Mikhail Zygar.

Two articles by D. Grigorova, a Bulgarian scholar, and O. Karbasova, a Russian scholar, were used in Chapter III and helped to balance the discussion (comparison) of the Decembrist revolt and the Russian uprising with alternative points of view on this subject.

The research work finishes with the Conclusion where an answer to the research question is given and possible outcomes for Russia are considered.

CHAPTER I The Decembrist Revolt: Back in History for the First Russian Revolution

By quoting Alexander Pushkin’s verses, Adam Ulam suggested that there was no revolutionary intent in the Decembrists’ actions, rather that they were bored, as the war against Napoleon was over and they had to readjust to peace. Moreover, they were inspired by the Enlightenment ideas, romanticism, and heroism.1 Even though Alexander Pushkin personally knew the Decembrists, he underestimated them and their actions, as the case of the Decembrists is rather complicated to state that they acted only out of boredom.

1.1 Causes of the Decembrist movement

1.1.1. Economic cause: financial crisis and serfdom

Russia had economic problems before the war with Napoleon. Since the reign of Catherine II

Russia’s treasury was in deficit and Russia was in debt to foreign countries.2 The wars that followed in the period of Paul I and Alexander I completely shattered the finances of the country: from the year of 1801, 7,064,799 rubbles deficit turned into 351,244,048 rubbles by 1822.3 The Treaty of Tilsit that prohibited trading with England made Russia lose its most important trading partner, leading to even more crisis.4 Serfdom was the biggest problem that made the Decembrist revolt happen and became the basis of the whole movement. Apart from the fact that there were religious and moral reasons for the Decembrists to demand the abolition of the serfdom, the economical aspect mattered as well: they realized that Russia could not enter the industrial era until its peasants got free in movement and acquired purchasing power. The Decembrists dreamt that the serfs would become a Russian middle class.5

1.1.2 Political cause: conservatism and oppression

The Patriotic War against Napoleon took place in 1812 and finished with a total smash of the French Army - Napoleon lost more than 500 000 soldiers.6 Alexander I, the Russian emperor, was perceived as Europe’s liberator, yet after having returned from the war to his country, he reverted to the role of an absolute monarch. At first, Alexander I was an ambitious, sincere and modern emperor, who wanted to make Russia more liberal, namely abolish the barbarous forms of corporal punishment, ameliorate the conditions of the serfs and reorganize governmental administration. Alexander I worked together with a modernizing minister, Mikhail Speransky, and many hoped that as a result of their work, the serfdom would be abolished, and the governmental apparatus would be reorganized. In 1812, Alexander I suddenly dismissed Speransky, and following his victories against Napoleon, the Emperor’s policies took a reactionary turn and got stricter. He began to sponsor the Holy Alliance, a union of Europe’s absolutist monarchs. Educational institutions became a subject to strict thought control in order to erase any liberal thinking inspired by the French Revolution or the Enlightenment.7 Due to a lack of consent within the Senate8, failure of some administrative and political reorganization reforms9, constant pressure from the old generation nobility that opposed reforms and the fact that the constitutional government failed in Poland, Alexander I was discouraged and entrusted the Empire to conservative government, while himself he turned to the international affairs.10

1.1.3 Inspiration from abroad: travelling, education, and literature

The young soldiers, mostly of noble descent, came back from the war deeply affected by what they had seen in Europe. They realized how Russia lagged behind Europe when it came to political and social institutions, economy, education, notwithstanding Russia’s military might.11 The well- educated youth became familiar with the European and American writings and was primarily influenced by the following European liberal thinkers: Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Beccaria, Benjamin Franklin, Condorcet, Bignon, etc.12 The intellectuals among the Decembrists intensely studied the writings of Montesquieu, Destutt de Tracy, the law of England, and the United States Constitution.13 The interest for such authors among most young Russians of the nineteenth century can be explained by the fact that they had been brought up in the rationalist spirit of the eighteenth century, and inspired by the Enlightenment, especially after marching through Europe during Napoleonic Wars and absorbing the atmosphere from reality, not books or newspapers.14 Moreover, international exchanges were also very common among students at that time, and Russian students went abroad as often as foreign students came to Russia.15

1.2 The development and growth of the Decembrist movement

1.2.1 The Semenovsky incident

After an incident in the Semenovsky regiment when soldiers revolted against their German general and cruelty which they experienced every day, Alexander I suspected secret organizations and Masonic lodges in organizing this rebellion. The future Decembrists, not having created a stable organization yet, did send propagandistic materials to the regiment, knowing about their horrible conditions. The ideas on how secret societies should work were very vague, but nevertheless, the progressive liberal youth decided to create societies which would change the devastating order of things in Russia.16 The rise of secret societies in Russia can be explained by contacts in the army, opposition to the oppressing policies of the government and acquaintance with similar societies in Europe.17

1.2.2 First Decembrist Society

In 1814, the first Decembrist society was founded. It was called the Order of Russian Knights and was a semi-masonic militantly nationalistic society aimed at aristocratic monarchy. The first members included general-mayor Mikhail Fyodorovich Orlov and general-mayor Matvey Alexandrovich Dmitriev-Mamonov. Even though the organization was a total failure, still it was a first attempt of a primitive conspiratory political society.18

1.2.3 The Union of Salvation

In 1816, the Union of Salvation was founded by six young officers of the Imperial guards, led by Alexander Nikolayevich Muraviev. Among the more famous members of the Union were Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy, Sergei Ivanovich Muraviev-Apostol, Matvey Ivanovich Muraviev-Apostol and Pavel Ivanovich Pestel.19 By the end of the first year, the secret society had fourteen members. It was modelled after a Masonic lodge, to reflect the Masonic aspirations of its members and to provide a secret protective colouring. Members of the Union of Salvation pledged for the abolition of serfdom, introduction of a constitutional monarchy and limitation of the influence of foreigners in the government.20 However, different members claimed different focus of the organization.21 In 1817, the first constitution of the Union of Salvation was issued.

The Decembrists realized early enough that they had chosen a difficult path. Achieving their means without a regicide was almost impossible, but their high morality and the fact that they took an oath to the Emperor made it even more impossible for them. They had to adjust their strategy to the conditions that prevailed in Russia.22 Also, the middle class did not exist in Russia as such at that time: the society was divided between different ranks of nobility and serfs. The former had nothing against the Emperor as he ensured their prosperity and rights, and the latter was ignorant and, as a result of the lack of education, were irresponsive to any political ideas.23

1.2.4 The Union of Welfare

Realizing how difficult it was to reach their goals, the Decembrists dissolved their old secret society and created a new organization, the Union of Welfare. In the new organization, the quasi- Masonic language and rituals were dropped; instead, the organization turned into more “legal” body, revealing its true meaning only to those who successfully passed the period of indoctrination. They reworked the older constitution of the Union of Salvation, making the newer version (The Green Book) more conservative economically and more liberal politically, and set up the military committee. At first, the Decembrists even wanted to submit this version of the Constitution to the Emperor, but the idea was later abandoned.24 The goals and effort of this organization were concentrated in four major areas - philanthropy or voluntarism, public enlightenment, law and order and national economy. However, Russia lagged behind Europe too much and was far away from the Industrial Revolution making the program hardly achievable at that time.25 As of 1818, the Decembrists remained undecided as to the path they should take - revolution, peaceful reform, conspiracy or cooperation with the current government.26 During the three years of its existence, the Union of Welfare did not come closer to achieving any of its set goals. Moreover, some members, such as Alexey Muraviev, left the society, either due to religious reasons or because the government became aware of their activities. Alexander I was not yet afraid of secret societies as he was sure that no revolutionary activity in Russia could be possible.27 However, as Alexander I got eventually more suspicious and watchful about secret organizations, the Union of Welfare realized its vulnerability and, during their gathering at the beginning of 1821, discussed the future course and possibilities of the secret society.28

1.2.5 The Northern and Southern Societies

After the Moscow conference in 1821, the Union of Welfare was dissolved and was divided into two secret societies - the Northern Society, centred in Saint-Petersburg and led by Nikolay Turgenev, an official of the Ministry of Finance, and Captain Nikita Muraviev, and the Southern Society, led by Pavel Pestel, in Tulchin, Ukraine. It was necessary to distract attention from the members of the secret society and clear themselves of suspicion. The newly created secret societies differed in their opinion about what should come in place of the autocratic regime - a constitutional monarchy (Northern Society) or a republic (Southern Society).The Southern Society became a guiding spirit for both organizations, as the Northern Society got more careful due to the recent Secret military police project accepted by Alexander I.29 Both societies did not come to an agreement concerning the fate of the Emperor. The Northern Society suggested kidnapping, the Southern Society assassination.30 The Decembrists started to attract more people on their side, for example by making propagandistic documents and spreading them among their fellow-soldiers. Also, they were busy drafting post- revolutionary legislation for new Russia.31

1.3 The years after the division

1.3.1 The attitudes of the Decembrists - difference between the Northern and Southern societies

The works and drafts made by the Decembrists number a huge pile of books and volumes. In order to summarize the views of the Northern and the Southern Societies, it can be said that both societies favoured nationalism and were highly patriotic. The Northern Society opted for a federal system and separation of powers. The monarch stays, forming a constitutional monarchy or a “crowned republic”, as Nikita Muraviev would call it, and functions exactly like the American president. The drafts of legislation were explicitly inspired by the American Constitution. At first, Muraviev was a Republican but realized that his views were too advanced and turned into a constitutionalist. All class distinctions were to be abolished so that people could choose professions. The serfdom was to be abolished as well, though some discrimination would stay, such as stiff property qualifications for voting and office holding. Muraviev was also an advocate of the free press and freedom of speech. The Northern Society’s view on how Russia should be was more pro- aristocracy, though there would be no absolutist power and no decisions would be taken without prior discussion with other legislative branches.

The Southern society’s doctrine, prepared by Pavel Pestel, even though he had a German background and was a Lutheran by religion, was highly nationalistic, puritan and radical. His views can be summarized to early socialism, yet it was not invented in that time. Unlike Muraviev, he claimed for the full abolition of any classes and any criteria of wealth and property, so that all people could stand equal by the law. In response to a challenging peasant question, Pestel grew more radical by 1824-25 and suggested to divide the country’s land into two parts - one part owned privately as it was then, and the second part belonging to the district. It would enable any citizen of the Russian Empire to make use of a plot of the land if necessary. Half of all property and wealth owned by the rich should be given to the society. When it came to a nation-state question, he insisted on the full russification and assimilation of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and non-Slavic ethnicities into the Russia Empire. Moreover, Pestel was strongly anti-Semitic and claimed that all Jews should be sent to reside at the Turkish border. According to Pestel, Russia, as an empire, should expand as farther as it was possible. In his view, a mix of democracy and political repression was not inconsistent, and his Russia would be a welfare state. Pestel’s constitution, as he thought, should not have been incorporated immediately after the revolution: first, the Mandate for the People and the Provisional Supreme Government were to be established, which resembled a total dictatorship and were to last ten years.

If the Northern Society’s Constitution was more following the Western tradition, the Southern Society’s Constitution, even though meant to be democratic, was an illustration of a totalitarian society. It is not surprising that Pavel Pestel became one of the most respected and studied Decembrists during the Soviet times.32 33

1.3.2 The last years before the Decembrist revolt

At the conference in Kyiv in 1822, the Southern Society indicated that it needed to stay closer to the North as it was the brain centre and the starting point of the uprising.34 However, the more years passed and the more meetings and conferences the Societies held, no agreement still had been reached on which program to adopt and what to do with the Royal family.35 In the period of 1822-1825, the Societies either renewed their activities or stopped acting. At the beginning of 1825, the societies became active again and even started to enrol new members.36

The closer December of 1825 approached, the more hesitant the Decembrists both from the Northern Society and the Southern Society became. It also turned out that another secret organization called the United Slavs co-existed together with the Societies since 1823, consisting of young officers, interspersed among the garrisons in Ukraine, often in the same regiments as the Southern Society.37 Their program was even more fantastic than the one of the Decembrists. Due to their lower education, the officers confused geographical and historical facts. The United Slavs dissolved their organization and joined the Southern Society.38 New young members strengthened the Southern Society; however, it was still not enough - the absence of a plan of action was fatal for the society, as well as the absence of the leader who would ensure the execution of the plan.39

Alexander I suddenly died in Taganrog in November 1825. The Decembrists could not wait until August 1826, which was their target month of the uprising. They realized that they had to act immediately.40

Alexander I did not have any children, and according to the law, his brother Grand Duke Constantine should have become the next emperor. However, Constantine was unwilling to rule.

Alexander I was aware of it already in 1822, when he received a letter from Constantine, who resided in Poland at that time, in which he offered to renounce his right to succession. Alexander I agreed and made his younger brother Nicolas the next heir. Nicolas did not know until the last moment that he would become Emperor.41

The Decembrists, as they were from the upper class and had connections in the Royal family, were aware of this and understood how difficult their situation was - only through deception could they convince the guards and the society that their course was necessary.42 Among many tricks thought upon by the Decembrists, one was persuading the soldiers that Nicolas tried to wrest the crown from the official heir Constantine.43 The only thing that made the Decembrists go ahead was the fact that even if they failed, it would inspire the future fighters for freedom. On December 9, it became official that Constantine had refused to accept the crown, and the Society had to decide - whether to revolt or accept Nicholas as an Emperor.44 On December 13, they got to know that the next day,


1 Ulam, A.B. (1981). Chapter I Hesitant Rebels: The Decembrists. From the Decembrists to the Dissidents (pp. 3-66).: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited. 5

2 Mazour, A.G. (1966). The First Russian Revolution. (2nd ed.). The US: Stanford University Press. 15

3 Migulin, Russky gosudarstvennyi kredit, I (1899(, 38,79; Lokot’, P., Biudzhetnaya I podotnaia politika Rossii (M.,1908), 160

4 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 17

5 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 11

6 French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

7 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 11

8 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 21

9 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 25

10 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 28

11 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 6

12 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 54

13 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 29

14 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 8

15 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 54

16 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 64

17 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 65

18 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 66

19 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 6

20 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 7

21 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 68

22 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 14

23 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 10

24 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 72-74

25 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 15-17

26 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 17

27 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 18

28 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 24

29 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 77,80,85

30 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 27

31 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 28

32 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 30-40

33 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 87-105

34 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 118

35 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 126

36 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 128

37 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 42

38 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 43

39 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 44

40 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 137

41 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 155

42 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 157

43 Ulam, A.B. (1981). 49

44 Mazour, A.G. (1966). 161

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The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 as a Tool to Assess the Modern Russian Call for Freedom. The Case of the Russian Protests of 2011-2012
A Comparative Historical Analysis
Tilburg University  (University College Tilburg)
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russian history, political science, comparative history, russian protest movement, decembrist revolt
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Vera Ande (Author), 2016, The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 as a Tool to Assess the Modern Russian Call for Freedom. The Case of the Russian Protests of 2011-2012, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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