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K. F. Ryleev
A Political Biography of the Decembrist Poet
By Patrick O'Meara
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
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The Decembrist Challenge
December the fourteenth, 1825, was the date set by the Russian government for the oath of allegiance to Tsar Nicholas I, to be sworn by the Senate and Guards regiments in Petersburg, thus ending over two weeks of uncertainty as to the identity of Alexander I's successor. In the event, it was a day marked also by violence and disorder on a scale Petersburg had never before witnessed. At first sight the armed uprising of several Guards regiments on Senate Square appeared to be a new variation on the eighteenth-century theme of palace coup d'état, but as the six-month investigation which followed the insurrection's suppression was to show, it was an occurrence of far greater consequence and a symptom of a far deeper malaise.
The attempt to refuse the oath of allegiance to Nicholas, and armed resistance to all efforts to persuade the three thousand recalcitrant troops to abandon their insubordinate protest, was masterminded by a small group of conspirators who were members of a secret organization based in Petersburg and known as the Northern Society. In the view of contemporary accounts and of the subsequent commission of inquiry, indeed on his own admission, the main instigator of this challenge to autocracy was the poet Kondraty Fedorovich Ryleev. This armed uprising was planned to be the first link in a chain of events which was supposed to culminate in the overthrow of tsarism and the introduction of a constitutionally based liberal-democratic system of government. But the chain was smashed irrevocably long before such grandiose goals were attained.
In spite of the betrayal of the Northern Society's conspiracy to the authorities on 12 December and the alarming lack of preparedness among its leaders and those regiments on whom they were relying, the Decembrists (as members of the conspiracy became known subsequently) were determined to go through with the uprising regardless of the consequences, in order, as Ryleev put it, "to awaken Russia." The burden of the conspirators' tactical line lay in persuading the troops who had been assembled to take the loyal oath to Nicholas that since they had already, on the news of Alexander's death, sworn such an oath to the Tsarevich Constantine — as indeed they had, on Nicholas' own orders — it would be "unconstitutional" and even sacrilegious now to swear allegiance to some other individual.
From the early hours of 14 December, however, the conspirators' hastily laid plans began to go wrong. Some charged with specific crucial tasks simply defected; the "dictator," Col. Prince S. P. Trubetskoi, who was to have taken command of the insurrection, lost his nerve and never took his place on Senate Square. In spite of these setbacks, some three thousand troops showed themselves ready to refuse the oath, to stand their ground, and to await the orders of their rebel officers. It was the absence of any such orders that ultimately was to jeopardize the success of this hopeless venture. Meanwhile, desperate efforts were made by Nicholas' retinue to persuade the recalcitrants that Tsarevich Constantine had, in fact, abdicated his right to the throne in favor of his younger brother. One of the most persuasive of the tsar's spokesmen, the popular governor-general of Petersburg, Count M. A. Miloradovich, was fatally wounded by the Decembrist Kakhovsky for his pains. News of the insurrection swept through the city, and, as the day went on, thousands of people converged on Senate Square simply to watch or to shout their support for the insurgents, some even throwing stones and snowballs at the emperor's suite. The reluctant Nicholas was eventually persuaded by his generals to use cannon to break up the demonstration decisively before imminent darkness (sunset would have come as soon as 3 p.m.) could exacerbate the already extremely tense situation. It proved to be a brutally efficient final resort: two or three salvos were sufficient to disperse the rebels within minutes, and at such close range fatalities and casualties were inevitably high.
The Decembrists' uprising was thus swiftly suppressed by force and by leadership far superior to anything the conspirators themselves deployed. In point of fact, the term "uprising" (vosstanie), by which it is generally known, is something of a misnomer in reference to the events of 14 December 1825, since it tends to convey an exaggerated notion of what was essentially no more than a mute and impotent demonstration, at least on the part of its organizers, against Nicholas' accession to an autocratic throne and a protest against the continued absence of a constitution. This is not, however, to belittle the bravery of those who participated in it or to diminish its historical significance: uprising or demonstration, it remains in the circumstances a remarkable fact that such a challenge to the inviolate autocratic order should have taken place at all.
The Decembrists' other major secret organization, the Southern Society (which from the summer of 1825 incorporated the Society of United Slavs) was based in the Ukraine at Tulchin, where the headquarters of the Second Army were located. It took fully two weeks for news of the extraordinary events in Petersburg to reach the Southern Society; by this time, reports of its own revolutionary intentions had reached the authorities and, indeed, one of its leading figures, Col. Pavel Pestel, had been arrested on 12 December. The conspirators in the south were now confronted with a stark choice: either to submit and await certain arrest, or to continue the Northern Society's rebellion. The initiative was taken by members of the Society of United Slavs, four of whom defiantly freed from detention members of the Southern Society already arrested by the police. On 30 December, having assembled several companies of the Chernigovsky regiment, they marched on Vasilkov, a small provincial town in the vicinity of Kiev. By 31 December the insurgents numbered around one thousand men; but, in spite of initial confidence, their leaders proved to be uncertain of the course they should adopt. They were fearful above all of moving on Kiev itself. Gradually, hesitation and apprehension combined to undermine the men's morale, and on 3 January the rebels, in spite of courageous resistance, were easily overwhelmed by superior government forces. The ringleaders were rounded up and sent in chains to Petersburg to share the fate of their northern confederates.
Those arrested, bewildered by the suddenness of the developments which had led to so drastic a change in their fortunes, disorientated by the grimness of their new surroundings in the Peter-Paul Fortress, intimidated by the personal interrogation of the tsar, and anguished by their separation from friends and family, with few exceptions readily cooperated with their inquisitors — in some instances to the extent of giving evidence against fellow conspirators. On 17 December, a specially constituted commission began the task of investigating the whole affair, its aims, its ramifications, and the degree of guilt of those directly involved or indirectly implicated in it. The chief concern of the Investigating Commission was to establish the precise intentions of the conspirators toward the tsar and the imperial family. Admissions made by some, including Ryleev and Pestel, that regicide had been envisaged were sufficient grounds for the death sentence to be invoked and for the whole conspiracy to be represented in the official press as nothing more or less than a shameful and squalid attempt to assassinate the tsar. The commission took six months to complete its work, in which Nicholas himself took an immense, if not obsessive, personal interest, and during this period it interrogated 579 men. Of these 289 were found to have been in some way involved in the conspiracy; 121 of them were referred to the Supreme Criminal Court, which imposed sentences ranging from forced labor and Siberian exile to death by hanging. The five Decembrists sentenced to death went to the gallows on 13 July 1826, while the remainder began their arduous journey to Siberia, to serve harsh sentences which many would not survive to complete.
The immediate context in which this disturbing and ultimately tragic turn of events occurred was, as has already been inferred, an interregnum of some two weeks from the death of Alexander I to the accession of Nicholas. The transfer of power, at least before 1855, was invariably a critical event in Russian history since it tended to proceed somewhat haphazardly, largely according to autocratic will rather than by clearly established or consistently observed ordinance; it was in fact the accession of only the last three tsars (Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II) which saw power transfer smoothly from father to eldest son. The most critical and, as it proved, the most hazardous succession of all was that of Nicholas I. The interregnum was precipitated by the unexpected demise of his heirless eldest brother and by the secret renunciation of his right to the throne some three years earlier by the next in line, Constantine. Nicholas, who had never been informed of this and was therefore unaware that he was due to succeed to the throne, immediately gave orders for the oath of allegiance to be sworn to Constantine. Constantine, for his part, assuming Nicholas was conversant with the true state of affairs, swore the oath of allegiance to his younger brother. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Constantine resided in Warsaw, where he was governor-general. And so the Russian empire found itself, as the London Times dryly observed "in the strange predicament of having two self-denying Emperors, and no active ruler."
It was this "strange predicament" which was hastily exploited, as described above, by dissident elements in the social, and chiefly military, elite. The uprising instigated by the "aristocratic revolutionaries" (as they are known in Soviet historiography) marks the beginning of Russia's revolutionary movement and its long struggle to overcome the two major obstacles to social and political progress: autocracy and serfdom. There had, of course, been manifestations of opposition in Russia before December 1825. These had typically taken the form either of peasant revolt (Razin, Pugachev) or palace coup d'etat, of which there had been a remarkable succession in the previous century. There had additionally been the "repentant nobleman's" moral protest against serfdom, exemplified by such eighteenth-century writers and publicists as Alexander Radishchev and Nikolai Novikov. The originality of the Decembrists' challenge, however, lies in its combination of an ideologically based assault on political and social institutions (autocracy, serfdom) with the necessary will to carry through such an assault by organized armed force.
The Decembrists' ideology was shaped by their broad experience of European social and political culture: by their reading of the philosophes of the French enlightenment and of English and German romanticism, and by the direct contact with France, Germany, and Poland afforded them as officers of the Russian army during the final struggle against Napoleon and the ensuing wars of liberation. It was tempered by the general air of disillusionment and despondency which settled on Russia following the anticlimax of 1812, resulting from the dawning realization that her political insitutions and social structures were not, after all, to be reformed in the wake of the Russian people's great victory over the hitherto invincible Napoleon. As Alexander Herzen subsequently remarked, the year 1812 altered irrevocably the political mood in Russia: "Something had changed, an idea spread, and whatever it touched was no longer the same as before." It was widely supposed that Alexander I intended to contribute to this "idea" by following up constitutions he had granted to Poland and Finland with similar reform at home. Liberal-minded Russians mistakenly believed that in pressing for social and political reform they were merely sharing the tsar's own aspirations.
But this new and encouraging awakening of social concern on the part of the "progressive" section of the nobility coincided with the onset of a policy of extreme reaction in Russia, culminating in the notorious "Arakcheevshchina," a derogatory term derived from the name of Alexander's hated favorite, Count A. A. Arakcheev. The tsar meanwhile became increasingly immersed in religious mysticism and obscurantism and in his own perception of himself as the messianic savior of Europe and architect of the Holy Alliance. The reactionary policy of the government manifested itself in numerous ways, leaving few aspects of Russian life untouched. The notorious military settlements were established, designed to ensure the serfs' complete regimentation and subordination, while Russia's educational system, to take just another example, suffered severe and lasting damage in the name of the Orthodox religion.
Hence there took place at this time a gradual though unmistakable polarization in Russian intellectual and political life between progressive members of the nobility, most of whom were junior guards officers, and the protagonists of the existing order. It was a polarization which intensified throughout the latter part of Alexander's reign, and it finds its clearest evocation in the words of the Decembrist I. D. Yakushkin:
In 1814 the youth of Petersburg led an intolerable existence. For two years great events had taken place before our eyes — events which determined nations' destinies, and to some extent we had participated in them. Now it was unbearable to contemplate the empty life of Petersburg and to hear the prattling of old men bragging about the good old days and censuring any progressive trend. We left them standing by a hundred years.
Such was the social and political climate of Russian life in which the Decembrists' ideological outlook took root and to which the Decembrist movement emerged as a response.
The Decembrists' secret societies developed from guards officers' dining clubs which had formed in 1815, initially providing a convenient forum for the discussion pf political and social problems and possible means of resolving them. To a certain extent this function was fulfilled also by the masonic lodges. In February 1816, members of two such clubs, nine of them former masons, formed the first Decembrist secret society, the Union of Salvation. Its aims were the introduction of a constitutional form of government and the abolition of serfdom. These ideas its members mooted in Petersburg's military and aristocratic circles, winning over some thirty members to the conspiracy's cause. Disagreements among the membership over the use of force and recourse to regicide in order to implement the Union's proposals led in 1818 to a review of its program. As a result a new organization was formed (the Union of Welfare) and a new, rather more moderate charter drafted. This was known as the Green Book and was in part inspired by the German Tugendbund (Union of Virtue). Like its German counterpart, it stressed above all the need for a new moral vitality in social affairs rather than for political reform as such. The Union of Welfare grew rapidly during 1819 and soon had around two hundred members, pledged to advance the cause of culture, social justice, and philanthropy in a society whose government seemed to place little or no value in such matters.
It gradually became apparent, however, that disagreements on matters of policy and planning among its members imposed on the organization too severe a strain for it to enjoy a prolonged, stable existence. Matters came to a head at a decisive meeting held in Moscow in January 1821, at which the Union of Welfare was declared to be defunct. The more committed and active of its ex-members immediately set about creating a new, highly conspiratorial organization from which emerged the two groups which were to instigate the Decembrist uprising nearly four years later: these were the Northern and Southern societies.
Excerpted from K. F. Ryleev by Patrick O'Meara. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. ix
- Note on Translation and Transliteration, pg. xi
- List of Abbreviations, pg. xiii
- Introduction, pg. 1
- 1. The Decembrist Challenge, pg. 11
- 2. Ryleev: The Formative Years, pg. 25
- 3. Political Perspectives of the Decembrist, pg. 75
- 4. In the Northern Society, pg. 117
- 5. Poet of the Decembrists’ Cause, pg. 155
- 6. Propagandist of the Northern Society, pg. 200
- 7. The Uprising of 14 December 1825, pg. 223
- 8. Before the Investigating Commission, pg. 244
- 9. Verdict and Sentence, pg. 289
- 10. The Political and Literary Legacy, pg. 312
- Bibliography, pg. 333
- Index, pg. 357