On the morning of 14 December 18251 a battalion of the Moscow Regiment and some Grenadier and Marine Guards assembled in Senate Square in St Petersburg, where Etienne Falconet’s famous statue to Peter the Great stands2. These military men – or rather their officers – were hoping to take advantage of a constitutional crisis that followed the sudden death of the Russian Emperor Alexander I on 19 November in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov.
It had emerged that Alexander’s expected successor, his brother Constantine, who enjoyed some popularity as a result of a largely undeserved reputation for liberalism, had previously renounced his claim to the succession following his morganatic marriage to a Polish Catholic lady. Unfortunately, though, the manifesto drawn up at Alexander’s behest by the Moscow Metropolitan Filaret affirming the transfer of the right to the throne from Constantine to his younger brother, Nicholas, had been kept secret. Consequently, there was doubt whether Nicholas’s instruction to the army to swear an oath of allegiance to him on 14 December was legitimate. Many regiments, and also civilian servants of the regime, complied with Nicholas’s instruction, but now a substantial number of officers and the men they led were refusing to do so.
The insurgents, numbering some 3,000 men, faced a much larger number of troops loyal to Nicholas, who had been forewarned of the conspiracy. Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, whom the conspirators had nominated as revolutionary “dictator” precisely in order that the planned revolt should not founder on lack of decisive leadership, failed to appear, having sought refuge in the Austrian Embassy. The insurgents vacillated. Nicholas, hoping to avoid bloodshed, sent General Mikhail Miloradovich, the Governor of St Petersburg, to try to persuade them to take the oath, but Miloradovich was shot and mortally wounded by one of the mutinying officers. Attempts by the Metropolitan Serafim and the Grand Duke Michael, the youngest of Alexander’s three brothers, to make the mutineers disperse also failed. Fearful that the insurgency might gain support from the large crowd that had gathered, Nicholas seized the initiative as night approached. Grapeshot was fired at the insurgents and then cannons were used. Some insurgents attempted to regroup on the frozen River Neva on one side of Senate Square, but were scattered or drowned as cannon balls broke the ice. Over 1,200 were killed, according to official figures, including many civilians. During the night the blood was washed from the square and the bodies were disposed of. Many were thrown in the river, where the ice was broken or where holes were cut; some of the wounded, it was said, suffered the same fate as the corpses. More than 700 people were arrested. Some three weeks later a further revolt took place, among the Chernigov Regiment based at Tul’chin in Podolia, in the Ukraine to the West of the River Dnepr, but on 3 January about 800 mutineers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sergei Murav’iov-Apostol were defeated by a loyal cavalry force3. Murav’iov-Apostol himself was severely wounded and captured and the revolt ended4.
As soon as the mutiny in St Petersburg had been suppressed Nicholas launched an exhaustive investigation into it, in the course of which 579 individuals were questioned. This investigation, in which Nicholas himself played an energetic part, ended in the summer of 1826. In all, 289 men were
sentenced to some form of punishment. On 13 July, five of these were hanged: Murav’iov-Apostol and another member of the southern conspiracy, Sub-Lieutenant Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin; Colonel Pavel Pestel’, the leader of the southern conspiracy, who had been arrested on 13 December, just before the revolt on Senate Square; Kondratii Ryleev, one of the leaders of the northern conspiracy; and Piotr Kakhovskii, who had shot Miloradovich). A further 116 were dispatched to eastern Siberia for various terms of forced labour and exile, in 31 cases life-long. Many of the “Decembrists”5, as the insurgents came to be known, were voluntarily accompanied to their place of exile by their wives6.
The Decembrists had many sympathizers in the Russian armed forces and high society. They were also close, indeed in some cases themselves belonged, to the literary elite that was beginning to flourish in Russia. (It should be noted that the military, social and cultural elites overlapped in Russia at this time.) We should beware, though, of exaggerating the extent of support for the conspiracy in these circles. David Saunders is surely right to take issue with the celebrated Russian literary historian D. S. Mirsky, who claimed that the Decembrists represented their generation as a whole7. In any case, the Decembrists themselves were sharply divided both by personal animosities (particularly between the domineering Pestel’ and more moderate members) and by major political differences (especially differences over the respective merits of federalism and centralism and of constitutional monarchy and republicanism and over the need for regicide)8.
And yet, in spite of their weaknesses, the Decembrists did pose a serious threat to the Russian political order. Their revolt betrayed the alienation of a section of the noble elite nurtured on classical and Enlightenment ideas who had grown disillusioned with the policies of Alexander I after Russia’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars and who made the first public challenge to Russian autocracy. The revolt differed fundamentally from the palace coups by which both Catherine the Great9 and Alexander himself had come to power, in 1762 and 1801 respectively, since it represented an attempt to introduce a new form of government in Russia. Admittedly, it had no immediate practical effect on the nature of the Russian polity other than to make autocratic rule, as Nicholas would practise it, yet more repressive and severe. Neverthless, it did serve as the basis for a heroic, altruistic tradition in which future opponents of tsarist autocracy from different social backgrounds and of various political complexions could proudly situate themselves. For all the variety in their opinions and their confusion over objectives, the Decembrists may in retrospect be seen as having taken the first step on the path that led by way of further ill-thought-out conspiracies in the 1840s and 1860s to the revolutionary movement which began to develop with greater force in the 1870s and which would eventually topple the autocratic regime in 1917.
In many important respects the situation in which Russia found itself in the first quarter of the nineteenth century differed markedly from that in which Spain found itself. Napoleon never exercised control over such a large proportion of Russia’s vast territory as he did over Spain in the years after his occupation of it in 1808. The period between the date when the grande armée crossed the River Neman, in June 1812, and the date when its last remnants left Russia, in December that year, was relatively short. No institution equivalent to the Cortes that began to meet in Cádiz in 1810 in the absence of Ferdinand VII sprang up in Russia, and in any case native political authority did not collapse in Russia as it had in Spain after Ferdinand’s abdication and his confinement in France. Russia had no overseas empire (save for the lands it occupied in the north-west of the American continent, principally Alaska, which was sold to the United States in 1867) and it therefore had no need to take account of rebellious colonies. The Russian Orthodox Church, following its subordination to the state by Peter the Great10, was a less powerful institution than the Catholic Church in early nineteenth-century Spain. In Spain, finally, a non-noble urban class with a consciousness of its economic and political interests was perhaps better developed than in Russia. The Decembrists, while they were not all of high noble background, emanated on the whole from the nobility, and many of them (especially in the Northern Society) were from its higher echelons. Decembrism was not a movement of the third estate, let alone a popular movement11.
And yet there were also similarities in the historical situation of Russia and Spain, besides the fact that in the distant past both countries had defined themselves through a prolonged struggle with a non-European and non-Christian occupying people (the Tatars, in Russia’s case, and the Moors in Spain’s). In both countries the modern royal house could be perceived as an alien institution. (Catherine the Great, the grandmother of Alexander I and Nicholas I, was German. So too was Alexander’s and Nicholas’s mother, Sophie Dorothea of Württemburg, the second wife of Catherine’s son Paul, who ruled from 1797 to 1801.) Furthermore, in both Russia and Spain, attitudes towards political modernization could become entangled with attitudes towards foreign influence and native values. Again, as Alexander Martin has observed, in Russia — as in Spain, though to a lesser degree — peasant guerrilla bands had been formed during the Napoleonic occupation which could pose a threat to the regime once the French were gone12. Most importantly for our purposes here, the Napoleonic Wars helped to awaken constitutional dreams in both countries. Men of liberal leanings gathered...