During the last decade accounts of Russian history have been dominated by a propensity to emphasize autocratic tendencies. Thus, Russia has been portrayed as a country that is, always has been, and always will be autocratic. This might be a convenient explanation for the state of contemporary Russia, but it is not true. Nowadays, when Russian liberals are fighting for their existence, it is especially important to remember that Russia also has a liberal tradition. This tradition was particularly potent during the first and third quarters of the nineteenth century, which was also a period in Russian history when the ties to Western Europe were exceptionally strong. Therefore, we should not, as have often been done, overemphasize the internal influences on this movement.1In fact, it cannot be properly understood outside of the contemporary European movement for liberty and constitutionalism of which it was part. This is not to say that the internal context was irrelevant. Internal conditions played a vital role for the choices liberals made, but national demands and nationalistic influences did not make the movement less international. Nationalism was essential to other European liberal movements as well. They were inspired by the same Romantic ideas.2Most importantly, Russian liberals felt that they were part of an international movement fighting against absolutism and tyranny. Hence, European revolutionaries gave Russian liberals hope and inspiration because these Russians felt that they were all part of the same struggle, and this struggle was an expression of the spirit of the age.
The origin of Russian liberalism is commonly dated to the end of the 18th century and Alexander Radishchev is typically referred to as the first Russian liberal.3However, it was not until the first quarter of the nineteenth century that a liberal movement emerged in Russia. This movement is generally referred to as the Decembrist movement, named after the revolt they instigated in December 1825. The revolt was crushed by the tsar and the members arrested, interrogated and executed or banished into exile in Siberia.4II
Like in other European countries the Napoleonic wars contributed to the emergence of a liberal reform movement in Russia. In the Russian case, there were several reasons for this. Firstly, the war meant that Russians had the opportunity to see with their own eyes countries that were far more modern and liberal than their own. This also meant that they met with liberals from different European countries and became acquainted with their ideas. Secondly, they felt that by defeating Napoleon Russia had taken an important step towards a better and freer world. To them, the next logical step was reforms at home. When the Russian officers finally returned home after having conquered Napoleon and “liberated Europe from tyranny”, they could not accept the despotism and backwardness at home. Why had they given liberty to Europe, while preserving autocracy at home? Alexander Bestuzhev tried to explain the feelings of the returning soldiers in a letter to Nicholas I written after his arrest: “We delivered our homeland from tyranny but we are tyrannized anew by the master…Why did we free Europe, was it to put chains on ourselves?... Did we buy with our blood primacy among nations, so that we should be oppressed at home?” 5 The introduction to the proposed Russian Constitution, drafted by the Northern Decembrist Society, reflects similar feelings: “All the European nations are attaining constitutions and freedom. The Russian nation, more than any of them, deserves one as well as the other.6”
Thirdly, the invasion of the French army had led to an outburst of patriotic feeling in Russia. Many officers felt that it was wrong that peasants who had fought against Napoleon for the liberty of their country were now treated as slaves. An
additional factor was the tsar himself. Alexander I was raised in a liberal spirit, consorted with freethinkers, and often spoke in favour of liberal reforms. Thus, his recognition of the Cortes and the constitution they adopted in the Treaty of Velikiye Luki 8/20 July 1812 was regarded as an expression of his liberal views and gave Russian freethinkers hope for the future. The Decembrist Peter Kakhovskii referred to this action in a letter to General Levashev, stating that the fact that the tsar recognized the Spanish constitution so soon gave Russians hope for a constitution of their own.7Many liberal Russians as well as Western Europeans had high hopes regarding the intentions of Alexander I. This belief was strengthened by Alexander's stand in favour of constitutional monarchy in France and the speech he made in March 1818 during the opening of the Polish Sejm when he declared his intentions to extend the constitutional procedures to all countries under his care. But, rather than implementing liberal reforms, the tsar turned to the right. To many young Russian officers victory and the great role Russia played in Europe after the war also meant the promise of reform at home. Alexander was the liberator of Europe, and so they believed that he would liberate Russia as well. Instead, the conservative Count Aleksei Arakcheev, the organizer of the unpopular military colonies, gained more influence. This made the returning liberal officers deeply disappointed. So did the granting of a constitution to Poland in November 1815 and not to Russia.8III
Many of the Russian officers who returned home after the Napoleonic wars became members of one of the secret societies that emerged at this time. They were modelled on similar societies in Europe as the German Tugendbund and the Italian, French and Spanish Carbonari with roots in Freemasonry. In the beginning, the political demands of these societies were not clearly formulated and they essentially aimed at a moral regeneration of society. Among the most prominent was the Union of Salvation (1816-17). The founders of the Union included some of the key figures of the Decembrist movement: Alexander Muraviev, Nikita Muraviev, Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, Ivan Yakushkin, Matvei and Sergei Muraviev-Apostol.9They were all young officers of the Guard and members of high nobility. Shortly after its founding, Pavel Pestel, who was to play a leading part in the movement, was recruited. Through his broad knowledge of political theory and international affairs, his devotion to the Union and his strong will, he soon won the admiration of
many of the members of the organization.10The program of the Union comprised the emancipation of the serfs and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. There soon arose divisions in the Union between the majority of more conservative members, who desired moderate reforms employed through legal methods and the minority of more radical members, who showed an inclination towards revolutionary action, and if necessary, even regicide. At a conference in Moscow, it was decided to undertake a radical reorganization of the Society. Based on the text of the Tugendbund constitution a new constitution was produced known as The Green Book. With the completion of this text, the Union of Salvation was discarded and replaced by a new society, The Union of Welfare.11This organization had a somewhat broader philanthropic program. It also had a secret branch with a political agenda, where many of the future Decembrists were members. In order to mislead the government and to rid the Union of untrustworthy members, the Union of Welfare was soon fictitiously dissolved. In its stead arose a Northern and a Southern Society. The organization in the South came into being as a result of the refusal to accept the resolution of the conference in Moscow and its members felt that they continued the program adopted by the Union. The Southern Society was led by a Directory with Pavel Pestel as its chairman with headquarters at Tulchin, a Southern town where the Second Army was stationed. The Society established two important branches, one at Kamenka under the leadership of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, the other at Vasilkov, headed by Sergei Muraviev-Apostol. This branch shortly became the most active one with a larger membership than the main organization. It came to play an important part in the uprising.
In the North, the stronghold of the conservative liberals, no progress was made at first to reorganize the Union, but eventually Nikita Muraviev and Prince Sergei Trubetskoi founded the Northern Council. Nikita Muraviev was captain of the Guard and had been among the troops that entered Paris. He was by conviction a republican and had supported Pestel's republican program in 1820, but he felt that these views were too advanced to be accepted by the majority of the Society's members and thus wrote his constitution in a more conservative manner. Russia, according to Muraviev's constitution, was to become a constitutional monarchy. (However, some of the members of the Northern Society continued to believe in a republican government and opposed his political program). The Decembrists' most important political texts were written by Muraviev and Pestel in the form of constitutions for the future Russia, or rather in Pestel's case, an instruction to the Supreme Provisional Government. While Muraviev wanted to create a Russian Federation modeled on the USA, Pestel believed that Russia should be a unitary nation. Both constitutions were radical documents, Pestel's even more so since it
promoted a republican form of government, radical agrarian reform and universal suffrage.
On November 19 1825, Alexander I died in Southern Russia. Since he did not have any children, his older brother Constantine was next in line. But Constantine, who was governor-general in Warsaw at the time, had renounced his right to the throne and placed his younger brother Nicholas next in line. Unfortunately, this arrangement was unknown...