Historians tend to agree that the three year struggle with Napoleon exacerbated several contradictory tendencies in the tsar's personality. On one hand, he was a tsar hailed as "tsar liberator" by the peoples of Europe; on the other hand he was known as the "tsar sphinx" because no one could really figure him out. He was a tsar who spoke excitedly of the needs of political reform and who insisted that Poland be re-established as a constitutional regime, yet he refused to do anything in Russia. He was a tsar who praised the Russian Orthodox Church for its strength during the struggle with Napoleon, yet a man who dabbled in all kinds of mystical wackiness; a tsar who spoke of the sacrifices of the Russian people, yet did nothing to improve their condition.
The Russian officers who had waged the campaign to defeat Napoleon expected some measure of political liberalization at home. They were young, noble, enthusiastic patriots who had seen Europe (conditions were much better there than in Russia), who had read the works of the Enlightenment philosophes (remember Catherine the Great had herself promoted the Enlightenment in Russia) and who felt that the Russian people deserved something for their losses in defeating Napoleon. These young Russians were bitterly disappointed by Alexander. Whereas one might cite Mikhail Speranskii as the reformist symbol of the first half of Alexander's reign (even though nothing substantial was actually accomplished); the best image of the second half was Mikhail Arakcheev, a far-from-enlightened man with confirmed despotic qualities.
The conspirators, and we can use that term loosely, were these young officers who began to talk, write a bit and plot. In time, they roughly grouped into the Northern and Southern Societies; both societies were centered in the different army headquarters of the time. Sometimes you can find portraits of the Decembrists online, but it is frustrating because the websites come and go quickly. Note also that this was just talk of a conspiracy by small groups of elites; there was no real connection to any elements of the Russian population.
The opportunity for revolt presented itself because of the strange circumstances surrounding the tsar's family. Paul I (the murdered dad) had been followed onto the throne by Alexander I (1777-1825, the oldest son). The other brothers were Konstantin Pavlovich (1779-1831) and Nikolai Pavlovich (1796-1855); there were also a lot of sisters, but they didn't count. Konstantin had renounced his claim to the Russian throne in a private letter to Alexander in 1822 after his morganatic marriage to his second wife--he had his first marriage annulled by imperial manifesto--Joanna Grudna-Grudczinska (later, Princess Lowicza). The tsar then issued a secret manifesto naming Nicholas as legal successor to the throne. This rejection of the throne, which was probably illegal, was never made public, although Konstantin certainly knew of it and Nicholas knew that Alexander planned to pass the throne on to him.
Alexander I died in Taganrog, a "city" a little west of Rostov-na-Don at the eastern end of the Black Sea, on 19 November (1 December) 1825. Boom, he caught a cold one day; the next day he was dead (OK, so I exaggerate a bit; he caught a chill on 27 October). Now, Taganrog is a long way from St. Petersburg, and it took eight days for the news to reach Nicholas in the capital. The dispatches started going back and forth between Nicholas in St. Petersburg and Konstantin in Warsaw; remember Nicholas was quite a bit younger than Konstantin so he did not want to overstep his bounds. "You take the throne"; "no you." Soldiers were told to take the oath of allegiance to one brother; then the other. The third brother, Grand Duke Mikhail acted as intermediary between the two other brothers; finally persuading Nicholas that he had to assume the throne. In this atmosphere of complete confusion, the conspirators tried to make a move.
The revolutionaries-to-be were able to gather a few thousand troops on Senate Square on the morning of 14 December. No one really seemed to know what to do next (and the rebels clearly missed their opportunity). The officers on the Square kept waiting for Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, the acknowledged leader of the Northern Society, to arrive, but he failed to show up. The "rebelling" soldiers were supposed to shout "Constantine and Constitution," but most of them had no idea what that meant; most guessed that "Constitution" was Constantine's wife. (In Russian, the word "constitution" has a feminine ending, "konstitutsiia.") Eventually, Nicholas took charge, and with soldiers loyal to him he faced the rebels across the Square. Count Miloradovich, the governor of St. Petersburg, tried to deal with the rebels, but he was shot dead by Peter Kakhovskii. The Horse Guards failed to dislodge the rebels owing to the icy ground. So finally, the cannon were brought out, and the Square was cleared. By the next morning all evidence of the slaughter had been wiped away; new snow strewn around the Square; and the bodies disposed of.
Nicholas decided to make an example of the conspirators; what he succeeded in doing was making them martyrs. On 13 July 1826, five were hanged: Pavel Pestel, Kondratii Ryleev, Sergei Muraviev-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin and Peter Kakhovskii. (The hanging did not go without its own problems.) Thirty-one men were sentenced to life-long hard labor, and hundreds of others received a variety of other sentences. Most were exiled to Siberia (Their wives voluntarily followed them, becoming a symbol of enormous courage and devotion.). Thus, the "Decembrists" became martyred heroes to ensuing generations of Russian liberals and revolutionaries.
As an aside, there has always been a certain air of mystery surrounding Alexander's death. For a long time, there was a rumor that he had faked his death and turned into a Siberian holy man by the name of Fedor Kuzmich. Legend has it that in 1864 Kuzmich, while lying on his death bed, pronounced his last words, "God only knows my real name!" Anyway, Alexander's body (embalmed and placed in a lead coffin) left Taganrog on 29 December for the long journey north, reaching Tsarskoe Selo on 28 February. There, the immediate imperial family--and no one else--attended an open viewing of the body. Alexander was finally buried in St. Petersburg in the fortress of Peter and Paul on 13 March. In a break with custom, there was no usual public viewing (understandably so!). His wife died soon thereafter, 3 May (buried 21 June). So allegedly, no one outside the family could verify who was in the coffin. Supposedly, the Soviet government opened the imperial caskets in 1924 to remove gold and jewels, but it was unclear if Alexander's was empty.
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