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Russia's First Revolutionaries: The Decembrists (All Parts)

May 24, 2024
1815. In the Battle of Waterloo, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte suffers his definitive defeat and two decades of war in Europe come to an end. The victorious powers, led by Austria, Great Britain, P


and Russia, meet in Vienna to decide the fate of Europe. The borders of nations and empires are redrawn when Emperor Alexander of Russia adds "King of Poland" to his list of titles. He also oversees the creation of a 'Holy Alliance'... to ensure that no more revolutions threaten the established order in Europe. The Russian Empire, after many great sacrifices in the wars against Napoleon, emerges stronger than ever.
russia s first revolutionaries the decembrists all parts
But not everyone in Russia is happy with the new situation. A group of young army officers dream of a different future for Russia... a new form of government... radical reforms... even a Russia without a tsar. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with the largest army Europe had ever seen. It was a decisive moment in his reign. But he underestimated Russian determination. Four months later, the remnants of his army began their infamous retreat from Moscow. Then the Russian army and its coalition allies drove Napoleon's forces across Europe...fought giant battles in Germany...and finally reached the streets of Paris.
russia s first revolutionaries the decembrists all parts

More Interesting Facts About,

russia s first revolutionaries the decembrists all parts...

Napoleon's abdication was a moment of triumph for Emperor Alexander and for Russia. For many young Russian officers it was also an eye-opening experience. Imperial Russia was an autocracy, ruled by an emperor without any control over his power. There was no political opposition or constitution. There was no freedom of expression or right to trial. About 80% of Russians were serfs: peasants without rights, freedom or hope for improvement, and their status was passed on to their children. The inefficiency, not to mention the injustice, of such a system was increasingly evident even to many Russian aristocrats. In Europe, serving as officers in the Russian army, they visited countries where slavery had been devastated by war and revolution...
russia s first revolutionaries the decembrists all parts
And where monarchs had granted constitutions that limited their power, protected the admitted freedoms and rule of law. Many were inspired and began to dream of similar reforms in Russia. But few trusted Emperor Alexander to aid his cause... On the night of March 11, 1801, Alexander's father, Emperor Paul, was strangled to death by a group of disgruntled army officers. Alexander ascended the throne when he was only 23 years old. The inefficiency and chaos of his father's government upset him. In 1797 he wrote to his guardian: “To speak plainly, the welfare of the State is not at all taken into account in the administration of affairs;
russia s first revolutionaries the decembrists all parts
There is only one absolute power that does everything bad and contradictory. The election of officials is entirely a matter of favoritism; profits are worthless... The farmer is harassed; trade is hampered; freedom and personal well-being are reduced to nothing. There you have the image of Russia; judge how my heart must suffer." Young Alexander showed great enthusiasm for reforms, an encouraging sign for Russian aristocrats who wanted to see a more modern Russian state. In 1803 he issued a decree giving landowners the right to free his slaves. Many hoped that this would be a


step towards the abolition of slavery.
In 1808, the brilliant and liberal Mikhail Speranksy became Alexander's chief advisor. He created a new "Council of State" to advise the Emperor and even. He began work on a Russian constitution. But in 1812 Alexander's appetite for reform came to an abrupt end. First, an anti-reform faction, led by the emperor's sister, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna, orchestrated Speransky's dismissal. Then Napoleon invaded Russia. At this moment of supreme crisis, Alexander felt filled with religious fervor, a sense of personal mission and national destiny. The burning of Moscow, he declared, had soothed his soul. He could now see that liberal reforms were only the path to anarchy and chaos.
They were an intolerable risk to Russia's sacred institutions. In 1815, any officer returning from Europe with hopes of reform would be sorely disappointed. Alexander added insult to injury by granting a liberal constitution not to Russia but to her new kingdom, Poland (none, as it turned out, that he planned to honor). Three years later, when Alexander raised the possibility of a Russian constitution based on this Polish "experiment," it was an empty promise. The idealistic young officers, more alienated than ever, decided that if the emperor would not champion their cause, they should act themselves. They began to organize secret societies and plan a revolution.
Many Russian soldiers already belonged to a secret society. Freemasonry was imported from Europe in the 18th century and was popular among army officers. But in 1816, officers of the prestigious Russian guards regiments, based in St. Petersburg, founded a new secret society: the Union of Salvation. Four of its founding members would play a leading role in a revolutionary movement that became known as the Decembrists. Nikita Muravyov, captain of the staff of the guards division, was 31 years old at the time of the Decembrist uprising. He would develop one of his great constitutional reform plans. Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, 30 years old at the time of the uprising.
He would lead the Decembrist uprising in Ukraine. Prince Colonel Sergei Trubetskoy, 36 years old at the time of the uprising. Trubetskoy, a war hero from one of Russia's most distinguished families, would be chosen to lead the Decembrist coup in St. Petersburg. And Colonel Pavel Pestel of the Vyatka Infantry Regiment, who at the time of the uprising was 33 years old. He also a decorated war hero, seriously wounded at Borodino. He was a brilliant but uncompromising officer and one of the most active and radical members of the Union. He would advocate the death of the emperor and the creation of a Russian republic.
The Salvation Union soon merged with another secret society, the Order of Russian Knights, to form the Union of Prosperity, with over 200 members. The charter, known as the "Green Book", set out how the Union should be organized. He also detailed his commitment to educating the public about the Enlightenment ideals of virtuous and moral citizenship. It was hoped that this would generate broader support for reform among the Russian elite. Only a trusted inner circle was aware of the Union's most radical long-term goals: securing a constitution and ending slavery. The leaders of the Union of Prosperity were right to be cautious...
Alexander tightened censorship laws, while his allies kept him informed about Russia's so-called secret societies. For the moment he endured them and said to a courtier: "You, who have served me since the beginning of my reign, know that I have shared and encouraged all these dreams and delusions. It is not for me to be harsh." His new advisor most Nearby, General Alexey Arakcheyev, felt no such restraint. Arakcheyev dominated the Russian artillery organization during the Napoleonic Wars and was known for his ruthless efficiency, his violent temper, and his absolute loyalty to the emperor. He detested almost everything that had to do with Western Europe. "You don't get things done by speaking softly in French," he once commented.
Arakcheyev was put in charge of the emperor's latest idea, the so-called "military settlements." The plan was to reduce the costs of the large Russian army by having soldiers and servants live side by side, in new villages organized like military camps, with strict discipline. It was a harsh policy, even by the standards of the Russian autocracy, and led to misery, unrest and growing resentment against the regime. Arakcheyev also imposed strict new rules of discipline and behavior in the army. The soldiers who had defeated Napoleon were now subjected to endless parades and inspections. Small infractions were often punished.
The officers who spoke on behalf of their men were fired. In 1820, a protest by the Semkhonovsky lifeguard regiment, one of the army's top units, led to even more brutal punishments. For the Decembrist leaders, this showed that even the elite regiments stopped loving the regime. They themselves would act following a strong Russian tradition: palace coups led by army officers to ensure dynastic and political changes. The crucial task was to be prepared when the time came... In 1821, the number of new members joining the Prosperity Union made its founders suspicious of infiltration and discovery. Then they dissolved the Union.
Its most trusted and devoted members formed two new groups, each with between 20 and 30 members: The Northern Society was based in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, and was initially the most moderate organization. The more radical Southern Society was based in Tulchyn, Ukraine, where several Decembrist officers with their regiments were stationed. Both societies spent their time holding secret meetings in their members' apartments. They stayed up late into the night discussing political ideas, reading banned literature aloud, drafting manifestos and resolutions. The Northern Society adopted a draft constitution by Nikita Muravyov as its goal. His moderate document would make Russia a constitutional monarchy, but was otherwise heavily influenced by the United States Constitution of 1787.
It also called for a "division of power" between the executive, legislative, and judicial, in which each would have "checks and balances" on their respective powers. the other. . The executive was the emperor, "supreme official of the Russian government", who would command the armed forces, guide foreign policy, and have the power to veto legislation. The legislature: A Veche or assembly of the people, composed of a Supreme Duma or Senate and a House of Representatives. Serfdom would be abolished and there would be equality before the law. The right to vote would be limited to those who owned a certain amount of property, thus excluding the poorest Russians.
The Russian Empire would also become a federal state of 15 regions, each with its own governors and communes. In 1823, however, a new member would take the Northern Society in a much more radical direction. Kondraty Ryleyev, 27, was another war veteran and a famous poet: he was passionate, eloquent and devoted to the cause of the revolution. He was known for his satire on the hated General Arakcheyev, which was secretly circulated among Russian liberals: “All fear, tyrant! For evil and treason you will be condemned by your descendants! Ryleyev despised monarchy in all its forms. "There are no good governments in the world except in the United States," he declared.
He was a very influential figure and before long a radical wing of the Northern Society formed around him, taking up his argument for a republican revolution. A friend described a gathering in his apartment around this time: "There must have been more than a dozen people in the room, but at


I couldn't make out anything because of the thick blue haze of pipe and cigar smoke. They stretched out On the sofas and on the deep window sills, the young Alexander Odoevsky and Bestuzhev are sitting cross-legged, Turkish style, on a Persian rug... An intense young man, with a pale complexion and prominent forehead, raises a glass: "Death to the Tsar!" The toast was greeted with emotion.
Ryleyev's jet-black eyes lit up with an inner flame... They sing of the death of the Tsar... the rhythmic chant flows through the open windows so that everyone listen to it." The leading figure of the Southern Society, based in Ukraine, was Colonel Pavel Pestel, who provided the group with its own constitution, 'Russkaya Pravda'; This long, unfinished treaty was much more radical than Muravyov's constitution. There was no room for one. emperor in Pestel's new Russia: "The former Supreme Power has already sufficiently demonstrated its hostility towards the Russian people... the current order will cease to exist." Pestel called for a revolution, under the leadership of a Provisional Supreme Council, to be implemented. a gradual but far-reaching change "Russia's two main needs are clear: a complete reorganization of the order and structure of the State and the publication of a completely new legal code, preserving everything useful and destroying everything harmful." serfdom would be abolished, land would be redistributed to peasants, class privileges would be abolished, and all male Russian citizens would be given the vote.
The Northern and Southern Societies remained in close contact, despite significant differences of opinion. between and within both societies. There was still much that united them: they all wanted the abolition of slavery and conscription, the end of autocratic rule, the establishment of new rights and freedoms for the Russian people. who were in tune with the “spirit of the age” as revolutions and conspiracies spread across Europe in the name of freedom. Such events reaffirmed their belief that change in Russia must come from within.a direct action: a coup or a revolution. In 1825, Pavel Pestel learned that Emperor Alexander and his entourage would travel to Ukraine the following spring.
He would travel to inspect the troops of the 2nd Army. Pestel hatched a plan to assassinate the emperor and launch a coup to establish a Russian republic. The date was set: March 12, 1826. After urgent communication with the Northern Society, Ryleyev's faction agreed to launch a simultaneous uprising in the capital, St. Petersburg. But in December, unexpected news disrupted all of his plans. That winter, Emperor Alexander visited southern Russia, where the climate was expected to improve his wife's poor health. Instead, Alexander himself fell seriously ill. He died in Taganrog, aged 47. Typhus was the most likely cause. Alexander's sudden death was a shock to all of Russia.
The Decembrists agreed that the best time to force political change was the succession of a new tsar. Now was his time. But no one was quite sure who the new tsar was. Alexander died without legitimate issue. According to the law of succession, he should have been succeeded by the eldest of his younger brothers, the Grand Duke Constantine. But Konstantin was terrified at the prospect of becoming emperor. "They will strangle me like they strangled my father," he said when the topic came up. About three years before his death, Alexander signed a secret document making his younger brother, Grand Duke Nicholas, his heir.
But when Alexander died suddenly, the new order of succession was still secret and known only to a few members of the imperial family. All of Russia assumed that Constantine was its new emperor. Patriarchs, politicians and troops took new oaths of loyalty. Even the Grand Duke Nicholas took an oath, considering it best to observe the usual customs, until Alexander's secret document could be made known. Konstantin, based in Warsaw in his role as commander-in-chief of the Polish army, had no intention of ascending the throne. Nicholas urged his brother to come to St. Petersburg and publicly renounce the throne to end the confusion.
But Konstantin refused. "I cannot accept his request to come to St. Petersburg and warn him that I will move even further away unless everything is settled according to the will of our late sovereign." Meanwhile, the Decembrists of St. Petersburg met daily. Alexander's death took them by surprise. But the chaos of the interregnum provides them with perfect cover. They recruit more officers to their cause, survey the ranks, determine who can be trusted and who cannot. Ryleyev works tirelessly. Everyone is excited. That December, rumors, confusion and fake news swirled in the Russian capital. Grand Duke Nicholas knows that he is not popular among the troops: they see him as just another puppet, too fond of inspections and parades.
Now he is told that unknown army officers are actively plotting against him. He decides to act first. In the early hours of December 14, 1825, Nicholas declared himself Emperor of Russia. That morning he will demand an oath of loyalty from all officials and troops in St. Petersburg. The Decembrists know that if the troops take that oath, their cause is lost. There may not be another event like this for decades. December 14 is a day of life or death for


. And before the day is over, the streets of the Russian capital will be bathed in blood. December 1825. The unexpected death of Emperor Alexander plunged Russia into confusion.
The line of succession was secretly changed from his brother Konstantin to a younger brother, Nicholas. As he fights to claim his right to the throne, a secret society of army officers prepares to make his decision. Most are veterans of the wars against Napoleon. They now want a political revolution in Russia, the end of autocratic rule and the abolition of slavery. The fate of their revolution will be decided in a single day of chaos and violence in the streets of Saint Petersburg... They will be known by the month of their uprising... The Decembrists. December 14, 1825. Saint Petersburg. The Northern Society of the Decembrists is headquartered in the offices of the Russian-American Company, where one of its key members, Ryleyev, is a major shareholder.
The Decembrist leaders worked feverishly day and night to put everything in place for a coup. Ryleyev is the main organizer, despite not feeling well. Before dawn they learn that the new emperor has ordered all troops and officials in the capital to swear an oath of loyalty to him that morning. They must act immediately. Once the troops are sworn in, it will be too late. Most of the Decembrists are officers of the Life Guard regiments, stationed in St. Petersburg. They plan to tell their men that Nicholas, known and detested by the troops, is usurping the throne from his brother Konstantin, to whom the soldiers swore an oath of loyalty just 17 days ago.
There is no plan to involve the Russian people in their uprising. These young aristocrats fear that this will only lead to the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. Instead, they will depend on their social connections and the unquestionable trust of the men under their command. They will then use these troops to take control of the capital, the emperor, and the government. They will form three groups: the first will be led by Captain Alexander Yakubovich, a distinguished veteran of the Caucasus War with a reputation for bravery. His men will take over the Winter Palace and protect Emperor Nicholas and his family.
Some Decembrists want to keep the emperor prisoner, but Ryleyev secretly entrusts his assassination to 28-year-old Pyotr Kakhovsky, an officer who has recently retired due to health problems. As a cadet officer in the Jaeger Lifeguard Regiment, Kakhovsky was demoted for rudeness, guilt, and laziness. He is a loner, without friends or money, but dedicated to the cause of freedom and considers himself a murderer of tyrants. A second division will be commanded by Colonel Alexander Bulatov, 32, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars and Ryeleyev's childhood friend. He was recruited just days before the uprising, when the Decembrists sought to recruit more high-ranking officers.
His unit will take over the Peter and Paul Fortress, which houses the city's arsenal and dominates the city center. Prince Colonel Sergei Trubetskoy was named "dictator" or leader of the coup. He is another officer of proven bravery, from a distinguished family. He will command the main force, expected to number nearly 10,000 men, which will gather at Senate Square. Trubetskoy will then enter the Russian Senate and demand that the Decembrists' "Manifesto to the Russian People" be issued. The document announced the establishment of a new provisional government until elections could be held, freedom of the press and religion, equality before the law, the introduction of jury trials, and the abolition of slavery and military settlements.
Two well-known and respected politicians, Nikolai Mordvinov and Mikhail Speransky, would lead the new government, to provide continuity and tranquility. The Decembrists, drawing on their military experience, devised a realistic plan to take control of the Russian capital. But almost immediately the conspiracy begins to unravel. On a very cold morning, Kakhovsky and Yakubovich arrive at Ryleyev's apartments, where the Decembrists have gathered. Kakhovsky has lost his temper and is no longer willing to kill the emperor. At the last minute, Yakubovich also decided that he could not shed the blood of Russian soldiers and refused to lead troops against the Winter Palace.
Bulatov, who was supposed to lead his troops against the Peter and Paul Fortress, does not even appear. The Decembrists are in a race against time. In St. Petersburg there are several guard regiments. They must defeat enough of them to secure the capital, before the regime realizes what is happening and moves against them. But they learn that the Senate and Preobrazhensky's lifeguards have already sworn loyalty to Nicholas. This painting was based on sketches made later by the Emperor himself. It shows the 1st Preobrazhensky Lifeguard Battalion arriving at the Winter Palace that morning. It is an act of loyalty that Nicholas will always be grateful for.
A battalion of the Moscow Life Guard Regiment joins the cause of the Decembrists, thanks to the efforts of captains Schepin-Rostovsky, Mikhail Bestuzhev and his brother Alexander Bestuzhev. But the regime is moving much faster than expected. Officers loyal to Nicholas, now aware of the unfolding coup, arrange for the Izmailovsky, Semyonovsky and Pavlovsky Lifeguard Regiments, and the Horse Lifeguard Regiment, to swear an oath to Nicholas. 700 men of the Moscow Life Guard Regiment leave their barracks and march through the icy streets to Senate Square. Their war cry is "For Konstantin and the Constitution!" Men of the Moscow Life Guards regiment take position on Senate Square, near the famous bronze statue of Peter the Great.
They are joined by several Decembrist leaders, including Ryleyev and Kakhovsky. Captain Alexander Bestuzhev ostentatiously sharpens his saber at the base of the statue. The officers and men look great in dress uniform. But Trubetskoy, the leader of the coup, who will present the Decembrist manifesto to the Senate, is nowhere to be found. And the members of the Senate have already gone home. Ryleyev goes out to look for him. A crowd of spectators begins to gather around Senate Square. The general atmosphere is supportive of the Decembrists. This watercolor was painted by Carl Ivanovich Kollman, an eyewitness, and is considered one of the most realistic depictions of the period.
At noon, Count Mikhail Miloradovich, Governor General of St. Petersburg and famous war hero, arrives at the square. He turned directly to the Moscow lifeguard regiment and asked: "Which of you was with me in Kulm, Lützen and Bautzen?", remembering the great battles against Napoleon. He tells the men that they were lied to that Konstantin has abdicated and that they must swear an oath to Nicholas. In Trubetskoy's absence, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Obolensky becomes de facto leader of the Decembrists on Senate Square. He tells Miloradovich to leave, but the general ignores him. Obolensky tries to stab the general's horse with a bayonet to scare him away, but accidentally stabs the general.
Then Pyotr Kakhovski steps forward and shoots Miloradovich at point-blank range. The general, mortally wounded, is carried by his horse. The Grenadier Regiment of Life Guards and the Sailors of the Guard declared themselves in favor of the Decembrists. They join Moscow's first responders on Senate Square. The Decembrists assemble a powerful and disciplined force of 3,000 soldiers in the heart of the Russian capital. But Trubetskoy has not yet appeared and there is little leadership. They stand and wait in the bitter cold... while the Emperor begins to mobilize his own forces. Unaware of the men in Senate Square, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy had abandoned all hope of success early that morning, as soon as he learned that the Senate had sworn in Nicholas.
Possibly suffering some sort of nervous breakdown, he wanders around the city and at one point passes Senate Square itself. His brilliant military record makes such behavior difficult to understand. A Decembrist later recalled: "His absence from him had a decisive influence on us and also on the soldiers, since with few epaulettes and no military title, no one dared to take command." Meanwhile, Ryleyev, exhausted and ill, spends the day searching in vain for Trubetskoy, before being forced to retire to bed. The crowd is now several thousand strong and their loyalty clearly lies with the Decembrists. Some police officers and patrol cars are even attacked by civilians.
When Emperor Nicholas arrives, they throw sticks and stones at him and his entourage. But guard units loyal to the government arrive in force at Senate Square and take up positions around the rebels. They soon outnumber the Decembrists three to one... although not all of them are willing to shoot their comrades. In fact, Isaac's Bridge is deliberately obstructed by troops from the Finnish Lifeguard Regiment, whose sympathies are with the Decembrists. Others, like General Orlov, are outraged by the actions of the Decembrists. He orders his Guard Cavalry to charge the rebels. The crowd throws stones and firewood at his men, and the rebels stand their ground.
Some shots are fired, some men are hit... and the horsemen retreat. That afternoon several cavalry charges were made, with no decisive result and only a handful of casualties. However, no Decembrist officer takes control of the situation. There seems to be no plan. It's -10 degrees Celsius and his men have been motionless for hours. The commander of the Grenadier Lifeguard Regiment, Colonel Nikolai Stürler, arrives to order his men to return to the barracks. Kakhovsky shoots him and inflicts another fatal wound. The metropolitan bishops of St. Petersburg and kyiv approach the troops and tell them that it is their Christian duty to take the oath to Nicholas... but they are mocked and chased away.
The emperorHe is deeply concerned about the situation in Senate Square, although many comment on his calm demeanor. He later confesses to his younger brother: "The most surprising thing about this story is that you and I weren't shot." The short winter day is coming to an end. Nicholas fears that if the battle continues late into the night, the crowd will become hostile. He now has at his disposal 32 guard artillery guns. He sends General Sukhozanet around the rebels telling them to lay down their weapons or they will be shot. He is a poor choice of ambassador. Sukhozanet is despised by the troops.
They tell him to get lost. When twilight falls, the weapons advance. The first burst is empty rounds. The next one is fired over the heads of the rebel troops, but hits several people in the crowd. The troops stand firm. The next volley of shrapnel is fired directly into their tightly packed ranks. Scores go down. Under this murderous fire, the troops break ranks and head towards the frozen Neva River. Mikhail Bestuzhev tries to organize them for an attack on the Peter and Paul Fortress, just over 1,000 meters higher up the ice. But as they form, they come under artillery fire.
Cannonballs break the ice. Many drowned. The rest escape as best they can. After an uprising that lasted several hours, the new emperor of Russia ruthlessly crushed the military uprising. The official death toll is only 80. Eyewitnesses claim it is much higher. The Decembrist leaders, all of whom survived the bloodshed in Senate Square, are arrested that night and the next day. The Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg is over. The uprising in the south has not yet begun. December 13, 1825. Tulchyn, Ukraine. On the eve of the St. Petersburg uprising, Pavel Pestel, a leading figure in the Southern Society, is denounced by one of his officers and arrested.
The Southern Society's uprising plans are thrown into chaos. Sergei Muravyov-Apostol takes over as leader. He receives news of the disastrous uprising in St. Petersburg, but decides to continue with the planned uprising in the south. On December 29, he himself is arrested, but his fellow officers quickly release him. The next day, he leads two companies of the 29th Chernigov Regiment toward Vasilkov, where they confiscate money, weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Three other companies - more than 400 men - join the rebels. The next morning, a revolutionary manifesto, written by Muravyov-Apostol and Lieutenant Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin, is read to the troops. In the form of a question-and-answer religious catechism, the document calls for an uprising to end autocracy, slavery and conscription. “Question: What does our holy law order to the Russian people and army?
Answer: Repent of our long servitude and oppose tyranny and evil, and promise that there will be only one Emperor in heaven and on earth - Jesus Christ." On January 1, Muravyov-Apostol led a force of 17 officers and 1,100 men. He attempts to march to Zhytomyr, to join units of the 8th Infantry Division, whose officers are sympathetic to the Decembrist cause. But his route is blocked by government forces. Then, on January 3, his force was. intercepted by troops under the command of General Muravyov-Apostol waits for the enemy troops to join him. Instead, they fire with grapeshot. Then the hussars attack. Some men are killed, but most are quickly captured. 895 men and six officers, including Muravyov-Apostol, who is seriously wounded.
His brother Ippolit and another Decembrist officer, Anastasy Kuzmin, take their lives to avoid capture. The Decembrist uprising in the south is over, crushed in just five. days. In St. Petersburg, the Decembrist leaders are personally interrogated by Emperor Nicholas before being sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The Emperor gives instructions on how each prisoner should be treated, whether to keep him in shackles and treat him severely or more gently. He despises them all: he describes Trubetskoy as "a repulsive example of an ungrateful scoundrel." Nicholas creates a commission to investigate the plot and its origins. 579 suspects are arrested and subjected to repeated interrogations, long periods of isolation, hunger and cold or feigned sympathy.
Many confess freely, revealing details of secret societies and names of co-conspirators. Some resist defiantly. Colonel Bulatov, who would have led the attack on the Peter and Paul Fortress, was so overcome with guilt that he committed suicide in his cell. There are no trials as such. Five months later, the Commission returns its verdicts to the Emperor: 290 are acquitted. 289 are guilty and 121 are considered the worst offenders. A Supreme Court was established to hand down sentences, according to 11 categories of guilt, devised by Mikhail Speransky, the man the Decembrists hoped would lead their new government. Those found guilty of minor crimes are demoted and sent to fight in Russia's protracted war in the Caucasus, alongside regiments that joined the Decembrists.
Thirty-one of the Decembrists found guilty of the most serious crimes (conspiracy, rebellion, and seeking the death of the emperor) were to be executed by beheading. But Nicholas shows mercy and commutes his sentence to lifelong hard labor in Siberia. Before leaving, the officers are stripped of their noble rank and privileges, and ceremonially disgraced. They burned their jackets and broke their swords in half. This is the punishment imposed on Nikita Muravyov, who drafted the constitution of the Northern Society for a new and liberal Russia. And to Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, the missing leader of the Decembrists, whose life is saved only by his surname.
Five Decembrists will not be saved: Pyotr Kakhovsky Sergei Muravyov-Apostol Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin Pavel Pestel and Kondraty Ryleyev. "The public death of the main instigators and conspirators will be their rightful revenge for disturbing the public peace," Nicholas wrote to the commission members. The five are sentenced to death by quartering, a brutal punishment that involves public dismemberment. "God and the Sovereign have decreed my destiny: I must die, and suffer a shameful death," Ryleyev wrote in a final letter to his wife. "Pray to God for my soul." July 13, 1826. Nicholas commuted the sentence to hanging. But the execution of the five Decembrists, on the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress, was seriously damaged.
As the men are being hanged, the ropes break and three men fall to the ground. "What a miserable country. They can't even hang us properly," said one survivor. The spectators ask for mercy: according to tradition, a man who survives a hanging must be forgiven. Instead, more string is found and the second time there is no error. Finally, more than 80 Decembrists were sent to Siberia. Some were accompanied by their wives, who voluntarily gave up their noble privileges to be with their husbands. The conditions in Siberia were not as extreme as one might imagine. Their hard work was mainly agricultural work.
Wealthy prisoners were sent money from home, which they used to buy supplies. For active young people, boredom was the biggest enemy. They took up hobbies, played chess, painted. This watercolor was painted by Nikolai Bestuzhev, who led Imperial Guard sailors to Senate Square on the 14th. Some have established their own "academies", shared their knowledge, and continue to teach local children and open schools. They maintained the hope of obtaining forgiveness, but it was a thirty-year wait. Only in 1856, after the death of Emperor Nicholas, an amnesty was announced for the surviving Decembrists. Among them, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, who returned to Russia, and who is photographed here in 1857.
The Decembrist uprising seemed to be a total failure... A tremendously optimistic operation, poorly planned, chaotically executed, doomed to failure from the beginning; the thoughtless and unnecessary loss of life. But the Decembrists provoked the first organized political uprising in Russian history. As such, its impact would be far-reaching. "The recent conspiracy," wrote the British Resident Minister at St. Petersburg, "failed for lack of direction and of a leader to direct it, and was too premature to answer any good purpose, but I believe the seed has already been sown which one day it will have important consequences." Emperor Nicholas was never interested in reforms: questions of slavery and a constitution would remain for decades.
For those who embraced the cause of reform, including Russia's liberal intellectuals and future


, the Decembrists were an inspiring example of action in the face of tyranny. "The father of Russian socialism", Alexander Herzen, was its great defender. He called his political magazine 'Polar Star', after Ryleyev himself. On the cover of its first edition, the five Decembrist martyrs... Over time, the goals of the Decembrists (the abolition of slavery, a constitution, and even the overthrow of the tsar) were achieved. But his brand of 19th-century liberalism was soon overtaken by events in Russia. The communists never fully approved of the aristocratic Decembrists, although in 1925 they allowed Senate Square to be renamed Decembrist Square, to celebrate the centenary of the uprising.
But the place of the Decembrists in Russian history remains highly controversial to this day. A 2019 Russian blockbuster was accused of trivializing the Decembrists and their goals. Others called for the film to be shown in schools. While in 2008, St. Petersburg Square, where the Decembrists made their famous resistance, was renamed Senate Square again. The Decembrists still serve as a warning to some and an inspiration to others. The only thing that is certain is that the Decembrists have not yet been relegated to history. Thank you to all the Epic History TV Patreon supporters who make this channel possible.

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