Dimitri Von Mohrenschildt, Toward a United States of Russia: Plans and Projects of Federal Reconstruction of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, 1981.

The Decembrists

The historian V. I. Semevsky was one of the first to point out how widespread federal ideas were among the Decembrists.1 The inspiration for this trend came from different sources: The United States Constitution, the French Revolution, and the Pan-Slav ideas current among western Slavs after the Napoleonic wars. Within Russia a contributing factor was an increasing awareness of the multinational character of the Russian empire, highlighted by the granting of the Finnish (1809) and the Polish (1815) constitutions.

The Decembrists developed two major plans for reconstructing Russia along federal lines. One, originating in the Northern Society, was Nikita Muraviev's constitution modeled after the federal system of the United States; the other plan, originating in the South, aimed at a Slav federation of which Russia was to be a part. This latter plan originated in the Society of United Slavs, an organization which existed independently for a time but merged with the Southern Society of the Decembrists shortly before the abortive revolt of December 14, 1825.

Besides these two major plans, there were a number of individual Decembrists who were, to various degrees, exponents of decentralization and of a federal organization for Russia. Among these was the poet Ryleev, an enthusiast for American federalism, G. S. Batenkov, and several liberal naval officers, notably Zavalishin, and the brothers Beliaeff.2 [19]

Nikita Muraviev's Constitution

As is known, the moderate Northern Society, composed largely of wealthy and prominent nobility of the two capitals, and the Southern Society, for the most part composed of poorer, less educated gentry with an admixture of Poles and Ukrainians, were never able to agree on a common program or tactics. Muraviev's proposal for a federal constitutional monarchy was rejected by Colonel Pestel, a Jacobin centralist and exponent of Russia one and indivisible; nor did his plan have even the approval of the entire Northern Society. Nevertheless, Muraviev's constitution was an important political document, comparable in historical significance to Pestel's Russian Justice, and it no doubt reflected the political aspirations of a considerable section of the liberal nobility of the North.3

Nikita M. Muraviev (1795-1843), one of the organizers and leaders of the Northern Society, belonged to an old, prominent, and highly educated family, many members of which had joined the Masonic lodges. His father, who was a tutor of Alexander I, was a poet and historian, imbued with the philosophy of enlightenment; his mother, daughter of a wealthy senator, was a Voltairian and a liberal.4

Nikita received an excellent European education with an emphasis on Christian morality and precepts. At the age of seventeen he joined the army and took part in the battles of 1813-14, entering Paris with the Russian troops. There he attended briefly the University of Paris and met such famous people as Benjamin Constant and Sies.5 Together with other guard officers, Nikita joined the secret patriotic society, the Union of Salvation (1816-18), and its successor, the Union of Welfare until its split in 1821 into the Northern Society and the Southern Society. From all accounts Nikita was the most scholarly and the best read among the leaders of the Northern Society. I. E. Yakushkin spoke highly of him: "He was a highly educated man and very modest; he loved and respected scholarship to the very end of his life."6 His intellectual interests were wide ranging, from eighteenth-century French [20] philosophers to British and American political writers -- Blackstone, Bentham, Adams, and Jefferson -- works on European constitutions, on the U. S. federal constitution and the constitutions of all twenty-four American states.7 Nikita was married to Countess Alexandra Chernysheva, who followed him to Siberia.

An intelligent, balanced, and reserved man, temperamentally he was the opposite of Pestel. Some thought he was cold and self-centered, but he was generally respected both prior to and after the uprising. His conduct before the Investigating Committee was irreproachable; he was brief, courageous, and careful not to implicate anyone not already known to the committee.8

Muraviev was sentenced to death by beheading, but later the sentence was commuted to hard labor for life. In Siberia he often lectured to his colleagues on military strategy and tactics. In his last years he seems to have sincerely repented, and he took consolation in reading the Bible which Nicholas I sent him.9

As Druzhinin has shown, Muraviev's general world view derives from the rational philosophy of the eighteenth century, based on natural rights and centered in the freedom of the individual. In his comparative study of European governments, Muraviev was critical of administrative centralization of France and Germany but expressed great admiration for the British system of self-government. In his opinion it gave the individual maximum freedom and independence from central control.10

Muraviev's constitution exists in three variants, which more or less complement one another. The first variant, found in S. P. Trubetskol's papers, is a rough draft probably written in 1821-22. The second edition, written in the autumn of 1824, is more detailed and systematic and shows attempts at reconciliation between the North and the South. It was copied (the original was destroyed) in Ryleev's own handwriting and has marginal remarks by other Decembrists. This variant was found in the papers of I. I. Pushchin. The third variant was written by Muraviev in prison at the request [21] of the investigating committee and is based entirely on memory.11

Muraviev's predilection for the federal principle is clearly expressed in the preamble to the first draft of the constitution:

Small nations are usually at the mercy of their neighbors and cannot maintain independence. Large nations suffer from domestic oppression. . . . Only a federal organization of government can satisfy all conditions and combine the grandeur of a nation with the freedom of its citizens.

Under the supervision of the Emperor one legislative assembly makes all the decisions affecting the whole state, while particular decisions affecting particular regions are left to the regional legislative assembly organised on the model of the legislature in the capital. In this way the welfare of the whole state as well as its parts is achieved.12

According to Muraviev's plan (the second, so-called Pushchin draft), the Russian Empire was to be a federal constitutional monarchy with thirteen states (derzhavy) and two regions (oblasti).13 The bicameral legislature, the National Assembly (Narodnoe Veche), is closely modeled on the Congress of the United States. The upper chamber (Verkbovnoe Veche) consists of three citizens elected from every state (not by direct vote but by the State Duma and the chamber of electors at joint session); two from the Moscow region and one from the Don region, a total of forty-two members. One-third of the upper house is reelected every two years. The lower chamber (Palata narodnykh predstavitelei) is composed of members elected for two years by the citizens of the state, one representative for every 50,000 male inhabitants, altogether about 450 representatives.14

Each state has three separate and independent powers -- legislative, executive, and judicial -- and a two-chamber legislature modeled on the National Assembly. There is full recognition of the principle of checks and balances.

The executive power is in the hands of the emperor, whose relationship to the legislature resembles that of the United [22] States president and Congress. The emperor has the power of veto, is commander in chief of the armed forces of the federation, and is in charge of foreign affairs subject to the consent of the upper house.15 There is no vice-president in Muraviev's scheme and the upper chamber elects its own chairman. In some respects the power of the emperor is even more limited than that of the president of the United States. For example, he cannot use troops for the suppression of internal disturbances until the National Assembly determines that the conditions warrant this. Also, the right of amnesty belongs not to the emperor but to the Assembly.16

The executive power in every state belongs to the governor (derzhavnyl pravitel), his lieutenant, and a council. These councils, consisting of five to nine members elected for three years, are somewhat analogous to those which existed in the American states and which were part of the colonial system.17 The governor is elected every three years by the state legislature from among a list of candidates submitted by the governing assemblies and confirmed by the emperor. The functions of the governors are similar to those in the United States. There is a high property qualification as in all elective offices in Muraviev's constitution. This departs from the United States practice and is more In line with the European.18

As Krichevsky and Druzhinin have shown, there are many parallels between Muraviev's and the U. S. constitution. But there are also some differences. The most important of these is that Muraviev's derzhavy don't have their own, separate constitutions as do the states in the United States.19

There are minor borrowings from European constitutions, notably the Spanish of 1812 and the French of 1791.20 But on the whole Muraviev is not inspired by European political theory of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century so much as by the experience of the United States. There were native influences also. One was the constitutional charter of the kingdom of Poland.21 Through Viazemsky, Muraviev also became acquainted with the Novosiltsev charter and most likely had some knowledge of N. S. Mordvinov's and [23] M. Speransky's constitutional projects. He also made a thorough study of Catherine II's Nakaz, comparing it carefully to Montesquieu's Espri't des lois.22 For Muraviev, as Krichevsky observed, the United States experience belied the popular theory held by Montesquieu and Catherine II that large states must be ruled by centralized monarchies. Concluding his comparison of the U. S. and Muraviev's constitutions, Krichevsky states that Muraviev made "a free translation of the U. S. Federal Constitution of 1787, skillfully combining it with some features from the constitutions of the individual American States."23

In the preamble to the first draft of the constitution Muraviev proclaimed the federal principle as the best form of government for Russia. It appears, however, that his interpretation of this principle was rather limited. In dividing Russia into states, he paid little attention to the ethnic or national principle, but emphasized rather economic territorial division.24 It is true, however, that Muraviev gave much autonomy to his derzhavy. The only powers which he retained for the federal government were declaration of war and peace, coinage, and maintenance of the armed forces. There were only four federal ministeries: finance, army, navy, and foreign affairs.25 Thus this draft envisaged a highly decentralized plan of organization. The South rejected it outright. Pestel strongly criticized it on the grounds that the federal principle would weaken the state and encourage fragmentation, as in the Appanage period of Russian history. Another reason for the rejection of the plan was Muraviev's high property qualifications, which Pestel thought would "legalise aristocracy."

The second edition of 1824 (the Pushchin variant) represented to some extent an attempt at compromise. More centralization was introduced in the legislative and executive branches and more attention was paid to the ethnic principle and the multinational character of the empire. Druzhinin thought that Muraviev's constitution had not achieved a real federation because there was no federal agreement between the states as in the United States. What Muraviev tried to do, [24] according to Druzhinin, was "to satisfy contemporary nationalism and simultaneously to protect the individual from undue interference of the state."26

It seems paradoxical that Pestel, strongly influenced by the centralist policy of the French Jacobins, was actually more conscious of the non-Russian nationalities comprising the empire. This is how he treated the question in Russian Justice:

A federal organisation is not suitable for such a varigated state as Russia because it would further increase this variety and before long one could easily foresee that these different regions would soon fall away from the Russian core; and Russia will then not only lose its might, greatness and strength, but perhaps its very existence as one of the principles of great states.27
The Russian state was thus declared to be one and indivisible, and the federal principle was completely rejected. According to Pestel, the laws must be the same throughout the territory of the empire, and his solution of the nationality problem was assimilation -- the merging of all Russian cultures into a single Russian culture. In this respect, as Raeff observed, Pestel came closer to reactionary officials such as Pobedonostsev than to his fellow conspirators of the North.

The Society of United Slavs

I will dedicate my last breath to freedom and the fraternal union of the noble Slavs.

From the Society's Oath.

In 1823, in the Ukraine, a number of officers of regiments stationed there organized a secret society named the Society of United Slavs. Its primary objective was unification of all Slavic peoples. Each nation was to have a representative government, its own legislature, and a congress of Pan-Slav representatives which was to direct the affairs of the federation.28

Although Soviet historians have discovered considerable new material on the Society of United Slavs, the origins and [25] history of the society are still obscure. The founders were two brothers, Peter (1800-54) and Andrew (1798-1854) Borisov, both young army officers of humble origin and limited education, and a Polish nobleman, Julian Liublinski. The latter was brought in chains from Warsaw to Novgorod-Volynsk on charges of belonging to a secret society.29 Somewhat later, Second Lieutenant Gorbachevsky became an important member and negotiator.

The father of the Borisov brothers was a retired major in the army. The family was poor and the children largely self-educated. Peter, the dominant figure, was an enthusiast for Greek and Roman history as well as for Voltaire, Helvetius, Hollback, and other eighteenth-century writers. It was Peter who organized a short-lived, semi-Masonic "Pythagorian Sect" with the slogan "La Gloire, I'Amour et I'Amitie. " As a young), Officer, Peter, while stationed in the Poltava province, saw a soldier in his regiment beaten to death with rods for being drunk, and the brothers were often shocked by the treatment of peasants by the local gentry. "From childhood," Peter testified to the Investigating Committee, "I had been fascinated by democracy; while still at home I very often quarrelled over my Greeks and Romans with my brother, who did not agree with my political opinions. . . . But in 1823 our opinions became more nearly alike and we determined to organize a society which . . . would demand from the Sovereign fundamental laws for which he himself would be responsible."30

The other idealogue of the society, Liublinski, was better educated and more sophisticated than the Borisov brothers, though he too was largely self-educated. He taught himself Latin, French, Italian, and German and knew the major political writers of the time. The idea of Slavic unity probably belongs to him. "I told them [the Borisovs]," he testified, "we are all of us Slavs, and came from one tribe."31 However, it is also possible that the Pan-Slav idea, widely current at the time, came from the Masonic lodge, Les Slaves Reunis, founded in Kiev in 1818 and described by Prince S. G. Volkonsky, who belonged to it.32 [26]

It appears that the two brothers and Liublinski composed the rules and the oath of the society, though the part played by each is not clear.33

Second Lieutenant Gorbachevsky (1800-69), alias "Scipio," joined the society at the end of 1823. He was a landless noble born near Nezhin in the Ukraine. His ideas were formed, he acknowledged, by the Borisov brothers. A Soviet biographer, G. P. Shatrova, describes him as a "revolutionary democrat," strongly anti-regime.34 Gorbachevsky's memoirs, written much later in Siberia, should be taken with caution, as Bartenev and other scholars warn of his exaggerations and lapses of memory. He describes the main objectives of the Society of United Slavs, before its merger with the Southern Society, as follows:

Liberation of all Slavic peoples from despotism, the eradication of the national animosities existing among some of them, and the bringing of the lands they inhabited into a federal union. It proposed to define decisively the exact boundaries of each state, introduced a form of democratic government for all the peoples, and to call a Congress to administer the Union's affairs and to make necessary changes in the fundamental laws, letting each state concern itself with its own internal organization and to establish its own laws independently.35

The Slav federation was to comprise eight nationalities: Russians, Poles, Hungarians (sic), Bohemians, Croats, Dalmatians, Serbs, Moravians. The Ukraine as a sovereign state was not mentioned. The society's emblem was an octagon, representing the eight nations, with four anchors standing for the Baltic, Black, White and Adriatic Seas. There were to be four navies and a lively trade was to be maintained "to ward off poverty and want."36 The capital of the federation was not named. Members of the society were urged "to encourage temperance and industry and strive toward intellectual and moral perfection"; in the future, federation serfdom was to be abolished and class distinctions were to be eliminated. 37

The society was against a military revolution but wanted to secure the support of the masses through propaganda. [27] "Although military revolutions reach the goal faster," wrote Gorbachevsky, "their consequences are dangerous: instead of being the cradle of liberty in whose name they are made, they become its coffin."38

The officers who joined the society generally came from impoverished, landless gentry. Many were sons of provincial civil servants and could be considered early representatives of what later became known as raznochintsy. They were all young and of low military rank. Nechkina called them "proletarian nobles." They presented a sharp contrast to the upper-class leaders of the Southern Society, who were older, of higher rank, and far better educated. This difference in social status may account for the difference in the programs of the two groups. Members of the United Slavs were undoubtedly closer to the common soldier and were more interested in mass support. They were actually recruiting soldiers of the Chernigov regiment, much to the displeasure of the leaders of the Southern Society. Above all, their major objective was the creation of a democratic, federal republic of all the Slavs -- an objective foreign, if not inimical, to Pestel's Southern Society. In spite of what seemed to be a basic incompatibility, the two societies needed each other and after prolonged negotiations and many hesitations the United Slavs finally agreed to merge with the Southern Society.39 .

In 1824 the two groups came into contact at a military camp in Leshchin, in the province of Volynia. Borisov and Gorbachevsky were delegated as negotiators. In eloquence and, one may add, in guile, they were no match for M. Bestuzhev-Riumin and S. Muraviev-Apostol, who represented the Southern Society. For some time the United Slavs remained suspicious and reluctant to give up or drastically modify their ideals.40 Finally, their resistance was undermined. The chief argument was that the United Slavs could never achieve their objectives alone. First, they were told, despotism must be abolished in Russia itself. Some of the Slavs objected to regicide, which was part of the Southern Society's program. Moraviev-Apostol allayed their fears however, by "proving" to them that the teaching of the Bible permitted [28] it.41 Some were afraid that the United Slavs would lose their identity; others objected to the undemocratic, militaristic approach to the revolution.

Gorbachevsky described dramatically the scene of the merger. The oath of the union was administered by Bestuzhev-Riumin on a small ikon which he wore on his chest. He took the oath first, kissed the ikon, then asked the United Slavs' representatives to do the same.42 It was thus that the two incompatible groups -- Pestel's centralists and Borisov's federalists -- amalgamated. In the end, the United Slavs were obliged to accept the program of the Southern Society -- first to free Russia and then, presumably, to help free the Slavs. In the eyes of the government the Pan-Slav ideas became thereafter associated with social revolution. On the other hand, the federal idea, which the United Slavs were the first to enunciate in Russia, served as an inspiration for the Petrashevsky circle, the Ukrainian federalists, the Siberian regionalists, and, above all, for Herzen and the populists. As Fadner pointed out it was "a spontaneous native movement, inasmuch as the organization was conceived and begotten on Russian soil."43


1. V. 1. Sernevsky, Politicheskie i obsbsbestvennye idealy dekabristov (St Petersburg, 1909), pp. 456-69, 482-91.

2. Ibid., pp. 487, 491.

3. The most important source material on the Decembrists is M. N. Pokrovsky, ed., Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy po istorii vosstaniia dekabristov. 8 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad, 1925-29).

A thorough and comprehensive study of N. Muraviev's constitution is that of N. M. Druzhinin, Dekabrist Nikita Muraviev (Moscow, 1933). For a detailed analysis of the similarities and differences between Muraviev's constitution and the federal and state constitutions of the United States, see G. G. Krichevsky, "Konstitutsionnyi proekt Nikity Muravieva i amerikanskie konstitutsii," Izvestiia Akademii Nauk SSSR. Seriia istorii i filosofii (Moscow, 1946), 2:397-406.

4. Not all the Muravievs were liberal humanists. Mikhail Muraviev, Governor General of Vilna, after the Polish insurrection of 1863, acquired the reputation of "Muraviev the Hangman." Reputedly he used to say: "I belong not to those [29] Muravievs who were hanged [i.d., Sergei Muraviev-Apostol), but to those who give orders to hang others." M. Zetlin, The Decembrists (New York, 1958), p. 90.

5. N. M. Druzhinin, p. 74.

6. S. Ya., Shtraikh, ed., Zapiski, stati, pisma dekebrista I. D. Iakusbkina (Moscow, 1951), p. 162.

7. Druzhinin, pp. 74, 79, 177.

8. M. V. Nechkina, Dvizhenie dekabristov (Moscow, 1955), 2: 398-99; M. V. Dovnar-Zapolsky, Memuary dekebrista (Kiev, 1906), p. xvi.

9. Druzhinin, p. 247.

10. Ibid., p. 109.

11. All the variants are in Druzhinin, appendix, pp. 303-20. In English, in abbreviated form, they are found in M. Raeff, The Decembrist Movement (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1966), pp. 103-18 and in A Source Book for Russian History (New Haven, Conn., 1972) 2: 516-18.

12. Druzhinin, pp. 303-304; Raeff, The Decembrist Movement, pp. 103-104.

13. According to the first draft there were to be fourteen states and according to the prison version fifteen. The states and the regions are subdivided into 569 districts and these into volosti, with 500 to 1,500 male inhabitants. The judiciary of the states is divided into circuits (okrugi) equal in size to the provinces of that time. (Druzhinin, p. 308.)

14. Druzhinin, p. 340; Semevsky, p. 459; Krichevsky, pp. 398-99.

15. Druzhinin, p. 339; Krichevsky, p. 401.

16. Druzhinin, p. 335-39; Krichevsky, p. 401.

17. Krichevsky, p. 403.

18. Druzhinin, pp. 317-18; Krichevsky, p. 403.

19. Krichevsky, p. 402; Druzhinin, p. 180.

20. Krichevsky, p. 405.

21. Druzhinin, p. 177.

22. Druzhinin, p. 178.

23. Krichevsky, p. 404.

24. Druzhinin, p. 180. In this early draft Nizhni Novgorod was to be the capital of the federation; Smolensk of the Dnieper state; Kharkov of the Ukraine state; St. Petersburg of the state of Bothniia; Great Novgorod of the Baltic state. (Druzhinin, p. 308; Nechkina, p. 389.)

25. Nechkina, 1: 390-91.

26. Druzhinin, p. 108.

27. P. 1. Pestel, Russian Justice, quoted in Raeff, The Decembrist Movement, PP. 136-37.

28. No comprehensive plan or program such as Muraviev's constitution or Pestel's Russian Justice was developed by this society. The "rules" and the "oath" of the society are in volume 5 of Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy, (MoscowLeningrad, 1926). English translations of these are in Raeff, The Decembrist Movement, pp. 158-60. A major source on the society is the memoir of one of its leading members, I. I. Gorbachevsky, Zapiski i pisma dekabrista, first [30] published by P. I. Bartenev in 1882; Soviet editions in 1925 and 1963. English translations of excerpts of this memoir are found in Raeff, pp. 160-61 and in A Source Book for Russian History, 2: 527-28.

The Soviet historian M. Nechkina has written extensively on the Society of United Slavs; see her Obshchestvo Soedinennykh Slavian (Moscow-Leningrad 1927) and Dvizhenie dekabristov (Moscow, 1955), 2: 133-82.

29. All secret societies were ordered closed in the Kingdom of Poland in 1821, and in Russia a year later.

30. Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy, 5: 39, 52, and 82, cited in A. Mazur, The First Russian Revolution (1937), p. t43.

31. Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy, 5: 412; Nechkina, Obshchestvo Soedinennykh Slavian (1927), pp. 24-5.

32. S. G. Volkonsky, Zapiski Sergeia Grigorievicha Volkonskogo (St. Petersburg, 1902), cited in Frank Fadner, Seventy Years of Pan-Slavism in Russia, (Washington D.C., 1962), pp. 107-10.

33. The oath of initiation in its original form found at the beginning of volume 5 of Materialy is in Polish followed by a Russian translation; the seventeen rules are given in Russian followed by a Polish translation. (Fadner, p. 115 and note no. 178 on p. 374.)

34. G. P. Shatrova, Dekabrist I. I. Gorbacbevsky (Krasnoiarsk, 1937), pp. 19, 195.

35. I. I. Gorbachevsky, Zapiski i pisma dekabrista (Moscow, 1925), pp. 56-7; translation in A Source Book for Russian History, 2: 527-28.

36. Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy, 5: 12-13.

37. Gorbachevsky, "Zapiski neizvestnogo," Russkii arkhiv, 1882, no. 1, pp. 435-554; Raeff, pp. 160-61.

38. Gorbachevsky, "Zapiski," ibid.; Raeff, p. 161. The tactics of the United Slavs is a point of controversy among Soviet investigators. Nechkina thinks that the Slavs planned a mass revolution; Shatrova and others doubt this. (Shatrova, Dekabrist, L I. Gorbacbevsky, pp. 27-9.)

39. Gorbachevsky, "Zapiski," ibid.; Nechkina, Dvizhenie dekabristov, 2: 133-82. On the mutiny of the Chernigov regiment see an article by I. V. Porokh, in Ocberki iz istorii dvizheniia dekabristov, ed. N. Druzhinin and V. Syroechkovsky (Moscow, 1954), pp. 121, 185.

40. For a summary of these negotiations, see Gorbachevsky, "Zapiski," pp. 441-42, and Fadner, pp. 118-19.

41. Fadner, p. 120.

42. Gorbachevsky, "Zapiski," p. 459; this little ikon Bestuzhev gave to the guard just before his execution. (Vosstanie dekabristov. Materialy, 5: 36, 47-8.)

43. Fadner, p. 1-24.