Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, 1956.

Chapter 2

The Decembrists: The Secret Societies

On the night of 23 March, 1801, Paul I was strangled in his bedroom by a group of titled conspirators. They acted on the pretext that the Czar's mental derangement was endangering the safety of both the dynasty and the State. It was the last of the palace revolutions to which the successors of Peter the Great owed the throne. Like those that went before, it left the regime intact.

At the outset, however, great changes seemed afoot. Grand Duke Alexander had been described by Citizen Genet as 'an ardent democrat.' When he became Czar he surrounded himself with a group of young reformers dubbed by the diehards 'the Jacobin gang.' Before long he had as his chief adviser, Speransky, a Francophile statesman of liberal views, who wished to see the country industrialized, modernized, brought within the orbit of European civilization. The French influence strongly reasserted itself. 'You who abhor everything that upsets the social order,' wrote one dismayed Russian aristocrat to another the year after Alexander's accession, 'will be overwhelmed, on arriving in Petersburg, to see there hundreds of young men who deserve to be adopted sons of Robespierre and Danton.' An increasing number of people were exposed to Western ideas. The influence of English liberalism and, to lesser extent, German romanticism, was beginning to make itself felt. At the same time a growing body of native literature was having a humanizing effect, which tended to render the iniquity of the system more distasteful to the literate public.

The Emperor revoked certain repressive measures, stayed the censor's hand, and encouraged popular education. He also planned to bestow civil rights on the citizenry by a special edict, which was to be Russia's Magna Carta, and in 1809 Speransky drafted something in the nature of a constitution. In the preamble to this document the serf-owners are described as 'a handful of parasites.' The adoption of some form of representative government would have gone far toward conciliating the progressive elements of the gentry and even the inchoate middle class, which was becoming aware of the political implications of its economic interests. Nothing came of these plans for reform, however. The instrument drafted by Speransky was laid on the shelf, as was also a charter, based in part on the constitution of the United States, which was prepared a decade later. As his people were not long in discovering, Alexander was not the man to lead them out of bondage. 'He would gladly have consented to set the whole world free,' an intimate said of him, 'on condition that the whole world gladly did his bidding.'

The Government's foreign policy served to alienate the affections of the agrarians, without winning over the industrialists. The alliance with France after Tilsit, and the adherence to the Continental System, ruined the country's export trade, which was confined to agricultural products, and brought the State to the verge of bankruptcy. Feeling ran so high among the nobility that it looked as though Alexander might end like his father. A memorial addressed to the Czar, which was circulated in manuscript, called attention to famine in the border provinces, high prices in the capitals, crushing taxes, onerous levies of recruits everywhere, universal indignation and despair.

At the outbreak of the so-called Patriotic War of 1812 the landed gentry was further disturbed by fears that the invaders were going to liberate the serfs, and rumours of such an eventuality seeped down to the peasantry. Here and there, in the occupied territory, serfs refused to obey their masters, saying that now they were under the French, they were free. But it soon became clear to all concerned that Bonaparte, like Hitler in the next century, had come not to liberate, but to conquer and pillage. As a matter of fact, in Poland and Lithuania the French crushed the peasant risings for which the war had been a signal. Speaking before the Senate on 20 December, 1812, about the Russian campaign, Napoleon said that he could have won over the majority of the people by proclaiming the liberty of 'the slaves' but, seeing the brutishness of that large class of the population, he had refrained from enacting a measure which 'would have doomed many families to death, devastation, and horrible tortures.' To his brother Jerome he wrote that many villagers had petitioned him to issue an emancipation decree, promising to take up arms for him, but that in the absence of a middle class which could direct and moderate the popular movement that such a step would have started, he felt that to arm slaves would have meant 'to deliver over the country to frightful evils.'

One of the petitions mentioned by Napoleon has recently been brought to light. Dated Ruza (a town in central Russia), 30 September, 1812, and purporting to come from 'The Russian Provinces,' it opens with the statement that it has been God's will to end serfdom among the Russian people with the aid of Napoleon's power, and concludes with assurances of allegiance to him. For the most part, however, the masses were hostile to the French and, as everyone knows, their passive resistance played a part in annihilating la Grande Armee.

The invasion laid waste the western and some of the central provinces and left in its wake much economic distress. The campaigns of 1813 and 1814, while adding to the lustre of Russia's arms, were a further drain on the country's resources and increased the heavy burden borne by the masses. There was a widespread feeling among the peasantry that their patriotic service to the country had earned them their freedom, and that they were going to receive it at the Czar's hands. He had another view of the matter. 'May our faithful peasants receive their reward from God,' the Emperor said in his manifesto of 30 August, 1814, adding that, as regards privately owned serfs, 'we are certain that our care for their welfare will be forestalled by their masters' solicitude for them.' The institution of serfdom remained intact in spite of the fact that its drawbacks were beginning to show up with the development of a money economy.

Within a few years Alexander's early liberalism had virtually vanished and was replaced by the reactionary principles of the Holy Alliance. The ambassador to England, Count Semyon Vorontzov, writing to his son at the beginning of the reign, described the period as 'a suspension of tyranny,' predicting that his compatriots, like the Roman slaves after the Saturnalia, would soon relapse into their normal condition of servitude. His words proved prophetic. The decade that followed the Napoleonic wars witnessed something like a reversion to the nightmare of Paul's reign. 'Emperor Alexander I,' wrote Lafayette to Jefferson on 20 December, 1823, 'is now the head of the European counter-revolution.'

As a matter of fact, even while Alexander had been consorting with 'the Jacobin gang,' he had also been depending upon his father's trusted servitor, Arakcheyev, who combined the brutality of a vicious martinet with the meanness of a small-minded bureaucrat. With this man as the all-powerful vizier, the country was again at the mercy of intolerant obscurantism. The press was terrorized, elementary schooling was curtailed, and on the pretext that education must be based on 'piety,' the universities were emasculated. The few half-hearted administrative reforms, instead of leading to a parliamentary regime, only strengthened the hands of an incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy. The changes were 'a drama of feebleness and insincerity,' to use the language of Jeremy Bentham when, in 1814, he turned down the invitation to assist the commission for the revision of the Empire's code of laws.

The Government did introduce one novelty: the so-called military settlements. These were initiated before the war, but it was only in the year marked by the formation of the Holy Alliance that they were started on their disastrous career in earnest. This was a pet scheme of the Czar's whereby, to the alarm of the other powers, he hoped to obtain an unlimited supply of cannon fodder, cheap. The maintenance of the armed forces swallowed up a large part of the State revenue -- fifty-four and a half per cent, of it in 1816 -- and the settlements are generally believed to have been an ill-conceived measure of economy. An attempt has recently been made by an American scholar to show that the Czar was inspired by high motives in launching this enterprise, that the colonies were to be 'spearheads of civilization,' a boon to a backward people. Whatever the intentions behind the venture, its results proved a source of unmitigated misery to the population immediately concerned.

The plan called for the ultimate transformation of most of the Crown peasants into a military caste from which alone combat personnel was to be drawn, and which in time was to include a quarter to one-third of the country's male population. The members of this estate were to live in newly established settlements which were eventually to occupy a wide zone stretching across the Empire, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Thither the bulk of the standing army was gradually to be transferred. Indeed, elements of several regular regiments were quartered in the settlements which actually materialized. In these communities all the males, from the age of seven up, wore uniform. The men were enrolled in battalions and received military training but, unlike ordinary soldiers, were expected to support themselves by agricultural work and handicrafts. The settlements formed a state within a state, with an autonomous administration and laws and courts of their own. They were a centrally planned, strictly regulated society, a nightmare Utopia of paternalism and regimentation. Life there was subject to a rigid army regimen, families living in barrack-like cottages, the men working in the fields in squads. Even the women's chores, such as heating the stove, were done at the signal of a drum. Marriages were arranged by official order, and expectant mothers had to report to headquarters when they felt birth pangs.

From the first, the military settlements were abominated by the liberal-minded and eyed with apprehension even by conservatives. 'In the nature of things,' wrote the Empress's secretary, 'sooner or later Russia will not avoid a revolution. . . . The conflagration will start with these notorious settlements.' The peasants involved resented them fiercely, and there were some outbreaks of violence. These were ruthlessly put down. Alexander is alleged to have said that the settlements would be maintained even at the cost of lining the road from Petersburg to Chudovo with corpses. It would have meant seventy-five miles of them. Although the enterprise proved a failure financially and otherwise, due in part to the corruption and incompetence of the administration, which was headed by Arakcheyev, the most hated man in Russia, the Emperor refused to abandon it. By the end of his reign, the settlements had a population of some three hundred thousand male souls.


Ground down as the masses were, they remained inert, their discontent finding expression in sporadic riots and killings of brutal serf owners, as also, obliquely, in religious dissent. The landed gentry clung to its privileged status and to the monarch as its guarantor. Of course, the squires grumbled, particularly those who exported much of their produce. For some time Russia had been the bread-basket of Europe, and in the 'twenties the fall of world prices of grain, caused in part by the English Corn Laws, hit the agrarians hard. Because of disturbances in the Balkans, Turkey closed the straits to Russian shipping, thus further reducing the export of cereals. The government was blamed for failing to promote the nation's vital interests. The State, which was the chief buyer in the domestic market, fixed the prices it paid at so low a level as to make its purchases almost confiscatory. The industrialists, too, had their grievances. These were caused chiefly by a policy that seesawed between protectionism and free trade. A manuscript pamphlet, purporting to come from the quill of a Moscow merchant, stated that business had no confidence in the government and complained that the merchants at home were treated worse than the Jews in Germany. Mme. de Stael had once told the Emperor that his character was his empire's constitution and his conscience the latter's guarantee. A few of his subjects, including some Petersburg shopkeepers, were now openly discussing the advantages of a more tangible kind of constitution, establishing representative government and civil liberties.

The opposition, such as it was, took shape, however, not in the nascent third estate, but in the Army and Navy command, particularly among the officers of the Guard regiments, the elite of the armed forces. Brought up by French tutors, many of these young aristocrats had been exposed to the humanitarian and liberal ideas of the age. The conflict with Napoleon gave their liberalism a nationalist tinge. During the War of 1812 the Army came to feel, as one general put it, that it served not the Emperor but the country. Actual warfare was a relief from the drudgery of drills which had been a fetish with Paul and was so with his son after him. Peace meant return to a discipline as meaningless as it was exacting. Moreover, higher appointments were being bestowed on drill masters and careerists, rather than on men with an honourable war record. Native Russians were passed over in favour of Germans from the Baltic provinces. Alexander probably preferred them for the reason given by his brother Nicholas: 'The Russian gentry serves the State, the Germans serve us.' Peace did not improve the lot of the common soldier. He was subject to corporal punishment, and he could reflect that while his term of service amounted to a quarter of a century (guardsmen served twenty-three years), a Pole served seven years and a Finn was free from military service.

The army men had cause to be disgruntled not only as professionals but also as citizens. The domestic scene was all the more shocking to them after they had something of a glimpse of life abroad during the foreign campaigns. They could not help noticing the difference between the standard of living of the French masses and that of the Russian peasantry. The officers, and to some slight extent even the privates, had breathed the freer air of Europe, had read books and newspapers, and had interested themselves in public affairs. Along with the souvenirs in their knapsacks, they carried back subversive ideas in their heads. The corps that remained in France until 1818 was considered so disaffected that upon its return it was disbanded. The Emperor had sanctioned the free institutions of Finland, recently annexed, and in 1815 granted a constitution of sorts to Poland. But the monarch who abroad wore the halo of a liberator of peoples, at home was a despotic ruler and the head of a system based on serfdom. Some of the officers took this discrepancy as an affront to national dignity, indeed, as treasonable to the country's interests, and in consequence their personal allegiance to their sovereign was sorely tried.

They also felt the impact of events in foreign parts. The uprisings in Spain and Portugal, the Carbonarist insurrections in Naples and Piedmont, the Greek rebellion, were so many object lessons to malcontents in Petersburg and Moscow. Several writers, notably a young scapegrace with a golden tongue in his head by the name of Pushkin, wrote saucy epigrams against those in power and lyrics celebrating liberty and tyrannicide.

In a communication to his Government dated April 1820, the French ambassador wrote that he could not think without horror of what would happen to Europe if forty million Russians, still half savage and brutalized by slavery, conceived a desire for freedom and proceeded to shake off their chains. True, the dangerous notion hadn't yet entered the heads of the lower orders, but it was already inflaming the well-born. 'The entire youth,' he went on, 'and particularly the Army officers, feed on and are imbued with liberal doctrines. The boldest theories are the ones that please the most. . . . Already they imagine, nay, approve, the excesses, the very crimes to which the love of freedom can lead.' The ambassador had in mind the assassination of the Due de Berry by the Parisian saddler, Louvel. 'Among these youths,' he wrote, 'the infamous Louvel inspires less horror than in France, and his detestable crime has found apologists among the officers entrusted with guarding the Emperor!'

It was inevitable that young, impulsive, generous-minded patriots should attempt some kind of action. They began, meekly enough, by seeking political enlightenment in books, mostly foreign, and they read Radishchev's ode, 'Liberty,' as well as his Journey, which had the attraction of forbidden fruit. They formed circles to discuss public affairs and wrote letters arguing the necessity of getting together to work for the good of the country. In those years Europe was honeycombed with clandestine groups plotting against the governments leagued in the Holy Alliance. Russia was not without its small quota of plotters.


The earliest Russian underground organization of a political character bore the high-sounding name of The Society of the True and Faithful Sons of the Fatherland. It was started in 1816 by a youthful Lieutenant-Colonel of the Guards. At no time during its brief existence did it count more than thirty members. Some of them were sons of the first families of the land, many were officers in the exclusive Guard regiments and veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns.

The Society was also known as The Union of Salvation. It was out to save the country by abolishing serfdom and introducing a constitutional regime. On that point there was complete unanimity. But there was no agreement on how to achieve these objectives. Should a petition be addressed to the Emperor? No, 'acting upon minds,' influencing public opinion -- that was the way to proceed. It may be that the end of the reign would provide an opportunity for action. Then the Union, grown strong and powerful, would emerge into the open, its members refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the Czar unless he repented the error of his ways and agreed to enact the programme sponsored by the Society.

But why not hasten the propitious moment? The association was barely six months old when a member, who cherished a dagger he had meant for Napoleon, suggested that Alexander be assassinated by a band of masked men on one of his trips to Tsarskoe Selo. The proposal was turned down, but a year later there was again talk of regicide. A report had reached the Union that the Emperor intended to restore Poland within its pre-partition borders, which would have meant the loss to the Empire of the Ukrainian and White Russian provinces. According to other rumours, Alexander was planning to transfer the capital to Warsaw, and to free the serfs in a manner which was likely to provoke a disastrous jacquerie. In an excess of patriotic indignation a young Sub-Lieutenant, who was just then suffering from an unrequited passion, volunteered to shoot the Czar as he was leaving the Uspensky Cathedral in the Kremlin. The would-be assassin intended to use two pistols, killing the Emperor with one and himself with the other, so as to give the affair the semblance of a duel fatal to both noble combatants.

The group included other reckless spirits, but also some timid souls who were horrified by the thought of violence against the sacred person of the monarch. The regicidal plan was abandoned. Before long the Union of Salvation fell apart.

Early in 1818 another secret society, the Union of Welfare, came into being. To judge by its statutes, known as the Green Book, from the colour of its binding, the purpose of this association was to promote the public good by spreading enlightenment and 'true rules of morality.' The chief duty of the members was to conduct themselves virtuously and persuade others to do likewise. The closest that the statutes came to political matters was to suggest that official corruption be combatted by personal example and moral suasion. As for serfdom, the members were enjoined to incline serf owners to treat their peasants in a humane fashion, particularly not to break up families in selling them. Like its predecessor, the Union of Welfare affected oaths, rites, and a fairly elaborate hierarchy, which gave it a resemblance to a Masonic lodge. Freemasonry, though nominally prohibited, was tolerated and had a large following. But, unlike the lodges, the Union of Welfare nourished ambitions other than philanthropic.

The Green Book had a supplement which was shown only to a chosen few and which outlined a political programme of a fairly radical complexion. Here the objectives of the Society were declared to be: to infiltrate the armed forces and the civil administration and at an opportune moment force the Government to grant a constitution, free the serfs, shorten the period of military service, abolish the military settlements, remove 'foreigners,' that is Balts, from important posts, and enact other liberal reforms.

The Union succeeded in enrolling up to two hundred members. Army men continued to be the dominant element. Headquarters were in the capital, and several cells sprang up in Moscow and in the south. It is doubtful if many of the members took their plotting very seriously or regarded it as a dangerous game. Some of them were not averse to collaborating with the Government. The belief lingered on that freedom in Russia would come from the Throne. Had not the Emperor declared in 1818 at the opening of the Warsaw Diet that 'he hoped to extend liberal institutions to all the lands under his sceptre'?

As time went on, it was becoming increasingly clear that the authorities were not likely to meet the would-be reformers halfway. The anti-Government trend within the Union grew more pronounced, and republicanism supplanted attachment to constitutional monarchy. The conviction was ripening that the whole system needed a thorough overhauling and that this could not be done peacefully. One of the most resolute advocates of a revolutionary programme and the tactics of force was Colonel Pavel Pestel, a veteran of Borodino and the European campaigns. The son of a thoroughly assimilated German who held the post of Governor-General of Siberia, this young man with a Napoleonic profile, of which he was rather proud, a Machiavellian bent, and the makings of a doctrinaire, stood out among the members of the Union. He headed a branch of it at Tulchin (in the Ukraine), which he had started when he was transferred to the Second Army, made up of line regiments and stationed in the south.

Pestel afterwards asserted that the society had from the first been a revolutionary organization. But, as a matter of fact, some of the members resisted the leftward swing. The men had been enrolled without much discretion, and there were among them too many faint hearts and lackadaisical spirits. What helped to intimidate them and to stimulate their exodus from the Society was the Semyonovsky affair, or rather its consequences.

In the autumn of the year 1820 the brutal behaviour of a newly appointed Colonel created a mild mutiny in the Czar's favourite Guard regiment, the Semyonovsky. In the barracks of another regiment copies of two leaflets were found. One was addressed to the Preobrazhensky guardsmen, the other to soldiers generally. The first described the Czar as 'a powerful brigand' and the gentry as another enemy of the people, and declared that the rule of these 'evildoers' must be replaced by laws 'deemed useful by the fatherland.' In the second, the men were urged to arrest their superiors and elect new officers from their own midst, and they were assured that failure to do so would lead to 'a terrible revolution.' The identity of the author or authors of these leaflets is a mystery to this day. It is certain that the Union of Welfare had nothing to do with them or with the mutiny. At most, the mutineers may have received moral support from members of the Society. Nevertheless, the Emperor believed that the disturbances had been fomented by officers -- he had some inkling of the existence of the Union -- and was greatly alarmed. The mutineers were severely punished and the regiment was disbanded, the men becoming a leaven of discontent in the units to which they were transferred. The entire Guard was subjected to the surveillance of a special secret police.

Membership in the Union now involved more danger than heretofore. The disintegration of the cells in the two capitals, which had been going on for some time, grew more rapid. Under these circumstances a dozen delegates from the several branches met early in 1821 and agreed to dissolve the Union.

This step was a ruse intended to rid the society of undesirables and to deceive the authorities. The handful of men who formed the core of the Union intended to carry on under cover of strict secrecy. They were known as the Northern Society. The branches located in the Ukraine, refusing to disband, assumed a quasi-independent status and the name of the Southern Society.


For some time the Northern Society remained in a state of suspended animation. There were times when its active members could be counted on the fingers of one hand. By the summer of 1823 it began to show signs of life. It was headed by a three-man Duma. The triumvirs were all Guard officers: Prince Sergey Trubetzkoy, Prince Yevgeny Obolensky, and Nikita Muravyov, a senator's son and heir to vast estates and thousands of serfs. A reader of French political literature, notably the writings of Benjamin Constant, Muravyov was the most articulate member of the group. He composed 'a free man's catechism,' in which the wickedness of autocracy and the advantages of representative government are demonstrated by passages from Scripture. He also drafted a constitutional charter, which he kept rewriting. Though he had at one time been a republican, this charter provides for an empire headed by a hereditary monarch with strictly limited authority. The country is organized, somewhat after the pattern of the United States, as a federation of thirteen regions (the number of the original American states). The bi-cameral National Assembly, as well as the regional legislatures are elective bodies, but the electorate is restricted by high property qualifications. The serfs are given their personal freedom, without being assured of land. Trial by jury is introduced, and civil liberties are guaranteed to the entire citizenry. To bring about this transformation, Muravyov advocated a long period of peaceful propaganda.

The rather infirm allegiance of the membership was divided between this moderate programme and a more radical one, which called for the establishment of a republican regime, possibly preceded by the extermination of the Imperial family. One retired Captain, a man of thrifty disposition, suggested, perhaps half jokingly, the construction of an 'economy gallows' tall enough to accommodate the Czar as well as the Grand Dukes, hanged one from the feet of the other.

The counsels of moderation were even less heeded in the Southern Society. It continued to be dominated by Pestel's vigorous personality. Content to leave the work of propaganda and organization to others, he was above all an ideologue, abreast of the currents of the time. 'Everywhere the spirit of change,' he wrote, 'made the minds seethe.' Indeed, 'revolutionary thoughts' were the distinguishing mark of the age. Another feature of it was the struggle of the masses against the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of wealth. Both, particularly the latter, were inimical to the public good and could only be wiped out by a republican government. In contrasting the radical temper of the south with the timidity and inaction of the north, he was writing to Nikita Muravyov in 1823: 'Half measures are worth nothing; here we want to make a clean sweep.'

The one task to which he devoted himself wholeheartedly was the composition of a treatise entitled Russkaya Pravda (Russian Law, or Justice), which remained unfinished. This was meant to be a set of instructions for the guidance of the Provisional Government that the triumphant revolution would establish, in fact, a blueprint for the Russia of the future, conceived by a man who did not question his right to prescribe and command.

Pestel's thinking was a curious amalgam of liberalism and authoritarianism, with a preponderance of the latter. Russkaya Pravda advocates a republican representative regime based on universal suffrage. It is a centralized, monolithic, totalitarian state, exercising absolute control, in the name of public welfare, not only over the behaviour but also the minds of the citizens. To this end it relies on the clergy and a powerful police, including a secret service charged with spying on the population. Private associations, whether open or secret, are forbidden, and so are cards, drinking, all manner of dissipation. In industry free enterprise is the rule, and no provisions are made to safeguard against economic inequality. In fact, 'the rich will always be with us,' Pestel observes, adding, surprisingly enough: 'and this is good.' Private property is declared 'sacred and inviolable.' Yet no legal privileges attach to wealth: before the law all citizens are equal. Of course, this means the abolition of serfdom. The agrarian programme has socialist overtones: half of the land is owned privately, the other half is nationalized and periodically distributed on an equalitarian basis among the families engaged in agriculture. Indeed, every citizen has the right to the free use of acreage sufficient to give him a living. Apparently, Pestel thus hoped to prevent the formation of a landless proletariat, a prospect he abhorred. He was thus committed to a kind of 'mixed economy,' with a private and a nationalized sector.

While Muravyov's constitution evinces respect for cultural pluralism and favours the federalist principle as reconciling 'the grandeur of nations with the liberty of citizens,' Russkaya Pravda looks toward a Russia that would be one and indivisible, a country with a uniform culture, a single language, a common faith. The ethnic minorities must give up their separate identity, all except the Poles, who are to be granted independence conditionally. As for the Jewish citizenry, Pestel was not averse to seeing it leave Russia in a body. If the Jews fail to assimilate, he held, they ought to be helped to emigrate to Asia Minor and there set up a state of their own. Pestel may have borrowed the idea from a converted Jew who was a member of a clandestine group in touch with the Northern Society. This man, Grigory Peretz, used Herut (Hebrew for freedom) as a password in his cell and spoke of founding a society for the settling of the European Jews either in the Crimea or in the Orient 'as a separate nation.'

Russkaya Pravda, Muravyov's constitution, and similar attempts by other hands were the subject of much debate. Both the northerners and the southerners shared a weakness for planning what to do on the morrow of the successful overturn. Less thought was given to the ways and means of bringing it about. The one procedure that was ruled out was a popular rising. It was felt that the cause had as much to fear from a disorderly populace as from the forces of the existing order. In fact, at least some of the plotters held that it was incumbent on the society to act precisely in order to prevent the bloody popular revolution which the abuses of officialdom were bound to bring about. The sympathy of the masses was desired, but not their co-operation. Will not a popular revolution, it was asked, turn out to be a Frankenstein monster? 'Let us suppose,' wrote one member of the Southern Society to another, 'that it is easy to bring the axe of revolution into play, but are you certain that you will be able to stop it afterwards?' Aristocratic army men could not help looking down upon 'the mob,' but half acknowledged contempt was not unmixed with apprehension. Baron Steinheil, of the Northern Society, in questioning the desirability of a popular revolution, argued that 'in Moscow alone there were ninety thousand house serfs ready to seize knives, and the first victims will be their (the plotters') sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.'

According to one activist, the Society's intention was to set up a popular government even at the cost of 'a terrible torrent of blood.' Another was ready 'to exterminate twenty-five million to bring freedom to the other twenty-five million.' As a rule, however, the men were eager to avoid violence and believed in the feasibility of a bloodless overturn. Both societies pinned their hopes to a purely military action, a neat coup modelled on the Spanish insurrection of 1820, rather than on the French revolution. At the same time the possibility of coming to an understanding with those in power was not ruled out, the bayonets remaining in the background merely as a threat intended to exact concessions from the Government.

How were they to get hold of the bayonets? The plotters were vague on the subject. It was generally expected that the privates would do the bidding of their officers. One southerner, a Lieutenant-Colonel, said that if his company refused to join the insurgents he would drive the men to it with sticks. No systematic attempt was to be made to acquaint the soldiers with the aims of the movement or to win them over to the cause, but the officers were advised to secure the devotion of their men by all means. A leading southerner favoured appealing to their religious sentiment. A fellow member dissented, retorting that 'faith is contrary to freedom.' Many years were to pass before this became an article of the revolutionary creed.

Pestel, for one, was by no means optimistic about the ability of the societies to sway the soldiery. True, the ranks were bristling with discontent, but he knew that it was a far cry from grumbling to mutiny. Nor was he unaware of the immemorial habit of devotion to the Czar which dominated the simple folk. But, he told himself, if the people were faced with the fact of the end of the dynasty, the revolution might succeed. From the first, he had believed that the coup must be preceded by the assassination of the Emperor, indeed, of the entire imperial family. Accordingly, he conceived the idea of 'a lost cohort,' a small band of dedicated men, ready to act as regicides under orders from the Society. The plan found some adherents in the north as well. It was assumed that the regicides would be helped to escape abroad, but if caught they would be tried and mercilessly condemned even under the new regime, so as not to bring the Society into disrepute. For the sake of the cause, the terrorists must be ready to forfeit not only their lives, but their very honour. There is a curiously modern ring about this idea.


While the two societies had a separate existence, efforts were not lacking to bring them together. In May, 1823, an emissary from the South told the Northerners that the Southern Society was ready to act that very year and asked if it could count on their assistance. He received an evasive reply. The Northern group, still very feeble, was preoccupied with questions of ideology and internal organization.

In the spring of the following year Pestel himself appeared in the capital. His mission was to effect a merger between the two Societies. His republican platform appealed to some Northerners, but there was one plank in it to which all objected. What Pestel advocated was in effect the seizure of state power by the conspirators. The autocracy overthrown, the directorate of the Society should, he argued, become the Provisional Government, vested with authority to decree the new regime as outlined in Russkaya Pravda, and remaining in power a decade or longer. This dictatorial scheme, to which there was considerable opposition even in the South, was rejected in the North as a revolting usurpation of the people's sovereignty. Even the more radically-minded took it for granted that the Society would confine itself to destroying the old order and that the Provisional Government would last no longer than was necessary to arrange for the convocation of a National Assembly, which would adopt a constitution and guide the destinies of the country generally.

In spite of this disagreement with Pestel, a conference of the Northern militants resolved that the merger was 'both useful and necessary,' and directed the Duma to continue negotiating with him. But that ruling body was firmly opposed to amalgamation with the South and so did not carry out the mandate. Pestel seems to have attempted to split the Society, but did not succeed. He won the enmity of its leadership and the reputation of a potentially dangerous, self-seeking individual who would bear watching. All he achieved was an agreement that neither Society should start the insurrection without consulting the other, unless suddenly forced to act. The two organizations continued to function separately.

Pestel was greatly discouraged by his failure. He had no illusions about the strength of the organization over which he presided. Of its three subdivisions two had only a nominal existence. Alone the branch located in the town of Vasilkov, near Kiev, was fairly active. It was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, formerly of the Semyonov-sky Guard Regiment, and Lieutenant Bestuzhev-Ryumin. They shared Pestel's republicanism, but by no means subscribed to the rest of his programme.

In 1824 the Southern Society concluded a pact with a secret Polish organization. It was a half-hearted and wholly fruitless agreement between parties that distrusted each other's motives. In the summer of that year a member returning from a stay in 'warm Siberia,' as the Caucasus was sometimes referred to, reported that the army corps stationed there harboured an independent clandestine league ready to support a revolution. Nothing further was heard of the matter.

An event of real significance was the absorption of the Society of United Slavs, an underground group with about fifty members that was active in the south-western provinces. It had been started as a 'Pythagorean Brotherhood,' which affected the language and ritualism of Freemasonry. Eventually the fraternity, putting away childish things, set as its goal no less an objective than the establishment of a federation of Slav peoples liberated from 'tyranny.' This panslavist emphasis went hand in hand with a militantly democratic and libertarian disposition. 'Having passed through a thousand deaths,' a member vowed in taking the oath, 'having overcome a thousand obstacles, I will dedicate my last breath to freedom and the brotherly union of the noble Slavs.' One of the rules of the Society was directed against serfdom. It read: 'Do not wish to have a slave if you do not want to be a slave yourself.' The United Slavs were mostly people in humble circumstances: army officers with nothing but their miserable pay to live on, government clerks, small landowners. One member is known to have been of peasant stock.

The two groups did not discover each other's existence until the summer of 1825. Without delay negotiations were begun to bring the United Slavs en masse into the fold of the Southern Society. The spokesman of the latter -- it was Lieutenant Bestuzhev-Ryumin -- painted a dazzling, if altogether false, picture of the power of the organization he represented, its immense backing at home, its high connections abroad. The entire army, he said, had been won over to the cause. Moscow and Petersburg were impatiently awaiting the revolt, and the constitution drafted by the Society practically guaranteed a speedy and bloodless victory. "The fate of despotism would be sealed the following summer,' he asserted, when the Emperor arrived in the South to review the Third Army Corps. 'At that time the hateful tyrant will succumb under our blows, we will raise the standard of freedom and march on Moscow, proclaiming the constitution.'

The United Slavs, though overawed, were not without misgivings. They had at heart a popular movement, believing that any change made without the participation of the masses was unsound. The Southern Society, as has been noted, advocated a purely military coup. Might not a revolution so initiated prove the grave rather than the cradle of liberty? And what measures were to be taken to prevent the projected Provisional Government with its dictatorial powers from resulting in a new tyranny? 'The Slavs' also disliked the highhanded way in which they were treated during the negotiations. In the end they gave in, apparently convinced that the Southern Society sought to establish a 'pure Democracy' in Russia.

During the meeting at which the fusion was effected Bestuzhev-Ryumin fired the audience with a speech. The present age, he declared, was one in which the peoples of the earth were endeavouring to liberate themselves from slavery. Would the Russians, who had freed Europe from Napoleon's yoke, fail to shake off their own? He bade his hearers look about them: the masses were oppressed, commerce had dwindled, industry had all but ceased, the army was restive. Was it surprising that almost all enlightened people had joined the Society or were in sympathy with its aims? It would soon act, and free Russia, perhaps all of Europe. 'The high deed will be accomplished,' he cried, 'and we shall be proclaimed the heroes of the age!' He took from his neck the small icon that, according to Orthodox custom, he wore next to his skin, and swore upon it to be faithful to the Society and to take up arms at the first call. The others did likewise and, amid embraces, there was a murmur of solemn vows, a burst of passionate outcries. 'Long live the constitution! Long live the republic! Long live the people! Perish the nobility and the rank of czar!'

The former 'Slavs' were guided by the maxim: 'Having bared your sword against your monarch, you must fling the scabbard as far away as possible.' Two days after the merger a dozen of them volunteered for 'the lost cohort,' which was still only a project. The Society now had a considerable contingent of activists eager -- perhaps too eager in the opinion of some Southerners -- for drastic action. They were set the task of preparing the privates for the impending insurrection, without initiating them into the real aims of the movement.

Meanwhile there had been changes in the Northern Society, too. At the end of 1824 Prince Trubetzkoy was transferred to Kiev. He was replaced in the Duma by a retired Ensign, who had been enrolled the previous year. This man, one Kondraty Ryleyev, was an employee of the Russian-American Company, the trading corporation that was exploiting the Russian possessions in America. In his leisure hours he wrote civic verse, which enjoyed a measure of popularity. A thoroughgoing democrat, he abhorred Pestel's dictatorial plans, but shared his republicanism. He admired the United States as the only country, he once observed, that had a good Government. Yet he also dreamed of reviving the dubious glories of pre-Muscovite Russia.

His thinking shows traces of the emphasis on the exceptional and superior nature of Russia's manifest destiny, which was to mark Slavophilism and, to an extent, Populism and Bolshevism. On one occasion, in arguing against a fellow conspirator who maintained that the country was not ripe for a radical change and that a monarchy like the English suited Russia best, Ryleyev remarked that Great Britain, enslaved by an aristocracy as it was, could not be a guide on the road to liberty. In fact, he went on, that country would be the last to taste freedom. "The European overturn must be started in Russia'; there the revolution could not be crushed by foreign intervention as it had been in Naples and Spain -- witness the events of 1812. 'The world,' he declared, 'must expect everything from Russia.' A friend of Ryleyev's chimed in: 'Russia will be transformed in a Russian way.'

An incandescent, if unstable, soul, capable of kindling people with his enthusiasm, Ryleyev soon came to occupy a dominant position in the Society, which was not remarkable for outstanding personalities. Nikita Muravyov was still a member of the Duma, but his influence was rapidly waning, and by the autumn of 1825 he had practically withdrawn from the organization.

The military continued to make up most of the membership. When Ryleyev suggested that merchants should be admitted, the retort was: 'Impossible! Merchants are ignoramuses!' The Society had members and sympathizers in several of the Guard regiments garrisoned in the capital. A foothold was also secured in the Guard Equipage, a special naval unit trained for amphibious combat. This was done with the aid of Midshipman Dmitry Zavalishin. At seventeen he had conceived the notion of founding an international knightly order to effect the spiritual regeneration of mankind and, incidentally, to annex California to the Russian Empire. At first he sought to place this society under the Czar's protection. But by 1825 he had reached the conclusion that nothing good could come from the Government. He became active in the Northern Society without giving up the pretence that the secret order which was the figment of his imagination was a force in world politics. By his own account, he became such a power in the Society that out of jealousy Ryleyev removed him from the capital by giving him an assignment to ascertain the state of public opinion in the provinces. Before departing from Petersburg -- this was in November 1825 -- he wrote to the Emperor urging him to enact liberal reforms or face a revolution. At the same time he exhorted the Duma to disband the Society on the ground that too many members were motivated not by zeal for freedom but by thirst for power, and that consequently victory would merely substitute one despotism for another.

The conspirators wished to gain a toehold in the Navy so as to be able to deport the Grand Dukes and their families to a foreign country on board a man-o'-war. This alternative to a sterner method of disposing of the potential pretenders to the throne was under serious consideration. As for the Czar, it was generally held that his life could not be spared. When, in the summer of 1825, Captain Yakubovich arrived in the capital intent on killing the Emperor simply to avenge his transfer to the Caucasus after a duel, Ryleyev persuaded him to postpone action until the Society was ready. He had at his disposal yet another would-be regicide, a penniless and somewhat unbalanced former Lieutenant by the name of Kakhovsky. The man had come to Petersburg on his way to join the Greek insurgents, and the prospect of becoming a Russian Brutus caught his imagination.

Early in November, 1825, Prince Trubetzkoy was back in the capital. During his stay in Kiev he had kept in touch with the Vasilkov Branch of the Southern Society, which had assumed a dominant position. Before leaving for the North, he concluded something in the nature of an informal agreement with the Southerners. According to its terms, the insurrection was scheduled for May 1826 when the Czar was expected to review the troops stationed in the South. As the initial act, he was to be assassinated. Thereupon the Northerners were to arrest the Grand Dukes and ship them abroad. Then Pestel was to occupy Kiev, Bestuzhev-Ryumin was to march on Moscow, and Sergey Muravyov-Apostol take over the command of the Guards in the capital. The Northern Society was assigned the tasks of determining the composition of the Provisional Government and of drafting a new constitutional charter.

Events played havoc with these none too carefully laid plans.