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

Chapter 3

The Decembrists: Insurrection

On 19 November, 1825. Emperor Alexander died at Taganrog, a town in Southern Russia. The news only reached the capital on 27 November, and as the Czar had been childless, the troops and the highest dignitaries of the Church and State immediately swore allegiance to Constantine, the eldest of his three brothers.

As a matter of fact, Constantine, who at the time was living in Warsaw, had previously renounced his claim to the throne in favour of the Grand Duke Nicholas, but the rescript which legalized this deviation from the order of succession had remained secret. Nicholas, though not unaware of the arrangement, acknowledged his brother as Emperor and took the oath of allegiance to him. On his part, Constantine failed to act promptly and unequivocally. He refused to make a formal announcement of his abdication or to come to the capital. This, coupled with delay due to slow communications, resulted in uncertainty and confusion. For over three weeks the country was 'in the strange predicament,' as the London Times put it, 'of having two self-denying Emperors, and no active ruler.' Not until 12 December was the situation clarified, and Nicholas felt free to signify his acceptance of the throne.

It will be recalled that from the first the plotters had looked forward to the Czar's death as the signal for revolt. Those at the helm of the Northern Society did not learn of Alexander's illness until the day before his demise became known in the capital, so that the news of his passing took them completely by surprise. At all events, Constantine's accession went off without any untoward incident. The Society was ready to suspend its activities. But when its leaders, who had informants in high places, became aware that the wrong Grand Duke had been proclaimed Emperor, and that the dynastic imbroglio had brought about a virtual interregnum, they could not help perceiving that here was an opportunity 'to obtain the rights enjoyed by other nations,' as one put it, that was not likely to recur for many long years. The moment had arrived for the two Societies to come out into the open. The Northerners found this all the more imperative since they believed that an explosion was certain to occur in the South. The hour for action had struck.

There was no unanimity as to the course to be followed. After much debating a plan was half-heartedly agreed upon. It hinged on the refusal of the troops garrisoned in the capital to take the oath of allegiance to Nicholas. A mutiny was to be engineered ostensibly in favour of Constantine as the legitimate Emperor. The plan was to be abandoned if Constantine arrived in the capital and made an unambiguous public announcement of his abdication. The conspirators took advantage of the fact that, of the two brothers, the elder was the one less disliked, perhaps because of his absence from the scene. The privates were to be urged not to swear allegiance to Nicholas on the ground that he was a usurper and that the real Czar was kept in chains, or that he was marching on the capital at the head of his loyal troops and would punish the traitors. Of course, the plotters knew all this to be untrue. Fraud cast its shadow across the cradle of the Russian revolution. The conspirators could have shaken all hearts with the slogan of liberty. They could have made capital out of the very real grievances of the rank and file in the Guards. Instead, they chose to play on the soldiers' legitimist sentiment. By pretending to defend the very essence of the old order, Zavalishin was to observe in retrospect, they had robbed the undertaking of meaning.

The square in front of the Senate building was selected as the rendezvous for the mutinous troops. Once the rising was under way and the insurgents had a sizable number of bayonets to back them, the Senate was to be forced to issue a manifesto announcing the end of the existing regime, proclaiming democratic reforms, and naming a provisional government. This was promptly to convoke a Constituent Assembly empowered to adopt a constitution for the Empire and decide the fate of the imperial family, which in the meantime would be kept under arrest. The plan of assassinating the Czar and his kin was given up. The majority envisaged the revolution as an armed demonstration intended to force the Government to come to terms with the Society. It was to be an orderly, decorous affair, keeping as far as possible within legal bounds and avoiding bloodshed. Pestel's idea of the seizure of state power had no adherents in the North.

In case of failure the insurgents were to retreat to the military settlements in the hope of finding support there, and, if need be, retire farther into the interior. But this was a mere suggestion. There was something sketchy about all the particulars of the plan. Thus, the matter of arming and provisioning the troops was hardly given any thought. The conspirators apparently went on the assumption that the Government would yield before it came to a show of force. The person elected -- not without misgivings -- to head the insurrection was Prince SergeyTrubetzkoy. He was styled 'Dictator,' a title that ill-suited this mild-tempered, rather irresolute man of notably moderate views and a stickler for legality.

During these decisive December days the Northern Society developed a feverish activity. Its directors, together with other militants, a dozen men in all, were virtually in continuous session. Ryleyev was 'the mainspring of the enterprise,' as a fellow conspirator put it. One or two activists arrived from Moscow and some new members were recruited, but they scarcely made up for the defections from the ranks. On close inspection, these proved very thin indeed. The active membership did not exceed sixty, and the foothold the Society had secured in the army and navy was exceedingly precarious. Few units could be counted upon with any degree of assurance. Hardly anything had been done by way of propaganda among the soldiery, except to spread the rumour that in his last will the deceased Czar had freed the serfs and reduced the term of military service to ten years, and that Constantine, unlike Nicholas, intended to carry out the terms of his brother's testament.

The enterprise seemed doomed to failure. Many of the men were not unaware of this, and the 'Dictator,' for one, was ready to give up or postpone the undertaking. But it was too late to withdraw. Those at the centre strongly suspected that the Society had been denounced to Nicholas. Since they could not escape the consequences, they felt that they must go through with their plan. Some of them seem to have been motivated by a zeal for self-immolation. At one meeting young Prince Odoyeysky, who like Ryleyev, wrote verse, exclaimed: 'We shall die! How gloriously we shall die!' There were moments when waves of delirious enthusiasm swept over the conspirators. The important thing, they told themselves, was to take the first step; success was with the daring.

As a rule, the oath of allegiance was administered to the troops soon after the new reign was proclaimed by manifesto. The insurrection had to be timed for the interval between the promulgation of the manifesto and the administration of the oath. The conspirators believed that the soldiers could not be roused against Nicholas, once they had kissed the cross in swearing allegiance to him. Consequently, the date for the coup could be set only after it became known when Nicholas would be proclaimed Emperor. On the morning of 13 December he signed the manifesto, directing that it be made public on the morrow. The date was a strictly guarded secret. By noon the plotters were in possession of it. So Monday, 14 December, was to be the day!

The time was short. Impossible to make any but the scantiest preparations. Impossible to get in touch with the Southerners to obtain help or arrange for concerted action. And the manifesto which was to be forced on the Senate had yet to be put in shape. Some last-minute changes were made in the distribution of the parts to be played by the individual conspirators. Yakubovich was instructed to occupy the Winter Palace with the aid of a detachment of sailors. At the same time, as if in anticipation of his failure, it was arranged that the first contingent of troops to reach the Senate Square was to attack the Palace. Colonel Bulatov, the Dictator's deputy, was assigned to seize the Fortress of Peter and Paul -- its guns covered the Palace and the centre of the city.

As the afternoon advanced Ryleyev was assailed by a dreadful thought: was it wise to have decided to spare the lives of the imperial family? Was it not a tragic mistake, likely to precipitate the horrors of civil war and jeopardize the cause? Acting on his own, and in violation of the adopted plan, he exacted a half promise from Kakhovsky to make his way into the Winter Palace early the next morning and assassinate Nicholas.


The fateful day dawned upon men armed with wavering courage and uncertain hopes. The first hitch in the plan occurred in the small hours. Yakubovich declined the assignment he had accepted the previous day to seize the Palace and put all the potential pretenders to the throne under arrest. A little earlier Kakhovsky had gone back on his pledge to stage a private overture to the revolution by killing Nicholas. Long before sunrise another blow fell: the senators held a brief session, heard the manifesto announcing Nicholas' ascension to the throne, promptly swore allegiance to him, and dispersed to attend a reception at the palace. It was then barely seven-thirty a.m. The conspirators had not counted on anything happening at such an ungodly hour. There was no sign of mutiny. The timetable had gone completely wrong.

Not until nearly eleven o'clock did the first unit of insurgents, some seven hundred bayonets strong, enter the Senate Square. At the head of the column Yakubovich marched gallantly, his plumed hat on the tip of his bare sabre. Nothing had been done about placing the imperial family under arrest, and so the mutineers should have attempted to seize the Winter Palace -- a few blocks away. Instead, they drew up in battle formation, near the monument of Peter the Great, presumably waiting for reinforcements. Since the senators were not sitting, there was no reason why the Senate Square should remain the rebels' rendezvous. The situation called for a change of plan. But there was no one with authority to issue the necessary orders. Both Prince Trubetzkoy, the 'Dictator,' and Colonel Bulatoy, his alternate, had failed to show up.

The Czar, for his part, was on the alert. The conspirators' suspicion that he knew of their plans was well founded. An hour or so before he decided to accept the throne, the existence of the two secret societies had been disclosed to him in a report from Field Marshal Diebitsch. It was based on data supplied by informers. One of them was a non-commissioned officer by the name of Ivan (John) Sherwood, a native of Kent and the son of an English weaver established in Russia. The same day another informer acquainted Nicholas with the particulars of the conspiracy. 'In the early hours of the day after tomorrow,' he wrote to Diebitsch on 12 December, 'I shall either be the sovereign or a corpse.'

There were many anxious moments for the Czar that day, but he did not lose his head. He acted with intelligence and dispatch. Hours before dawn he received many generals and high officials and assured himself of their allegiance. He reinforced the guards at the palace, and when the mutineers appeared on the Senate Square he concentrated a large number of troops, including cavalry, in the vicinity. In directing operations against the insurgents he repeatedly exposed himself to the danger of assassination, and afterwards he marvelled at his luck in not having been shot at. Accompanied by a small retinue, he passed among the crowd that packed the area and read his manifesto aloud to one group after another. The reading was punctuated by shouts of 'Hurrah for Constantinel' from the insurgents.

They did nothing further until the Governor of the capital, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, rode up to their ranks and railed at them: they were not worthy of the name of Russian soldiers, they should throw themselves at the Czar's feet. At that several shots rang out -- one of them Kakhovsky's -- and the General slid off his horse, fatally wounded. Another General who attempted to harangue the men was badly mauled by civilian sympathizers of the rebels.

The loyal cavalry then took the offensive. This attack was repelled with slight losses to both sides.

Force having failed, persuasion was again resorted to. Followed by deacons, two metropolitans in ceremonial vestments with uplifted crosses addressed the men, assuring them that Nicholas was the legitimate Czar. Their efforts were of no avail. The Emperor's younger brother, Michael, also tried to remonstrate with the men. A pistol was aimed at him, but it misfired, and the Grand Duke retired to safety.

About this time the ranks of the insurgents were swelled by a column of grenadiers and a large detachment of sailors. There were cheers, and the officers embraced. Ryleyev was the first to greet the commander of the naval unit with 'the kiss of freedom.' These ominous developments induced Nicholas to order carriages for his wife and mother, so that they could flee, if necessary, to Tzarskoe Selo (now Pushkin).

It was now about two p.m. A little later several more companies of grenadiers arrived. Contrary to the conspirators' expectation, these men had mutinied, even though they had already taken the oath of allegiance to the new Czar. A Colonel who had followed them to the Square in an effort to keep them from joining the insurrection was fatally wounded by Kakhovsky. On his part, the Emperor encouraged no effort to keep the units which turned against him from joining their comrades. He preferred to have all the bad eggs in one basket.

The second contingent of grenadiers was the last reinforcement received by the rebels. The students of one naval and one military college sent a delegation to the insurgents asking permission to join them. In reply the youths were thanked for their 'noble intention' and advised 'to spare themselves for future exploits.'

There was still no trace of the 'Dictator.' Ryleyev went to look for him and did not return. Without saying a word to his comrades, Trubetzkoy had left his quarters in the morning and spent the rest of the day wandering about the city 'in great fear and dejection,' as he put it later. His deputy, too, was nowhere to be seen. Nor did a leader spring from the ranks.

The rebels managed to thrust back another cavalry attack, a half-hearted affair, in which both sides clearly spared each other. For the rest, they stood about idly as though on parade.Their shouts of 'Hurrah for Constantine!' mingled with 'Hurrah for Konstitutzya (constitution)!' That they believed this to be the name of Constantine's spouse is a widespread report which was probably originated by a loyalist wag. The privates and, for that matter, the populace that milled around them were perhaps not entirely in the dark regarding the real objectives of the uprising.

The conspirators had hoped against hope to be able to rouse six Guards regiments. Actually they succeeded in mustering only some three thousand privates and thirty officers. Furthermore, the sailors had failed to provide themselves with sufficient ammunition and had left their cannon behind. More troops had arrived on the Square, but had drifted away, discouraged by the confusion in the ranks.

Could bold action still have saved the day for the revolution? Possibly. There was doubtless some vacillation among the loyal troops. Eight hundred members of the Finnish Guard Regiment, who had taken up a position in the vicinity of the Square, were temporizing and waiting on events. Messages came from various military units asking the mutineers to hold out until after dark and promising to join them then. Also the vast throng of civilians, mostly of the lower classes, that filled the area was unmistakably hostile toward the Government forces. They hurled stones and chunks of wood at the Czar's retinue and the loyal cavalry and occasionally manhandled a police officer. 'Give us arms,' voices were heard in the crowd, 'and in half an hour we'll turn the city upside down.' But mob participation was just what the conspirators were firm in rejecting.

Inaction, and confusion due to absence of central command, continued. The situation did not improve when Prince Obolensky, an inexperienced staff officer with a weak voice and a lisp, was chosen to fill Trubetzkoy's empty place. The day, mild at the start, had turned quite raw, and the men shivered in the icy wind. They were tired, both their patience and their ammunition were running low. And they were now completely ringed by imperial troops outnumbering them four to one, a force of ten thousand men being held in reserve by the Czar.

About mid-December in Petersburg the sun sets near three p.m. As twilight descended on the city, the Emperor decided that it was dangerous to leave the issue unsettled, for under cover of darkness some loyal units might go over to the rebels and the insurrection spread to the populace. Still reluctant to use drastic measures on the opening day of his reign, he gave the mutineers a chance to capitulate. They refused.

It was then that several field-pieces were trained on the Square and its environs. Half a dozen volleys were sufficient to clear the area. On the snow lay the dead and the wounded. Both insurgents and innocent bystanders were mowed down by grapeshot or drowned in the Neva, cannon balls having broken the ice to which some of the men had fled. Curiously enough, not a single conspirator was among the casualties. The police estimated the number of those killed at seventy to eighty, but there were probably more.

The first cannon shot thundered out about four p.m. A futile attempt was made to rally a group of men in the gathering dusk, with a view to leading them to an assault on the Fortress of Peter and Paul across the river. By five p.m. the uprising was over. It had lasted about six hours. All that remained for the authorities was to round up the fleeing mutineers and arrest the members of the Society.

Ten days later a battalion of infantry garrisoned in the town of Bryansk, central Russia, refused to swear allegiance to Nicholas, shouting 'Hurrah for Emperor Constantine!' The next day, however, the men were persuaded to take the oath. They had been instigated by several officers who belonged to a secret group, probably affiliated with the Northern Society.


On the eve of the uprising the Northern Duma had sent a communication to Colonel Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, informing him of the impending action. On the same day an emissary arrived from the South with the message that down there a hundred thousand men were 'ready.' Nothing could have been further from the truth. Preparations in the South were just as sketchy as in Petersburg, if not more so. Soldiers as they were, revolutionaries as they wished to be, some of those men had a curiously feeble sense of reality: they deceived themselves as easily as they did their comrades.

One of the reasons why the Northerners had felt compelled to act was the belief that the Southern Society was certain to come out into the open. Actually it remained quiescent. When in September, Alexander had arrived in Taganrog, the idea was conceived of dispatching several men there on a mission of murder. Later on there was talk of assassinating Grand Duke Constantine on his way to Taganrog, where the Emperor lay ill. Nothing came of these terrorist fantasies. Nor did Czar's death arouse the Society to action. The troops in the South took the oath of allegiance to Constantine without demur.

For some time the existence of the Society had been known to the authorities. On the very day that witnessed the rising in Petersburg they struck at the heart of the organization by placing Pestel under arrest. One of his comrades raised the question of freeing him by force. They contented themselves with destroying some of his incriminating papers and burying a copy of Russkaya Pravda in the ground, so as to preserve it for future generations. Alone the former members of 'the United Slavs' intensified their propaganda among the privates. They stressed the hard lot of the soldiery and went so far as to point out the advantages that the common people would derive from a republican form of government. They even worked out a plan involving immediate, bold military action. It was turned down by the directorate of the Society. All that the activists were told was that the insurrection would occur sooner than had been planned, namely, that 'the voice of the fatherland' would summon its sons 'to the standards of liberty' by February or March of the following year. Actually, events took another course.

News travelled slowly across Russia's great distances. Not until 24 December did the Southerners hear of Nicholas's accession and the abortive insurrection in the capital. There could be no doubt that their organization was now an open secret to the authorities. And indeed, two days later the Muravyov-Apostol brothers, Sergey and Matvey, learned that an order for their arrest had been received by the commanding officer of the Chernigov Infantry Regiment in which they served. Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who, with Sergey, headed the Vasilkov Branch, was also to be arrested. The three men got the news on their way home after a visit to a neighboring town. What was to be done? Fleeing or hiding was futile. Matvey suggested suicide. The others demurred. It was decided to continue on their way back to Vasilkov.

They had gone only as far as the village of Trilesy, some distance from Vasilkov, when, on 29 December, in the small hours, the brothers were placed under arrest. Bestuzhev-Ryumin was not with them at the time. They soon broke away from their captors, however, with the aid of several officers of their regiment who happened to be on the spot. It was largely under pressure from these men, all active members of the Society, that the military insurrection, so much debated and so little prepared for, was launched then and there. Like the Petersburg Putsch, it was a leap in the dark, a hastily improvised enterprise, stumbled into, rather than deliberately planned.

Sergey Muravyov-Apostol was trusted, indeed, all but idolized by the men under him, and so the two companies of the Chernigov Regiment stationed at Trilesy and in a nearby village readily obeyed his order to take the field. The soldiers were told that they would be fighting to free the people and to improve their own lot, and that the rest of the army was with them. Headed by Muravyov-Apostol, the insurgents reached Vasilkov the following day, having marched part of the time through a snowstorm, and occupied the town without firing a shot. There they were joined by four more companies. The men, over nine hundred strong, celebrated the occasion by consuming great quantities of vodka -- according to the tavern-keepers, 186 buckets. There was also some pillaging, mostly of Jewish property.

The officers spent the night making plans, while the commander was chiefly occupied putting finishing touches to a composition entitled The Orthodox Catechism. At more than one point it vaguely echoes the American Declaration of Independence. The czars are accursed of God, the Catechism declares, for they have robbed the people of freedom, and without liberty there can be no happiness. The republican form of government is the only one in agreement with divine law. Jesus Christ must be the only king on earth as He is in Heaven. It is the duty of the Army and the people 'to take up arms against tyranny and restore faith and freedom in Russia.' An appeal to the people at large, expressing similar sentiments in similar language, was also drafted. Here all the misfortunes of the nation are attributed to autocratic government. The Czar's death is a sign that God wills the Russians to shake off the bonds of slavery. 'Henceforth Russia is free.' The Army will establish 'a popular government' in an orderly fashion and without internecine strife.

The next day, 31 December, the new regime was formally inaugurated with a short Mass in the market-place. It was served by the regimental chaplain. Then in a trembling voice the young priest read aloud the newly composed catechism the assembled troops. Couched in somewhat archaic, ecclesiastical language, it was probably unintelligible to the men. But when the author addressed them briefly urging them to serve the cause of freedom loyally, their hurrahs were lusty, and that not only because some of them were drunk. They had complete confidence in their leader, even if they were not clear about what he wanted them to fight for. The story goes that one private said that he was all for a republic, but, he asked, 'Who is going to be our czar?' The anecdote, like the one about Konstitutzya, must have been loyalist trouvaille, but was not inapposite.

The officers could not help noticing, however, that the arguments against autocracy taken from Scripture made little impression on the soldiers, and later on they reluctantly fell back upon the lie regarding the usurpation of the throne by Nicholas (the men had taken the oath of allegiance to him on Christmas Day).

With Sergey Muravyov-Apostol were his brothers Ippolit and Matvey, who were deeply attached to him. One was an impulsive youth of nineteen, the other a timid, overscrupulous man who had no faith in the venture and was a liability to the command. This included Lieutenant Bestuzhev-Ryumin as well as the four officers who had freed the brothers from arrest, all former 'Slavs' and men of energy and courage. Between the commander and his aides there was little harmony. He was a high-minded idealist, though not free from the aristocrat's arrogance, a Christian without the fanatic's inhumanity. His religion sanctioned taking up arms against tyranny, but he detested the use of force. At heart he hoped that the rest of the army would come over to his side, and that there would be no need to give battle. He wished to conduct the insurrection on a high moral plane, in keeping with the sacredness of the cause. He made it clear to the men that they were at liberty to stay or go. This the 'Slavs' found quixotic. They held that those not with them were against them. They favoured swift action, hard blows, surprise movements; he hesitated, procrastinated, fumbled.

The religious service over, the little army of the revolution, looking far from trim, left Vasilkov. The 'Slavs' favoured marching on nearby Kiev. Instead, the commander decided to proceed westward to a town where he expected his forces to be augmented by several regiments which had been infiltrated by the Society. At dusk the insurgents halted in a village. They spent the night there, as well as New Year's Day, to the disgust of some of the men who felt that such dilatoriness was the height of folly. Discipline being lax, there was more drinking and some marauding by the men. The local peasantry, all privately owned serfs, were rather friendly, but no attempt was made to enlist their active support.

During the day a part of another company of the Chernigov Regiment -- army units were scattered through the countryside -- joined the rebel ranks. No other troops rallied to the cause.

Leaving the village, the men now marched South, suspecting danger in the West and still hoping for reinforcements. These did not materialize. The couriers that were sent out found no response. Some of the members of the Society had been arrested, while others went back on their pledged word to spring into action at the first call. The rebels seemed to be labouring under an evil spell. Their leader acted as though he were in a trance. Plans were formulated and no sooner tried than abandoned. Nothing succeeded. The march of the revolutionary cohort resembled a funeral procession, as Bestuzhev-Ryumin was to put it. Naturally, the faint-hearted began to drop away.

In the evening the column again halted in a village. That night the commander's two brothers had a long talk about man's fate. The rest of the officers took counsel about more immediate matters, and decided to change the route once more, heading for a town where some troops commanded by 'Slavs' were garrisoned.

The following day -- it was 3 January -- the insurgents again found themselves tramping from hamlet to hamlet, meeting no resistance but getting no help and cut off from the outside world. One of the reasons why the military authorities were slow in taking measures against them was that they were not sure of the loyalty of the troops stationed near the scene of the uprising.

Finally, in the afternoon, as the insurgents were trudging along a road across the snowy steppe, they caught sight of a detachment of cavalry in the distance. As the horsemen drew nearer, some of them were recognized as members of a company commanded by Colonel Pykhachev. A few months previously at a meeting of the Society this officer had proudly claimed for his men the honour of being the first to fire a shot for freedom. Obviously, these were friends hastening to rally to the banner of liberty. Word was passed to the soldiers, and there was general rejoicing. Without warning the 'friends' trained a cannon on the mutineers and opened fire. Colonel Pykhachev had been put under arrest the previous day, and his company took the field not with the mutineers but against them.

The cannon volley mowed down half a dozen privates and one officer. Another committed suicide. Sergey Muravyov-Apostol himself was wounded. Ippolit was either killed or, believing his beloved brother dead in a lost cause, took his own life. The insurgents laid down their arms without firing a single shot, allegedly under orders from the commander, unwilling to precipitate a fratricidal conflict. Believing themselves betrayed, the enraged men seized their officers and handed them over to the attacking troops.

Thus ended the second, and last, abortive attempt at insurrection made by the gentlemen who were to go down in history as the Decembrists.


Of the privates who took part in the uprising of 14 December, six or seven hundred were rounded up on the Senate Square and in the adjacent streets. The rest of the survivors returned to the barracks of their own free will. The official theory was that the men had acted out of an excess of loyalty to the throne. The only punishment meted out to most of them was transfer to active service in the Caucasus, where desultory warfare against rebellious natives was in progress. The soldiers who took part in the Southern mutiny did not come off so lightly. One hundred and twenty of them were court-martialled, and many were put to the rods. The flogging was, however, rather perfunctory, except in the case of two men. They were former officers who, having been demoted and deprived of their rank in the gentry, had become subject to corporal punishment. The common soldiers, who, as usual, executed the sentence, took a sadistic pleasure in beating them to within an inch of their lives.

Arrests of the ringleaders began while the blood on the snow and the cobbles was still fresh. Denounced by an officer seized on the Senate Square, Ryleyev was taken the very evening of the 14th. On being questioned, he named Trubetzkoy as the chief instigator of the mutiny. This led to the arrest of the Prince late that night. Ryleyev also revealed the existence of the Southern Society and identified Pestel as its head. He wanted to prevent the Southerners from making an attempt like that of which he had been the moving spirit. It appears that no sooner had the uprising collapsed than he lost the faith that had inspired it. Later on the honest penitent implored the Czar to execute him alone and pardon the rest. To the last he would pray to God, he wrote, that 'his recantation and the punishment meted out to him should forever deter his fellow citizens from criminal enterprises against the authorities.'

Some conspirators gave themselves up voluntarily. Thus Colonel Bulatov came to the palace and handed over his sword to the Emperor, telling him, it is reported, that he had intended to assassinate him and that several times during the fateful Monday he had approached him, armed with pistols and a dagger, but that he had not been able to bring himself to execute his design. He was incarcerated in the Fortress of Peter and Paul, which, it will be recalled, he had been assigned to occupy. Shortly thereafter he smashed his head against the wall of his cell and died. One officer vainly sought safety in hiding. No one tried to escape abroad. Before many days had passed two or three hundred men were behind bars in the capital. They included members of the Southern Society who had been shipped there in irons.

Nicholas appointed a special commission to investigate the conspiracy, but he personally interrogated some of the prisoners and gave minute instructions as to how they should be treated. There was nothing clumsy about his technique as a detective. He reproached, ridiculed, threatened, cajoled, bullied, and stormed. Some he broke down with harshness, he overwhelmed others with magnanimity. There were those whom he convinced that the whole wretched affair was a misunderstanding, that he practically shared the plotters' views. 'What do you want a revolution for?' he said to Zavalish. 'I am your revolution.' He would astonish Europe, he insinuated indirectly, by pardoning all the culprits.

With Kakhovsky the Czar had a long heart-to-heart talk. He encouraged the prisoner to speak with complete frankness. Kakhovsky pictured feelingly the lamentable condition of the country and suggested that in his place the Emperor himself would have embraced the revolution. With tears in his eyes Nicholas promised to work for the public good, to be a Father to the fatherland. The following day Kakhovsky wrote to him from prison: 'Since yesterday I have loved you as a huma being, and with all my heart I want to love you as my sovereign.' Apparently, in time he did, without ceasing to believe in government by constitutional law and in the blessings of freedom. One of his communications to the Emperor contains a paean to liberty.

Having discovered in the Czar a kindred soul, the would-be regicide had turned into an ardent loyalist. Kakhovsky was by no means the only one to experience such a change of heart. Some prisoners, immediately upon their arrest, honestly repented what they had done or had intended to do, others cried peccavi after they had been broken by weeks of solitary confinement. The emotion that had inflamed the men during the days just preceding the coup burned out like fire in straw. A profound disillusionment possessed them. To many the enterprise now seemed utterly mad, or, worse still, ludicrous.

Undoubtedly not a few prisoners offered abject recantations in the hope of saving their necks. Men who as soldiers and nobles should have exhibited a keen sense of personal honour cringed and grovelled before their captors. Prince Trubetzkoy went down on bis knees to the Czar, pleading for his life. Prince Odoyevsky, who, shortly before the uprising, had exulted in the prospect of a glorious death, was no sooner in prison than his exaltation gave way to hysterical terror. Half out of his mind, he frantically protested his devotion to the throne and offered to lead the authorities to 'the root' of the conspiracy.

The conduct of the Southern leaders was not very different. Sergey Muravyov-Apostol repented and recanted, but without self-abasement. This cannot be said of Pestel. He flattered himself, he wrote to a member of the Investigating Commission after seven weeks in prison, that the Emperor was pleased with him because of his complete frankness. He had hidden nothing, nothing at all. Yet he could not vindicate himself before the monarch, he could only beg for mercy. The thought that he had belonged to the secret society was for him a source of burning grief and crushing pain, though he drew some solace from the fact that he had not engaged in overt action. But he would atone for his crime: 'Every moment of my life will be filled with gratitude and boundless attachment to the sacred person of the Czar and to his most august family.'

It is reported that later he regained self-control and became rather defiant in dealing with his questioners. But he did not cease to regret his past. He had once been a deist troubled by doubts as to the existence of a benevolent Providence. Some of his fellow conspirators were free-thinkers. Like Ryleyev, and like the repentant revolutionaries of a later generation, he now turned to religion. 'Faith in our Saviour is at present my happiness and solace,' he wrote to his parents.

Whether they were sincere penitents or simply terror-stricken men, the prisoners for the most part turned the chamber in which they were interrogated into a confessional. Not only did they reveal their own criminal activities and thoughts, but they informed against their fellow members at great length, naming names, reporting conversations, plans, and even rumours and suspicions, engaging in mutual recrimination. They went so far as to betray the simple-minded privates whom they had led astray. The foremost militants were no better than the rank and file. And none was a victim of third-degree methods, let alone the more drastic methods of persuasion perfected in our generation.

The fewest stuck to their convictions or took care not to incriminate fellow conspirators. One prisoner, a man of moderate views, who at first recanted, later wrote in a deposition: 'Shamefully I repudiated what has been the finest thing in my life. Our secret society consisted of men of whom Russia will always be proud. The smaller the handful, the more glory to them, for, due to the disproportion of forces, the voice of liberty sounded several hours only, but it is pleasant that it did sound.'

After labouring for six months the Commission of Inquiry turned over its findings to a special tribunal. Of the nearly six hundred persons investigated, only a hundred and twenty men, about equally divided between the two Societies, were brought to trial. Most of them were deported to Siberia, a number to serve terms of hard labour. Ryleyev, Kakhovsky, Pestel, Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, and Bestuzhev-Ryumin were singled out as the worst offenders. They were sentenced to be quartered, at the suggestion of Count Speransky, who, as a member of both the Commission and the Court, dominated the proceedings. This was the man whom the Decembrists had planned to include in the Provisional Government they were to set up. The three ecclesiastical members of the Court declared that while they recognized the justice of the death sentence, it did not behove them as churchmen to sign it. Thus they abandoned the condemned to the secular arm. The Czar neither confirmed nor cancelled the verdict. Following the precedent set by a certain Roman procurator, he washed his hands of the matter, leaving it to the tribunal. He merely ordered that the execution should not involve the shedding of blood. Accordingly, the quartering was commuted to hanging.

The sentence was carried out on 13 July, 1826, in the small hours of a Northern white night. A detachment from each of the regiments in which the condemned had served was dispatched to the Fortress of Peter and Paul to witness the grim ceremony. The executioners were so inexperienced -- there had been no hanging for many decades -- that either the ropes snapped under the weight of three of the bodies burdened with fetters, or else the nooses slipped. Ryleyev, Muravyov-Apostol, and Kakhovsky fell into the pit dug under the gallows and after a delay of half an hour were hanged again. Of the several sayings that legend attributes to these men as they waited, the words, ascribed to Ryleyev, may be recorded: 'I am happy that I shall die twice for my country.' The Czar wrote to his mother that a prayer for him was on Kakhovsky's lips just before he was hanged.

It is a matter for speculation how many men would have suffered torture and death for a similar attempt under the tyranny which in our own day has succeeded that of the czars.


No more than a handful of men were active in the secret societies and in the plot that led to the two risings. That in itself scarcely accounts for the failure of the Decembrists. A close-knit group of dedicated souls who know what they want and fight for it without sparing themselves or others can be effective out of all proportion to their numbers. But the Decembrists were never at one with regard to their principles or their tactics. Aside from a crackpot or two, there were among them naive dreamers, and sober reformers, Jacobins like Pestel and laissez-faire liberals like Trubetzkoy, fanatics and opportunists, revolutionaries who would overthrow the Government and gradualists who would bring it to terms. They began by plotting 'between Lafitte and Veuve Cliquot,' as Pushkin put it. Later on, a more serious mood prevailed. But hardly one of them was of the stuff of which conspirators are made; too few realized that there can be no conspiring by half. There was no lack of inflammable youths protesting their readiness to lay down their lives on the altar of freedom, but there was a dearth of men of steady convictions capable of sustained effort. Not a few, in spite of their military training and experience, were intellectuals touched with the Hamletic blight.

In the eighteenth century the Guard officers had played the part of the Praetorian cohorts who made and unmade Roman emperors. The Decembrists tried to effect a political revolution with the means that had been successful in producing palace revolutions. Their tactics were those of men born too late, their aims those of men born too early.

The Decembrist programme, vague as it was on some points, always spoke for the emancipation of the serfs. It reflected the attitude of those agrarians who were beginning to realize the economic advantages of free over servile labour. But abolitionist sentiment was by no means strong, and its growth was checked in the 'twenties by the depression, which removed the incentive to intensified agriculture. The country squires were firmly opposed to emancipation. They distrusted all change and were content as long as the state protected their God-given right to the fruits of serf labour.

Matters affecting the country's economy, particularly its rural sector, were not overlooked by the Decembrists. But they were above all political liberals. Their imagination was fired by the ideals of freedom, popular sovereignty, government by law. Hence their advocacy of a republican regime or, as the next best thing, a constitutional monarchy. But politcal democracy found scant support among the nobility and the nascent third estate. At the top of the social pyramid there were men who were inclined to favour a constitutional regime, but one that would serve the interests of the aristocracy. The peasants, with their long memory of feudal oppression, still regarded the czar's unlimited authority as their sole protection from the rapacity of the gentry. It has been seen that the lower orders did not figure in the strategic calculations of the Decembrists. Except for the 'Slavs', they viewed the masses as the passive object of political action.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the more clear-eyed among the members of the Societies were haunted by a sense of fighting for a hopeless cause. They suspected that, in words attributed to Pestel, they were trying to reap before they had sown. Nikolay Turgenev, at one time director of the Northern Society, made this entry in his diary: 'All feel, but do not yet understand their needs. Such an epoch foretokens a revolution, but is not one in which a revolution can succeed.' Nevertheless, the Decembrists appreciated that their effort was not to be wholly in vain. On the eve of the ill-starred rising Ryleyev is reported to have said: 'I am certain that we shall perish, but the example will remain.' This was also the opinion of such a disinterested contemporary observer as the Residen Minister in charge of the British mission in Petersburg. Shortly after the executions he was writing to Canning: 'The late conspiracy failed for want of management, and want of head direct it, and was too premature to answer any good purpc but I think the seeds are sown which one day will produ important consequences.'

The Englishman, like the Russian, read the future correctly. If the uprising failed to 'awaken Russia,' as Ryleyev had hoped the memory of what he and his comrades had attempted proved a potent thing. Eventually their ideals became a dominant element of Russian political thought. And they bequeathed to posterity a heroic legend, as the defeated not seldom do. The Government itself helped to build it by forbidding all references in the press to the events of 14 December -- the rising in the South remained in the background.

Radishchev was canonized as the first martyr of the revolutionary faith. The Decembrists came to be revered as the first to take up arms against the autocracy. They were seen as knights without fear and without reproach who challenged the monster to battle, though certain that they themselves must perish. The tragedy of their fate was enhanced by the devotion of the wives who followed them into Siberia. Some thirty-five years later Alexander Herzen, who believed himself to be their spiritual descendant, called them 'a phalanx of heroes . . . giants forged of pure steel from head to foot. . . ." In view of the evidence, some of which has only recently come to light, it is clear that they were of different stuff and stature. They were, by and large, perceptive, patriotic, public-spirited young men, but impulsive and unstable, with an enthusiasm for freedom and justice, half genuine feeling, half rhetoric. Pushed by the hand of chance, they fought, however ineptly and ineffectually, the opening skirmish in Russia's battle for democracy -- the end of which seems further off than ever. It fell to their lot to be the founders of Russia's feeble tradition of political liberalism. The revolutionaries, too, including Lenin, have traced their lineage to these amateurish pioneers.