December 26, 1825
Russia’s “Decembrist” Uprising
The following comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. The selection continues from the November 30 This Week in History, “Death of a Disillusioned Tsar,” which one may find on our blog, here, under December 1. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other books, please click here.
Since Tsar Aleksandr I had no legitimate children, his throne would normally have passed to his next eldest brother. This brother was the Grand Duke Konstantin (Constantine) Pavlovich Romanov. Konstantin, however, did not want the throne. He would have to divorce his Polish wife to be tsar, because she was Catholic; and he was unwilling to do this. In 1822, Konstantin had signed a document in which he renounced his right to the throne. The heir to the throne was thus the next oldest brother, the 29-year-old Grand Duke Nikolai.
|Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich |
Romanov in about 1821
Like the tsars before him, Nikolai was formally to take power by issuing a proclamation and receiving the oath of allegiance from his troops. He set December 26, 1825, as the date for this event. Yet, unknown to him, prominent men and secret Liberal societies throughout Russia had also been making preparations — not to welcome the new tsar, but to overthrow the existing Russian government and replace it with a constitutional monarchy.
The conspirators had spread a rumor among the troops in St. Petersburg and in other Russian cities that Konstantin had not really resigned and that Nikolai was thus nothing but a usurper. The troops were told that when Nikolai asked for their allegiance, they were to refuse it and instead cry out, “Long live Konstantin and the Constitution!” Many of the soldiers, it is said, were a little confused by the command. They did not know what a constitution was, and they assumed it was the name of the grand duke’s wife.
On December 26, troops gathered in the Square of the Senate, near the Cathedral of St. Isaak in St. Petersburg. When Nikolai stood before them and read the proclamation that he had succeeded to the throne as tsar, emperor, and autocrat of Russia, some of the soldiers only murmured while others openly declared their allegiance to Konstantin. Shots began to be fired, and the mob of soldiers grew more violent. The bishop of St. Petersburg appeared, but the rioting soldiers refused to heed his calls for obedience to Tsar Nikolai. Nikolai had to take refuge in the cathedral, where he was joined by troops faithful to him.
|The Decembrist uprising|
At first the new tsar wanted to spare the lives of the rioters, but when it became clear that nothing but violence could quell the revolt, he ordered his men to open fire. The guns of Nikolai’s well-disciplined troops cut down scores of men in the rioting mob. By nightfall the insurrection had been crushed, and Tsar Nikolai ordered the singing of a hymn of thanksgiving in the cathedral of St. Isaak.
|Cathedral of St. Isaak, St. Petersburg|
Insurrections in other Russian cities were similarly put down. Leaders of this uprising (called Dekabrists or Decembrists) were arrested throughout Russia. Little mercy was shown to the Decembrists, though they were made up of men from some of the most illustrious families in Russia. Many were condemned to exile in Siberia, and five of the most prominent leaders were executed — a rare punishment in Russia, which had formally abolished the death penalty under Katerina the Great.
|Tsar, Emperor, and Autocrat, Nikolai I|
Tsar Nikolai I was in many ways quite fit to be a ruler. Tall, handsome, and with a strong physique, Nikolai looked like a leader of men. Nikolai possessed the spirit of a military commander; unlike his brother Aleksandr, he did not suffer from doubts or from any weakness of will. The new tsar was a frank man and very honorable, and his personal life was without fault. Moreover, he deeply loved Russia and sincerely desired to lead her to happiness and glory. But Nikolai I was not a ruler to please Liberals. The guiding principles of his reign were “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality,” not “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Liberal ideals, he thought, were western European and would only corrupt the Russian people and bring Russian glory to the dust. Russia, he thought, had a special destiny. Guided by her all-ruling tsar, Russia was to be the bastion of the Orthodox faith. For this reason, her culture and traditions were to be preserved from and purified of all that was not Russian and Orthodox.
It was thus that Tsar Nikolai strove to protect Russians from non-Russian ideas. During his reign, Russians were forbidden to travel to other countries without special permission. A strict censorship was placed on books and periodicals, and teaching in universities was closely watched to prevent the spreading of subversive ideas. To prevent plots against his government, Nikolai organized a secret police force, called the Third Section, that could arrest people without a warrant and imprison them without trial. To protect the Orthodox Church, Nikolai decreed that anyone found guilty of converting an Orthodox Christian to another religion would be imprisoned; and if the same person was found doing this again, he would be sent to Siberia. On the other hand, Nikolai’s government granted rewards and special privileges to anyone who sought to convert others to Orthodoxy. In the mind of the tsar, Orthodoxy was the guarantee of Russian greatness. To be Russian was to be Orthodox.
Keyboard Music from 1825
Though not composed by a Russian, the Piano Sonata in A minor, D 845, by the Austrian composer, Franz Schubert, would likely have been heard in St. Petersburg before and after the Decembrist uprising.