Decembrist Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The uprising that Russia’s Decembrist revolt sparked failed; however, it inspired later reformers and revolutionaries seeking social, economic, and political changes in Russia.

Summary of Event

The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was Russia’s first modern revolution. Many later Russian revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks traced their origins to the young aristocrats who revolted in St. Petersburg on December 26, 1825 (December 14 on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia). The roots of the revolt go back a century earlier to the westernizing efforts of Peter the Great, and the subsequent gradual spread of the Enlightenment to Russia. The French invasion of Russia in 1812, and Russia’s Russia;French invasion victory over Napoleon, also contributed to the growth of Russian patriotic sentiment. Decembrist Revolt (1825) Russia;Decembrist Revolt (1825) St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia];Decembrist Revolt [kw]Decembrist Revolt (Dec. 26, 1825) [kw]Revolt, Decembrist (Dec. 26, 1825) Decembrist Revolt (1825) Russia;Decembrist Revolt (1825) St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia];Decembrist Revolt [g]Russia;Dec. 26, 1825: Decembrist Revolt[1350] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 26, 1825: Decembrist Revolt[1350] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 26, 1825: Decembrist Revolt[1350] Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] Pavlovich, Constantine Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Mikhail Muravyov, Nikita Obolensky, Yevgeny Trubetskoy, Sergey Ryleyev, Kondraty Kakhovsky, Peter Muravyov-Apostol, Sergey Pestel, Pavel

All these factors encouraged a demand for reform and progress. Czar Alexander I Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] became a national hero after the Napoleonic Wars, and educated Russians believed that freedom for Europe would mean freedom for Russia. However, it was not to be. When peace in 1815 did not bring reforms, groups of young men began to discuss what should be done. These men were the flower of Russia’s educated class; many of them had been officers during the war of liberation, some had served with occupation forces in France in the years after Napoleon’s defeat. Others were intellectuals. All were imbued with the progressive ideas of the European Enlightenment and wished to dedicate their efforts to the improvement of their homeland.

The objectives of the reformers included the abolition of Serfs, Russian;emancipation of serfdom, termination of the hated military colonies, shorter enlistment terms for soldiers in the Russian army (from the existing twenty-five years), and the end of widespread corruption in government bureaus. These idealists also sought political and social rights in a written constitution Constitutions;Russian , Russia;constitutions reduction of the power of the autocratic czarist government, guaranteed civil liberties—such as trial by jury—and a better system of land distribution and ownership.

Around 1816, several people established a secret organization to plan Russia’s future. Their Union of Salvation was the first of several secret bodies from which the Northern and Southern Societies ultimately sprang. Based in St. Petersburg, the Union of Salvation began with a membership of twenty. Later groups included the Union of Welfare (1818), the Southern Society (1821), the Northern Society (1822), and the Society of United Slavs (1823). The organizational forms and many of the principles which these groups followed were drawn from European secret societies, including the Masonic Order Masonic Order , whose combination of absolute secrecy, mystic ritual, and humanitarianism was especially appealing.

The first Russian reformist societies were nonrevolutionary, although individual members spoke of regicide and rebellion. A few naïvely believed they could bring about reforms simply by reporting abuses to the czar. However, as Russia drifted toward reaction, the secret societies not only proliferated but also turned toward revolutionary activism. Attempts to cooperate and establish centralized direction for the movement failed. By 1825, the Northern Society in St. Petersburg and the Southern Society, located at Tulchin in the Kiev Military district, were the most important groups. Nikita Muravyov Muravyov, Nikita , a moderate constitutionalist, led the Northern Society, and Colonel Pavel Pestel Pestel, Pavel headed the Southern Society.

The Northern Society favored a constitutional system with the czar as a limited monarch. Pestel, the leader of the Southern Society, was the most widely educated political theorist among the Decembrists and also the most radical. Even Pestel, however, feared a social revolution, and he planned only to stage a coup d’état that would destroy the czar and the imperial family and establish a revolutionary dictatorship to prepare Russia for a highly centralized “republican” government. Pestel’s ideas had a totalitarian ring to them, and his models were drawn from revolutionary French thought.

Coronation of Czar Nicholas I.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The revolutionary societies found their opportunity when Czar Alexander I died unexpectedly in faraway Taganrog in southern Russia on November 19, 1825. His legal successor was his brother Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich. Pavlovich, Constantine However, in January of 1822, Constantine had secretly abdicated his claim to the throne in favor of a younger brother, Nicholas Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] . Documents ratifying the abdication were deposited both in St. Petersburg and Moscow, although the public remained ignorant of the transaction. When word of Alexander’s Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] death reached St. Petersburg, Nicholas ordered that the country take the oath of allegiance to Constantine, although he knew of Constantine’s abdication. Constantine, who was married to a Roman Catholic Polish aristocrat and living in Warsaw, refused to accept the crown and refused to return to the capital to explain the situation publicly. Nicholas had no choice but to replace the original oath with an oath to himself as czar.

The problem with Nicholas’s Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] accession was that to the public he appeared to be a usurper. Since Constantine was more popular with the troops than Nicholas, there was real danger of a mutiny. As rumors of this situation circulated through St. Petersburg, the Northern Society saw its chance. The new oath was to be sworn on December 14, and the leaders met on December 25 (December 13 on Russia’s Julian calendar) to plan their strategy. Yevgeny Obolensky, Obolensky, Yevgeny Sergey Trubetskoy, Trubetskoy, Sergey Peter Kakhovsky Kakhovsky, Peter , and Kondraty Ryleyev Ryleyev, Kondraty decided to make their move.

None of the plotters was a professional revolutionary, and by modern standards they were all inept. Moreover, since Nikita Muravyov Muravyov, Nikita was out of the city, there was no designated leader. Their plan was simple, but it depended on the willingness of several regiments to follow their officers in a mutiny, and the officers’ willingness to lead them. The Decembrists badly overestimated their support, and they had only a vague idea of how the actual seizure of power would occur. These deficiencies doomed the rebellion in the capital on December 26 from the start.

Approximately three thousand soldiers obeyed their officers participating in the conspiracy in St. Petersburg, but Nicholas Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] mustered fifteen thousand soldiers to oppose them. Rebel and loyal troops were in position on opposite sides of Senate Square by mid-morning on December 26. The rebels shouted for the “true” czar, Constantine, and a crowd gathered to watch. Shouts and slogans were exchanged, but there was little bloodshed. Finally, toward sunset Nicholas ordered his artillery to fire into the rebellious soldiers. An estimated seventy to eighty fatalities resulted, and the revolt quickly collapsed.

The uprising in the south was equally unsuccessful. Pestel Pestel, Pavel , leader of the Southern Society, was arrested on December 25 before news from St. Petersburg reached him of events there. Sergey Muravyov-Apostol Muravyov-Apostol, Sergey therefore began the rebellion in the region near Kiev, but the one army unit that did mutiny was defeated soon afterward. The government had known of the secret societies for years; the night before the uprising, Nicholas was warned that it would happen.


After the revolt, the police rounded up the leaders, and the investigation began at once. The Decembrists confessed fully and freely, and during the next four months the government collected a vast quantity of data concerning both the revolutionary societies and the conditions that produced them. When the investigation was completed, a seventy-two-man court was formed with M. M. Speransky as its moving spirit, and this court evaluated the evidence and passed sentence on the rebels. The five adjudged most guilty were sentenced to be drawn and quartered, and thirty-one others were sentenced to be hanged. Nicholas Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] commuted the latter sentences to exile and imprisonment and substituted hangings for the barbarous first sentences. In all, 579 men were indicted, and 121 received sentences. On July 21, 1826, Pestel Pestel, Pavel , Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, Muravyov-Apostol, Sergey Kondraty Ryleyev Ryleyev, Kondraty , Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Mikhail and Peter Kakhovsky Kakhovsky, Peter were hanged. More than one hundred others were sent to Siberia Siberia;exiles in , where the last “Decembrist” died in 1892. Several wives were allowed to accompany their convicted husbands into exile.

Effects of the Decembrist uprising resulted in even greater suppression of liberal and reform movements in Russia, and a strengthening of the authoritarian rule of Czar Nicholas I. Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Decembrist Revolt[Decembrist Revolt] The execution of the Decembrist leaders profoundly shocked liberal elements of Russian society, and their sacrifice became a living part of the memory of the Russian revolutionary tradition.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barratt, Glynn. The Rebel on the Bridge: A Life of the Decembrist Baron Andrey Rozen, 1800-84. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976. Biography of a Northern Society member.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evreinov, Ludmila. Alexander I, Emperor of Russia: A Reappraisal. 2 vols. New York: Xlibris, 2001. The author maintains her book differs from previous biographies because she has based her conclusions on diplomatic correspondence, Russian laws, and other previously untapped primary sources of information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Meara, Patrick. The Decembrist Pavel Pestel: Russia’s First Republican. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Well-researched biography of one of the Decembrist Revolt’s leading ideologues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazour, Anatole G. The First Russian Revolution: The Decembrist Revolt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937. Although somewhat dated, Mazour’s work remains the essential account on the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Women in Exile: Wives of the Decembrists. Tallahassee, Fla.: Diplomatic Press, 1975. Sympathetic account of those who followed their husbands to Siberia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raeff, Marc. The Decembrist Movement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. A helpful account of the event along with source materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam. Russia’s Failed Revolutionaries: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Excellent account of the history of Russian revolutionary movements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. The Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism. New York: Macmillan, 1959. Broad assessment of the revolutionary and reform movements during the nineteenth century, including the Decembrists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zetlin, Mikhail. The Decembrists. New York: International Universities Press, 1958. Study of the revolt emphasizing the personalities of its leaders; includes their exile years in Siberia.

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