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The Decembrists


In the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Speransky developed his plans for constitutional change, Russian society at large did not yet display any deep political interest in the ideas of reform. It was the war of 1812 with Napoleon which  reawakened active public consciousness and instilled the awareness that Russia had a distinctive political system, different from other leading European countries. The post-war era produced  Russia’s first revolutionaries - members of the Decembrist conspiracy. Its participants are considered the first in a series of revolutionary plotters out to overturn Russia’s social and political system. They had been educated in the ideas of the Enlightenment  and drew their inspiration from the political systems of Western Europe.  

Many of the plotters were aristocratic officers in elite guards regiments who   had served in western Europe during the Napoleonic wars and became acutely aware of the backwardness of Russia based on autocracy and serfdom. Several of the plotters were even members of the tsar’s court and military entourage. All of them were disillusioned and frustrated with Alexander I, who had apparently lost his early interest in domestic reform.

A. Pushkin

Their  disaffection with the regime and the burning desire to serve the noble cause of  freeing their country from ‘the yoke of tyranny’ was powerfully captured in poetic form by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s greatest poet and a contemporary, sympathizer and  personal friend of some of the conspirators. The poem (“To Chaadaev”)  was written in 1818 and deserves to be quoted in full for an insight it provides into the spiritual world, hopes, aspirations and motivation of the liberal-minded members of the Russian educated society:

Not long we basked in the illusion
Of love, of hope, of quiet fame;
Like morning mists, a dream’s delusion,
Youth’s pastimes vanished as they came.
But still, with strong desires burning,
Beneath oppression’s fateful hand,
The summons of the fatherland
We are impatiently discerning;
In hope, in torment, we are turning
Toward freedom, waiting her command—
Thus anguished do young lovers stand
Who wait the promised tryst with yearning.
While freedom kindles us, my friend,
While honour calls us and we hear it,
Come: to our country let us tend
The noble promptings of the spirit.
Comrade, believe: joy’s star will leap
Upon our sight, a radiant token;
Russia will rouse from her long sleep;
And where autocracy lies, broken,
Our names shall yet be graven deep.
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Alexander I


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