The uprising on Senate Square had intellectual roots that stretched back into the European Enlightenment and Romanticism, but the Decembrist movement had taken shape a decade earlier in the Imperial Army. The future Decembrists had discovered the Russian nation while fighting Napoleon and the invading French in 1812. The conflict had forged new bonds of fraternity and loyalty between the officers and their men. Russian peasants, many of whom were serfs, had shown themselves capable of loyalty, dependability and devotion to the motherland. Upon their return to Russia at the end of the conflict, the young noblemen struggled to reconcile their inspiring experiences of fighting alongside men who remained their legal property as serfs. The institution of serfdom became for them a shameful reminder of the empire’s backwardness and of the yawning gulf between the educated and wealthy elite and the desperately impoverished peasantry. Forged in the crucible of 1812, the officers’ patriotic loyalties to the Russian people began to eclipse their dynastic loyalty to the tsar.But they spoke mostly French among themselves, and Russian with their servants.
Many Russian officers also returned from the Napoleonic Wars with their heads full of new political ideas. One officer observed that “if we took France by force of arms, she conquered us with her customs.” Many leaders of the Decembrist movement, such as Sergei Volkonsky, Ivan Yakushkin and Mikhail Fonvizin, had returned triumphantly in 1815 only to chafe at the strict hierarchies and stifling parade-ground discipline of military life. Having fought against “Napoleonic despotism” in Europe, they struggled to reconcile themselves to a Russia that was essentially the personal fiefdom of the tsar. Nikolai Bestuzhev attempted to explain his participation in the rebellion in a letter to Nicholas after his arrest:
We delivered our homeland from tyranny but we are tyrannised once again by our own sovereign…Why did we free Europe, only to be placed in chains ourselves? Did we grant a constitution to France only to not dare to speak of one for ourselves? Did we pay with our blood for primacy among nations only to be oppressed at home?Others, such as Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Dmitry Zavalishin, too young to have fought Napoleon, were nevertheless driven by the ideas of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Concordet [sic] and Rousseau. In the wake of Russia’s victory over Napoleon, they found inspiration in the rebellions led by liberal officers in other countries demanding constitutionalism and independence.
From 1816 onwards, these young patriotic idealists began to gather in informal groups and “secret societies” to discuss reform.
01 May 2017
Origins of Elite Russian Patriotism
From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1165-1188: