Revolt! The dashing Decembrists of Imperial Russia



The Decembrists stood in Senate Square  St Petersburg all day on the 14th of December 1825 to try to force the Russian authorities to liberalise the government and grant reform. While the crowd cheered them, Russian army units loyal to the regime encircled the square and fired cannon into the Decembrists.


They called themselves the 1825 Decembrists of Russia and they revolted for progress and reform.  By the second decade of the 19th century, Russia had beaten Napoleon in the long and cold fight for freedom against Bonaparte’s hordes and was now ready to embrace the liberty of enlightenment ideals that had spread throughout Europe.  The Russian monarchy, fiercely conservative and dangerously paranoid, refused to accept these European ideals the soldiers and intellectuals of Russia had brought back from the fighting. The country still operated the practices of Serfdom, a virtual slavery that tied the poor to relentless poverty and harsh labour. Superstition, religious zeal and the oppression of conformity had strangled the thinking of the Russian establishment to the point where any kind of political party that stood for reform was brutally stamped out.


Something had to be done about this unending oppression. Clandestine meetings of forward thinking individuals began to surface throughout Russia. The Order of Russian Knights, the Union of Welfare and the Northern and Southern Societies for political change met  to discuss the problems facing Russia and the oppression of the current regime. They were a hopelessly romantic group of army officers, poets, intellectuals and Russian noblemen educated in Europe who all shared one common belief; that Russia was lost in the darkness of ultra conservatism and had to be shown the light of reason.


It was decided that the Northern Society, which was founded by liberal Army officers, would march onto Senate Square in St Petersburg with their men in response to the conservative anti-reformer Nicolas I being made Tsar of Russia in December 1825. They would force the authorities to take notice of their grievances and insist that a new government under a reformer took charge. As they marched out onto the square, their heads held high for their great cause, they realised they were alone. The revolt had triggered no popular revolution, the crowd of the city cheered them but did little else. The Decembrist’s resolved to stand their ground believing totally in their beliefs until, in the early evening, they were brutally crushed by loyalist cannon fire. The cannon balls cut through the proud Decembrists and killed many civilians who were stood by, their deaths scattering what was left of the Decembrists into the cold night.


It was brave but ultimately futile. The revolt achieved no change, no reform, no progress. But to the young men who proudly stood in Senate Square, the act of defiance was enough to settle their grievances with a Russian government that had oppressed them and refused to embrace the changes they had so desperately wanted. The revolt had failed but the romanticism of hopeless defiance against an unbeatable enemy was captured by the Decembrists on that cold day in Russia.


The revolt was brutally suppressed by Russian troops loyal to the establishment but it brought the attention of large crowds from the city.