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What in your view was the short term significance of the Decembrist Revolt?
Aside from the Pugachev rebellion, the Decembrist revolt of 1825 can be seen as the first organised challenge to autocracy and Tsarism, what was the significance of this event?
The Decembrist revolt can clearly be seen to be significant in the guise of social and economic improvements, as the revolt served to make Nicholas aware of the need to satisfy his people in the wake of the revolt, so he set up the committee of investigation to modernise the socio-economic systems of Russia. This committee gave birth to the reform of the serfdom under the fifth section. This change can be seen as significant as it increased efficiency of production, improving the Russia’s economy and the quality of life of the peasantry. Other economic change signalled by the arrival of the Decembrist revolt can be seen to be Kakarin’s economic modernisation which protected Russian industry from competition.
Nicholas himself highlighted the need for the aforementioned reform at the state council saying that,”current ideas are not the same as those that existed previously, and it is clear to every observer that the present situation cannot last forever1″.This account can be seen as significant as it was from Tsar Nicholas himself. He emphasises the need for progression in a changing world, however there is an element of regret in the rhetoric “the present situation cannot last forever”.
How far can the Decembrist revolt be seen in influencing this desire for change? I believe that the potential psychological threat of social instability brought by the revolt played a large part in this apparent desire for change. However, one must bear in mind that this was a speech made to the higher echelons of Russian society where he aimed to bolster his own support for autocracy by showing himself as a progressive, lessening the significance of the revolt on socio-economic improvements. Nevertheless, I would also say that it is too early to give support the stereotypical view of Nicholas as a repressor and reactionary this early in his reign as his becoming of tsar coincided with the revolt, and I think he had some desire to improve Russia, and this sentiment was more important than providing a concession to the revolt.
One cannot disregard the role of repression as a significant impact of the Decembrist revolt, this heavy handed approach aimed to prevent such a revolt happening again. The most obvious impact of the rebellion on repression can seen to be the creation of the third section with the Corps of Gendarmes seeking to prevent any organised opposition to the autocracy. Further evidence of repression can be seen in the third section’s treatment of “The Petrashevsky Circle” in 1849, who were arrested and accused of revolutionary conspiracy.
It is arguable that, without the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the authorities would not have been as interested in the activities of this group, thus indicating that the impact of the revolt can be seen to be significant over 25 years after the revolt. Nicholas, a reactionary military advocate, was perhaps bound to follow some policy of repression after the rebellion of the Decembrists, this view is shared by Queen Victoria,”in his most despotic acts, there is a sense that it is the only way for him to govern2″.
Queen Victoria can perhaps be seen as one of the most important people in the world at the time, and offers a startling opinion of Nicholas’ reign, citing repression as”the only way for him to govern”.It is certainly worth mentioning that her account is arguably biased as she had her own self interests with regard to the British Empire, who were uneasy of Russia. She was also not a sympathiser with Slavophil ideals and expected Russia to expand in the way Britain had done. Is repression the only way Nicholas could govern? The popular image of Nicholas as a repressor, epitomised by the attitudes of Queen Victoria certainly have a strong basis, and although he introduced some reform Nicholas was far more willing to repress, and the fact that the Decembrists brought this change in governance, is testament to their significance in the field of influencing repression.
A direct significance of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 can be seen to be the effect it had upon the government’s means of influencing people’s thought, through censorship and the ‘official nationalities’ doctrine. Much like repression, in the shorter term, censorship was rooted in actions of the imperial chancery’s Third section, and the Ministry of Education. Books, specifically of western origin, and journalism were censored to prevent the spread of liberal ideas, yet with regard to the relative influence of the Decembrist revolt upon this, one must bear in mind that despite the fact that censorship generated a great deal of opposition, it did not become as all encompassing as it had been in the final years of Alexander’s reign until the very end of Nicholas’ reign.
This suggests that although censorship was arguably increased at the wake of the rebellion, it was not by a “significant” amount. Nevertheless, it is also worth mentioning that Decembrist revolt was largely an uprising of the nobility and military opposed to the intelligentsia, who were the largest area to be affected by censorship. The Decembrists can also be seen to be a causal factor in the government’s dislike of westerners and their ideals and prominent in causing the policy of “Official Nationalities”,seen here in a letter from Nicholas to Constantine.”Since there is enough of our own rabble, I think it would be profitable and consistent with conditions of the present moment to forbid such facility(French, Swiss and Germans)of entrance into the country3″.I believe this source is significant as it is from Nicholas confiding his true feelings to someone close to him fourteen days after the revolt. The fact he says”there is enough of our rabble” suggests the revolt clearly had some effect on him, this strongly opposes the theory that the revolt resulted in Nicholas making positive concessions for the average Russians.
This source also infers a key motivation for reform being that it should be”profitable and consistent”with ensuring future social stability and preventing future uprisings, which was very much the aims of censorship. However it is also worth mentioning that this account was in the heat of the moment, and one cannot discount the theory of revolts causing popular concessions years down the line. This source shows that the revolt definitely shook Nicholas, stirring him into introducing legislation, with aims to prevent another revolt. This is affirmed by the policy of official nationality of”Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” to protect Russia from harmful influences of change, especially of a revolutionary or democratic nature.
The Development of the intelligentsia can be intrinsically linked to the Decembrist revolt. The formation and growth of the”Westernisers”, deeply cynical of autocracy, can largely be attributed to the Decembrists, as they were the first group to challenge autocracy in such a way with aims to replace it with liberal systems of the west, they also posed questions to how a revolution could occur, and allowed people to believe in future change greatening resolve for change. The revolt also created vocal supporters of the Decembrists cause, most notably Alexander Herzen, editor of the newspaper ‘The Bell’,”the heritage we received from the Decembrists was the awakened feeling of human dignity, the striving for independence, the hatred of slavery, the faith in the possibility of an upheaval in Russia4″.
While this source can be seen to provide a key insight into the development of the intelligentsia by being intrinsically linked to the revolt, it was published in 1855 at the wake of the Crimean war where they were an explosion of liberal ideology. Despite this, the popularity in the Slavophil camp also surged, however this was against a backdrop of educated people thinking about Russia’s future and the Decembrist revolt can be seen to be the seed of this. While perhaps at face value the role of the intelligentsia can be seen as significant, it is worth mentioning that the vast majority of Russian society, 84% in 1816, were uneducated and not susceptible to the noises the Westernisers were making, however one must remember that intelligentsia were the only consistent opposition in opposing autocracy throughout the 19th century, supporting the view that they were significant.
The Decembrist revolt of 1825 clearly had an effect upon Nicholas, with respect to his key attitudes. He was astonished by the fact that there was an organised revolutionary attempt with aims to overthrow autocracy. The fact that the rebellion had been lead by the nobility and the military, the two most loyal aspects of the Russian society, appalled him and lead him to mistrust these classes instilling an element of paranoia and fear of change which stayed with him throughout his reign. The Decembrist revolt can also be seen to have changed Nicholas’ attitudes regarding the passage of reform: violence drove the government to reaction and prevented the more evolutionary process of liberal reforms which Alexander I began, achieving regression instead of the progression the Decembrists desired.
However it is also certainly true that though reactionism was not a product of the revolt as it had long been an element of Autocracy. After the revolt, Nicholas describes his stance by:”it is by means of insolent and impractical projects, which are destructive, it is from above, national institutions are gradually improved, defects remedied, and abuses reformed56″.When analysing this, one would generally conclude that Nicholas desired to paint himself as a liberal to alleviate pressure on his regime after the revolt. Nevertheless, perhaps there is an element of truth in Nicholas’ claims of liberalism. The system of serfdom was inefficient and should be disbanded if Russia desired to develop militarily and economically. However under the circumstances this was unlikely and the revolt definitely returned Nicholas to the primal instinct of autocracy, repression seen in his ultra- conservative cabinet.
To conclude, in a society where change was slow and from the top down, the revolt can certainly be seen as significant in a number of ways. However, socio-economic improvements caused by the revolt were generally ineffectual in reforming society and can be seen as fleeting moments of indecision against a clear backdrop of repression, and even repression, which arguably characterised Nicholas’ reign, can be seen as limited due to the detached nature of Russian society. It was certainly true that at this point, major change would come from autocracy, not the people, and this leads me to believe the influence on the intelligentsia was significant.
Despite not directly promoting change, the intelligentsia contributed to a climate of opinion under which change could be dreamt of by becoming the principle vanguard in opposing tsarism into the 19th century. However, how far can these changes be solely attributed to the actions of the Decembrist revolt? It is certainly true that there were other key agents promoting change such as events abroad such the July revolution of 1830 in France and perhaps a genuine desire to develop Russia into a greater power. It is also certainly worth considering whether change was a result of a desire to maintain social stability after the revolt, or due to reactionism.
The fact that most change aside from the Imperial Chancery were conducted years after the revolt suggests that legislation was generally enacted to preserve social order instead of trying to immediately and directly amend the situation. This obsession Nicholas had with the preservation of order harks back to the revolt in that his ideas were changed markedly. It is these post-revolt attitudes that I would regard ‘ultimate significance’ of the revolt. In my estimation, the Decembrists halted the continuation of evolutionary reform which Alexander I had begun by making Nicholas afraid of reform, for fear of future, more significant revolts, thus postponing reform for decades inciting an era of regression.
1 Nicholas I speech at State Council,30th March, in 1842, Russia and the Russians, Geoffrey Hosking P124
2 Queen Victoria on Nicholas I’s rule, 11th June 1844, Russia 1815-81, Russell Sherman, P34
3 Letter from Nicholas to Constantine, 28th December 1825, Anatole G. Mazour, The First Russian Revolution, 1825
4 Alexander Herzen, “The Bell” in 1855, Anatole G. Mazour, The First Russian Revolution, 1825, P271