The Reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855)
IN DECEMBER 1825 a revolt took place in Russia known as the Decembrist uprising. Episodic as this event might seem, it registered an important step in the history of Russian revolutionary development. Prior to 1825 most of the uprisings carried a strong indigenous imprint, whereas the Decembrist revolt was the first consequence of Russia's full entrance into Western European political and military life. Western influence upon Russian society had been felt ever since the reign of Peter, but not until 1825 did it express itself in the form of an underground political movement with the ultimate intention of social reform along Western revolutionary lines. The French Revolution began to determine the political and social climate as far as the banks of the Neva. It is not within the scope of this chapter to trace the roots of Decembrism except to point out the basic revolutionary sources. Rivulets of political philosophy had been slowly running eastward since the end of the eighteenth century. Through foreign tutors in Russia and Russian students and travelers in western Europe, current political teachings were penetrating the cultural isolationism of the country. Then came the Napoleonic Wars, the invasion of Moscow and its aftermath--the Russian army in the heart of Europe. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers and young officers, after visiting the Western countries, could no longer accept conditions at home. Witnessing the complete collapse of the old order abroad, they could no more accept it in Russia than the French Third Estate had accepted it in France. Through personal contacts, through the joining of Masonic Orders, the young men of Russia carried with them eastward the revolutionary seed to be planted in their native soil.
It is obvious that the cultivation of Western ideas in Russia was not a task for the peasant masses, although it was intended for their benefit. It was almost exclusively a task of the educated classes--in effect, the aristocracy. The revolutionary phase, therefore, into which Russia entered at this time, was largely carried out by an aristocratic element whose members were inspired by liberal idealism and guided by humanitarian principles. It was not a mass movement such as that of Pugachev; on the contrary, the new leaders feared the masses. They were an active minority hoping to accomplish reform for the sake of the majority.