THE DECEMBRISTS: THE SECRET SOCIETIES
O N the night Of 23 March, 1801, Paul I was strangled in his bedroom by a group of tided conspirators. They acted on the pretext that the Czar's mental derangement. was endangering the safety of both the dynasty and the State. It was the last of the palace revolutions to which the successors of Peter the Great owed the throne. Like those that went before, it left the regime intact.
At the outset, however, great changes seemed afoot. Grand Duke Alexander had been described by Citizen Genet as 'an ardent democrat'. When he became Czar he surrounded himself with a group of young reformers dubbed by the diehards 'the Jacobin gang'. Before long he had as his chief adviser Speransky, a Francophile statesman of liberal views, who wished to see the country industrialized, modernized, brought within the orbit of European civilization. The French influence strongly reasserted itself. 'You who abhor everything that upsets the social order,' wrote one dismayed Russian aristocrat to another the year after Alexander's accession, 'will be overwhelmed, on arriving in Petersburg, to see there hundreds of young men who deserve to be adopted sons of Robespierre and Danton.' An increasing number of people were exposed to Western ideas. The influence of English liberalism and, to a lesser extent, German romanticism, was beginning to make itself felt. At the same time a growing body of native literature was having a humanizing effect, which tended to render the iniquity of the sytem more distasteful to the literate public.
The Emperor revoked certain repressive measures, stayed the censor's hand, and encouraged popular education. He also planned to bestow civil rights on the citizenry by a special edict, which was to be Russia's Magna Carta, and in 1809 Speransky drafted something in the nature of a constitution. In the preamble to this document the serf-owners are described as 'a handful of parasites.' The adoption of some form of representative government would