Decembrist movement

Image - Kamianka (Cherkasy oblast): The Decembrists monument.

Decembrist movement. A secret revolutionary movement that evolved in the Russian Empire in the first quarter of the 19th century and culminated in an unsuccessful revolt in Saint Petersburg on 26 December 1825, from which the name ‘Decembrist’ is derived. The secret political organizations that eventually formed the Decembrist movement began to appear in the second decade of the 19th century, usually among military officers who had come into contact with Western European liberal-revolutionary ideas during the Napoleonic Wars. Centered in Saint Petersburg, Ukraine, and Georgia, they made preparations for an uprising and coup d'état in order to overthrow autocracy and abolish serfdom.

The first of these secret revolutionary societies was the Union of Salvation, founded in Saint Petersburg in February 1816 by a group of officers led by A. and N. Muravev, Prince S. Trubetskoi, and Pavel Pestel. Among its 25–30 members were individuals of Ukrainian origin or having some connection with Ukraine: the brothers M. Muravev-Apostol and Sergei Muravev-Apostol, V. Volkhovsky, A. Poltoratsky, Mikhail Novikov, and others. The aims of the society were to abolish serfdom and to establish a constitutional monarchy.

The Union of Salvation was dissolved in the fall of 1817, and in its stead the Union of Welfare was formed in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of 1818. In addition to the aims proclaimed by the former union, the goal of transforming the Russian Empire into a centralized republic was eventually added to the program. The Union of Welfare was headed by the Supreme Council, to which local councils, such as that in Tulchyn, Ukraine, were subordinated. The membership was much larger than that of the first union—almost 200. Its most prominent members were the Russians M. Orlov, N. Turgenev, Pavel Pestel, N. and A. Muravev, Prince S. Trubetskoi, Prince S. Volkonsky, M. Lunin, and the Ukrainians Sergei Muravev-Apostol and Matvei Muravev-Apostol, S. Krasnokutsky, Vasyl Lukashevych, O. Yakubovych, Oleksander M. Myklashevsky, Semen and Oleksa Kapnist, P. Horlenko, Arkadii Rodzianko, Lev and Vasilii Perovsky, N. Fylypovych, V. Davydov, Mikhail Novikov, and others.

At the beginning of the 1820s these revolutionary societies were reorganized into the Northern Society in Saint Petersburg and the Southern Society in Ukraine. Among the founders of the Northern Society were N. Muravev, N. Turgenev, M. Lunin, and Prince S. Trubetskoi. In 1824 Kondratii Ryleev became its leader. N. Muravev drafted a constitutional proposal according to which Russia was to be a constitutional, democratic monarchy with a federative structure and serfdom was to be abolished. Later, under the influence of the Southern Society, the Northern Society began to favor a republican form of government and a more centralized state.

The Southern Society was founded in March 1821 by the members of the Tulchyn council of the Union of Welfare. Many of the union's leading members joined the society, including Pavel Pestel, O. Yushnevsky, V. Davydov, Prince S. Volkonsky, Sergei Muravev-Apostol and M. Muravev-Apostol, Prince O. Bariatynsky, and M. Bestuzhev-Riumin. Most of them were officers of the Russian army who were stationed in Ukraine or local landowners. Colonel Pestel headed the society and wrote its programmatic treatise, Russkaia pravda (Russian Justice). The goals of the Southern Society—the establishment of a centralized republic and the abolition of serfdom—were to be accomplished by an armed uprising. In 1823–5 the two societies discussed a common program and a merger that would allow them to act in concert against the tsarist government. Contact between the Southern Society and the Polish Patriotic Society was established in 1823 through M. Bestuzhev-Riumin.

A special place in the Decembrist movement in Ukraine was taken by the Society of United Slavs. It was founded at the beginning of 1823 in Novohrad-Volynskyi by the brothers A. Borysov and Petro Borysov, petty landowners from Slobidska Ukraine, who at the time were junior officers of the Russian army, and by a Volhynian nobleman, Yu. Liublynsky. By the fall of 1825 the society had 50 members, mostly young officers of the Russian army from Left-Bank Ukraine and Southern Ukraine, including Ivan I. Horbachevsky, Yakiv Drahomanov, and Ivan Sukhyniv. Its program called for struggle against despotism and serfdom and a union of Slavic nations into a federated Slavic republic, with a democratic system and provisions for the national traditions of each nation. The society merged with the Southern Society in September 1825 and joined its Vasylkiv council. The members of the Society of United Slavs took an active part in the revolt of the Chernihiv regiment.

A united action against the tsarist regime by the Southern Society and the Northern Society was planned for 1826. However, Alexander I's death and the accession of a new tsar to the throne forced the leaders of both societies to move up the date of the revolt. The action of the revolutionary military units at the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg on 26 December 1825 and the uprising of the Chernihiv regiment under the command of Sergei Muravev-Apostol in the Kyiv region from 10 January to 15 January 1826 ended in failure. Over 3,000 individuals were arrested in connection with the revolt. The two Decembrist societies were suppressed, five of their leading members—Pavel Pestel, Kondratii Ryleev, S. Muravev-Apostol, M. Bestuzhev-Riumin, and P. Kakhovsky—were hanged, and 121 others were deprived of all rights and sentenced to hard labor and exile in Siberia or to military duty in Caucasia. There they were joined by about 2,800 soldiers who had also taken part in the uprisings.

Although the Decembrist movement in Ukraine was part of an all-Russian movement, it had its own peculiar features. Decembrist ideas and trends in Ukraine were rooted deeply in Ukrainian history. Its ideas of national liberation were nourished by several centuries of struggle against subjugation by Poland and Russia. The ideological heritage of Ukrainian patriotic organizations, such as the Novhorod-Siverskyi patriotic circle at the end of the 18th century and local political circles in the Poltava region, Slobidska Ukraine, Southern Ukraine, and some in Right-Bank Ukraine, created favorable precedents for the revolutionary movement and gave the political aspirations of the younger generation a national dimension. This distinguished the policies of the Ukrainian Decembrists from the centralistic tendencies of the Russian revolutionaries and directed their attention to the national movements of the first quarter of the 19th century. For this reason the importance and influence of Ukrainians in the general Decembrist movement were very significant.

The Russian Decembrist movement was indifferent to Ukrainian national interests. Oddly enough, ideas favorable to the Ukrainian liberation movement were formulated in the Northern Society (owing to the influence of some Ukrainian members), while the Southern Society in Ukraine defended staunchly the position of Russian republican centralism and completely ignored the rights and interests of the Ukrainian people. However, this position was countered by the other Decembrist formation in Ukraine, the Society of United Slavs, which, although it did not advocate Ukrainian independence, proposed a federation with equality for all Slavic nations. The Little Russian Secret Society, headed by Vasyl Lukashevych, went further, demanding an independent, sovereign Ukraine.

In this regard the following Ukrainian (mostly Left-Bank) centers and families of the Decembrist movement have a special significance: Sorochyntsi (the brothers Sergei Muravev-Apostol, M. Muravev-Apostol, and I. Muravev-Apostol), Obukhivka (the brothers S. and O. Kapnist, the sons of Vasyl Kapnist), Ponurivka (O. Myklashevsky, A. von der Briggen), Mariinske (I. Shymkov and others). Members of the Ukrainian movement gathered regularly at their center in Kybyntsi near Myrhorod, on an estate of the Russian magnate and leader of the Ukrainian conservative opposition Dmytro Troshchynsky. Participation in the Decembrist organizations promoted an exchange of ideas and a convergence of views among the Ukrainians that later manifested itself in the articulation of national-political programs and plans. The Ukrainophile works of Kondratii Ryleev, particularly Ispoved' Nalivaika (Nalyvaiko's Confession) and Voinarovskii, were enthusiastically received by Ukrainian patriots and awakened Ukrainian national consciousness by evoking pride in Ukraine's heroic past and indignation over its subjugation. At this time Istoriia Rusov (History of the Rus' People), a kind of ‘declaration of the rights of the Ukrainian nation’ against the encroachments of Warsaw and Moscow, assumed its final form.

Ukrainian Decembrists had contacts with the secret Georgian Caucasian Society (1818–20) and with Polish revolutionary organizations, particularly the Patriotic Society, as well as the national Greek movement and its centers in southern Ukraine, and the national-revolutionary movement in Western Europe, particularly in France and Italy. The Ukrainian Decembrists had a significant influence on the future development of the Ukrainian liberation movement and paved the way for the ideas and period of Taras Shevchenko, and the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood.

Pavlovskii, I. Dekabristy na Poltavshchine (Kyiv 1918)
Hermaize, O. ‘Rukh dekabrystiv i ukraïnstvo,' Ukraïna, 1925, no. 6
Bahalii, D. Dekabrysty na Ukraïni (Kharkiv 1926)
Dekabrysty na Ukraïni, 2 vols (Kyiv 1926, 1930)
Lysenko, M. Dekabrysts'kyi rukh na Ukraïni (Kyiv 1954)
Zetlin, M. The Decembrists (New York 1958)
Mazour, A. The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement, Its Origins, Development, and Significance, rev edn (Stanford 1965)
Raeff, M. The Decembrist Movement (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1966)
Serhiienko, H. Dekabrysty ta ïkh revoliutsiini tradytsiï na Ukraïni (Kyiv 1975)

Oleksander Ohloblyn

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

List of related links from Encyclopedia of Ukraine pointing to Decembrist movement entry:

A referral to this page is found in 42 entries.