On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.
The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.
In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.
Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.
Uh … Now What?
This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.
After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.
“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.
One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825”
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?
“They don’t even know how to hang you …”
When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**
Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.
These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.
A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.
** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.
A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.
I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate