On December 26, 1825, the Decembrist Revolt against autocracy and serfdom broke out in Senate Square in St. Petersburg. The uprising was in marked contrast to the era of palace coup plots and had a strong resonance in Russia's society which had much influence on public and political life in the ensuing reign of Tsar Nicholas I.
The first secret political society in Russia, which eventually formed the nucleus of what would become the Decembrist movement, was the Union of Salvation, established in St. Petersburg in 1816. The organization was headed by Aleksandr Muravev, Nikita Muravev, Sergey Trubetskoy, Ivan Yakushkin and Pavel Pestel -- all officers and members of the high nobility. The search for ways of eliminating autocracy and serfdom led to the formation of a much larger group, numbering around 200 members, the Union of Welfare in 1818.
For some time its activities were chiefly concerned with propaganda and the enrollment of new members. However, diverse views within the group led to it being almost dissolved completely in 1821. Nevertheless, two new groups continued to function secretly.
The first, the Northern Society, was situated in St. Petersburg and consisted of moderate reformists who leaned toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy headed by Sergey Trubetskoy and Nikita Muravev. The second, the Southern Society, was established by Pavel Pestel and gathered more radical members, who demanded complete eradication of the existing system and establishment of a republic. However, both groups interacted with each other and regarded themselves as part of one organization.
A united action against the tsarist regime by the Southern Society and the Northern Society was planned for 1826. However, Alexander I's death in November 1825 and the accession of a new tsar to the throne forced the conspirators to move up the date of the revolt. By that time the Decembrists had fully accepted the idea of overthrowing the government by force and establishing a new political order. It was agreed that the revolution was to take place on the day the Senate was to take oath of allegiance to the new Tsar Nicholas I.
On December 26, 1825, over 3,000 people had gathered on Senate Square in St. Petersburg. In the course of the revolt, there was a hitch that proved to be fatal for the rebels. The leader of the uprising, who was supposed to take command of all troops assembled on the square -- the so-called “dictator,” Trubetskoy -- failed to appear at the most decisive moment. Left rudderless, the soldiers did not know what to do, and thereafter began what became known as the “Standing Revolution.”
The rebels, “brought to the Square like sheep while the leaders had hidden themselves,” as one of the Decembrists complained, stood around aimlessly. The election of a new leader dragged out into the evening hours and by that time the government had gathered its loyal troops around the square.
For a while the government hesitated to use force and tried to end the situation by persuasion, but this attempt failed. Nicholas, who himself was on the square, gave the order to open fire.
No one knows the exact number of victims. Those who succeeded in escaping were pursued and most of them captured. Around 300 people were convicted, five were hanged and more than 120 were sent to Siberia for hard labor or settlement. The “revolution” came to an end. The throne had been saved and the reign of Nicholas I commenced.
The revolution attempt of 1825 was very short lived and was without any apparent significance. However, it marked a turning point in the Russian revolutionary movement, due to its introduction of influential and intellectually advanced individuals into the battle against autocracy, and it became the source of inspiration for succeeding generations.