The new tsar, Alexander I (r. 1801-25), came to the throne as the result of his father's murder, in which he was implicated. Groomed for the throne by Catherine II and raised in the spirit of enlightenment, Alexander also had an inclination toward romanticism and religious mysticism, particularly in the latter period of his reign. Alexander tinkered with changes in the central government, and he replaced the colleges that Peter the Great had set up with ministries, but without a coordinating prime minister.
The early part of Alexander's reign (1801-25) was a period of generous ideas and liberal reforms. Under the influente of his Swiss tutor, Frederick César de Laharpe, he imbibed many of the democratic ideas of the time, and he aspired to put them in practice. Some of the more oppressive measures of the previous reign were abolished; the clergy, the nobles and the merchants were exempted from corporal punishment; the central organs of administration were modernized and the Council of the Empire was created; the idea of granting a constitution was academically discussed; great schemes for educating the people were entertained: parish schools, gymnasia, training colleges and ecclesiastical seminaries were founded; the existing universities of Moscow, Vilna and Dorpat were reorganized and new ones founded in Kazan and Kharkov; the great work of serf-emancipation was begun in the Baltic provinces.
In all these schemes Alexander took a keen personal interest; but his enthusiasm was soon cooled by practical difficulties, and his attention became more and more engrossed by foreign affairs. The brilliant statesman Mikhail Speranskiy, who was the tsar's chief adviser early in his reign, proposed an extensive constitutional reform of the government, but Alexander dismissed him in 1812 and lost interest in reform.
Historians have generally agreed that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I. In the affairs of his own country Alexander refrained from developing and extending the liberal institutions which he had created immediately after his accession, and he finally adopted in all departments of administration a strongly reactionary policy. This naturally caused profound disappointment and dissatisfaction in the liberal section of the educated classes and especially among the young officers of the regiments which had spent some years in western Europe. Young officers who had pursued Napoleon into Western Europe came back to Russia with revolutionary ideas, including human rights, representative government, and mass democracy. The intellectual Westernization that had been fostered in the eighteenth century by a paternalistic, autocratic Russian state now included opposition to autocracy, demands for representative government, calls for the abolition of serfdom, and, in some instances, advocacy of a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Officers were particularly incensed that Alexander had granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one.
Some of these officers had been in touch with the revolutionary movements, and had adopted the idea then prevalent in France, Germany and Italy that the best instrument for assuring political progress was to be found in secret societies. In Russia such societies began to be formed about 1816. The tsar, though he came to know of their existence, refrained from taking repressive measures against them. Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. The heir to the throne was the late tsar's eldest brother, Constantine, but he declined, for private reasons, to accept the succession, and a few days elapsed before the second brother, Nicholas, was proclaimed emperor.
When Alexander died suddenly at Taganrog on the 1st of December 1825, two of them made an attempt to realize their political aspirations. There was confusion about who would succeed him because the next in line, his brother Constantine, had relinquished his right to the throne. Taking advantage of the short interregnum, some members of the secret societies, mostly officers of the Guards, organized a mutiny among the troops quartered in St Petersburg and in Podolia, with a view to effecting a political revolution. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Alexander's brother Nicholas, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution. Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. The movement was easily suppressed, and the Decembrist ringleaders were severely punished. Nicholas easily overcame the revolt, and the Decembrists who remained alive were arrested. Many were exiled to Siberia.
To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne. But because the Decembrists also wanted to implement a liberal political program, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The Decembrist Revolt was the first open breach between the government and liberal elements, and it would subsequently widen.
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