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Decembrists with a Spanish accent.

The Four Horsemen

In a series of revolts starting in 1820, four military officers issued pronunciamentos on the squares of obscure European towns: Las Cabezas de San Juan in Spain, Avellino in the kingdom of Naples, Iasi (Jassy) in the Ottoman Empire, and Vasil'kov in Ukraine. (1) From there, they marched forth--to fight for political freedom anda constitution for Spain, Naples, and Russia, and to win national independence for the Greeks. The expeditions eventually ended in failure and the revolutionaries who led them became martyrs. Rafael del Riego of Spain and Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol of Russia were hanged; the Russo-Greek Alexander Ypsilantis landed in prison; the Neapolitan Guglielmo Pepe escaped into exile, and two of his compatriots were executed. The spectacle of idealistic officers riding to liberty in Europe (and Latin America as well) thrilled liberals everywhere and evoked literary outpourings. The apparent sweep of the almost simultaneous revolts suggested to Byron, a master of poetic contraction, a romantic vision: "On Andes' and on Athos' peaks unfurled, / The self-same standard streams o'er either world." After it was all over, the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin brilliantly telescoped the four revolts: "First menace rocked the Pyrenees/And Naples' Vulcan spewed his flame./A one-armed prince [Ypsilantis] to the Peloponnese/From Kishinev unveiled his game." A few lines later, he added the Russian Decembrists to the list.

The wave began in 1820 when the restored Spanish monarch Fernando VII ordered army officers to launch a counterrevolutionary expedition against insurgent Latin America. Lt. Col. Riego raised the banner of revolt by "pronouncing" to the men in his garrison town:
   Soldiers, my lave for you is great. Because of this, I as your
   commander cannot permit you to leave your country aboard some
   rotten vessels to go and wage an unjust war in the New World.... It
   is necessary to sacrifice your own lives to burst the chains that
   have bound [your families] since 1814. An absolute king, driven by
   whim and fancy, has imposed on them unbearable duties and taxes. He
   has vexed them, oppressed them; and, finally--the very culmination
   of misfortunes--has snatched you and your beloved sons to sacrifice
   them to his pride and ambition. Yes, he has taken them from the
   paternal nest so that in faraway and unhealthy climes they might
   venture off to continue a senseless war which could easily be ended
   by returning to the Spanish nation its rights. The constitution,
   yes, the constitution is sufficient to appease our brothers in
   America.


Riego took his men to Cadiz and through Andalusia, an exploit that set off risings in other cities. The liberals proclaimed the lapsed Spanish constitution of 1812, and the king was persuaded to take an oath to it. (2)

Riego's act, preceded by earlier failed attempts, became the first successful military intervention in the national politics of modern Spain. The method, in Raymond Carr's words, "developed the rigid form of classical drama," with certain fixed episodes: sounding out possible collaborators (trabajos); initiation into the plot (compromisos); and the speech launching the revolt--the pronunciamienta--given asa shout ("grito or electrifying harangue"). Riego's pronunciamento became a hallmark of the numerous attempts to change regimes in 19th-century Spain and Latin America. Pronunciamentos, soon acquiring the aura of romance, were copied as practical attempts to overthrow absolutism. The device became so common that Spanish officers in subsequent times were issued a manual on public speaking. (3) With local variations, the model was repeated in Naples, Greece, and Russia.

The constitution had its beginnings during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. The French armies pushed the resisters into, and laid siege to, the port city of Cadiz. There the patriots assembled in 1810, established a cortes, and issued a liberal constitution two years later, exalting the exiled King Fernando as their beloved monarch. Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a bitter foe of Napoleon, recognized the Cortes and the constitution in 1812. But in 1814, the now restored Fernando arrested many of the Cortes leaders and abrogated the constitution. From then until 1820, a half-dozen plots aiming to reinstate the 1812 document were hatched. Their leaders ended on the gallows of under a hail of bullets from a firing squad. Since many of those executed had led in the war against Napoleon, fury among liberals mounted against the absolute monarch and reached fever pitch in 1820. The 1812 constitution, reinstated in 1820 by the rebels, was hated by the king, though it granted him considerable powers and declared Catholicism the sole religion of Spain. But its unicameral legislature also weakened the nobility by denying them a conservative upper chamber. (4)

A three-year struggle between king and constitutionalists ensued, and within the constitutionalist of liberal camp, between the more restrained moderados and the radical exaltados. The trouble deepened due to the inexperience of the deputies, the rising temper of the radicals and of reactionaries spurred on by the clergy, and the king's breach of his oath. After three years of turbulent politics, Fernando persuaded the European powers to rescue him from constitutional rule. With the blessings of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the Bourbon king of France, Louis XVIII, dispatched an army into Spain, which in 1823 repressed the liberal regime. Fernando again rescinded the constitution, restored absolute monarchy, arrested constitutionalists, hanged their most prominent leader (Rafael del Riego) on one of Madrid's market squares, and executed many others. (5)

Riego's prosecutor called for his "execution on the gallows, the body to be dismembered by decapitation and quartering--sending the head to Las Cabezas de San Juan, one limb to the city of Seville, another to the island of Leon, another to the city of Malaga, and the last one in this city [Madrid, displayed] at the usual places and main points where the criminal Riego has fomented rebellion and exhibited his treasonous activity." On the day of execution, Riego was pulled by a burro through the streets of Madrid to the Plaza de Cebada in a flat-bottomed basket. Riego's death on the gallows constituted a deliberate ritual of humiliation, since hanging was traditionally reserved for the plebs and for "villains" asa demeaning form of execution. The tribunal had rejected the prosecution's demand for quartering, yet many Europeans-including some of the Russian Decembrists--believed that Riego had been dismembered. (6)

The highly migratory Spanish constitution of 1812 was proclaimed in the course of 1820-21 by liberal movements in Spain, Portugal, Naples, and Piedmont. In Naples, the most important of these risings, King Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies, like his Spanish nephew, Fernando VII, swore a (mendacious) oath to the constitution and then betrayed it. Under the aegis of the Holy Alliance, invading Austrian troops crushed the Italian regimes. As in Spain, the aftermath brought exile, prison, and execution for the captured ringleaders. The Greek revolt, in contrast, became a successful war of independence.

Revolutions in the Mail

"Where there is mail, there is revolution!" exclaimed N. I. Turgenev in reference to the early 1820s. (7) Even with the pre-electronic communications technology of 1820, news seemed to flash across Europe--in newspapers and with travelers and diplomatic couriers on the road of by sea. A half-dozen Russian papers regularly carried tales of events in Spain, Naples, and elsewhere. Information, filtered through the press or travelers' rumors, usually arrived in distorted form. But the details had less weight for sympathetic readers than the slogans, symbolic shorthand phrases, and the mythic and poetic locutions of the rebels. Though thoroughly armed with their own ideas rooted in specific Russian realities, the Decembrists--comprising largely gentry officers--also followed and absorbed their own lessons from the revolutions carried out in southern climes.

On 8 November 1820, Russian Minister of the Interior Viktor Kochubei said that he knew of "many young windbags who are attracted by the news of events in Spain and Naples, and who would like--if one can credit their verbose speeches--to do something like that here." (8) A police spy informed Tsar Alexander that the Russian members of secret societies "could not hide their stupid glee at the events in Spain and Naples." (9) Many Decembrists confirmed this "glee" in their testimony after arrest or later in memoirs. The conspirators' furious response to the suppressions and Tsar Alexander's role in them radicalized their goals and accelerated their timetable. In early Decembrist circles, attendees grumbled over Alexander's collusion with Metternich in suppressing revolutions as an unpatriotic betrayal. Decembrists perceived the tsar as perfidious not only to the peoples of Europe but to his own ideals of liberation enunciated during the war with Napoleon.

The naval officer A. P. Beliaev offered a neat summary of the impulses, shared by his generation, that led to disaffection. He stressed the pendulum swings between promises of reform and the reality of reaction, and the scandalous suppressions in Spain and Italy. (10) Another maritime officer, M. A. Bestuzhev, told his examiners after the revolt that early ideas about various lands had emerged on his sea voyages and that the "uprisings occurring almost everywhere in Europe, about which one could get ample news from Russian newspapers, deepened the ideas and ways of thinking that I had already developed." (11)

N. V. Basargin, a moderate liberal officer, had only minimal and shortterm involvement with the Decembrists, yet he served 20 years hard labor in Siberia and suffered loss of rights. Writing in 1872, he lamented the repressions in Spain, Naples, and Piedmont and bemoaned what he saw as the tsar's capitulation to Metternich. (12) The officer V. I. Shteingel' testified in a letter to Nicholas I that Tsar Alexander's Warsaw promise of a constitution had raised the hopes of liberals. "Then suddenly events in Spain and Naples produced a sharp break in the tsar's intentions but also inflamed minds with dreams of freedom for Russia." (13)

General Mikhail Orlov noted that in his circle, "American federalism, the Spanish events, and the Neapolitan revolution played a major role in all our talks." (14) Conversations took place, he related, not only in secret societies but also in public places, streets, theaters--everywhere. His group debated the merits of various constitutions, and the Spanish and Neapolitan revolutions acted as backdrop in their talks. But his colleagues seemed to reject gradualism and to underplay the importance of local circumstances, morals, and customs. Rather, they took theory as a starting pointy. (15)

Colonel Aleksandr Poggio, one of two sons of an exiled Piedmontese from an earlier generation, presented a sweeping survey of what he had lived through in his formative years, from the turbulent wars against Napoleon to the revolutions and suppressions of the restoration, the work of the Holy Alliance, and the broken promises of sovereigns--including his own. He called the tsar an upholder of "gallows, firing squads, and dungeons." (16) Poggio testified that Spain, Naples, Piedmont, and Greece became models of action for him and his comrades. He explained that his road to political subversion began by "witnessing the suppression of the constitution in Spain" and other abominations. (17) "In 1820, the Spanish business occupied many.... Then came Naples, Piedmont, and Greece; the disgraceful situation in those places also captured much attention. But this was not brought about by the [secret] society, but rather, I'm telling you, by the government itself. Our government, by turning all its attention to foreign affairs, attracted our attention to them as well." (18)

Colonel Pavel Pestel', the best known of the Decembrists, offered in his testimony a panorama of the previous 25 years. He was not only inspired by the European revolutions and angered at their failure but saw in them clues on how to make a revolution in Russia. Under investigation, he concluded his tour d'horizon of the 1820s rebellions by noting that "all these events familiarized the minds with revolutions, with the possibilities and the means of making them." (19) He observed that the "happenings in Naples, Spain, and Portugal had at the time an enormous impact on me. I found in them, to my way of thinking, irrefutable evidence of the ephemerality of monarchical constitutions and quite sufficient reasons not to believe in any constitution accepted by a king. These last considerations greatly fortified in me a republican and revolutionary cast of mind." (20)

Petr Kakhovskii, a civilian Decembrist and traveler through Western Europe, observed that the "prisons of Piedmont, Sardinia, Naples--and all over Italy--and Germany were filled with shackled citizens." (21) He blamed Tsar Alexander I for much misfortune and as the cause of uprisings: "Was it not he who fanned the flame of liberty; and afterwards, was it not he who brought about repression not only at home but all over Europe?" Kakhovskii wrote that the tsar had "assisted Fernando to suppress the legal rights of the people of Spain and failed to foresee the evil that this wrought upon all thrones. From that moment, Europe exclaimed 'There can be no agreements with kings [tsari].'" (22)

Another civilian, the Decembrist poet Kondratii Ryleev, believing that Napoleonic tyranny had been replaced by that of the European restoration, insisted that the "people have perceived this, and already Western and Southern Europe have tried to throw off the yoke of despotism." (23) In 1824, he wrote: "The kings united and by force tried to suppress aspirations to liberty. They triumphed, and now a deathly pall hangs over Europe. Yet Vesuvius is silent in the same way"--the reference to Naples' volcano doubtless voicing the hope for a new eruption. (24) The Decembrists became convinced that Europe could be freed only by a revolutionary Russia. Its national experience in 1812 offered "the best proof that a revolution [here]--unlike Naples, Piedmont, and ... Spain--cannot be stopped by a foreign force." (25) Ryleev, and he was not alone, thus took lessons not only from 1820 but from both the Spanish and Russian popular resistance movements to Napoleon's armies. He believed that interventionist forces would be repelled in Russia and that a Russian revolution would itself set off sparks throughout Europe.

Brothers of the Sword

The pioneering Soviet historian of the Decembrists, Militsa Nechkina, published an article in 1931 titled "A Revolution in the Spanish Manner," a sketchy but suggestive essay. (26) Riego's daring ride and Spain's resulting constitutional regime served as the major touchstones for the Decembrists' reading of the 1820s upheavals. That regime lasted three years, acted out a parliamentary life, unveiled problems associated with a postrevolutionary order, and suffered suppression by its king anda foreign power--both of them backed by the Russian tsar. The Neapolitan and Greek risings also fed into the Decembrists' radical aspirations, but the Spanish model remained the dominant one. Few personal contacts between Decembrists and Spaniards inside Russia took place. The revolutionary Juan Van Halen offered the most intimate connection. A Spanish officer of Flemish ancestry, Van Halen had undergone torture and interrogation in an Inquisition prison in 1819. After a bizarre escape, he had gone to Russia and managed to enter the tsar's service as an officer on the Caucasus front under General Aleksei Ermolov. Van Halen indicated in his memoirs that his Russian fellow officers received news about the 1820 uprising with great enthusiasm. According to a Masonic group in Simbirsk--far from the Caucasus--a Van Halen (fon-Galen) had been sent by Spanish Masonic circles to establish ties with the Russians. When the tsar got wind of this, he ordered an armed guard to escort Van Halen to the frontier in 1820. (27)

But the Decembrists relied most heavily on secondhand information. Their testimony and memoirs concerning the impact of the Spanish events on their radical sensibilities come across as strikingly similar, and the repetitiveness underlines their cumulative force. News from Spain galvanized the Decembrists. Recalling the tsar's recognition of the 1812 Cortes, they approved the new regime in Madrid and stressed its determination not to turn violent. (28) On 24 March, the day after the news of the revolt reached him, N. I. Turgenev wrote in his diary: "Glory to you, glorious Spanish army! Glory to the Spanish people! For the second time [since 1808-13], Spain is showing what national spirit means and what love of country means. The rebels--to the extent we can believe the papers--are conducting themselves in a wholly noble way." They explain their plans to the people, he said; they are willing to die so that the ideals may live on. "Perhaps Spain is demonstrating the possibility of something that up to now we thought impossible." (29)

As it had done in the insurgent Mediterranean lands, the Spanish constitution of 1812 intrigued Russians sympathetic to the 1820 turnover. Copies of it could be found in the personal libraries of several Decembrists. (30) Kondratii Ryleev captivated his fellows at meetings in their conversations about Spain: Russia also, he proclaimed, needed a constitution and a military revolt. (31) In conversation with Pestel', Ryleev "spoke a lot in praise of the Spanish constitution." (32)

The two emerging Decembrist organizations saw the Spanish constitution in somewhat different ways. In the Northern Society, Nikita Murav'ev's library held Spanish- and German-language editions of the Spanish document. His own project, like the Spanish one, required for citizenship a knowledge of the country's national language within 20 years. His first version of 1822 provided for a constitutional monarchy like that of France in 1791 and resembled the Spanish constitution in certain ways. Chapter 1, article 1, was an almost literal translation of the Spanish constitution's second article: "The Russian people are free and independent; they ate not and cannot be the property of any person or any family." (33) Murav'ev's article 2 stated, "The source of supreme power is the people, to whom belongs exclusively the right to make fundamental decisions for itself." (34) The Spanish constitution allowed the monarch a three-time veto power of suspension; Murav'ev allowed only two. (35)

The two documents also diverge on many issues. The ideological introduction to Murav'ev's draft rings out like a pronunciamento, critiquing autocracy and making oblique reference to the recent revolutions: "All European peoples are securing laws and freedom. More than any other, the Russian people deserve to have both." (36) Aside from dealing with matters peculiar to Russia--the military colonies and the Table of Ranks, both to be abolished--the Russian project, unlike the Spanish, proposed a bicameral legislature, the upper house being indirectly elected. In glaring contrast to the exclusive Catholicism of Spain, Murav'ev's constitution stated: "No one may be disturbed in the exercise of his religion according to his conscience and feelings, as long as he does not violate the laves of nature and morality." (37)

In some places, the language of the Southern Society leader Pestel' hardly differs from Murav'ev's and again clearly draws from the Spanish model. Article 7 of the second draft of Russkaia pravda (Russian Justice) reads: "The people of the Russian Empire ate not the property of any person or family. On the contrary, the government is the property of the people and it is established for the good of the people; the people do not exist for the good of the government." (38) Article 7 also recalls two articles of the Spanish document: title 1, chapter 1, article 3; and title 2, chapter 3, article 13. The first reads, "The sovereignty resides essentially in the nation, and for the same reason to it alone belongs the right to establish its fundamental laws." The second states, "The object of the government is the happiness of the Nation, and so the aim of all political society is nothing other than the well-being of the individuals who constitute it." (39)

There is no evidence of wholesale borrowing, only the few cited examples of quotation or paraphrasing and Pestel's supervisory organs of control, which he may have taken from the Spanish constitution. (40) Pestel's article 7 echoes the Spanish positions. But one can find language close to both the Russian and the Spanish formulations in American and French documents and in the works of Destutt de Tracy, Jeremy Bentham, Louis de Bignon, and a handful of other liberal constitutionalists of the era. In fact, Pestel's Russian Justice diverges widely from the Cadiz model: instances include a republican form of government, a new capital at Nizhnii Novgorod, and radical nationality policies (especially toward the Jews). Of course, the Spaniards had nothing to say about serfdom.

The Decembrists also drew some tactical lessons from the rebel regimes, reasonably concluding that a religious idiom could yield success in communicating with the masses. They turned to political catechisms that had been widely adopted by European revolutionaries since 1789, and by Spanish patriots in the independence war and Liberals in 1820-23. Nikita Murav'ev's contribution, "A Curious Conversation" or "Catechism of a Free Person," invoked God on the side of good and justice and freedom. (41) "Q: What is liberty? A: A life in freedom. Q: Where did liberty from? A: All good comes from God.... He granted man liberty! Q: Am I free do anything [I want to]? A: You are free to do whatever does no harm to someone else. That is your right." The respondent insists that all people have the right to resist abridgment of their freedom, since everyone must be free, though many are still enslaved. He added the familiar scenario, also used in Spain, of a once-free people gradually enchained by tsars and princes acting against God's will, since "evil power cannot come from God." (42) Nikita Murav'ev had replaced the religious language of the Russian Orthodox catechism with political messages designed for the common people. Yet the application of a politicized catechism came only after the defeat of the Northerners on Senate Square (see below).

The overall impact of the 1812 constitution on the Decembrists consisted in its very existence, its association with heroic Cadiz and the resistance to Napoleon, its rallying role in 1820, its juridical anchoring of a new order, and its ultimate destruction. Intervention in Spain became the central focus of the Decembrists' rage. If the Holy Alliance had not engineered the repression of the Madrid constitutionalists, the Decembrists might have come to see more differences between Russia and Spain over time and their enthusiasm might have eroded. As it happened, the intervention and the execution of Riego inflamed their passions. They recalled the days of a decade past, in 1812-13, when Tsar Alexander had glorified Spanish guerrillas fighting the tyrant Napoleon, formed an Alejandro Regiment made up of Spanish POWs, and signed a treaty recognizing the king, the Cortes, and the constitution.

Kakhovskii testified while in prison that the "Holy Alliance forgot that Spain was the first to resist the power of Napoleon; and Emperor Alexander [came to scorn] the regime he had once endorsed, saying that in 1812 only circumstances had required that he recognize the constitution of Spain." (43) Kakhovskii also wrote in February 1826 that, in return for saving the king's throne, the heroic Spanish people had been repaid in blood. Fernando VII and the tsar, both of whom had recognized the constitution in 1812, had broken their word when the Spanish king was restored in 1814. And in 1823, "the army of France disgraced itself by invading Spain." (44) "Unhappy Spain!

There the Holy Beneficent Inquisition has been established once again, and effete people with bent backs drag logs to feed the tire of an auto-da-fe." (45) In fact, though Fernando VII did restore the Inquisition, he reduced its power, and it was dissolved in 1833.

The news of Riego's arrest aroused much dismay among Russian officers in and out of the Decembrist movement. According to G. S. Batenkov, even the most moderate persons condemned as cowardly Fernando's treatment of Riego. (46) In 1823, Tsar Alexander, freshly arrived from Europe, where he had sanctioned the French intervention in Spain, reviewed the troops in the camp at Tulchin in Ukraine. Afterwards, he attended an officers' mess where he sat at the center of the banquet table. Having just received by courier a message from Chateaubriand, Alexander announced to his men, "Messieurs, je vous felicite: Riego est fait prisonnier" (Gentlemen, I congratulate you. Riego has been captured). The company displayed a demonstrative silence except for one who said "Quelle heureuse nouvelle, Sire!" (What good news, Sire!)--thereupon losing the respect of his fellow officers. (47)

Mikhail Orlov reported a similar episode. He angered the company at a dinner when he said, "Riego was a fool and not worth mourning." (48) The hanging occurred on 7 November 1823 (26 October in the Russian calendar). Apparently, the death was widely bruited about. Lt. Aleksandr Gangeblov, while in the Corps of Pages, joined a study circle in 1823 to discuss world history in connection with one of his courses. Within a short time, the talk had moved from ancient history "to Riego, just hanged in Spain." (49)

Kakhovskii, under questioning after the collapse of the Decembrist revolt, recounted that he had become further radicalized by the news of the humiliating spectacle of Riego's execution. He described the Spaniard's end in accents of hagiographical indignation and sorrow. "Poisoned and half-alive, that saintly martyr, a hero who had renounced the throne offered to him, a friend of the people, savior of the king's life, was now by the king's order pulled through the streets of Madrid in the cart of shame harnessed to a donkey and hanged like a criminal." (50) The probably false poisoning story was widely accepted in Europe; and at least one Decembrist, Aleksandr Bulatov, believed that Riego had been quartered. (51) Kakhovskii muddled some of the facts about the king's voyage from Madrid to Cadiz in 1823, but his perception of treachery and barbarism in the public execution of Riego inflamed his passion for revolt.

Other victims of Fernando's repressive campaign evoked sympathy from Russian officers who found themselves near the scene of the action. In the summer of 1824, the Russian frigate Swift sailed into Spanish waters. In its crew served the Decembrists A. P. Beliaev, a junior officer, and Nikolai Bestuzhev, the ship's historian. In August they landed on British Gibraltar, near which resistance to the French army of intervention still smoldered. Refugees, denied entry to Gibraltar, were living on boats in the harbor. Beliaev met veteran rebels--evidently Miguel Lopez Banos, Felipe Navarro, Carlos Espinosa de los Monteros, Francisco Espoz y Mina, and Cayetano Valdes y Flores--and toasted the memory of Riego. We "raised our glasses to the immortal hero and to freedom." For Beliaev, the experience "infused me with love of liberty and readiness for any sacrifice." Beliaev felt disgust at the sight of vessels manned by the French--once avatars of revolution--bombarding Tarifa and killing Spaniards who had just had a taste of freedom. (52) Bestuzhev witnessed royalist troops executing Spanish liberals by shooting them in the back like thieves and bandits. (53)

The accumulating rancor over Spain and other matters magnified the interest of some Decembrists in regicide. The Spanish rebels had taken the word of their sovereign, who had then betrayed them. The Northern Society, though moderate in other ways, did not remain immune to regicide. Aleksandr Bestuzhev testified that its members asked themselves: "what if the tsar does not agree to a constitution or--as the Spanish example had shown-such agreements are unreliable? (54) The society agreed to regicide if the tsar refused to accept the constitution of, after accepting it, betrayed it. (55)

Two members spelled out their motivation in terms of a Spanish comparison. Naval officer Lt. Dmitrii Zavalishin denounced the Russian government, promoted the liberation of the peasants, and spoke of the liquidation of the imperial family. "To be successful in revolt, he said, you must start with the head, and he brought in the example of Spain as proof that half-measures did not work." (56) He told a colleague that Spain "had so easily effected a revolt, where a few men forced the king to grant a constitution to the people. But afterwards the Spaniards acted foolishly; relying on his word, they let the king slip out of their hands." (57) Aleksandr Poggio admitted that his thoughts about regicide had first been hatched in 1817, but he stressed the impact of the 1820s events. He recalled that, after telling Matvei Murav'ev-Apostol of the death of Riego, he said to him: "He has met his death; he, the very man who abolished the Inquisition and torture and liberated many of its victims, those who had declared a constitution in 1809 [sic] and had shed their blood to free their country from the Napoleonic yoke." (58)

Pestel' of the Southern Society, who adopted the slogan, "Put not your trust in kings," also learned from the Spanish experience. At a meeting in late 1823 at Kamenka in Ukraine, a half-dozen Southern Society leaders, including Pestel', Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin, and others, resolved not to repeat, in Bestuzhev-Riumin's words, the "foolish example of Spain, and to guard against the possibility of failure." (59) With Spain in mind, both societies agreed on a swift and bloodless takeover by a small military group. His successor in the leadership after Pestel"s arrest in late 1825, Lt. Colonel Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol, agreed to taking the life of the emperor because, he said, it was the ruling position of the society. But he denied having sanctioned the extermination of the royal family, an idea brought up only once, by Pestel', and not revived. Murav'ev-Apostol claimed that Prince Volkonskii, who testified otherwise, had erred in tying this extreme measure to the Spanish example. Murav'ev-Apostol and his colleagues had spoken of Spain, he admitted, but as proof of the need for a constitution in Russia. They did not think that the Spaniards had erred in preserving the life of the king and the royal family but only in believing the king, who then renounced the constitution. (60)

An intriguing appendage to plans for the tsar and his family made yet another reference to Spain. The island of Leon, adjacent to Cadiz, had been the first home of the Cortes in 1810, a base during the 1820 revolt, and the site of the last stand of the constitutional forces in 1823. This inspired Ryleev to nurse hopes for Kronstadt, an island naval base near the capital, as a "Russian Leon." He sent K. P. Torson and Nikolai Bestuzhev to spread agitation in the fleet among officers and men to create a staging area for the uprising from which to seize St. Petersburg and the Peter-Paul Fortress. Ryleev also imagined Kronstadt as an escape hatch for the rebels in case of failure of as a departure point for the royal family if spared. There the rebels would ready a ship and dig in as a final stronghold, in emulation of the Spaniards beleaguered by the French in 1823. The idea sprang from an erroneous belief in the island's tactical potential. In any event, Torson and Nikolai Bestuzhev persuaded Ryleev to give it up. (61)

Though the Russian conspirators idealized the uprising in Spain and often ignored its complexities, its power sufficed to ignite in them revolutionary passion and a sense of solidarity. This effect sprang from their perception of a heroic uprising against tyranny, its apparent bloodless victory and relative duration, a liberal constitution, the use of religious material to engage commoners, the lessons of royal betrayal, and defeat only at the hands of a foreign invader. What appealed to the Decembrists was a kind of Spanish formula: a rapid strike performed by officers without shedding blood. The use of catechism and pronunciamento became the key to the last act of the Decembrist uprising--the events in Vasil'kov.

Pronunciamento on the Steppe

Ironically, the action that most resembled some of the models from Western Europe occurred not on Senate Square--the episode that has won the widest attention from scholars--but on the wintry fields of the Ukrainian steppe. There Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol of the Southern Society, the fourth horseman, took up the struggle after the demise of his comrades' efforts in the capital and the arrest of Pestel'. Like the Spaniards and Neapolitans, several Decembrists recognized the potential utility of a political catechism. Murav'ev-Apostol coauthored with a fellow officer what he called an "Orthodox Catechism," a political manifesto composed in religious language and calling for the overthrow of the tsar. This catechism, couched in a familiar rote-devotional style and selectively citing the Old and New Testaments, charged the tsar--and all monarchs--with usurping the throne of God, and the Russian tsar with bringing suffering instead of freedom to his people. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul on freedom, the respondent tells the interlocutor, "you shall not be slaves of man," and declares the only government in accord with God's laws to be "one where there ate no tsars." After some passages accusing the monarchy of misusing the church and misleading the people, the catechism ends with the question: "What then should the Christ-loving Russian army do?" The answer:
   To liberate the suffering families and their country and to fulfill
   the sacred Christian law, it must say a heartfelt and hopeful
   prayer to God who fights for justice and visibly protects those who
   staunchly put their trust in Him; it must join together and take up
   arms against tyranny and restore faith and liberty in Russia. And
   on him who stays behind, as on Judas the Traitor, let there be a
   curse and anathema. (62)


Inspiration for this document's content came partly from one of the Spanish catechisms issued during the Napoleonic Wars, which had appeared in Russian translation in 1812: A Civil Catechism, or a Brief Summary of the Duties of the Spaniard. (63) This and similar documents from Spain were apparently well known. Murav'ev-Apostol's "Orthodox Catechism" departs from the Spanish civil catechism in two major instances: though soaked in Christian piety, it indirectly accuses the church of mendaciously supporting the tsars, whereas the Spanish catechism exalts the Catholic church and faith; and while the Russian author condemns monarchy in all forms, the Spaniard affirms dedication to Fernando VII by name. The Spanish despotic foe is a foreign usurper rather than the native dynasty. While the Russian declares Christ the only king, the Spanish catechism asserts that "the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Gospels" constitute the governing laws of Spain. Yet both instruments are designed for popular consumption, decry tyranny, and employ theological arguments for civic purposes.

The idea of using a catechism to rouse the troops may have filtered through the Russian consciousness from all the news of how the Spanish masses and clergy resisted Napoleon. But the immediate impulse came to leaders of the Southern Society via a French novel published in 1824: Alansa, of Spain, a lively four-volume adventure tale of the Napoleonic occupation by N.-A. Salvandy. It contained a passage vividly describing how a Spanish village priest activated the emotions of his parishioners against Napoleon by reading them a "national catechism," modeled on real ones published in 1808, that thundered against the "tyrant." Salvandy quoted a passage from the memoirs of the French officer M. de Naylies, published in Paris in 1817, who in turn had drawn material from "a catechism written by a Spanish clergyman" that he found in December 1809 in El Escorial. (64) Murav'ev-Apostol's colleague, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin, testified later that this novel, combined with biblical passages, inspired the idea for the catechism.

By substituting all Russian autocrats for Napoleon, Sergei Murav'evApostol argued that Russian soldiers were dutybound to overthrow the tsar in the name of God. In the manner of Riego, Pepe, and Ypsilantis, he assembled his troops and addressed them in the small blizzard-ridden garrison town of Vasil'kov on 31 December 1825. A few days prior to this, Murav'ev-Apostol had told his comrades that Riego had "crossed the country with 300 men and restored the constitution. So how could [we] fail to accomplish our mission when all is in readiness, especially the army, which is rife with discontent?" (65) Combining Riego's pronunciamento with the stirring scene in Salvandy's novel, Murav'ev-Apostol had the catechism read aloud by a priest. When the Decembrist leader realized that it had little effect on the assembled troops, he dramatically switched messages and asked them for their allegiance to Grand Duke Konstantin.

Murav'ev-Apostol then rode out of town with his men, who followed loyally in hope of further support in his planned march to Kiev and thence to Moscow and Petersburg. The rebel column met defeat on 3 January 1826 on the snowy fields several miles from the starting place. Its leaders were taken prisoner. Unlike Pepe and Riego, Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol reached his capital only after being captured and shackled. As in the case with Fernando and Riego, the tsar commuted the official sentence of drawing and quartering. The five condemned men--including Murav'ev-Apostol, Bestuzhev-Riumin, Pestel', and Ryleev--were hanged.

Key figures in the Decembrist movement were inspired by the heroic example of revolt by dissident officers in Spain and Naples (and, in a different way, Ypsilantis)--their pronunciamentos, their limits on the king's powers, and their efforts to persuade the people through religious language to resista tyrant. The perceived treason of the European monarchs and the reactionary interventions and reprisals fueled the Decembrists' determination and led them into martyrdom. The literature on the Decembrist uprising of 1825-numbering tens of thousands of printed works--dwarfs the writings about the other three revolts combined. Yet not only did Sergei Murav'ev-Apostol's exploit fail, as had eventually those of Riego, Pepe, and Ypsilantis; it lasted only a few days, never carne close to achieving power, and caused little bloodshed in comparison with the other three. Greece, after Ypsilantis's demise, achieved independence through a tortured sequence of war, civil war, and foreign intervention; Neapolitan liberalism was folded into the Risorgimenta's unification of Italy; and Spanish constitutional regimes alternated with republics and dictatorships well into the 20th century. In Russia, the Decembrists came to be exalted by succeeding radical movements and in Soviet times were sanctified as the precursors of the Bolshevik revolution.

Were the Decembrists really Brothers of the Sword? Not in the sense of being active members of an international confraternity working to overthrow absolutism all over Europe--though some hoped to do that after a successful overturn in Russia. That distinction belonged to the political exiles who roamed from revolution to revolution to liberate lands other than their own: the itinerant French, Italians, Poles, and other volunteers who fought in Latin America and in Spain in 1823; and the radical Philhellenes, including some of the above. Russians were generally loathe to desert their native land even for political reasons; and subversives caught by the regime were sent not to neighboring countries where they could reunite in Paris or London but to Siberia. In any case, during the peak years of European revolutionary activity, 1820-23, the Decembrists were not wandering exiles but burgeoning conspirators in their own country.

Yet the Decembrists certainly displayed dedication to a larger brotherhood. Pestel"s elaborate plan to trigger the liberation of Europe in the wake of a Balkan war stands as the most developed of these designs, though not the only one. When initiating the Society of United Slavs into the Southern Society, Bestuzhev-Riumin announced that its imminent aim was "to liberate Russia and perhaps all of Europe. The Russian army will support the upsurge of all peoples. As soon as it proclaims freedom, all the nations will rejoice. A great deed will have been done, and they will call us the heroes of the age." (66) Both visions suggested that, with the collapse of autocracy in the three Eastern powers, Naples and Spain would be avenged and liberated once again. These sentiments and the scattered Russian testaments of solidarity with the insurgents of Spain, Naples, and Greece add up to a picture of emerging revolutionary internationalism--anticipating the Polish romantic revolutionaries, Mazzini, Bakunin, the early Pan-Slavs, and even, in a way, the Parvus-Trotskii vision and the Comintern activists of the early 20th century.

(1) the manifold interconnections among these revolts are the subject of my book-in-progress, The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty for Spain, Naples, Greece, and Russia. I wish to thank the librarians in Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Naples, and Athens for their treasured assistance.

(2) Rafael del Riego, La revolucion de 1820, dia a dia--Cartas, escritos, y discursos, ed. A. Gil Novales (Madrid: Tecnos, 1970), here 34-35. See also Miguel Artola Gallego, La Espana de Fernando VII (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1968), 617; Maria Fe Nunez Munoz, "El pronunciamiento de Riego en las Actas Capitulares Jerezanas," Anales de la Universidad de Cadiz, nos. 3-4 (1986-87): 229-50, 229.

(3) Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 124; see also Carr's arguments in Peter Russell, ed., Introduccion a la cultura hispanica, 2 vols. (Barcelona: Critica, 1982), 1:189.

(4) Alberto Gil Novales, El Trienio liberal (Madrid: Siglo veintiuno de Espana, 1980).

(5) Ibid.

(6) Causa formada en octubre de 1823 a virtud de orden de la Regencia por el senor alcalde don Alfonso de Cavia contra don Rafael del Riego, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Imprenta de D. M. de Burgos, 1835), here 49; Francisco Tuero Bertrand, Riego: Proceso a un liberal, intro. Manuel Fernandez Alvarez (Oviedo: Nobel, 1995), 84-85.

(7) Quoted in Ol'ga Orlik, Dekabristy i evropeiskoe osvoboditel 'noe dvizhenie (Moscow: Mysl', 1975), 45.

(8) Russkaiastarina, no. 12 (1875): 432.

(9) Orlik, Dekabristy, 65-66.

(10) A. P. Beliaev, "Vospominaniia o perezhitom i perechuvstvovannom," Russkaia starina (March 1881): 487-88.

(11) Vosstanie Dekabristov: Materialy, 21 vols. (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo, 1925- 2008), 1:481-82.

(12) N.V. Basargin, Zapiski, ed. P. E. Shchegolev (Petrograd: Ogni, 1917), xi-xiii, 6-13.

(13) Quoted in V. I. Nevskii, Obshchestvennye dvizheniia v Rossii v pervuiu polovinu XIX veka, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg: Gerol'd, 1905), 1:48.

(14) Orlik, Dekabristy, 73.

(15) M.A. Orlov, "Zapiski o tainom obshchestve," in Memuary Dekabristav, ed. M. V. Dovnar-Zapol'skii (Kiev: S. I. Ivanov, 1906), 1:10.

(16) A. Podzhio [Poggio], "Zapiski," in Vospominaniia i rasskazy deiatelei tainykh obshchestv 1820-khgodov, 2 vols. (Moscow: Vsesoiuznoe obshchestvo politkatorzhan i ssyl'no-poselentsev, 1931-33), 1:22-89, esp. 73-76 (here 76).

(17) Dovnar-Zapol'skii, Memuary Dekabristov, 1:194.

(18) Ibid., 1:191-92.

(19) Vosstanie Dekabristov, 4:105. Italics in original.

(20) Cited in Orlik, Dekabristy, 9.

(21) A. K. Borozdin, ed., Iz pisem i pokazanii Dekabristov: Kritika sovremennogo sostoianiia Rossii i plany budushchego ustroistva (St. Petersburg: Pirozhkov, 1906), 13.

(22) Ibid., 25.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ryleev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed. A. G. Tseitlin (Moscow: Academia, 1934), 417.

(25) "Balkanskaia problema v politicheskikh planakh dekabristov," in B. E. Syroechkovskii, Iz istorii dvizheniia Dekabristov (Moscow: Moskovskii universitet, 1969), 263.

(26) M. V. Nechkina, "Revoliutsiia na podobie ispanskoi," Katarga i ssylka, no. 10 (1931): 3-40. See also Isabel de Madariaga, "Spain and the Decembrists," European Studies Review 3, 2 (1973): 141-56.

(27) Juan Van Halen, Narrative of Don Juan Van Halen's Imprisonment in the Dungeons of the Inquisition at Madrid (New York: Harper, 1828), 43-54 and passim; Artola Gallego, Espana de Fernando VII, 631; M. A. Dodolev, Rossiia i Ispaniia 1808-1823 gg.: Voina i revoliutsiia v Ispanii i russko-ispanskie omosheniia (Moscow: Nauka, 1984), 126, 163-65, 181-82, 200-1; M. V. Nechkina, "Dekabristy vo vsemirno-istoricheskom protsesse," Voprosy istorii, no. 12 (1975): 10; M. P. Mekseev, Ocherki istorii ispano-russkikh literaturnykh otnoshenii XVI-XIX vv. (Leningrad: Leningradskii universitet, 1964), 125-26; V. I. Semevskii, "Dekabristy-masony," Minuvshie gody (May-June 1906): 418-19; Ana Maria Schop Soler, Un siglo de relaciones diplomaticas y comerciales entre Espana y Rusia, 1733-1833 (Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Direccion General de Relaciones Culturales, 1984), 414; Dodolev, "Van-Galen v Rossii (1818-1820 gg.)," Istoriia SSSR, no. 2 (1980): 145-57; N. Belozerskaia, "Zapiski Van-Galena," Istoricheskii vestnik, no. 6 (1884): 651-78.

(28) Orlik, Dekabristy, 57.

(29) M. P. Mekseev, "Etiudy iz istorii ispano-russkikh omoshenii," in Kul'tura Ispanii: Sbornik (Moscow: ANSSSR, 1940), 403-4.

(30) Orlik, Dekabristy, 74.

(31) Pisateli-dekabristy v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1980), 2:350 n. 5.

(32) Patrick O'Meara, K. F. Ryleev: A Political Biography of the Decembrist Poet (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 149.

(33) "Russkii narod svobodnyi i nezavisimyi, ne est' i ne mozhet byt' prinadlezhnost'iu ni kakogo litsa i nikakogo semeistva." Quoted in N. M. Druzhinin, Dekabrist Nikita Murar 'ev (Moscow: Vsesoiuznoe obshchestvo politkatorzhan i ssyl'no-poselentsev, 1933), 181. D. K. Petrov in 1909 explained the cryptic "I. K." in a footnote to the document as clearly referring to "Ispanskaia konstitutsiia"--the Spanish constitution; see his Rossiia i Nikolai I v stikhotvoreniiakh Espronsedy i Rossetti (St. Petersburg: Vineke, 1909), 71-72 n. 4. Petrov also cites the Spanish text: "Nacion espanola es libre e independente sin ser ni poder ser patrimonio de ninguna familia o persone" (spelling in the original). The modern version uses slightly different wording: "La Nacion espanola es libre e independiente, y no es ni puede ser patrimonio de ninguna familia ni persona" (Constitucion de Cadiz de 1812).

(34) "Istochnik verkhovnoi vlasti est' narod, kotoromu prinadlezhit isldiuchitel'noe pravo de lat" osnovnye postanovleniia dlia sebia." Quoted in Druzhinin, Dekabrist Nikita Murav'ev, 181; see also the Spanish chapter 1, article 3.

(35) N. V. Minaeva, "K voprosu ob ideinykh sviaziakh dvizheniia dekabristov i ispanskoi revoliutsii," Istoricheskie zapiski 96 (1975): 68-69.

(36) Marc Raeff, The Decembrist Movement (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 103.

(37) Second version, chapter 2, article 42, cited in ibid., 107.

(38) "Narod rossiiskii ne est' prinadlezhnost' kakogo-libo litsa iii semeistva. Naprotiv togo, pravitel'stvo est' prinadlezhnost' naroda, i ono uchrezhdeno dlia blaga narodnogo, a ne narod sushchestvuet dlia blaga pravitel'stva." Quoted in Vosstanie Dekabristov, 7:69.

(39) Constitucion de Cadiz de 1812.

(40) Minaeva, "K voprosu ob ideinykh sviaziakh," 70.

(41) M.V. Dovnar-Zapol'skii, Idealy Dekabristov (Moscow: Sytin, 1907), 303-6.

(42) "Katekhizis Sergeia Murav'eva-Apostola" (1908), in P. E. Shchegolev, Istoricheskie etiudy (St. Petersburg: Shipovnik, 1913), 324-27.

(43) Dodolev, "Rossiia i voina ispanskogo naroda za nezavisimost' (1808-1814 gg.)," Vaprosy istorii, no. 11 (1972): 43.

(44) Borozdin, Iz pisem, 13.

(45) Quoted in Dodolev, Rossiia i Ispaniia, 226.

(46) S. S. Volk, Istaricheskie vzgliady dekabristov (Moscow: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1958), 275.

(47) Basargin, Zapiski, 25 n. 1 and 28 n. 1. Recounting the incident in verse, Aleksandr Pushkin confused news of Riego's arrest with that of his execution (see the poem in Petrov, Rassiia i Nikalai I, 74 n. 1).

(48) Orlov, "Zapiski o tainom obshchestve," in Dovnar-Zapol'skii, Memuary Dekabristav, 1:I-26, here 10.

(49) A. S. Gangeblov, "Vospominaniia," Russkii arkhiv, no. 6 (1886): 181-268.

(50) Borozdin, Izpisem, 13.

(51) Dovnar-Zapol'skii, Memuary Dekabristov, 1:245.

(52) Beliaev, "Vospominaniia," Russkaia starina (January 1881): 8-10, here 10.

(53) Petrov, Rossua i Nikalai I, 58 n. 1; M. K. Azadovskii, ed., Vospominaniia Bestuzhevykh (Moscow: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1951), 597; Nikolai Grech, Zapiski moei zhizni (Moscow: Zakharov, 2002), 329-35.

(54) Dovnar-Zapol'skii, Memuary Dekabristov, 1 : 120.

(55) Anatole Mazour, The First Russian Revolution, 1825 (1937; repr. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), 97.

(56) Vosstanie Dekabristov, 3:338-39, here 339.

(57) Ibid., 3:340.

(58) Poggio, in Dovnar-Zapoi'skii, Memuary Dekabristov, 1:202-3.

(59) Quoted in Dodolev, Rossiia, 224.

(60) Vosstanie Dekabristov, 4:349-51.

(61) O'Meara, Ryleev, 111, 13742; Azadovskii, ed., Vaspominaniia Bestuzhevykh, 605-6; Petrov, Rossiia i Nikolai I, 68 and n. 4.

(62) Borozdin, Izpisem, 85-88, here 88.

(63) The Spanish catechism is Catecismo civil, y breve compendio de las obligaciones del Espanol (Seville, 1808). The text is reproduced in Ramon Espinar Gallego, ed., Catecismos politicos espanoles arreglados a las constituciones del siglo XIX (Madrid: Consejeria de Cultura, 1989), 15-20, here 19. For a Russian translation, see "Grazhdanskii katikhizis, iii Kratkoe obozrenie dolzhnostei ispantsa," Syn otechestva, no. 2 (1812): 53-60. An identically titled Madrid edition is cited in Alfonso Capitan Diaz, Los catecismos politicos en Espana (1808-1822) (Granada: n. p., 1978), 59-65. The Military Archives in Madrid contain a dozen or so political catechisms ranging from purely nationalist religio-military exhortations to those tinged with liberal messages: Coleccion documental del Fraile, Archivo General Militar, Madrid.

(64) The passage in the novel is Narcisse-Achille de Salvandy, Don Alonso, ou l'Espagne: Histoire contemporaine, 6th ed., 2 vols. (Paris: Didier, 1857), 2:149-52. Isabel de Madariaga seems to be the only scholar who has traced Salvandy (and thus many of his copiers) back to de Naylies ("Spain and the Decembrists," 151).

(65) Baron Solov'ev's testimony, cited in Shchegolev, "Katekhizis," 337.

(66) Syroechkovskii, "Balkanskaia problema," 293.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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