Historians have generally agreed that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I (ruled 1801-1825). 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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. Following his death, there was confusion about who would succeed him because the next in line, his brother Constantine, had relinquished his right to the throne. 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. 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. *

Secret Police and Repression in Russia

As Western influence and opposition to Russian autocracy mounted, the regime reacted by creating a secret police and increasing censorship in order to curtail the activities of persons advocating change. The regime remained committed to its serf-based economy as the means of supporting the upper classes, the government, and the military forces. But Russia's backwardness and inherent weakness were revealed in the middle of the century, when several powers forced the surrender of a Russian fortress in Crimea.

Repression also has a long history in Russia. The famous French traveler Marquis de Custine wrote in 1775: “The numerous questions I had to meet, and then the precautionary forms that it was necessary to pass through, warned me that I was entering the Empire of Fear.”

Ivan the Terrible founded Russia’s first secret police, sometimes called the “oprichniki”, in 1565 to strengthen his grip on power by terrorizing the populace. The dog-and-broom insignia's on the secret police’s uniforms symbolized the sniffing out and sweeping out of Ivan's enemies. At the end of his reign in the early 19th century Peter the Great spent one day a week in the torture cells of his secret police.

After the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas I (ruled 1825-1855) was determined to restrain Russian society. A secret police, the so-called Third Section, ran a huge network of spies and informers. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life. Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) replaced the brutal Third Section secret police with the poorly organized Okhrna.

Alexander III (ruled 1881-1894) initiated a period of political reaction, which intensified a counterreform movement that had begun in 1866. He strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana, gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dmitriy Tolstoy, Alexander's minister of internal affairs, instituted the use of land captains, who were noble overseers of districts, and he restricted the power of the zemstva and the dumy .


One of the earliest Russian revolutionary groups, later called the Decembrists, launched a day-long revolt on December, 14, 1825 with the goal of overthrowing tsar Nicholas I. Hastily launched after Alexander I's death, the revolt was put down by tsarist troops who first tried peaceful methods and then opened fire with artillery, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in St. Petersburg's Senate Square, where the revolt took place.

Many of the participants in the revolt were idealistic young aristocrats, who called for an end to the monarchy, freedom for serfs and the establishment of a constitutional government. Stirred by ideas of freedom and equality put forth by the American and French Revolutions, the rebels also included noblemen, military officers, philosophers and poets. The average age of the ones arrested was 26.

Nicholas I, who had been in power less than a month before the Decembrist rebellion took place, and hadn't even been crowned yet, had been regarded as a potential reformer. He responded to the revolt as a threat on his leadership, however, setting the scene for a repressive 30-year reign with the establishment of a censorship system and establishing the Third Section, a secret police force that was a forerunner of the KGB.

Decembrists Executed and Sent to Siberia

Nicholas I saw the Decembrist uprising as a personal betrayal. Many of the participants were his close friends. After the leaders of the rebellion were hung, Nicholas said, "It is my duty to give a lesson to Russia" Nicholas I also led a campaign a against what he considered to be corrupting Western ideas. Ideas that aimed to give people more power and rights were suppressed.

Over 100 Decembrist men that were captured were sent to Siberian camps, where they survived with the help of their wives and lovers, who made the 4,000-mile, three-month journey to join them. These women, many of whom gave up lives of luxury for winters in peasant shacks in -40 degree temperatures, were credited with saving the lives of their men and they were referred to as "guardian angels."

In Siberia, the Decembrists attempted to establish an ideal society in the prisons with their own garden plots and schools that offered courses in chemistry, geology, literature, economics, military strategy and ten languages.

Dostoevsky’s Mock Execution Under Nicholas I

In 1847, the famed Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky joined a 20-member liberal discussion group that studied liberal French philosophy, professed atheism and secretly conspired against the tsar. The group met every Friday to discuss literary and political ideas. Dostoevsky and other serious members in the group planned to put out a reformist magazine, an act of treason at that time. After the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Tsar Nicholas I decided tip to repress and round up "revolutionists." On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky's apartment was raided by police while he was asleep and he was taken to a prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After a lengthy interrogation, Dostoevsky said that his subversive remarks had been unintentional and professed his loyalty the tsar and church.

After spending eight months in prison at the Peter-Paul Fortress, Dostoevsky was brought to Semonovsky Square, where disobedient soldiers were flogged and criminals executed, with 21 others on December 22, 1849 to be publicly executed. The condemned men were dressed in white burial gowns, given their last rites, and tied to whipping posts in groups of three. The men listened to a sermon and then, one by one, keeled and kissed the cross. Noblemen, including Dostoevsky, had a sword broken over their heads. Just as the drums had started to roll and the firing squad was ordered to get ready to shoot, a royal courier arrived with a stay of execution and told the men they had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia instead.

It was too late for one of the men. He went insane right on the spot. Another shouted, "The Good Tsar! Long Live the Tsar!" According to some reports of the event, Dostoevsky suffered an epileptic seizure. The whole affair was scripted by Tsar Nicholas I himself as a warning to political dissidents. Describing the experience, Dostoevsky wrote his brother, "Never has there seethed in me such an abundant and healthy kind of spiritual life as now. Whether it will sustain the body I do not know...Now my life will change. I shall be born again in a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I shall not lose hope and shall keep pure my mind and heart. I shall be born again for the best. That is hope, all my comfort.

Labor Camps Under the Tsars

Russia established a vast network of forced labor camps and prisons that were found mostly in Siberia, the Arctic, the Far East and Central Asia. They served two primary purposes; 1) they provided a means of dealing with unwanted people; and 2) they provided labor to build the industrial infrastructure of the state. The camps were not concentration camps intended for exterminations; they was established on economic grounds. Siberia was full of minerals and resources but few people wanted to work there voluntarily so prisoners were sent there to work and be punished. Most of the camps were set up for mining or timber extraction.

Convicts, political troublemakers and other people that rulers wanted out of the way had been sent to Siberia since the 17th century, not long after Russia extended its borders into the region. People sent to Siberia were not expected to come back and "surviving Siberia" has been part of the Russian psyche in both the tsarist and Communist eras. The most notorious camps were in Siberia, the Arctic and the Far East but those were not the only place they were located. There were some right in Moscow.

Under the tsars exiles to Siberia were graded into four grades: 1) hard labor convicts (whose heads were shaved, wore heavy fetters and were branded with the mark of their crime and were often exiled for life); 2) penal colonists, who were given some freedom of moment and allowed to return after a period of time ; 3) non-criminal deportees; and 4) voluntary followers.

Before the Trans-Siberian railway, exiles walked to Siberia. Describing exiles in Siberia in 1893, C Wenyon wrote: "There were seldom less than 200 persons in a gang—women as well as men. They wore long coats of coarse earth-colored frieze and were chained together as they walked, A file of soldiers with fixed bayonets marched in either side...Without a word and with no sound but the confused tramp of feet, and the mournful clanking of chains, the procession winded its way eastward."

Prisoners who worked had their sentenced reduced based on the seriousness of their crime and the amount of time they worked. Hard labor convicts were able to work without chains. Non criminal exiles had two years of their sentence knocked of for every year they worked.

Books: “Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2003) won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 2004.

Legacy of the Decembrists

The Decembrists represented the first major cry of dissent and were an inspiration for Russian revolutionary movements, including the Bolsheviks, that followed them. Up to that point that tsars, for the most part, kept down the masses with enforced poverty and police persecution. But their harsh treatment of ordinary people created an environment for revolutionary activities because no other forms of dissent were available. Russians today still flock to Decembrist homes in Siberia, which during the Communist era were honored like pilgrimage shrines.

After Decembrist movement, officers and intellectuals in Russia formed secret societies whose aim was to bring down or change the tsarist government. Some groups looked to the West for inspirations. Others looked to the Orthodox church. Others still found hope in anarchy, chaos and village life. The spreading of the revolutionary movement was helped by writers and intellectuals like Turgenev and Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy had planned to write a book about the Decembrists but wrote “War and Peace” instead.

The Decembrists movement also produced crackdowns on perceived dissent. Describing the atmosphere in St. Petersburg in the 1840s, French chronicler Marquis de Custine observed, when in "Petersburg, to lie is still to perform the part of a good citizen; to speak the truth, even in apparently unimportant matters, is to conspire. You would lose the favor of the emperor, if you were to observe that he had a cold in his head."

Populists and Uprisings in the 1860s

The czars used the judiciary to crack down on revolutionaries. In 1862, the social reformer Nikoli Chernyshevsky, was arrested for revolutionary activities in connection with several large fires in Moscow and exiled to Siberia for 20 years although there was little proof that he actually did anything wrong. Violence was another means of cracking down. Gen. Mikhail “The Hangman” Muraviev led the notoriously violent suppression of the Polish insurrection against Russian imperial rule in 1863.

The crackdowns often backfired. In Chernyshevsky’s case he wrote a book in prison called “What Is to be Done?” (1861). It became a manifesto for future revolutionaries. Among those who read were Lenin. Chernyshevsky was the most important radical writer of the period. He posited that Russia could bypass capitalism and move directly to socialism . What Is to Be Done? (1861), describes the role of an individual of a "superior nature" who guides a new, revolutionary generation.

Alexander II's reform probably helped the revolutionary cause more than hurt it. Peasants were angry about paying the taxes. Intellectuals and students were aroused to their plight. From the 1860s through the 1880s, Russian radicals, collectively known as Populists (Narodniki), focused chiefly on the peasantry, whom they identified as "the people" (narod ). Radical students headed to the countryside to organize the peasants. Their efforts failed and revolutionaries became convinced they would have more success in the cities.

The leaders of the Populist movement included radical writers, idealists, and advocates of terrorism. "Russian humanitarian socialism", advanced by Aleksandr Herzen and the Populists, was the idea that Russia could avoid the horrors of industrialization and social alienation of the bourgeois West by developing Russian peasant communes.

Rise of Revolutionary Movements

the reforms of Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) reforms, particularly the lifting of state censorship, fostered the expression of political and social thought. The regime relied on journals and newspapers to gain support for its domestic and foreign policies. But liberal, nationalist, and radical writers also helped to mold public opinion that was opposed to tsarism, private property, and the imperial state. Because many intellectuals, professionals, peasants, and workers shared these opposition sentiments, the regime regarded the publications and the radical organizations as dangerous. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Other radicals such as the incendiary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and his terrorist collaborator, Sergey Nechayev, urged direct action. The calmer Petr Tkachev argued against the advocates of Marxism , maintaining that a centralized revolutionary band had to seize power before capitalism could fully develop. Disputing his views, the moralist and individualist Petr Lavrov made a call "to the people," which hundreds of idealists heeded in 1873 and 1874 by leaving their schools for the countryside to try to generate a mass movement among the narod . The Populist campaign failed, however, when the peasants showed hostility to the urban idealists and the government began to consider nationalist opinion more seriously. *

The radicals reconsidered their approach, and in 1876 they formed a propagandist organization called Land and Liberty (Zemlya i volya), which leaned toward terrorism. This orientation became stronger three years later, when the group renamed itself the People's Will (Narodnaya volya), the name under which the radicals were responsible for the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. In 1879 Georgiy Plekhanov formed a propagandist faction of Land and Liberty called Black Repartition (Chernyy peredel), which advocated redistributing all land to the peasantry. This group studied Marxism, which, paradoxically, was principally concerned with urban industrial workers. The People's Will remained underground, but in 1887 a young member of the group, Aleksandr Ul'yanov, attempted to assassinate Alexander III, and authorities arrested and executed him. The execution greatly affected Vladimir Ul'yanov, Aleksandr's brother. Influenced by Chernyshevskiy's writings, Vladimir joined the People's Will, and later, inspired by Plekhanov, he converted to Marxism. The younger Ul'yanov later changed his name to Lenin.

Alexander II Assassinated by an Anarchist Suicide Bomber

In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by the anarchist group Narodnaya Volya, who hoped to end Tsarist rule in Russia with their act. Alexander II was the target of several assassination attempts before that. He survived an attempt in 1879 in which two bombs where planted in tunnels underneath the tsars train route. One bomb failed to explode and the other derailed the train but failed to hurt anyone. In 1880, part of the Winter Palace was blown up.

In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a terrorist who strapped a bomb to his body and burst out of a crowd and blew up himself and the tsar, who was riding in a carriage. Narodnaya Volya—a secret society whose name means the People's Will—claimed responsibility for the murder which it had hoped would ignite a revolution. Instead anybody remotely connected to plot was rounded up and executed.

Radical Political Parties Develop

During the 1890s, Russia's industrial development led to a significant increase in the size of the urban bourgeoisie and the working class, setting the stage for a more dynamic political atmosphere and the development of radical parties. Because the state and foreigners owned much of Russia's industry, the working class was comparatively stronger and the bourgeoisie comparatively weaker than in the West. The working class and peasants were the first to establish political parties because the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie were politically timid. During the 1890s and early 1900s, abysmal living and working conditions, high taxes, and land hunger gave rise to more frequent strikes and agrarian disorders. These activities prompted the bourgeoisie of various nationalities in the empire to develop a host of different parties, both liberal and conservative. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Socialists of different nationalities formed their own parties. Russian Poles, who had suffered significant administrative and educational Russification, founded the nationalistic Polish Socialist Party in Paris in 1892. That party's founders hoped that it would help reunite a divided Poland with the territories held by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. In 1897 Jewish workers in Russia created the Bund (league or union), an organization that subsequently became popular in western Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Russian Poland. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was established in 1898. The Finnish Social Democrats remained separate, but the Latvians and Georgians associated themselves with the Russian Social Democrats. Armenians, inspired by both Russian and Balkan revolutionary traditions, were politically active in this period in Russia and in the Ottoman Empire. Politically minded Muslims living in Russia tended to be attracted to the pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic movements that were developing in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Russians who fused the ideas of the old Populists and urban socialists formed Russia's largest radical movement, the United Socialist Revolutionary Party, which combined the standard Populist mix of propaganda and terrorist activities. *

Vladimir I. Ul'yanov was the most politically talented of the revolutionary socialists. In the 1890s, he labored to wean young radicals away from populism to Marxism. Exiled from 1895 to 1899 in Siberia, where he took the name Lenin from the mighty Siberian Lena River, he was the master tactician among the organizers of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. In December 1900, he founded the newspaper Iskra (Spark). In his book What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin developed the theory that a newspaper published abroad could aid in organizing a centralized revolutionary party to direct the overthrow of an autocratic government. He then worked to establish a tightly organized, highly disciplined party to do so in Russia. At the Second Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903, he forced the Bund to walk out and induced a split between his majority Bolshevik faction and the minority Menshevik faction, which believed more in worker spontaneity than in strict organizational tactics. Lenin's concept of a revolutionary party and a worker-peasant alliance owed more to Tkachev and to the People's Will than to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the developers of Marxism. Young Bolsheviks, such as Joseph V. Stalin and Nikolay Bukharin, looked to Lenin as their leader.

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Last updated May 2016

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