20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this new essay, the author explains how the crackdown of the 1825 Decembrist revolt led to the establishment of the public ideology of “state patriotism.”



The Contrast

It might seem paradoxical to begin a popular history of Russian nationalism with the Decembrists, who were not in the least connected to this nationalism. But I can hardly do otherwise. It would be like starting a grim history of Putinism without mentioning the hopeful and cheerful glasnost—the governmental transparency of the late 1980s. The contrast would be absent. Remember Pyotr Chaadayev’s words: “In a different way, a thousand times in a different way, we loved our homeland in my youth.” In a different way, he meant from Russian nationalists. Chaadayev’s contrast is more appropriate here, because judging by the mail I’ve received from readers, Russians today don’t esteem, in fact strongly dislike, the Decembrists. Maybe this is because of the boring school lesson we all received telling us that “the Decembrists awakened Herzen” (whom, by the way, Russians also dislike)? Or maybe it’s simply because they do not know anything about the Decembrists, except that they were against the tsar and Soviet propaganda praised them to the skies? I do not know why. But I know that we need to puzzle this out.

No, do not defend them, God forbid, just understand. They can stand up for themselves—just like Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lunin, these “Decembrists without December” (that is what the circle of people who, for various reasons, did not participate in the rebellion, but acknowledged without hesitation that they “under other circumstances would have acted in the spirit of it,” were called in their time). As for those who participated, it is enough to recall Lieutenant Colonel Gavrila Batenkov’s surviving note that was transmitted from the fortress where he waited in anticipation of the death penalty: “Our secret society is composed of people whom Russia will always be proud of. The fewer of them, the greater their fame. With such a disparity, the voice of freedom could sound for only a few hours, but how well it sounded!” Or, perhaps, the point of Nikita Muraviev’s constitution draft: “A slave who touches Russian soil becomes a free man.”

Yet one can only understand fully what this famous point means after reading Mikhail Speranskii’s note addressed to His Majesty the Emperor of Russia Alexander I. Here is an excerpt—get acquainted with it:

“Instead of the current division of free Russian people into free classes of nobility, merchants, and others, I see in Russia only two states of being—the monarch’s slaves and landlords’ slaves. The first call themselves free only with respect to the second; there are no truly free people in Russia but beggars and philosophers.... If monarchical rule must be something more than a ghost of freedom, then we certainly do not yet have monarchical rule.” In other words, we are not yet in Europe. Now you can comprehend the meaning of Muraviev’s constitution: that it is intolerably shameful to any man to live in a country of slaves.


The Role of the Decembrists in History

Were the Slavophiles right in accusing Peter the Great of the Decembrist revolt a decade and a half later? Or in cursing him because they were born into a country torn in two—“the country of slaves, the country of gentlemen”—where the two countries confronted each other as two irreconcilable worlds (I’m not exaggerating when I speak of the Slavophil’s curse; remember the Constantine Aksakov poem addressed to Peter: And on your great cause the seal of curse lay). I think they were both right and wrong.

They were wrong in that the fateful split of the country did not begin with Peter. It is possible to pinpoint the year it began: 1581, when Ivan III’s grandson, who has gone down in history as Ivan the Terrible, repealed the Yuri’s Day law that had granted a yearly window of time during which peasants could move from one landowner to another, effectively marking the beginning of slavery for the vast majority of the population. The Slavophiles were right in something else, though: Peter really did wrap up the case, sharply turning the minority’s face to Europe and leaving the rest to languish in Muscovite captivity and antiquity. Russia indeed was after Peter at the lights of half-Europe where a minority of the population gradually turned into Russian Europeans, and the majority continued to live in the Middle Ages.

And the gap widened between the two Russias, each living in its own time dimension. In the words of the same Speranskii, in one of these Russias, “the academies were opened, and in the other, reading, literacy, was included among the mortal sins.” One surprised the world with the greatness of its culture, and the other... But I cannot say it better than Alexander Herzen: “In the hallways and valet rooms there were buried whole martyrologies of the terrible misdeeds, the memory of them wandering in the soul and for generations maturing into a bloody and terrible revenge, which will not be possible to stop.”

In short, a century after Peter died in 1725, three roads opened in front of Russia, as had happened before in front of its epic heroes. It could return to the pre-Petrine Muscovite archaic way (Slavophiles defended this way); it could finish off Peter’s work, releasing the majority, forcing its education, and thus becoming Europe (the Decembrists came to the square for the sake of this); or it could “drag its feet,” remaining torn in half until the day of the bloody cataclysm predicted by Herzen—until the day when, awakened, “the Peasant kingdom” would sweep this second Russia along with its great European culture. The chosen path, the fate of Peter’s Russia, was actually settled on Senate Square on December 14, 1825.

“Instead of the current division of free Russian people into free classes of nobility, merchants, and others, I see in Russia only two states of being—the monarch’s slaves and landlords’ slaves… There are no truly free people in Russia but beggars and philosophers....”

The Decembrists were tragically unprepared for that day (as often happens with Russian reformers, and as, I’m afraid, will happen again after Putin). They did not choose this day; it chose them. But it came, and they came to the square. Ivan Puschin explained afterwards, “We would justly be called scoundrels if we missed this one chance.” Did they have a chance for success, even if temporary? Most historians are sure that they did not. I know of two exceptions.

The first was Herzen. “What would have happened,” he asked, “if the conspirators brought soldiers, not in the morning, but at midnight, and surrounded the Winter Palace, where nothing was ready? ...If in the morning, instead of lining up in a square, they attacked the palace guard, still shaky and unsure of themselves, with all their forces?” And he concluded, “They did not succeed, that’s all that can be said, but success was certainly not impossible.”

Natan Edelman proposed a similar scenario: “The rebellious Grenadier Guards could easily have occupied the palace.” And most importantly, “in the case of at least a temporary seizure of the capital, important decrees would be issued—about the constitution, about peasants’ freedom—which, of course, would have a significant impact on history... Far less likely events have happened: for example, Napoleon’s one hundred days, which could have been prevented by a stray bullet of the Bourbon supporters.”

The actual role of the Decembrists in Russian history is not confined, however, to the success or failure of the uprising. It is twofold.

First, they have managed to turn the question of overcoming the split and reunifying the country into Petrine Russia’s existential problem. After them nobody would dare to ignore it. Even Nicholas I, who sent them to the scaffolds and to penal holes, was forced to admit publicly that “the serfdom we have is a palpable and obvious evil for all.” The tsar, however, immediately added that “in the present era any thought [about its abolition] would be nothing more than a criminal assault on the public peace and welfare of the state.” But he did not take back his use of the Decembrists’ definition of “evil.”

Second, the Decembrists were right in their insight that the serfs’ emancipation at the hands of the “sovereign slaves” would only lead to the deathly, deepening division of the country. The problem’s solution required the liberation of all, “top to bottom,” as Nikolay Chernyshevsky admitted later. It required, in other words, the abolition of the autocracy. Nevertheless, the century that was left to Petrine Russia until the cataclysm destroyed it, was devoted to the implementation of the Decembrist vision—from the emancipation of the serfs in February 1861 until the abolition of the autocracy in February 1917.

Only all of that happened too late—hopelessly late. Russia could today be a great European power instead of peripheral oil and gas station if the Decembrist vision had been implemented earlier, if not in 1825 then in 1855, in the first era of glasnost, when there was no longer any need for secret societies and military pronouncements. Anyway, the Decembrists were prophets of Petrine Russia’s fate. This is their actual role in history. And no one can take this role from them.


Why Did They Take to the Square?

The Decembrists’ executioners made great efforts to ruin the memory of them, to blacken them, to suspect them of all kinds of low-lying motives. Dozens of myths have been created to this end. And how sad it is that current readers repeat them without hesitation, despite the fact that simple reason, it would seem, is enough to refute them.

I say that the majority of the Decembrists were notable and highly affluent people; many traveled from Borodino to Paris, and had seen with their own eyes that people in Europe somehow managed without slavery—“sovereign” or landlord. Others were sons of senators, governors, even ministers (in my trilogy I have detailed statistics; to my shame, I found there is no subject index, only names, and I remember just that there were twenty-eight senators’ sons among them). In short, the majority of the Decembrists didn’t have any need to worry about their careers.

On the other hand, they were not loafers, were not the “golden youth.” Remember, though, the portrait Chaadayev gave us of Pushkin: “He would have been Brutus in Rome, Pericles in Athens.” These were serious people. Secular. Not fanatics. So why did they take such a deadly risk? After all, their cause could end with the gallows—and for some it did end there—or in the “best” case scenario, with broken lives and penal servitude.

Please note that neither the inventors of the defamatory Decembrist myths in Nicholas’s times, nor their current consumers, ever touch upon this decisive question of why; they are just teasing over trifles, mocking. They argue that the Decembrists reproached in hypocrisy, rebelling in the name of peasants’ freedom without releasing their own peasants. I answer seriously: Yes, Alexander I’s “free ploughmen” decree did give landlords the opportunity, if they desired, to enfranchise their peasants at will, and so the Decembrists might have taken this route to release their serfs. But doing so was very rare, involved a variety of bureaucratic obstacles, and would be immediately leaked to the press, hence to the police. A fine conspiracy it would be indeed if they all (579 people were charged in the Decembrist case) had committed this act of public self-exposure.

The Decembrists were ashamed of their country. They were unbearably ashamed of the fact that in Russia, the land that defeated Napoleon, “there [were] no free people, except the poor and philosophers.” Vladimir Soloviev subsequently named this shame the true patriotism.

Their critics also rebuke them on the grounds that the Decembrists had among them, as in any big team, their own enfant terrible, Colonel Pavel Pestel, with his unfinished Russian Truth and a project of temporary revolutionary dictatorship. So, the mockery is that when speaking about the Decembrists, people refer exclusively to Pestel, as if he epitomized their movement, when really the majority of the participants did not share Pestel’s views, and the authors of both completed constitution projects—Sergei Troubetzkoy and Nikita Muraviev—called for a constitutional monarchy and the federation, not for a unitary republic (empire), and especially not for a dictatorship. And certainly had they succeeded, they would not have released The Russian Truth.

I do not have space here to talk seriously about the whole mass of mockers and exaggerations, not with how today’s Decembrist detractors operate, repeating the teachings of their Nicholas-era forebears. I think the examples provided get the idea across. What’s more important is that the simplest, most obvious explanation, which is evident from the abovementioned paragraph from Muraviev’s constitution, does not come to the detractors’ minds: these people were ashamed of their country. They were unbearably ashamed of the fact that in Russia, the land that defeated Napoleon, “there [were] no free people,” as Speranskii noted, “except the poor and philosophers.” Vladimir Soloviev subsequently named this shame the true patriotism. And where is this sentiment in the hearts of today’s readers?



But I’m writing of the Decembrists, of course, for another reason. If we want to establish the exact moment in Russian life when patriotism changed into a form of national complacence because the motherland is such a large and formidable country, then here it is: the first decade after the Decembrists’ defeat. What else could happen in a country whose soul had been removed, “all that was talented, educated, noble, and brilliant in the then-Russia,” according to Herzen? What, if not the deepest ideological vacuum, spiritual torpor, and emptiness?

“The first decade after 1825 was terrible not only from the open persecution of thought, but from the sheer emptiness that was revealed in society. It fell; it was baffled and intimidated. The best people thought that the old ways were not possible, and they did not know the new.” The case was, as we see, not that it was dangerous to speak, but that there was nothing to say. Nobody had anything to say except the power. It spoke—loudly, clearly, unceremoniously. From the abyss of spiritual torpor, the monster rose to replace Pushkin’s intimate feeling of “love to the graves of our fathers” with the public ideology of “state patriotism.”

From that point on, love of country was put under state control. Serfdom and autocracy were explained simply as national characteristics of Russia: we needn’t be ashamed of our characteristics, but must be proud of our greatness. Yes, the tsar confessed now with touching candor, “despotism still exists in Russia, because it is the essence of my reign, but it agrees with the genius of the nation.” I’m not sure if this requires any comment. Let me just say this: that is what the dawn of Russian nationalism looked like.