The Half-Life of a Revolt

The uprising that inspired Hyperadamantinethough only a passing note in many Western histories of Russia, has had a remarkably long half-life for a so-called “failure.”

The uprising led to something of a lost generation among Russian nobility: Some of the boldest and most liberal-minded aristocrats were exiled. They weren’t silenced, though: When the wave of liberalism (in its older sense) hit Russia in the 1860s, these men (and a few of the women related to them) gained notoriety. People sought them out, photographed them, took down their stories.

The fact we have so many letters, drawings, essays, and personal accounts from the time stems from this interest, as the radicals of the mid-1800s looked for inspiration from the folks they saw as predecessors. The account of the immediate aftermath that most inspired me was by Mikhail Bestuzhev, written decades after the night based on clearly well-worn stories and recollections. The chaos, the back and forth, the confusion, the tearful goodbyes, last-minute proposals, and voluntary surrender to authorities were all there in his extremely moving prose, recorded for a journalist who reached out to him in Siberia.

The impact of the Decembrists is hard to underestimate. Pushkin, who saw his friends dragged away, wove them into his poetry. Tolstoy was so taken with their bravery, he wanted to write about them. Yet as he dug into their stories, he found he couldn’t tell the tale without going back to the Napoleonic Wars, to 1812. The result: War and Peace.

But here’s the thing. The Decembrists lost. Totally. They were rounded up, a few executed and the rest imprisoned. Historians have reflexively ripped them, for their total loser approach. They were a bunch of dilettantes, privileged bros of yesteryear playing at revolution. Or they were a necessary glitch, the auto-bourgeois stage of evolution. They really should have known they would fail. I mean, how stupid can you be?

However, the smartest among them had plans. They had draft constitutions, clear ideas about monarchy and the eventual republic they dreamed Russia might become. Which is why they were dealt with so harshly, one might argue, subjected to irons when, as aristocrats, they shouldn’t have been.

They were traitors, yet they knew they could do nothing else. And such coups had won the day, several times, in Russian history. Their dreams weren’t completely batty. Their hopes go to show that there’s more to Russia than the hamfisted ideas of enigmas wrapped in mysteries portray. There are reasons, good ones, and more of a legacy of non-autocratic impulses than you might believe, were you to only hear our version of things.

Image: Karl Kolman, Senate Square


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