Heroines

The Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles

by Christine Sutherland
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 340 pp., $17.95

The rising that took place in St. Petersburg on December 14, 1825, is one of history’s prime examples of how not to make a revolution. The aristocratic army officers who predominated among the conspirators could not agree on their political aims. The leaders included monarchists, republicans, and a noted Romantic poet whose political concepts were vague in the extreme. Nor, over the decade of their society’s existence, had the Decembrists (as they subsequently came to be known) given much thought to tactics, strategy, or the choice of leaders. The short space between the decision to act and the rising itself (precipitated by the sudden death of Alexander I and the confusion surrounding the succession) did not serve to concentrate their minds. The plan was that the troops under their command, assembled on Senate Square to take the oath of loyalty to the new czar, would refuse, sparking off a general revolt. But on the day, confusion reigned. The officer selected as leader of the revolt and future dictator of Russia wandered aimlessly around the city and finally sought refuge with a cousin in the Austrian embassy, and none of his comrades proved any more decisive. The bewildered troops stood patiently on the square until they were mown down by a battalion loyal to the czar, while most of the conspirators returned home to await arrest.

The tragicomedy on Senate Square may affect the historian’s assessment of the Decembrists, but it did nothing to diminish the veneration in which they were held by future generations of the Russian intelligentsia. For them, the Decembrists’ precise political aims were of minor significance; what mattered was their moral opposition to autocracy and serfdom. As their depositions, recorded during the long official investigation, revealed, they had formed from a variety of sources (including classical authors, the French Encyclopédistes, European Romanticism, and their own experience of Europe during the Napoleonic campaigns after 1812) an ideal of freedom and dignity incompatible with the status quo in their country.

By his vindictive response (five of the leaders were hanged, and 121 men sentenced to exile with hard labor in Siberia) Nicolas I intended to obliterate the memory of the Decembrists. He succeeded only in creating martyrs and fostering a legend which grew over the next three decades with each new report of the exiles’ activities: their mutual self-help organization, in which goods and funds were distributed according to individual need, their researches into agriculture and ethnography, and their work in education and medicine, all applied for the benefit of the local population. The Decembrists’ considerable achievements in the practical application of their liberal and humanist ideals, recorded in the memoirs that many of them published after they were amnestied in 1856, have generated a vast and still growing academic industry. In nineteenth-century Russia they served a more practical function: they provided the nascent revolutionary tradition with models of moral nobility and selflessness.

These models were of both sexes. Describing in his memoirs the panic that …

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