A striking paradox of Peter the Great’s rule is that, despite his many achievements in building a strong Russian state, he failed to establish a reliable mechanism for the transfer of supreme executive power and helped create the conditions for a century of palace coups. In the century after Peter’s death in 1725, army officers were involved constantly in questions of sovereign power, although they never seized power for themselves. The one episode that could have ended with an officer on the throne was the failed Decembrist uprising.
The Era of Palace Coups
Peter himself had come to power with the assistance of military officers. Peter was ten years old when his father, Tsar Feodor, died in 1682. Feodor’s sister Sophie, with the aid of Muscovite strel’tsy (musketeers), seized power and declared herself regent. In 1689 Peter organized her overthrow with the help of his so-called play regiments, which later were transformed into elite Guards regiments. An attempted revolt by the strel’tsy in 1698 was crushed and Peter had their units disbanded; many of them were executed. Peter then ruled without challenge until his death in 1725.
In a momentous change before his death, Peter sought to make succession dependent on the wishes of the sitting tsar. Previously the oldest son generally had succeeded, but there was no set mechanism in the absence of an heir. Peter himself was unable to appoint his own successor, however, because he died suddenly in 1725. There were four pretenders to the throne in 1725: Peter’s grandson, his two daughters, and his widow (Peter’s only son, Alexis, had previously been charged with treason and tortured to death). All of the successions in the next century were marked by instability and officer involvement, and there were at least eight coups or attempted coups during this period. The Guards regiments established by Peter played a key role in these events. The most tumultuous period was 1725-1762, during which seven different monarchs occupied the throne. Only with the accession to power of Catherine the Great in 1762 did Russia once again have a stable leadership.
The details of these succession struggles are less important for our purposes than some general points about the role of officers in these conflicts. First, these palace coups involved only a small fraction of the officer corps, elite Guards officers. These officers were members of the Imperial court, and they generally acted at the behest of and on behalf of more powerful members of the court. Second, these elite officers generally acted out of personal motives and grievances, not corporate ones. To the extent that corporate interests were involved, they were those of the Guards, and not the officer corps as a whole. It was only in the late eighteenth century that Guards officers began to see themselves as distinctly military, rather than as members of the broader elite. Third, the Guards officers did not try to seize power for themselves. They remained loyal to the principle of autocracy. Finally, efforts to prevent coups through the use of material incentives, political spies, changing commanders, or creating counterbalancing units were only marginally successful.
The last successful military coup in Russia took place in 1801. Tsar Paul I, who had succeeded his mother Catherine the Great to the throne in 1796, was assassinated by a group comprised largely of Guards officers. Paul had alienated the military because of a purge of more than twenty percent of the officer corps, his favoritism toward elite units that he had established, and his adoption of Prussian drill and tactics. Fifty officers were involved in the coup, which made it larger than the palace coups of the eighteenth century. The coup had some support in broader society, particularly among the nobility, who were unhappy with Paul’s efforts to restrict their privileges. Thus, unlike the previous interventions, which were strictly matters of the Imperial court, the intervention of 1801 had broader military and societal support. It also is important to note that Paul I had changed the law on succession, instituting the principle of primogeniture (succession of the oldest son) in 1797. The coup of 1801 was a partial challenge to this effort to establish a stable succession mechanism, although Paul’s eldest son Alexander took his throne. The coup was not a challenge to the principle of autocracy itself.
Decembrist Revolt, a painting by Vasily Timm
The Decembrist Uprising
The Russian armed forces thus had a strong tradition of involvement in sovereign power issues in the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it seemed quite possible that this pattern would continue and that a military organizational culture of praetorianism would develop.
Alexander I ruled Russia (1801-1825) during one of the most momentous events in modern European and Russian history, the Napoleonic Wars. The French Revolution represented a threat to dynastic rule throughout Europe, and Revolutionary France quickly became involved in wars with a coalition of European powers. From 1792 to 1815 much of Europe was at war, and these wars had profound effects on political, social, and military development in Europe. Russia played a considerable role in the defeat of Napoleon, and Russia’s victory in the War of 1812 (the Fatherland War, in Russian parlance) established Russia as perhaps the dominant power in continental Europe.
The force of French revolutionary ideas and arms led many European states to adopt liberalizing and modernizing reforms. Alexander I, however, who had pursued limited political reform before the Napoleonic Wars, now resisted any suggestion that further reform was necessary for Russia. The autocratic and patrimonial state of traditional Russia and its corollary institutions, particularly serfdom, were seen by the tsar as vindicated because of the Russian victory over Napoleon.
Russian educated society expected that reforms similar to those taking place in western and central Europe also might be enacted at home. Discontent grew when Alexander embraced a reactionary vision for Russia, particularly because before the war the tsar had been perceived by many as relatively liberal and a reformer. Many officers shared these hopes for reform, and they were disappointed by the conservative policies of the tsar after 1815. Officers’ self-confidence was high after their victories on the battlefield, and liberal elements in society looked to the army as a potential agent of change. Many officers felt the same way.
The origins of the Decembrist movement can be traced to the growth of a Russian “military intelligentsia” around the turn of the century. The term military intelligentsia refers to officers who, by virtue of their education, acquired a greater understanding of broader cultural, social, and political is- sues and, equally important, a willingness to question received ideas and to seek out new knowledge. These officers were not political radicals and they maintained the service mentality of the Russian aristocracy. At the same time, they found fault with conditions both in the army and in the larger society. A small but important element within the military intelligentsia had been to Western Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and they shared their experiences and impressions with other officers. These officers objected to the arbitrariness of authority relations in the military and in Russia and sought greater security for the individual. The military intelligentsia, although committed to state service, also began to transfer their loyalty from the tsar to a broader notion of service to the people, the nation, or the state.
In the years after 1815 the military intelligentsia began to organize itself in secret societies. These societies adopted such names as the Union of Salvation (the Society of True and Loyal Sons of the Fatherland), the Union of (Public) Welfare, and, a personal favorite, the Society of Military Men Who Love Science and Literature. The most prominent of these were the Northern Society, based in St. Petersburg, and the Southern Society, based in Tul’chin (in present-day Ukraine); these two societies came into being in 1821, after a split in the Union of Welfare. The Southern Society was dominated by Colonel P. I. Pestel’, who possessed an authoritarian temperament and radical republican views. The leaders of the Northern Society, such as Captain N. M. Murav’ev, were more attracted to constitutional monarchy. Although members of the secret societies and the military intelligentsia were committed to reform, individual officers differed substantially in terms of their views of the appropriate goals. Views diverged even more substantially on the question of means, with some supporting assassination of the tsar and a military dictatorship while others seemed uncommitted to any form of action other than discussion.
The event that gave the Decembrists their name was a failed military intervention launched in December 1825 after the death of Tsar Alexander I. Alexander died unexpectedly on November 19, 1825. He had no son, so according to normal succession procedures the oldest of his three brothers, Konstantin, should have taken the throne. Konstantin, however, had renounced his claim to the throne at Alexander’s request in 1822 because of Konstantin’s marriage to a lower-born Catholic Polish countess. According to a secret manifesto signed by Alexander in 1823, and agreed to by Konstantin, their brother Nicholas should have been the next tsar. Because this agreement had not been publicized, and contradicted the legal succession chain established by Paul I, considerable confusion accompanied Alexander’s death and the throne remained unoccupied for over three weeks while Konstantin and Nicholas vacillated. The army originally swore loyalty to Konstantin, before the secret manifesto became known, and Konstantin and Nicholas each renounced the throne in favor of the other.
Members of the Northern Society, based in Petersburg, saw the confused interregnum as an opportunity for action. A hasty scheme was hatched for armed opposition to the plans for the army to swear loyalty to Nicholas, scheduled for December 14. The intent was to bring troops to Senate Square in St. Petersburg on the fourteenth and declare the establishment of a dictatorship under Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, a Colonel. Trubetskoy got cold feet, however, and literally ran away and hid in the Austrian Embassy. A day-long standoff between the Decembrists and troops loyal to Nicholas ended in a rout of the Decembrists. An attempted uprising in the south also failed.
Several general points are in order about what, in hindsight, was a key turning point in Russian civil-military relations. First, the rise of the military intelligentsia should be separated somewhat from the failed Decembrist intervention. Many participants in the December events were not members of secret societies, and many members of secret societies did not participate in the Decembrist uprising. They were two related but distinct phenomena, although the failure of December 1825 had considerable impact on the military intelligentsia movement. Second, it seems likely that the Decembrist uprising would not have taken place if the succession had happened quickly and smoothly. At the time of Alexander’s death there was no plan for a coup that could be taken off the shelf and implemented; the Decembrist uprising was an improvised response to an opportunity created by the power vacuum at the top. The act of swearing loyalty to Konstantin several weeks before officers were asked to swear loyalty to Nicholas, in particular, may have encouraged many of the Decembrists to come out against Nicholas. Third, another counterfactual worth considering is whether the secret military societies would have gone on to develop a more coherent plan for military intervention if no leadership crisis had arisen in 1825, and they could have gone on scheming. This counterfactual is more difficult to resolve. The secret military societies had been detected by government informers be- fore December 1825, with those in the south particularly compromised. On the other hand, previous reports about the societies had been largely ignored. It is certainly possible that, in the absence of the failed Decembrist uprising, secret military societies would have continued their activities and presented a potential threat to the state.