Western Education and the Decembrist

The revolutionary activities engulfing North America and Western Europe in the late Eighteenth Century arrived in the Nineteenth Century Russian Empire in the form of the failed Decembrist Revolt of 1825.  From this moment until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, revolutionary activities would be carried on by secret societies dedicated to the replacement of the autocracy by a constitutional government.  Why Russians revolutionaries came to see constitutional government as a preferential form of administration has been a source of some debate among historians.

In 1937, Anatole G. Mazour wrote The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement, Its Origins, Development, and Significance, which is the seminal work on the Decembrist Revolution.  Dr. Mazour disregards a simple explanation of Decemberism.  He states “The Decembrist Movement represents a complex phenomenon in which deeply rooted economic, political and social factors were closely interwoven.”(p. 261)


Painting of Decembrists at Senate Square painted by Karl Kolman circa 1830s

Dr. Mazour attributes the formation of the movement to the Eighteenth Century, when “monarchy established its centralized apparatus, enslaved the peasant masses, and refused to recognize the disastrous consequences to which such a policy would lead.”(p. 261) In other words, the tsarist government separated itself from the majority of Russians, which would lead to rebellion against the government.  Marc Raeff echoes Dr. Mazour’s conclusion.

I agree with Allen McConnell, who wrote Tsar Alexander I: The Paternalistic Reformer.  “Their broad knowledge of the European thought of their day is as remarkable as their self-sacrifice, and it came in most cases not from the universities but their own reading.”(p. 168) Education fueled the revolutionary fire.  When Peter the Great introduced western education to modernize his military, he also introduced the social force that would lead to the demise of the Romanov autocracy.

By examining the official Russian educational system, the “unofficial” school system of fraternal societies and foreign travel, the background of the Decemberists and their documents, the veracity of this statement will be proven.

Western-style schools existed in Ukraine before Peter the Great’s reign but these schools were mainly religious in their focus.  However, as Nicholas Han states, “Nevertheless it would be quite correct to call the Peter the Great the founder of the Russian educational tradition.  He began the secular, scientific, utilitarian school system, and combined the common European features with the Russian way of life.  He brought about for the synthesis of European culture with Russian national character which later developed into the Russian tradition in education.”(p. 6)


Painting of Peter the Great by Jean Marc Netie from 1717

Peter’s reasons for “Europeanizing” the education system were based in practical matters.  Peter saw Western military inventions as the avenue to modernize his military.  The Russian army would capture long coveted territories in an attempt to solidify border defenses.

Peter was building a service class for military and bureaucratic duty.  He did not include serfs or peasants into his educational system.  Peter’s educational institutions educated military and government officials.

The nobility did not take to Peter’s reforms during his lifetime.  They resisted Peter’s reforms through religious objections based on their Orthodox faith.  By the time of Catherine the Great, the nobility came to accept aspects of Western education but they still did not show great zeal for classical learning.  Many French tutors came to make livings in Russia.  Catherine the Great had a French tutor.  However, only the richest nobility could afford private tutors.

Catherine the Great and her grandson, Alexander I, would attempt to open schools up to students of both sexes outside of the nobility.  This opening of the education system did not lead to the education of the peasantry but the children of the clergy did benefit tremendously from this change in educational policy.  Many government officials, writers and radicals of the nineteenth century would be priests’ sons.

Catherine the Great’s governing philosophy also influenced education reform.  Catherine believed the proper way to govern the Russian Empire was not by treaty but as one nation.  One of Catherine’s main goals was to Russify or instill a sense of being Russian in all the various ethnic groups in the Empire. One of Catherine’s strategies for instilling this sense of nationhood was the school system.

Catherine instituted a system of Felbiger schools based on the successful Austrian educational system.  The Felbiger schools taught the idea of a uniform Russian state.  Catherine attempted to institute this system in all Russian schools but she was unsuccessful.  After a religious revival in the 1780s, Catherine backtracked on compulsory Latin and made Russian the official language of the schools.

Alexander I continued his grandmother’s educational policies but he greatly increased the number of universities and gymnasium (secondary schools).  In 1801, the only two universities in the Russian Empire were Kiev University and Moscow University.  By 1825, four more universities were created in Dorpat, Kharkov, Kazan, and Vilna.  St. Petersburg University would soon be built as well.

Secondary schools also increased almost five fold from 12 to 57. (Han, p. 21)  Alexander insisted that all Russian citizens be allowed to attend the universities or the gymnasium.  “When Count Zavadovsky tried to amend statutes for Dorpat University to specify that it would accept students from ‘every free class’ instead of ‘every class,’ Alexander firmly restored the original wording.” (McConnell, p. 43)


Portrait of Tsar Nicholas I in Austrian uniform by unknown artist in 1840s

Despite this dedication to the principle of universal education, the peasantry neither significantly increased their nominal enrollment in the school system nor did they attain any significant advances in education level.  “There is no school in Beryozka, and all the Ivanovs there are illiterate.  But twenty miles away, in the selo of Staritsa, there is a three-year parish school that one of their cousins, Alexander Vladimirov, attends.  At thirteen he can read a newspaper haltingly.  Will the Ivanovs send Petka to school in Staritsa?  That will depend upon how much they need his help at home, how prosperous they are, his aptitudes, and the climate of opinion on the value of education.” (Vucinich, p. 23)  The Russian education system remained the province of children of the bureaucrats, clergy and nobility.

In Russia, another “unofficial” education system emerged.  The education system consisted of traveling to foreign countries and the subsequent founding of fraternal organizations such as the Masons and the Decembrist secret societies.

Nicholas Han provides a narrative history on the formation of the Russian Masonic Lodges in The Russian Tradition in Education.  “Russian Masonry is of English origin… Soon the leading Russian aristocrats and scientists began to join the English lodges, and in a few years there were quite a number of Russian lodges… Through these connections with England English empiricism and Locke’s sensualism penetrated Russian intellectual circles…(p. 15)

Locke was a physician and secretary to the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was forced to leave England, when the Earl was implicated in a palace coup attempt.  While he was exiled in Holland, he wrote a treatise, On Civil Government.  He rejects the divine right of kings, which included the Russian autocrat and outlines what he sees as legitimate government with an emphasis on the consent of the governed.

Locke also attacks slavery, which would include serfdom.  “This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation that he cannot part with it, but by what he forfeits his preservation and life together.”(Beatty, p. 68)

Locke’s ideas were anathema to Russia’s governing elite and would never be seriously considered by the Romanovs.  Every Romanov tsar from Michael to Nicholas II believed God had ordained him or her to rule Russia.  While Alexander II would emancipate the serfs, the serfs exchanged physical slavery for economic slavery.  Locke’s ideas would naturally cause conflict between the Masonic lodges and the Russian government.  Catherine would outlaw the organization even though the lodges would continue to exist.

Many of these Russian Masons influenced by Western ideals would form benevolent societies to free the serfs, establish property rights and promote universal education.  While they did not advocate the overthrow of the autocratic regime, the influence of Western ideas did cause them to criticize the autocracy. (Han, 16)  “A great many of the Decemberists at one time or another were Masons, and many of them had been initiated when they were in Paris.  Pestel (Leader of the Southern Society) and Alexander N. Muraviev were members of the Mason lodge ‘Trois Vertus’.” (Mazour, p. 51)

In addition to the Masonic lodges, European travel introduced Russians to liberal ideas.  In the late Eighteenth Century, it was normal for Russian students to travel to German lands and attend German universities.  Russia was no longer able to isolate her service class from Western thought.

Most of the Decemberists acquired their liberal viewpoints, while quartered in the suburbs of Paris after the War of 1812-14.  They witnessed firsthand the French debates on how to rebuild their country and which forms of government would be the most efficient and equitable.

These debates were the Decemberists’ graduate school.  However, Dr. Mazour points out that the Decemberists did not intend to remake Russia like France.  The Decemberists felt that any government that was instituted would have to conform to Russia’s unique national traditions. (p. 57) While both men were avowed republicans, Pavel Pestel, leader of the Southern Society, wanted to institute a provisional government with dictatorial powers, while Nikita Muriev, one of the leaders of the Northern society, wanted a constitutional republic.

When army officers returned from France, they found their experience had profoundly changed them.  “The masses who had been told that they were fighting ‘Napoleonic despotism’ came back to find at home a regime more despotic than Napoleon’s had been.  After being brought into closer touch with western movements, meeting revolutionary leaders in the West, and becoming familiar with conditions in France, men could not readily submit to the old state of servitude or even passively witness it.”(Mazour, p. 56)

The returning officers began forming secret fraternal societies.  While some of the societies programs were different, all the societies were dedicated to the eradication of serfdom.  The Decemberists could not see Russia moving forward into the modern world, while the majority of its population was enslaved.

After examining the paths of education, which often intersected, we can see their influence in the some of the Decemberists and their writing.  In the biography and writings of Pavel Pestel, we have the clearest example of the effects of the dual education system on the revolutionary.

Pavel Pestel was the leader of the Southern Society and one of the most energetic of the Decemberists.  Pestel was the son of the governor-general of Siberia.  Pestel’s father sent him as a twelve-year-old to Germany to study.  Four years later, he would graduate from the St. Petersburg Military Academy with special honors.

Pestel was wounded during the Battle of Borodino during the War of 1812-1814.  By 1821, he would be a Colonel and have his own command. (Mazour, p. 67)  A patriot and intelligent, able administrator, Pestel would be one of the five Decemberists executed for their parts in the Decembrist uprising.  During Pestel’s testimony to Nicholas I’s tribunal after the failure of the Decembrist revolt, he explains the effect his education had on the formation of his revolutionary activities.

Pestel states his earlier German education had little effect on his concept of politics and world affairs.  He actually became acquainted with political theory, when he was assigned to the Corps of Pages, a Russian military training curriculum, which he was assigned to after he graduated from the St. Petersburg Military Academy.

“Until I began preparing for entrance to the Corps of Pages, I had not the slightest conception of political sciences, whose understanding was required for admission to the upper class.  I studied them then under Professor and Academician {Karl F.} Hermann {1767-1838}, who at that time taught these sciences in the Corps of Pages…I cannot name any single individual who was responsible for imbuing me with free thinking and liberal ideas.  Nor can I state definitely the time when these began to emerge, because this did not happen suddenly but little by little and in the beginning without making any great impression on me…This activity later induced me to think whether in the structure of the Russian government the rules of political science were observed or not…I moved from monarchial-constitutional to republican thinking as a result of the following facts and reflections: The work of Destute de Tracy {1754-1836}, in French, exerted a powerful influence on me.  He shows that every government wherein one person is the head of state, especially if it is hereditary, will inevitably end in despotism.  All newspapers and political works so strongly applauded the growth of the prosperity in the United States of America, attributing it to the governmental structure, that it appeared to me as a clear indication that the republican form of government was superior…From all that has been said, the Committee will note that I was influenced in developing my views by reading of books, by thinking of various developments, and also by exchanging my ideas with those of other members of the Society.” (Dmytryshyn, pp. 222-225)

By examining his honest testimony, the dual education threads of the formal Russian system and exposure to Western European thinking through travel and fraternal societies expose themselves as the prime influence on Pestel’s thinking and subsequent actions.

Nikita M. Muraviev was Pestel’s contemporary in the Northern Society.  Like Pestel, Muraviev received a foreign education but his had French origins.  “Hardly seventeen, he had joined the army in 1813, participated in many battles in the fateful years of 1813-14, and had been among the troops which entered Paris.  His former French tutor, an admirer of Robespierre, his visit to Paris, the heart of revolutionary Europe, where he met many outstanding men who were participants in events which stirred the whole continent-all this, according to one of his contemporaries, ‘deeply affected the cultured, though not yet ripened and experienced mind of Muraviev and he became a hot-headed liberal.’…His political convictions he relates, were acquired during and after the war.” (Mazour, pp. 86-87)

Muraviev would be a founding member of the Northern Society.  He would write a constitution for the planned government after the successful revolution.


Russian Policeman from the Public Domain

The constitution was drawn up to emulate the United States of America’s government.  The document abolished serfdom, made the Tsar head of the executive branch of government, created a legislature, and assigned judiciary oversight to the Senate.  Excerpts from the constitution are taken from Muraviev’s second draft.

“43. For legislative and executive purposes Russia is divided into thirteen states…59. The National Assembly, consisting of the Supreme Duma and the Chamber of People’s Representatives, is invested with all legislative power…60. The Chamber of Representatives consists of members elected for two years by the citizen of the States…73. The Supreme Duma consists of three citizens from every state, two from the Moscow Region, and one from the Don Region…101. The Emperor is the Supreme official of the Russian government…(b) In his person he concentrates the entire executive power…(Dmytryshyn, pp. 214-221)  Muraviev’s constitution is evidence of the effect of his exposure to Western thinkers.

Unlike his older brother Alexander I, Nicholas I was concerned about the secret societies, although he was not scared of them.  As Henry Middleton, American minister to St. Petersburg from 1820 to 1830, stated in a dispatch, “He {Alexander I} had known for several years that secret associations were at work organizing revolt in his dominions.” (Raeff, p. 291)  Nicholas would personally conduct the interrogation of the Decemberists, many of whom did not even know they were being tried.

Nicholas I and his government recognized that the dual tracks of education played the significant role in the rise of the Decemberists.  Nicholas took steps to remove Western education influences from the Russian school system and limit Russian nobles travelling abroad to be educated.  Nicholas wrote to his brother Constantine “in early January {1926}, ‘everything which took place here evidently was…the result…of foreign influences’.” (Lincoln, p. 90)

Nicholas also attempted to limit access to education.  “In July 1826, he asked the State Council to pass a law to prevent peasant children from being admitted to schools which might prepare them for further education, which, in turn might enable them ‘to rise above their station.’…he did not like to send young nobleman abroad to be trained, even in such technical subjects as naval affairs, because ‘young men return from there with a spirit of criticism’… In 1827, he insisted that students sent abroad must ‘absolutely be of pure Russian background’, and three years later he decreed that students must study in Russia between the ages of ten and eighteen; a policy which would subject them to the influences which Nicholas regarded as most desirable during their most impressionable years.” (Lincoln, pp. 91-92)  Clearly Nicholas recognized the dangers of Western education to an autocratic system.

Western education and its subsequent awakening of political thinking on the part of the educated nobility were a key cause of the Decembrist movement.  One of the basic doctrines of the movement was the universal desire to end serfdom but the serfs were never participants in the movement.  This failure to include the peasants led to the ultimate demise of the movement.  The peasant soldier’s failure to rise up against Nicholas doomed the Decembrist revolt.  The educated nobility and military class were the only members of the Decemberists.

Peter the Great clearly did not intend to unleash a revolutionary force into his empire, when he chose Western education as the vehicle to modernize his military. His introduction of this social force had the unintended consequence of causing a revolutionary intelligentsia.  This intelligentsia would eventually end the Romanov dynasty in 1918 but only after incorporating the urban working class into the new socialist movement.

Work Cited

Beatty, John L. & Johnson, Oliver A. Heritage of Western Civilization: Eighth Edition. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1995

Dmytryshan, Basil. Imperial Russia: A Source Book, 1700-1917.  Academic International Press: Gulf Breeze, FL, 1999.

Hans, Nicholas. The Russian Tradition in Education. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1963.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Nicholas I, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.  Indiana University

Press: Bloomington, 1978.

Mazour, Anatole G. The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement, Its

Origins, Development and Significance.  Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1937.

McConnell, Allen.  Tsar Alexander I: Paternalistic Reformer. Thomas Y. Crowell Company:

New York, 1970.

Raeff, Marc. An American View of the Decembrist Revolt. The Journal of Modern History 25.3 (1953): 286-293.

Vucinich, Wayne S. The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia.  Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1968.

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