The Decembrist Memoirs_Introduction

The Decembrist Memoirs_Introduction - Voices in ‘ Exile...

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Unformatted text preview: Voices in ‘ Exile The Decembrist Memoirs G. R. V. BARRATT McGilI—Queen’s University Press Montreal and London 1974 Introduction December 14, 1825 was the day on which Guards regiments in Petersburg were to swear solemn allegiance to Nicholas I, the new emperor. Less than three weeks before, when news of the death of Alexander I had reached the capital from Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, an oath no less solemn or bind- ing had been taken to Nicholas’s elder brother, the Grand Duke Constan- tine, viceroy of Poland. Constantine, however, had declined to be the emperor, in accordance with two separate acts of renunciation made in 1819 and, secretly, in 1822. The effective interregnum caused uneasiness both in society and in the army. The government feared undefined disorders — with some reason, since police agents reported the existence of various clandestine groups and rumours of a coup to be effected by guardsmen. Nicholas was anxious that the oath be sworn to him promptly and quietly. At first, it seemed that he would have his way; senators, ministers and mem- bers of the Council of State took the oath by 9 AM. In most regiments of the garrison the oath was also taken peaceably. In some, however, troops expressed bewilderment at the swift passage of rulers and the multiplicity of swearings. Seizing upon this mood, some officers, members of a secret society, brought about 3000 men onto the Senate Square, where they formed up ready for action. The officers who led them hoped that such an extraordinary display of discontent and show of military strength would rally all the troops stationed in St. Petersburg, and that their ranks would swell enormously. But this was not to be. Quickly and poorly planned, their scheme was frustrated. Confused, the mutineers waited for orders to act, while their officers merely walked up and down their flanks, telling them to stand firm, have more patience, and to shout for Constantine. Nicholas, meanwhile, was in the nearby Winter Palace, preparing counter- moves. He had no plan. Nor could he help proceeding slowly and with caution, since the troops’ mood was unknown to him; he was not sure if even regiments of guards would remain loyal to him. Outside, the mutineers still stood immobile. Nicholas and his generals gathered loyal men, espe- cially artillerymen, and carefully encircled Senate Square. Hours passed, and still the rebels had not moved. Cannon were brought up and trained on them. The military commandant of Petersburg, General M. A. Miloradovich, attempted to persuade the sullen mutineers to disband, but was too forward and too bold. One of the conspirators, P. G. Kakhovsky, shot him dead. What the general had failed to do, a grand duke and an archbishop also failed to do. The mutineers would not disperse; but neither did they make a move. Finally, between 3 and 4 PM, Nicholas felt confident of the com- plete superiority of ‘his’ forces, and ordered the artillery to open fire. With- in one minute, no one stood where for six hours insurgent tr00ps, uncom- prehending, muskets loaded, had stamped their feet and watched not only Nicholas and his suite, perhaps a hundred yards away from them, but also crowds of curious and sympathetic onlookers. Grapeshot scattered every- one, slaughtering many. Within the next twenty-four hours, virtually all the main conspirators then in the capital had been arrested. The mutinous soldiers had been disarmed, the many dead pushed hurriedly under the ice of the. Neva and places where their blood had turned snow red sprinkled with fresh, white snow. The day which had begun in fear, foreboding, ner- vousness, ended in easy victory for autocracy. In retrospect it is apparent that the well-born conspirators had little chance or none of a success: their plans to take advantage of the curious interregnum were laid in haste, and their leaders were found wanting. Prince S. G. Trubetskoy, who was to be ‘dictator’ of post—autocratic Russia, was not to be found where and when he was desperately wanted. Still, the very fact of revolt made a deep impression on the country. Rumours spread rapidly that thousands were rebelling openly against the government and Nicholas. Reaching the Second Army in the Ukraine, these rumours sufficed to precipitate another armed rebellion in January 1826. It, too, was sup- pressed after a bloody meeting near Belaya Tserkov’. Plans to occupy Kiev came to nothing. By mid-January all was tranquil again in the Empire, the leaders of the risings were imprisoned, mutinous soldiers had been dis- ciplined. But how narrow was the margin of defeat? Several participants believed that it was very narrow, and that a little more balanced determina- tion, a fraction more realism, would have brought over to the insurgents’ side the great majority of troops loyal to the government. Perhaps, some argued, a successful insurrection in the capital would have touched off several more in the various army corps. The question is, of course, quite academic. Two solid facts remain: first, the conspirators’ defeat resulted in the almost absolute eclipse of liberal h0pes for a generation afterwards; second, their fate and example (five leaders were hanged on July 13, 1826, while 121 individuals received sentences of exile with hard labour) created something of a martyrology in Russia, and a summons to more revolutionary action. The end of the Decembrist insurrection, in other words, was only the 2 Introduction beginning of that insurrection’s r6le in Russian history and thought. The immediate cause of the revolt of December 14, 1825 was the crisis of succession. Alexander died suddenly, leaving no heirs. Treating the Russian state like a large family estate, members of the imperial family had, in 1822, decided that, because of his morganatic marriage to a Polish noblewoman not of royal blood, Constantine should, so to speak, not have it. The attitudes of the imperial brothers to each other, to the throne and the succession, were complex, and have given rise to endless controversy. Constantine, suffice it to observe here, did not renounce the Russian throne entirely vol- untarily; pressure was brought to bear by the dowager empress. Such matters, however, did not lie at the root of discontent among the educated gentry and nobility. For deeper causes, we must look back to the wars against Napoleon and even to the French Revolution. For it was these events which in the first years of the century, set in motion an accelerated growth of civic, economic and, above all, political consciousness among the Russian landed classes. Most future Decembrists saw some action in Western Europe. Those who did not heard from their fellow-officers how differently matters were arranged in Saxony, Prussia, and France, where even common soldiers and poor peasants displayed a sense of dignity and independence immediately striking to a.Russian. Everyone, it appeared, was free from the oppressive restraint to which even Russian officers were perpetually subject; whereas Russian serfs were sullen and distrustful, Ger- man peasants were self—assured and, in the main, industrious. Contrasts of every kind were striking. Great was the shock when liberals returned to Russia to discover there oppression, ignorance, petty and corrupt admin- istration, tyranny in many guises. The effect of the discovery was simple: rejection of the autocratic system. What, many reasoned, caused such a deplorable state of affairs if not Russia’s plainly evil social structure and oppressive institutions? For the first time, Russian officers saw Russia, and disliked what met their eye. Partly under the influence of what they had observed abroad, partly in imi— tation of local precedents, many officers banded together, in the post— Napoleonic years, in small secret or semi-secret societies. Politics, litera- ture, law and a range of other topics were discussed. One of these groups was the Northern Society; another, in the Ukraine, the Southern Society which, in September 1825, merged with the Society of United Slavs. All three were directly involved in the events of December 1825. All three had, for the previous three years, formed centres of attraction for young officers and educated servants of the state who were dissatisfied with actual economic, legal and socio-political conditions in their country, and wished somehow introduction 3 W, to change them. The Northern and Southern Societies were offshoots of an earlier group, the Union of Welfare, which was itself the offspring of the Union of Salvation (1816-18). As such, they showed the influence of Ger- man Tugendbunden on which the founders of the Union of Salvation, most of whom eXperienced at first hand the military campaigns of 1813—14, had modeled their society on their return to Russia. In their constitutions too, as in that of the disbanded Union of Salvation, two principal aims were inher- ent: the moral self-improvement of the small ruling elite, and the ‘enlighten- ment’ of Russia’s leadership in order to prepare the ground for (carefully unspecified) political reform. Moral improvement and enlightenment: the very words clearly suggest the intellectual debt of the Decembrists to the eighteenth century. Many indeed were thoroughly familiar not only with the fashions, arts and drama of late eighteenth—century Germany and France, but also with the history, philosophy and intellectual life of those two countries or, rather, of those large patchworks of states. As eighteenth- century men, at least in non-practical training, many Russians born with the new century were well versed in the classics and familiar with the liber- tarian drama of the Greeks and Romans, as depicted by Plutarch, Titus Livy, Cornelius Nepos. Though linked in intellectual tradition to their fathers’ age, however, the Decembrists had seen things and had expe- riences of which their fathers had not dreamed. Theirs was the age of Bonaparte, of conscious and romantic nationalism, and of idealistic thought. Theirs was a generation that had tasted the heroic, active life. Small wonder that the disillusionment of life in a supposedly victorious St. Peterburg, where in fact the soldier-heroes of one month had returned to the station of serfs within the next, bred endless discontent. Sources of inspiration were not lacking: Karl Sand, Riego and Bolivar provoked no less enthusiasm among liberals than did literary figures of rebellion — Byron’s and Schiller’s ardent heroes. Not content with merely passively experiencing the influence of the German and English romantics, the Decembrists actively participated in creating a romantic literature in Russia and for Russia. Several of the principal Decembrists, including Ryleyev, Bestuzhev-Marlinsky and V. K. Kyukhel’beker, were writers of great merit. Historical and literary example; ideas gathered in German universities or works in French (by many non- French authors) on political economy, land management, natural law; the spectacle of fellow-countrymen being beaten and methodically oppressed — all added dangerous fuel to the fires of discontent. It was essentially a sense of disappointment that prompted the returning officers to form secret societies. The fact that government spies attempted vainly to prohibit their formation between 1816 and 1822, when all secret 4 Introduction associations were outlawed throughout the empire, merely deepened that bitter sense and gave rise to more societies. The reign of Alexander, as many had occasion to recall by 1820, had opened on a note of optimistic expectation of constitutional and administrative reforms and of the prompt establishment of a firm rule of law in Russia. Such hopes soon proved illusory. But it was not until 1815 that the educated élite’s feeling of dis- appointment grew acute. During the previous three years official statements had been issued that might reasonably have been interpreted as pledges of reform after the war. After Napoleon’s demise, constitutional monarchies had been established in France and many German states, and even the truncated Kingdom of Poland, in personal union with Russia, had received a theoretical constitution. Yet for Russia herself nothing was done. And had not Russians earned reform, by their glorious part in defeating the Napo— leonic armies? Had they not helped other nations to secure the benefits of constitutional government? (Few liberals indeed approved of regicide in Russia; in endless and inconclusive discussions, the members of the North- ern Society spoke for political participation by the nobility, a limiting of auto- cratic power, thorough improvement of all branches of the Russian adminis- tration, especially the judiciary, and some improvement of the peasants' lot. Most shied away from plans for murder.) Far from acting as the discontented officers and bureaucrats hoped he might do, however, Alexander l proceeded to subordinate Russia’s own na- tional interests to Metternich’s reactionary policy and to use Russian arms to put down liberation movements everywhere. Worse still, he set about re- storing the whole army, and especially the Guards, whence came most future Decembrists, to its earlier parade—ground style. It was his ‘paradomania,’ as Prince Adam Czartoryski put it, that led Ryleyev to attack him in a propa- ganda poem as 'the Russian German.” Everywhere, educated officers re— sented the grim process whereby troops who, having fought real battles and lost the habit of precise and clockwork movements, were flogged, knouted and starved until they perfectly remembered all the past. Alexander’s was a family obsession with the visible minutiae of army life; in his brother Nicho- las, as in Paul I, it assumed a virulent form. The best-known, but by no means atypical, case of savage treatment of troops was perhaps Colonel Shvarts’s of the Semyonovsky Guards Regiment, in October 1820. Shvarts’s brutality provoked the soldiers of the emperor‘s favourite regiment to open mutiny, albeit a peaceful one. The emperor reacted violently: far from attempting to appreciate the reasons for such conduct, he punished veteran soldiers with utmost severity, disbanded the regiment and scattered officers and men to Finland and the Caucasus —- thus contributing greatly to the spread of smoul— lntroduction 5 '"ii' dering disaffection. Shvarts’s was an evil name in Russian liberal circles; but nothing so disgusted and enraged future Decembrists as the conduct of the emperor's factotum and trusted martinet, Count A. A. Arakcheyev, ‘the corporal of Gatchina.’ Arakcheyev brought to public life the mentality and methods of the murdered Paul l. Under his aegis flourished a large network of so-called military colonies, prevailing conditions in which may be judged by the fact that the death rate in them exceeded the birth rate, despite the fact that women, whose pots and pans were issued by strict military proce- dure, were officially required to bring forth children annually. No less than pointless militarism, peculation and oppression flourished in such camps. The social, economic, and political stagnation of the country; the neglect of Russia’s true national interests; the military colonies and ‘paradomania,' all stemmed, in the opinion of most liberals, from the will and policy of Alex- ander. Autocracy, in other words, lay at the heart of Russia's problems. Autocracy was arbitrary, capricious, cruel and, even worse, enabled a bureaucracy to operate without adequate controls or supervision. inherent in autocracy was lack of real respect for human dignity and coupled with it, absence of security. (And here, the liberals had a point; for Alexander and his close advisers had indeed acquired the habit, by 1818, of expressing both distrust and scorn for Russia’s landed gentry and nobility.) Autocracy, then, was to be changed. But how could it be changed without precipitating the collapse of the whole state, based as it was on loyalty to the sovereign and on serfdom? For many, the dilemma was insoluble. Simply by being loyal to the monarchy, Decembrists fell into the traps which Nicholas so dexterously set them in their personal interrogations after the revolt. Para- doxically, many nurtured the hope that the new emperor’s goodwill might be employed to end abuses; in short, they vainly dreamed that Nicholas might voluntarily impose restrictions on his own imperial power! Had they known his character, they would not have entertained such an illusion. Still more significant than their reliance on the personal nature of kingship, however, proved their unprecedented shift of allegiance from sovereign to state. ltwas the first time that an influential group in Russian society held a conception of the state as both distinct and separate from the ruler. The Decembrists, to be sure, did not advocate a lessening of the state’s authority, as would later revolutionaries and intelligenty. For, in their view, the people’s welfare was indissolubly tied to the stability and power of the state. The contriteness displayed by so many Decembrists after their failure was perhaps due to a tardy understanding that their enterprise threatened the state no less than the autocracy. Nicholas, for his part, fully appreciated this, if little else, and stressed the fact whenever possible throughout the subsequent investiga- 6 introduction tions. While emphasizing their commitment to the Russian national state, he might also have seen (had he the eyes to see), the Decembrists perfectly exemplified the liberal élite’s growing alienation from the government which he himself controlled, led and embodied. it was this positive commitment to the notion of a national state that later generations would discard, ironically, because of the Decembrists’ very failure. it is not easy to speak of the hundred and twenty-one different personalities, sentenced for their involvement in the risings of December 14, 1825 and of January 3, 1826, as a single or homogeneous assembly. The Decem- brists, almost axiomatically, had as many individual characteristics as they had common traits. Four of these traits, however, may be seen to have been vital to their enterprise. in the first place, most were of a common class and, in consequence, had shared the same historical experiences in the Napoleonic wars. Many belonged to the same prestigious regiments of Guards, whose officers were stationed in the capital in contact with the court. Most, second, had received the finest education then available, either from private tutors or in schools for the nobility. Many had also taken ad- vantage of their months in Western Europe to improve their education even more, attending lectures, reading widely. Thirdly, most were very young in 1825. Some were adolescents still, or had barely attained their majority. Only two Decembrists were more than forty years of age in 1825, only a dozen more than thirty-five. Most were in their twenties. Lastly, a great many had seriously participated in one or more secret political society. Their arrest affected most of the more prominent aristocratic families, na- turally reinforcing Nicholas’s suspicion of their class and widening the rift between society and state. Nicholas hardened the bureaucracy’s discretion- ary power. Many Decembrists broke down during their trial, and repented of their r6ie on Senate Square or in the Ukraine. Some had failure of nerve, others felt the effects of small, damp cells and solitude; none were prepared by their own background to resist subtle psychological pressures or police tricks. Yet all such explanations of their conduct are inadequate, when one recalls that those officers tried were courageous, determined men. More undermining than all physical or other deprivations, one perceives, was the fact that many felt, even early in 1826, that their failure to do something good and valuable for Russia stemmed from a wrong approach. Immediately, old notions of their loyalty to the state and emperor revived. Few, signif- icantly, tried to escape from prison or exile, accepting their position as a punishment for failure and a vindication of their inner righteousness. introduction 7 All educated Russians understood the aspirations of the exiles; many shared their purpose, feeling totally excluded by autocracy from the formula- tion of state policy — a formulation which their forebears had for many gen- erations known and shared. Such an attitude did much to ease the physical and, even more, emotional position of Decembrists in Siberia. It confirmed their own belief that their five comrades, hanged in ignominy, were indeed martyrs and that they were themselves serving the anti-autocratic cause and the narod (the people). Nicholas unwittingly did much to foster that belief and, by extension, to ensure most exiles’ mental health. By sentencing them savagely, and accepting as the truth what prisoners said in moments of distress, he somehow justified them in their own sight. Exiled in groups — another major error by the emperor, if he wished to eradicate the Decem- brists’ memory and ruin them—they kept alive the flame that they had kindled. The native population of Siberia proved far from hostile towards them. When the wives of some of the exiles joined their husbands, Decem- brists were enabled to receive news from the West, and to send news. They contributed greatly, in the meanwhile, to the spread of education, medical care, and agricultural expertise in Siberia. By allowing them to live, as one exile put it, ‘beyond political death,’ and even to prepare eventual memoirs, Nicholas himself changed the Decembrists’ joint and common failure into victory. For the happenings of December 14,1825 were not, as some suggest, the making of the first great revolution within Russia. Rather did they prove, as Herzen, the essential mythmaker, would stress, to be the opening episode of the Russian revolution. Defeat was thus changed into victory; the Decembrist legend grew apace. It is, indeed, precisely because fate gave the material for powerful revolutionary myths to those who followed them that the Decembrists cannot possibly be placed in the same category as Guards groups who effected palace coups throughout the eighteenth century. Unlike those earlier con- spirators and king—makers, the Decembrists had discussed, even exces- sively, ideological questions, and had struggled to establish constitutional plans and reforms. Unlike participants in earlier cabals, they were not moved only by selfish interests; instead, they were sincerely and honestly concerned with the improvingof the"lot of the majority of Russians. Regret- tably, they were unable to agree how best to do so. It was, above all else, their sincerity and their idealistic, if quixotic, passion that made of most Decembrist lives glowing examples to be followed, and inspired their lasting myth and legend for the future. Theories, as Herzen said, inspire convictions, but example can shape conduct. The fate of the Decembrists in challenging autocracy proved, for another ninety years, a summons to more action in 8 Introduction f ,the cause of revolution. Yet several Decembrists in the 1860s could already disapprove of the interpretations of which they were themselves the ageing subjects. Perhaps they would have felt more strongly still, had they survived to read simplistic Soviet texts based on their own experience, and their own example. Memoirs of revolutionaries have often proved mixed blessings for historians. Some, written post facto to justify events or individuals— more commonly than not the authors themselves—turn out to be misleading. So particular are others in their treatment of events, and so generous are their omissions, that they do far less to clarify than to obscure them. But for the memoirs of Decembrists we have reason to be thankful. There are, undeniably, accounts of the unhappy day itself, of the trial and the imprisonment that followed, of the ‘Well, I told you so’ variety: one thinks of parts of D. I. Zavalishin’s and of A. S. Gangeblov’s narratives. But these are few and, once identified, may readily be made allowance for. Happily, most participants’ accounts of events during and after the ill-fated insurrection of December 1825 are not only tolerany accurate from the strictly factual viewpoint (obviously, all memoirs are ‘accurate’ insofar as they reflect an individual’s true impres- sion of what once happened to him), but are also lucid, sometimes eloquent records. Their authors, after all, were representatives of the best educated, most enlightened sector of Russian society. Like all memoirs, finally, those of the Decembrists fulfil a double function for the reader: they throw light not only on events which their authors once observed (and sometimes in- stigated), but also, and especially, on the memoirists themselves. That the authors of these memoirs were remarkable and memorable men can hardly be disputed. Primary sources for all subsequent accounts of ‘what actually happened’ on Senate Square, in Peter-and-Paul Fortress and in the Winter Palace, in Finnish and Siberian holds, encampments, and settlements, from December 1825 until the death of Nicholas and the accession of his son in 1856, these and all other eye-witness accounts have obvious and undeniable importance to students of the period. They are the bricks that all historians have used to raise their structures, no matter to what plan they have been building. They are the vital records that a dozen generations have interpreted or mis- interpreted, scrutinized, re-read and weighed. But even this is not the whole charm and significance of the Decembrists’ lucid records for contemporary historians: because there are many of them (see Appendix D), they may reasonably be left to prove their worth and to establish their validity as factually accurate accounts. They cannot be overweening, like some single introduction 9 ‘~_7————f extant fragment, for each one corroborates or fails to corroborate others. True, the picture of events in, say, Peter-and—Paul Fortress on the last days of December 1825 does grow a little blurred when it is painted variously by different prisoners (though in general it transpires that each saw the reality from different angles, or at different times, or in a different light); but loss of crystalline detail in every phase of the rebellion and its lengthy aftermath, most would agree, is adequately compensated for by the guarantee that broad outlines and major traits, at least, are accurately stated and perceived. It would be foolish to suggest that this abundance of autobiographical writing is automatically of help in clarifying various episodes. It is not. In fact, it sometimes adds confusion. Yet this is rarely so, and by exerting effort and a little common sense we can extract from the enormous mass more insight than confusion, more fresh knowledge than bewilderment. It is a pity, one may say, that most accounts of what occurred on Senate Square and in the fortress opposite in the first days of Nicholas’s reign— ioli commencement de régne, as he himself apparently remarked—were not written until ten, twenty, even thirty years later; and so, in a sense, it is. lnevitably, the lapse of time obscured some details and made many more look strange. Yet, once again, we see various compensating factors. Would not all perspective have been lost if those so newly separated from their wives and infant children, stripped of all ranks and exiled to Siberia for life, had tried to give a record of events? Necessarily engrossed in their own chances of survival and worried for their own close family, would they not have lost sight of the forest for the trees? Though there are certainly some losses for present-day students in the long delays that preceded the writing of most memoirs (but not all), there are also certain gains. Nor can it be denied, on the same subject, that the exiles were well served by their memories even three decades after the rising. Of this we may convince our- selves by checking one account against another, the authors frequently not having met for years. But of course, it would have been surprising if most of them had not kept photographic memories of happenings of long before: they were hardly likely to forget those days and hours in St. Petersburg, even if, as in M. A. Bestuzhev’s case, cannon-balls had crashed all round them on a cracking, frozen river, or if, as in Prince E. P. Obolensky’s, crowds had stampeded within yards of them. Rather would the tragedy of those and other scenes stamp them deep into the memory. Only a sense of regularly passing time seems to have suffered noticeably from the many years’ delay. In some accounts, such as those of I. D. Yakush- kin and Baron A. E. Rozen, which were prepared during the fifties but not published until 1862 and 1869 respectively, hours, days and nights fuse and 10 Introduction combine easily, aimlessly, and it is sometimes difficult to know precisely when events being described occurred. But once again, comparison re— stores pr0per perSpectlve — here in a temporal, not spatial sense. Yet for all the occasional misgivings that most memoirs of the period pro- voke - misgivings which, by forcing us to compare various texts, nudge us closer to the truth, not further from it—there remains the glowing certainty that the personal dimension provides insights unobtainable elsewhere. Such reminiscences, one need not labour, suggest the ‘feel’ or texture of a period as no later reconstruction can. Not only do the Decembrists’ memoirs offer a more sweeping and complete scenario of the times; they show those times from close up, like a magnifying glass trained on one part of a huge canvas. It would be wrong to think, however, that the reader must be ever on his guard in reading these accounts of chaos, trial, imprisonment, and exile. The chaos, after all, quickly subsided; the exile lasted many years, and no one stood to gain by underplaying or exaggerating its innumerable tribula- tions. There are, perhaps, no finer or more accurate descriptions of Siberia as it was in the 1830s, of the customs, dress and manners of its polyglot and motley p0pulation, than those of Baron Shteyngel’ and N. V. Basargin. Always measured in tone, their narratives dealing with Buriat and Tungus tribes, with Old Believers, Poles and other exiles, with the flora, jewellery, commerce, animals, and climate of the districts where they found them- selves, form an invaluable record. No less than those of G.—A. Erman, Cot- trell, Haxthausen, and other sharp-eyed Western Europeans who visited Siberia in the 1830s and '40s, their balanced, clear, accounts of the vast land that would, they saw, one day become ‘the Russian America,’ are of interest and value to- the anthrOpologist as well as to the sociologist and the historian. If only for this reason, it is time that the Decembrists’ memoirs, or at least a few of them, were brought before a wider Western audience. Obviously, any selection such as that presented here must be a personal one; inclusions necessarily imply omissions, and not every emphasis can be deliberate. It was decided, then, to limit the scope of this book in three essential ways: there are no narrative accounts of the southern rising or of subsequent events in Pologi and Trilesy in early January 1826; little is said here of the fates of individual exiles after 1837; and only eight of numerous available memoirs are used, in lengthy extracts, to form the body of the book. (Others are used, however, to provide occasional extra dimensions; those of M. A. Fonvizin and A. A. Bestuzhev, for example, in connection with the average Russian officer’s frustrated life in the years preceding the rising.) Eight raconteurs, while representing a wide range of attitudes, may Introduction 11 “I ,f be accepted on an individual basis; extra faces in the cast would merely blur into a crowd. By limiting the number of accounts, that is to say, we are more likely to succeed in grasping what they offer as a group and individ- ually, and so to gain perspective. This, then, is the general shape; here are the eight memoirists whose narratives are used: Prince E. P. Obolensky, Baron A. E. Rozen and M. A. Bestuzhev; Prince S. G. Trubetskoy, l. D. Yakushkin and N. l. Lorer; N. V. Basargin and Baron V. l. Shteyngel'. Specific reasons why these narratives and not others have been used are to be found in the short introductions placed before each passage by a hitherto unintroduced contributor, that is, on each memoirist’s first appearance. But there are also general reasons why all eight are used extensively, and there are qualities common to all. All eight are, in the main, factually reliable. Certainly there are errors in each one of them, but they are not deliberate; they are errors of fact tout court, and not intentional distortions or confusions of the truth. Insofar as there are distortions in the texts selected here, they tend to stem not from misstatement but from omission, that commonest of all memoirists’ sins. Not one of the Decembrists, being human, failed to present himself, at least occasionally, in a more favourable light than the reality can fairly justify. A good example of such lapses is Sergey Trubetskoy’s account of his inter- rogation by an irate tsar. Trubetskoy, we may recall, was the 'dictator’ so conspicuously absent when most needed, and whose swift, abject repen- tance so delighted Nicholas. Did he indeed, as he pretends, clench his fists and shout at the tsar, ‘Shoot me, then! You have the rightl’? Possibly; but one somehow doubts if those were quite the words and gestures used. In this case, there is no way of ascertaining; he was alone with the tsar and General Tol’, neither of whom cast light on the matter in their own (un- reliable) papers. Again, we may consider the case of N. l. Lorer, whom contemporaries describe as a brilliant raconteur. |f Trubetskoy suffered from a politic amnesia, Lorer remembered everything when he resolved to. Certainly it is impressive to find whole conversations recalled verbatim after twenty years. A second quality shared by all eight narratives used here is a sense of fundamental balance. This is not to say there is no passion or fuoco in them; there is, most obviously in passages that deal with the protracted interviews that led up to the ‘trial’ and sentencing. ln descriptions of con— finement, too, and of the dreaded Alekseyev Ravelin, there are moments of drama and anger. But these moments are controlled, and do not set the tone for a whole memoir, spreading sound and fury everywhere. Purple passages are used deliberately: N. V. Basargin introduces one to excellent 12 Introduction effect in a description of the walk from Chita to Petrovskiy Zavod in August 1830 (see pp. 276-78) - and certainly it must have been a curious sight, the exiles wearing fancy-dress, drinking ‘brick—tea’ by Buriat yurts in the middle of the steppe. But Basargin manages such local colour carefully; it does not manage him. Lorer, too, knows the full value of a splash of exotic detail. Yet it would surely have been difficult not to write interestingly of such events as most Decembrists had personally experienced: of the breaking of their swords at dawn; of hurried journeys to Siberia by sled and post-chaise, over plains, foothills and on the frozen surface of the ‘Holy Sea,’ Lake Baikal; of semi-professional man-hunters, wife-beaters, projects to escape en masse to the Pacific down the Amur. All these elements of drama and adventure notwithstanding, however, a sense of balance is maintained throughout the eight memoirs used here. Exile, it is borne in upon us, was essentially a wearisome, debilitating business. By sending the Decembrists to one place, as Nikolay Bestuzhev notes, the government allowed them ‘to survive politically beyond political death’; but it was difficult to keep one's intellectual acuity, still more, emotional resilience, after ten years of exile. True, Siberia did not prove ‘the frontier of an uninhabited realm, where ice and cold like Herculan pillars draw the line for Man, saying non plus ultra,’ of which S. l. Krivtsov wrote with such apprehension, and which many others dreaded. The exiles’ sufferings were, in the main, not physical at all, though there were endless petty deprivations, but rather moral and emotional. Still, there were trials enough. it is to the credit of the great majority of the Decembrists in Siberia that their spirits were not broken absolutely. Some- thing of their strength is well reflected in these memoirs. Plainly, different memoirists give different emphases to the same major events and circumstances. Where there are several clashing versions of a single happening or chain of happenings, as of events on Senate Square between 9 and 11 am. on December 14 or in Peter-and-Paul Fortress in the last days of 1825, more than one account is given here. Broadly speaking, Rozen’s and M. A. Bestuzhev’s accounts of the actual insurrection may be seen as complementary. So, too, are Lorer’s and Yakushkin's recollections of theirjourneys to Siberia. A third double perspective is that of life in Chita and, after 1830, Petrovskiy Zavod as recorded by N. V. asargin and Baron Shteyngel’. Some Decembrists speak at length of their experiences several years before the rising. Lorer, for instance, gives us insights into P. l. Pestel”s political and social attitudes while both were in the South in 1823-24; Prince Obolensky tells us much about Ryleyev as he was in 1822— 23. Again, some speak at length of their confinement in Peter-and-Paul and, Introduction 13 #f in some cases, other fortresses. (Many of those sentenced on July 9, 1826 suffered long months of solitude in damp strongholds in Finland before eventually departing for Siberia; two individuals were ten years in a cell and one, G. S. Baten’kov, twenty.) Others, conversely, scarcely mention their incarceration, dwelling instead on hectic journeys east. Some over- lapping is perhaps inevitable: all memoirists have something to relate con- cerning General S. R. Leparsky, commandant at Chita and Petrovskiy, as of the 'angel-guardians' or wives who joined their husbands in Siberia. (One point that emerges from the extracts given here is that the ‘Russian Women’ of Nekrasov’s poem were entirely mythical; they were heroic, certainly, but only to a point. Nor were they martyrs to autocracy. As Solzhenitsyn has remarked through one of his characters, they were treated everywhere as aristocracy and honoured.) An effort has been made here to avoid un— profitable repetition. In general, the extracts given offer, in the view of one translator, the most balanced and illuminating accounts of any given inci- dent or topic. As will be seen, the extracts are arranged neither by strict chronology nor simply under authors. An attempt is made, instead, both to suggest a sense of forward movement - obviously, exile follows sentencing, and sentencing rebellion — and to present each memoirist at stages of the whole Decembrist process where his narrative may best contribute, and be seen. to best advantage. I. D. Yakushkin, for example, first appears in the ‘After- math.’ Not only is his narrative describing General V. V. Levashev at his card-table in a corner of the Hermitage a particularly brilliant one; his list- ing of celebrities encountered in the South during the years before the rising (which might have replaced Prince Obolensky’s reminiscences in the first chapter), is by and large irrelevant to the purpose of this volume. Yakushkin, Lorer and Basargin are first introduced in ‘Aftermath’ for an- other reason, too: all three men were arrested outside St. Petersburg, separated from their comrades and brought tothe Winter Palace from con- siderable distances. The aftermath of the rising affected many officers and others who were far away from St. Petersburg on December 14, 1825. Memoirs of two non-Decembrist eye-witnesses are cited briefly, but with- out apologies, in the first pages. These are the reminiscences of Dr. Robert Lee, a shrewd Scottish surgeon who happened to be in Taganrog when Alexander died (‘the spleen was enlarged '), and of Aleksandr Herzen. The two are complementary, and cast much needed light not on specific incidents, but on the national mood throughout December 1825. Lee, whose journal was eventually published as The Last Days of Alexander and the First Days of Nicholas (London, 1854), was a refreshingly objective on- 14 Introduction looker. He tells us both how Alexander died and how his death affected the enormous populace; what he had not done for Russia; what might happen to Russia; and the barometric pressure and the temperature in Taganrog from 1817 to September 1825. He was a representative professional, well- educated foreigner. Herzen needs little introduction. Heir to the Decem- brist tradition, maker of Decembrist myth, inspirer of the later populists, and teacher of distrust towards all Western bourgeois values, the future émigré champion of socialism was a child in 1825. He was a most observant child, however, and in his later writings tells us eloquently, inter alia, how the gentry in both St. Petersburg and Moscow looked on Nicholas in the days immediately after his accession. Details of texts used here may be found in Appendix D. For the curious, more details are provided in Appendix C on earlier translations of Decem- brist memoirs into Western European languages. The texts of Obolensky’s, Shteyngel”s, Rozen’s and Trubetskoy’s memoirs pre-date the October Revolution. Whenever possible, texts have been checked against the manu- scripts themselves, which are now kept in the Lenin Library, Moscow, the Central State Archive of Literature and the Arts (TsGALl), also in Moscow, or in Pushkinskiy Dom (lnstitut Russkoy Literatury Akademii Nauk S.S.S.R.), in Leningrad. Soviet textology is, in the main, first-rate. Details of changes in manuscripts both by the author and in other hands, of punctuation slips, tears, orthographical and other errors are, in an edition such as S. Ya. Shtraykh’s Zapiski, stat’i, pis’ma dekabrista I. D. Yakushkina (The Memoirs, Articles and Letters of I. D. Yakushkin; Moscow, 1951), of the very highest order. I acknowledge my indebtedness to Shtraykh and other Soviet schol- ars; their scrupulous attention to minutiae has made my own task the less heavy. It is with an easy heart that I follow their example with regard to minor textual corrections. Wherever possible, I have made no alterations whatsoever that might possibly affect the tone or meaning of a sentence. lnsistent idiosyncracies, conversely, have been kept. This applies, too, in matters of style: thus Obolensky’s often rambling sentences, Trubetskoy's high-sounding airs and M. A. Bestuzhev’s concrete style are deliberately preserved. Though basic sentence structure and paragraphing is everywhere maintained on principle (and the paragraphing of the manuscripts, not of any one edition, is adhered to), sentences formed of so many clauses that to render them exactly makes the sense elusive in English are, regretfully, split into two. Always the main effort is to present the sense and the flavour of the orig- inal, not the precise wording; but of course, ‘both are best.’ Liberal use of introduction 15 fl the dash, more characteristic of Russian than of English prose, has also been preserved; there seems to be no reason for ‘improving’ sentences by replacing dashes with semi-colons, brackets or any other sign. Trubetskoy occasionally lapses into French, Rozen and Lorer into Ger- man. These lapses are not truly lapses, for they are deliberate. As delib- erate, words and whole passages given in the original in languages other than English are offered here in footnotes. Short phrases or words given in English in the Russian texts are put into italics. Paintings and books are, for convenience, referred to in their English forms (the Russian name hav- ing been given also, in the latter case, if they have obvious historical impor- tance). So, too, are towns and sites with recognized anglicized spellings (thus: Archangel, not Arkhangel’sk; Schliisselburg, not Shlyusselburg). For names of Russian individuals and individuals who viewed themselves as Russian or who made their reputations in that country (such as officers and functionaries of German origin: Generals To|’ and Benkendorf, for in- stance), the same (British) system of transliteration is used as is employed throughout, with one traditional exception: names of tsars, monarchs and princes are given in their usual anglicized forms (thus: Nicholas Pavlovich, not Nikolay). Where German forms occur in Russian documents, however, (in Roman lettering, of course), those German forms are also given once, after the Russian form. Women’s surnames are kept in their Russian forms (e.g., Mme. Yakushkina), unless memoirists specifically given them a mas- culine form (Baroness Rozen, in some cases). Shteyngel’, Rozen and Lorer so signed themselves; therefore they are not known here as Messrs. Stein- heil, Rosen und Lohrer. Count P.Kh. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, and General Roth and Poggio, customarily signed themselves in those forms. Their feelings on the matter are respected. Dating throughout is in accordance with the Julian calendar (employed in Russia until 1918), unless otherwise stated thus: (N. 8.). To convert dates to the Western European (Gregorian) calendar, one adds twelve days to nineteenth-century dates, thirteen to twentieth-century dates. 16 Introduction A Setting The lucid reminiscences of Prince Yevgeniy Petrovich Obolensky are admirably suited to the purpose of setting the broad scene for the Decem- brist tragedy. They also show a man of strong conscience and attractive personality. The favourite child of a doting and patriarchal family, ‘the wonderful Yevgeniy,’ as Ryleyev called him, was a nobleman of natural modesty. Moreover, he was always concerned with the questions of man’s natural rights and just relationship with his society; always he held, as he maintained even in 1826 after long weeks of questioning by Nicholas’s Commission of Enquiry, that ‘there exists in every human soul a kind, mysterious quality, every human being having been born good." It was his fate, having a far more active conscience than many members of the Union of Salvation or, later, the Northern Society, to spend his life in private moral battles. Than this, nothing emerges with more clarity from all his extant notes, letters and memoirs.2 Prince Yevgeniy Petrovich Obolensky 1797—1865 When a young officer, Obolensky volunteered to substitute for a relation, the only son of a poor widow, who was about to fight a duel; he inadver- tently killed his opponent} The 'murder’ troubled him all his remaining years. It was specifically because of its ‘high moral ideals' that he was drawn to the still embryonic Union of Salvation. Indeed, he was more mentally preoccupied by schc'ine See/en and Schellingian thought than by republican or constitutional designs. Personally close to Ryleyev, the Prince stood in striking contrast to him: Ryleyev spoke magnetically, while Obo- lensky lisped and sometimes grew inaudible, so softly did he speak; Ryleyev was decisive; he, cautious and deliberate; Ryleyev was a revolutionary; he, a reflective, conscience-hounded moderate. Could Ryleyev have been troubled by ‘a notion that a state system must contain an expression of higher love, which joins all in a common family’? Or by a doubt as to the rightness of ‘imposing almost by force a way of viewing the state on those who are possibly satisfied with the present’? It is barely conceivable. A Setting 17 ...
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The Decembrist Memoirs_Introduction - Voices in ‘ Exile...

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