On December 14, 1825 a group of officers led 3000 fully armed soldiers into the Senate Square near the centre of the imperial capital, St Petersburg, hoping to spark a rising in the Russian army. The attempt failed, and late that afternoon troops loyal to the Tsar opened fire on the would-be revolutionaries, killing many and scattering the rest. Another rising a few days later in Ukraine met a similar fate. Members of both risings were called “Decembrists” after the date of their attempted revolt. When a government commission investigated, however, it discovered that the rising was the product of secret societies who had been busy for most of a decade.

The first steps toward the Decembrist rising were taken in 1816, when an organization called the Union of Salvation, or Society of True and Faithful Sons of the Fatherland, was organized in St Petersburg. Under the leadership of Pavel Pestel, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the Union began drawing up plans for a constitutional monarchy and the abolition of serfdom. The Union had four degrees of initiation – Friend, Brother, Elder, and Boyar (an old Russian title of nobility), which was reserved for the original founders. Each degree had an elaborate initiation ritual. See Initiation.

The Union fell apart in a series of internal disputes in 1817, but in 1818 a new order, the Union of Welfare, was founded by the original core group. The new Union discarded the initiation rituals and focused on a strategy of infiltration, seeking the transformation of Russian society through liberal reforms carried out by an elite of enlightened minds assisting one another in secret. The similarities of this plan to that of the Bavarian Illuminati of the pre-Napoleonic period may not be accidental; the Illuminati had a wide influence in central Europe, and many revolutionary secret societies of the time drew ideas from Adam Weishaupt’s failed conspiracy. Many members of the Union and its successor organizations were also Freemasons, at a time when Masonry was among the primary conduits for liberal ideas in Russia. The Union of Welfare also drew inspiration from the Carbonari, the most important political secret society in Europe in the post-Napoleonic period. See Bavarian Illuminati; Carbonari; Freemasonry.

In 1821, disagreements within the Union of Welfare split it into two groups, the Northern Society based in St Petersburg, and the Southern Society centred in Ukraine. The Southern Society later consolidated with another secret society with similar aims, the Society of United Slavs. Both societies drew much of their membership from the junior officer corps, men who had served in the Napoleonic Wars and absorbed liberal ideas in Paris during the occupation of France. The Southern Society was the more radical, and took an active role in distributing propaganda among ordinary soldiers; the Northern Society took a less activist approach and spent much of its time in debates about a better Russian society. Neither Society seems to have understood the challenges involved in overthrowing a government, and their plans were poorly drafted and ineffectively executed.

The Decembrist rising itself was a total failure, and the Tsar’s government had little difficulty rounding up the ringleaders, executing Pestel and four others, and condemning the rest to prison or internal exile. The severity of the government response, though, had the paradoxical effect of turning the Decembrist failure into something like success. Public opinion, especially among the educated classes, strongly favoured the Decembrists’ aims of liberal reform, and the government’s reaction convinced much of the Russian intelligentsia that revolution rather than reform would be needed to establish a progressive society on Russia’s soil. The Decembrist movement thus launched Russia into the spiral of revolt and repression that culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. See Russian revolution.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006