Guy A. Aldred Archive

Chapter 4
Opening an Epoch

Written: 1940.
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source:; 2021

Years afterwards, Bakunin explained the mental atmosphere of Russia at the time that he studied at the Artillery School. He also outlined the aims and objects of the Decembrist conspiracy. It was the beginning of a new epoch.

No one who was born in America or one of the Western European countries, not even a Frenchman who received his political education under the reign of Napoleon III., or a German who went to school with Bismarck in order to learn how to become a free citizen, or an Italian who suffered under the Austrian yoke, could imagine what a terrible condition Russia was in under the regime of Nicholas. Perhaps, to-day, someone living under Hitlerism, or in Italy, under Mussolini, can imagine the Russia of “Nicholas with the Big Stick.”

The accession of Nicholas erected a memorial stone, i.e. the suffocation of the military uprising which had been prepared silently through a great aristocratic conspiracy. This is the movement which we call the conspiracy of December, not because it was started but because it was killed in that month. And when I call that movement an aristocratic one I do not mean to insinuate that their program was aristocratic. On the contrary, their goal was democratic; in many directions, even socialistic. It was called an aristocratic movement from the fact that nearly all who took part in it belonged to the noble-class, and formed, so to speak, the intelligence of the time.

This was the main object of the Decembrist conspiracy, to end privilege. There were two societies, one in the North and the other in South Russia. The first embraced St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as the military and official element. It was much more aristocratic and political in the sense of state power than the second one. In it were the Muraviews. The members seriously considered the liberation of the serfs, and labored to this end. They were, at the same time, great believers in a great and united Russia, with a liberal constitution. As their goal was a united Russia, they were opposed, naturally, to the independence of Poland.

The second, the South Russian society, whose seat was Kiev, was more revolutionary and democratic in the full sense of the word. This society also consisted mostly of officers and officials who hailed from Central Russia. The cause of the more revolutionary character of the organization is to be found in the fact that it was directed by the more thoughtful personalities, such as Colonel Muraview-Apostol, Dotozeff-Rumen, and the genial colonel of the general staff, Pestel.

In a certain sense, Pestel was a federalist and socialist. He was not satisfied with the wish to liberate peasants from their bondage, and give them their personal liberty. He demanded that they should be declared owners of the land on which they worked. His political ideal was a federative republic similar to the United States of America, instead of Russian Czardom. Pestel and his friends were not opposed to the independence of Poland. They even attempted to fraternize intimately with the Polish revolutionaries. For that they were criticized severely by their northern sister organization.

The above-mentioned men were conspicuous not only through their intelligence. They were great and noble characters. In the year 1820, all three died on the scaffold in St. Petersburg. A few hours before his execution, Pestel received a visit from his father, the Governor-General of Siberia. The old man was an indescribably corrupt creature, a monster, a thief, a murderer. In a word, all that usually is meant by a servant of the Czar. He came with the pretext of taking leave of his son, but really, he wanted only to rub salt into the latter’s wounds. Pestel did not want to receive him, but he had no choice.

Among other things, he asked him in his impudence: “Now tell me, my son, how high do you think you would have risen if you had succeeded in overthrowing Czardom?” “First of all,” said Pestel unhesitatingly, “we would have liberated Russia of devils incarnate of your type.”

As the punishment of strangulation was not then in use, the gruesome procedure went off clumsily. They were true martyrs of liberty, forerunners of the world liberated, as one day it will be, who were executed. The rope slipped over Pestel’s face, and he fell heavily to the ground where he remained, badly injured. During the moments in which the hangman re-adjusted the rope, the dying man exclaimed, “They cannot even hang you properly in Russia.”

It was the birth of a new era. Hitherto, the Russian aristocracy had been the voluntary slaves of the Czar, and the brutal, terrible proprietors of serfs who had to till their land. Until then, the aristocracy had been nothing more than a brutal beast, shut off from every ideal and saturated by the most nonsensical prejudices.

The Western European civilization, which had been introduced by Peter the Great, and developed by Catherine, was no longer a dead thing. Although the historian, Karamatin, sent as a young man to Europe to study, returned to Russia to betray his patrons, civilization and knowledge advanced by his reaction. He created official Russian patriotism and rhetoric. Even art leads to morality. And the students, in their secret circles, developed knowledge from his writing.

Napoleon’s invasion, in 1812, turned Russia upside down. Czarism, instead of defending itself was forced to beg the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the serfs for their help. Each category felt its strength and was joyful and active, like a new-born babe, in a consciousness of its power. This was the first breeze of liberty which swept over this slave-empire. After 1812, the peasants never ceased to clamor for bread and liberty. The aristocratic youth came back from abroad strangely changed. They had become liberal and revolutionary. A gigantic propaganda sprung up in all towns and garrisons, in all aristocratic palaces. Even the women took part at last, and fought with glorious enthusiasm. Thus changed the Russian aristocracy, the hitherto despicable slave of a barbaric despot, almost miraculously into fanatical propagandist of humanity and liberty.

This then, was the new world-full of progress and healthy, vigorous strength-which Czar Nicholas fought from the first day of his accession. The reaction, which broke out after the downfall of the December conspiracy, was terrible. Everything humane, everything intelligent, and everything true and good that existed in Russia, was destroyed and crushed. Everything brutal and debased ascended the throne with Nicholas! It was a systematic and entire destruction of humanity in favor of brutality and all corruption.

In the middle of these conditions, this gruesome time, Bakunin had entered, as boy of fourteen years, the Artillery School at St. Petersburg.