In November 1825 Tsar Alexander died. The legitimate heir was his
brother Constantine, who declined the honour and abdicated in favour
of his younger brother Nicholas. Neither brother was popular, but
public opinion feared Nicholas more. A group of young officers saw
the accession as their chance for action. They became known as the
Decembrists but they had been meeting and debating revolutionary
topics for a number of years. Some of them had been at school with
The Decembrists planned for all the regiments who supported them
to assemble in the Senate Square in St Petersburg during the oath
of allegiance to Nicholas and to shout for Constantine and a constitution.
In the event few of the regiments turned up, and neither did the
Decembrist leader, Prince Trubetskoy. Nicholas ordered his supporters
to open fire and the rebels dispersed. After the subsequent arrests
and interrogations, five men were hanged and 121 officers and men
were exiled to Siberia.
Pushkin was far away from St Petersburg at the time of the revolt,
but some of the conspirators confessed to being influenced by Ode
to Freedom. Nicholas ordered Pushkin to present himself at
his headquarters in Moscow, but after the resulting interview the
Tsar freed Pushkin to travel anywhere within the Empire apart from
St Petersburg. Nicholas also declared that in future he himself
would be the poet’s censor, but Nicholas had been less generous
than he appeared. The actual censor was Count Benckendorff, the
Tsar’s chief of security, whose first step was to call Pushkin
to account for reading Boris Godunov to a group of friends
without asking permission.
Guest-curated for the British Library by Mike Phillips
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