Russian soldiers influenced by Western democratic ideas during the Napoleonic Wars formed secret societies with the intention of replacing the czarist monarchy with a republic. An opportunity arose when a succession dispute occurred following the death of Czar Alexander I (1777-1825). Alexander's brother Constantine (1779-1831) had yielded his succession rights to his brother Nicholas (1796-1855); but without Constantines public acknowledgement, Nicholas hesitated to take the throne. When a conspiracy of the Northern Society became known, the plotters, unprepared and without a specific program, led their regiments into St. Petersburg (Leningrad) to support "Constantine and Constitution" on December 26, 1825 (December 14 by the Old Style calendar), but the rebels arrived too late in Senate Square (Decembrist Square) to prevent the Russian officials from taking the oath of allegiance to Czar Nicholas I. When rebel soldiers refused to capitulate and were joined by stone-throwing citizens, government artillery men fired "a whiff of grapeshot" for an hour, routing the rebels. Paul Pestel (1794-1826), leader of a Kievan rebel group, was soon captured in southern Russia, and a military uprising was quelled on January 15, 1826. Lack of citizen support for the St. Petersburg revolutionaries (Decembrists) and the others doomed the uprisings. Nicholas order the hanging of five leaders and exiled 100 others to Siberia. Here began the tradition of self-sacrificing revolution that continued throughout the 19th century in Russia.
Historians have generally agreed that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I. Young officers who had pursued Napoleon into western Europe came back to Russia with revolutionary ideas, including liberalism, representative government, and mass democracy. Whereas in the eighteenth century intellectual Westernization had been fostered by a paternalistic, autocratic state, in the nineteenth century Western ideas included opposition to autocracy, demands for representative government, calls for the abolition of serfdom, and, in some instances, advocacy of a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Officers were particularly incensed that Alexander had granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one. Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. Following his death, there was confusion as to who would succeed him because his heir, Constantine, had relinquished his right to the throne. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I, and proclaimed their loyalty to "Constantine and Constitution." Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. Nicholas had them surrounded and, when they refused to disperse, ordered the army to fire on them. The revolt was soon over, and the Decembrists who remained alive were arrested. Many were exiled to Siberia.
To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne. But because the Decembrists also wanted to implement a liberal political program, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The "Decembrists' revolt" was the first open breach between the government and liberal elements--a breach that subsequently widened.