- Recent Russian Historiography on the DecembristsFrom “Liberation Movement” to “Public Opinion”
After a marked decline in Russian historians’ interest in the “Decembrist era” during the first post-Soviet decade, the last ten years have seen a resurgence of [End Page 805] focus and publication as indicated by the recent appearance of the five volumes discussed here. A new generation of Decembrist scholars (dekabristovedy) has widened the research agenda for early 19th-century Russian opposition by moving it away from the narrow Marxist-Leninist confines of the “liberation movement” (osvoboditel′noe dvizhenie). Instead, they have sought to place it in the broader context of what A. N. Pypin as long ago as 1870 referred to as the “social movement” (obshchestvennoe dvizhenie). In her exhaustive study of the topic, Tat′iana Andreeva favors the modern (if optimistic) term “public opinion” (obshchestvennoe mnenie). Given the difficulty of identifying common ground among the various categories of opinion makers who contributed to the flourishing (though censored) periodical press, or were members of Masonic lodges and informal study circles (kruzhki) or of Decembrist secret societies, it would seem challenging to refer with confidence to a unified “public opinion” and therefore to generalize meaningfully about it. Nevertheless, her introduction of the term is one of the many indications of the extent to which today’s specialists have moved away from their Soviet predecessors, while continuing to explore essentially the same historical phenomena—problems of politics and reform in Alexander I’s reign, and the Decembrists’ political culture and secret societies. The differences will be highlighted further below. They are also resurrecting names lost to Russian historiography for much of the 20th century such as Pypin, V. O. Kliuchevskii, and M. N. Pokrovskii, endorsing their rediscovered predecessors’ views.
Unquestionably, the most original and important of the works reviewed here is Andreeva’s monumental study of secret societies, government policy, and public opinion in the first three decades of the 19th century. As ambitious as it is voluminous, it starts from the debatable proposition that this period of Russian political history ranks alongside the Great Reforms in its attempts, official and unofficial, to modernize Russia (3). In particular, Andreeva stresses its importance in the formation of the nobility’s political role and its relationship with the throne. The place in this process of “public opinion,” as reflected mainly in the recorded views of the various strata of the nobility, while crucial, has, in Andreeva’s view, been insufficiently explored. Her purpose, therefore, is to redress this lack (10). Her monograph starts with a thoroughgoing 117-page survey of the literature and sources, indicative of the massive scale of the ensuing volume. Those seeking a crash course in the Russian historiography of the period should start here. The turning point in post-Soviet Decembrist studies, which receive their fullest discussion yet, Andreeva dates from the late 1990s with the publication of the first issue of the serial 14 dekabria 1825 goda: Istochniki, issledovaniia, istoriografiia, [End Page 806] bibliografiia (14 December 1825: Sources, Research, Historiography, Bibliography), which she describes as refreshingly “unencumbered by ideological bias,” and as marking a new departure for innovative research and interpretation (61).1
It was in the...