Secret Societies of All Ages: Vol 2 - Charles Heckethorn

XI. The Union of Safety

607. Historical Sketch of Society.—Russia has ever been a hotbed of secret societies, but to within very recent times such societies were purely local; the Russian people might revolt against some local oppression, or some subaltern tyrant, but they never rose against the emperor, they never took up arms for a political question. Whatever secret associations were formed in that country, moreover, were formed by the aristocracy, and many of them were of the most innocent nature; it was at one time almost fashionable to belong to such a society, as there are people now who fancy it an honour to be a Freemason. But after the wars of Napoleon, the sectarian spirit spread into Russia. Some of the officers of the Russian army, after their campaigns in Central Europe, on their return to their native country felt their own degradation and the oppression under which they existed, and conceived the desire to free themselves from the same.

In 1822 the then government of Russia issued a decree, prohibiting the formation of a new, or the continuance of old, secret societies. The decree embraced the masonic lodges. Every employee of the State was obliged to declare on oath that he belonged to no secret society within or without the empire; or, if he did, had immediately to break off all connection with them, on pain of dismissal. The decree was executed with great rigour; the furniture of the masonic lodges was sold in the open streets, so as to expose the mysteries of masonry to ridicule.

When the State began to prohibit secret societies, it was time to form some in right earnest. Alexander Mouravief founded the Union of Safety, whose rites and ceremonies were chiefly masonic frightful oaths, daggers, and poison figuring largely therein. It was composed of three classes Brethren, Men, and Boyards. The chiefs were taken from the last class. The denomination of the last degree shows how much the aristocratic element predominated in the association, which led, in fact, to the formation of a society still more aristocratic, that of the "Russian Knights," which aimed at obtaining for the Russian people a constitutional charter, and counteracting the secret societies of Poland, whose object was to restore Poland to its ancient state, that is to say, absolutism on the part of the nobles, and abject slavery on the part of the people. The two societies eventually coalesced into one, under the denomination of the "Union for the Public Weal"; but, divided in its counsels, it was dissolved in 1821, and a new society formed under the title of the "Union of the Boyards." The programme of this union at first was to reduce the imperial power to a level with that of the President of the United States, and to form the empire into a federation of provinces. But gradually their views became more advanced; a republic was proposed, and the emperor, Alexander I., was to be put to death. The more moderate and respectable members withdrew from the society, and after a short time it was dissolved, and its papers and documents carefully burnt.

The revolutions of Spain, Naples, and Upper Italy led Pestel, a man who had been a member of all the former secret societies, to form a new one, with the view of turning Russia into a republic; the death of Alexander again formed part of the scheme. But circumstances were not favourable to the conspirators, and the project fell to the ground. Another society, called the North, sprang into existence, of which Pestel again was the leading spirit. In 1824, the "Union of the Boyards" heard of the existence of the Polish Patriotic Society. It was determined to invite their cooperation. The terms were speedily arranged. The Boyards bound themselves to acknowledge the independence of Poland; and the Poles promised to entertain or amuse the Archduke Constantine at Warsaw whilst the revolution was being accomplished in Russia. Both countries were to adopt the republican form of government.

This latter condition, however, made by the Poles, displeased the Boyards, who, themselves lusting after power, did not see in a republic the opportunity of obtaining it. The Boyards therefore united themselves with another society, that of the "United Slavonians," founded in 1823 by a lieutenant of artillery, named Borissoff, small in numbers, but daring. As the name implied, it proposed a Slavonian confederation under the names of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Dalmatia, and Transylvania. The insurrection was on the point of breaking out; but the Emperor Alexander had already (in June 1823), by the revelations of Sherwood, an Englishman in Russian service, who was ennobled, received some intimation of the plot, but seems to have neglected taking precautions; whilst he was lying ill at Taganrog, Count De Witt brought him further news of the progress of the conspiracy, but the emperor was too near his death for active measures. He died, in fact, a few days after of typhoid fever he had caught in the Crimea. It was rumoured that he died of poison, but such was not the case: the report of Sir James Wylie, who was with him to the last, disproves the rumour. Besides, it is certain that the conspirators were guiltless of the emperor's death, since it took them unprepared and scattered at inconvenient distances over the empire.

Immediately on Alexander's death General Diebitsch, commanding at Kieff, ordered Colonel Pestel and about a dozen officers to be arrested. But the conspirators did not therefore give up their plan. They declared Nicholas, who succeeded Alexander, to be a usurper, his elder brother Constantino being the rightful heir to the throne. But Constantino had some years before signed a deed of abdication in favour of his brother, which however was not publicly known; and Alexander I. having died without naming his successor, the conspirators took advantage of this neglect to further their own purposes. But they were not supported by the bulk of the army or the people; still, when it came to taking the oath of fidelity to the new emperor, an insurrection broke out at St. Petersburg, which was only quelled by a cruel and merciless massacre of the rebellious soldiers. Pestel, with many others, was executed, but his equanimity never deserted him, and he died with sealed lips, though torture is said to have been employed to wring confessions from him. Prince Troubetskoi, who had been appointed Dictator by the conspirators, but who at the last moment pusillanimously betrayed them, was nevertheless by the merciless Nicholas I. exiled to Siberia for life, and condemned for fourteen years to work in the mines, and he belonged to a family which had, with the Romanoffs, competed for the throne!

These secret societies, with another discovered at Moscow in 1838, whose members were some of the highest nobles of the empire, and who were punished by being scattered in the army as private soldiers—these secret societies were the precursors of the Nihilists, whose history we have now to tell.