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Orest Adamovich Kiprenskii (1778-1836)  Portrait of Nikita Mikhailovich Muraviev, 1813  Italian pencil, paper  The State Literature Museum, Moscow, Russia
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Title: Nikita Muraviev
Orest Adamovich Kiprenskii (1778-1836)
Portrait of Nikita Mikhailovich Muraviev, 1813
Italian pencil, paper
The State Literature Museum, Moscow, Russia

Nikita Muraviev - 1796 - 1843), army officer who conspired to over-throw Nicholas I.

Nikita Muraviev was one of the army officers involved in the Decembrist movement to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. He is best known for the constitution he drafted for a new Russian state. Although he did not actually participate in the uprising on December 14, 1825, he was condemned to death when it failed. His sentence was later commuted to twenty years at hard labor in the Nerchinsk mines. He died in Irkutsk Province.

In 1813, after studying at Moscow University, Muraviev embarked on a military career, and in 1816 he joined with other aristocratic young officers in organizing a secret society called the Union of Salvation. Led by Paul Pestel, it was renamed the Union of Welfare a year later. Stimulated by the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic Wars (1812 - 1815), the officers had been influenced by the liberal ideas of French and German philosophers while serving in Europe or attending European universities. The new Russian literature, with its moral and social protest against Russia's backwardness, also was an important influence, especially the works of Nikolai Novikov, Alexander Radishchev, and the poets Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Griboyedov. The Arzamas group, an informal literary society founded around 1815, attracted several men who later became Decembrists, including Nikita Muraviev, Nikolai Turgenev, and Mikhail Orlov.

Economic stagnation, high taxation, and the need for major reforms motivated Muraviev and the other Decembrists to take action. They advocated the establishment of representative democracy but disagreed on the form it should take: Muraviev favored a constitutional monarchy; Pestel, a democratic republic. To get rid of tsarist agents and members who were either too dictatorial or too conservative, the organizers dissolved the Union of Welfare in 1821 and set up two new groups: The Northern Society, centered in St. Petersburg, was headed by Muraviev and Nicholas Turgenev, an official in the Ministry of Finance. The more radical Southern Society was dominated by Pestel. During the interregnum between Alexander I and Nicholas I, the two societies plotted the coup.

Muraviev was the ideologist for the Northern Society, drafting propaganda and a constitution that was found among his papers following his arrest. The uncompleted constitutional project reveals the strong impact of the American constitution. Like Pestel, he envisioned a republic: "The Russian nation is free and independent. It cannot be the property of a person or a family. The people are the source of supreme power. And to them belongs the sole right to formulate the fundamental law." Muraviev advocated a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the thirteen original states of North America, separation of powers, civil liberties, and the emancipation of the serfs. Although his constitution guaranteed the equality of all citizens before the law, the landed classes were recognized as having special rights and interests. Thus Muraviev rejected Pestel's idea of universal suffrage; only property-holders would be allowed to vote and to seek elective office.

What distinguishes Muraviev's draft constitution is its advocacy of federalism, an idea not echoed by any major political movement in Russia until the twentieth century. Muraviev argued that "vast territories and a huge standing army are in themselves obstacles to freedom." Too much of a nationalist to call for the breakup of the empire, however, Muraviev urged that Russia adopt a federalist system as a way to reconcile "national greatness with civic freedom."

The Decembrist uprising failed because of the plotters' incompetence and lack of mass support. Some defected, and others, at the last minute, failed to carry out their assignments. Five of their leaders, including the poet Kondraty Ryleyev, were uted. Despite the stricter censorship Nicholas I imposed after the crushed rebellion, the memory of the Decembrists inspired many writers and revolutionaries, especially the political refugee Alexander Herzen, who established the journal The Bell (Kolokol) in London in 1857 to "propagate free ideas within Russia."

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Orest Adamovich Kiprenskii (1778-1836)  Portrait of Prince AM Golitsyn  Oil on canvas, 1819  The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, RussiaOrest Adamovich Kiprenskii (1778-1836)  Portrait of Nikita Mikhailovich Muraviev, 1813  Italian pencil, paper  The State Literature Museum, Moscow, RussiaOrest Adamovich Kiprenskii (1778-1836)  Portrait of Count Dmitri Nikolaevich Sheremetev  Oil on canvas, 1824  The State Historical Museum in Moscow, Russia
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