September 01, 2020

The Semyonovsky Regiment Revolts

The Semyonovsky Regiment Revolts
Yakov Potyomkin

In the early nineteenth century, the Semyonovsky Regiment was one of the most prestigious units in the Russian imperial military. Growing out of the “toy army” that Peter I created as a boy, the regiment took its name from the village of Semyonovskoye, outside Moscow, where it was then barracked. It later became an illustrious Lifeguards regiment in which an officer could make a brilliant career and achieve high social status.

It also became a regiment where, after the war with Napoleon, enlightened, forward-thinking officers predominated. They began establishing societies (not yet secret societies, which would come later) that strove to transform Russia. One of the first such societies was the Union of Salvation. Its members believed that Russia, which still had serfdom and unrestrained autocracy, had to be saved. A few years later, another organization emerged, the Union of Welfare. Its symbol was the bee: as the bee collects pollen grain-by-grain and ultimately produces sweet honey, so too the Union’s members strove to gradually help their motherland find the correct path. Of course, they dreamed of a constitution and freedom, but, in keeping with the “theory of small deeds,” they engaged in charitable work and settled for achievable goals.

The Union of Welfare’s members raised money to help famine victims in drought-stricken provinces, or bought the freedom of talented serfs so they could get an education. They used their position in society to influence public opinion. The Lifeguards officer Ivan Pushchin even gave up his military career to become a judge and bring honesty and justice to the courts – a voluntary relinquishing of status that was incomprehensible to many of his peers.

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