In 1813, Napoleon was retreating from his failed invasion of Russia. Chasing Napoleon’s remnant of surviving soldiers back to France, the victorious allies entered Paris with 100,000 troops, 63,000 of them were Russians. Shouting “Paris! Paris!” the Russians broke their ranks and pressed forward to see the glorious city they had known only in fairy tales and dreams. That event created some wild and humorous tales as you could expect – hungry Russians in Paris? Also initiated was a reaction, an unintended consequence that became a sample of things to come later in Russia.
But first, the hungry Russians in Paris. They were in a hurry you can bet. And what does a hungry Russian yell to get served fast? “Bystro!, Bystro!” (hurry!, hurry!). Yes, that is where our “Bistro” comes from. There are 27 bistros listed in Orange County, more than that in Boston. And no, I have no idea how many in Moscow today.
But, the desire for fast and tasty restaurants were not the only thing the Russians brought back to Russia. They brought back also a taste of freedom. The well-educated officers had been exposed to the Enlightenment and the liberalism of Europe, and they hated what they had found when returning to Russia autocracy: corruption, censorship, rigid control over higher education and serfdom. Was this why they had liberated Europe? Around three thousands of them joined together in St. Petersburg’s main square on December 14, 1825, hoping to replace authoritarian rule with a representative democracy. It was the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas’ brother as a constitutional monarch.
It was a failure. This became known as the Decembrist Revolt, and they were crushed by forces loyal to Czar Nicholas I. This led Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.
What followed is common knowledge and covered from the perspective of the main characters in The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan. The question of Russia’s direction has been contemplated ever since Peter the Great’s program of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against this and called for a return of the traditions of the past. The arguments continue today.