Sergei Volkonskii (1788-1865) was a member of a prominent and ancient Russian noble family with extremely strong ties to the Russian Imperial family. Volkonskii was one of Tsar Alexander I’s aides-de-camps and a childhood playmate of his successor, Nicholas I. When Napoleon invaded Russia during the War of 1812, Volkonskii received command of a partisan brigade and pursued Napoleon’s forces all the way to Paris. Like many young, noble officers during the war Sergei was impressed with the patriotism and overall quality of the peasants he commanded. He grew close to his soldiers and saw in them the future of Russia.
After the war Sergei provided for his fallen soldiers’ orphans on his own estate (he owned about twenty thousand serfs) and began to disdain the frivolity of court life. He traveled to the Congress of Vienna and witnessed the debates of Parliament over the mental state of King George III in England. This exposure to foreign powers and to a function democratic system had a profound impact on his views of his autocratic homeland.
Volkonskii became involved in the Decembrist uprising in 1825. Tsar Nicholas suppressed the uprising and in the aftermath banished Volkonskii, his childhood friend to exile in Siberia. Volkonskii’s young wife, Maria, followed him into exile. While in exile Volkonskii adopted the manners and lifestyle of the peasants around him, beginning to farm and providing his neighbors with the benefits of his education and agricultural experiments. Volkonskii had a profound influence on later generations of the budding Russian intelligentsia stemming from his actions after the war and even from exile in Siberia.
Question for discussion: Aside from his political views, why else might have contributed to Volkonskii’s rejection of noble values and the nobles’ way of life?
Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Picador, 2002.
By Will Sinnott and Tara Calloway