January Uprising 1863: the past and present

The January Uprising was the largest and longest insurrection against imperial Russia in the 19th century. It has inspired generations of activists and combatants in their bid for freedom and still informs their choices – east and west.

History, especially in Eastern Europe, is not yesterday but today, even this morning. It’s not even history, as one internet wag put it. The year 1863, the anniversary of the Polish January Uprising against imperial Russia, is one of these dates that resonates meaning with and not just in Poland. It is etched into the hard drive of memory. It is visible on countless monuments, carefully tended gravesites of the fallen, conferences endless debates, and comes right up to today, visible on the unit patch of the Kalinouski regiment, Belarusians fighting in and for Ukraine against Russian invasion (more on them later).

In short it was the largest and longest anti-Russian insurrection of the 19th century, doomed but immortalised. To say it was a Polish uprising fought for Poland against Russia is simplistic. They were Poles, but of a different stamp, not as we know them today,

By the end of the 18th century Poland had been swallowed up by three partitioning empires Prussia, Austria and Russia. Poland was not the one on the present map. It was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a remarkable and in the West forgotten country comprising Poles, Lithuanians and Ruthenians. These were later to become modern Belarusians and Ukrainians.

Every article on Polish history has to be prefaced with a short historical description, as this is generally unknown in western circles. So apologies in advance...but not that many.

Then, you could be an ethnic Pole, a subject of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, a non-Catholic and a native of Ruthenia (Belarus). Some of Poland’s greatest heroes of the time Tadeusz Kościuszko or Adam Mickiewicz had these sophisticated identities...for a more sophisticated time perhaps.

But it was these civic patriots who formed the backbone, the gentry of the resistance in the 19th century and the custodians of the national memory and culture. They wanted the old country back.

After the Napoleonic wars Poland was reconstituted as a Russian client, the Congress Kingdom. The first rebellion was in 1830 and led to repression and exile for thousands.

By the mid 19th century the kingdom had settled into being an ungrateful volcano, as Churchill would later describe Iraq. Russia had been weakened by the Crimean war (not the last), social and political unrest continued to simmer.

The patrol of Polish Uhlans, a painting by Jan Rosen. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an effort to finesse growing opposition, Aleksander Wielopolski the top czarist official, a Pole, conservative and opposed to notions on the authorities of national independence, called to conscript thousands of young men into the Russian army. A twenty year stint pushing the imperial boundaries in central Asia would do them a power of good and remove potential revolutionaries.

He had lit the blue touchpaper.

In Warsaw, activists decamped to the forests, issued a call to arms and published a manifesto calling for a national insurrection, on January 22 1863.

But what Poland were they calling to?

These were men and women who wanted the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, resurrected in the borders that had been lost in the previous century. Furthermore they sought to expand their territories to include lands of Ukraine. It was to be a commonwealth of three nations, Polish Lithuanian and Ruthenian. Lithuania had historically encompassed the regions now seen as Belarusian.

An insurgent saw no contradiction in being a Pole, Lithuanian or Belarusian and fighting for this ideal. In fighting for this augmented commonwealth they chose the west not the east, Europe not Russia. Poland had been the conduit of these values, political and religious for centuries.

The leadership of the rebel government changed hands throughout the uprising and the troops that he commanded were badly trained and coordinated- spontaneous insurgents. Arms trickled into the theatre of operations. Volunteers consisting of idealists and adventurers joined up. It was a classic guerrilla war with around 1,200 small unit engagements that were conducted against an imperial army that numbered several hundred thousand; a special military operation you might say.

Although the czar’s position had been weakened by the Crimean debacle, no great power was prepared to go to war against Russia in support of the uprising. Napoleon III, emperor of France fashionably favoured the Poles but his support had its limits. The Polish cause was also popular in the Confederate states of America, then embroiled in a similar bid to free themselves from what they saw as a northern yoke.

The rebels were on their own.

The Russians did what they do best, and ground down their enemies. Detachments were defeated in detail, their leaders arrested, executed or imprisoned.

Monument to the Heroes of the January Uprising 1863 - 1864 in Warsaw. (Wikimedia Commons)

The last leader of the uprising, Romuald Traugutt, was hanged in the grounds of Warsaw’s imposing Citadel on August 5 1864, the fortress that was built to keep Warsaw in check after the first uprising in 1831. With his execution the uprising was effectively over, though some sporadic fighting continued for some time afterwards.

Traugutt is a case in point. A former czarist officer who came from a Polonised family of German descent; the surname is not typically Polish. He fought and died for Poland, or Poland-Lithuania, or Poland-Lithuania-Ruthenia in any case. He was 38 years old. After the rising was quelled, the Congress Kingdom was abolished and became ‘Vistulaland’, a mere Russian province. The Russian language was enforced in education and thousands were exiled to the hellholes of Siberia.

It was a brutal period of Russification that is a typical imperial modus operandi. In Lithuania, this took a particularly cruel form with the ‘hangman’ General Muravyev in Vilnius being particularly notable.

The response was a romantic retreat into national mourning. The interiors of churches were painted black. Women, and it was a robust feminine response, took to wearing black and sporting jewellery in patriotic motifs. If they were arrested for wearing mourning dress without just cause, they took to wearing purple.

The long term legacy was to furnish Poles in particular with examples on how to behave in a crisis. The 20th century was to furnish Poles with many tests that would stretch their moral resources.

Although the gentry were broken by the reprisals this was much due to their internal divisions. To fight for a country they imagined needed the support of the peasantry. Conservatives could not countenance giving the peasants land in return for their support as their more modern and younger comrades wished. So the movement was divided broadly into the Whites and the Reds whose divisions were not reconciled. But the Russians exploited this and played off the peasantry against their overlords- abolishing serfdom itself in 1864. The property of defeated insurgents was sequestered and sold off to political favourites or loyalists.

The failure of the rising ushered in a time known as organic growth. Armed insurrection was replaced by economic, educational and commercial progress as a matter of getting rid of Russian rule. Playing the long game as a Polish Piedmont to Russian Italy.

The romantic background influenced the literature and art. The story of the impoverished noble, the terrorist and troublesome Pole abroad became stock characters. But the idea of what Poland was and was to become was divided too. There were some who clung to the civic ideals of the old commonwealth, others drew their wagons around an ethnic version of Poland, fortress Poland.

Farewell Europe! by Aleksander Sochaczewski. The theme of the painting is the Siberian exile of Poles after their defeat in the January Uprising. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you were Polish you were Polish; Belarusian, Belarusian and so on.

Ethnic tensions characterised the relations between the constituent nations of the old republic in the 20th century. But it persisted. Have a look at the surnames on the military cemetery at Monte Cassino for instance.

To claim, as Russia does, that the Ukrainians are just “little Russians” is too simplistic, but very Russian. The insurgents of 1863 overcame the limits that their own ethnicities would later give them. They fought for an ideal that was bigger than themselves, even though that way of thinking eventually passed in large part in an age of exclusive nationalism.

Which brings us back to the Kalinouski regiment, and indeed to the Polish and other foreign volunteers who are shedding their blood for Ukraine.

Kastuś Kalinouski (Konstanty Kalinowski) is the patron of the regiment. The 1863 date is worn on the unit patch and national symbols including the scythe, the iconic ‘arme blanche’ of the insurrection, a weapon of desperation raised to cult levels as few firearms were available. The unit motto is “First Ukraine, then Belarus.” Belarusians are fighting Russians to defend Ukraine...as the Polish contemporary Polish motto had it “for our freedom and yours”.

Kalinowski, a hero in Belarus, was born into a Polish family in Lithuania. He was a writer and activist, literary figure championing Belarusian independence. He assumed the command of guerilla units in the Duchy of Lithuania, encompassing Belarus and Ukraine. He was betrayed and publicly executed in Vilnius on March 22 1864. He was just 26 years old.

Belarusian soldiers bear his name and reputation in the trenches of Ukraine against Russia. Polish volunteers are engaged in the same fight- united against Russian imperialism.

An insurgent from 1863 would recognise this motivation and who knows, at least the spirit of the old republic may be alive and well.