It is often pointed out that the January Insurrection, the biggest and the longest of the Polish nineteenth century uprisings, was not properly prepared and from the very beginning was doomed to failure. Notwithstanding a certain degree of international support, given the situation in Europe at the time and the disproportion of forces between the Russian army and insurgents, it could hardly have been otherwise. No doubt, those Polish leaders and some Russian officials who attempted to avoid outright confrontation in the early 1860s had good reasons for their stand on this matter.
But to portray the uprising as sheer madness, the embodiment of Romantic political blindness and recklessness, means ignoring the historical realities of the time, and consciously or unconsciously imposing an anachronistic perspective. As a sort of response to a sacrosanct national tradition, such claims have served as arguments in political and ideological debates rather than in professional historical analysis. For instance, after World War II an outstanding journalist, Ksawery Pruszyński, who decided to cooperate with the communist authorities, presented the policy of Margrave Aleksander Wielopolski as a model for Poles that showed how to adjust to the post-Yalta division of Europe and accept whatever limited autonomy Iosif Stalin might be willing to confer on Poland. In the aftermath of the war and the German and Soviet occupations with all of their horrible consequences, such a proposition seemed to be sensible and rational in contrast to the continuation of hopeless resistance. Of course, in the eyes of the pro-independence leaders and a wide section of Polish society this was nothing but an ill-founded and misleading attempt to justify the Soviet-imposed regime. Profound criticism on the part of conservative Polish scholars in the 2nd half of the ninetieth century, most notably of the Stańczyk circle, also had serious ideological and political overtones. In fact, although the chances of the 1863 insurrection are usually very pessimistically assessed by contemporary Polish historians, great authorities on the subject are more circumspect. Stefan Kieniewicz insisted that one could not say that these chances were zero, whereas Jerzy Borejsza described them as ‘volatile’.
In the early 1860s Polish leaders in partitioned Poland had no easy solutions at hand. The tsarist government was willing to introduce some limited reforms in order to stabilize the situation in the Russian Empire, which had been badly shaken by the Crimean War (1853-56). However, the Tsar rejected even proposals to implement the Organic Statute, which had been imposed on the Congress Kingdom after the suppression of the November Insurrection in 1832, not to mention the Constitution adopted at the Vienna Congress in 1815. The aim of his policy was to keep Poles quiet under his strict control, not to reinstitute the Kingdom’s autonomy, let alone reintegrate it with the territories east of the Bug and Niemen Rivers. “No daydreaming, gentlemen” – warned Alexander II when he visited Warsaw in 1856 and added that the happiness of Poles consisted in total fusion with Russia.
At the same time, Polish hopes and expectations were running high, and the revival of legal and illegal political activities was reinforced by patriotic manifestations and “moral revolution” in the form of fraternization and cooperation between different social, ethnic and religious groups (including ethnic Poles and non-Poles, Catholics and other Christians and Jews) in opposition to the tsarist authorities. When Russian troops broke into Warsaw churches with the aim of arresting people participating in services devoted to the freedom of the fatherland, synagogues and protestant churches were closed in solidarity with Catholic ones.
Limited reforms were prepared by Margrave Aleksander Wielopolski, who took the post of chief of the civil administration. They concerned important issues: education, administration, the legal rights of Jews, and conversion of peasants’ corvée (or labor dues) to rents. However, such limited reforms could not satisfy Polish public opinion. Imposing Martial Law, firing upon and killing demonstrators, and ransacking churches by Cossacks had alienated the government from the politically active sections of Polish society. In addition, the banning of the Agricultural Association and City Delegation and the expulsion of Andrzej Zamoyski, generally recognized as a spokesman for Polish society, deprived the Russian authorities of contacts with moderate Polish leaders who opposed military struggle and sought reforms through legal means. These activists, known as “Biali,” or “Whites,” were of course in favor of Poland’s independence, but in the undefined future. In the terms of current, realistic policy they aimed at the autonomy of the Kingdom on the basis of the Vienna Constitution of 1815 and, if possible, its formal links with eastern territories, which had been directly incorporated into the Russian administrative structure.
When the ‘Whites’ were made illegal or marginalized by the Russian authorities and Margrave Wielopolski, the radical conspiracy of “Czerwoni,” or “Reds” got the upper hand, and their influence in Polish society began to rise. Disillusioned with the few reforms allowed by the Tsar and undertaken by Wielopolski, more and more people turned to the “Czerwoni” for leadership. They were linked with some conspiracies within the Russian Army and in Western Europe and called for immediate and radical changes, including the introduction of free-holds for peasants without any further delay.
Wielopolski was an able administrator and a patriot who wanted to introduce some improvements. However, his conservative policies, autocratic behavior and lack of communication with other Polish leaders left him in a political void in Polish society. This gradually made him even more dependent on the Russians and alienated from his countrymen, and ultimately doomed his reforms. He wanted to break the conspiracy, and in order to do so he called on the Russian authorities to reinstitute a forced draft into the Russian army. The lottery was to be replaced by special lists of political active young men mainly from Warsaw, who constituted the social base of the radical conspiracy. In this way, about 14,000 of them were to be eliminated from the Kingdom, and consequently the conspiracy would be eliminated. When the conscription started on 14 January, the “Czerwoni,” faced with the total destruction of their organization, decided to jump into action and declared the outbreak of the insurrection on the 22nd of January 1863. When fighting spread throughout the Congress Kingdom and territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today Lithuania, Belarus, southern Latvia and northern Ukraine) and Polish resistance met with massive suppression, the “Whites” felt they had no choice but to join the uprising, despite their reservations or outright opposition to a premature military struggle which some considered to be bound to end in total disaster. As it happened, Wielopolski, with his supposedly realistic policies, provoked the Uprising that destroyed his reforms and ended his political career, as he was now useless to the Russian government.
The suppression of the insurrection brought about disastrous consequences for national life and personal tragedy for many people. Especially in the Eastern borderlands the tsarist terror caused human suffering and national losses on an enormous scale. It is estimated that about 20,000 insurgents were killed, up to 40,000 people were deported to Siberia and other remote regions of Russia, where some of them revolted in the Baikal insurrection of 1866; and about 10,000 emigrated to the West.
As French historian and philosopher Ernst Renan remarked in his seminal lecture “What is a nation?”,
“A heroic past, great men, glory […], this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. […] One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered. […] indeed, suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, grief is of more value than triumphs, for it imposes duties, and requires a common effort”.
In Polish tradition the January Rising left a lasting heritage of heroism and martyrdom that was important for national mobilization and solidarity. That is very well reflected in literature (e.g. Eliza Orzeszkowa, Stefan Żeromski, Maria Dąbrowska) and art (e.g. Artur Grottger, Jan Matejko, Maksymilian Gierymski, Stanisław Witkiewicz, Jacek Malczewski), even though the 1863 uprising did not have such a powerful impact on Polish culture as the November Insurrection and its aftermath had.
The extended underground state formed in 1863, with its efficient agencies (administration, tax collection, postal services, press, police, courts, diplomacy) was a model for future conspiracies, including the Polish underground during World War II. It supplied the generations that followed with certain patterns of thinking and behavior necessary for prolonged clandestine activities as well as a network of alternative social organizations. Future fighters for Poland’s freedom benefited also from the tradition of partisan warfare, so characteristic of the January Insurrection. Józef Piłsudski, who studied the military history of the uprising and published on the subject, was very much inspired by this example in his struggle for Poland’s independence.
The blood spilled in the insurrection and brutal repressions that followed made it virtually impossible to seek genuine reconciliation with tsarist Russia and denied any measure of legitimacy to the tsarist regime in Polish eyes. Admittedly, there were fears that peasants would become loyal subjects of the Tsar as they benefited from the fact that following the manifesto of the Provisional National Government of 22 January 1863, a year later the tsarist government introduced full ownership of their land. However, in the new socio-economic conditions which emerged after the suppression of the uprising at least in the ethnographic Polish territories they gradually developed Polish national awareness and contributed to the rebuilding of the Polish state and its defense in 1920.
In the early 1860s, before, during and after the uprising, certain forms of national mourning developed, including patriotic celebrations in churches, the way people dressed, and jewelry they wore. These traditions proved to be long-lasting, and some aspects were imitated, consciously or unconsciously, 120 years later during the time of Martial Law. These were important symbolic means of social resistance which helped to build social solidarity vis-a-vis foreign occupant or a domestic Soviet-controlled regime. Such forms of expression were also adopted by supporters abroad. For instance, Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny wore the cross to pay tribute to Polish insurgents in 1863.
This background explains why the tradition of the January Uprising was eagerly embraced by very diverse, and even antagonistic political and ideological movements. This should not come as a surprise, if we remember that Catholic saints as well as heroes of the future socialist movement, hijacked by Communist propaganda, participated in the uprising. Severe criticism offered by conservative intellectuals, important and cogent as it was, soon seemed to be irrelevant when new historical challenges again demanded national mobilization and sacrifice. In such a situation, even the critical approach of the National Democrats towards the January Uprising became a bit more nuanced. Ironically, today it is among opponents of Dmowski’s tradition that one may find numerous critics of the commemoration of the uprising’s 150th anniversary.
In conclusion, it is legitimate to say that in Polish historical memory the January Uprising acquired the position of a bridge linking the Romantic tradition of military struggle for independence in the 19th century with the victorious attempt to rebuild Poland in the first quarter of the 20th and its heroic defense against Soviet and German-Nazi aggressions.
Dr. Lencznarowicz was visiting professor in the Skalny Center in Spring 2013 and taught a course on the history of Poland. He is associate professor of history in the Department of History of International Migration, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland.