Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion

Polish efforts to obtain independence from czarist Russia led to an uprising that ended in defeat and to the execution or exile of thousands of Poles. It also hardened negative Russian attitudes concerning ethnic minorities and led to, among other things, the destruction of entire towns, confiscation of church funds and properties, and the institution of Russian-language-only teaching in schools.

Summary of Event

Poland, partitioned out of existence in 1795, is a case study for the impact of nationalism in nineteenth century Europe. Although Poles lived in Prussia, Austria, and Russia, the latter nation had obtained a lion’s share of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result, every czar faced hostile Polish nationalists, and no matter what their strategy, none was successful in converting a majority of Poles into loyal subjects. Polish Rebellion (1863)
Russia;and Polish Rebellion[Polish Rebellion]
Poland;and Russia[Russia]
[kw]Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion (Jan. 22-Sept., 1863)
[kw]Crushes Polish Rebellion, Russia (Jan. 22-Sept., 1863)
[kw]Polish Rebellion, Russia Crushes (Jan. 22-Sept., 1863)
[kw]Rebellion, Russia Crushes Polish (Jan. 22-Sept., 1863)
Polish Rebellion (1863)
Russia;and Polish Rebellion[Polish Rebellion]
Poland;and Russia[Russia]
[g]Poland;Jan. 22-Sept., 1863: Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion[3630]
[g]Russia;Jan. 22-Sept., 1863: Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion[3630]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 22-Sept., 1863: Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion[3630]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 22-Sept., 1863: Russia Crushes Polish Rebellion[3630]
Alexander II
[p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Poland[Poland]
Zamoyski, Andrzej
Muravyev, Mikhail
Mierosławski, Ludwik
Wielopolski, Aleksander

Rather, the Poles formed underground political movements, led uprisings, or formed anti-Russian emigre armies. Alexander I Alexander I
[p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and Poland[Poland] (r. 1801-1825) attempted to solve this dilemma by sponsoring the Congress Kingdom of Poland. Created by the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1814-1815);and Poland[Poland] in 1815, it was part of the Russian Empire yet had a separate government and a constitution. Russians themselves did not possess the liberties enjoyed in Poland, yet Poles still chafed under czarist rule. When Nicholas I Nicholas I
[p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Poland[Poland] (r. 1825-1855) indicated he might modify Congress Kingdom law, this was sufficient to start a new round of conspiracy, which turned into the November Insurrection and resulted in the Russo-Polish War of 1830-1831.

Defeated in battle, the Poles lost their special status, fled into exile, or, as in the case of rebel leaders, were exiled to Siberia Siberia;exiles in . In 1832, Nicholas issued his “organic statute,” declaring the end of the Congress Kingdom and making Poland simply another province in the Russian Empire. This only exacerbated Polish nationalism, which was encouraged by an active emigre community centered in western Europe. The net result was a restive province, held in line only by a large army of occupation.

Alexander II Alexander II
[p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Poland[Poland] , the “czar liberator,” ascended the throne during the disastrous Crimean War (1853-1856). His priorities were ending that conflict, economic improvement, and limited reform. He freed the serfs in 1861, instituted a Western-style judiciary in 1864, and granted a constitution and diet to Finland Finland in 1869. Despite such efforts, he made little headway in Poland. Indeed, freeing Polish serfs added yet more recruits to anti-Russian parties, as aristocratic landlords resented the loss of their “property.”

Aristocrats were not the only Poles hostile to the czarist regime. Nobles, the bourgeois, and even radicals debated, plotted, and organized for a new conflict with Russia. Ludwik Mierosławski, who fought with Polish rebels in 1830 and 1848, was a good example. He penned numerous books, articles, and pamphlets, all attacking the Russian regime and stressing that it was possible for European enemies of the czar to find allies among his enslaved countrymen. In Mierosławski’s words, Poles were a “sword . . . and whoever shall seize it will be able to pierce Russia through. . . .” Such language was far from mere rhetoric. Polish volunteers had played a prominent role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, while thousands joined Ottoman, British, and French armies during the Crimean War.

Mierosławski reflected the radical spectrum of Polish nationalism. By the 1850’s, such men were dubbed “reds” to distinguish them from conservative nationalists, or “whites,” such as Andrzej Zamoyski Zamoyski, Andrzej , who promoted organic work. Organic work emphasized improved economic and social conditions as a perquisite for independence.

Several factors helped push Red and White Poles into a cooperative stance. First, Russia had lost the Crimean War and seemed weak in relation to great powers such as England, France, and Austria. With emigre writers and politicians bombarding these nations with images of Poland as “the Christ among nations, that had gone to the cross for the sins of the world,” there was hope that Western opinion could support Polish aspirations. Next, Alexander’s reforms were seen as wedges that could open up the chance for more freedoms. Finally, Russian policy makers took a heavy-handed approach to all dissent and helped put Red and White Poland on a common course between 1861 and 1863.

With expectations running high, meetings and demonstrations increased, until, on April 8, 1861, Russian soldiers fired on a crowd in Warsaw’s Castle Square. The resulting death of men, women, and children inflamed public opinion. Trouble spread as far as Lithuania and White Russia. By October, several counties declared a state of emergency, while Russian military authorities pushed for martial law. At the same time, White and Red factions began to cooperate and extend underground ties throughout the nation. By now, even exile leaders, including Mierosławski, were involved, as Poland prepared to boil over.

Czar Alexander II.

(Library of Congress)

Hoping for improved relations with western Europe and fearing harsh measures might make this impossible, Alexander offered limited concessions. He sent his more liberal-minded brother, Grand Duke Constantine Nikolayevich, as the new governor-general and appointed a Pole, Count Aleksander Wielopolski Wielopolski, Aleksander , to head the civil administration. Alexander had hoped this team could sway Whites into a neutral stance, at minimum, but they were unable to do so. By fall, 1862, Whites and Reds supported a national central committee, which formed a shadow government that collected taxes to support armed resistance.

Wielopolski provided the spark that ignited a revolution. An archconservative, he despised the Reds and held that crushing this faction would restore order. To do so, he ordered a conscription Conscription;Russian that focused on urban youths, who were the backbone of the Red movement. This draft, scheduled for January, 1863, would, if successful, disperse the young Reds and control them for twenty years of harsh military service throughout the empire.

The national central committee responded to Wielopolski’s draft Wielopolski, Aleksander with the mass evacuation of young men into the countryside. Soon, more than ten thousand were in hiding and would form a reservoir for armed bands that sprang up to attack Russian forces on January 22, the day the committee called for a general uprising. Promising civic equality, land reform, and cooperation with Russian revolutionaries, this marked the start of Poland’s first modern revolution.

Although czarist troops were far more numerous, they lacked intelligence and were caught off guard by what Polish historians call the January Insurrection. Unlike 1830-1831, when Polish rebels fielded a regular army, this uprising was a partisan campaign, with small bands of Polish guerrillas attempting to ambush Russian detachments and cut lines of communication. Rebel attacks showed spirit, and although they never freed a major town, they did clear the Russians from a significant portion of the countryside. Polish forces never totaled more than 30,000, while Russia mobilized 110,000 soldiers and militarized police. Despite such odds, czarist authority disappeared in much of the countryside during the summer, and fighting spread into Lithuania and White Russia. By spring, Alexander offered an amnesty in exchange for immediate surrender, but he was rebuffed by rebel leaders who expected international assistance.

Under Napoleon III Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Poland[Poland] , France offered the strongest possibility of intervention. The French emperor had a positive reputation among both Whites and Reds, and, as a participant in the Crimean War, he was a former enemy of Russia. Napoleon, however, was unwilling to risk unilateral action, especially after Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck negotiated the Alvensleben Convention Alvensleben Convention (1863) on February 8, 1863, also called the Russo-Prussian Convention, which declared that Russia and Prussia would cooperate to end the insurrection. Faced with ambivalence from Austria and Great Britain, Napoleon was unable to convene an international congress to discuss Polish affairs, and by summer’s end, the threat of foreign intervention ended.

Summer also witnessed intense Russian counterattacks, as General Fedor Berg directed actions in Poland while General Mikhail Muravyev Muravyev, Mikhail moved to crush rebel forces in Lithuania. Related to a Russian conspirator hung for his participation in the 1825 Decemberist Revolt, Muravyev was fond of saying “I’m not one of the Muravyevs who get hanged, I’m one of those who do the hanging.” Muravyev lived up to his boast and was soon dubbed “the hangman of Wilno.” Both generals were granted sweeping rights, which included the recall of Grand Duke Constantine and the authority to rule by martial law.

Berg’s and Muravyev’s actions destroyed partisan bands and led to 400 executions and 9,400 individuals deported to labor camps in Siberia Siberia;labor camps . Thousands more became bitter emigres, spreading through western Europe with tales of Russian cruelty. Although some fighting continued into the spring of 1864, the revolt was effectively crushed by September, 1863.


Russia had triumphed over Polish rebels for a second time. To prevent a third effort, czarist officials promoted an aggressive policy of Russification. Poland was now called Vistula Land, while efforts were made to graft Russian language, law, administration, and religion onto every aspect of Polish life. This move by the Russians reflects not only a particular animus toward Poles but also an empire-wide strategy that was employed from the Baltic to Central Asia.

Russification was a failed policy and supportable only with a heavy military presence. In Poland, such repression fueled new fires of resistance, while the men and women of 1863 were seen as heroic role models by a future generation of rebels, who would ultimately free their country after World War I.

Further Reading

  • Biskupski, Mieczyslaw B. The History of Poland. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Solid general history of Poland, whose political transformations have been at least as great as those of any nation in Europe.
  • Chapman, Tim. The Congress of Vienna: Origins, Processes, and Results. New York: Routledge, 1998. Study of the proceedings at the international peace conference that created Congress Poland, with attention to the long-term consequences of the conference’s decisions.
  • Kukiel, Marian. “Military Aspects of the Polish Insurrection of 1863-1864.” Antemurale 7-8 (1963): 363-396. Succinct coverage of the Polish Rebellion by one of Poland’s great military historians.
  • Kutolowski, John. The West and Poland: Essays on Governmental and Public Responses to the Polish National Movement, 1861-1864. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 2000. A scholarly work that examines the movement toward Polish nationalism in the context of public and governmental viewpoints on Polish freedoms.
  • Rosevare, Irena M. “Wielopolski’s Reforms and Their Failure Before the Uprising of 1863.” Antemurale 15 (1971): 87-214. Examines Polish conservative Aleksander Wielopolski, the controversial figure who supported collaboration with Russia.
  • Wandyc, Piotr S. The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. An excellent overview that places 1863 in the context of Poland’s long struggle for independence.
  • Wieczerzak, Joseph. A Polish Chapter in Civil War America. New York: Twayne, 1967. Examines U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and the Polish rebels.

Congress of Vienna

Decembrist Revolt

First Polish Rebellion

Prussian Revolution of 1848

Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia

Crimean War

Emancipation of Russian Serfs

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