1863 Uprising

[by Ken Lin]

The lead-up to the Polish uprising of 1863 had been in the making for several years, and some of the underlying tensions that led to rebellion actually dated back several decades. The 1863 uprising was one of a series of national revolutions against the Russian Empire by the Poles, and its failure and the brutal suppression that followed led to the complete Russification of Poland for decades afterwards.

From 1831 to 1856 central Poland had been under military rule, designated by Russia as “Congress Poland”. An 1846 insurrection failed mainly because of the lack of support from the peasantry. Under Tsar Nicholas I, the predecessor of Alexander II, Congress Poland had been subjected to particularly repressive rule, with the gentry barred from holding most government posts, members of the intelligentsia routinely imprisoned for participating in opposition groups, and thousands forcibly conscripted into the imperial military (Kieniewicz, 131-2).

All of these measures were justified by Nicholas as necessary to quell rebellious elements within Polish society and maintain the paternal notion of the Russian Empire. The Polish nation had displayed a number of overt acts of defiance against the Russian Empire, through a previous revolution in 1830 and the deployment of military units against Russia during the Crimean War (Evtuhov et al., 424).

The accession of Alexander II as tsar briefly raised hopes that Poland might regain some degree of independence. Alexander granted a number of minor political concessions to the Poles, including granting amnesty for exiled Poles in Siberia and the reopening of the Polish Medical Academy (Evtuhov et al., 424). By 1859, barely one hundred Russians remained in Warsaw as government officials, and the occupying military forces consisted almost entirely of Poles (Kieniewicz, 132).

Yet the forces in favor of rebellion were gaining momentum among the Poles. Reform movements in Russia began to spread to Poland in 1861. Secret societies among the gentry and the intelligentsia began to organize themselves, spurred by the success of the unification movement in Italy and the abolition of serfdom in Russia (Kieniewicz, 133). A cabal of Polish nobles formed an organization, innocuously named the Agricultural Society, in the late 1850s to resist Russian rule and numbered over 3,500 members before authorities shut it down later on in 1861 (Evtuhov et al., 424).

The first signs that insurrection was imminent occurred nearly two years prior to the outbreak of hostilities. In late February 1861, Polish insurrectionists provoked a confrontation with soldiers in Warsaw that erupted into chaos and left several Poles dead. The Agricultural Society submitted a list of demands to the tsar, while in Poland members of all classes of society, from the landlords to the peasants, began to display their patriotism and national pride through resignation of their government posts and refusal to work. Alexander II responded by exacting some concessions to the Poles, through the appointment of new civil administrators as well as the holding of new elections, while simultaneously using military force against protestors in Castle Square in Warsaw (Kieniewicz, 133-5).

The Polish gentry were the key opponents of Alexander II’s reforms, leading the tsar to appoint Alexander Wielopolski (1803-1877), one of the more distinguished Polish statesmen, as a chief administrator in 1861. Wielopolski began an agenda of limiting Polish autonomy through an 1832 statute, co-opting Polish civil servants into the imperial bureaucracy, and action on the question of Jewish emancipation (Evtuhov et al., 424).

Wielopolski, hampered by unyielding Russian and Polish sides, was unsuccessful in negotiating a lasting peace. Polish gentry remained sympathetic to national interests despite returning to their posts, Catholic priests and officials were granted concessions but largely remained on the side of Poland, and the peasantry’s demands for the commutation of labor into rent was approved, but with many strings attached. Even as demonstrations rocked the streets of major Polish cities, underground groups were forming to carry on the activist movement further. These groups, with its members numbering only in the several thousands, were composed primarily of students, artisans, and public servants under the umbrella of the National Central Committee (KCN). By the time the rebellion began, the revolutionary forces numbered over 20,000. In Warsaw alone, half the workers and artisans claimed affiliation to an organization (Kieniewicz, 135-6).

The budding insurrectionist movement, like any revolutionary force, was not a homogeneous entity. Popular support was split between two groups: the left-wing “Reds” who drew the vast majority of their support from the countryside and working-class citizens and who favored outright rebellion against imperial rule, and the right-wing “Whites” who favored reform in conjunction with their Russian overseers. The Whites consisted mainly of landed gentry, upper classes and students, but their moderate approach was rebuffed by both Russians and the Reds. Many of its members came from the Agricultural Society, and they were more successful than the Reds at garnering support outside Congress Poland (Kieniewicz, 138).

The event that ignited the fire of war occurred in late January 1863, when thousands of Poles identified as participants in revolutionary groups were forcibly conscripted under the orders of Wielopolski. On January 22, 1863, the KCN made a call for its members to take up arms and rally against Russian forces. This promptly led to a further split among the Whites, with the intelligentsia supporting the insurrection and the gentry opposing it. The entirety of the nation was soon drawn into the war, with the activities of partisans in all regions and the peasants obliged to participate (Kieniewicz, 139-40).

Partisan forces were heavily disorganized and lacking in morale. Many of those who were not killed in their first engagement ended up returning home after a few weeks. Officially-ordained leaders only numbered in the hundreds, and often held their roles for a few months at a time. In short, the partisan forces were constantly forming and disbanding. The majority of these volunteers hailed from the szlachta, the Polish nobility, although intelligentsia and peasants were also represented in large numbers (Kieniewicz, 140-1).

Warfare was particularly violent. Without a national standing army, the Poles were forced to rely on guerilla warfare tactics. The Russian forces were under orders to take no prisoners and execute anyone who surrendered. The partisans engaged in assassinations of Russian officials and military leaders, as well as fellow Poles who collaborated with the Russians (GlobalSecurity.org).

The unconventional nature of the uprising often put Polish citizens caught in the fighting in particularly difficult circumstances. Both Polish and Russian authorities demanded locals to turn over information about the enemy to them, often using threats of reprisal or harm against those that failed to do so. It was sometimes hard to discern which side was “winning” – a good example of this was a common plaque found on the town halls of many localities, with one side depicting the white Polish eagle and the other side with the black double-headed Russian eagle, easily turned over depending on which side happened to be in town (Kieniewicz, 145).

The Russian General Berg noted that the partisans enjoyed a great deal of popular support in the countryside and villages, where they would often find food and shelter from the locals. A sort of honor culture led to Russian sympathizers being denounced and executed by their fellow Poles. Though Berg had 150,000 troops at his disposal, he lamented that they were widely dispersed to cover 5 million Poles over 2,300 square miles, along with borders of 1,300 miles. At one point Berg ran out of provisions for his troops when all of the local suppliers withdrew their contracts under threats from insurrectionist elements (Kieniewicz, 143-6).

The British and the French attempted to curtail fighting by protesting the Russian military action, as well as their governance of Poland, as a violation of the Treaty of Vienna several decades prior. It was justified by Alexander II on the grounds that, “To provide for the welfare of his subjects of all races and of every religious conviction is an obligation which he has accepted before God, his conscience, and his people.” Britain and France were not ready to intervene, and so the Polish insurrectionists received no military assistance. Otto von Bismarck of Prussia entered into an agreement with Russia, in which Prussian troops would strictly enforce the borders with Poland and deny refuge to any Polish partisans attempting to cross the border. If any did, Russian forces were authorized to cross the border in pursuit (GlobalSecurity.org).

Following thousands of military skirmishes and battles over nearly a year and half, the uprising was crushed in May 1864 when the military commander of the insurrectionists, Romuald Traugutt (1825-64), was apprehended along with his associates and executed. In the aftermath of the uprising, Alexander II swiftly moved to quash any future thoughts of self-governance by the Polish state. Thereafter referred to as the “Vistula lands”, local governing authorities and education systems were shut down and replaced with Russian-led ones (Evtuhov et al., 424-5).

Russia took a step further by criminalizing displays of Polish culture and the Polish language, while Catholic churches were shut down and their land given to Russians. The revolt also led Russia to enact agrarian reforms as a means of removing the authority of the landed gentry and empowering peasants to stake claims to land, as well as to introduce basic capitalist measures. By 1866 Poland was divided into four sections under the control of the Russian Interior Minister, and the Russian language was made the official language in 1869. Finally, in 1876 the Russian judicial system was introduced to Poland (GlobalSecurity.org).

The uprising also split the Russian intelligentsia between one side which viewed the Poles as brethren and sought to extend emancipation to the Russian holdings, and the other side which stood firmly in support of Russian superiority and dominance over its provinces. Overall, Russian nationalism was the dominant attitude among the citizens of Russia throughout the Polish uprising (Evtuhov et al, 425).


Works cited

  • Catherine Evtuhov, David Goldfrank, Lindsey Hughes and Richard Stites, A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
  • GlobalSecurity.org. “1863-1864 – The Polish Revolt.” Last modified November 7, 2011. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/polish-revolt-1863.htm.
  • Kieniewicz, Stefan. “Polish Society and the Insurrection of 1863.” Past & Present 37 (July 1967): 130-148.