On November 29, 1830, a group of conspirators led by a young cadet from the Warsaw officers’ school, Piotr Wysocki, took up arms against the Russian occupation of Poland and stormed the Warsaw Arsenal, triggering the November Uprising.
After the Partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, Poland ceased to exist as an independent political entity. While an independant Polish state was briefly resurrected in 1807, when Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw, the downfall of the French Emperor and the ensuing Congress of Vienna solidified the long-term division of the country in 1815.
At the Congress, the Habsburg Empire annexed territories in the South, Prussia took control over the semi-autonomous Grand Duchy of Poznań in the West, and Russia assumed hegemony over the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland, a semi-autonomous state established in the territory that formed the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw.
Initially, the Russian-formed Congress Kingdom enjoyed a relatively large amount of internal autonomy and, having its own constitution, was only indirectly subject to imperial control. Russian Emperor, and de facto King of Poland, Tsar Alexander I even granted permission to the Polish authorities for the establishment of a Royal University in Warsaw.
But over time, the freedoms granted to the Kingdom were gradually taken back and the constitution was progressively ignored by Russian authorities, embodied by the Viceroy, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, Tsar Alexander’s younger brother and the heir presumptive to the Russian throne, whose efforts to suppress the Polish patriotic movements led to popular discontent among his subjects.
In fact, while Alexander’s policies were liberal by the standards of Restoration Europe, key deficiencies in Poland’s autonomy, like the lack of control over the budget, military and trade left Polish liberals hungry for more. But when members of the Polish parliament (Sejm), led by the brothers Bonawentura and Wincenty Niemojowski, started pressing for reforms, Alexander suspended the parliament for five years and tasked Konstantin with maintaining order by any means necessary.
When Tsar Alexander died in December 1825, Konstantin, who had no intention of ruling the Empire and wished to stay in Warsaw, refused to come to Saint Peterburg and blessed their brother Nicholas onto the throne. After an unprecedented dynastic crisis that placed the whole House of Romanov at peril, Nicholas I became the undisputed sovereign and began ruling over the Empire in an authoritarian reactionary manner.
After formally crowning himself King of Poland in Warsaw in 1829, Nicholas immediately began limiting the liberties that existed under the constitutional monarchy in Congress Poland. He replaced Poles with Russians on important posts in local administration and introduced censorship, while the Imperial Secret Police commanded by Nikolay Nikolayevich Novosiltsev started infiltrating and persecuting Polish clandestine organizations. Grand Duke Konstantin’s command over the Polish Army also led to serious conflicts within the officer corps.
The November Uprising
These frictions led to various conspiracies against Russian overlordship throughout the country, most notably within the army, and on November 29, 1830, a group of conspirators led by a young cadet from the Warsaw officers’ school, Piotr Wysocki, took arms from their garrison and attacked the Belweder Palace, the main seat of the Grand Duke. The rebels managed to enter the Belweder, but only to find that Konstantin had escaped in the night, disguised in women’s clothing.
Taken by surprise by the rapid unfolding of events, the local Polish government assembled immediately to take control and to decide on a course of action. A revolutionary government was formed and on December 13, the Sejm pronounced the National Uprising against Russia. But when Prince Drucki-Lubecki was sent to Saint Petersburg to negotiate, the Tsar demanded the complete and unconditional surrender of Poland and the envoy returned to Warsaw with no concessions.
On January 25, 1831, the Sejm passed the Act of Dethronization of Nicholas I, which ended the Polish-Russian personal union and was equivalent to a declaration of war on Russia. The proclamation declared that “the Polish nation is an independent people and has a right to offer the Polish crown to him whom it may consider worthy, from whom it might with certainty expect faith to his oath and wholehearted respect to the sworn guarantees of civic freedom.”
On February 4, a 115,000 strong Russian army under Field Marshal Hans Karl von Diebitsch crossed the Polish borders and advanced towards Warsaw. And on February 25, a Polish contingent of approximately 40,000 held strong against a superior Russian force of 60,000 at the Battle of Olszynka Grochowska, forcing Diebitsch to retreat and saving Warsaw. General Jan Skrzynecki, who had been chosen to lead the November Uprising as Dictator, now endeavored to end the war by negotiations, while hoping for a foreign intervention.
Sympathetic echoes of the Polish aspirations had indeed reverberated throughout Europe. Enthusiastic meetings had been held in Paris under Lafayette’s chairmanship, and money for the Polish cause was collected in the United States. But the governments of France and Britain did not share the feelings of some of their people. Austria and Prussia also adopted a position of benevolent neutrality towards Russia, closing their Polish frontiers and preventing the transportation of munitions of war or supplies of any kind.
The triumph of “Mother Russia”
Despite large segments of the peoples of Lithuania, Belarus, and the Right-bank Ukraine joining the November Uprising and achieving local successes, the war with Russia began to take on a somber and disquieting aspect. After almost a year of heavy fighting, constant warfare and bloody battles considerably depleted the Polish forces. Meanwhile, new Russian forces under Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich arrived in Poland and started moving to encircle Warsaw.
Despite a desperate defense by General Józef Sowiński, Warsaw’s suburb of Wola fell to Paskevich’s forces on September 6 and the Polish army and government withdrew to the Modlin fortress on the Vistula. But it soon became evident that the war could be carried on no longer. Warsaw capitulated and Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich entered the city leading his Imperial Guard. The remainder of the Polish army crossed the Prussian frontier and laid down their arms.
The fall of Warsaw meant the end of the November Uprising. Nicholas abrogated the Polish constitution, reduced Poland to the status of a mere province in the Russian Empire, Privislinsky Krai, and embarked on a policy of repression towards Catholics. In the 1840s, the Tsar even reduced Polish nobles to commoner status.
To commemorate the crushing of the November Uprising, Alexander Pushkin wrote “On the Taking of Warsaw”, hailing the capitulation of Poland’s capital as the “final triumph” of Mother Russia.
Poland would not regain full independence until the end of World War I, when the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the collapse of the Russian Empire allowed for the resurrection of Polish national sovereignty… and the birth of the Republic of Poland.
Konstantin died of cholera in June 1831. He did not live to see the suppression of the revolution.
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