On January 22, 1863, hundreds of young Poles rallied around the revolutionary banner of the so-called January Uprising against the Russian occupation of Poland, in one of the world’s earliest campaigns of urban guerrilla warfare.
After the Partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, the country ceased to exist as an independent political entity. While an independant Polish state was briefly resurrected by Napoleon in 1807, the downfall of the French Emperor and the ensuing Congress of Vienna solidified the long-term division of the country in 1815, with Russia assuming hegemony over the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland.
The Russian-formed Congress Kingdom initially enjoyed a relatively large amount of internal autonomy and, having its own constitution, was only indirectly subject to imperial control. But these freedoms were gradually taken back over time and, following the crushing of the 1830 November Uprising, Russian-occupied Poland lost its semi-independence and was integrated much more closely into the Russian Empire over the next 30 years.
After Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean War, the government of Tsar Alexander II enacted a series of liberal reforms, including the liberation of the serfs throughout the Empire, which aroused hostility among the Polish nobility, who longed for the semi-autonomous status they had enjoyed a generation earlier, as well as young intellectuals, influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and bolstered by the success of the Italian independence movement.
While both factions supported ending serfdom, the “Whites”, based in Kraków, advocated for some kind of compensation to be made to the landlords and opposed the idea of an armed insurrection against Russia, whereas the “Reds”, concentrated around Warsaw, advocated for an end to serfdom without compensation and saw the overthrow of the Russian yoke as entirely dependent on an unconditional liberation of the peasantry.
After a series of religious and patriotic demonstrations, the first shots were fired in February 1861 when the Russians opened fire at Poles gathered in Warsaw’s Castle Square in the Old Town to commemorate the anniversary of the 1831 Battle of Olszynka Grochowska, which saw a Polish contingent hold strong against a superior Russian force sent to crush the 1830 November Uprising.
Wishing to quell any potential for spontaneous unrest, Tsar Alexander II reluctantly agreed to accept a petition for a change in the system of governance and appointed the pro-Russian arch-conservative Aleksander Wielopolski to form a state council and self-governance for cities and towns. But by then, tensions were already too high, and the changes did little to placate demonstrations.
Over the next two years, more demonstrations were held leading to deaths, deportations to Siberia, and repressive measures being imposed on the populace. This consolidated the resistance groups, and in June 1862, the independence movement formed the underground Central National Committee. By January 1863, plans were set in motion to begin an uprising in the spring.
In an attempt to derail the Polish national movement, Aleksander Wielopolski organized the forced conscription of young Polish activists into the Russian Army, forcing the revolutionnary committee’s hand to call the uprising prematurely. Reorganized into the provisional Polish National Government, it issued a manifesto in which it declared “all sons of Poland free and equal citizens without distinction of creed, condition or rank.”
Organized in one of the world’s earliest campaigns of urban guerrilla warfare, thousands of young Poles rallied around the revolutionary banner of the so-called January Uprising, which quickly spread to Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. By early summer, the ranks of the insurgents had risen to 35,000 in Poland alone, with volunteers arriving from the Austrian and Prussian partitions, from Italy, Hungary, France and from Russia itself.
But much like the revolution of 1830, the January Uprising failed to win foreign backing and to mobilize the peasants, both of which were key to the success of the scattered and poorly-equipped insurgent force, which still paled in comparison to the 100,000 battle-hardened troops of the Russian Army. By the time unity was provided by Polish general Romuald Traugutt in late 1863, the uprising’s chances of success were already severely dented.
Fighting continued intermittently during the winter on the southern edge of the Kingdom and by April 1864, many of the uprising’s commanders, including Traugutt, had been arrested and imprisoned in Warsaw’s Citadel, where they were later executed. The last insurgents were captured by the Russian forces in August 1864.
After finally crushing the insurgency, Russia abolished the Congress Poland altogether and revoked the separate status of the Polish lands, incorporating them directly as the Western Region of the Russian Empire and placing them under the dictatorial rule of Mikhail Muravyov-Vilensky, known as the Hangman of Vilnius. Harsh reprisals followed and large numbers of men and women were sent to the interior of Russia and to the Caucasus, Urals and other remote areas. Altogether, roughly 80,000 Poles were deported to far flung regions of Russia.
The failure of the uprising finally convinced Polish leaders that the insurrections had been premature at best and perhaps fundamentally misguided and counterproductive. During the decades that followed, Poles largely forsook the goal of immediate independence and turned instead to fortifying the nation through the subtler means of education, economic development and modernization, leading to the birth of the so-called “organic work” movement.
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.
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