The Death of a Kingdom
After the suppression of the 1830 revolt, Poland, under the iron rule of Russia and the ruthless policy of russification, became as quiet as a grave. The Poles would not simply disappear. They had to be governed by a Russian Tsar. The Congress Kingdom remained. But there was no longer a Governor to succeed poor Constantine. Instead, a Russian named Paskevich was made Prince of Warsaw and appointed Viceroy. The constitution was replaced by a so-called Organic Statute, providing for limited self-government — which was in fact a dead letter. Paskevich was dictator.
It was not Paskevich but Nicholas, however, who fixed the terms of the surrender. A delegation of twelve Polish magnates, headed by Prince Radziwill, were summoned to the Winter Palace to make public apology and express their gratitude to the Emperor for the continued existence of the kingdom. The colors of the defeated and disbanded Polish regiments were hung as trophies from the pillars of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg, side by side with the standards and the eagles taken from Napoleon’s invading army. The ringleaders of the revolt and the senior officers of the Polish army were sent into exile deep into Russia and Siberia, their estates confiscated, together with the estates of over two thousand Poles who had fled the country. The children of the emigres and deportees, together with the orphans of army officers, were sent to Russian military schools and brought up at the Emperor’s expense, as Russians. A systematic campaign was mounted to erase the least traces of Polish nationalism. Whole libraries were confiscated by illiterate police agents. The educational system, local government, all books and periodicals, were russified. Even the Catholic Church had to surrender its lands and revenues, its clergy becoming salaried employees of the state.
It was the Polish campaign and Nicholas’s behavior towards the Poles which more than anything else established the Tsar in Western liberal eyes as a blood-stained tyrant to be hated and feared. But Nicholas was not alone, and what the West never understood is the extraordinary position occupied by Poland in Russian eyes. A historian noted that “….Russia has become strong and powerful only by the fall of Poland, and should the Polish provinces one day escape from her, then she would become again only an Asiatic power. This feeling is the basis of all measures taken….”
But when Tsar Alexander came to the throne he was determined to give the Poles another chance, believing that they would respond eagerly to his liberal approach. Paskevich was succeeded by Prince Michael Gorchakov, a kind and good man who got on well with all those Polish aristocrats who were prepared to make the best of life in the shadow of St. Petersburg. Political prisoners were set free, civil justice took the place of military court-martials. Polish was once more taught and spoken in the schools. But this liberalism soon led to demands for more. Early in 1861 the aristocracy was swept by a new wave of nationalism. Children were taught to hate the Russians in those very schools where Polish was once more allowed. Instead of pressing steadily and reasonably for more far-reaching concessions, and enjoying the concessions already secured, the Poles allowed themselves to indulge in impossible dreams. Their talk grew wilder, with renewed demands for total independence and the return to Poland of all the lands taken by Catherine. It seemed that the only immediate answer was brute force. Tsar Alexander sent out a military strong-man, General Sukhozanet, who instituted a reign of terror, placed the whole country under martial law and inflicted notable brutalities on women and children as well as men.
Alexander, who still hoped to conquer without violence, was revolted by this behavior when it was reported to him. In the late spring of 1862 Sukhozanet was recalled and the Tsar’s brother Constantine was appointed viceroy. He was shot at and wounded. But he resisted his brother’s order to return, he stayed on and appeared in person before an immense and hostile throng, appealing for reason and an end to bloodshed. He restored all the concessions and privileges taken away by Sukhozanet, freed the peasants from their vassalage to the landlords and appointed many Poles to administrative posts. It was all to no avail. Once the fighting started, it took fifteen months to restore order. There were no set battles as there had been in the 1830 revolt, because there was now no regular Polish army to lead the rebellion. It was a matter of atrocious guerrilla fighting. Russian troops with Cossacks and terrifying Mongols on their shaggy ponies, slew without mercy; and the horror was compounded by the Polish peasants who massacred the families of the rebels. The insurgents killed Russian women and children too. And yet there was also heroism on a grand scale…..
Apollo Korzeniowski, the father of the novelist Joseph Conrad, was an extreme and reckless Polish nationalist, a writer, a revolutionary with a devoted following. He would have been at the very head of the 1863 revolt had he not been arrested in 1861 and sent off with his wife and the four-year-old Joseph into exile in the northern forest. His wife was delicate. Consumption set in. The Governor of the area who was responsible for their safekeeping arranged for their transfer, on parole, not under guard, to a better climate in the Ukraine, much nearer home. The Governor of Kiev, under whose jurisdiction they now came, took pity on Evelina Korzeniowski and allowed her to take her son for a long stay on the estate of her brother, one of those influential Poles who, while hating Russian rule, believed that no good could come of violent insurrection. Thus at the very height of the conflict high-ranking Russian officials could behave with remarkable humanity to the family of a rebel leader. And, Alexander himself, after three months of fighting, promised a general amnesty at Easter 1863 on condition that the rebels laid down their arms. The Poles replied that they could put no trust in the honor of a Russian Tsar, and the fighting dragged on for another savage year.
The Poles appealed to Louis Napoleon, the champion of freedom for small nations. Didn’t he go to war with Austria on behalf of Italian nationhood? But he had no intention of embroiling himself in another war with Russia. France and Austria, England too, had missed their chance of crippling Russia for generations to come when they had made peace. The Poles also appealed to England, only to receive a liberal answer with notes of protest and a condemnation of Russian brutality. But nothing was achieved.
This was the final act in the destruction of Poland, and it ended with wholesale slaughter on both sides, with the deportation to Siberia of at least a hundred thousand Poles, and with the very name of Poland wiped off the map. The small kingdom of Poland established at the Congress of Vienna ceased to exist, reduced to the status of a province of Russia, the Vistula Region.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .