The January Rising
January 1863 saw the outbreak in the Russian partition of an uprising which was more extensive in both its territorial and social scope, lasted longer and was more tragic in its results than any previous Polish insurrection. For over two years small, dispersed and ill-armed insurgent unites waged an unequal struggle against regular unites of the tsarist army. The uprising, directed by a National Government, was fought for the political survival of the nation and reform of the social system. For the revolutionary democrats belonging to what was known as the Red Camp, the social aim of the rising was to give peasants ownership of the land they farmed without compensation to the landlords. The programme of the White Camp on the other hand envisaged only changing serf-labour for a rental, or alternatively granting ownership of land to the peasants on payment of compensation to the landlords.
Democratic forces all over Europe joined in the Polish struggle for liberty. Russian revolutionaries gave active support to the uprising. Mass Demonstrations in support of a democratic, independent Poland were organized by the people in France and England. Volunteers from England, France, Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, and Serbia hastened to fight in the uprising. Political action in support of the rising was organized in western Europe by Marx and Engels. Poles flocked from Great Poland, Galicia, Mazuria, Warmia and Silesia to join in the fighting.
The outbreak of the January Rising was preceded by great patriotic demonstrations in Warsaw and by a widespread peasant movement against serf-labour and the attempts of the gentry to deprive the peasants of their right to use forest and pastures owned by landlords. Demonstrations were started in 1860 by students of the Medical Academy and the Art College in Warsaw, and were joined by schoolchildren and the townsfolk. The first casualties occurred during a demonstration in Warsaw in February 1861. Another demonstration by unarmed people in April that year ended in a massacre, when over a hundred civilians were killed in Castle Square.
Announcement by the Russian authorities that conscription for the Russian army would shortly begin was the direct cause of the outbreak of the uprising. By conscripting thousands of young recruits into the Russian army, Count Wielopolski, head of the civic administration in the Congress Kingdom, wanted to deprive the revolutionary movement of its leaders and most active members, or else to provoke the as yet unprepared revolutionaries to take premature action. In this situation, the Central Committee of the Reds instructed young people threatened with conscription to seek refuge in the forests near Warsaw and on January 22, 1863 called the “people of Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia” to arms. The Central Committee of the Reds proclaimed itself the national government. Together with the Manifesto the insurrectionist government issued decrees abolishing serf-labour and granting peasants ownership of the land that they held.
Jaroslaw Dabrowski (1836-71) was one of the most outstanding leaders among the revolutionary democrats. An officer in the Russian army, in 1862 he directed preparations for the uprising as the underground leader of Warsaw, in collaboration with Russian revolutionaries. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Reds. His arrest in August 1862 prevented him from taking part in the uprising. On his way to Siberia, he escaped from the convoy in Moscow. He made his way to France where he played a prominent role in the Paris Commune of 1871, and was killed on the barricades fighting for “your freedom and ours”.
The Central Committee, which disposed of only 20,000 ill-armed members of the organization, did not succeed in carrying out the original plan of capturing 180 Russian garrisons with 100,000 men. During the first few days operations were entirely spontaneous and lacked organization. There was no liaison among the different units. Ludwik Mieroslaw-ski, designate commander-in-chief and dictator of the uprising, arrived from abroad, but after losing the first two battles left the country again. General Marian Langiewicz, professional officer, commanded one of the strongest detachments. On February 24, he fought a heavy engagement of Malogoszcz which ended inconclusively, but the superiority of well-armed regular tsarist troops over the numerically stronger Polish detachment was clearly apparent.
One of the outstanding officers of the Uprising was Jozef Hauke-Bosak, who until 1862 was a colonel in the Russian army. Promoted to the rank of general by the National Government in September 1863, he commanded the II Corps between January and mid-April 1864. After the Uprising he went to France, and was killed fighting during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.
Throughout the uprising, Polish troops never once succeeded in capturing a town important enough for the government to make its official residence. It remained clandestine throughout, anonymous to the rank-and-file of the troops and nation alike; however, it enjoyed considerable authority. A struggle for power broke out among leaders of the uprising, as to who was to have the right to use the official seal of the National Government, but luckily no misuse occurred. Apart from the government which consisted of five members, the real organ of central authority was the “Warsaw City Organization”.
The decree of the National Government granting ownership of the land they farmed to the peasants, abolishing all obligations of the peasants towards landlords, and confirming their right to benefit from forests and pastures owned by the landlords, was not always introduced in practice. But the tsar’s government, which also issued a decree granting land to the peasants on March, 18, 1864, in order to win their support, could not alter the reforms introduced by the National Government, which went much further than the reforms introduced in Russia proper.
Romauld Traugutt (1825-64), a professional officer in the Russian army, retired in 1862 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During the uprising he commanded an insurgent unit in Polesie and was promoted to the rank of general in August in 1863. On October 17 that year, the National Government appointed him Dictator. In under three months he drew up plans for the reorganization of insurrectionist forces. He issued a decree introducing the death penalty for forcing peasant to do serf-labour and severe fines for exacting a land rent from them. He undertook to re-establish the administrative apparatus wrecked by the Russian authorities. Traugutt was taken prisoner on April 10, 1864 when preparing the spring campaign. His closest collaborators, heads of government departments, were arrested with him.
Romauld Traugutt, Rafal Krajewski, Roman Zulinski, Jozef Toczyski and Jan Jezioranski gave their lives as the last leaders of the January Insurrection. They were executed in the Warsaw Citadel on August 5, 1864.
The heroic priest, Father Stanislaw Brzoska, commander of the last insurgent detachment, was captured by the tsarist authorities in the spring of 1865 and executed on May 23 that year.
Although it ended in disaster, the positive significance of the January Insurrection was enormous. The abolition of serfdom and the land rent, the granting of ownership of the land they farmed to the peasants, removed the last remaining barriers between estates, which in consequence led to the establishment of a new class society. Division into classes prompted the development of class awareness among the broad masses of peasants and workers. Until the final abolition of feudalism, revolutionary tension persisted among a significant section of the peasants in this new society, particularly among landless peasants, economically dependent on the landlords in whose hands the agrarian reform had left more than half the total land under cultivation. The tremendous patriotic tension which insurrectionist operations aroused throughout the Russian partition prevented any weakening of the national spirit, prompted and developed national awareness that in the next two generations was to prove an effective defence against Russification and Germanization right up to the restoration of Polish independence.
The cause of Polish independence aroused particularly strong interest and moral support in the emergent international workers’ movement. In December 1863 a letter from the British to the French workers contained the following passage: “The brotherhood of all peoples is necessary for the workers’ cause. We agree with you that our first joint effort should be in defence of Polish freedom.”
After the defeat of the Uprising, a French political activist said at the International Workingmen’s Congress in London: “Once again Poland has been stifled in the blood of her children, while we remained powerless observers. The oppression of just one nation endangers the freedom of others. For the sake of his own dignity every free human being and every many who desires to be free, is under an obligation to bring aid to his oppressed brothers.”
This Congress established the First International Workingmen’s Association whose General Council included several Poles.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .