Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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Filed under democracy, France, migration, nationalism, Poland, religion, Russia, U.S.

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