The national uprising, which lasted about a year and a half in the territories of today’s Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and part of Ukraine, began as a spontaneous protest
of young Poles against the recruitment to the Russian tsar army of the Russian. Among the insurgents there were also Polish Jews.
The uprising led by General Ludwik Mierosławski did not achieve any military victories. Nevertheless, due to the uncompromising attitude of the Polish nation to take its fate into its own hands
and tirelessly strive for a free and independent state, it is considered an important point in the history of Poland.
As part of a joint project of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Foundation on the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the January Uprising,
the monthly “Wszystko co najważniejsze” published a collection of articles on this subject.
President of the New Media Institute, publisher of the monthly journal of opinion and commentary Wszystko co najważniejsze, winner of the Polish Pulitzer prize
250 years of fighting Russian imperialism
For more than 250 years, Central Europe has been struggling with the same problem. 160 years ago, an uprising sparked off in which Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians stood together against the despotism of the Russian tsar and Russian imperialism. Today those nations are uniting to support Ukraine
I live in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, situated 150 km from Brest, the city located on the border with Belarus, which is now under Putin’s boot
In the span of 250 years, the Russians had been walking the Brest-Warsaw route every several dozen years, marching on Warsaw with an imperial punitive expedition, each time with the aim to
destroy Poland “once and for all”; to wipe out the Poles. The scenario was always the same: they arrived in horse carts or, in the 20th century, in tanks to burn, kill and rape. They murdered the
Polish intelligentsia, deporting the rest to Siberia or to the lime pits in Katyn, Starobilsk and Ostashkov. They took away children, machines and whatever they could carry
It is a wonder that Poland managed to recover after each of the dozen or so imperialist forays from the east; that we were able to rebuild our country, demography, education, culture and even our
language after all of that had been deliberately destroyed
The imperial expeditions Russia carried out against my country in the past 250 years usually involved an agreement with Germany. Four times Russians and Germans divided Poland between
themselves. They partitioned my country and ruled its territories for a long one hundred twenty-three years, from 1795 to 1918. In 1939, before World War II broke out, Hitler and Stalin signed a
treaty distributing Poland among themselves yet again. The Russians stopped the advance on Berlin so that the Germans could quietly slaughter the survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and turn my
capital city into dust. Few people know that the entire, now beautiful centre of Warsaw, including the Old Town and the Royal Castle, had to be rebuilt after the war. And the Russians waited for
the Germans to raze it to the ground
Those 150 kilometres separating Warsaw from Putin’s Belarus keep a certain question still vibrating in the air, a question similar to the one asked by my great-grandparents and grandparents
alike: to fight and forge a resistance against imperialism or to surrender, give up one’s land, accept murder and rape and form some sort of collaboration – as between 1945 and 1989 when Poland,
as part of the Soviet bloc, had to surrender its wealth to Soviet Russia – that would allow for a good business in exchange for humiliation? To rebel and raise our heads high, to defend ourselves
and revolt – or give in
Similar questions have been posed over the last 250 years not only by Poles but also by Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Czechs and other nations. 160 years ago, in
January 1863, one of the many uprisings broke out. Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians fought arm-in-arm against Russia, and not for the first time. After a year and a half of fighting
that claimed thousands of lives, the Russians exiled the surviving insurgents to Siberia. Still, the uprising would be followed by others. Such is the fate of our countries
Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute
Frederic Chopin – poet of Polish freedom
One hundred sixty years ago, in September 1863, during the January Uprising, the Russians demolished the Zamoyski Palace in Warsaw, throwing the piano once played by Fryderyk Chopin out of the building’s window. The moment made history.
Fryderyk Chopin’s music aroused patriotic sentiments even before his scores left the printing presses. Even back when he was known only as the son of the proprietor of one of Warsaw’s finest
boarding houses, he would perform for his colleagues in the evenings, improvising on historical themes. Later, the guests at his salon in Paris could listen to the entire poems, only fragments of
which he poured onto paper. The nationalist, patriotic feature of his work was apparent not only to Poles. It was recognised already by Robert Schumann, the first international reviewer of the
young Chopin (it was he who, with regard to Chopin’s Variations pp. 2, wrote ‘Hats off gentlemen, a genius!’). In his review of Chopin’s Piano Concertos, he characterises the artist alluding to the
November Uprising: “So he stood, supplied with the deepest knowledge of his art, aware of his power and hence armed with courage, when in 1830 the mighty voice of the peoples rang out in
the west. Hundreds of young men awaited that moment, but Chopin was the first on the ramparts […]. Fate had prepared something more for the meeting of a new time and new relations: it
distinguished Chopin and made him interesting through his expressive, original Polish nationality. […] if the autocratic monarch [the tsar] knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in
Chopin’s works, in the simple melodies of the mazurkas, he would ban them. Chopin’s compositions are cannons buried in flowers.” The echoes of Kurpiński’s insurrectionist song Litwinka in op.
49 or the ‘heroic’ developments of the polonaise in op. 53 were evident immediately upon listening.
Chopin left ample evidence of his patriotic commitment. The outbreak of the 1830 uprising became a watershed moment in his musical style. When his friends, nigh forcibly, stopped him from
returning home and taking up arms, he wrote that he ‘thunderbolts on the piano’ at nights. He began to introduce dark tones, violent contrasts and numerous chromatic runs that break down the
classical simplicity of the major-minor style. According to his family accounts, it was also then that he wrote the Etude in C Minor, known as the ‘Revolutionary’, the violent Scherzo in B minor and
even a sketch of the Prelude in D Minor, published many years later in the op. 28 cycle referring to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Chopin was well versed in the geopolitical situation, as best evidenced by a letter to Julian Fontana from April 1848, in which he writes, among other things: ‘Our people are gathering in Poznań.
Czartoryski was the first to go there, but God only knows what direction events will take […] horrible things are likely to happen, but when it all ends, there will be a great, big Poland; in a word:
When in September 1863 (14 years after the composer’s death), Russian troops demolished the Zamoyski Palace in Warsaw in retaliation for the January Uprising participants’ attempt to
assassinate the governor Theodor Berg, surely nobody realised that the destruction of the piano would take on a symbolic dimension. Cyprian Kamil Norwid, who met Chopin in Paris as a youth,
immortalised this moment, raising it in his famous poem Chopin’s Piano to the status of a clash of cultures and value systems. It was an important act of including Chopin’s work in the discourse
of the independence struggle, perhaps most clearly demonstrated by Ignacy Jan Paderewski in his famous speech in Lviv in 1910, on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Indeed, the
address opened the path of political activity for the future Polish prime minister: “Chopin embodies everything we have been forbidden: the colourful kontushes, the gold-lined belts, […] the clank
of the nobles’ sabres and the scythes or our peasant’s, the moan of the wounded chest, the rebellion of the shackled spirit, […] the slavery’s pain, the freedom’s mourning, the tyrants’ curse and
the victory’s joyful song.” It is clear why the German occupation authorities banned his songs during World War II.
In 21st-century Poland, Chopin’s music still holds a special place. Millions of Poles follow the International Chopin Piano Competition every five years as Warsaw fills with the composer’s music,
from the philharmonic hall to the taxis. Today we also understand the extraordinary universalism of Chopin’s work, whose genius finds a way into the hearts of people from all over the world and
helps to build international communities of those who admire beauty and truth.
President of the National Remembrance Institute
Polish Relay for Freedom
Poles have always refused to their fate being decided by others. The nineteenth-century January Uprising – a heroic guerrilla war against the Russian occupier –
fits in this attitude
On Thursday evening, August 4, 1864, the churches in Warsaw’s Old Town were bursting at the seams. It wasn’t a holiday, and the heedful tsarist police guessed the reason for such large church
gatherings. Word had spread among the citizens that members of the Polish National Government would be executed the following day by order of a Russian court
The next day, a crowd of several thousand people silently bid farewell to the five condemned men on their way to the gallows. The oldest of them, General Romuald Traugutt, was only 38 years
old. He was the leader of the January Uprising, the great Polish rebellion against the Russian yoke. Although the fighting continued into the autumn, the death of Traugutt and four of his
comrades was the symbolic end of the insurrection. „They stepped upon the scaffold firmly, and underwent their fate with perfect […] composure,’ the New York Times reported shortly after. Even
though America was in the throes of civil war, the newspaper made space for the account of “the last act in the tragedy of the Polish rebellion” twice in those August days.
To live a free man
In the mid-19th century, the West is already over the first phase of the Industrial Revolution – and still developing. In 1859, the construction of the Suez Canal begins, radically shortening the
route from Europe to India and the Far East. A year later, in France, Étienne Lenoir patents his internal combustion engine. In 1861, the telegraph connects the American east and west coasts.
To Poland, absent from the world map, modernity arrives long delayed. Since the end of the 18th century, the country has been divided between three mighty powers: Prussia, Russia and Austria.
Berlin, St Petersburg and, especially, Vienna consider the Polish lands peripheral and treat them with neglect. But this is not the only problem. Poles cannot live a free life. They have to defend
themselves against Germanisation and Russification, but all revolts for independence are brutally suppressed.
“No dreams!” declares the new Russian Tsar Alexander II when he visits Warsaw in 1856. In the Kingdom of Poland – as the initially autonomous part of the Russian partition is called – the
peasants are still waiting for enfranchisement. Patriotic demonstrations in Warsaw end with fire being opened at the defenceless crowds and martial law being introduced. New conscription to the
army, which was to include the conspiratorial activity suspects, is the last straw. The recruits face 15 year-service in the tsarist army, in dire conditions and often thousands of kilometres from
home. Many prefer to fight rather than accept such a fate.
Thus, on January 22, 1863, an uprising breaks out, becoming the longest of the Polish post-partition rebellions. The provisional National Government calls its compatriots “to final battle” for
freedom and independence. At the same time, it proclaims the enfranchisement of peasants and emphasises that all people, “regardless of faith and ancestry”, are “free and equal Citizens of the
country”. It is a big step in the rise of the modern nation.
A lonely fight
All their efforts notwithstanding, the Poles still had to wait more than half a century for their independence. The January Uprising was a clash between Goliath and David. While the Russian army
had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), it was not just against the Turks, who were supported by the modernly equipped armies of the Western states: Britain,
France and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Poles, however, had to fight alone.
“Involvement of France and, possibly, Austria in the war against Russia seemed to hang in the balance for a while…” says acclaimed historian Andrzej Nowak. A large part of Western public
opinion sympathised with the Polish people fighting for freedom against tsarist despotism. But in the government cabinets, a peculiarly regarded Realpolitik prevailed. Military aid for the uprising
had never arrived.
In fact, it was Russia that received support. The Alvensleben Convention, signed on February 8, 1863 in St Petersburg, provided for Russian-Prussian cooperation in suppressing the January
Uprising. In February 1864, Austria declared the state of siege in Galicia – as they called the lands seized from the Republic of Poland – despite being initially indifferent to the insurrection, and
thus joined in the repression of Polish independence activists. It can be fairly said that the three partitioners once again united against the Polish cause.
One can ask why, despite all of this, the insurgents fought for almost two years, in more than a thousand battles and skirmishes, against the superior Russian army. Well, for the same reasons
they picked up arms when others wanted to subjugate them many times before and since – they did it to preserve their honour and personal dignity, and because they refused to be enslaved.
That was the case even back in the 18th century when the weakened Polish Republic tried to break free from Russian supervision, or throughout the entire 19th century when Poland struggled to
return to the world map. And it was so in the 20th century when the country fell victim to two totalitarian regimes: German Nazism and Soviet communism. The long-lasting freedom we enjoy
today had been won only recently by the generation of “Solidarity” – a great social movement born of the wave of strikes in August 1980.
Pre-war independent Poland (1918-1939) displayed great respect to the veterans of the January Uprising – the people who inspired subsequent generations to fight for freedom. Today, one
hundred sixty years later, we owe them the same respect. As Ukraine defends itself against the Russian invasion, it is all too clear that freedom is not a given. We need to cherish it and, when
necessary, stand up and fight for it.
Professor Andrzej NOWAK
Historian, Sovietologist and member of the National Development Council. Lecturer at the Jagiellonian University. Full Professor at the Institute of History of the Polish
Academy of Sciences. Winner of the Lech Kaczyński Award, Chevalier of the Order of the White Eagle.
Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians do not bow their heads.
2023 marks the 160th anniversary of the January Uprising. Despite the passage of years, the echoes of this uprising are still present in public debate. An important, albeit
challenging, question ‘to fight (for one’s country’s freedom) or not to fight?’ is still being asked in Central Europe.
To understand the meaning and significance of the January Uprising, we need to know the historical context of the entire Central European region – today’s territory of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania
Looking back at over three hundred years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, inhabited and co-created by some ten generations of citizens, what comes to the fore is the tradition of
freedom and citizenship shaped by over two hundred national parliament sessions and thousands of regional ones. The deep roots of this tradition meant that people drawing from the spiritual
heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian state, growing up with the stories of their ancestors, could not agree to live with their heads bowed.
In the past, the peoples of today’s Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus elected their own rulers and had personal and property liberties granting protection from state violence. The political life
of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was founded on the nihil novi sine communi consensu rule, meaning ‘nothing new without common consent’. That principle underpins the spirit of liberty
that refuses to accept the external imposition of an unwanted lifestyle. It kindles the desire for independence and the readiness to fight for the most worthwhile cause – dignity and freedom
Parallel to the memory of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth exists the legacy of the tradition of uprisings against the 18th-century oppressors. Its origins can be found in the Dzików
Confederation (1733), the first uprising against enslavement, against the powers that had taken away Poland’s independence. The deed became clear in 1733 when the Russian army entered the
Commonwealth to install a ruler favoured by the Russian tzarina and the Austrian Emperor rather than the one chosen by the Polish citizens. The nation responded with an uprising. Another
armed revolt against an externally imposed authority was led by the Bar Confederation (1768-1772), formed in reaction to the humiliation inflicted on the Republic’s senators by the Russian
ambassador, who kidnapped them from the centre of Warsaw and sent them deep into Russia. This was followed by the Kosciuszko Insurrection (1794), and later the Greater Poland Uprising
(1806) that brought about the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, and finally, the most famous of all, the November Uprising of 1830/1831. Less recognisable insurrections followed
still: the Cracow Uprising (1846) and a number of uprisings in the Spring of Nations (1848).
We can name between five and ten uprisings in the period of 130 years (from 1733 to 1863), depending on which events we want to consider. This means that in a great many families of noble
origin, in quite a few bourgeois families, and even in peasant families, the memory was stored that one must fight for their dignity, even if the fight is seemingly impossible to win; that constant
bowing and never-ending humble stance distort human nature, and that we should make every effort to stand upright.
The start of the insurrection in January 1863 was both a response to forced conscription into the Russian army (pl. branka) and a result of the continuous development of the underground
movement, which grew to count some 20,000 sworn young members. Between the November January Uprisings, in 1832-55, the Russian authorities conscripted 200,000 recruits from the
Kingdom of Poland – a tiny entity with a population of 4-5 million – 175,000 of whom were forever lost to the Russian Empire. The small Vistula land lost 175,000 people because they were
forced to fight for tsarist Russia. The reaction of insurgents expressed opposition to local youths dying on the Caucasus Line or in Kazakhstan for the glory of the Russian emperor. That is why the
rebellion was planned for January 1863.
The outbreak of the January Uprising led to a diplomatic crisis on the European political scene. The rapprochement of Prussia and Russia, in response to the initiation of the uprising, instigated a
reaction of France, Britain and Austria. In May 1863, a war between Russia and the Western powers was a possible scenario. We forget about it when we think of January Uprising as doomed
from the start. In fact, no uprising had ever come so close to causing a European war in which the Polish side had a chance of obtaining external help from the Western countries
Not many people know that Russia has lost Alaska due to the January Uprising. The threat of war with Britain and France multiplied the costs of servicing the Russian debt, which, combined with
the high price of pacifying the January Uprising, led to a de facto bankruptcy of the Russian Treasury. The Minister of Finance begged the Tsar to sell Alaska in order to obtain funds – which in the
end amounted to a measly $7 million – to stave off the threat of bankruptcy. That indirect consequence of the January Uprising is worth recalling.
Another noteworthy issue is the supranational nature of the January Uprising. The symbol of this insurrection – the last joint uprising of the peoples of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – was
the triple coat of arms, incorporating not only the Eagle but also the Vytis and Archangel Michael – the latter being the symbol of Kyiv, Ukraine, where the uprising has also made its mark, even if
somewhat less prominent. The Lithuanian irredentism of 1863 was powerful and involved almost exclusively peasants who rebelled against the same invader that the Polish nobility was fighting
against – Russia. The tsarist empire took away not only their political freedom but also their religious liberty. Earlier, including in the Kościuszko or November Uprisings, the nobility of Lithuanian
origin, often speaking Polish, went shoulder to shoulder with the ‘Crowners’ (pl. koroniarze), that is, ethnic Poles, fighting for freedom against a common enemy. This confirms that until 1863, the
Commonwealth had been unity. In 2023, we can say it still is, in the spiritual sense, as witnessed to by Ukraine.
Given the psychological factor – the spiritual legacy of the Commonwealth and the tradition of fighting for freedom that lived in the consciousness of the January insurgents – as well as the
political climate accompanying the decision to launch the insurrection, the popular claim that the Polish romantic spirit was the antithesis of reason must fail. That belief has its roots in
Enlightenment propaganda directed against the Commonwealth. It intensified when the Polish-Lithuanian state began to recover from its decline after the legislation of the Great Sejm was
prepared and the Constitution of 3 May 1791 was finally passed.
From the moment Stanisław August Poniatowski announced his programme of reforms in 1764, propaganda intensified, financed by the Russian Tsarina Catherine II on the one hand and
Frederick II on the other, as they jointly hired the greatest minds and pens of the French and German Enlightenment, with Voltaire in the lead. The avalanche of texts slandering Poland, created
by these enlightened hosts, perpetuated harmful stereotypes. One of them was the belief that Poles were rainbow-chasing madmen and romantics. In addition to all of that, we must consider the
Prussian propaganda against the Kościuszko Uprising, which presented the rebellion as a romantic gesture ending in tragedy for the Commonwealth. These days, the image of a collapsing
Kościuszko allegedly uttering the words Finis Poloniae! – ‘the end of Poland!’ – was popularized.
We should not, however, forget that uprisings are not only a Polish thing. They are an essential part of the Irish tradition and the identity of Italy, Germany, Spain, Hungary and, indeed, Russia,
whose history can show both victorious and lost revolts. What determines that distinctive Polish quality – while also fuelling suspicions of romanticism – is the fact that the Polish insurgents had
to face not one opponent, as was the case in Ireland or Hungary, but three at once.
The three continental powers – Russia, Prussia and Austria – carved up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1772 and 1795. The significance of the Polish issue lies in the fact that it
affected these three major powers simultaneously, which made it a matter of great importance and made our struggle for independence particularly difficult. Because of that, the resumption of
the struggle seems madness, even though its goal was nothing but rational. The victory was hard to win because of the strength of the opponents striving to ensure that Poland would not win.
But we live in a free country now – and that is the best proof the uprisings were not lost.
Without the persistent reminder that Poland was still there, alive and opposing the verdict of the superpowers, we would not have regained our independence in 1918. Constantly claiming
freedom is part of our identity. Naturally, the geopolitical map changed after the First World War. Poland did not rise alone in 1918, but along with many other smaller and weaker countries, which
in the face of the empires’ interests had seemed doomed to fade away. The existence of Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovakia, and even the Czech Republic is, to some extent, a result of the Poles’
insistence on their right to independence. That is our nation’s precious heritage. And those who worship empires and believe they alone should run the world as the guarantors of order have the
right to condemn the Polish uprisings. That is why we recall them.