1863-1864 - The Polish Revolt

Until after the death of the Emperor Nicholas, which occurred during the Crimean War in 1855, there was no alleviation of the regime of severity and terror in Poland. His successor, Alexander II, showed a disposition towards more lenient treatment of the Poles. In 1861, at the instance of the Marquis Vielopolski, the most eminent Pole of his time, the Emperor made some important concessions to the Poles. A separate Ministry was created in Poland for education and religion, with Vielopolski at its head, and with the intention apparently of reversing or modifying the proscription of the Polish language. Elective local councils were to be appointed, with power to appeal to the central Government.

It appeared from statements made later by Prince Gortchakoff to the British Ambassador at St. Petersburg, Lord Napier, that it was the intention of the Emperor to carry this policy still further, and to give to Poland a certain measure of autonomy, with due consideration for their language and religion. But the Emperor in a public speech at Warsaw warned the Poles against indulging in dreams. His reforms and promises came too late. Already Poland was seething with disaffection and discontent. Secret societies again multiplied in the towns. At Warsaw a secret revolutionary tribunal was established, which issued decrees, and directed the assassination of obnoxious Russians. Another outbreak became imminent.

It was precipitated, in 1863, by the Russian Government, under a law authorizing conscription for the army, making a sudden swoop by night on all the young men whom they suspected of disaffection, 2,000 in number, and sending them as conscripts to the military depots in Siberia and the Caucasus. This had the effect, which was doubtless intended by the old Russian party, of lashing the Poles into frenzy and revolt. There followed a confused and general milte of insurrection throughout the country. It was a hopeless movement from the very first. There was no longer a Polish army to act as a nucleus of armed resistance. To wage war with undisciplined bands against the whole power of Russia was an act of madness.

The only real hope of the insurgents was the intervention of foreign Powers. There was much sympathy for the Polish cause in Western Europe, especially in England and France. In 1863 there were debates on the subject in both Houses of Parliament in England. There was unanimity there that the treatment of the Poles was in direct violation of the Treaty of Vienna. In response to public opinion the Government of Lord Palmerston made a remonstrance to the Russian Government, appealing to the treaty. There ensued a diplomatic correspondence of importance and interest.

The Russian Government, in the first instance, through Prince Gortchakoff, replied in conciliatory terms. He pointed out that the Poles themselves were not relying on the Treaty of Vienna, and were not asking for amelioration of their treatment. They would be satisfied with nothing less than their independence. They had taken up arms to assert it. They also insisted on the incorporation with Poland of Lithuania and other Russian provinces. The Prince claimed that Russia no longer held Poland by virtue of the Treaty of Vienna, but by right of conquest, effected at the time of the rebellion of 1831. All the same, he said, the Russian Government was not unwilling to enter on an exchange of ideas upon the ground, and within the limits, of the Treaty of Vienna.

Lord Russell, the Foreign Minister in England, maintained, in reply, that it was the deliberate intention of the Emperor Alexander I, and the other members of the Congress of Vienna, that Poland should be endowed with a national administration, congenial to the sentiments of the people ; that the Emperor in 1815 granted to Poland a Constitution conformable to these intentions, but that religious liberty and political freedom had since been abrogated by the Russian Government, and had only been partially renewed under the recent changes. He directed attention to the following points :- (1) That a complete amnesty should be accorded to all concerned in the outbreak. (2) That national representation should be given to Poland. (3) That Poles should be appointed to public offices, and that there should be full liberty of conscience. (4) That the Polish language should be used in the administration of law and education. (5) That there should be a regular and legal system of conscription.

Gortchakoff, in reply, maintained that the changes already conceded by the Emperor had gone some way in the direction of these six contentions of the British Government, and that it had been fully intended to carry them further, but that nothing could be done till the insurrection was put down. Lord Russell was not satisfied with these explanations and insisted upon his conditions. The correspon-" dence ended by the Emperor giving his assurance that he was actuated by the most benevolent intentions towards Poland. "To provide for the welfare of his subjects of all races and of every religious conviction is an obligation which he has accepted before God, his conscience, and his people."

As neither England nor France was prepared to support the Polish cause by war, nothing more came of this diplomatic remonstrance. Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons asserted that the British Government was entitled to take action on the breach of the Treaty of Vienna, but was tinder no positive obligation to do so. This view of the case was accepted by the House of Commons. There was no desire for active intervention.

Meanwhile the Russian army was engaged in putting down the insurgents. It was no easy task, as there was no central organized I force opposed to them, which they could deal with and crush. There were sporadic outbreaks all over the country. The Prussians did their best to assist the Russians. Bismarck, who was then at the head of affairs in Prussia, entered into a convention with the Emperor, under which his Government agreed to assist in putting down the rebellion in Poland, by forming cordons of troops on the frontier to prevent the insurgents finding refuge in Prussian Poland, and by authorizing the Russian troops to pursue them on Prussian territory, if they crossed the border.

This co-operation in putting down the Polish revolt led to a good understanding with Russia, and enabled Bismarck to count with certainty ori her friendly neutrality in his wars of 1866 and 1870 against Austria and France. No quarter was given to the insurgents by the Russians, under General Berg. Those taken in arms were hanged. The Poles retorted by secret assassinations, and many obnoxious Russians were removed in this way.

After many months the revolt came to an end, in May 1864. The regime of administrative severity was then renewed. The concessions made in 1861 were withdrawn. The expectations held out by Prince Gortchakoff, in his correspondence with Lord Russell in 1863, were not carried out. Every effort was again renewed to stamp out the Polish nationality, and to extinguish its language and religion. Roman Catholicism was vigorously attacked. The Church was deprived of its revenues. Three-fourths of the monasteries were suppressed. The village priests became the salaried officers of the State. The land belonging to the Church was put up for sale, and only Russians were allowed to bid for it.

A great scheme of agrarian reforms for Poland was then adopted by the Russian Government, in the hope of destroying its aristocratic classes, and of raising up the oppressed peasantry to be the pillars of support to Russia. It gave to the Polish cultivators the fee-simple of the land, which, since the abolition of serfdom, they had held as tenants at will. Indemnities, provided for loyal owners only, were charged on the revenues of Poland. A purposely undefined and uncertain right of access was given to the peasants to the forests and waste lands of the landowners.

In 1866, Poland was divided into four departments, which were put under the Minister of the Interior of Russia. In 1869 the Russian language only was prescribed for all official transactions. The use of the Polish language was forbidden in the churches and schools, in newspapers, over shop doors, and even in private conversation. In 1874 the viceroyalty was abolished, and in 1876 the Russian judicial system was introduced. Russification, therefore, was forced upon the country as far as the law and the administration could effect.

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