Poland’s Forgotten Novembrists: Youth and a Failed Uprising, 1830

By Milosz Cybowski

On 17 November 1830, “the old grumbler,” Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, the most famous of the Polish classicist poets of the late eighteenth century, wrote to Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski about the rumors circulating around Warsaw. “20 immature students and NCOs organized a crazy conspiracy… Will the whole nation suffer from this silliness of several half-wits?” he wondered.[1] As it was soon to turn out, that silliness Niemcewicz mentioned in his letter would result in a national revolution and a Polish-Russian war at the same time that stirrings of revolt emerged in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

There was no independent Poland in 1830. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the once powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which since the fifteenth century had dominated the political landscape of Central and Eastern Europe, fell prey to three enlightened and modernizing absolutist monarchies — Russia, Prussia and Austria. In what was known as the partitions of Poland (1772, 1792 and 1795), these three powers erased the Commonwealth from the maps of Europe. After the Napoleonic Wars and the creation of the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw, the matter of Poland was finally resolved at the Congress of Vienna of 1815. Though the country remained partitioned, on the territories of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw, the Congress created the Kingdom of Poland, ‘united to the Russian empire, to which it shall be irrevocably attached by its constitution’.[2]

Russian rule disappointed many Poles for the next fifteen years. In the early 1820s, young, politically active Poles and students of the University of Vilna formed the first secret organizations and were met with repeated Russian raids, time in prison, and even exile. Policing did not deter dissatisfied Polish youths from organizing further. One backroom complot, organized and led by Piotr Wysocki and Józef Zaliwski, came into being in the Warsaw Military Cadet School in 1828 and it was that group that only two years later initiated the outbreak of what was to become known as the November Uprising. Though there were plans for a revolution to take place in 1829 (during the coronation of Nicholas I for the King of Poland in Warsaw), when Russia was involved in the war with Turkey, they were rejected by ‘the elders of the nation’.[3]

The Revolution broke out on the night of 29 November 1830. The plan, which involved the coordination of various groups of conspirators stationed in different parts of the capital, proved too complicated to succeed. In fact, the march of the revolutionaries through Warsaw towards the palace of Grand Prince Constantine (Nicholas I’s older brother, leader of the Polish Army and de facto governor of the Kingdom of Poland) resembled nothing more than a street riot. Indeed, a few generals stopped by the conspirators were killed when they refused to join and lead the revolution.[4] The schemers were, therefore, ready to rise up, but unable and unwilling to lead. Young and politically inexperienced, they expected others, the elders of the nation, to take over the leadership.

And they did, although the actions of the elders were far from what the conspirators expected. Immediately after 29 November, when Russian forces left the capital, the Administrative Council began negotiations with Grand Prince Constantine. Soon the first envoys were sent to St. Petersburg to negotiate with Nicholas I, while General Józef Chłopicki, who assumed the role of the dictator of the revolution, allowed the Grand Prince and his Russian forces to leave the kingdom of Poland unharmed. For Chłopicki, Poland had no chance of winning a war with Russia and he did everything he could to prevent the outbreak of the hostilities. The mood of the nation was, however, completely different from that expressed by its elders. Polish MPs who gathered in Warsaw in late December 1830 on the first meeting of the Parliament since the outbreak of the revolution quickly recognized the nationalist character of the movement. Although Chłopicki resigned immediately, he was quickly restored to the position of the military leader and his actions were to be overseen by the members of the Provisional Government under the presidency of Prince Czartoryski.

The new leaders of the revolution were, however, unable to stop the revolution. As Czartoryski noted in one of his letters, they “went ahead without looking back”. In late January 1831, after the decision of the dethronement of Nicholas I, the Uprising turned into a Polish-Russian war which lasted until October 1831.

Ultimately, the revolution which started as “a silliness of several half-wits” failed to sustain itself. However, taking into consideration the impact it had on Polish and European history, this harsh assessment presented by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz feels unjustified. Niemcewicz himself became involved in politics of the Uprising when he travelled to London in the second half of 1831 in order to defend the rights of the Polish people and the revolution he had criticized.

Milosz Cybowski is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southampton. His dissertation focuses on Polish-British relations in the first half of the 19th century. You can contact him at mkc2g08@soton.ac.uk.

Title Image: Fighting between Polish insurgents and the Russian cuirassiers on bridge in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park. In the background, an equestrian statue of King John III Sobieski (painting by Wojciech Kossak, 1898).

[1] Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz to Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, 17 November 1830. A. J. Czartoryski, Żywot J. U. Niemcewicza (Berlin-Poznań, 1860), pp. 359-361.

[2] The General Treaty of the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna, 9 June 1815 [https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Final_Act_of_the_Congress_of_Vienna/General_Treaty accessed 9 September 2016]

[3] ‘The elders of the nation’ was the term applied by the conspirators to politically experienced, older generation of Poles. Among them were the great classicist poet Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, father of Polish historiography, Joachim Lelewel, as well as politicians such as Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski and military leaders including General Józef Chłopicki. None of these figures was sympathetic to the idea of the revolution and despite their knowledge of the conspirators’ plans, there was no direct contact between the plotters and ‘the elders’.

[4] For a detailed study of ‘the November night’ see J. Dunn, ‘“The November Evening”: The Warsaw Uprising of November 1830’, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 16.3 (2003), pp. 126–135.

Further reading:

R. F. Leslie, Polish Politics and the Revolution of November 1830 (London, 1956) is the only monograph available in English about the November Uprising. Though important, it is also highly biased and should be treated with the full awareness of Leslie’s critical and Marxist approach to the event.

A brief outline of the November Uprising can be also found in the second volume of The Cambridge History of Poland, while even shorter outlines appear in general histories of Poland by Norman Davies (particularly Heart of Europe. The Past in Poland’s Present), Adam Zamoyski (Poland. A History) or, more recently, Patrice Dabrowski (Poland: The First Thousand Years).

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