Topics of coins

150th Anniversary of the January 1863 Uprising

The years before the outbreak of the January Uprising were a period of repressions by Tsarist Russia, a time of mass resistance of the people as well as patriotic and religious demonstrations. On 27 February 1861, during one of them, fi ve people were killed. Their funerals, and shooting at the crowd gathered at the Castle Square in Warsaw a month later, with a hundred people killed, led to a radicalisation of sentiments, development of conspiracy and declaring a national mourning. In many cities, such as Vilnius, Żytomierz and Kielce, marches of support and solidarity with the capital were organised. Women started wearing mourning clothes. They also wore so-called patriotic jewellery with symbols of an enslaved nation: a crown of thorns, an anchor, a heart, shackles with a chain or a coat of arms with the Polish Eagle, the Lithuanian Pahonia and Ruthenian Archangel Michael. Elements of the national costume, such as confederate caps (four-cornered hats), were also popular. Tsarist authorities used harassment and severe fi nes to make people stop wearing the signs of mourning. Political groups were formed in conspiracy. Representatives of the “Reds” opted for fi ght and social reforms, particularly granting freehold to peasants to solicit their participation in the uprising. The “Whites,” in turn, were against the uprising and willing to settle with the authorities in exchange for limited reforms.

The further acts on the part of Russian authorities: declaring martial law, profanation and closing down of Catholic churches, mass arrests and exiles, resulted in increased tensions. The unexpected conscription of young men suspected of conspiracy resulted in an outbreak of the uprising on the night of 22/23 January 1863.

The underground Provisional National Government was established in Warsaw. Its fi rst decisions concerned granting freehold to peasants, who were promised land for participation in the uprising. The authorities were divided into military and civilian ones. Communication with the country, provisioning and collection of the national tax were organised effectively taking into account the conditions of conspiracy. The Polish secret state was a phenomenon in Europe. It functioned until the Tsarist police destroyed its structures by mass arrests and torture.

A 100,000-strong Russian army was stationed in the Kingdom of Poland. As they were to be opposed by untrained and poorly armed Polish troops, the only plausible solution was guerrilla warfare. Initially, open fi eld combat was avoided. When the Polish army received weapons acquired abroad and volunteers were trained in camps set up in forests, many battles of military, psychological and propaganda importance were fought (e.g. the battles of Oksza, Słupia, Węgrów and Żyrzyn). The fi ghts were most intense in the summer of 1863. In total, during the two years of the uprising about 1,200 battles and skirmishes were fought. Insurrectionist troops consisted of about 200,000 people. Exceptional courage was displayed by women, who ensured communication and took care of the wounded and families of the dead.

The uprising covered the land under the Russian rule following the Partition of Poland. Poles counted on more extensive support from European countries, but it was limited to submitting notes of protest. The uprising was supported by few volunteers from Italy, France, Russia and Germany, among others. The diffi culties faced by Russians trying to eliminate the guerrillas resulted in unprecedented repressions – collective responsibility, public executions, mass confi scations of estate and exiles to Siberia. On 15 August 1864, members of the National Government: Romuald Traugutt, Roman Żuliński, Józef Toczyski, Rafał Krajewski and Jan Jeziorański, were hanged on the slopes of the Warsaw Citadel. During fi ghts, about 30,000 insurrectionists were killed, close to 38,000 were exiled to Siberia, many emigrated. The January Uprising was the last armed bid of the nation fi ghting for independent Poland, before regaining its independence in 1918.

Elżbieta Kamińska
Senior Custodian of the Historical Museum of Warsaw