“On exile” – a painting by Witold Pruszkowski (1846-1896) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Russian terror against the Poles reflects Moscow’s fear of freedom which has been Poland’s organizing principle in the Eastern Borderlands of Western Civilization.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Siberia: From Uprisings to Independence (1768-1921)

Over a century and a half lapsed between the Polish demise and resurrection. In over 150 years of direct Russian rule over the lands of the destroyed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth four major uprisings, a revolution, and two major wars of liberation took place along with a plethora of conspiracies. In addition to many dead heroes, each event produced a crop of martyrs who suffered deportation to Siberia. Some were sentenced to hard labor in mines or timber enterprises; others were forcibly impressed in the Russian military; and still others were abandoned to settle the wilderness with no permission to return. Most exiles experienced a combination of all those punishments. A lucky few were pardoned and returned home; even fewer managed to escape.

Taken during the tumultuous fighting of the anachronistically reactionary Bar Confederacy (1768-1772), the Polish prisoners were chained, routinely deceived about their imminent release, and then transferred between various Russian prisons and places of forced settlement. Some died on the way of disease, starvation, and maltreatment. Everywhere they met the Polish victims of the earlier deportations. The Russians armed a sizable contingent of the Polish Confederates and threw them into battle against the rebels of Yemelian Pugachov (1773-1774). Meanwhile, other Confederates were incorporated into the Russian imperial units in Kazan and Tobolsk. Those who refused to swear an oath of fidelity to the Tsar were beaten, starved, and held in solitary confinement. Some rebelled, but the authorities executed the ring-leaders and parceled out the rest between the Russian conscripts. Some Poles in Omsk disarmed the Russian Cossacks and escaped to join the Kirgiz Tartars, where, alas, they were greeted with hostility and forced to flee back under the Muscovite whip. Ultimately, only a few Confederates were amnestied and returned to Poland. A few fled successfully, however. Maurycy August Count Beniowski’s case was the most spectacular anabasis for it involved staging a rebellion in Kamchatka, seizing a Russian ship, and sailing through the ports of China and Japan to Madagascar, where Beniowski established a short-lived kingdom and led a rebellion of the natives against the French.

But Beniowski was a madly romantic exception. The lot of most of the exiles was grim. After the Polish defeat in the War for the Defense of the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, all Polish military units which found themselves in the Russian partition were disarmed and dissolved. Their soldiers were forcibly drafted into the Muscovite army and posted away from the lands of the Commonwealth. The contumacious among them were deported to remote garrisons in Siberia. A similar fate befell Polish POWs following the failed Kościuszko Insurrection of 1794. However, to soften them up, many were first kept in make-shift encampments, half naked and starving in Russia’s rainy autumn. The Muscovites force-marched two thousand barefoot Polish prisoners in rags to Smolensk. Some died on the way. Ironically, many of these and other Polish soldiers were tried for “disloyalty to the Tsar” and dispatched as far away as Kamchatka. Others were put on trail by a secret commission. The Muscovite judges considered them rather curiously “traitors to the [Russian] Fatherland” or accused them of “supporting the revolution in France.” Proof? Some of the Polish nobles knew French, and practically all of them were fluent in Latin. The judges insisted on confession and self-incrimination. The captives were forced to submit lengthy written statements of their involvement in “crimes” against Russia, thus eerily presaging the Polish ordeal during the Soviet times. All of the captives had their estates confiscated by the Russian state. Amazingly, however, almost all the captives of the Insurrection were pardoned in 1796, when a new Tsar ascended the throne and reversed the policies of his predecessor.

However, the practice of administrative exile continued and individual Polish victims started arriving at the Manchurian border once again as early as 1797. During the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the invasion of Russia in 1812, a minimum of nine hundred Polish POWs (and the estimate seems very low) were shipped off to Siberia. After Napoleon’s defeat, his Polish troops of the Duchy of Warsaw were pressed into the Russian military and parceled out among various units. However, as a result of the negotiations during the Congress of Vienna, leading to the establishment of the Kingdom of Poland under the Tsar’s rule, these troops were amnestied and brought back home. Yet, there was no pardon for the POWs captured during the Russian campaign of 1812. They remained in the Siberian exile forever.

Soon more Polish company headed that way. Between 1815 and 1830, the Russian secret police discovered a number of conspiracies and dozens of rebellious students, politicians, and soldiers were deported. The repression was harsher in the so-called Taken Lands (Ziemie Zabrane) of the Eastern Borderlands than in the rump Kingdom of Poland, where the Tsar presided incongruously as a constitutional monarch. A few lucky exiles, including Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, enjoyed the ambiance of the Crimea. On the other side of the scale were the likes of Major Walerian Łukasiński who was destined literarily to spend forty-six years in chains in a damp dungeon at the Shlisselburg fortress. He was arrested in 1822 and died in captivity in 1868, having had enjoyed the privilege of an occasional walk in the prison courtyard only from 1862. The Tsar personally refused to amnesty him in 1856, when even the Russian Decembrist rebels were freed.5 Other exiles suffered the mild punishment of having to live in St. Petersburg or, more often, the harshness of the existence in the remoteness of Siberia.

A virtual flood of deportees streamed into the Russian Empire following the crushing of the Uprising of November 1830. The Muscovites captured 11,659 Polish soldiers, officers, and generals. They were denied the status of POWs. Instead, they were treated like common rebels. The most privileged among them were settled in Siberia and allowed to travel within a short distance of their new homes. The second category of the Polish exiles had the dubious pleasure of joining the Russian garrisons in southern Siberia and northern Caucasus. The Polish prisoners of the third category were impressed into the Russian Siberian punitive units as privates (their previous ranks notwithstanding) and perversely deployed against the natives fighting for freedom against the Tsar. The obligatory length of service varied from 5 to 25 years. The fourth category of the exiles suffered hard labor in chains in the areas of Kotulm, Nerchinsk, Akatuy, and Baikal. Additionally, the remnants of the Polish units which had participated in the Uprising were dispatched to the northern Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia to fight the locals. Last but not least, as punishment for the Uprising, the Russian authorities drafted into the Tsar’s military 250,000 young men from the Kingdom of Poland and other partitioned lands of the old Commonwealth. The length of service was set at 25 years. For many it was a life sentence. They were posted in remote areas of the Empire and often forced to fight various native rebels.

Nonetheless, after 1831, more Polish conspiracies were hatched periodically only to be cut down by the Russian secret police. The conspirators were invariably dispatched to the east by their scores. In the wake of the failed Uprising of January 1863 up to 50,000 insurgents and their families were sentenced to hard labor and forced settlement in Siberia. Some thousands of Poles were “only” deported to the European provinces of the Empire. Beyond the Urals, the Polish exiles colluded with the Siberian separatists. They staged rebellions, notably around Posolsk in 1866. However, by the mid-1870s most of the exiles had been amnestied and some even permitted to return home.

At time, a new crop of Polish conspirators was making its way to Siberia in chains. After 1870, scores of socialists and nationalists were sentenced to exile. They included Roman Dmowski who enjoyed a brief administrative sojourn in Riga, and the future Marshal Józef Piłsudski who was dispatched to Irkutsk because, along with his brother, had been perennially involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the Tsar. As at the end of the 19th century the Russian Empire was experiencing a gradual liberalization, the conditions of the exiles improved. Brutality and kindness coexisted among the officials. The prisoners fought for their rights, staging hunger strikers and presenting petitions. The punishment for disobedience became rather mild. Some of the exiles enjoyed special privileges, including visits from their families and books.

Conditions continued to improve until the Revolution of 1905, when there was a temporary relapse to fierce state terror as well as an increased influx of the prisoners. Afterward the progressive liberalization of the penal conditions in Russia once again resumed only to be ruthlessly interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. During the Red Terror, the Communist secret police seized a number of Poles. The Red Army also took many Polish prisoners, including from the Siberian Division of Colonel Walerian Czuma, who had remained behind to protect the Polish civilian exiles. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were marooned in Red Russia following their forced evacuation, deportation, and exile by the Tsar’s government before and after 1914. Many of them were released and allowed to return home after the Poles defeated the Bolsheviks in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921).

All in all, there are no solid statistical studies of Siberian exiles originating from the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the 15th and 20th centuries. We know a bit about the Polish political prisoners, the Catholic nobility in particular. But there is precious little, aside from anecdotal evidence, about the peasants, burghers, and Jews. Another problem is that in the 19th century many people were sent into administrative exile in Siberia for a variety of offenses deemed criminal in the Russian Empire, but usually not considered criminal at all in the West, as, for example, the “crimes” that had to do with one’s freedom of movement. One imagines that Jews trying to relocate illegally outside of the Pale of Settlement fell into that category.

In any event, after 1921, for many Poles it seemed that the Siberian chapter in Poland’s history was finally over. They even set up veterans groups to keep the memory of Sibir alive, the Union of the Siberian Exiles (Związek Sybiraków). But even they were convinced that their experience was just history.

Yet, there was no closure. Even before the interwar interlude was interrupted by the Stalin-Hitler Pact of August 23, 1939, and the subsequent joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Communists subjected the Poles in the USSR to ruthless terror. The first blows befell the Polish community in Russia during the revolution. The Poles were targeted for class and ethnic reasons, as actual members of the nobility or intelligentsia and as stereotypical “Polish lords” (polskie pany), where one’s social origin was irrelevant and only national background mattered, according to Ewa M. Thompson. The Poles also suffered for their Christian religion, both clergy and laity, since Catholicism had always been considered a “Polish heresy” by the Kremlin. Further, as Bogdan Musiał has shown convincingly, until the mid-1930s, the Soviet leadership considered Poland to be “Enemy Number One.” The Communists acted accordingly.

As a result of the so-called “Polish operation of the NKVD” many Soviet Poles were repressed in the USSR, including in St. Petersburg/Leningrad which was the hubb of Polish life in Russia. Additionally, two Polish “autonomous” regions in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic were disbanned and their inhabitants either shot or deported to the Gulag. Between 1934 and 1938, at least 150,000 people perished out of about 900,000 person strong Polish community in the USSR. Belorussian scholar Nikolai Ivanov aptly dubbed the slaughter of the Soviet Polonia as “the first nation to be punished.”9 What occurred next after the outbreak of the Second World War followed not only the logic of the revolutionary terror of the Reds but also the historical pattern of conduct of the Muscovite state toward its Polish enemies.

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We thank prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz for sharing this article.