The national boundaries within Europe are set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815.
Napoleon’s attitude to Polish aspirations had been cynical from the start, and the whole episode had been of no benefit to the Polish cause. Yet the Napoleonic epos was important to the Poles. Since the relief of Vienna in 1683, military glory was something they could only read about. Between 1797 and 1815 they were able to demonstrate their bravery, loyalty and spirit on battlefields all over Europe. Feats of valour such as the charge of the Chevaux-Légers through the defile of Somo Sierra on 30 November 1808 (when a single squadron of 125 men cleared 9,000 entrenched infantry and four batteries from the defile, capturing ten standards and sixteen guns in the space of seven minutes at the cost of eightythree dead) have gone down in legend. Countless other exploits earned them the respect of enemies, from the Peninsula, where the Spaniards of General Palafox spoke with awe of the ‘infernales picadores’ (the Lancers of the Vistula), to the depths of Russia, where General Colbert of the Guard Cavalry ordered all French units to borrow the capes and caps of Polish lancers before going on picket duty, to keep Cossacks at a respectful distance.
These heroics provided a comforting mythology for generations with no state or army of their own, and Napoleon’s image recurs in Polish art and literature well into the twentieth century as a focus for dreams of glory. The fall of Napoleon, which showed that even the greatest can be brought down by an alliance of lesser creatures, was a source of consolation to Poles who felt their cause had similarly been brought down by cynical collusion. The Romantic vision of Prometheus in chains could cover up a multitude of unpleasant realities.
At his abdication Napoleon committed his Polish troops to the clemency of the Tsar, and Alexander was neither vengeful nor blind to the opportunities of the Polish question. His paramount position in 1814 permitted him to entertain hopes that he would be able to reunite most of the territory of the former Commonwealth in a kingdom under his own sceptre, and he brought Czartoryski as one of his negotiators to the Congress of Vienna. But the Tsar’s wishes were thwarted by Austria, Britain and France, which could not countenance Prussia being given swathes of Germany in compensation for those she would relinquish in Poland, nor indeed the huge westward expansion of Russian power attendant on the creation of a Russian-dominated Poland. The re-establishment of a fully independent Poland was mooted by Britain and France but never seriously considered, and for all his good intentions Alexander would never have been able to sell the idea at home, where opinion reacted to his Polish plans with indignation.
In the end, a Kingdom of Poland consisting of 127,000 square kilometres with a population of 3.3 million was carved out of all three partitions. In addition, Kraków and a tiny area around the city was turned into a republic. The Tsar of Russia was the King of Poland, and all three partitioning powers were the protectors of the Republic of Kraków. The remainder of the Polish lands held by Austria were administered separately, as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, with the help of docile assemblies. The major share of the Polish lands retained by Prussia was given separate status as the Grand Duchy of Posen. All three partitioning monarchs made fulsome declarations pledging themselves to treat their Polish subjects with benevolence and to respect their institutions.
The new Polish state, usually referred to as the Congress Kingdom, was a curious entity. The constitution, drawn up by Czartoryski, was the most liberal in Central Europe. There was a bicameral Sejm of 128 deputies, seventy-seven of them elected by the szlachta and fifty-one by non-noble property owners, and sixtyfour senators. It lacked any legislative powers, and its function was primarily administrative, regulatory and judicial. Foreign policy and the police were both run from St Petersburg; Alexander’s brother Constantine was installed in Warsaw as commander-inchief of the Polish army; the former legionary General Zajączek was Alexander’s viceroy; and the Russian Nikolai Novosiltsev was Alexander’s commissioner in the government of the Kingdom.
There was something unnatural about the close association between huge, autocratic Russia and the tiny constitutional Congress Kingdom. It was perhaps inevitable that either Poland would act as a springboard for the liberalisation of Russia or that Russia would gradually swallow up and digest its small satellite. At first, the former seemed the more likely. Large sections of Russian society had come under foreign influence as a result of the Napoleonic wars and appeared open to change. As a consequence of absorbing so much Polish territory, by 1815 no less than 64 per cent of the nobility of the Romanov realm was of Polish descent, and since there were more literate Poles than Russians, more people within it could read and write Polish than Russian. The third largest city, Wilno, was entirely Polish in character and its university was the best in the Empire.
In his speech at the opening of the Polish Sejm in April 1818, Alexander held out a succulent carrot to the Poles. ‘Live up to your duties,’ he exhorted them. ‘The results of your labours will show me whether I shall be able to abide by my intention of expanding the concessions I have already made to you.’ But his enthusiasm for liberalism waned, while Novosiltsev, who had no time for Polish aspirations and did not like Czartoryski, did all he could to undermine Polish autonomy. He exploited the incipient conflicts between Alexander and Constantine, and between both of them and various Polish statesmen, promoting the view, which gained acceptance in Russia, that the Poles were not grateful for the favours they had been granted. When, in 1820, the Sejm began to openly debate political issues and stood up in defence of the constitution, which had been infringed by Alexander and his officers, he dissolved it. When he opened the next session, in 1825, he insisted that its deliberations be held in camera and excluded all those deputies he deemed subversive.
The violence done to the territory of the Commonwealth between 1792 and 1815, and the succession of governments to which its various parts had been subjected in the same period, had surprisingly little impact on the life of the nation. The frontiers themselves figured only as administrative impediments in the minds of most Poles, who referred to them as ‘the Austrian cordon’ or ‘the Prussian cordon’. A Pole travelling from Warsaw to Poznań or Wilno in the 1820s crossed into a different country, but as far as he or his hosts were concerned, he was still travelling around his own.
Similarly, people who had fought on opposing sides sat together in the Sejm and Senate. Alexander’s viceroy in Poland had started out as a Jacobin, fought in Kościuszko’s army in 1794, had commanded a Polish Legion in Italy, and been wounded fighting for Napoleon at Borodino. Adam Czartoryski, who had also fought with Kościuszko, was one of the pillars of the Congress Kingdom, although his father had presided over the provisional government set up by Napoleon in 1812. Stanisław Potocki, a prominent Patriot in the 1780s and a minister in the Duchy of Warsaw, was now Minister of Education. Even the chief censor appointed in 1819, Józef Kalasanty Szaniawski, had been a Jacobin in 1794.
In a sense, the Commonwealth continued to exist in defiance of political boundaries, and its traditions were carefully nurtured. The University of Wilno flourished under the direction of Adam Czartoryski and took over as the centre of academic life. New institutions such as the Krzemieniec High School, founded by Tadeusz Czacki, provided Polish education to a high standard. The Załuski library had been looted by the Russians, but in 1811 Stanisław Zamoyski opened his considerable library in Warsaw to the public. The Czartoryski historical museum at Pulawy recorded past glories, while its archive served historians. In 1817, the year the Austrian authorities founded a German university at Lemberg (as they had renamed Lwów), Józef Ossoliński opened a Polish archive and library in the city, the Ossolineum. In 1829 Edward Raczyński did the same in Poznań, which was also endowed with a museum by the MielŻyński family. Adam Tytus Działyński founded the Poznań Society of Friends of Learning, which began publishing manuscript sources in the 1840s from his library at Kórnik, which he had opened to the public in 1828. Everything, from old coins to folk songs, was collected, documented and studied.
The literary revival of the late eighteenth century continued to flourish with a new generation of poets. The same was true of the musical scene, which gave birth to the genius of Fryderyk Chopin. The architects fostered by Stanisław Augustus came to maturity at the beginning of the century and over the next three decades embellished Warsaw and dotted the countryside with elegant neo-classical houses. As a result, the Warsaw of the 1820s was an imposing and vibrant city, very much the capital of a Polish world still defined by the boundaries of the defunct Commonwealth.
But the post-Napoleonic generation was not temperamentally suited to compromise. There was much heated discussion among students, particularly at the University of Wilno, where secret societies burgeoned. It was all fairly harmless, but the Russian secret police has never been known to consider any discussion harmless, and when, in 1821, Major Walerian Łukasiński founded a Patriotic Society in Warsaw, it began to investigate further.
In 1823 the Professor of History at Wilno, Joachim Lelewel, was sacked and a number of students arrested. Other arrests followed, including that of a young poet, Adam Mickiewicz, a former student, now a teacher in Kowno, and the author of an Ode to Youth whose allusive phrases the censor could not understand but did not like. The university was further chastened by the removal of its curator Adam Czartoryski, which followed the dismissal of Stanisław Potocki from the ministry of education. These measures had the effect of irritating the young and many hitherto content with the status quo. Discussion and conspiracy spread to the army and after the failure of the Decembrist coup of 1825 in Russia, which sought to place Constantine on the imperial throne, investigations led the Russian police back to Warsaw. As the new Tsar Nicholas clamped down on freethinking in Russia, his lieutenants in Poland began ferreting about in earnest.
They arrested a number of ringleaders of conspiratorial groups, and Novosiltsev demanded, at Nicholas’s behest, that these be dealt with in accordance with Russian criminal procedure. The Polish government demurred on constitutional grounds and the men were tried by a tribunal appointed by the Sejm. Since their actions could not be construed as criminal under Polish law the case against them was dismissed in 1829. In his fury, Nicholas actually had the members of the tribunal arrested before countermanding their verdict and imposing his own sentences on the prisoners.
The government in Warsaw found itself in an untenable position, losing authority at home and undermined by its Russian patrons. This played into the hands of revolutionary elements, and tension mounted throughout the early months of 1830. News of the July Revolution in France and the subsequent upheaval in Belgium in September brought matters to a head. Nicholas announced his intention of sending an expeditionary force made up principally of Polish troops to crush the revolution in Belgium, and mobilisation was decreed on 19 November 1830.