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Polish Resistance

In 1795, Poland, largely Roman Catholic, had been divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria and had ceased to exist as an independent kingdom. With the international agreement at Vienna in 1815, the Russian tsar, Alexander I, expanded his hold over Polish lands, but these lands were given a degree of self-government. In 1830, a year of upheaval across Europe, the Poles rebelled against the Russians, seeking full independence and nationhood, and in 1835, in response, Tsar Nicholas I abrogated the Polish constitution of 1815 and made Poland an indivisible part of the Russian Empire. He closed Polish institutions of higher learning and secularized lands of the Catholic Church. The Russian language was forced upon the Poles in secondary schools, and the works of leading Polish authors were banned.

In the late 1850s, with Tsar Alexander II in power and moving in the direction of reforms, amnesty was granted to those Poles who had resisted the Russians. The Poles were granted municipal elections, and Poles replaced Russian officials in subordinate governmental offices. There were demonstrations by the Poles in 1860, on the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising of 1830, and another demonstration in 1861 in which Russians fired into the crowd killing several demonstrators. Alexander was hesitant concerning his policy toward the Poles, but by 1862, he restored all that Tsar Nicholas had taken away, including the restoration of Catholic bishoprics and the right of Poles to elect provincial and local assemblies – everything except the right to convoke a national assembly (a parliament).

In London and Paris, Polish exiles were organizing resistance to Russian rule over the Poles, encouraging another uprising against Russian rule. It began in January 1863, when young Poles protesting conscription into the Russian army were joined by various others, including high ranking Polish officers serving in Russia's army. The rebellion spread to the Lithuanians (also mostly Roman Catholic) and to the Byelorussians (who were mostly Eastern Orthodox). A lack of military strength forced the rebels to resort to guerrilla warfare. With hundreds of thousands of troops, the Russians crushed the resistance in the summer of 1864. In response to the rebellion, Tsar Alexander II resorted to hardline repression. He ended Polish autonomy again. There were public executions of 128 rebels and deportations of 12,000 to Siberia. Property of the Catholic Church was confiscated. The Polish language was banned at official places. Poles were forbidden from acquiring landed estates. Teachers, Orthodox priests, and landlords from Russia moved in among the Byelorussians. Money confiscated as penalties from the conquered helped finance in the conquered territory the construction of Orthodox churches and was used to support Orthodox priests.

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