Henryk GŁĘBOCKI: The most powerful weapon of our times.  Russian anti-Polish propaganda in the West during the January Uprising

The most powerful weapon of our times.
Russian anti-Polish propaganda in the West during the January Uprising

Photo of Henryk GŁĘBOCKI


Associate professor. Polish historian, publicist, academic teacher, lecturer at the Jagiellonian University.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

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It is sometimes surprising to see how the propaganda discourse and clichés created in past centuries are being resurrected in the context of contemporary information warfare and the aggression against Ukraine – writes Prof. Henryk GŁĘBOCKI

.The aims are basically similar to those of 160 years ago. Both then and today, the point is not only to further Russia’s agenda in the global centres of power, but also to ensure that the general public in the West, while declaring support for the right of peoples to be free, exert pressure on governments not to provide tangible aid to the inhabitants of the Intermarium region.

The way in which the image of Poland, the Poles and the Polish cause has been shaped by Russia has yet to be explored in a source-based monograph. Lack of access to Russian archives certainly does not help. Even after 200 years, the lists of foreign press editors on the payroll of Russian embassies have still not been made available to researchers (something I have experienced personally in Moscow’s archives). But anyone who wishes to understand how the phenomena triggered by past information wars have continued throughout history will definitely find it useful to look back at one particular event – the January Uprising whose anniversary we are celebrating this year.

When the uprising broke out, the Russians initially resorted to the tried and tested propaganda techniques dating back to the period after 1830. These were based on a network of diplomatic outposts that used hired journalists to promote desired attitudes in the European press. As before, the key roles were played by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery (or the secret political police), the Ministry of the Interior whose censors kept an eye on Russian domestic press, and especially the Secret Office of the Viceroy of Poland who was responsible for most of the activities targeting the Poles who opposed Russia abroad and in the lands annexed by other partitioning powers.

At the time, propaganda was still considered part of either espionage or the operations designed to break up the structures of the émigré opposition and the Clandestine Polish State. The best-known example of that was the case of Julian Bałaszewicz – the only one that has been so well researched by historians – a spy who posed as Count Albert Potocki and was, alas, quite successful.

However, this time round, the traditional method of publishing reprints of Russian articles or buying the services and goodwill of foreign journalists proved inefficient. It was equally inefficient to uphold the official interpretation of the uprising as a social and cosmopolitan revolution, an interpretation that was tailored to the needs of Russia’s alliance with France. In Russia’s account, Poland (for which the Pope himself prayed) had been led astray by revolutionaries who posed a threat to the entire social order not only in Russia, but also in Europe. The Poles were portrayed as pawns in the hands of scheming agitators who took advantage of Polish patriotism and fanatical Catholicism. In that context, the activities of the Russian army were presented as an attempt to restore order and offer protection to the population fleeing from revolutionary terror or “the dictatorship of the dagger.”

Putting that interpretation on the uprising seemed to be a good move as evidenced by the efforts taken by the Polish Diplomatic Agency in Paris, led by the Hotel Lambert group and the “whites”, to dissociate the insurgency from any revolutionary connotations. Indeed, that was the condition for obtaining concrete aid from the powers who abided by the commitments made at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. This is hardly surprising given that even Empress Eugenia, wife of Napoleon III,  warned Count Władysław Czartoryski, head of the insurgent diplomatic service: “Rest assured that we shall always support the national cause, but never a revolution.”

However, the mouthpieces of Russian propaganda and their claims were quickly helpless faced with the general support for the uprising expressed by all political, ideological and social groups, from the Pope and the legitimists, to fervent Catholics, liberals, democrats, revolutionary leftist, believers in socialism and even Karl Marx. Count Czartoryski had this to say about the efficacy of that official line of Russia propaganda: “the waffle produced by all those newspapers fails to make the slightest impression here”.

At first, the tendentious image of the uprising was primarily created by reprints of Russian articles such as those published in Journal de Saint Petersbourg, an official outlet subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among others, that was the strategy of Le Nord, the press precursor of Russia Today, published in Belgium and then France. Other sources of translated articles were the Russky Invalid, Moskovskiye Vedomosti and Warsaw’s Dziennik Powszechny. However, all of this content became increasingly affected by the wave of nationalism set off by the Polish uprising. In 1863, under pressure from imperial chauvinism, even official newspapers replaced their anti-revolutionary rhetoric with nationalistic arguments. Besides the Moskovskiye Vedomosti run by Mikhail Katkov (the equivalent of present-day Vladimir Solovyov) whose extremely anti-Polish outbursts earned him the status of the dictator of Russia’s public opinion to be reckoned with by tsarist dignitaries, the new centre of such activity was the Russky Invalid (Russian Veteran). It was the official paper of the minister of war who was a staunch advocate of the liberal and nationalistic modernisation of the empire. The press campaigns were modelled on those staged by Napoleon III and Camillo Cavour over the unification of Italy. From the spring of 1863 onwards, they had invented the most important catchphrases and arguments that would inform the predominant interpretation of the conflict with the Poles. As it happened, that narrative was much easier to adapt to different audience groups in the West.

In the summer of 1863, fears that the diplomatic intervention of the superpowers in defence of the Poles would turn into an open war with the West were at their peak. Much of the imperial establishment believed that such a confrontation could end just like the lost Crimean War. When the Empress was sending off General Mikhail Muravyov, already then referred to by the nickname veshatel (hangman), to suppress the uprising in Lithuania, she asked him in trepidation whether it would be possible to save at least part of the so-called Western Lands, considering the Kingdom of Poland as much as lost. Given the situation, it became crucially important to mould western public opinion and weaken the pressure it put on governments to help the Poles. Thus, in June 1863, none other than the minister of war Dmitry Milyutin came up with an initiative to set up new propaganda outlets that would be independent of underperforming official institutions. Milyutin’s newspaper had already built a team of gifted publicists whose modern rhetoric better resonated with liberal western readers. The arguments they used highlighted the fact that, in its clash with the Poles, Russia was a force of progress combating the feudal anarchy of the nobility. It was also the first instance of a large-scale use of ethnic themes: the Poles, went the argument, might cite national rights and democratic concepts in their talks with Europe, but were themselves oppressing the ethically different “Russian” people in Western Lands. The Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian peasants, treated as part of the russkiy mir (it was precisely at that time that the term gained popularity), were allegedly being protected by the tsarist government that launched the emancipation reforms in 1861.

Milyutin personally presented his initiative to the tsar, proposing that western European newspapers run both original articles in local languages and translations of those from the Russian press. He suggested priority should be given to promoting Russia’s perspective on national and historic relations in the Western Lands and demonstrating how the “Russian” people were oppressed by the Polish nobility. To ensure the success of the initiative, the involvement of the Russian government had to be kept secret.

The practical outcome of that was the publication of a number of articles and stand-alone leaflets in English and French. They failed to meet the expectations. Consequently, in July 1863, Baron Kene, who worked in the Hermitage and was part of the minister of war’s inner circle, put forward another idea. He suggested creating a European network of twenty “trusted and skilled” secret agents who would be run by a clandestine press office set up within the editorial office of the Russky Invalid, the minister of war’s newspaper. The objective was to write news reports for foreign newspapers to influence the largest possible number of periodicals of all stripes –conservative, liberal, Catholic, even democratic. To further the prospects of this special operation, it was kept confidential also from the official institutions that had so far been in charge of tsarist propaganda. Not even foreign correspondents were supposed to suspect that the original source of the news was the Russian government.

The encouraging results of that campaign convinced the Russians to start another initiative that would then be continued for a number of years. It consisted in publishing and distributing a lithograph leaflet in French, English and German called the Correspondance Russe. This weakly news bulletin was to present true facts filtered through the prism of Russian interpretation that would reach about eighty key European periodicals. The initiative may perhaps be seen as a response to similar Polish publications sent in the form of bulletins describing insurgent fighting and “Moscow’s barbarity”.

The Correspondance Russe used the tested method of merging true and fake information. This proved highly efficient. For instance, whereas initially the reports it contained were picked up by only 7 German newspapers, at the end of 1864 the figure went up to 41. It was particularly successful in Italy where it reportedly helped influence the bodies of all the important political parties. The news from the Correspondance Russe also featured in French and English periodicals (18), including many high-quality journals. The secrecy around the making of the bulletin was so absolute that only one copy would remain back in Russia.

There was also a parallel propaganda campaign conducted within Russia to gain support for repressive governmental policies. Milyutin observed that this also bolstered foreign policy, convincing western powers that, in case of a conflict, they could not count on fomenting domestic unrest in Russia. On the other hand, the principal aim of the campaign conducted abroad was to erode the European public opinion’s support of the insurgents and ease the pressure it exerted on governments to intervene. This is why efforts were taken to customise the arguments to suit various categories of readers. Those targeted at official, conservative and Catholic circles were still based on accusing the Polish national liberation movement of posing a threat of social upheaval as the “hydra of revolution”. A parallel strand that referred to liberal or even democratic values portrayed the Polish uprising as a rebellion led by feudal masters and the clergy. The fact that the uprising started with the National Government’s manifesto informed by democratic ideas did not count for much confronted with the Enlightenment stereotype of the “Polish anarchy”. The Polish rebellion had to be crushed in the name of progress and the victory of reason over the nobles’ oligarchy and Catholic superstition in Eastern Europe. This set of arguments was mainly addressed to liberal and democratic circles – especially after the success of the liberal opposition in French elections in the summer of 1863 – as well as the financiers from London’s City who were interested in trade cooperation with Russia. The Protestant public opinion in England was to be won over by stoking anti-Catholic resentment through comparing the Polish cause to that of Ireland. Importantly, despite England’s geopolitical rivalry with Russia in Asia, already from the 1840s, there was a strong tendency among the British to negotiate economic deals with Russia as part of the so-called “Great Game”. Such attitudes inspired the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the so-called “Manchester school” and the democratic movement of chartism that had an aversion to the traditions of the nobility. This was the origin of the “peace through trade” idea that justified the policy towards Bolshevik Russia pursued by Lloyd George who was ready to pay Lenin and Trotsky with Eastern Europe in return for peace in 1920. The publications intended for foreign readers drew on patters that were tested and honed as early as the 18th century. They used the negative stereotype of the Polish national character that was politically determined by the traditions of anarchy and oligarchy, precluding the existence of an independent state.

The propaganda thesis that came increasingly to the fore was that the uprising was in fact a rebellion of the Polish nobility against the imminent emancipation of the peasants by the tsar. The theory was supported by a number of arguments about the ethnic and class divisions in the Annexed Lands. It was claimed that the Russian authorities defended the peasant population of those territories from “Polish plantation owners” directly compared to the rebellious slave owners in the United States. Obviously, the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln and his emancipation proclamation, which entered into force in January 1863 to set free the slaves present in Confederate areas, was supposed to be Alexander II and his emancipation of peasants in the western governorates covered by the January Uprising in 1861 and 1863. Lithuanian and Ruthenian provinces were compared to British India where the Sepoy Munity had just been brutally suppressed.

It was therefore a vision of a universal struggle between the forces of progress represented in Eastern Europe by young, people’s Russia – a “country of the future” – with the “reactionary” ghoul of noble and Catholic Poland, a “country of the past”. The conclusion was that the actual reason behind the uprising was the prospect of seeing peasants liberated from the domination of the Polish nobility and the “Russian” people in the western governorates breaking free from Polish rule. According to that logic, the real objective of rebuilding the Commonwealth through the uprising was not to liberate the inhabitants of the lands as a political community of the future republic, but to perpetuate the national and social oppression of the populations in “Western Russia”.

In that context, an interesting example of how efficient the new line of Russian propaganda could be is provided by Civil War America. The tsarist propaganda and diplomatic apparatus had already tested their new methods of persuasion on what was then the only democratic society during the Crimean War. Like in Europe, editors and journalists in the New World were also financed on a large scale. 1863 saw the revival of efficient geopolitical arguments despite the natural inclination of the Americans to back the Polish cause and their dislike of tsarist autocracy. Even though they were governed by radically different political systems, democratic United States and autocratic Russia were again portrayed as natural geopolitical allies. They might be located in opposite hemispheres, but they had shared enemies that now encroached on their sphere of influence: Great Britain and France. Both these powers supported Polish insurgents and southern Confederates. In addition, back then, France intervened in Mexico. In 1863, the geopolitical arguments that are so reminiscent of the ideas advanced by today’s “realists” were reinforced by drawing a parallel between the emancipation of slaves in the United States and the abolition of serfdom in Russia as well as between president Lincoln and Alexander II, the liberating tsar. This helped demonstrate that the countries with such different political systems share geopolitical interests, common values and one global mission – the “Manifest Destiny”.

1863 saw the last such swell of European solidarity with the Poles and their struggle against the tsarist empire. The failure of the uprising and the geopolitical changes on the map of Europe brought about by the defeat of France in its 1871 war with Prussia and the unification of Germany shifted the public mood. From then on, Russophobia would resurge only in Great Britain following Russian expansion onto the Balkans and East Asia. The process was reflected in literature which often served as Stendhal’s “mirror carried along a high road.” Due to its growing potential, Russia was becoming a coveted political and economic partner, whereas Poland was slowly fading away from European memory.

Such a symbolic fate befell Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s famous novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea written as of 1866 and published in instalments from 1869. Initially, the commander of the Nautilus was to be a Polish aristocrat who had participated in the January Uprising and wanted to take his revenge against the Russian fleet. Verne defended this “original idea for the book” in a letter to his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel:  “He is a Polish nobleman whose daughters have been raped, wife killed with an axe and whose father died under the knut; a Pole whose friends have all died in Siberia and whose nation is being wiped out from the map of Europe by Russian tyranny! If this man has no right to sink Russian frigates wherever he finds them, revenge is nothing more than an empty word. I would gladly sink them if I were him, and without any remorse!” he wrote to convince the cautious publisher whose ideas resembled those of today’s Russlandversteher. But because France was looking to access the legendary eastern markets and wanted to re-establish cooperation with Russia, Verne was pressured by Hetzel, on whom he depended for his livelihood, to change the identity of the protagonist. Thus, Captain Nemo became an Indian prince exacting retribution on the British Royal Navy for the suppressed Sepoy Munity of 1857-1859 both in the book and its numerous film adaptations.

Taking their cue from the Franco-Russian entente cordiale that was taking shape in the 1880s-90s, the intellectual and literary salons opened their doors to Russian culture. This was the entryway for the image of the Poles that had been concocted by Russia for domestic purposes as early as the January Uprising. From 1863, the image was dominated by the resurrected anti-Polish stereotype of Sarmatian anarchy that was much ingrained in the Russian collective consciousness. As it filtered to the West, it chimed with equally old convictions that had emerged during the Enlightenment. In Russia, thanks to the achievements of Katkov’s dialectics, the negative picture was boosted by the idea of a Polish-inspired plot that was allegedly behind the actions of Russian nihilist terrorists. This contributed to the bad reputation of the Poles in the so-called anti-nihilistic literature whose tenets are present in the novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others. One of the main motifs of the genre was the “Polish conspiracy” with its usual set of props: a beautiful but treacherous Polish lady, the hypocritical nature of Polish pro-freedom slogans, the Jesuit propaganda, and the Russian protagonists standing out against this baleful background as the embodiment of noble naivety. And that is to say nothing of the depictions where the hotbed of all that Polish scheming was located in the mysterious labyrinths of old Warsaw’s underground passages and back streets taken straight out of the Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue.


All these propaganda arguments followed in the long tradition of the reasons that had been invented from the 18th century onwards to justify Petersburg’s dominion over the territories of the Commonwealth. This had a major impact on the position of Poland as well as other Eastern European nations on the so-called “mental maps” of the elites and public opinion in Western Europe and the United States. The consequences of that process are visible in the subsequent stages of the geopolitical refashioning of our region – 1944-1945, 1989-1991, the period of close cooperation between Germany, France and Putin’s Russia up to 2014, and the recent spell of the US-Russia reset.

It is sometimes surprising to see how the propaganda discourse and clichés created in seemingly long-past centuries are being resurrected in the context of contemporary information warfare and the aggression against Ukraine.

.The aims are basically similar to those of 160 years ago. Both then and today, the point is not only to further Russia’s agenda in the global centres of power, but also to ensure that the general public in the West, while declaring support for the right of peoples to be free, exert pressure on governments not to provide tangible aid to the inhabitants of the Intermarium region.

Henryk Głębocki

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 25/02/2023