Jun 1, 2021
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Russian Old Believers against Polish rebels in 1863

“Old Believers instill a saving fear for the region on the rebellious people between the landowners”

In Belarus, the anti-Russian uprising of 1863 is often called national liberation, and this creates the impression that we are talking about the liberation of the peoples of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus from the “oppression” of Russia. The result is a blurred historical picture, in which, under the influence of the political conjuncture, the “Belarusian”, then the “Lithuanian” national features are artificially emphasized.

In reality, the uprising was Polish. This is clearly seen in the rebel manifestos. Its main focus was the territory of the Kingdom of Poland. The rebellion found support among the Poles who lived in Lithuania, Belarus, in the west of Ukraine, that is, on the lands that were formerly part of the Commonwealth. The Poles in these territories mainly belonged to the gentry class, dominated culturally and economically, and largely retained their autonomy. On their part, the Russian government was blamed for the policy of racking up the Belarusian-Lithuanian provinces, although these provinces were never ethnically Polish.

Polish uprising of 1863

The purpose of the uprising was not only to restore statehood within the ethnic Polish borders, but to tear away from Russia the territories lost as a result of the divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish revolt did not promise any “national liberation” to the Lithuanians or Belarusians.

It was important which side the common people would take. The leaders of the rebellion tried to discredit the reform of 1861, which freed the peasants from serfdom, to restore the peasants against the government. The peasants, it seemed, took a passive position, not trusting the Polish landowners and agitators of the uprising, but an incident soon occurred, which received publicity not only in Russia, but also in Europe. We are talking about the seizure of a group of insurgents led by landowner Leon Plater in April 1863 by peasants-Old Believers.

Leon Plater

Leon Plater

The Plater family goes back to the descendants of the German knights-crusaders, who captured in the XIII century. Livonia (region of Latvia). After the annexation of Livonia to the Commonwealth in the XVI century. Platers consolidated their property status and switched from Lutheranism to Catholicism, becoming patrons of the Jesuits. The confessional change led to a change in ethnocultural orientation: the Platers were completely polonized. Representatives of the family held important positions in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. and retained their position after the partitions. In the Russian Empire, they received confirmation of the title of count and enjoyed all the rights of their high position, but this did not prevent them from sympathizing with the aspirations of the Poles to revive the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Emilia Plater, for example, became a participant in the 1831-1832 uprising. And the young landowner Leon Plater considered it a matter of honor for himself to take part in a new rebellion.

The rebels chose the tactic of surprise attacks from around the corner. The targets were the faces of the Russian administration, the military, government mail, cash desks. Armed detachments of the gentry instilled fear in the villages, declaring the power of the Polish Zhond and forcing them to take the oath to him. At one of Plater’s home meetings, several rebels decided to repulse a transport with weapons, which was moving from Dinaburg (present-day Daugavpils, Latvia) to Disna (present-day Vitebsk region). About 400 rifles were transported in carts, guarded by six soldiers. To intercept the transport, a group of gentry and landlord servants, led by Leon Plater, gathered. They set up an ambush on the post road near the village of Kreslavka. On April 13, the insurgents with an unexpected salvo killed four escorts and a driver, seized half of the guns (as much as they could carry with them without a cart), and buried the rest of the captured in the forest. Another driver managed to hide and then told about what had happened in a nearby village.

The reaction of the local peasants was quick. Deprived of the right to carry firearms, they armed themselves with stakes, mounted their horses and rushed in search of the rebels who had taken refuge in the forest. They were found in one of the neighboring estates. A skirmish ensued, during which the insurgents wounded several peasants and retreated. More than fifty peasants gathered for a new cry, they organized a search for Plater’s group and overtook her near the village of Dubno. The participants in the attack on the military transport were seized and taken to the Dinaburg fortress. However, the peasants continued their actions and began to destroy the estates of the landowners, suspected of supporting the rebellion. They arrested the gentry and brought them to the authorities in Dinaburg. By April 15, 67 people had been seized, including Leon Plater.

A difficult situation has developed. The peasants acted on their own initiative, ahead of the military and local police. They managed not only to return all the weapons captured by the rebels, but also to capture them. At the same time, the peasant movement took on such dimensions that it began to threaten the property and lives of local landowners, directly or indirectly involved in the uprising. The latter presented the case in such a way that the peasants began to administer lynching, attacking everyone who was a Pole and a Catholic. This version was picked up by foreign newspapers. The military teams on the ground were now to be engaged not so much in catching the rebels, but in protecting the Polish landowners from the peasants rebelling against them, who spoke out in defense of the Russian government.

Peasants militias

The solution was soon found. On April 24, Alexander II issued a decree on the use of rural guards in the conditions of martial law on the territory of the Vilna Governor-General. A month later, the Vilna Governor-General M.N. Muravyov approved instructions for police chiefs, which spoke about the creation of such guards. The peasants were allowed to issue weapons, but their units could only operate under the command of an appointed military commander. The effectiveness of rural units in the fight against insurgents was quickly revealed. The peasants, who were on guard duty, took control of the area they knew well, stopped the suspicious and provided every possible assistance to the troops pursuing the rebel detachments.

The peasants of Russian origin were the first to show activity in the capture of Leon Plater. These were peasants-Old Believers, of whom about 40 thousand lived in the Vitebsk province alone. When organizing the guards, they expressed their readiness to take the entire maintenance of the rural detachments at their own expense, without demanding any monetary payments from the government. And these were people who had endured oppression by the authorities for decades! In difficult times, they were the first to prove what they are capable of.

The example of the Old Believer peasants was soon followed by the Belarusian peasants of the Mogilev, Minsk, Grodno, Vilna provinces. Unfortunately, the scale of this popular movement is still poorly understood.

The investigation into the case of Leon Plater lasted a little over a month. His guilt was proven. Despite the high position of the arrested person and the intercession of various officials for him, Leon Plater was sentenced to death, being carried out on May 27 in the Dinaburg fortress.

The famous publicist of that time M.N. Katkov wrote in Moskovskiye Vedomosti: “The Old Believers were the first to respond to the news of the establishment of the militia and are now bringing a salutary fear for the region to the rebellious people between the landowners of the Vitebsk province. Thanks to the Old Believers, you can be sure that there will be no serious concerns in this province. The affair with Count Plater and the consequences of this affair convinced the rebellious gentlemen that it was impossible to persuade the peasants to revolt and that such attempts, on the contrary, lead to the most terrible results for the gentlemen.

The Polish “right” in Belarus and Lithuania was lost in 1863 because it met resistance from the common people.

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