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The Great War and the Polish Question in Imperial Russia, 1914–1917

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18.03.2019

This is an excerpt from Great Power Policies Towards Central Europe 1914–1945. Get your free copy here.

German‑Russian antagonism was a common feature for the information space of the Russian Empire before the Great War. It was manifested in press with an abundance of ostentatious warmongering rhetoric.[1] In general, that reflected an all‑European trend: the notion of war was utilised by the contemporary literature and mass media as a source of constant public interest and, therefore, of commercial profit. Otherwise, war eloquence was interpreted as an ordinary, often non-hazardous instrument of international political bargaining.[2] The Russian Empire’s regional press of Kiev basically followed this pattern. The Polish question – a central point of this survey, remained in a shade of the profound anti‑German sentiment of the Kiev press. Yet, in the pre‑war months of 1914, the first signs of Polish involvement in the potential German‑Russian war had already appeared. Referring to the statement of Roman Dmowski, a leader of the Polish National Democratic movement in Russia, the local newspaper Kievljanin expressed its contempt for Polish political speculations. Prophetically, Dmowski forewarned the tsardom that imperial Poles would support the probable German invasion unless they were granted a separate Kingdom of Poland.[3]

This study uncovers the evolution of the Kiev press’s attitude towards the Poles within the context of the German‑Russian clash in the First World War. It examines the various techniques, by which the Polish theme was incorporated into the Russian war effort against Kaiserreich. The focus of the study derives from the fundamental wartime discourse of the German‑Russian confrontation. It should be noted that the other rival holding a significant part of the Polish territories, the Austro‑Hungarian monarchy, was only viewed as a secondary power, subordinated to Berlin’s will. Chronologically, the study covers a period of Russia’s active military commitment: from the outbreak of the war in 1914 to the Bolshevik Uprising in November of 1917, which led to the end of hostilities with the Central Powers. The article is divided into three subchapters, revealing the enthusiastic war agitation of 1914, the disillusionment of the subsequent years and the disintegration of Romanov’s Empire in 1917. Geographically, it is focused on the Southwestern Krai – a large borderland region of the Russian Empire, formed on the Southeastern territories of the former Polish‑Lithuanian Commonwealth and thus contested between Polish and Russian cultural influences. Despite the region’s predominantly Ukrainian ethnic composition,[4] tsarist authorities and Russian public opinion considered it to be naturally Russian.[5]

Kiev city was an administrative, economic and cultural centre of the Russian Southwestern Krai.[6] The Kiev press was a major media actor, traditionally speaking on behalf of the whole region.[7] At the same time, it resembled a typical provincial media, dependent upon mainstream discussions in the newspapers of Petrograd and Moscow. In 1914, the daily press of Kiev was issued in four different Slavic languages, yet more than 70% of the market belonged to Russian media.[8] At the beginning of the war, the sole Ukrainian newspaper Rada was labelled disloyal and compulsorily closed;[9] later, in 1915 the Czech newspaper ceased to exist.[10] The Polish Dziennik Kijowski remained the only non‑Russian daily until 1917. Being situated on the frontlines of WWI, the Kiev press functioned under the supervision of civil and military censors. Both were designed to suppress the anti‑government moods of the media.[11] However, after the February Revolution of 1917, civil censorship was abolished by the Russian provisional government and military censorship became de‑facto afunctional.[12] Also, the old‑regime wartime prohibition on Ukrainian and Jewish printed products became obsolete. The officially octroyed freedom of speech facilitated the emergence of diverse non‑Russian and leftist newspapers.[13]

This study is based on analysis of Kiev’s Russian‑language prominent daily newspapers: the rightist Kiev, conservative Kievljanin, ‘progressive’ (liberal/socialist) Kievskaja Mysl, Poslednie Novosti and Juzhnaja Kopeika. These newspapers reflect the entire spectrum of the city’s Russian political thought as well as the dynamics of its development. Pro‑regime, partially state subsidised Kiev and Kievljanin enjoyed relatively small circulation in 1914 (six and 16,000 respectively). Kiev embodied the local Russian nationalist group while Kievljanin was adherent to conservative ideas.[14] On the contrary, the independent ‘progressive’ newspapers were more popular (each with circulations between 55,000 and 80,000) and local censors deemed them influential.[15] The term ‘progressiveness’ designated these newspapers’ affiliations as reformist and critical to the reactionary tsarist regime. Censors maintained that these newspapers were under the Jewish auspice and promoted harmful ‘pseudoliberal’ and ‘leftist’ ideas.[16] Additionally, this study incorporates the two leading Ukrainian daily newspapers of the 1917 revolutionary era: the social‑liberal Nova Rada (15,000 circulation) and the organ of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party Robitnycha Hazeta (9,000 circulation).[17] The paper concludes that Russian‑Ukrainian tensions diverted the press’ attention from the Polish question in late 1917.

Methodologically, the paper is built upon the concept of imagology, which explores national stereotypes and images of ‘otherness’ in conjunction with the actor’s own identity.[18] Also, Walter Lippmann’s theory of mass media is a valuable asset for this study. Lippmann suggested that the readership of newspapers participates in an everyday poll by buying a particular kind of newspaper and thereby complying with its style, information and political affiliation. Based on the experience of WWI, Lippmann’s survey asserts that the press not only influences but also reflects public opinion.[19] In Imperial Russia, the press was considered to be a primary source of public opinion since the Great Reforms of the 1860s – 1870s.[20] However, only during the pre-1914 decade did the printed media cover the needs of all the urban classes and partially infiltrate the rural areas. Great War demand for information finally boosted the imperial press to the level of mass media.[21] The Empire’s public education programme facilitated such a development: already in 1913, 54% of men and 26% of women above nine-years-old were literate.[22] No less important was the affordability of press: in 1913, even Kiev’s lowest ranking labourer spent about 5–9 roubles annually (or 1–2 % of his total income) on cultural and information needs. By comparison, the annual subscription to a penny‑newspaper (such as Juzhnaja Kopeika), amounted to only three and a half roubles.[23] Kiev’s censorial reports shed light on the distribution of press. For example, the readership of Kievskaja Mysl included the bureaucracy, clergy, military and even ‘the commonalty’ of Kiev. Moreover, thanks to the railroad network it was distributed amongst the teachers, priests, paramedics and authorities in the rural areas of the Krai.[24]

The Polish question during World War I has already been examined by a large number of prominent researchers. Among English language scholarship, Andreas Kappeler thoroughly presented the Polish question within the context of the Russian Empire’s national movements.[25] More specifically, the First World War’s impact on the Polish movement is assessed by Aviel Roshwald,[26] Eric Lohr[27] and Joshua Sanborn.[28] Roshwald uncovers the binary nature of Polish nationalism, which was developed separately by its two leaders – Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski. Eric Lohr and Joshua Sanborn depict the Great War as a catalyst for the national movement and decolonization process in the Romanov Empire. There are also some important studies in Russian that analyse Petrograd policy towards the Poles.[29] Also, considerable work on the topic is performed by Polish historians, [30] and their Ukrainian colleagues.[31] The two studies, most relevant for this research are those of Laura Engelstein and Aleksandr Astashov.[32] Both scholars reconstruct the Russian attitude towards the Germans in the context of Berlin-Petrograd’s rivalry over Poland. Engelstein’s article is centered onto the Kalisz incident of August 1914 – an example of the German military outrage that developed into a symbolic propaganda construct. Astashov’s work reveals the logic of the Russian Slavic war propaganda and, particularly, Russian policy in the Polish case.

The Polish question and the 1914 war enthusiasm

The ‘Polish question’, being a constant cultural challenge and a dangerous example of separatism, was the most difficult of the national policy of the Romanov Empire since the end of 18th century. Long‑standing Polish state tradition preserved by the native gentry resulted in two unavailing anti‑tsarist uprisings in 1830–31 and 1863. By the end of the 19th century, the Polish movement had developed into a modern national form and was highly influential for the nation‑building processes of the neighbouring Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian ethnic groups. The Congress Poland played an essential role in the 1905 Russian Revolution, compelling tsarist authorities to consider the Polish autonomy project.[33]

As a former territory of the Polish‑Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Southwestern Krai was a bone of contention between the old Polish and the new Russian elite throughout the 19th century.[34] At the end of the 19th century, Russian authorities had succeeded in marginalizing local Poles. However, this dispute accelerated the emergence of the indigenous Ukrainian national movement.[35] Thus, in the early 20th century, the imperial administration became concerned with the rise of a separate Ukrainian identity.[36] Consequently, on the eve of WWI the Polish question lost its initial importance in the Krai, yet it was still frequently covered by the Kiev press.

With the outbreak of the Great War, the Russian press became fully focused on the grand clash of the European empires, leaving the Polish factor as an inessential component of the geopolitical balance of power. Several articles published in Kiev presented the attitude towards the war of the Poles in Deutsches Reich. It was stated that these Poles preserved their loyalty to the Slavic heritage[37] and were unwilling to take the ‘strangers’ (German) side in the war.[38] The Polish theme reached a new level of importance shortly after the Deutsches Heer invasion of Congress Poland in early August 1914.[39] The enemy’s army excesses in the border city of Kalisz on August 4[40] triggered a press campaign of ‘the German atrocities.’[41] The Kalisz incident allowed media to question a popular pre‑war stereotype of the ‘highly cultured’ German nation.[42] This notion was challenged by the vivid, realistic accounts of the enemy’s ‘unimaginable barbarism’ against the civilians of the peaceful city[43]. The responsible commander, Major Preusker became a well‑known symbol of the ‘Prussian lieutenant’s brutality.’[44] By the end of August, the Kalisz episode was also interpreted as an example of German cowardice. It was believed that a massacre occurred due to the invader’s panic – fright of the possible Russian counterattack.[45] Above all, the Kalisz incident has demonstrated that the Kiev press associated the city’s indigenous Polish population with the (politically) common Russian people. In fact, the Kiev press’s reactions mirrored the broader all-Russian response: the sack of Kalisz acquired a state-wide symbolic value, thus presenting the fierce advancement of Germandom onto the Russian civilization.[46]

At the 1914 stage of the war, Kiev’s press intensively promoted an all‑Russian identity concept. The German invasion of the Congress Poland provided a necessary background to strengthen imperial patriotism.[47] Its pathos was directed onto the diverse empire’s population and aimed to fuse a politically homogeneous nation. For instance, the Kalisz incident was utilised as an insult to ‘the Russian soul and Russian conscience’[48] with the press demanding revenge on the enemy and the capture of Berlin.[49] The war had enforced a supra-ethnic connotation of the term ‘Russian.’ Occasionally, both liberal and rightist newspapers wrote about the ‘bodies of Russian martyrs’[50] and murdered Russian citizens of the small Polish town of Kalisz without referring to their ethnic origin.[51]

Since Kalisz, the press had been striving to create a rigid image of the enemy by providing numerous examples of the German crimes in Congress Poland.[52] The most notorious was the occupation of Czestochowa on 16 August 1914. Newspapers reported the desecration of Czestochowa’s famous shrine of Jasnogorski monastery. Scenes of the German brutal pillaging and sexual abuses there were intended to form the image of the German ‘antichristianity.’[53] Grotesque ‘avarice’ and ‘ignorance’ were also commonly attributed to the German invaders. For instance, the press mocked one German lieutenant who had allegedly demanded a loot in the form of red caviar after the capture of the small Congress Poland town of Konin. According to the journal, the German fallacious perception depicted the whole Russia as a ‘country of red caviar.’[54]

The official manifesto to the Poles, which was issued on 14 August 1914 by the Russian Supreme Commander Grand Duke Nicholas, marked the increasing political significance of the Polish question for the tsarist regime. [55] It proclaimed the goal of reunion of the separated Polish nation within the frame of an autonomous Poland that was ‘free in its faith, language and self‑government.’ However, Russian state elites were hesitant to implement the manifesto, which they perceived to be the sole instrument capable of retaining control over the region. Imperial policy of the forthcoming years proved Petrograd’s unwillingness to grant Poles any of the promised facilities.[56] Despite this, back in 1914, the manifesto was extensively popularised by the press. It promised ‘to unify all the parts of Poland under the sceptre of the all-Russian Tsar, and King of Poland.’[57] The press interpreted the manifesto’s vague notion of the future Poland’s boundaries as limited solely to the ethnic Polish territories.[58] Noteworthy, this vision was also relevant for the subsequent period.[59] The press rejected the idea of a greater historical Poland because of contested lands, such as the Austro‑Hungarian Galicia province – for which the Russian Empire had its own ambitions.[60]

In the agitation campaign, the press appealed to Polish historical feelings. The successive forms of German statehood – from the Teutonic Order and the Kingdom of Prussia to the Wilhemine Empire – were depicted as an ultimate cause of all of the Polish misfortunes. At the same time, press unanimously evaded the Russian‑Polish negative historical context. Thus, St Petersburg’s role in the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was either disguised or totally omitted. Kiev’s progressive and rightist media eloquence slightly differed. The progressives were much more concerned with Berlin’s violations of Polish civil liberties, such as anti‑Polish state legislation, land property issues and cultural oppression.[61] In contrast, rightists emphasised the Teutono‑Slavic confrontation and agitated for the revival of ‘Polish‑Russian fraternization’ against the common enemy. The 1410 Battle of Grunwald, where Polish, Lithuanian and Russian troops defeated the Teutonic knights was chosen as a symbol.[62] The rightist press envisioned Russia’s historical mission in its resistance to the German ‘Drang nach Osten‘[63] expansion.[64] In fact, it favoured the expulsion of all German colonists out of the Polish region, blaming them to be ‘ethnic strangers,’[65] ‘spies and traitors.’[66] In late 1914, deportation campaigns and the pass of the law on enemy real estate expropriation were equally supported by the rightist press.[67]

Russian rightists portrayed the Polish nation’s lifespan under the rule of Romanov’s dynasty as a ‘century of prosperity’ if compared to the horrible 1795–1807 period of ‘Prussian domination’ in Poland.[68] They argued that the Poles should have been contented with being part of ‘the great and independent Slavic state’ of Russia, where Polish life had flourished ‘better than in a former Poland.’[69] Examples of famous and successful Polish writers and scientists from Congress Poland, such as Adam Mickiewicz, Joachim Lelewel, Teodor Narbutt, Henryk Sienkiewicz and others, were provided to reinforce the statement.[70]

As a method of agitation, the press illustrated the anti‑German and pro‑Russian attitudes of Polish public opinion. It quoted average Russian Poles, for instance an old Polish man from Warsaw who cursed the Germans as ‘Psia krow, podly szwb‘ (sic!) (‘Dog’s blood, mean Swabian’) at the same time praising the Russian soldiers – ‘our brothers by blood.’[71] Media also referred to the front experience: a group of Russian Siberian Riflemen were thrilled to receive a warm welcome ‘even here in [Russian] Poland,’ where the locals willingly presented them with ‘the brimful baskets of food and clothes.’[72] The Kiev press glorified those Poles who preserved their loyalty to the state,[73] sheltered Russian escapees[74] or were fighting the enemy.[75] It agitated the public for donations to the Polish war refugees,[76] several waves of which fled from the Congress Poland to the other regions of the empire and constituted a challenge to both the authorities and social organizations.[77] Another part of the image concerned those foreign Poles who were levied to the Deutsches Heer and Austro‑Hungarian army. They were presented as victims of state coercion, keen to surrender or even to join the Russian side.[78]

In general, in 1914, the Polish question in the press of Kiev developed as an integral part of the broad anti‑German, war supporting campaign. It should be examined........

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