Jules Michelet, photograph by Nadar, around 1855-1856. // Public domain

Jules Michelet, photograph by Nadar, around 1855-1856. // Public domain


In Légendes démocratiques du Nord (1854), the historian Jules Michelet recounts the martyrdom of Poland following the loss of the Polish state. He evokes the Polish insurrection that begins in November 1830 and ends with the fall of Warsaw in September 1831, after a war of eight months opposing the Russian army by Polish forces. The defeat of the Poles was followed by severe repression and a drastic reduction in the autonomy of the Polish kingdom. Several thousands of Poles were forced into exile, a mass exodus known as the “Great Emigration”. In France, committees in support of the insurrection were transformed into committees for the support of refugees. A daily allowance was paid to all Polish refugees and accommodations were organized. We can replace “Poland” with “Ukraine” and the Russia of Nicholas I with that of Putin, to admire the phenomenal intuition of this historian who traverses the centuries.

One Does not Kill a Nation

Ignorance, an excessive preoccupation with things that are close to us, the intense attention that we give to small objects while neglecting the big things, have prevented us until now from accounting for the appalling consequences that the murder of Poland has had […]

Part of it has been hidden by dint of lies. It is an amazing fact, and one to humiliate the human spirit forever, that the world of enlightenment and civilization has been able, for half a century, to allow itself to be deceived on this matter. […] In deepest darkness they had created, the murderers came and bravely swore over the body of the victim: “There was no Poland: it did not exist. We have only killed nothingness.” Then, seeing the shock of Europe, its silence, and that many seemed to believe them, they added coldly: “Besides, if it existed, it deserved to perish. If there were a Poland, it was a medieval power, a retrograde state, devoted (and this is what hurts us) to aristocratic institutions.” […] There are no bold lies by which friends of Russia have not insulted, for the last twenty years especially, the good sense of Europe. […] One word, then, only one word to the obvious liars, to the corrupt slanderers, who have perverted the sense of the public and created this darkness, a simple word, a vengeful word, which will be clear, at least. If they have snuffed out the day, let them be illuminated by lightning.

Lightning is truth. And the truth is this. […] “The Poland that you see in tatters and bloody, mute, without pulse or breath, this Poland lives. And she lives more and more; all her life, ebbed from her limbs, carried to her head and heart, is only more powerful. And that is not all. She lives alone in the North, and no other. Russia does not live.” […]

A monstrous crime of the Russian government! A gigantic crime, an enormous murder of 50 million people! It has only divided Poland by giving it a stronger life, but in reality it has suppressed Russia. Under this crime, through this crime, Russia has sunk into a terrible moral void, Russia has walked the opposite way from the rest of the world, Russia has stepped backwards into barbarism. At this moment, Russia is undergoing an atrocious operation, a martyrdom unprecedented in history… From serfdom, Russia returns to ancient slavery.

The Russian spirit, distorted by the torture of a vile and lowly inquisition (which does not have, like that of Spain, the excuse at least of a dogma), the Russian spirit descends into degradation, into moral asphyxia. […] A terrible phenomenon for the world, but above all for Russia itself. The Russian idea has weakened within her, and she has not taken on the idea of Europe; she has lost her dream, which was a fatherly authority, and she ignores the law, the mother of nations. […] Without her, without this unfortunate Poland, which is believed to be dead, Russia would have no chance of resurrection. It could disturb Europe, bloodying it again, but that would not prevent it from sinking into nothingness and into emptiness, into the deep mud of an ultimate end.

Besides, Russia feels it. In spite of her atrocious government, in spite of the madman1 who is driving her into the abyss, she feels that all her hope lies in poor Poland. She feels it; she remembers the brotherhood. This memory and this feeling are her legitimacy, and that is why God will save her.

Live, Poland, live. The world, all nations beg you to live; no one needs it more than the unfortunate Russian people. The salvation of this people and its renewal are for you a glorious reason to live. The more this people descend, the more your right to live increases, the more sacred, necessary and led by destiny you become.

The core of the tsar is falsehood and deception, the supreme lie that crowns all lies. […] This immense, terrible power, transmitted to the agents of his will, what becomes of it on the way? At every level, there is corruption, venality, and, consequently, absolute uncertainty in the results. […] If the emperor were always deceived, if his will were always impotent, he would take his measures and settle for that. This is not the case. The great defect of the machine is that it is uncertain, capricious in its action. Sometimes the most absolute will of the autocrat comes to nothing. Sometimes a word that escapes him by chance has immense effects, and the most disastrous. […]

Wojciech Kossak, “November Night” (fight in Łazienki Park, Warsaw, November 29, 1830). // Public domain

Russia’s Deceptive Policy. How she Dissolved Poland

Russia, in its nature, in its own life, being a lie, its foreign policy and its weapons against Europe are necessarily lies. […]

It begins slowly. At first Russia seems to be interested, attentive like a good

neighbor, worried like a sibling about the dissensions of Poland. Russia loves Poland so much that she cannot suffer a single Pole to be oppressed by the others! As a country of philosophers, an enthusiastic champion of tolerance, Russia is particularly interested in the dissidents; she supports religious freedom (which is not oppressed).

It is the first step in dissolution, the first intervention by Russia in Poland.

Catherine […] imagined the launching of Russia in a religious war, to persuade the peasants to believe that they had to defend their brothers of the Greek rite who were persecuted in Poland by followers of the Latin rite. The war led to appalling brutality. Under the impetus of this atheist woman, who preached the crusade, we saw populations, whole villages tortured, burned alive, in the name of tolerance. All this was carried out in the name of friendship for Poland, for the protection of dissident Poles. Even better, the empress also protected the Poles who were faithful to their ancient barbaric laws, to their old anarchy.

This is the second way of dissolution.

As an admirer of the ancient Polish constitution, she will not allow the country to be transformed, nor will she allow the government to have any power. In this second task, Russia strives to create a Poland against itself, like a dishonest doctor who, pretending to cure a patient despite himself, would skillfully create other living bodies in this living body, and give birth to worms. […]

The third means of dissolution.

The Russian sword did not defeat Poland; Russian lies led to Poland’s dissolution.The Poles were defeated by three lies. If only we could show here all the devious tricks by which Russia pitted the world against Poland, […] thus sowing doubt in European thought, throwing an initial germ of dissolution to the West. A profound, admirable definition has been given of Russia, of this destructive force, of this cold poison which it gradually circulates, which relaxes the nerve of life, demoralizes its future victims, delivers them defenseless: “Russia is the cholera.” […]

Thanks to Russia, such is the very strong bond formed between Poles, which they may never have had, and that one could call the brotherhood of pain and the equality of martyrdom. The Polish nationality, which had languished in other times, has become, thanks to God, prodigiously strong and vivacious. […] If Russia had intended to revive and strengthen the Polish nation, it would have done precisely what it did to destroy it. […]

Here is what made the division so easy: Russia was a government, with or without a nation, and Poland a nation without a government. The latter was still more or less similar to the states of the sixteenth century before centralization. Life was thriving but dispersed throughout its territory. This life was not centralized: by killing what center it had, one killed nothing at all. […]

But confronting the hideous propaganda that Austria and Russia have constructed in the heart of Poland, […] another exists. I am talking about the strange, mysterious action that Poland, without knowing or wanting it, by the sole fact of suffering and heroism, exerts on Russia. The revenge taken from her enemy is to demoralize, to develop an unheard-of force of dissolution. But without speaking, without acting, it seems that Poland has disturbed Russia’s heart, corrupted its spirit, weakened it and led it astray. The astonishing ease with which Poland has magnetized Russia is due to a very sad mystery that we must explain, to the immense emptiness that is Russia, to the inner destruction that it has undergone, especially during this century. The Polish pain, crossing the Russian soul, has met only nothingness. […]

If Russia disappears, what monument will remain of it? It is a tent set up today in the middle of the desert, which may be folded up tomorrow…

The Russian government is doing something terrible at this moment. By maintaining an absolute separation, like a cordon sanitaire, between the Russian people and the rest of the world, it does not prevent these people from losing their old morality, but it prevents them from receiving Western thought, which would put them back on a new basis. The Russian government keeps them empty and morally null, defenseless against the suggestions of the evil spirit and the temptation of the desert… Who will save Russia from this infernal perdition, and Europe from the necessity of exterminating this drunk and mad giant? No other than poor Poland.

The best thing that Russia has at the moment, the thing that binds her to humanity and to God, is the movement of the heart that Poland has aroused in her.

To the Russian Officers



We are not unaware of the dreadful terror that weighs upon you. An iron hand rivets you to these awful judgments and makes you sign them. More than one would break his sword, if he only risked death. We know you, we know that, when you are far from view, you risk being human. […] What a tragic fatality, to go through Europe fighting or condemning the accomplices of your thoughts, the martyrs of your faith, those whose death you envy!

You admired those Hungarians shattered by the Russian intervention in 1849. […] Thus, you march, mute, pale, brandishing your weapon, to execute in spite of yourselves the verdict of an enemy’s fate. You advance, head down, without looking behind or in front of you. […] Have pity on yourselves. And what do you risk, finally, if not to die? But aren’t you already dead? Is not this life a death?

Many in this dreadful situation try to deceive themselves. They try to be ambitious for the greatness of Russia. Let’s tell the difference, gentlemen, let’s differentiate. This word has two very different meanings, the empire and the nation. Now, the empire has not taken a step […] that has not been a step also in annihilating your national genius.[…] The only good definition of the terrible government you are subjected to is the death of Russia.

Others, without trying to deceive themselves, close their eyes, abandon themselves to fatality; they rest in their complete scepticism, on the very abyss: “Who knows where reason is? they say. We are corrupt, it is true. The West is not any less corrupt. Let us enjoy, and then die.” […] This is how you live. Caught between two terrors, fearing the rebels from below, the crushing idol from above, which weighs more and more each day, you take refuge under it. Where do you flee, wretched souls? To the bloody altar of Moloch. This terrible god who devours not only individuals but the senses, the powers, the vitality of Russia. […] Thus goes this power of death, breaking, devouring. If it had nothing to put in its murderous jaws, it would eat itself. Political life? devoured. Literary life? devoured. It is now after religious life in Russia and in Europe. It marches, with a wide open mouth… Who should be afraid? - You above all, gentlemen. The machine that exercises its power on the world, rests on you, it weighs on you and crushes you. It does nothing on the outside without doing it on the inside.

  1. Nicolas 1st 


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