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  • Between State Building and Local CooperationRussian Rule in the Kingdom of Poland, 1864–1915
  • Malte Rolf (bio)

In 1896, an anonymous “Warsaw publicist” in the German city of Leipzig published a revealing commentary on the nature of Russian rule over its Polish subjects. According to this author, conditions in the Polish provinces were dire. The region was awash with lawlessness. Corrupt officials acted at will through an overbearing bureaucracy. Local society was completely demoralized. In the decades that followed the January uprising of 1863–64, he argued, “despotism” had become “second nature for the representatives of [tsarist] power.”1 Not only did this abuse cause the suffering of Poland’s citizens; it also had a “corrosive effect … on Russia’s own internal development.” For “as long as despotism exists in Poland,” the author continued, “respect for the law in Russia is also impossible.”2

The Warsaw publicist’s dramatic polemic thus characterized one of the most important territories of the Russian Empire as little more than a “breeding ground for arbitrary rule” (rassadnik proizvola).3 For a contemporary Polish critic to offer this view of the tsarist order is perhaps not terribly surprising. More startling, however, is the extent to which historians have agreed with this dim picture ever since, and not just of Russian Poland in the late imperial era but of the entire so-called “123 dark years” of tsarist rule over the [End Page 385] country more generally.4 This perspective largely denies the reality of multiple and varied forms of engagement between the state and the local population throughout the long 19th century. It also effectively dismisses the no less remarkable flexibility and variety of options for political maneuvering that remained available to the kingdom’s population, even in the aftermath of the January uprising of 1863–64. Most of all, this narrative tends to keep us from looking more carefully into the structures and actors of imperial rule that shaped the politics of empire at the regional and local level.

This article aims to revise this approach through a careful focus on the activities of Russian central institutions and their representatives in the Kingdom of Poland during the late imperial decades. To do this, I begin by assembling an overview of the leading figures of the state bureaucracy in the region, which exposes the structure and complex practices of the imperial administration.5 I then provide a detailed analysis of the Warsaw city administration to highlight the inner dynamics of the government apparatus, focusing in particular on two areas: interactions between official decision makers in the imperial capital and in the region; and the varied contacts that unfolded between state bureaucrats and Warsaw’s Polish-Jewish civil society. As my research suggests, these state-society relations were characterized not only by confrontation but by various forms of cooperation as well. [End Page 386]

A great break to this pattern, however, occurred with the revolution of 1905, which ushered in a period of rising pressure on the imperial system. To trace this profound turn in imperial politics, I follow the story of state-society relations across the 1905 divide to examine the postrevolutionary political configuration and the changing significance of the state bureaucracy in the years just before World War I. After 1906 conflicts in Poland cast a growing shadow over the overall structure of the empire—full proof, it would seem, of the critical feedback loop between Poland and Russia to which the Warsaw publicist had alluded so evocatively a decade earlier.

My goal in digging into the Warsaw case is not, however, merely to expose the intricacies of imperial power in a troublesome imperial region. The broader patterns that defined tsarist rule in the imperial periphery in general around the turn of the 20th century deserve greater attention from historians, and in this respect, Poland has special importance. Among other things, the Kingdom was always a significant proving ground for the empire, a kind of laboratory where the authorities modeled practices for securing power and integrating local populations. The study of imperial rule in the Polish provinces thus offers an opportunity to examine techniques that St. Petersburg employed with regard to the incorporation...


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pp. 385-416
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