Read CHAPTER VIII - THE RUSSIAN PRISON of Kosciuszko A Biography , free online book, by Monica Mary Gardner, on

Late in the afternoon of that ill-fated day a stretcher, roughly and hastily put together, was carried by Russian soldiers into the courtyard of the manor. The prisoners saw that on it lay the scarcely breathing form of Kosciuszko. His body and head were covered with blood. He was insensible and apparently at the point of death. The dead silence as he was carried in was only broken by the sobs of his Polish officers. The surgeon dressed his wounds, and he was then taken to a large hall and left to the companionship of Niemcewicz, with Russian grenadiers posted inside each door. In the evening the hall was required by Fersen for dinner and his council of war, and Kosciuszko, still unconscious, was transferred, Niemcewicz following him, to a room over the cellar.

Towards the end of the battle the fiercest contest had raged around the Zamojski manor. At the last a hundred Polish soldiers had in the desperation of extremity defended the house, and fought it out till no round of ammunition remained to them. The Russians then burst in, and despatched at the point of the bayonet every Pole in every room of the building, including the cellar, where the only survivors of the heroic band took up their final stand. The bloodshed stopped when each man of them was dead or dying, and not before. The moans of those lying in their last agony in this cellar of death were, when the laughter and merrymaking of the Russian officers died away with the course of the hours, the only sound that Niemcewicz heard, as by the couch of his passionately loved and apparently dying leader he lay through the bitter cold of the October night, weeping not only for a dear friend, but for his country. At sunrise Kosciuszko spoke, as if waking from a trance. Seeing Niemcewicz, with his arm bandaged, beside him, he asked why his friend was wounded, and where they were. “Alas! we are prisoners of Russia,” said Niemcewicz. I am with you, and will never leave you," Tears rose to Kosciuszko’s eyes, as he made reply that such a friend was a consolation in misfortune. The entrance of Russian officers, deputed to keep guard over them, interrupted the conversation. They were watched each moment, and their words and actions reported. Later on Fersen came in and addressed Kosciuszko courteously, speaking in German, which Niemcewicz for Kosciuszko knew neither German nor Russian interpreted. At midday a deafening discharge of musketry and cannon smote painfully upon the prisoners’ ears: it was the salvo of joy for the Russian victory.

On the 13th of October the Russian army marched, and Kosciuszko and his fellow-Poles began their long, sad journey to a Russian prison. Kosciuszko travelled in a small carriage with a surgeon, Niemcewicz and the Polish generals in a separate conveyance, while the rest of the prisoners went on foot. Detachments of Russian cavalry rode in front and behind. An immense train of wagons, filled with the loot carried off from Polish homes, Polish cannon captured on the field, a car bearing the Polish flags with their national device of eagles, embroidered heavily with silver, added the final drop of bitterness to the lot of the defeated sons of a proud and gallant race. On the halt held the following day messengers came up from Warsaw, bringing Kosciuszko his personal effects and a letter from the National Council, conveying expressions of the highest eulogy and deep sympathy, with a present of four thousand ducats, of which Kosciuszko gave half to his fellow-prisoners.

The scene in Warsaw when the news of Kosciuszkos captivity reached it was, writes a Pole who was then in the town, the saddest sight he ever saw. In every public place, in every class of society, in every home, the one refrain, broken by sobs, was: “Kosciuszko is no more.” The leader was gone; but the men and women who were met wandering, weeping, in the streets, wringing their hands and mourning for the man they and the country had lost together, had no thought of giving up the struggle for their nation.

“Neither the duty of a citizen nor thy example permits us to despair for our country,” wrote the National Council to Kosciuszko. The war was carried on, and the citizens of Warsaw went in their thousands to the ramparts, as in Kosciuszko’s time, to hold the town against Suvorov’s siege.

Together with their dispatches to Kosciuszko, the National Council sent a letter to Fersen, offering to give up all their Russian prisoners in exchange for Kosciuszko alone. The Russian general refused. Two days later Fersen received orders to join Suvorov, and the prisoners with a large detachment of Russian troops under Krushtzov were sent on into Russia by an immensely roundabout route.

The first part of the march led through Polish territory. The Polish prisoners watched, powerless, the ravages committed on their unhappy country by the army with which they travelled. The contents of mansion, shop, hut, were alike stolen. Even children’s toys swelled the booty. Although the wound on Kosciuszko’s head began to improve, he had lost the use of his legs and could not move without being carried; yet a Russian guard watched him incessantly. The rumour had gone round the Polish countryside that he had escaped from Maciejowice, and that the Russians had some feigned captive in his place. In their halts Krushtzov therefore insisted on the Polish proprietor of the villages, or the chief inhabitants of the towns, where the procession passed the night, presenting themselves in Kosciuszko’s room to see with their own eyes that he was in truth the prisoner of Russia. In strong indignation at this insult to Kosciuszko, Niemcewicz writes, with excusable bitterness, that hitherto men had been known to make a show of wild beasts; now wild beasts showed off the man." At these interviews no free speech was possible between the fellow-Poles, as the guards were always present. They could only exchange the sympathy of sorrowing looks and equally sad, but guarded, words.

So long as the army marched through Poland, Kosciuszko had the mournful satisfaction of receiving here and there on the road some last token of recognition and honour from his compatriots. At one spot where the Russian officers quartered themselves on the castle of the Sanguszkos, while Kosciuszko and his companions were lodged in the wretched village inn, the Princess, unable to show her compassion in any other way, provided the Poles with all their meals, prepared by her chef. Another Polish princess, whose mansion was twenty miles distant, and who was no other than Ludwika Lubomirska, sent over her young son with clothes and books for the prisoners. They were still in this village when a courier arrived, bearing the news of the fall of Warsaw, and of the massacre of Praga which has gained for the name of Suvorov its eternal infamy in the history of Poland. Thirteen thousand of the civilian inhabitants of Warsaw, men, women, and children, were put to the sword, immolated in the flames, or drowned in the Vistula as they fled over a broken bridge before the fury of the Russian soldiers. Thus ended the Rising of Kosciuszko. If under one aspect it closed in failure, on the other side it had proved to the admiration and belated sympathy of all Europe how Poles could fight for freedom. Moreover, it laid the foundation for those later Polish insurrections in the cause of liberty which, no less heroic than the Rising of Kosciuszko, and with a sequel as tragic, are honoured among the world’s splendid outbursts of nationalism.

Following close on this blow came painful partings between Kosciuszko and his devoted comrades, Kniaziewicz, Kopec, and the remaining Polish officers. Kosciuszko, with Niemcewicz and Fiszer, were separated from the main army, and sent on under the escort of a small body of Russian officers and soldiers. With hearts torn by grief they said farewell to their friends, never expecting to see them again. Haunted by the thought of the unknown fate before them and by the terrible news from their country, they set out through a snowstorm that blotted out all discernible objects, the horses sinking into the snow which clogged the carriage wheels at every turn. Rigorously guarded, each word of their conversation noted and handed on to the commander, the prisoners were conveyed in as great secrecy as possible, and were not allowed to halt at any large town. At Czernihov two Cossack officers brought them a tray of fine apples, telling them they spoke in Polish that Polish blood flowed in their veins and that they deeply deplored the lot of the captives. More they were about to add when the Russian guard drove them off. Traversing White Ruthenia, a country that had so lately been Poland’s, the people watched them pass, not in curiosity, but rather with looks of interest and compassion. As they changed horses before a posting-house in Mohylev a tall, thin old peasant, in Polish costume, was observed by the prisoners among the groups that pressed around them to be gazing at them with eyes filled with pity, till at last, unable to contain himself longer, he broke his way through to them, weeping, only to be thrust aside by the Russian officer in charge. At Witebsk, again, a band of recruits in the Russian army respectfully uncovered their heads as Kosciuszko passed, and he knew that they were Poles. These little incidents cast their transitory gleam over the journey north, as the party pushed on to Petersburg, across the desolate snow-covered plains of Russia, through the piercing cold of the Russian winter. At night the fires of the aurora borealis threw a strange, blood-red light over the white, unending country. The gloomy silence that held all nature in its grip was only broken by an occasional crash of a bough under the weight of snow in the great forests through which the party passed, or by the wild, sad music of the Russian songs with which the postilions beguiled the night hours of their journey. Such was the accompaniment to Kosciuszko’s forebodings for his future and that of his fellow-captives, and to his greater anguish over the fate of his nation.

Petersburg was reached on the 10th of December. The prisoners were hurried at night through side streets, and then put into boats and taken by mysterious waterways into the heart of the Peter-Paul fortress. Here they were separated, Niemcewicz and Fiszer led to a large hall, and Kosciuszko conducted to another room. That was the last they saw of each other for two years. On the morning after his first night of solitary confinement Niemcewicz was brought coffee in a cup that he recognized as Kosciuszkos property. This alone told him that Kosciuszko was not far off; and cheered by that thought he was able, says he, to resign himself to everything."

The narrative of Niemcewicz, to which we owe the story of each step of the journey into Russia, can now, beyond a vague report that the poet from time to time gleaned from his jailors, tell us next to nothing more of Kosciuszko in a Russian prison. Detailed information from other sources is wanting, and we have only a few certain facts to go upon. For the first few months of his imprisonment, Kosciuszko was Kept in the fortress as a rebel, not as a vanquished enemy. “Rebel” was the term by which he was officially styled. Before December was out, he was subjected to the usual ordeal of the Russian prison: the inquisition. A paper was handed in to him, with a long string of questions, which he was ordered to answer in his own handwriting, on the relations of the Rising with foreign powers, the sources of its finances, and so on. It also contained a close catechetical scrutiny upon the conversations he had held with specified persons at such and such a date, and on the ins and outs of different incidents during the insurrection, that was a severe tax on the memory of a wounded man. All that is positively known of the inquisition are the questions and Kosciuszko’s replies. What lay beneath it what were the means of moral torture wielded by those who conducted the inquiry, the pitfalls spread for a prisoner who lay helpless, racked by pain from the wound in his head; what was the ingenuity employed to wrest his answers from him, whether he willed or no, are equally well known, says Kosciuszko’s historian, Korzon, who had himself more than sixty years later languished in a Russian dungeon, to those acquainted with the methods of the Russian political prison. That Kosciuszko, being at the mercy of the enemy who interrogated him, spoke as openly as he did regarding the measures that he was prepared to take with France and Turkey against Russia, is eloquent, says the same historian, of the force of his character land of his conquest over physical infirmity. His answers are short and pithily clear. He speaks the truth, says another Pole, or he does not speak at all.

His high qualities began to gain upon his conquerors. At the outset Catherine II in her correspondence speaks contemptuously of him as “a fool in all the meaning of that word”; but presently her language changes to a more complimentary, if still patronizing, tone, and after some months she had him removed from the fortress and conveyed to the Orlov palace, as a place more suited to his physically shattered condition. He was allowed to be carried into the garden and to take drives in the town under guard. He was provided with a good table, from which he daily sent meals to the Polish prisoners in the fortress. Always deft with his fingers, he whiled away the hours by working at a turning-lathe. A wooden sugar-basin that he made during his imprisonment is now in the Polish Museum at Rapperswil, Switzerland.

All this time he lay sick and crippled. The wounds he had carried from Maciejowice, unskilfully tended by the Russian surgeons, remained unhealed: grief of mind for his country did the rest. An English doctor named Rogerson attended him. He wrote: The physical and mental forces of that upright man are nearly exhausted, as the result of long sufferings. I am losing hopes of curing him. He has suffered so much in body and soul that his organism is entirely destroyed."

Two years passed thus. In the November of 1796 there was an unusual stir in the fortress, which to the Poles immured there could mean only one thing: the death of their arch-enemy, Catherine II. After a few days the suspicion was confirmed. The Empress was scarcely in her coffin before the son she had hated, now Paul I, entered Kosciuszko’s prison, accompanied by his retinue and by the Tsarewitch, Alexander, on whom for a transitory moment the fondest hopes of Poland were to rest, and whose friendship with a son of the house of Czartoryski is one of the romances of history. The Tsarewitch embraced Kosciuszko, and his father uttered the words: “I have come to restore your liberty.” The shock was so overwhelming that the prisoner could not answer. The Tsar seated himself by Kosciuszko’s side: and then ensued this remarkable colloquy between the Tsar of all the Russias and the hero of Polish freedom, which is known to us more or less textually from a Russian member of the court who was present, and also from the accounts of the Polish prisoners, who eagerly picked up its details which Niemcewicz collected and recorded.

“I always pitied your fate,” said the Tsar, who, in the earlier days of his reign, through the wild eccentricity that was more correctly speaking madness, was not devoid of generous instincts; “but during my mother’s rule I could do nothing to help you. But I have now taken it as the first duty of my sovereignty to confer freedom upon you. You are therefore free.”

Kosciuszko bowed and, after expressing his thanks, replied:

“Sire, I have never grieved for my own fate, but I shall never cease to grieve over the fate of my country.”

“Forget your country,” said Paul. “The same lot has befallen her as so many other states of which only the memory has remained in history; and in that history you will always be gloriously remembered.”

“Would rather that I should be forgotten,” was Kosciuszko’s reply, “and my country remain free. Certainly many states have fallen, but there is no example like the fall of Poland. ... It was in the very moment of her uprising, just when she was desirous to attain liberty of rule, precisely when she showed the greatest energy and patriotism, that Poland fell.”

“But confess,” went on the Tsar, “that this freedom of yours did not agree with the interests of the neighbouring states, and that your countrymen themselves served as the instrument of the destruction of their country.”

“Excuse me, Your Imperial Majesty, from further explanations on that point, for I can neither think nor speak without strong feeling about my country’s fall.”

“You do not offend me,” graciously replied Paul; “but on the contrary I esteem you the more, for it is the first time that I have spoken to a citizen whom I recognize as really loving his country. If at least the greater part of the Poles thought as you do, Poland might still exist.”

“Sire,” said Kosciuszko, with deep emotion, “that greater part was certainly there. If only Your Imperial Majesty could have been the eyewitness of that virtue, that patriotism, of which they gave no common proofs in the last Rising! I know how men tried to give Your Imperial Majesty the falsest and worst ideas about our nation, because they represented them in the eyes of the whole world as a horde of noisy ruffians, intolerant of rule and law, and therefore unworthy of existence. Virtuous and universal zeal only for the bettering of the country’s lot, for freedom from oppression and disorder, was called sedition; the best desires of good citizenship were accounted as a crime, and as the result of a brawling Jacobinism: finally, not only against all justice, but against the true interests of Russia, the destruction of the unhappy country by the complete dismemberment of her territory was given out as the most salutary counsel. How many outrages, perilous for the lot of every state, have resulted from it!” said he, in words of which we all too clearly have seen the truth to-day. “How many fearful consequences, what universal misery for its victims!”

“See what fire!” said the Tsar, turning to his officers.

“Pardon me, Sire,” said Kosciuszko. “Perhaps I was carried too far perhaps;” he hesitated.

But no, the Tsar hastened to reassure him, he had given the monarch food for thought, he had spoken to his heart. Kosciuszko must ask for every comfort he required till he left Petersburg, and must trust Paul as a friend."

This was the first of more than one interview between Kosciuszko and the Tsar. At the second Kosciuszko begged for the release of all the Polish prisoners of the Rising scattered in Russia and Siberia. He and his comrades were now permitted to visit each other. Niemcewicz has recorded his painful impression as he saw his friend for the first time since they had entered the prison together, lying with bandaged head and crippled limb, with ravaged nerves, speaking faintly and making signs to warn Niemcewicz when the latter raised his voice that spies were listening at the door.

But Paul’s pardon was not unconditional. Before granting a general amnesty he required of Kosciuszko and the leading Polish prisoners an oath of allegiance to himself and his successors. Thus Kosciuszko was called upon to face the bitterest sacrifice that even he had yet had to confront. On him depended whether the prison gates should be opened to twelve thousand fellow-Poles. At the cost of the most sacred feelings of his heart, after private consultations with Ignacy Potocki, who was among the prisoners in the fortress, and with whom he agreed that there was no alternative but to submit, Kosciuszko accepted the intolerable condition laid upon him, and took the oath. Upon the agony of that internal conflict he, with his accustomed reticence, remained silent. That there was some external pressure of a most harassing description on the part of the Russian ministers which tore the oath from his lips is proved by his own words in his letter to the Tsar two years later.

His intention was now to go to America, by Sweden and England. Rogerson, whose strong esteem he had gained, wrote to his friend, the Russian ambassador in London, begging him for the sake of their friendship to do all that he could for Kosciuszko, and entering into minute recommendations to ensure the latter’s well-being in England. Kosciuszko had aroused a like admiration in the imperial family. At the farewell audience in the Winter Palace he was received with a pomp detestable to his every instinct, and carried in Catherine’s wheel chair into the Tsar’s private room. The Tsar loaded him with gifts, including a carriage especially adapted to the recumbent position in which he was forced to travel. The Tsaritsa chose to give him a costly turning-lathe and a set of cameos, while he offered her a snuff-box of his own making, which she held in her hand during her coronation, showing it with pride to Rogerson as a gift which, said she, puts me in mind of a highly instructive moral." These presents from the Russian court were intensely galling to Kosciuszko’s feelings. He refused as many as he could. The rest that he accepted under compulsion he got rid of as soon as possible. His return present to the Tsaritsa was an act of courtesy, characteristic of Kosciuszkos chivalry to women; but he received with a marked coldness the advances of the Tsar, showered upon him in the moments caprice, as was the manner of Paul I. On the 19th of December, 1796, he turned his back upon Russia for ever and, accompanied by Niemcewicz, departed for Sweden.