Belarusians during the Napoleonic Wars?

May 2019
215
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Firstly, yes, I know "Belarusian" was not a defined national term back then. I'm referring to the so-called "Ruthenians" or Slavic "Litvins" occupying the territory which is now Belarus.

I was curious what sort of participation in the Napoleonic Wars, particularly Napoleon's invasion of Russia, this population took part in. We know of the Poles and Lithuanians who fought for Napoleon; were Ruthenians/Litvins from Belarus also involved in these units?

There's an (unsourced) claim on wikipedia about Belarusian resistance to Napoleon. Anyone know if it's true?

Belarusians were active in the guerrilla movement against Napoleon's occupation and did their best to annihilate the remains of the Grande Armée when it crossed the Berezina River in November 1812
source: Belarusian resistance movement - Wikipedia

Did the sympathies of the people of (what is now) Belarus lie more with Russia, or with Napoleon and his Polish-Lithuanian supporters during this period? Was there maybe a class divide? I know a significant part of the Belarusian nobility had been loyal to the PLC in earlier times...
 
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Jul 2012
775
Australia
At the time of the Napoleonic Wars the people of today's Belarus would have called themselves simply Rus. In relation to other Rus they would have been referred to a Byelo-Rus (White Russia), where white is an old asiatic-steppe notation for West.

Within their society they would have identified themselves as peasants in relation to their landlords who now called themselves Szlachta, as up to 1772 they were part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonealth.

Peasants were still Serfs and did not participate in the political life of their communities. The Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko, whose family heritage is in the lands of Belarus, and like all people of his background at the time called himself Polish, did try to empower the serfs with his Manifesto of Polaniec in 1794 that promised emancipation and civil liberties in return for participating in his Rebellion..

Many Polish soldiers emigrated after the 3rd and final partition and found support in Italy under Napoleon and the client states of Revolutionary France created there, creating the Polish Legions. Magosci notes "Most of the soldiers came from the ranks of the peasantry, with only about 10 percent being drawn from the nobility." The peasants here were probably those that answered Kosciuszko's call and followed their officers after defeat. Its likely that there would not have been any Belarussian peasants here as at the time Belarus was since 1772 a province of Tsarist Russia. The Legions fell out with Napoleon as his treaties failed to address a free Polish state and the last of the Legionnaires were sent on an ill-fated mission to Haiti to suppress a rebellion there.

Another Polish military unit was formed in France in 1806 from deserters from Prussian army units. Its unlikely there were Belarussians in this group. In 1807 Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw out of Prussian partition areas (some Australian areas were added later), which did not include Belarussian lands. He emancipated the serfs and placed the now burgeoning Polish military units under the command of Prince Joseph Poniatowski, the nephew of the last king of Poland, and repelled an Austrian attack on the Duchy in 1809.

The Belarussian lands are part of what the Poles call Kresy (borderlands) which was a dynamic region for Polish culture in the 19th century. Although firmly under the control of Tsarist Russia, it is likely they were strongly influenced by the revoluntionary fervour of the French and the developments of the Duchy of Warsaw. Even the Tsar was considering concessions to the Poles to stymie the revolutionary influence. But this is about Poles and not Belarussians.

In the 1812 war the peasant population of Belarus appears to have backed the Tsar who enticed them with promises of emancipation and reforms (viz a vis the szlachta landlords) - which were forgotten on Napoleon's defeat and more stringent policies put in place. The Tsar was lenient to the Polish and Belarussian szlachta who whole-heartedly supported Napoleon, but the majority of whom did not return.

So the outcome for the Belarussian peasantry was a harsher life after Napoleon than before, despite their support for the Tsar, and then in 1839 forcibly converted from their Uniate Church into Russian Orthodoxy.
 
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May 2019
215
Earth
Great answer, @motorbike . A few questions though...

Many Polish soldiers emigrated after the 3rd and final partition and found support in Italy under Napoleon and the client states of Revolutionary France created there, creating the Polish Legions. Magosci notes "Most of the soldiers came from the ranks of the peasantry, with only about 10 percent being drawn from the nobility." The peasants here were probably those that answered Kosciuszko's call and followed their officers after defeat. Its likely that there would not have been any Belarussian peasants here as at the time Belarus was since 1772 a province of Tsarist Russia.
I thought western Belarus was still part of the Commonwealth up to 1795. Didn't a Sejm take place in Grodno in 1793? If this map is to be believed, there were actions of the Kosciuszko Uprising fought within western Belarus (e.g. the battle of Terespol). So, are you saying that despite this, no Belarusians went in to exile with Kosciuszko's remnant forces after the defeat of the rebellion?

Another Polish military unit was formed in France in 1806 from deserters from Prussian army units. Its unlikely there were Belarussians in this group. In 1807 Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw out of Prussian partition areas (some Australian areas were added later), which did not include Belarussian lands.
Are you sure? If this map is not wrong, it included some small parts of what is now Belarus (e.g. the corner just northwest of Grodno).

In the 1812 war the peasant population of Belarus appears to have backed the Tsar who enticed them with promises of emancipation and reforms (viz a vis the szlachta landlords) - which were forgotten on Napoleon's defeat and more stringent policies put in place.
Yes, you might have more to share about this particular subject: I found some evidence to suggest that the French army antagonized the Belarusian peasant population during their invasion, through things such as requisitioning of supplies/farm goods. This website has a list of incident reports from Napoleons time in the region. Unfortunately the original documents are in Belarusian, but from reading the summaries in English, I got a bit of a gist of them...
 
Jul 2012
775
Australia
You are absolutely right Hyuzu - most of Belarus was not partitioned until the 3rd in 1795. My gross slip-up.

Kosciusko's battles

The Kosciuszko uprising was very limited in its spread. The main area of activity was delimited by lines between Krakow - Chelm - Brzesc - Warsaw. There was some activity in Vilnius and one expedition into Prussian held Polish lands. Can't see how peasants would have become involved unless the fighters were in their area - the szlachta generally were not supportive of Kosciuszko's policy of emancipating the serfs so they would not be encouraging peasants to join the fight. Without any substantive action on Belarus lands its unlikely the Belarus peasants would have had the opportunity of joining the fight, if they were motivated. The numbers of peasants that took part in the uprising were still small; it was noteworthy that any peasants took part.

The neck of land stretching from Mazovia towards Vilnius had a very high Polish population and was taken by Prussia in the 2nd partition (1792). Granted that the eastern districts could have a higher Belarusian population.

It was usual for invading armies to requisition materials from the lands they invaded - Belarus in 1812 being no exception - so animosity between invader and local population is likely to be very high. There have been instances where an invader has been welcomed to "free" the population from its oppressive overlords, only to turn against the invader as they are deprived of their food stores and other resources.

Tsar Alexander was a very progressive ruler and was not adverse to considering greater freedoms for peasants, and Poles. Around 1811 Prince Czartoryski, foreign minister in the Tsar's administration, attempted to woo the Duchy of Warsaw to the Russian side with promises of restoring the Polish state. Similarly for serfs - promises of liberties could be believed in the midst of exploitative treatment of the invading French. But whether promises are honoured are always determined by the balance of power on the day, and against the prevailing contexts.

Great finding the resources you did as there is not much in terms of a Belarusian perspective at the start of the 19th century.

All in all, during the Napoleonic era, the peasants did not have a strong sense of nationality; they were motivated more by economic and social considerations. When the landlord szlachta sided with Napoleon in 1812 and the invaders were seen as exploiters, listening to the Tsar offering liberties at the expense of their Polish landlords does start to sound attractive.
 
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