Vilnius 1905: the Revolution, the elections and… bilingual signs!

Michał Węsławski, the first Polish man to be the president of Vilnius in XXc. Phot. from the author's collection

In a few months the first direct mayor elections will take place in Vilnius. Among the candidates there is also a representative of the Polish society. We keep saying that history repeats itself, as certain events are as if repeated in our history. In 2015 there will be 110th anniversary of the first free Vilnius self-government elections and of – what few people remember – for the first time choosing a Pole the president of the city (mayor, if you wish). It all happened in the shade of the immense shock which moved the social order of Russian Empire, including the guberniya of Vilnius.

The Polish City Council did not look into the things concerning revolution at that time. Taking advantage of convenient situation a bold resolution had been taken at one of the November sittings. A motion has been presented to the gubernator so that, on the basis of the act on language freedom announced in May 1905, the councilmen and jurors could have the swearing-in in Polish. It was also suggested that Polish could be used for internal communication in the Magistracy. The decision was commented in the following words: “There is no need to make an effort or to abstain if we have the right to do this”. The demand was justified with the fact that there is majority of Poles in the self-government. The most radical of the councilmen, connected with the national ideas went even further. They wanted bilingual signs on the Magistracy buildings, on the powerhouse, slaughterhouse and other city institutions and bilingual street names signs.

The councilmen were so convinced that the motion, supported by what was written in the manifest, will be considered positively that they asked for preparing the street signs without waiting for the gubernator’s response. Their design and content were discussed thoroughly long before. It was decided that the Polish name will be above the Russian one. For the confused Russian people of that time, which could not find themselves in the face of tsarist edicts, such proposals were beyond imagination. They were scandalous and unacceptable.

Independently of the local actions, the cessation of hostilities with Japan made it possible for the tsar to send the troops inland to check the revolution. Big forces were sent in November and December to the West guberniyas. St. Petersburg did not judge the attitude of the Vilnius authorities towards the commotion rightly. It was assumed that the gubernators did not control the situation and they were not able to overcome the commotion. The decisions about the “change” of the gubernators were made. Firstly, Konstanty von Pahlen, the Vilnius civil gubernator was recalled and replaced by Sergiusz Tatiszczew, an earl . Aleksander Biezobrazow, the vicegubernator was asked for demission and replaced by Aleksander Podjakonow. One could also hear about recalling Aleksandra Freze, the general-officer-gubernator.

The delay in making the decision of approving of the new president caused many complication in the self-government work. Approving of Michał Węsławski was not so obvious, though. Accorging to the tsarist personal politics a president should be a person who, is “politically impeccable and proved to be loyal to the service and duty”. It was not possible that a Pole could administer a big, guberniyal city before. Freze, the general-officer-gubernator engaged in the Węsławski’s case personally and telegraphed the ministry. He argued his request with the need of “constitutionalising the City Administration considering the internal situation”. He got a reply that after getting to know the candidate the ministry have nothing against the approval. Official nomination came in the end of November.

Michał Węsławski started as a gubernator on 2nd December 1905. During the inaugural sitting of the City Council he was enthusiastically welcomed. Dr Juliusz Sumorok, the oldest of the councilmen had a short speech in Polish. “Mister President! We welcome you as the first Polish president after 43 years. Emphasizing this momentous fact, as the first step to gain rights and equality in Lithuania, we believe that we will begin together work useful for society and, gaining new rights, we are heading better, brighter future.”

The president thanked for the honour he was given. He added that it was very difficult to hold that function in that Times. He appealed for willpower and solidarity in the future work, which will aim at improving the urban and societal economy. Węsławski said all this in Russian. As a counsellor knowing the Russian law he was aware that talking Polish in a national institution was still forbidden. He belonged to the legalist group for years. There were also Tadeusz Wróblewski and Józef Montwiłł among them who followed the rule of small steps in the concessions of the authorities on the national matters. They supported all the actions – no matter where they started – leading to get the concessions in a legal way.

Józef Montwiłł used to emphasize that legalism and loyalism signalized in a right way together with the reasonable servile service will bring measurable benefits. As a result, certain actions causing gradual rebirth of Polish cultural life will be possible. That is why superficial gestures should be made to have good opinion among the authorities who will be ready to turn a blind eye on small signs of “disobedience”. Hipolit Korwin-Milewski followed the following rule: “Do not lick a fist and do not bite a hand which aims to greet you”.

Leon Sumorok wrote in his memories: “When choosing a Pole for the president of the city position was possible Michał Węsławski was chosen for this position which he holds now wirh dignity gaining respect even among the hostile Russian authorities with his tact and impeccable honesty”. In the end of 1905 time of intense labor started for the city. Michał Węsławski gathered a circle of experts who decided to reform the Vilnius self-government and to fix certain things connected with the city functioning.

1906 brought calming down of the society spirits. People were preparing to the first Russian State Duma elections. It was the time when the hopes on normalizing the country were high. There were still several months left till the time when the “Stołypinowska reaction” happened.
We should not forget about the attempt of the Polish councilmen to introduce Polish signs. Such signs with street names were produced in 1907 in a small workshop in Vilnius by a craftsman, whose job was to produce trade signs, following the agreed pattern. In June several such bilingual signs were set on corner townhouses and thethe storm broke. Nomerous articles including the message of indignation at the inappropriate move of the self-government appeared in the Russian press. The signs were there for a few days only as the police demanded their removal…

The police was asked also to vheck the signboards of the shops. Where they found the sign was only in Polish the owner was asked to include the official Russian sign writing as well. It was already a success as before 1905 the signs, besides Russian, could be written also in one of the “languages of the world”. In Vilnius it was French. That is why when looking at the postcards from that time, released before 1905 one should not be surprised to see signboards in French.

Russian-Polish signs were removed then from the streets of Vilnius. As the owners were not really eager to do it, the police removed them themselves, so that the order was followed as soon as possible. However, still before the “stołypinowska reaction” the authorities felt obliged tofomally explain the decision about the removal of the writings. The Gubernator sent a message to the Magistracy writing that the signs were unlawful also because “in the Polishm part they gave histarical names of the streets instead of those which were included in the official city plan!”.

That was what happened: the Tsarist authorities soon after taking over the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth changed dozens of the names of the streets in Vilnius, removing the names connected with religion, the Church or Catholic monasteries. Dominikańska Street, where the former City Council (the Magistracy, that is the present-day self-government) had its residence was renamed as Błagowieszczyńska street after the Dominican monastery was closed. The bilingual sign put there by the Polish self-governent had the Polish part with the “Dominikańska” street while this name could not be found on the city plan. Turning a blind eye on other aspects, in this case legalism was demanded.

Wojciech Baranowski, the editor of the Polish language “Kurier Litewski” when writing an article about the dissolving the Duma and the “stołypinowska” change of the course he also referred to the attack of the Russian press on the Magistracy as a result of having introduced the street signs. He wrote in a depressing mood “New winds have blown for sure, or actuually the old ones came back, the ones which blew with the sand of the past. A crusade against Polish nature begins again, the fight with our natural quests, the wave of hatred is climping up our backs, the gloomy voices of the oppressors taking the power can be heard – ill-omened, cawing over our heads”.
Hmm… The history repeats itself. The events described took place 110 years ago and now the “Putin” reaction is what we have. An attempt of a Polish to become a mayor and the longgoing problem of the Polish language street signs. Knowing history one would say what we experience now is a kind of déjà vu.

Street signs were used as a tool of political influence on society and on the creation of history according to certain orders many more times. Aside from the hanging of the German language signs during the 1915-18 and 1941-44 occupations, the Soviet authorities made most fuss about it. Not like the Germans, the Soviet authorities, just like the Tsarists, removed most of the historical names introducing new ones not connected historically. The most characteristic example would be the merging of the three streets: Zamkowa, Wielka and Ostrobramska into one street named after Maksym Gorki…

In the tsarist times the three streets were also merger under the name of Wielka (Bolszaja). Lithuanian-Russian naming on the street signs in the times of the Soviet Lithuania was a cruel and perfidious action taken to serve as an example of the friendly internationalism of the Soviet Union with linguistic equality. The signs were hanged but the names were changed and the traces of any historical etymology were removed at the same time. St. Kazimierz Alley was named after J. Vito which was significant as at the same time St. Kazimierz Church was changed into a Museum of Atheism.

Examples of this kind could be multiplied. New inhabitants of the Soviet Vilnius did not have any idea about the changes which were introduced in this field. The signs in Lithuanian were a pinch of equality for them and the fact that the history of the town was left without any contact with its sources was of no importance. What mattered for the authorities was that most of the churches were closed and dozens of religious symbols were destroyed.

After 1991 the authorities of the independent Lithuania started to reintroduce the historical names removing their artificial and Soviet versions. In the countries where the authorities have nothing against using double naming for the fact of the presence of national minorities in a given area, such bilingual sign are no surprise. It meets the needs of the local society and it points to the cultural diversity of the region and what is most important – to tolerance…

 [1] Information about nomination was given by the local and metropolitan newspapers and after that the press of the remaining cities of Russia and the newspapers in Commonwealth

[2] Piotr Stołypin replaced Sergieja Witte in the function of the prime minister as the latter was recalled by Tsar for his incompetence.


Tłumaczenie by Gabriela Godek w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, Translated by Gabriela Godek within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights,

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