- August 31, 2015
The first Pole to be the President of Vilnius Presentation of Waldemar Wołkanowski’s book
On September 4 at 5 p.m. in the Vilnius Polish Cultural Centre Waldemar Wołkanowski, who is second to none when it comes to knowledge about what happened in Vilnius 100 years ago, presents his latest book “MICHAŁ WĘSŁAWSKI – BIOGRAFIA PREZYDENTA WILNA W LATACH 1905-1916”. The book presents an unjustly forgotten figure of the first Pole who was approved by Russians as the President of our city and did a lot of good things for it. Nowadays in Lithuania that post is called a Mayor; in Poland it is called a President or Burmistrz. It is not a typical biography because Węsławski’s figure is presented against the backdrop of Vilnius and its inhabitants’ lives in the beginning of the 20th century. That “belle époque” was ended by the outbreak of World War I. Interestingly enough, one of the last conspiratorial Presidents of Vilnius in the 20th century was… Stanisław Węsławski, the nephew of Michał Węsławski, who has been active in in the structures of the Polish Underground State; he paid with his life for that. He was killed in Ponary in December 1942. During the meet up with the author, the book will be on sale. It is already available in Polish bookstores “Elephas” and Vilnius DKP.
Michał Węsławski’s figure has been mentioned many times by our colleague Wlademar Wołkanowski from our editorial office. For years he has been working on a biography of the first modern Polish local government activist who was an initiator of the europeanisation of Vilnius in the 20th century. Wołkanowski’s research work on the beginnings of local governance which was implemented in Vilnius in tsarist-Russian version in the end of the 19th century introduced him to Węsławski. From that moment on, there was a growing fascination and appreciation for plans and achievements of that lawyer, social activist and even politician. He was the Chair in the City Council and a Member of the Russian State Duma from Vilnius during one term at the same time!
Węsławski became the President of Vilnius in 1905. He took over from Russian generals and officials who, more or less, continued the Murawjow-Wieszatiel policy and therefore the Vilnius of 1905 was a provincial little governorate town; quite different from Riga, Kiev or even Warsaw. Vilnius was still affected by the repercussions of the January Uprising; there were no intellectual and financial elites and no prospects for economic development. Moreover, around that time there were many inflows and migration of Jews and Russian soldiers. The industry, cooperative movement and finance services (banks, insurance agencies etc.) were just beginning to exist there.
Young graduates from foreign and Russian academies (Tartu, Riga, Moscow and others) who decided to return home and set up modern business were seen as hope for the development of Vilnius in the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. One of Węsławski’s greatest achievements was creation of local government administration fit for the 20th century. His associates had a great influence on Vilnius development until the end of the 30s despite World War I.
Many Poles and even Vilnius inhabitants knew a young terrorist , ex-exile and socialist Józef Piłsudski who robbed the train with tsarist money near Bezdany in 1908. Moreover, Jan Piłsudski (the younger brother of future Chief of State and Marshal of the Republic of Poland) was already respected accounting officer (bookkeeper as it was called then) of Vilnius City Council and a close friend and associate of Węsławski…
Adam Piłsudski had been connected with the City Council of Vilnius for years and in 1934 he became the Vice President of Vilnius! Unfortunately, he and his brother Jan are not remembered as members of the local government and they are not used as an example for present-day Polish councillors, who could do more to preserve the memory of their compatriot predecessors. Similarly, Michał Węsławski also remains quite forgotten and if not totally forgotten then in the shadow of his more famous friends and associates: Józef Montwiłł and Tadeusz Wróblewski.
Montwiłł had a chance to be the first Pole to become the President of Vilnius but, as in the case of Tyszkiewicz, he was not accepted by Russians. They were soften up only after the revolutionary September of 1905-1907. Montwiłł’s monuments, both the Angel at Rasos Cemetery and the modernist statue on Trotsky Square near the Franciscan’s church, up to this day remind us about his merits. However, no one remembers about Węsławski’s tomb at Rasos Cemetery, maybe apart from the enthusiats of the Vilnius history.
It begs the question why Węsławski still remains forgotten even though he was friends with many Lithuanian activists with whom he completed education in junior high school in Szawle, was together in Libawa and studied in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He has never been a nationalist or even a Polsih nationalist, as his brother was. When he was a Member of the Second State Duma he became the President of the Poles Living In Lithuania and Ruthenia Faction which was not a part of the Polish Factin in the State Duma. Was it because he was so strongly associated with the “tsarist” Vilnius about which both Poles and Lithuanians wanted to forget as quickly as possible after 1918?
Waldemar Wołkanowski’s monograph is not just a biography of the first Pole to be the President of Vilnius. It is also, or maybe it is primarily, the book about Vilnius 100 years ago. It shows the city entering 20th century and its inhabitant from the “lost” generation; the last generation of the “tsarist” Vilnius which witnessed emerging new movements. The inhabitants probably could not have imagined what awaited the capital of the Grand Duchy in the 20th century. They could not have foreseen crippling wars, fratricidal conflicts and snatching control over Vilnius by different factions. After 30 years of Polish-Lithuanian quarrels the city returned to Russia which was quite different then… After 45 years Vilnius escaped Russia again. Was it for a longer period of time?
“Waldemar Wołkanowski’s monograph about Michał Węsławski the President of Vilnius is historically accurate, well-written and gripping what makes it even more interesting and valuable work”, says dr hab. Leszek Zasztowt from the Centre for East European Studies and a member of the Committee for the History of Science and Technology. He adds “In my opinion the book renders not only Michał Węsławski’s personality accurately but also characteristics of his surroundings. . . . it reminds us about the forgotten episodes from his efforts to modernize the city and talks about his political activity too. Apart from numerous archival sources, the author also used more than 200 studies. This book is good, valuable and reliable”.
On Friday (September 4) at 5 p.m. in Vilnius Polish Cultural Centre (Dom Kultury Polskiej) in room 005, Waldemar Wołkanowski himself presents his book and its hero to inhabitants of Vilnius. That President of Vilnius can be set as an example for our current local government activists. He shows them how to combine visionary and consequence in the realisation of the vision, romantic long-sightedness and clerical bravery with positivist “grassroots work” even in difficult circumstance. And finally it demonstrates how to gain respect and appreciation not only among one’s own friends but also among one’s political opponents and even among Russian central authorities which surly had the first Pole to be the President under a special supervision.
It is certain that training showing how to manage well the city, obtain funds, manage loans, balance a budget and pull the city out of debt could become useful not only for Polish councillors form 21st century.
Edited by: Edwin Wasiukiewicz
Translated by Barbara Żur within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.