Vilnius is preparing to host one of the biggest international ceremonies of recent years, a state reburial of the leaders of the 1863-1864 uprising. The ceremony on Friday, to be attended by the presidents of Lithuania and Poland and a deputy prime minister of Belarus, will be a pivotal moment in the relations among the three countries, the Lithuanian government says.
The January Uprising, as it is known in Poland, was a failed attempt to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, most of which had been under the Russia rule since 1795. The uprising started in January 1863 among young Polish conscripts and spread across the lands of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, involving both the peasantry and landed gentry.
It was the longest-lasting insurgency in the post-partition Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but was eventually crushed by the Tsar's forces by summer 1864. Many of its leaders were sentenced and executed in Lukiškės Square in Vilnius.
For one and a half centuries, historians had been wondering what happened to the remains of the executed leaders. They were discovered two years ago, during fortification works on Gediminas Hill.
The twenty unearthed remains were confirmed to include Konstanty Kalinowski (or Konstantinas Kalinauskas, as he is known in Lithuanian) and Zygmunt Sierakowski (or Zigmantas Sierakauskas).
The discovery and the reburial ceremony are a historic occasion not only for Lithuania, but for Poland and Belarus as well, says the Deputy Chancellor of the Lithuanian government, Deividas Matulionis.
“This event is important for our society and relations with our neighbours, Both dimensions are crucial,” Matulionis tells LRT TV.
The January Uprising has different meanings in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. In the interwar Republic of Lithuania, which defined itself largely in opposition to Poland, the insurgency was regarded sceptically, since it sought to restore the joint state.
In the Soviet times, the uprising was interpreted as a class struggle between peasantry and landed aristocracy. Since 1990, it came to be seen in Lithuania as a strife for liberation from the Russian rule.
Meanwhile in Poland, the January Uprising has always been a pivotal moment in national history. “The restoration of Poland in 1918 was effected with the memory of the 1863 uprising,” says historian Alvydas Nikžentaitis.
In Belarus, the uprising and particularly Konstanty Kalinowski, one of its leaders, mark the beginnings of national self-consciousness.
Kalinowski published a newspaper in Belarusian and wrote poetry. He is seen as a national hero.
“In fact, in 1995, just before [Alexander] Lukashenko was elected president, Belarus named its highest state decoration after Kalinowski,” Nikžentaitis says, adding that it was discontinued after 2004.
At the moment, Kalinowski is a divisive figure in Belarus: the opposition still hold him as a hero, while Lukashenko's regime finds him inconvenient – after all, Kalinowski fought for independence from Moscow.
In September, a group of Belarusian cultural figures, critical of Lukashenko, sent a letter to the Lithuanian government, asking to hand over Kalonowski's remains to Belarus. That would remind the Belarusians to love and fight for their nation, they wrote.
Matulionis says that the government did not consider the request.
“First, there was no request from the [Belarusian] government and, second, should we really use a man's remains as a political instrument?” according to Deputy Government Chancellor Matulionis.
“It is indeed going to be an international event,” says Salvina Taukinaitienė, the head for protocol at the Ministry of Defence. “I have had the honour of being involved in organising several state funerals, but this one exceeds them all.”
The leaders of the 1863 January uprising will be laid to rest in a chapel of Rasos Cemetery in Vilnius.