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49 thoughts on “Witkiewicz’ Suicide

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  • craig Post author

    English text

    “Not knowing anyone who would care about my destiny in any way I find it sufficient to explain that I am taking my own life voluntarily. As I am currently employed by the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I humbly beseech the said Department to dispose of the 2 years’ wages due to me from the 1st Orenburg Regiment in the following way: 1. Settle the bill for officer’s uniform articles, for the total sum of about 300 roubles; 2. Give 500 roubles to the tailor Markevitch for the dress I ordered from him but haven’t collected; 3. Allow my man Dmitry the use of all my belongings that I have with me at the moment. I have burnt all the papers relating to my last journey and, therefore, all search for them would be entirely useless. I have settled the bill with the landlord of the Paris Inn up until May 7, but should he have any other requests I humbly beseech the Department to satisfy him from the above-mentioned sum. May 8, 1839, 3a.m. Vitkevitch.” Dalrymple, Return of a King, p.199

  • John Goss

    The consensus seems to be that he was bumped off. I can only find reference to a lone citation from Vladimir Pikul. The text is the same as Dalrymple’s but in Russian. It comes from a work “Опасная дорога в Кабул” (The Dangerous Road to Kabul).

    This was the document in which I found the link. But no original as far as I can see.

  • Abe Rene

    I wonder whether he and Sikander Burnes knew each other as adversaries in the Great Game.

  • Philip

    I was expecting something pleasingly metaphorical about the relevance to modern politics of Stanislaw Ignacy (confidence and supply between The Madman and the Nun, perhaps, or Cameron and Crosby driving The Crazy Locomotive). Instead I find you fussing about some great-uncle. Curse you and your historical predilections.

  • craig Post author

    Very probably murdered I think. He burnt all his papers which included details of British agents in Central Asia, having met his boss the previous day and told him about them, with no sign of being troubled.

    Wondering what word he used for “dress” in the translation. Was it as in “dress uniform” or is there a woman involved?

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Valentin (and not Vladimir) Pikul cannot be trusted as historian. He wrote more than 30 historical novels and not a single day he had spent in any of the archives. All he did was found more or less unknown written essays and added colours to them.

    In Russian sources I have checked the dress referred to the uniform which he had ordered to the tailor.

    But many sources suggest that original of his suicide note had disappeared and what is known about it comes from sources which claim that they have read it.

    Reputable historian would not trust such sources.

    There is a lot of speculation of him being murdered and amount of burnt and nearly burnt papers supports this point. However; it is unclear whether he was murdered by British (for his success in Afghanistan and failure of Burnes mission) or on orders from then all powerful Russian Foreign minister Nesselrode who amongst other sins have been known as keen supporter of Austria which at that time was ally of the British Empire.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    On rushing off in the wrong direction completely, I also found Stanislaw Ignacy. Yes, he is alleged to have committed suicide. However the remains supposed to be his proved not to be when they were exhumed and reburied. This may have been an absurdist jest. On whose part is not known.

  • craig Post author


    Nesselrode had disavowed him to the British, but the evidence seems compelling that he was not actually in disgrace. Either way, I struggle for a clear motive for Nesselrode to need him dead. The British did have a more clear motive. Burning his own papers and killing himself seems the most improbable of all.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Looks to me like another case of not putting the murder in the proper context.

    At that time, the UK was in the biggest difficulties back in London because of Lord Brougham’s complaints about the new Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting, what was going on in colonial Jamaica, and the status of the Reform Acts.

    Wonder if Witkiewicz went the same route as Lady Flora Hastings, thanks to Lord Auckland’s ultimatum in Kabul, and what the former Lord Chancellor, Auckland’s brother-in-law as I recall, threatened to make of it too.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Could anything be found in British archives about this? Surely liquidation order (or whatever is on professional jargon) issued more than 150 years ago should now be made public. And surely British would issue such order, especially if it was executed overseas.

    Sources suggest that Witkiewicz was about to receive an decoration from the Nikolai I (personally) on the day of his “suicide”. But there are a lot of archive materials (and not just speculations) confirming that Nesselrode manipulated Nikolai I especially when it came to European politics. Nesslerode knew for sure that Witkiewicz’s success in Afghanistan would push British Empire to act and Russia would need to act in response too. It was (as it seems) at the time too early for Russia to move further into Central Asia (something they have started 20 years later) and Nesselrode might have preferred to keep status quo with regards to Central Asia and Afghanistan. It might simply be a case when Witkiewicz was sent to ensure that British did not get upper hand in Afghanistan but nobody have actually ordered him to ensure that Russia was favoured there. At the meeting with Nikolai I Witkiewicz could have convinced emperor (or his papers which have been burnt) to turn Russian Empire eastwards whereas Nesselrode’s own course was westwards.

    Above all are just my speculations.

  • Giyane

    The CIA regularly tortures its own Muslim agents, even if they have been reared from a young age on anti-authoritary propaganda to get them to work against their political leaders. This is no doubt to remind them that any progress they may have made in confronting for example Saddam Hussain is not for their benefit but for the benefit of the CIA. They have been paid, and if they wish after being tortured they can return and be paid again for future work done.

    Henry Kissinger made this plain in his statement that people sometimes confuse covert operations with social work. Never think that you will get the better of the CIA. This week a young disabled man saw through the paid spooks, but the spooks get punished if they start to play the game against their own masters.

    Craig has only survived the reprisals of the UK plc by occasionally toeing the party drivel e.g. Ukraine and by aggressively publicising any move they make against him. Attack is the best form of defense. I very much admire his success and I have learned to do the same, hence my numerous attacks on the UK agents among the Muslim imams who are ready to sell the unimportant ( to them ) Muslims for their own political advantage.

    Political power has a soft underbelly of fear of exposure and the internet has pushed the balance of power in favour of the virtuous by constantly exposing political power to the people who are scared of them.

    Well done Craig for showing us the way even though he has sacrificed his diplomatic career and now his political career with the SNP by being a man of truth and strength of purpose!
    Anyone who indefatigably exposes the evils of the powerful will leave them cowering in the political cupboard and running for their walled gardens and pensions to a safe and peaceful, memoired old age.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    The political establishment back in 1839 so wanted to see the death of Lord Brougham that it manufactured falsely reports that October that he had died too.

  • Giyane


    1 May, 2015 – 8:16 am

    I think the SNP will change and its enthusiasm for sterling, the Queen and NATO – an enthusiasm most members never shared – will vanish.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Suggest you consult the George Eden aka first Baron Auckland papers in the UK National Archives, the Palmerston Papers there too, and my biography of Lord Chancellor Brougham for some of the context.

    Wish I could say something good about other published works but they are just too limited, and gossipy generally about what was going on.

  • John Goss

    My first port of call as a fellow historian would be to contact William Dalrymple and ask him where he found it, if there is no reference to the source given in his book (that seems peculiar). I suggest the suicide note must exist if he has quoted it completely. Then you are left with genuine article or forgery. He says on his web page that he is “keen to hear” what readers think of his work.

  • Johnstone

    off topic and last thread

    Its a fine spring late afternoon about 3 weeks ago there is one standing aside from the group of young mothers with their toddlers. Shes between her two children playing in the sand pit and the group of young women who are all sharing stories and snacks together at the park bench. She looks towards me as I walk up the path towards the park with my dog. I think about how lonely she looks and how lonely I know her to be. I am not in ‘uniform’ is that why her eyes meet mine as I get closer? Shes small, young and vulnerable this much I know. I say ‘hello’ as I approach and I smile at her always looking into her eyes. She returns a friendly greeting and I think she smiled too, because you can hear smiles if you listen carefully. I can only wonder whether I am the first to offer her a friendly greeting in that park. Its called Camp King Park Oberursel Germany.

  • craig Post author


    You are forgetting the failed attempt on Khiva in 1840. Nesselrode was already signed up to this, though whether he could have stopped it given Perovsky’s influence with Nicholas is unsure.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    While I haven’t read any of Dalrymple’s books, only reviews about them, they too seem too limited in focus.

    See nothing about what is going on back in London – i.e., the Whigs war with Brougham – only scapegoating Auckland et al.

  • Republicofscotland

    Reading about Witkiewicz on Wiki,the circumstances surrounding his death seem very vague indeed.

    This is an interesting article about him

    Also here is a book on Witkiewicz by Daniel Gerould,the preview allows you to read quite bit.

  • Philip

    @John Goss – “Interesting character” is an understatement, I think. And apparently the smallness and insularity of the Polish intellectual aristocracy between the wars meant that he was friends with and/or squabbled with all the other interesting people like Malinowski, Szymanowski etc. Some years ago I made a vain attempt to sum him up here. I’ve been re-reading his plays recently, so the title of this post made me sit up, only to find that Craig’s priorities are all wrong. But that’s the Diplomatic Service for you.

  • craig Post author

    We are in danger of confusing the two Witkiewicz’s. I wonder if they were related. It seems probable.

  • Philip

    They were indeed related. Jan Prosper was the uncle of Stanislaw Witkiewicz, who was the father of Stanislaw Ignacy. Apologies if I’ve dragged things off-topic.

  • craig Post author

    Radek Sikorski is reputedly expert on Jan Prosper. I know Radek, but I fear he is rather busy just now…

  • Becky Cohen

    There you go, Craig. Done:

    “Не зная никого, кто бы заботиться о моей судьбе в любом случае я считаю, что достаточно, чтобы объяснить, что я беру свою жизнь добровольно. Как я в настоящее время используется в Азиатском департаменте Министерства иностранных дел в, я смиренно молим сообщает отдел распоряжаться 2 года зарплат в связи с меня с 1-го Оренбургского полка следующим образом: 1. Settle законопроект для офицера единые статьи, на общую сумму около 300 рублей; 2. Дайте 500 рублей портного Маркевича для платья я заказал от него, но не собранные; 3. Разрешить мой человек Дмитрий использование всех моих вещей, которые я имею со мной в данный момент. Я сжег все документы, касающиеся моего последнего путешествия, и, следовательно, все их поиск будет полностью бесполезен. Я поселился законопроект с арендодателем Парижской Inn до до 7 мая, но он должен иметь какие-либо другие запросы, я смиренно молим отдел, чтобы удовлетворить его от вышеупомянутого суммы. 8 мая 1839, 3 утра Vitkevitch. “Дэлримпл, Возвращение Короля,

  • Mark Golding

    This from ALEXANDER MORRISON – may give a little insight into the mysterious Ivan Viktorovitch Vitkevitch, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz in his native Polish Lithuania.

    Vitkevich’s suicide note gave no clues (assuming its reliability). He made no mention of his mother, brother or friends, and simply stated that he was taking his life of his own accord and gave details of various debts that were to be settled. 1

    It is always possible that, as Sir John Kaye later alleged, he was murdered or driven to suicide, and that Senyavin, in this letter to his principal patron, was somehow seeking to disguise this, but this seems implausible and melodramatic, reflecting little more than British prejudices about the nature of the Russian state. 2

    Rather than looking to the outcome of his Afghan mission, as Senyavin’s rather chilling reference to the ‘Polish jig’ (Pol’skayazhiga v nem razlilos’) suggests, we should instead seek the reason in his experiences as an exile. At least one of Vitkevich’s fellow exiles became so depressed that he shot himself, and Peslyak wrote that he also came very close to it. Blaramberg writes that, in contrast to the playful letters he wrote to Dal’ at this time, Vitkevich appeared permanently melancholy when they were travelling together from Tiflis to Tabriz, saying that he was fed up with life, and brandishing a pistol before him with the words: ‘Avec се pistolet la, je me brulerai un jour la cervelle.’ 3

    The reason for his suicide probably lies in the trauma of youthful exile and separation from his family, and perhaps
    a sudden surge of self-loathing and disgust at having served so well the state that had inflicted this on him. 4

    1. ‘Tri chasa utra podlinnuyu podpisal Vitkevich’, 8 May 1839 (Copy of a copy), RGVIA, F.67 Op.1 D.103 l.4.
    2. J.W. Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, 3rd edition (London: W.H. Allen, 1874) Vol. I, p. 209.
    3. ‘With that pistol, one day I shall blow my brains out.’ He also blamed Vitkevich’s ‘sickly self-esteem’ (iz-za boleznennogo samoliubiya): see Blaramberg, Vospominaniya, pp. 163, 222.
    4. Peslyak, ‘Zapiski’, p. 581. Dalrymple, Return of a King, pp. 200–03, also suggests this as the most likely explanation, adducing further a melodramatic account of a confrontation between Vitkevich and a childhood friend from Poland.

    Suicide in early nineteenth century Russia was often an overtly political act, an ultimate assertionof the autonomy of the individual in the face of autocratic power, and this is another possible reading of Vitkevich’s death, although
    not necessarily the one he intended. 5

    What is more certain is that Vitkevich’s melancholy fate contributed to the aura of mystery that he had acquired among the British, and lent credence to rumours of the sinister nature of Russian intrigue in Afghanistan. 6

    The official nature of Vitkevich’s mission is not in doubt, but it is less clear what he had been authorized to offer—his written instructions were vague and the letter he carried contained little more than expressions of friendship and hopes for the establishment of trade relations, but while in Kabul he seems to have offered more, including financial assistance, in the struggle against the British and the Sikhs. 7 To the extent that he was ‘Perovsky’s man’, he probably had the governor of Orenburg’s authority to offer a degree of Russian financial support, and Volodarsky argues convincingly that, in this, Perovsky and the tsar had overridden objections from the more cautious Nesselrode. 8

    Vitkevich’s presence was certainly designed to strengthen DostMuhammad’s resolve to resist British blandishments,
    creating in Afghanistan a barrier to the further encroachment (as the Russians saw it) of British trade and political interests into Central Asia. Almost a mirror image, in other words, of what the British were simultaneously trying to achieve in Afghanistan, but not a direct attempt to threaten British security in India. The British response—an outright invasion and occupation of Afghanistan—was disproportionate to the threat posed by Vitkevich and his mission. The
    Persian attack on Herat was a more concrete threat to India’s security, but even as preparations for the deposition of Dost Muhammad were being put in place, Auckland received news that the siege had failed, partly owing to the efforts of a British officer, Eldred Pottinger, in strengthening Herat’s defences.

    5. Peslyak, ‘Zapiski’, p. 581. Dalrymple, Return of a King, pp. 200–03, also suggests this as the most likely explanation, adducing further a melodramatic account of a confrontation between Vitkevich and a childhood friend from Poland.
    6. Susan Morrissey, ‘In the Name of Freedom: Suicide, Serfdom and Autocracy in Russia’, Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 82 No. 2 (April 2004) pp. 271–78, 290–91.
    7. This was partly because they had so little accurate information about him. See, for instance, Stoddart to Burnes, 9 February 1838, PP Vol. XXV.7 No. 1 (8 June 1859) p. 169, where he refuses to believe that Vitkevich could be a Pole, because he was in a Cossack regiment.
    8. Yapp, Strategies, pp. 234–35;Mosely, ‘Russian Policy in Asia’, p. 671. Blaramberg’s
    later assertion that Vitkevich’s mission was not ‘political’ was almost certainly
    disingenuous: Vospominaniya, pp. 129–30.
    9. Volodarsky, ‘The Russians in Afghanistan’, p. 73.

    Nevertheless, Auckland insisted that the operation must go ahead ‘to raise up a permanent barrier against schemes of aggression from that quarter’. 10 The fear of an extension of Russian influence into Central Asia continued to drive British policy.

    It was Burnes who, partly as ameans of exaggerating the importance of his mission, talked up the Russian threat (‘a cabinet, Oriental and dark in its diplomacy’ 11), and who gradually, with McNeill in Tehran, and the foreign member of the Governor-General’s Council, William Hay Macnaghten (1793–1841), won over the more cautious Auckland to the necessity of pursuing an aggressive policy in Afghanistan. Burnes would reiterate this position in his last despatch from Afghanistan, sent from Jalalabad on the road back to Punjab, stating that ‘consequences of a most serious nature’ would flow from the situation in Central Asia unless the British government ‘applies a prompt, active and decided counteraction’ to the machinations of Russia, ‘a nation which makes no scruple to dazzle men’s minds by promises’. 12

    Burnes’s solution to this problem, as is well known, was the creation of a strong, unified Afghan state able to resist Persian and Russian aggression, and he exceeded his instructions by promising British arms and money to Dost Muhammad Khan’s brothers at Kandahar to resist the Persians.

    10. Auckland to the Secret Committee, 13 March 1839, ‘East India (Cabul and Affghanistan). Correspondence of the Governor General of India with the President of the Board of Control and with the Secret Committee of the East India Company [ . . . ] relative to the expedition to Affghanistan, or such part thereof as has not already been published’, PP Vol. XXV.7 No. 1 (8 June 1859) p. 303; Hopkins is thus wrong to suggest that ‘the Russians’ (sic) were still besieging Herat once Shah Shuja had been installed: Afghanistan, p. 66.
    11. Burnes to Auckland, 23 December 1837, PP Vol. XXV.7 No. 1 (8 June 1859) p.92; this phrase, so redolent of British prejudices about Russia, was not published in the original, ‘garbled’ papers of 1839.
    12. Burnes to Macnaghten, 30 April 1838, PP Vol. XXV.7 No. 1(8 June 1859) p. 229. Here too the final phrase was not published in 1839.

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