Jan Prosper Witkiewicz

Jan Prosper Witkiewicz (Lithuanian: Jonas Prosperas Vitkevičius; Russian: Ян Вѝкторович Виткѐвич, Yan Viktorovich Vitkevich) (June 24, 1808–May 8, 1839) was a Polish-Lithuanian[1][2] orientalist, explorer and diplomat in the Russian service.[3] He was the agent of Russia at Kabul just before the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Jan Prosper Witkiewicz
Born(1808-06-24)24 June 1808
Died8 May 1839(1839-05-08) (aged 30)
OccupationOrientalist, explorer and diplomat

Early lifeEdit

He was born into an old and distinguished Samogitian noble[4] family, in Pašiaušė in what is now modern Lithuania, and at the time was part of the Russian Empire. His father, Wiktoryn Witkiewicz, was the vice-marshal of the Šiauliai County appointed by Napoleon during the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw by the French,[5] and his mother was Justyna Aniela née Mikucka.

Imprisonment and exileEdit

In 1817, Jan began his studies at the Kražiai Gymnasium. While still at the gymnasium, he had helped found a secret society called the Black Brothers, which was an underground revolutionary-national resistance movement. The movement was initiated by a group of Lithuanian and Polish students intent on fighting the Russian occupation of the former territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.[1] These young students distributed banned books, supported anti-Russian sentiments and wrote independence-oriented manifestos.

However, in 1823, the Black Brothers movement was exposed after they began posting revolutionary slogans and verses on prominent public buildings, and started sending anti-Tsarist letters, poems and patriotically charged appeals to the principal and the students of the Vilnius University. In early 1824, Witkiewicz, together with five other youngsters was arrested, brought to the prison of the former Basilian Monastery in Vilnius and interrogated.[1] In an attempt to prevent any potential uprisings among other students, three of them were sentenced by the Russian authorities to death and the remaining three were to be flogged and then exiled to Southern Urals region.[6]

In a fortunate course of events and thanks to the involvement of the Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, the de facto viceroy of the Congress of Poland, the death sentences were changed with life imprisonment with hard labour in the Babruysk fortress.[6] Deprived of his nobility and forbidden all further contact with his family for ten years, Witkiewicz was later taken to serve as a common soldier at the Orsk fortress by the Ural River overlooking the Kazakh steppe.[6]

The poet Adam Mickiewicz retells in his poem Dziady how the Black Brothers from Kražiai were the first among the Lithuanian youth to be prosecuted in the Russian Empire.[1] In the poem there is also a scene where Mickiewicz describes how the young adolescents, handcuffed and chained, were bid farewell at the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.[1]

Later lifeEdit

An extremely capable, brave and charismatic man, besides for his native Polish, Witkiewicz was already fluent in Russian, French, German and English. In exile he learned Persian, Pashto, Kazakh and several Turkic languages.[7] Reconciled to Russian rule, Witkiewicz entered Russian service. Until the late 19th century, Russian nationalism was defined in terms of not language and ethnicity, but rather in terms of loyalty to the House of Romanov, so insofar as Witkiewicz was loyal to the House of Romanov, he was considered to be a "Russian". In 1829 he became an interpreter for Alexander von Humboldt.[8] At Humboldt's suggestion he was promoted to sergeant. In 1832 he was promoted to ensign and was on the Orenburg border commission. He was sent deep into the Kazakh steppe where he engaged in diplomacy and intelligence, collected geographic and ethnographic information and had several run-ins with bandits. General Vasily Perovsky, the Orenburg commander said that he knew more about the region than any other officer, past or present.

In November 1835 he joined a caravan at Orsk and in January 1836 reached Bukhara where he collected political intelligence and discussed trade and diplomacy with the Emir's officials. The purpose of his visit was to find out if the Emir of Bukhara would remain neutral if Russia attacked the Khanate of Khiva[7], which they did in 1839. At Bukhara he met Hussein Ali, a man who had been sent by Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul to visit the tsar. He accompanied Hussein Ali to Orenburg and Saint Petersburg which they reached in July 1836. He served as interpreter in Afghan-Russian discussions which went on until May 1837.

In 1837, on instructions of Count Karl Nesselrode, the Russian Foreign Minister, he was sent on a return diplomatic mission to Kabul. Reaching Teheran from Tiflis, he met the Russian minister in Tehran, Count Ivan Simonich. Continuing east with a Cossack escort he accidentally encountered Lieutenant Henry Rawlinson.[7] Speaking in Turcoman, he claimed to be carrying gifts from the Emperor Nicholas I to Shah Mohammad Qajar of Persia who at this time was marching east to capture Herat. Rawlinson reached the Shah's camp that night. The Shah told him that the story was nonsense and that he had personally given Witkiewicz permission to cross his territory to Kabul. A bit later Witkiewicz appeared in camp. Now speaking perfect French, he apologized to Rawlinson for his necessary carefulness in the dangerous country.[7] Rawlinson reported his meeting to McNeill at Teheran on November 1 and the news soon reached Calcutta and London. Since the British already knew that Simonich, and possibly the tsar, had encouraged the Persian attack on Herat their determination to do something about Afghanistan increased.

Witkiewicz reached Kabul on Christmas Eve 1837 and had Christmas dinner with the British representative Sir Alexander Burnes, the American adventurer Josiah Harlan, and the Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan.[7] Burnes described Witkiewicz: "He was a gentlemanly and agreeable man, of about thirty years of age, spoke French, Turkish and Persian fluently, and wore the uniform of an officer of the Cossacks".[9] At first, Dost Mohammed favored the British since they were nearby, but on receiving Lord Auckland's ultimatum he turned to Witkiewicz. In Kabul, Witkiewicz presented himself as a messenger from Emperor Nicholas I, but Dost Mohammad noted that the letter that Witkewicz had brought with him purportedly from Nicholas himself had no signature.[7] Witkewicz's letter had as its seal the Russian imperial double-headed eagle, which Burnes made a copy of.[7] Burnes showed his copy to Charles Masson, who recalled: "Captain Burnes pointed out to me the large exterior seal on the envelope. I sent for a loaf of Russian sugar from the bazaar, at the bottom of which we found precisely the same seal.".[7] Meanwhile, in London, Palmerston called in the Russian ambassador Count Carlo Andrea Pozzo di Borgo and complained about Russian activities in Afghanistan. Seeing that the British were in an aggressive mood, the Russians recalled both Simonich and Witkiewicz while making some pretense that both had exceeded their instructions. For the rest, see First Anglo-Afghan War.

Witkiewicz reached Saint Petersburg on May 1, 1839. What went on between him and minister Nesselrode is disputed. Nesselrode refused to see him, saying he "knew of no Captain Vikevitch, except an adventurer of that name who, it was reported, had been lately engaged in some unauthorised intrigues in Caubul [Kabul]".[10] A week after reaching St. Petersburg he was found shot dead in his hotel room. A pistol was by his side and a pile of burnt papers in the room. Witkiewicz had committed suicide as Nesselrode had disallowed him, claiming his visit to Kabul was not on his orders, and with his dream of a diplomatic career in ruins, Witkiewicz had decided to take his own life.[10]There is also an explanation that he committed suicide after a visit from an old Polish friend the same day, in which he was severely criticized for having been a traitor of the ideals of his youth (independence of Poland from Russia) and for his service in the ranks of his country's Russian enemy.[11]


Witkiewicz was the uncle of the renowned Polish painter, architect, writer and art theoretician Stanisław Witkiewicz, who in turn was father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.

Cultural referencesEdit

Jan Witkiewicz and his life inspired Russian writers: Yulian Semyonov based his book "The Diplomatic Agent" (Diplomaticheskiy agent; 1958) on Witkiewicz's life story. Incidentally, this work is regarded as the first noticeable book by Semyonov. Mikhail Gus made Witkiewicz the main character of his book "Duel' w Kabulie" (A Duel in Kabul). Witkiewicz is the main character of Valentin Pikul's historical miniature "Opasnaja doroga w Kabul'" (A dangerous Way to Kabul).

Witkiewicz is the prototype of the main hero in the feature film "Sluzhba otiechestvu" (Service to the Homeland; 1981) by Uzbek film director Latif Fayziyev [ru]). The adventures of Russian officer Aleksey Nalymov are inspired by Witkiewicz's fate.

Jan Witkiewicz inspired the Lithuanian author Regimantas Dima to write his book "Vilniaus Plovas" (Vilniaus Pilaf, 2015).


  1. ^ a b c d e Jonas Vitkevičius - pravarde Batyras by Regimantas Dima Verslo Žinios 1 October 2013
  2. ^ Ludwig W. Adamec, ed. (2012). Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan. The Scarecrow Press. p. 441. ISBN 0521815290.
  3. ^ Dominic Lieven, ed. (2006). The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume 2, Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Cambridge University Press. p. 175. ISBN 0521815290.
  4. ^ "Stanislovas Vitkevičius - kelių kultūrų menininkas". Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  5. ^ Dariusz Nawrot, Litwa i Napoleon w 1812 Roku, Katowice, 2008, pp. 243
  6. ^ a b c William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, p.82
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Meyer, Karl & Brysac, Shareen Blair The Tournament of Shadows The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, Washington: Counterpoint, 1999 pages 84–85
  8. ^ Ingle, H N (1976). Nesselrode and the Russian Rapprochement. University of California Press. p. 79. ISBN 0520027957.
  9. ^ Macintyre, Ben The Man Who Would Be King, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002 page 205
  10. ^ a b Macintyre, Ben The Man Who Would Be King, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002 page 257.
  11. ^ Dalrymple, William Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan,
  • Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, 1990, Chapters 13 and 14.
  • Corresponding article in the Russian Wikipedia.