Jan Prosper Witkiewicz

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Jan Prosper Witkiewicz (also Yan Vitkevich, Russian: Виткѐвич, Ян Вѝкторович) (1808-May 8, 1839) was a Lithuanian orientalist, explorer and diplomat in the Russian service.[1] He was the agent of Russia at Kabul just before the First Anglo-Afghan War. 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.

He was born into the [2] noble family of the Nieczuja coat-of-arms, in Samogitia, in Pašiaušė. His father, Wiktoryn Witkiewicz, was a vice-marshal of the Rosieński county and his mother was Justyna née Mikulicka.

In 1823, because of his participation in an anti-government organization, called Black Brothers he was exiled to Orenburg[3] as a common soldier. He already knew Polish, Russian, French, German and English. In exile he learned Persian, Pashto and several Turkic languages. In 1829 he became an interpreter for Alexander von Humboldt.[3] 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. 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. 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 the foreign minister he was sent on a return diplomatic mission to Kabul. Reaching Teheran from Tiflis, he met the Russian representative, Count Simonich. Continuing east with a Cossack escort he accidentally encountered Lieutenant Henry Rawlinson. Speaking in Turcoman, he claimed to be carrying gifts from the tsar to the Persian Shah 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 for his necessary carefulness in the dangerous country. 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. At first, Dost Mohammed favored the British since they were nearby, but on receiving Lord Auckland's ultimatum he turned to Witkiewicz. Meanwhile, in London, Palmerston called in the Russian ambassador 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.

Wikiewicz reached Saint Petersburg on May 1, 1839. What went on between him and Nesselrode is disputed. A week after reaching 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. The death was ruled a suicide, but the reason for his death remains unknown. Unofficially it was regarded as an assassination by unknown perpetrators.

Cultural references[edit]

In literature[edit]

Jan Witkiewicz and his life inspired a few 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" (Duel at Kabul).

Witkiewicz is the main charakter of Valentin Pikul's historical miniature "Opasnaja doroga w Kabul'" (A dangerous Way to Kabul).

In cinema[edit]

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. The adventures of Russian officer Aleksiey Nalymov are inspired by Witkiewicz's fate.


  1. ^ Dominic Lieven, ed. (2006). The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume 2, Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Cambridge University Press. p. 175. ISBN 0521815290. 
  2. ^ Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game (Kindle Locations 2714-2715). John Murray. Kindle Edition.
  3. ^ a b Ingle, H N (1976). Nesselrode and the Russian Rapprochement. University of California Press. p. 79. ISBN 0520027957. 
  • Peter Hopkirk, "The Great Game",1990, Chapters 13 and 14.
  • William Dalrymple, "Return of a King. The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842", 2013.
  • corresponding article in the Russian Wikipedia.