Michal Kleofas Oginski

Michal Kleofas Oginski – a unique figure in European history and culture

Historically, as many as three European countries – Belarus, Poland and Lithuania – consider Michal Kleofas Oginski as one of their most important cultural figures and a national genius. Oginski was born on the territory of modern Poland; he lived most of his life in his family estate in Zalesye, a village  105 km west from Minsk. He also lived for a long time in Vilnius, Paris and London. Oginski died and was buried in Florence.

Oginski was a diplomat, a political figure in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the leaders of the Kosciuszko uprising, an honorary member of the University of Vilna, a senator of the Russian Empire. Yet, he remained in history, primarily as a composer, author of the genius Polonaise in A minor “Farewell to the Motherland”, whose popularity only grows with time.

Many biographical books call Oginski an amateur composer. Still, in reality, thanks to the nobility and wealth of the family, he received a brilliant and fundamental musical education. From the age of seven, Michal played the piano, violin, harp and cello, and from that age, he began to compose polonaises, romances, songs and operas.

Oginski’s polonaises sounded at St. Petersburg balls, and music collections of his works were published in Vienna, Berlin and Leipzig and were very popular throughout Europe.

The era of Michal Kleofas Oginski is the era of the partition of the Commonwealth by neighbouring states, which then followed by the national liberation struggle, the reign of Russian Emperor Alexander I and his war with Napoleon. At the same time, this is the era of the French revolution, the most significant changes in the internal life of Western European countries and the redrawing of the map of Europe. Finally, this was the era of patriots, romantics and adventurers.

The Oginski family belonged to the highest aristocratic circles of Europe. His father Andrzej Oginski (1740-1787) was a senator and ambassador of the Commonwealth in St. Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin. He was born on the Tadulino estate near Vitebsk, Belarus. From the second half of the 17th century, Vitebsk was one of the centres of residence of the Oginski clan, with which at that time only the Radziwill clan could compare in terms of their affluence and influence on the political life of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Michal Kleofas was born on the twenty-fifth of September, 1765 in the Guzov estate near Warsaw, but he always considered himself to be Belarusian, or as they said these days, Litvin. He was the only son of the royal senator and governor of Troxky, the headman of Oshmyansky, Andrzej Oginski and his wife Paula from Shembek.

The Princes of Oginski had their pedigree from the descendants of the Kievan Rurikids and used on their coat of arms the image of St George on horseback. The second part of the Oginski coat of arms was the gentry coat of arms “Brahma”, received from the Grand Duke of Lithuania for the military merits of the family. The historical home of the Oginski family was the Trok Voivodeship, not far from the modern city of Kaisiadorys, where the Oginta estate once stood. This toponym is the origin of the family name.

Michal Kleofas spent his childhood and youth at the Guzov estate. In the seventh year of his life, his parents hired a governor, Jean Rolay, who before had been educating the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Leopold. Michal Kleofas was taught to play the piano by the famous Russian composer, director of the imperial theatres, Jozef Kozlowski, author of the Russian hymn “Thunder of victory, ring out!”. Oginski maintained a friendship with him throughout his life. Jozef Kozlowski visited Zalesye several times. Later on, Jozef dedicated his comic opera “Reapers, or Dozhinki in Zalesie Oginski” to Michal Oginski.

With the blessing of his father, Michal Kleofas was preparing for the career of a politician. In 1786, he took the first steps in this direction: he was elected a member of the Sejm (Parliament) from the Trok Voivodship. Oginski, then, was appointed a member of the Financial Commission of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Grodno.

After the death of his father in 1787, Michal Kleofas returned to Warsaw and took part in the historic Four-Year term Sejm (1788-1791), which culminated in the adoption of the Constitution on the third of May, 1791. At that time, Oginski, in his political orientation, finally defined himself as a supporter of Stanislav Augustus Ponyatovsky. In August 1789, the King of Poland awarded him the honorary title of the Lithuanian swordsman and awarded him the highest state order of the White Eagle. Oginski at that time was only 24 years old. A year earlier, he also was awarded the Order of St. Stanislav.

Michal Kleofas soon reinforced his brilliant career start with marriage. On the seventeenth of May, 1789, he married Isabella Lyasotsky (1764-1852), the only daughter of the Tsekhanovsky governor Anthony Lyasotsky. The wedding was held at the estate of Lyasotsky, in Brzeziny,  in Poland.

Soon after, the Sejm appointed Oginski as the Extraordinary Ambassador of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Netherlands, at the foreign diplomatic mission.

Oginski’s first ventures into the music composition happened during this time. Michal Kleofas wrote his first polonaise in 1791 in Warsaw. It was short, but contemporaries noted its simplicity and good taste and predicted a great future for the author in the Polonaise genre. This inspired the young composer to new experiments.

The landowner status of Oginski required his presence in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Oginski’s lands near Minsk and Mstislavl fell under the jurisdiction of Russia and sequestration was imposed on them. Besides, Michal Kleofas was expected to have a financial deal with Michal Kazimir Oginski (1730-1800), the Great Lithuanian hetman and his distant relative who at that time was in exile in Paris because of his anti-Russian political views.

Michal Kazimir offered Michal Kleofas to take possession of his estates that had survived confiscation on the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (with an obligation to pay off the eight million of debts of the hetman), seeing in a young and influential relative a screen from the pressing creditors.

In 1792, in St. Petersburg, during the troubles associated with this case, Oginski received a backchannel offer from the Empress Catherine’s “grey cardinals”— Platon Zubov and Shimon Kossakovsky: to persuade his uncle Michal Kazimir to resign in favour of Catherine’s protege Kossakovsky, in exchange for the Empress’s consent to return him the lost lands. In this hopeless situation, Michal Kleofas agreed and was rewarded for his role with the position of the Minister of Finance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.


Returning to Warsaw, he initially intended to abandon this post. Still, under the influence of the Russian ambassador to Poland, Sievers, he agreed to continue and was officially appointed to this post on the seventh of May, 1793. Thus, Michal Kleofas Oginski went down in history as the last Minister of Finance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the summer and autumn of 1793, the Sejm of the Commonwealth was gathered in Grodno. It was supposed to approve officially the second partition of the country. The Sejm was held at the gunpoint of the Russian army and under considerable political pressure from Russia. Oginski took part in the proceedings and was forced among others to put his signature on this historical document.

The political decisions of the Sejm caused a feeling of great regret in the soul of Michal Kleofas, and he decided to emigrate from the country. Returning from Grodno with the King of Poland, passing through his estate Sokolov-Podlaski, he told the King about his intention. The King was not able to dissuade Oginski, but at the beginning of 1794, the King still asked him to return and take up the duties of the Minister of Finance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. No one knew at the time that only one month later the national liberation uprising would start, under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

On the night of April 22-23, 1794, a bloody uprising broke out in Vilna under the leadership of Yakub Yasinsky. An Interim Rebellion Council was created. Oginski entered there as a deputy of the Commission of Order. He voluntarily resigned from the post of the Minister of Finance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and his princely title, preferring the revolutionary title “citizen”.

The first partisan campaign of Oginski began on the twelfth of June, 1794. Its purpose was to spread the uprising in the territory of the Minsk province, where the extensive Oginski estates were located, and to replenish the detachment with serfs, after giving them freedom.

The campaign was unsuccessful, as the detachment lost a lot of people in a battle with Russian units under the command of N. Zubov and L. Benigsen. Soon, the leader of the uprising, T. Wavzhecki, sent Oginski to Warsaw to Tadeusz Kosciuszko to make a report on the events in Lithuania.

On the twenty-ninth of June, Oginski arrived at the Kosciuszko’s camp and, along with Kosciuszko’s refusal to support the Vilna rebels with manpower, received advice from him to “initiate partisan sabotage” in Dinaburg (today’s Daugavpils).

Oginski set off on his second campaign on the first of August, 1794 through the territory of the Braslav region. The rebels were poorly armed and not trained. But even in this form, the detachment had a psychological advantage over the enemy. However, in mid-August, the news of the capture of Vilna by Russian troops reached the rebels. This made further struggle meaningless, and Oginski with a group of fighters broke out of Warsaw, which at that time was defending itself from Suvorov’s troops.

On the tenth of October, Tadeusz Kosciuszko was captured. On the fourth of November, the Russian army launched an assault on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw, during which many of Oginski’s combat comrades fell. During this battle, Michal Kleofas was with a military detachment south of Warsaw. Having learned about the loss of the capital, the surviving rebels began to look for ways to go abroad.

Oginski managed to obtain fake travel documents in the name of a gentry Mikhalovsky and get to Vienna, where his wife lived at the time. From Vienna, the couple went to Venice, and there they received a letter from the commander A. Suvorov, in which he, on behalf of Catherine II, invited Michal Kleofas to return to his homeland, since the Russian authorities were interested in working with him as a prominent statesman. A Russian passport and a message were attached to the letter that, until Oginski’s consent was obtained, neither his Polish nor Lithuanian estates would be confiscated.

Michal Kleofas without hesitation rejected the offer. With this refusal, he voluntarily sentenced himself to seven years of life in a foreign land, during which he took part in the emigrant movement for the revival of the Commonwealth.

In August 1795, Oginski was appointed envoy from Polish immigrant organisations to Constantinople for secret negotiations with the Ottomans to persuade Turkey to go to war with Russia.

In Constantinople, Oginski met with the representative of the Turkish government, Prince Maruzzi, who advised him to wait for the right moment. The wait lasted six months. At this time, Michal Kleofas observed and described the life of the local population, found a piano for himself to practice music and began to study the Turkish language. From here he wrote a letter to General Napoleon in Italy, trying to draw his attention to the Polish question.

In passing, Oginski became aware that Russian diplomats were watching him and his correspondence was secretly transmitted to the Russian ambassador in Turkey, Prince Kochubey. Meanwhile, there was a change in the Turkish government. It became clear that Oginski’s mission ended in failure, as the new government was determined to cooperate with the Russian Empire.

Michal Kleofas left Constantinople on the fourth of November, 1796 under the name of the French merchant Martin. On the way, he learned about the death of Catherine II and the release by the new Russian Emperor, Paul I of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and other rebels from prison.

Arriving in Paris in February 1797, Oginski presented to the leaders of Polish emigrant groups a report on his mission in Turkey. As he writes in his memoirs, the two emigre coalitions had serious disagreements among themselves on political issues, and Oginski failed to reconcile them.

At that time, Oginski was the only representative of Polish emigration whom they were ready to accept in the Directory. Due to this circumstance, he met several times with the French Prime Minister Delacroix. In these meetings, an outline of a military campaign of Polish emigrant legions from Italy to Galicia arose to liberate the lost homeland with the financial support of France. However, these plans were not destined to materialize. After seeing that there would be no results, Oginski left for Belgium, where he rested for several weeks, attending opera, ballet and lectures on chemistry and French literature.

After returning to Paris, on the second of December, 1797, Oginski met Napoleon, with whom he had previously communicated by correspondence. Bonaparte spoke highly of the courage of Polish soldiers, favourably listened to “March for the Legions” performed by Oginski, but promised nothing. Ahead of him was a two-year invasion campaign in Egypt, the implementation of a coup and the establishment of one-man-rule in France. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand openly advised Oginski to return to his homeland, promising his support.

The family estate of his wife in Brzeziny was at that time under Prussian occupation. To obtain permission to visit the estate of his father-in-law, Oginski had to seek the consent of the Prussian royal authorities. As a private person, Michal Kleofas was welcomed by the Prussian King in Berlin. Permission to settle in Brzeziny was procured by his wife Isabella with the support of Prince William of Orange.


On the first of July 1798, Michal Kleofas arrived in Brzeziny and saw his wife after three years of separation. At the end of this year, the first son of the Oginski Tadeusz Anthony (1798-1844) was born, and in 1801 the second son, Frantisek Xavier (1801-1848). The family had acute financial problems, which Oginski could solve only by returning at least a part of his confiscated lands in the territory that was left under the authority of the Russian crown.

On the third of March, 1799, Oginski turned to the Russian Emperor Paul I with a request for permission to return to Lithuania, that was refused. The repeated request was granted only in 1801 by Emperor Alexander I.

At the end of 1801, Michal Kleofas Oginski received the necessary documents and went to St. Petersburg. His wife, Isabella Oginskaya, remained in Poland, not wanting to put young children to the test of everyday uncertainty. In 1802, she received a divorce notice with Michal Kleofas. The reason for the divorce was, most likely, his unexpected passionate love for the Italian beauty Maria Neri, the widow of the Zhmud tycoon and the Kostyushkov rebel Kaetan Nagurski.

Alexander I needed authoritative, active people from the recently joined western provinces to use them to neutralize the brewing discontent. The estates were returned to Oginski, albeit burdened with large debts, which the Emperor promised to pay from the state treasury. In 1804, the lands of Michal Kazimir Oginski, the family estate Zalesye, located near Molodechno, were also returned by Tsar’s decree to Michal Kleofas. There he wrote most of his piano works, and also prepared for publication the 4-volume Memoirs on Poland and the Poles published later in Paris by his secretary Leonard Hodko. At this time, Michal Kleofas became widely known not only as a composer, whose works were famous but also as a public figure. He was the chairman of the First Branch of the Vilnius Charity Society, President of the Vilnius Topographic Society, Honorary Member of the Academic Council of Vilnius University.

In 1807, after the conclusion of the Tilsit Peace, Alexander I instructed Oginski to private negotiations with Napoleon regarding the Duchy of Warsaw created by him in the occupied Polish territory. Oginski also held similar talks in 1809. In 1810, Oginski received the title of Privy Councilor from Alexander I and became a senator of the Russian Empire.

In April 1811, M.K. Oginski received an order from Alexander I to prepare a draft decree of the autonomy of the western border provinces: Vilenskaya, Grodno, Vitebsk, Minsk, Mogilev, Kyiv, Podolsky and Volyn, as well as the Bialystok and Ternopil districts. Soon, Michal Kleofas submitted his work to the monarch – a memo in which he emphasized the undeniable benefits for the Russian state from providing autonomy to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Emperor promised: “One of two things: either I will create the Kingdom of Poland as a result of the war, or, if there is no war, I will carry out your great plan for Lithuania.”

By the beginning of 1812, Oginski had prepared a draft of the future Constitution of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, which provided for the creation of a two-chamber Sejm and the gradual elimination of serfdom over ten years. However, the implementation of plans was hindered by the war with Napoleon.

After the war ended, the Russian monarch, met in November 1815 with representatives of the Lithuanian gentry in Vilna. After the meeting, Oginski finally realized the futility of his cherished dream of recreating The Great Duchy of Lithuania and decided to leave politics. He began to spend more time in Zalesye, which during his stay became the cultural centre of the Belarusian-Lithuanian territories. Oginski continues to compose music, often meets with professors and students of Vilnius University and takes part in meetings of Masonic lodges.

Modern historians do not doubt that Michal Kleofas Oginski was a freemason, although no written documents confirming this fact have been found yet. However, there is enough documentary evidence that the freemason was Oginski’s closest childhood friend, writer Yan Khodko-Boreyko, a native of Zalesye, who became the Master of the First Minsk Lodge “The Northern Torch”. His nephew, Leonard Boreyko, who from 1819 to 1826 was the personal secretary and confidant of Oginski, was also a freemason who actively participated in the work of the Masonic lodges of England and France.

Also, there is no doubt that the diplomat who conducted secret negotiations between the Russian Emperor, Freemason Alexander I and the Emperor of France, Freemason Napoleon Bonaparte, should also be a freemason. Oginski was initiated into Freemasonry in France, during his stay in Paris, which coincided with the period of the rapid development of the Masonic movement among French diplomats and aristocrats.

The sharp cooling of Alexander I to freemasons and the ban on the work of Masonic lodges on the territory of the Russian Empire from the first of October, 1821, as historians believe, were the reason for Oginski’s decision to leave the country. In 1822, he sent the Emperor a request leave, citing the need for long-term treatment. Another reason for leaving was the cooling of family relationships. The Emperor gave permission to leave. The decision to leave turned out to be very timely – in 1823, many close friends of Oginski, including Yan Khodko-Boreyko, were arrested in the “Filaret case”.

In the summer of 1822, the Oginski family left Zalesye, first to Paris, and then to Florence, where Michal Kleofas spent the last 10 years of his life alone. On the fifteenth of October, 1833, he died in the house of Marioni on Tornabuoni Street.

The daughter of Michal Kleofas Emma, ​​together with her husband I. Brzhostovsky, originally buried her father in the monastery cemetery at the church of Santa Maria Novella. Later, Oginski’s ashes were transferred to the largest Florentine church-tomb of Santa Croce, where about 300 prominent figures of politics, science and culture, including Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Nicolo Machiavelli, rest.


The inscription on the monument of white Carrara marble reads:


“Michal Oginski, from Lithuanian land, is buried here,

coming from the old aristocracy

empire senator

Venerable Advisor to the All-Russian Emperor, King of Poland, etc.

He was talented, educated,

master in music

French, German, Italian

orator, writer, extraordinary erudition,

after forced wandering in European countries,

and have done a lot for Florence,

died at the age of 68,

buried in October of the year of the Lord 1833.

Eternal memory to him”


Today, the memory of the outstanding composer, political, social and cultural figure, representative of the ancient princely family, Michal Kleofas Oginski, is returning to Belarus.