Jan Cieplak

Spy story with Jan Cieplak in Kharkiv


In recent years the history of everyday life is becoming increasingly popular. Turning to it is relevant and necessary, since it allows us to create a more reliable picture, to “revive” historical processes, to penetrate deep into the historical “matter”, to approach the understanding of the human past.

Such a reading of the history can be applied also as a part of the analysis of the life of the Roman Catholic priesthood of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite its legal and official status it was supervised by the police. The priests, who were mostly Poles, were accused of nationalism and separatism. The archive materials contain a number of new details about these suspects, and let us study out the route of their moving in Kharkiv.

In particular, it is about the story that happened to Bishop Jan Cieplak. He had to arrive in Kharkiv on the 27th of September 1911 in order to visit the local Polish Roman Catholic church and then go to Sumy in a few days. In order to create a more expressive image of this bishop, it should be noticed that he was an extremely honest and decent person. There are memories of his colleagues which portrayed him as a man who was ready to help everyone. Jan’s hospitability and kindness enchanted people and turned enemies into friends. But not everybody shared this opinion. Why did such a peaceful and respectable man displeasure authorities and the emperor himself?

It all started with the fact that the Director of the Department of Religious Affairs informed the Kharkiv governor Mytrofan Kyrylovych Katerynych about the arrival of the bishop.

In particular, the official said that Jan Cieplak was allowed to visit the Roman Catholic churches “in Central Russia” along the route approved by the Archbishop.

Earlier in 1910, Bishop Cieplak had visited the Roman Catholic parishes in the Minsk province. His arrival caused a great public outcry among the local Polish catholic people. The churches and houses were decorated with red-and-white, white-and-blue and white-and-yellow banners, which had to symbolize the nationalist sentiment of the population.

Jan Cieplak not only did not prevent this display of affection, but also supported such actions of local Catholics. It is interesting to note that the main point in the list of accusations against the bishop was that he did not mention the emperor and the entire royal family in the prayer. At the same time, he allowed himself to criticize the activities of the Orthodox Church and the government. After such manifestations of dangerous thinking, unconceivable in tsarist Russia, Cieplak was dismissed from the position of a member of the Roman Catholic Clerical Collegium. In addition to this he was obliged to get a special permission from the Minister of the Interior for every future visit. That case in Minsk caused certain restrictions for Cieplak.

Notably that the director of the relevant department filed a request not to oppress  Cieplak, but at the same time to organize spying on the actions of the bishop and, if the situation goes out of control, to take resolute actions to prevent a religious visit to become politically charged.

Eventually, despite the extremely vigorous activity of police, the visitation took place in a peaceful way.

Bishop arrived in Kharkiv on the 27th of September, together with four priests, by the five o’clock train. As planned, the delegation went to the church, where Jan Cieplak gave a brief religious speech, and devoted his spare time to communicating with the rector of the temple. It should be noted that the fear that the “Minsk situation” would happen again proved to be useless. For example, the building of the Kharkiv Catholic church was decorated only with flowers, but not with the Polish national colors. (Gogol Street 4; N. 49.996623, E. 36.235241).

The next day Bishop Jan spoke before the rectors, and at the end of his sermon he prayed for the health of the emperor and the whole imperial family. Thus, the second last year’s incident did not happen during the visit to Kharkiv. We can assume that the sanctions applied to the bishop in 1910 gave him a clear idea of ​​the attitude of tsarist Russia to the patriotic manifestations of the Polish population. It can be seen that Jan Cieplak tried to follow given instructions during his visits accurately.

During the third day of his stay in Kharkiv the bishop was constantly supervised: the report of the chief of the police contained detailed information on his movements, conversations, and all those people who attended the dinner at the Polish House.

The bishop naturally did not even have a slightest idea that every his step was tracked and fixed in detail. According to archival materials, the bureaucracy always worked conventionally. “Is there a report from the Department of Religious Affairs? Yes, it is. We got it. Is Report of the Police Master ready? Surely.” And only then the governor himself wrote to the Minister of the Interior regarding observation of Jan Cieplak.

In our more or less democratic times it is hard to imagine that so much attention, time and reports were devoted to an ordinary bishop. Especially bearing in mind, that all these events took place in Kharkiv, which was mainly orthodox. And most of its population as of 1911 was not Poles, who could raise a national uprising. But even taking into account all these facts, the order to spy on the actions of Jan remained in effect.

Finally, the bishop himself was well aware that last year’s impulse of his soul was too vibrant. Therefore the digression from the established program of action in relation to the emperor and the empire were no way to be repeated. Therefore, he corrected his behavior and speech in the context of events that had already took place previously.

By the way, it is impossible not to mention the future fate of this priest. Jan Cieplak was a person with an extraordinary destiny. For example, during the World War I he was actively involved in charitable activities, created a number of organizations and helped refugees in many ways. Bishop Cieplak, with all his energy and enthusiasm of a teenager plunged into his work and managed to find priests who helped him in it significantly. After the Bolsheviks had come to power, he became an active opponent of the nationalization of church buildings. During that tough time he remained faithful to his principles and opposed the transfer of churches to the control of parish committees, insisting that the head of a parish should be a priest. In addition the bishop secretly organized the school of the Law of God and even for some time controlled the activities of the Theological Seminary.

For this he was arrested several times by the Soviet authorities. In 1923, during a trial in Moscow of more than 15 priests, Cieplak was accused of counter-revolutionary activity in the interests of the world bourgeoisie and sentenced to death. This incident caused an unprecedented resonance in the world, which led to the replacement of a death sentence with ten year long imprisonment. It should be mentioned that replacement of sentence with the less brutal one concerned only Jan Cieplak. On the contrary, his colleague Konstantin Budkevich was executed immediately after the trial. After his release from the custody Bishop Cieplak was deported to Poland, from where he then moved to Rome. In Rome he worked in the Apostolic Curia, meeting repeatedly with the Pope. In subsequent years, after all the turmoils, Jan started activities in the United States, where he visited about 400 churches and preached over 800 sermons.

Returning to the events associated with the arrival of Jan Cieplak in Kharkiv it should be noted that the so-called “spies” noted almost everything: the people whom the bishop communicated with, his movement through the city, time that he spent in one or another place.

There is an interesting note from the Moscow Newspaper that survived in archival materials, which stated that at the time of the bishop’s arrival national flags were put out over the church. In order not to give Cieplak’s visit a political charge, the city authorities “asked” to remove those flags. As you can see, the city administration tried to prevent any situation that could subsequently be interpreted as a nationalist performance.

Taking all things together during the four days spent in Kharkiv, Bishop Jan Cieplak did not take the liberty to do something excessive. He prayed for the family of the emperor many times and went, high-spirited, by train to Poltava, from where he planned to get to Sumy.

The prefinal link of the bureaucracy chain was the governor and in his report dated October 6, 1911 he described the visit of the bishop as follows: “The Bishop Cieplak’s visit  to the city of Kharkiv was purely religious in nature and there were no speeches from  him against the government and the Orthodox Church.”

Thus, despite the legality of its position in the Russian Empire, the Catholic Church and the Polish people were under constant police surveillance. Even the usual visits of the priests were strictly regulated, let alone average population, which simply tried not to forget its origins and not to be subject to unification by the empire.

However, no matter how difficult times were, and what trials stay against us, we should always remain honest and righteous, remember our ethical principles and be faithful to them.


Sources of information:

1. ДАХО. – Ф.3. – Оп. – Спр. 3504.

2. [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: http://gaudete.ru/jan-cieplak/

3. [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: https://gufo.me/dict/politics_dict/

4. [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: https://biographies.library.nd.edu/catalog/biography-0214



Jan Cieplak – bishop, clergyman, organizer for charity. He was persecuted both by the tsarist and the Soviet authorities because of his patriotic feelings towards the Fatherland. He is associated with Kharkiv in light of visiting the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Prepared by Kateryna Kolisnyk