After the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned in the late-18th century, its lands were divided among its neighbors: Imperial Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary. Warsaw, the historic Polish capital, fell under Russian control. In the Russian and Prussian partitions the situation of Poles progressively worsened. Particularly in the Russian sector, the initially moderate ethnic policies were revised in the aftermath of the Polish revolts aimed at overthrowing Russian control, the November Uprising (1830–1831) and the January Uprising (1863–1864). Following the defeats of the uprising the autonomy of the Congress Poland was initially limited (1831) and finally abolished (1865).
Among the increasing policies of Germanization and Russification, it became increasingly difficult for Poles to obtain a Polish higher education. Also, like in most parts of Europe at the time, the higher education opportunities for women that existed in Russian Empire were severely limited , and teaching or research into some fields, like Polish language, Catholicism or Polish history, ranged from difficult to illegal.
As a response to such policies, and inspired by the Polish positivism movement, secret courses began in 1882 in private houses in Warsaw. At first it was a series the conspiratorial education courses for women, and among the first teachers were Jzef Siemaszko, StanisÅaw Norblin, Piotr Chmielowski and WÅadysÅaw SmoleÅski. In 1885 transformed due to the efforts of one of the students, Jadwiga SzczawiÅska (also known as Zofia SzczawiÅska), the various pro-education groups were united into a single, informal, and illegal, secret university open for both sexes known as the Flying University (the courses, spread throughout the city, often changed locations to prevent the Russian authorities from learning the location and arresting the teachers and students). The fees (2–4 rubles per month) were used as gratification for the teachers, and to create a secret library. The curriculum of the Flying University covered 5–6 years with 8–11 hours per week and was divided into four main subjects: social sciences, pedagogy, philology and history, and natural sciences.
Among the teachers of the university were the best contemporary Polish academics, such as WÅadysÅaw SmoleÅski and Tadeusz Korzon (history), BronisÅaw Chlebowski, Ignacy Chrzanowski and Piotr Chmielowski (literature), Jan WÅadysÅaw David and Adam Mahrburg (philosophy), Ludwik Krzywicki (sociology), Jzef Nussbaum-Hilarowicz (biology).
During the twenty years of the existence of the university, it courses were attended by approximately 5,000 women and thousands of men. Among the most famous of its students was the future Nobel Prize winner, Maria SkÅodowska-Curie. Other well known students included Zofia NaÅkowska and Janusz Korczak.
Around 1905–1906 the Flying University was able to start legal activities, and was transformed into the Society of Science Courses (Towarzystwo Kursw Naukowych), as Poland's partitioners, anticipating the coming war, sought to convert the Poles to their cause. Around 1918–1919, after Poland regained independence (as the Second Polish Republic), the Association was transformed into the private university, Free Polish University (Wolna Wszechnica Polska). In 1927 it founded a branch in ÅdÅ.
During the Second World War, when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany which forbade Poles to attend university-level courses, many teachers of the Flying University used their experience and took part in secret teaching during World War II.
After the Second World War, the Wolna Wszechnica Polska was not immediately recreated in Warsaw, although its branch in ÅdÅ served as the foundation for the University of ÅdÅ.
During the time of communist domination in the People's Republic of Poland, as the curriculum became a tool of politics, and much of Polish history (like Polish-Soviet War, Katyn Massacre or Praga Massacre) was censored in an attempt to 'erase' the history of Polish-Russian conflicts, the tradition of the Flying University was revived once again, first by the Society of Free Polish University (Towarzystwo Wolnej Wszechnicy Polskiej) active in Warsaw from 1957, later from 1977 by the new Flying University and Society of Science Courses, supported by Polish dissidents: Stefan Amsterdamski, Andrzej CeliÅski, Bohdan CywiÅski, Aldona JawÅowska, Jan Kielanowski, Andrzej Kijowski, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Wojciech Ostrowski.
Many participants of this second flying university were abused by militsiya, with common incidents like a prominent dissident, Jacek KuroÅ being thrown down the stairs or his apartment ransacked by militsiya-supported thugs; despite such harassment the Flying University was active until the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, designed to destroy Solidarity movement, stifled its activities too. With Solidarity's peaceful victory in the Polish legislative elections, 1989, the goals of the Flying University – the freeing of Polish education from party's control and censorship – have been achieved.
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