He was born 5 December 1867 to the noble family Piłsudski, at their manor named Zułów, near the village of Zułowo (now Zalavas, Švenčionys district municipality, Lithuania), in the Russian Empire since 1795 on the territory of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The estate was part of the dowry brought by his mother, Maria, a member of the wealthy Billewicz family. The Piłsudski family, although pauperized, cherished Polish patriotic traditions and has been characterized either as Polish or as Polonized-Lithuanian.[b] Józef was the second son born to the family.
Józef, when he attended the Russian gymnasium in Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), was not an especially diligent student. One of the younger Polish students at this gymnasium was the future Russian communist leader Feliks Dzierżyński, who later would become Piłsudski's arch-enemy. Along with his brothers Bronisław, Adam and Jan, Józef was introduced by his mother Maria, née Billewicz, to Polish history and literature, which were suppressed by the Russian authorities. His father, likewise named Józef, had fought in the January 1863 Uprising against Russian rule of Poland.
The family resented the Russian government's Russification policies. Young Józef profoundly disliked having to attend Russian Orthodox Church service and left school with an aversion not only for the Russian Tsar and the Russian Empire, but for the culture, which he knew well.
In 1885 Piłsudski started medical studies at Kharkov University (now Kharkiv, Ukraine), where he became involved with Narodnaya Volya, part of the Russian Narodniki revolutionary movement. In 1886, he was suspended for participating in student demonstrations. He was rejected by the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia), whose authorities had been informed of his political affiliation. On 22 March 1887, he was arrested by Tsarist authorities on a charge of plotting with Vilnius socialists to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. In fact, Piłsudski's main connection to the plot was the involvement of his elder brother Bronisław, who was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor (katorga) in eastern Siberia.
Józef received a milder sentence: five years' exile in Siberia, first at Kirensk on the Lena River, then at Tunka. While being transported in a prisoners' convoy to Siberia, Piłsudski was held for several weeks at a prison in Irkutsk. There, he took part in what the authorities viewed as a revolt. After one of the inmates had insulted a guard and refused to apologize, he and other political prisoners were beaten by the guards for their defiance; Piłsudski lost two teeth and took part in a subsequent hunger strike until the authorities reinstated political prisoners' privileges that had been suspended after the incident. For his involvement, he was sentenced in 1888 to six months' imprisonment. He had to spend the first night of his incarceration in 40-degree-below-zero Siberian cold; this led to an illness that nearly killed him and to health problems that would plague him throughout life.
During his years of exile in Siberia, Piłsudski met many Sybiraks, including Bronisław Szwarce, who had almost become a leader of the January 1863 Uprising. He was allowed to work in an occupation of his own choosing, and earned his living tutoring local children in mathematics and foreign languages (he knew French, German and Lithuanian in addition to Russian and his native Polish; he would later learn English). Local officials decided that as a Polish noble he was not entitled to the 10-ruble pension received by most other exiles.
In 1892 Piłsudski returned from exile and settled in Adomavas Manor near Teneniai (now in Šilalė district). In 1893 he joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and helped organize its Lithuanian branch. Initially he sided with the Socialists' more radical wing, but despite the socialist movement's ostensible internationalism he remained a Polish nationalist. In 1894, as its chief editor, he began publishing an underground socialist newspaper, Robotnik (The Worker); he would also be one of its chief writers, and, initially, a typesetter. In 1895, he became a PPS leader and took the position that doctrinal issues were of minor importance and that socialist ideology should be merged with nationalist ideology, since that combination offered the greatest chance of restoring Polish independence.
On 15 July 1899, while an underground organizer, Piłsudski married a fellow socialist organizer, Maria Juszkiewiczowa, née Koplewska. According to his chief biographer, Wacław Jędrzejewicz, the marriage was less romantic than pragmatic in nature. Both were very involved in the socialist and independence movements. The printing press of "Robotnik" was in their apartment first in Wilno, then in Łódź. Having a pretext of regular family life made them less subject to suspicion. Russian law also protected a wife from prosecution for the illegal activities of her husband. The marriage deteriorated when, several years later, Piłsudski began an affair with a younger socialist, Aleksandra Szczerbińska. Maria died in 1921, and in October that year Piłsudski married Aleksandra. By then the couple had two daughters, Wanda and Jadwiga.
, where Piłsudski stayed in 1900
In February 1900, after Russian authorities found Robotnik's underground printing press in Łódź, Piłsudski was imprisoned at the Warsaw Citadel. But, after feigning mental illness in May 1901, he managed to escape from a mental hospital at Saint Petersburg with the help of a Polish physician, Władysław Mazurkiewicz, and others, fleeing to Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary and thence to Leytonstone in London where he stayed with Leon Wasilewski and his family.
At the time, when almost all parties in Russian Poland and Lithuania took a conciliatory position toward the Russian Empire and aimed at negotiating within it a limited autonomy for Poland, Piłsudski's PPS was the only political force that was prepared to fight the Empire for Polish independence and to resort to violence in order to achieve that goal.
On the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), in the summer of 1904, Piłsudski traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he tried unsuccessfully to obtain that country's assistance for an uprising in Poland. He offered to supply Japan with intelligence in support of its war with Russia, and proposed the creation of a Polish Legion from Poles, conscripted into the Russian Army, who had been captured by Japan. He also suggested a "Promethean" project directed at breaking up the Russian Empire, a goal that he later continued to pursue. Meeting with Yamagata Aritomo, he suggested that starting a guerrilla war in Poland would distract Russia and asked for Japan to supply him with weapons. Although the Japanese diplomat Hayashi Tadasu supported the plan, the Japanese government, including Yamagata, was more skeptical.
Piłsudski's arch-rival Roman Dmowski travelled to Japan, where he argued against Piłsudski's plan, endeavoring to discourage the Japanese government from supporting a Polish revolution, which Dmowski felt would then be doomed to failure. Dmowski, himself a Polish patriot, would remain Piłsudski's political archenemy to the end of Piłsudski's life. In the end, the Japanese offered Piłsudski much less than he had hoped for; he received Japan's help in purchasing weapons and ammunition for the PPS and its combat organisation, and the Japanese declined the Legion proposal.
In the fall of 1904, Piłsudski formed a paramilitary unit (the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party, or bojówki) aiming to create an armed resistance movement against the Russian authorities. The PPS organized an increasing numbers of demonstrations, mainly in Warsaw; on 28 October 1904, Russian Cossack cavalry attacked a demonstration, and in reprisal, during a demonstration on 13 November Piłsudski's paramilitary opened fire on Russian police and military. Initially concentrating their attention on spies and informers, in March 1905 the paramilitary began using bombs to assassinate selected Russian police officers.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Piłsudski played a leading role in events in Congress Poland. In early 1905 he ordered the PPS to launch a general strike there; it involved some 400,000 workers and lasted two months until it was broken by the Russian authorities. In June 1905, Piłsudski sent paramilitary aid to an uprising in Łódź. During the "June Days", as the Łódź uprising came to be known, armed clashes broke out between Piłsudski's paramilitaries and gunmen loyal to Dmowski and his National Democrats. On 22 December 1905, Piłsudski called for all Polish workers to rise up; the call went largely unheeded.
Unlike the National Democrats, Piłsudski instructed the PPS to boycott the elections to the First Duma. The decision and his resolve to try to win Polish independence through uprisings caused tensions within the PPS, and in November 1906, the party fractured over Piłsudski's leadership. His faction came to be called the "Old Faction" or "Revolutionary Faction" ("Starzy" or "Frakcja Rewolucyjna"), while their opponents were known as the "Young Faction", "Moderate Faction" or "Left Wing" ("Młodzi", "Frakcja Umiarkowana", "Lewica"). The "Young" sympathized with the Social Democrats of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and believed that priority should be given to co-operation with Russian revolutionaries in toppling the tsarist regime and creating a socialist utopia that would facilitate negotiations for independence.
Piłsudski and his supporters in the Revolutionary Faction continued to plot a revolution against Tsarist Russia that would secure Polish independence. By 1909, his faction would again be the majority in the PPS, and Piłsudski would remain one of the most important PPS leaders until the outbreak of the First World War.
Piłsudski anticipated a coming European war and the need to organize the nucleus of a future Polish Army, which could help win Poland's independence from the three empires that had partitioned it out of political existence in the late 18th century. In 1906 Piłsudski, with the connivance of the Austrian authorities, founded a military school in Kraków for the training of paramilitary units. In 1906 alone, the 800-strong paramilitaries, operating in five-man teams in Congress Poland, killed 336 Russian officials; in subsequent years, the number of their casualties declined, and the paramilitaries' numbers increased to some 2,000 in 1908.
The paramilitaries also held up Russian currency transports that were leaving Polish territories. On the night of 26/27 September 1908, they robbed a Russian mail train that was carrying tax revenues from Warsaw to Saint Petersburg. Piłsudski, who took part in this Bezdany raid near Vilnius, used the funds thus "expropriated" to finance his secret military organization. The take from that single raid (200,812 rubles) was a fortune for the time and equaled the paramilitaries' entire takes of the two preceding years.
In 1908, Piłsudski transformed his paramilitary units into an "Association for Active Struggle" (Związek Walki Czynnej, or ZWC), headed by three of his associates, Władysław Sikorski, Marian Kukiel and Kazimierz Sosnkowski. One of the ZWC's main purposes was to train officers and noncommissioned officers for a future Polish Army.
In 1910, two legal paramilitary organizations were created in the Austrian zone of Poland, one in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and one in Kraków, to conduct training in military science. With the permission of the Austrian authorities, Piłsudski founded a series of "sporting clubs", then the Riflemen's Association, which served as cover to train a Polish military force. In 1912 Piłsudski (using the nom de guerre, "Mieczysław") became commander-in-chief of a Riflemen's Association (Związek Strzelecki) that grew by 1914 to 12,000 men. In 1914, Piłsudski declared, "Only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation."