1. The Effects of the Great Northern War: The Commonwealth as a Russian Protectorate
The essential change that the first years of the Great Northern War brought in the international position of the Polish Commonwealth lay in the fact that Peter I gained a lasting influence in the Polish Republic. Remaining with his army on Polish soil after the abdicatiob of Augnst II under the terms of the 1706 Treaty of Altranstadt, the Tsar had time to become acquainted with the leaders of the pro-Saxon Confederation of Sandomierz and to attach many of them, including the most influential hetmans, to himself. Peter I established his influence among the Polish magnates after the victory at Poltava, among other things forcing August II—in return for Peter’s agreement that August II be reinstated to the throne in 1709——o appoint people connected to Russia to a number of important positions. Symbolic of the new elite was the completely immoral Ludwik Pociej, who owed to Peter his elevation to the most important Lithuanian post, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania.
During his stay in Poland, the Tsar gained a good understanding of the country’s power structure. He recognized the predominance of the magnates who, under cover of the gentry’s notion of democracy, attained hegemony in the state in the second half of the seventeenth century. He was also able to perceive the egoism of many representatives of this wealthiest part of the noble estate. In practice this knowledge implied the possibility of playing the magnates against the Polish king whenever the latter undertook attempts at reform intended to strengthen the state and royal authority.
The Russians’ watchful attention to maintaining the Commonwealth in the weakened state in which it found itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century were facilitated by certain antiquated features in the existing form of government. Historians regard the most important weakness to have been the requirement of unanimity in passing laws in the Polish Diet. The practice of the second half of the seventeenth century established unanimity to mean that if even one deputy raised an objection (liberum veto) to any proposed legislation, the Diet was regarded as dissolved, which meant that even measures enacted before the veto was cast lost their validity.
The destructive activity of those who would dissolve the Diet was made possible by certain aspects of the prevailing social psychology, the most important of which was the deep distrust of the nobility for the king. The nobles regarded the democratic political system, which they referred to as their “liberty,” as the highest value, and they saw the monarch as a potential enemy of liberty since he was thought to have an essential tendency toward absolutism. From the conviction that the king presented a natural threat to liberty sprang a series of institutional safeguards that were intended by their creators to protect democracy from assault by the monarch. The liberum veto was regarded as the most important of these safeguards because it allowed any minority to resist the initiatives of the majority that the king could have bribed.
And indeed, the history of Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provided many examples that justified fears of royal absolutism. But the measures undertaken to protect liberty in the Commonwealth contained their own serious threats. Thus, a few collaborating deputies bribed with thirty pieces of silver and silendy backed by magnates and foreign powers who hid behind them, could guarantee the failure of all attempts to reform and strengthen the state by protesting against the rest of the Diet. Besides the Diet no one had the right to make the most important decisions in the Commonwealth.
In addition to the liberum veto, the free election of the king was regarded as a second pillar of liberty. Elected for life, the king concluded a sort of contract with the electors, by which he confirmed the constitutional principles of liberty and made a further, more explicit pledge, the Pacta Conventa. In case the king infringed on the democratic constitution, and thus broke the electoral contract, noble society had the right to refuse obedience to his authority and resort to the ultimate weapon, rebellion.
Concentration of attention on the preservation of liberty against seemingly constant threats also had repercussions on the external activities of the state. This caused a reluctance to form an active foreign policy that was elevated to the level of a pacifist principle. The history of modern Europe provides numerous examples of monarchs who, strengthened by foreign alliances and with armies gathered for war at their disposal, successfully carried out absolutist rule. In eighteenth-century Poland, however, fear of a strong monarchy carried a certain serious risk: protecting its liberty against political danger from the monarch, the country was not provided with indispensable alliances, resulting in the isolation of the Commonwealth in the international arena.
One more remark must be added to the above. The approach inspired by the republican ideology, presented here in an abbreviated form, preferred defensive activity in relation to the king and passivity in foreign affairs; it did not stimulate positive, reformist activity, which by strengthening the state would simultaneously strengthen the monarch.
It was Poland’s tragedy that the reign of August II, from 1697 to 1733, fully justified the republican biases sketched above. Throughout his reign, aspiring to strengthen and consolidate his authority as well as to subordinate the Commonwealth to Saxony, August II could not bring himself either to attain a deeper understanding of the constitutional principles of his Polish subjects or to formulate appropriate aims and methods of political activity. Even when he planned beneficial reforms such as the liquidation of the liberum veto, the introduction of a hereditary monarchy, or the limitation of the hetmans’ privileges, his means of proceeding, such as the illegal actions of the Saxon army, the undisguised tendencies toward absolutism, and attempts to subordinate the Commonwealth to Saxony, alienated not only the magnates, who were jealous of their privileges, but also the nobles, who were committed to democracy and the independence of the Commonwealth. In the skillful hands of Peter I, the intensification of the conflict between the King and nobles— inter maiestatem ac libertatem-became the main instrument of blocking the internal consolidation of the Commonwealth.
It is doubtful that even a monarch who was more far-sighted and had more insight into Poland’s problems than August II could have achieved anything given the faet that August after his restoration to the throne found a strong Russian party that the Tsar had established in Poland before Poltava. It was certain, however, that August H’s discounting of the biases and sentiments of his Polish subjects facilitated the machinations of the Tsar, whose goal was to block reforms that would strengthen Poland. The crucial moment in Peter I’s efforts came in the years 1715 to 1720.
When in the general Confederation of Tarnogród of 1715 the nobility rebelled against the King (not without Russian inspiration) because of the illegal presence of the Saxon army in Poland, Peter I intervened to mediate the conflict but did not allow an immediate agreement between the rebels and August II. Peter I brought Russian armies into Poland and supported the rebellious nobility when August Il’s camp gained the upper hand; he supported the King, when the latter was threatened with dethronement. Through his representative in the Commonwealth, Grigory Dolgoruky, the Tsar constrained the two sides to negotiate a settlement that gave neither a clear advantage. In the course of the struggle the Tsar also strongly defended the hetmans, who were loyal to him and who behaved in an equivocal manner, and he did not allow the nobility to break their power. The one-day “Dumb Diet,” which ended the conflict on February 1, 1717, not only approved the results of Russian mediation (the so-called Treaty of Warsaw), but also introduced measures that permanendy weakened the military potential of the Commonwealth.1
Peter Is triumph heightened the vigilance not only of the frustrated August II but also of other rulers. Emperor Charles VI and the King of England and Elector of Hanover, George I, feared that the imperial aims of the Tsar would extend to Mecklenburg and the Baltic Sea. The treaty arranged between the three monarchs in Vienna on January 5, 1719, foresaw, among other things, that Peter would be compelled to withdraw his army from the Commonwealth and that Russian influence would be removed from that state. The realization of these plans depended on Poland entering the alliance, a step which rested on the decision of the Diet. Never before in the reign of August II had the convergence of the aims of the monarch and the Commonwealth been so plain or the prospects for foreign support for Polish vindication so real. Nevertheless, two successive Diets—the first in 1719-1720, the second in the fall of 1720—were broken up. In both instances the deputies who cast the veto were inspired by the four hetmans of the Commonwealth. Among them Ludwik Pociej played the most important role, acting in agreement with the Russian representative and the Prussian resident.
The argument that according to Polish law the command over armies comprising foreign contingents belonged not to the hetmans but to the Saxon Minister Jakob Heinrich Flemming (who had been granted Polish nobility) served as a pretext for rupturing the Diet. This innovation, intended to ensure August IPs control over the Polish army and proclaimed by the agitators for the hetmans, the Russians, and the Prussians, as the road to Saxon absolutum dominium touched a nerve in republican sensibilities. A second factor played on by anti-Diet propaganda was the pacifism of Polish society, intensified by fresh memories of the sixteen-year devastation of the Great Northern War and the Confederation of Tarnogród.
The acquiescence shown by the majority of noble society to the wreckers of the Diets of 1720, and thereby the failure to appreciate the opportunity offered the Commonwealth by the Treaty of Vienna, displays an aspect of perhaps the deepest political and cultural crisis. The hostile actions undertaken by the Commonwealth’s neighboring state, in cooperation with the hetman oligarches, worked hand in hand with the profound disorientation of the nobility, which, extremely distrustful of its own monarch, did not recognize the magnitude of the external danger that confronted the state.
In the face of the threat that the T reaty of Vienna and August IPs efforts to emancipate himself presented to Russian dominance in Poland, Peter I allied himself on February 17, 1720, with the ruler of Prussia, Frederick William I. The Treaty of Potsdam signed by the two states foresaw mutual cooperation to maintain in Poland an elective monarchy as well as the existing form of government with all its faults.
The interests of Russia and Prussia in the Commonwealth were not identical. The ruler of relatively small Prussia dreamed of annexing Polish territory. The Russian tsar stood in the way of this; in the interests of maintaining Russian hegemony over the entire Commonwealth, he had repeatedly rejected Prussian proposals in this regard in the years before the Treaty of Potsdam. A precondition of this hegemony, however, was the blocking of the internal strengthening of Poland, of its renewal through reforms. The same goal guided the Prussians; for them ever to expect an opportunity for partition, Poland must remain in a state of weakness. Despite long-term differences in their goals, the immediate interests of Russia and Prussia in regard to Poland were the same and rested on the prevention of its revitalization. This commonality of aims determined the longevity of the Prussian-Russian alliance against the revival of Poland in the eighteenth century. Initiated in 1720 in Potsdam, the alliance was renewed in 1726, 1729, 1730, 1740, 1743, 1764, 1769, 1772, 1777, and 1792; in addition, from 1730, the principle of upholding elective monarchy and disallowing the king “to curb liberties” was reinforced by an article extending the protection to Polish dissidents and dissenters by both powers. This was one more means of interfering in the affairs of the Commonwealth.2
2. The Reign of August III: St. Petersburg and Berlin As the Guardians of Impotence
The narrowness of the political horizons of the nobility was an essential factor allowing the egotistic magnates and the powers opposed to the renewal of Poland to hold the Commonwealth in a state of weakness. Nevertheless signs of renewal appeared in the 1720s. A political faction arose that elaborated a complete reform program and with the support of the Saxon court (especially Minister Jakob Heinrich Flemming) attempted to attain the most important offices in the state. This party or, “family,” was composed of two brothers, Michał Fryderyk and August Aleksander Czartoryski, as well as their sister’s husband, Stanisław Poniatowski. Attempts to place Poniatowski or others connected to the “family” in key positions in the state, previously held by the hetmans but now vacant, were the cause of sharp political conflicts in the Diets during the last years of August Il’s reign. The struggle revealed, on the one hand, the determination of the “family,” supported by the court, to attain their goals and, on the other, the recalcitrance and self-interest of their rivals, the Potocki party. Acting in concert with neighboring powers, for whom relative balance between the opposing camps in Poland became a convenient means of maintaining the weakness of the Commonwealth, the leaders of the Potocki camp, who also aspired to the hetmans’ positions, induced a rupture of every Diet from 1729 to the death of August II (February 1, 1733) when new circumstances emerged.
The tumultuous events of the penultimate royal election (1733-1735) and the first years of the reign of August III brought a reversal for the Czartoryskis when the Potockis and their adherents gained the hetmans’ posts. Nonetheless, the antagonism between the “family” and the Potocki camp did not die out and remained at the core of internal political divisions in Poland throughout the reign of August III (1733-1763).
The Czartoryskis did not relinquish the reformist intentions that had remained unrealized under August II. Recovering from the electoral defeat, the princes, particularly in the second half of the 1730s, undertook concerted and successful efforts to establish lasting, solid support among the nobility. The political orientation of the “family” also changed. From an anti-Russian position under August II, the “family” shifted to a pro-Russian stance under his successor. This shift resulted from the realization that Poland was in no position to resist Russian might, as well as from misperceptions regarding St. Petersburg’s intentions toward the Commonwealth.
The leaders of the “family” realistically interpreted the annexationist intentions of Prussia toward Poland and correctly judged that, in consideration of the weaknesses of the country, Russia provided the only safeguard against Prussian aggression. Ignorant of secret clauses of the Russo-Prussian treaties that were lethal for Poland, the Czartoryskis assumed that powerful Russia, capable of fielding an army of 200,000 men, would not oppose an increase of the Polish military to 30,000. This illusion on the part of the leaders of the “family” intensified after Frederick H’s attack on Silesia (1740). Believing (as we now know, falsely) that the Prussian conquest of Silesia was unwelcome to Russia, the Czartoryskis calculated that the year 1740 would bring a new, and for Poland more favorable, international situation. Its essence was to be a war between Russia and Prussia, in which Warsaw would become a welcome ally to St. Petersburg. Further, this would mean new opportunities for Polish reforms, since Russia would be interested not only in tolerating but in supporting them. Reality was to reveal the illusionary nature of such calculations.
It seems that the circumstances of the penultimate royal election brought a turning point in the political consciousness among the broad masses of the nobility. Despite the greatest electoral participation in the history of the Commonwealth, in which 13,500 electors proclaimed Stanisław Leszczyński king, August III was imposed by Russia as the ruler of Poland. The intervention of a Russian corps of 30,000 men sufficed to subdue the nobles’ levy in mass of the Confederation of Dzików in defense of Leszczyński’s kingship. After this experience military recruitment became a general reform postulate. The Pacification Diet of 1736, the first Diet under August III to enact legislation, did not resolve to enlarge the army but it did establish a commission to elaborate a plan for recruitment, preceded by a review of earnings to find out the real financial means of the state. This financial-military reform never came about, for all successive Diets under August III, from 1738 to 1762, were ruptured. Closer consideration of the fate of one of them, the Grodno Diet of 1744, will allow a look at the mechanism of disaster.
The special opportunities for the Diet of 1744 resited on the momentary convergence of the interests of Poland and Saxony in the international arena. Dresden, allied with the anti-Prussian coalition in this phase of the Silesian Wars, was interested in Polish military expansion and the participation of the Commonwealth in the war against Berlin. In view of August Ill’s normally slight involvement in Polish affairs, this turn of events provided encouraging circumstances for reform. We know that, besides the enlargement of the army and Poland’s entry into the anti-Prussian coalition, the Czartoryskis and the Minister Heinrich Brühl, de facto in charge of Saxon policy, planned to restrict the liberum veto, reform the central organs of state administration, and to open the way to an inherited throne.
In preparation for the Diet the court sought to gain the support of Russia for its plans and offered in return an alliance of the Commonwealth with its eastern neighbor. This request did not meet with a positive reception from Empress Elizabeth. Her answer, that the reforms were a matter not for Russia but for the king and the Commonwealth, amounted to a refusal of support.
Despite the extraordinary efforts of the court and the “family,” the Diet of 1744 (like the two previous Diets) was broken up. Prussia and its ally France remunerated the obstructors, who came from the Potocki party and made use of the proven means of the liberum veto.3 If it is true that the Potocki camp, which opposed the court and resented the “family,” had its own reform plan with priority given to military enhancement, the rupture of the Diet by the agents of this party demonstrated that its magnate leaders preferred to negate an increase in the army that was imperative for the state rather than to allow parliamentary victories to strengthen their rivals, the Czartoryskis and Poniatowskis. It is difficult not to judge this a subordination of state interest to the private interests of the magnate oligarches.
The failure of the Diet of 1744 convinced the leaders of the “family” that as long as the liberum veto existed even the union of their strength with that of the court would not suffice to restrain the obstructionists in the Diet. At this point they could only turn to extraordinary means. Polish law allowed for an expression of such means in the confederation Diet, which could not be broken up by “free opposition.”
The text of the proclamation calling for a confederation Diet was already prepared when a threatening declaration by Empress Elizabeth arrived in Warsaw from St. Petersburg in December 1744. The sovereign of Russia warned that she would not allow “any confederation, any disturbances, or any innovations that might be directed either against the sacred person of the king or against the liberties and prerogatives of the Commonwealth, regardless of by whom or under what pretext they were raised.” In case such warnings were ignored, the declaration promised to strike those behind such undertakings with full force.
The text from St. Petersburg was not an empty threat; it was directed as much against Prussia, which threatened August III with a rebellion by his opponents, as against Brühl and the Czartoryskis, who were said to be planning an assault on “liberty.” With this, the fate of the confederation Diet was sealed; having withdrawn the proclamation of the Diet, August III left for Dresden.
The scenario tested in 1744 for preventing a confederation Diet from meeting was repeated by St. Petersburg four years and again six years later, after the Potockis had broken up the Diets of 1748 and 1750. Before the Diet of 1750, Empress Elizabeth further warned August III against excessive favoritism towards one party, that is, the “family,” in appointment to offices. Just as in the time of Peter I, a relative balance between the competing parties guaranteed Russia that none would be in a position to subordinate its opponent and bring about a reformist coup.4
The loosening in the late 1740s of the alliance that had bound St. Petersburg and Berlin since 1720, and ultimately led to war between the two courts (1756-1762), did not imply new chances for reform in the Commonwealth. The conflict between Prussia and Russia did not result in a change in either state’s relation to the question of strengthening Poland; both remained hostile to such efforts.
The thirteen successive wasted Diets during the reign of August III bore witness not only to the hostile activities of Russia and Prussia but also to the deep decline of the nobility from among whom, after all, the obstructionists and their magnate supporters were drawn. General calls for strengthening the military after 1736 were accompanied by an almost superstitious dread among parts of the nobility of absolution dominium, by a perception of the liberum veto as the essence of liberty, and by a fear of active participation in international affairs. The changes initiated by the educational reforms of 1740 (Stanisław Konarski’s Collegium Nobilium and the reform of the Jesuit schools in the 1750s) could not bear fruit quickly. The last years of the reign of August III represented a period of great political stagnation. Denied favor from the King and Brühl, the Czartoryskis owed their survival on the surface of political life above all to Russian protection, on which they placed their hopes for the coming interregnum. On the other hand, Jerzy Mniszech’s “camarilla” concentrated its activity at the court and constituted a new incarnation of the Potocki party, which brought together magnate careerists who lacked any deeper understanding of the needs of the state or any reformist concepts. Their company suited August III and Brühl, who undertook no further reform attempts after their separation from the “family” in 1752.5
3. The Reforms of the “Family” and Repnin’s Reaction
The power structure in Central Europe that was established by the Seven Years’ War predetermined that whoever sought the Polish crown after the death of August III (October 5,1763), could attain it only with the acceptance of the Empress of Russia, Catherine II.
The appropriation of the crown to Stanisław Poniatowski the younger (the son of the cofounder of the “family,” who died in 1762) resulted from a double calculation of the Empress. First, she judged that she knew her former lover well enough to be certain of his absolute subservience to the demands of St. Petersburg. Second, because the new King belonged to no European dynasty he lacked even the weak support that the Wettins had derived from their family connections in many royal houses. This was to guarantee the Polish king’s complete dependence on Russia.
In response to the Polish election St. Petersburg returned to the alliance with Berlin as the foundation of its foreign policy. The treaty, signed on April 11, 1764, included—besides immediate electoral obligations—the usual issues: maintenance of free elections and constitutional “liberties” in the Commonwealth and the restoration of the rights of religious dissenters.
As under Peter I, the dominant party in the alliance—especially after Frederick IPs recent difficulties in the Seven Years’ War-was Russia. Accordingly, Berlin’s role in the Commonwealth was to be limited to buttressing the policy of St. Petersburg. One should not, however, underestimate the influence of Prussia’s anti-Polish prompting, constandy warning Russia of the threat posed by Polish emancipationist and reformist plans. Frederick H’s denunciations, of which the Politische Correspondem provides eloquent testimony, resulted not only from the belief that not even the slightest constitutional improvement should be allowed in Poland, but also from the divergent aims of St. Petersburg and Berlin in Warsaw. Whereas for Russia the inertia of the Commonwealth watched over by the Russian ambassador in Warsaw, represented an ideal state of affairs, from the point of view of Berlin, St. Petersburg’s undisturbed domination of Poland removed any chance of partition. Such chances could only arise if the Polish political situation became stormy. Only then could Frederick calculate that Catherine-dhscouraged by a lack of stability in a Poland dominated exclusively by Russia—would wish to divide Poland, thereby buying quieter rule in the portion allotted to her.
The “family,” with the support of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, completely dominated the country during the interregnum, and vehemently undertook reform at the Convocation Diet (May-June, 1764). The unlimited power of the hetmans was restricted by the creation of a collegial Military Commission, while the authority of the treasurer was checked by the establishment of a Treasury Commission. The Russian ambassador blocked the most important reform, the abolition of the liberum veto. “Free opposition” was to be only partially limited by the introduction of majority voting on financial and economic matters. After the election of Stanisław August (September 7, 1764), the Czartoryskis had taken practically full control of Polish politics and did not allow the representatives of the Potockis, whom they had defeated with the aid of the Russian army, to regain their previous importance.
Catherine’s decision to depart from the principle of maintaining a rough balance between the opposing factions in Poland resulted from her conviction that both the older leaders of the “family” and the young King would be completely submissive to St. Petersburg’s demands. Of these demands, which Russia revealed only after the election, the most important were the acceptance by the Commonwealth of a Russian guarantee of the Polish constitution, including, above all, the liberum veto and elective monarchy, as well as the restoration of full rights to the religious dissenters, of whom Catherine made herself the official advocate.
Against the expectations of the Empress and Nikita Panin, the principal architect of Russian foreign policy, neither the King nor the Czartoryskis showed any readiness to accept these demands. Catherine II clearly did not appreciate the reformist zeal that motivated Stanisław August. Regarding the raising of the country from the stagnation of the Saxon period as his historical mission, the King was aware that the petrification of the liberum veto and the subjection of constitutional changes to Russian approval (and this was the significance of the Russian guarantee) contradicted this mission. The King saw less danger in the Russian demands regarding dissenters, but he, as well as the Czartoryskis, had to reckon with the petulance of the nobility on this question.
The refusal of the Coronation Diet to ratify the Russian postulates after its deliberations in Warsaw in November and December, 1764, provoked surprise and disappointment in St. Petersburg. Prussia played a special role in deepening these unfavorable feelings toward Poland. Although Frederick II did not favor full equality for dissenters in Poland because he feared this would encourage the immigration of skilled Protestants from Prussia to the Commonwealth, the exasperation of the Empress with the King and the Czartoryskis suited his purposes. Earlier than Catherine II, the Hohenzollern recognized the reformist aspirations of Stanisław August and intensively sought means to create a permanent barrier for him in St. Petersburg. Playing on Catherine’s jealous self-love and fanning Russian distrust of Polish reform efforts, the Prussian ambassador to Russia also made repeated protestations regarding dissenters in 1765-1766, a fact which also played an essential role in shaping the demands that St. Petersburg finally placed on the Poles.
The price for the refusal of the Diet of 1766 to conform to the demands of Russia and Prussia, who jointly demanded legislative confirmation of political equality for Protestants and the Orthodox, was the definitive disfavor of St. Petersburg toward the Czartoryskis. This meant the disappearance of the old princes from the political scene. Stanisław August also met defeat at this Diet in his attempt to force further legislative restriction on the liberum veto despite Russia’s explicit opposition. Finally capitulating before superior force, the King remained on the throne, but the conditions under which he exercised authority underwent fundamental changes.
In combating the reformist efforts of the Polish King, the Russian ambassador, Nikolai Repnin, found allies among the members of Mniszek’s “camarilla,” which had been defeated at the royal election. Lured by the hope of repealing the reforms introduced by the Czartoryskis and of dethroning Stanisław August, the Potockis and their allies, under the close supervision of Repnin, who brought additional Russian soldiers to Poland, first organized the Confederation of Radom in June, 1767, and then gathered in Warsaw for a confederated Diet in October. Terrorized by the ambassador’s abduction of opposing senators, the Diet accepted the Russian guarantee of the Polish political system, granted equal rights to Protestants and Orthodox, and finally, accepted the “eternal and invariable” cardinal laws, with the liberum veto and elected monarchy as the most prominent among them. The spectacular reconciliation that Repnin staged between the Radom confederates and Stanisław August demonstrates that St. Petersburg had retained the preelectoral variant of holding a tight rein on Polish political life by setting the court and the republican opposition against one another.6
It does not appear that the Prussian insinuations mentioned above played a decisive role in the transformation of the problem of religious dissenters into a fundamental instrument of Russia’s political pressure on Poland. Interesting are the changes which this matter underwent in Petersburg. In the years 176-667 it was turned into a question of principle in Polish-Russian relations: relevant legislation was forced on Poland which was later rescinded for the most part during the. Diet after the First Partition. It is, therefore, quite possible that the confusion sewn by Russia on the Polish political scene by the demands concerning the dissenters was intended not only to put an end to the reformationist activity of Stanisław August and the Czartoryskis, but that it had deeper intentions. Namely, starting with 1763 the religious issue became a tool consistently and forcefully used by the influential Chernyshev coterie to annex to Russia a large part of Polish territory. Proposing such a goal, the vice-director of the Military Council, Zakhar Chernyshev, stated that the general chaos and the large number of Russian troops in Poland argued for its success. The problem of dissenters, the forceful resolution of which required the presence of additional tens of thousands of Russian Troops, provided an excellent pretext for achieving this goal, not yet realized in 1763-1764.7 Such an interpretation would explain why Russia, having completed the partition and interested at that time in a lasting pacification of its protectorate, would rescind a significant portion of pro-dissenter legislation which it had backed earlier.
4. The Road to the First Partition
The beginning of military activities by the Bar Confederation in February, 1768 made clear that hopes for the pacification of the Commonwealth through the Confederation of Radom were an illusion. The Mniszek “camarilla,” which had enacted the measures to protect dissenters only under pressure, felt itselves further cheated by Stanisław August’s retention of the throne as well as by Repnin’s retention of some of the Czartoryskis’ legislation. The outbreak of the Bar Confederation directed against Russia, the King, the “family,” dissenters, and reformers—that is, “in defense of faith and liberty”—had serious international consequences, for it convinced the Ottoman Empire to declare war against Russia.
In conjunction with the war, the four-year struggle of the tsarist army with the constantly shifting eruptions of the Bar partisans provided Prussia with a great opportunity. While ostensibly favoring the confederates and simultaneously renewing proposals for partition in St. Petersburg, Frederick finally received a positive response from Catherine II in January 1771. The final decision was made on the Neva in June of that year, after which for nearly a year St. Petersburg and Berlin sought to convince Vienna to join in the partition. This was essential for the stability of the new “system” which was to be created on the foundation of the partition: an alliance of the three black eagles, which was to replace Panin’s “northern system,” based on the Russo-Prussian alliance.8
The Diet of 1773-1775, called under Russian pressure to ratify the treaty of partition signed in St. Petersburg on August 5,1772, extended the guarantee of the Polish political system to the three partitioning states. This was only a formal innovation, however, for the real helmsman in diminished Poland remained Russia. Its ambassador after 1773, Otto Stackelberg, never left Stanisław August’s side and intervened in the smallest details of government.
The fact that Stackelberg did not even need to resort to breaking up the Diet to block innovations that St. Petersburg objected to demonstrated the degree to which Poland was overshadowed by Russia during the “Stackelberg proconsulate” that lasted to 1788. In 1776, proceeding under a scenario closely arranged with the ambassador, the first Confederation Diet after the partition finished working out the form of the Permanent Council imposed by Russia; after this, five successive general Diets were held. The sterility of their legislation, limited to accepting reports and choosing members of executive organs, was attributable to Stackelberg’s extensive control over the appointment of deputies as well to the magnate opposition, which remained at the ambassador’s disposal to be let loose when it was necessary to restrict the excessive independence of the King. The principle of opposing the influence of the monarch to that of the magnate opposition continued to be an effective instrument of political control over Poland in these years.9
In discussing the role of Prussia and Russia in exploiting the weakness of the Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, we have almost completely neglected Poland’s relations with other European countries. This is due to the fact that the Commonwealth had no chance to gain support against the lethal tendencies of its two neighbors.
The direct interests of England—Europe’s greatest power—did not extend on the Continent beyond the eastern border of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, except for a few, exceptional moments, England did not regard the growth of the power of Russia (and later Prussia), with which it had lively relations, as a threat. France, in turn, which would have gladly regarded Poland as a barrier to Russia, the ally of Austria, proved irresolute when it became engaged in Polish affairs (as it did in 1733) and quickly withdrew when faced with opposition. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the financial ruin of France gradually worsened and after its last intervention in support of the Bar Confederation, the Bourbon monarchy avoided further political activity in the Commonwealth.
Austria, which, especially after the loss of Silesia, regarded Prussia as its greatest enemy, set its hopes for regaining the lost province on Russia. The price that Vienna was ready to pay St. Petersburg for help against Berlin included, among others, full respect of Russian sovereignty in its Polish protectorate. Moreover, on the eve of the election of 1764, despite the awareness that the Prussian threat linked them to Poland, Austria—like Russia and Prussia—recognized as vital the principle of upholding in Poland the system of liberties, including all of its degenerated features. Finally, Vienna’s participation in the partition clearly demonstrated that Poland could expect no real help from its southern neighbor.
A similar conclusion applies to Sweden in view of its dependence on Russia; the Ottoman Empire was similarly weakened and, like Poland, subject to Russian aggression in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the Ottoman Empire, like Austria, had adopted the principle of the maintaining Polish “liberties” as its reason of state in 1764.10
In the face of hostile intentions on the part of Russia and Prussia, the weak Commonwealth could expect no help from the five European powers. This meant that, after August H’s capitulation at Altranstädt and as a result of the unfavorable turn of events in the first phase of the Great Northern War for Poland, the attempt to revive the state through reforms had no chance. All that remained was the struggle for the revival of the nation-a condition of its very survival.
5. The Great Reform and the Aggression of the Neighboring States: The Final Partition of Poland
After repeated fruidess attempts to gain foreign support in the years 1765-1766 and again in 1773, Stanisław August realized that Poland could not rely on foreign aid against the dictates of the hostile neighboring powers. There remained only the option of governing under the existing conditions or of abdicating, which, at the end of 1766 meant ceding the state to the Mniszek party and, in 1773, risking the complete partition of Poland. Poniatowski remained on the throne, and, to his credit, throughout his reign, he did not cease to seek opportunities to achieve what was attainable for the country in the existing circumstances. The best-known examples of this activity are the Commission for National Education, appointed during the Partition Diet of 1773, as well as seeking out active and competent people among the middle gentry and facilitating their advancement in the state service, Such a step bore fruit on the eve of the Four-Year Diet in the appearance of a new element on the political scene: a group that was bound to the monarch and freed from the tutelage of the great lords. Their support was to eventually provide a counterweight to the magnate opposition.11
Thanks to the great educational reforms, a generation was brought up that deeply understood the need for fundamental constitutional reform and with difficulty accepted the national humiliation of Stanisław August’s dependence on Stackelberg. Daily experiencing the ambassador’s lordship over Poland, this generation dreamed of the opportunity to strike a blow for independence. They pinned their hopes primarily on the Russo-Turkish war.
The outbreak of the war in August, 1787, provoked enormous animation in Poland. It was assumed that the fighting would be protracted and would cause Russia considerable difficulties. This meant that the Diet opening in October, 1788, would be presented with an exceptional opportunity: engaged in war, the Empress would be prepared to make concessions to seicure peace in Poland.
After the experience of the First Partition, Stanisław August above all feared to anger Russia. Thus, although he also regarded this war as an opportunity for reforms, he sought to carry them out with Catherine’s agreement. Having this in mind he traveled to Kaniów in the spring of 1787 to meet the Empress and win her approval for his program. The program comprised an increase in the size of the army, the taxes that this entailed, and a confederation Diet. In order not to arouse Catherine’s distrust, the King in addition proposed an alliance of the Commonwealth with Russia. Both states would guarantee their territorial integrity (this would ensure Poland against a new partition), and part of the new Polish army would be committed to the common struggle with the Ottoman Empire. The return of Poland to active participation in the international arena would be in itself an important achievement.
The project went against the dominant mood of dislike and even hatred of Russia among the gentry. The mood was further nourished by the apparently rising dissonance between St. Petersburg and Berlin. From the beginning of the 1780s, the increasing anti-Turkish activity of Russia determined that St. Petersburg drew closer to Vienna and loosened its ties to Berlin. A symptom of this was Catherine IPs refusal to exitend the Russo-Prussian treaty of alliance, which expired in March 1788. Some Polish politicians drew the conclusion that sooner or later Berlin would recognize Warsaw as a useful ally against St. Petersburg and therefore support Polish reformist efforts. Until September 1788, when news of the proposed Polish-Russian alliance reached the Spree, Berlin did nothing to confirm the calculations of the Polish Prussophiles.
Although the Prussian stance greatly disturbed Stanisław August, the King, while awaiting a response to the Kaniów proposals, was forced to remain passive. Russia delayed taking a position as long as possible in order to hamper the King in preparing reforms. A final decision was reached on the Neva in June 1788. The Empress permitted a confederation Diet and small-scale military recruitment and taxation; further, she agreed to an alliance, but in a form that perverted Stanisław August’s intentions. The purpose of the changes was clear: to ensure that Poland would not become a full-fledged member of the international community. Even this alliance proved to be impossible, however, for Prussia cast a veto against it.
The news of the proposed alliance caused Frederick William II to take action to upset the Kaniów project. Notifying St. Petersburg of his objections to a Polish-Russian alliance, the Hohenzollern almost simultaneously sent to Warsaw a declaration courting the Diet at its opening. He assured Poland of his friendly intentions, warned against the harmful Kaniów alliance project, and finally hinted at the possibility of a defensive alliance of Prussia with the Commonwealth, protecting it against Russia.
The lack of elementary diplomatic experience among the deputies, caused by decades of Polish passivity in the international arena, bore the fruit Berlin expected. The pleasant words and treatment of the Commonwealth as a partner, instead of a vassal, made an impression on the inexperienced deputies, who misread Frederick William II’s real intentions. By gaining influence on the Diet, the Prussian king sought to evoke decidedly anti-Russian pronouncements from it. This would undercut Stanisław August’s policy and cause Russia to withdraw its approval of the alliance and reforms. Then, Berlin could drop its friendly tone toward the Diet and reach an agreement with St. Petersburg on a new partition.
The Prussian provocation achieved complete success. Regarding Frederick William IPs declaration as proof that Poland had emerged from isolation, had found support in Berlin against St. Petersburg, and could undertake bold reformist measures, the Diet, in its first month of deliberations, enacted the recruitment of 100,000 soldiers and presendy dissolved the Permanent Council. This meant a definitive break with Russia. Stanisław August, who did not share the enthusiasm for Prussia and fathomed the intentions of the Hohenzollern, lost his majority in the Diet and was powerless against the collapse of his political plan.
Catherine II, who closely watched the developments in Warsaw, had already decided to setde matters with the Poles. She sought, however, to postpone this until the conclusion of .the war with the Ottoman Empire. To lull Warsaw’s vigilance until that time, the Empress decided to feign indifference to what took place there. In this way the Great Diet gained the time for four years of unhampered legislative activity. This activity soon overstepped the boundaries that Frederick William II wished to set. Forced to pretend goodwill toward Poland, the Prussians could not brake the reformist momentum of the Diet, and international circumstances even induced them to conclude an alliance with the Commonwealth in March 1790.
This alliance, undertaken by Berlin with the thought of a future war with Austria in which Polish territory and the Polish army could prove useful, was also intended to secure the acquisitions of territory the Prussians longed for in Poland. They could realize them in one of two ways. Russia, for whom an alliance of Berlin with Warsaw was unacceptable, could act to disrupt it by returning to an alliance with Prussia and agreeing to a new partition. Under the second variation Berlin, would extort the cession from the Poles directly; this was to be the payment for the Prussian alliance.12
The Prusso-Austrian agreement at Reichenbach (July, 1790) made clear that there would be no war between the two states. With this, the Polish alliance lost its value for Berlin. When, in addition, the Commonwealth thwarted Prussian hopes for a voluntary cession of territory, the alliance of March, 1790, ceased to make sense. The passage of the Constitution of 3 May, 1791, further strengthened Prussia’s negative attitude toward its Polish ally.
When, in April, 1791 the stance taken by England definitely frustrated plans to form a coalition for war against Russia, Prussia drew closer to Vienna. The pacification of Europe required a new alliance system. Vienna and Berlin shared an interest in intervening in revolutionary France. Their differences, however, touched on their relations to Poland. Whereas Austria sought to avoid a new partition (for this would dangerously strengthen the Hohenzollern state) and therefore sought to gain Catherine H’s tolerance for the post-May realities in Poland, Prussia hoped that Russia’s rejection of the Constitution of 3 May would open the possibility of further dividing Polish territory. Recognizing that the Empress would not accept the changes in Poland, Vienna decided at the beginning of 1792 to take part in the next partition. At the same time (February, 1792) Berlin signaled St. Petersburg that it would not move to support its Polish ally in the event of Russian intervention in the Commonwealth. This implied a readiness to accept an offer of partition.
When the Empress undertook military intervention in Poland (May, 1792), Prussia in fact refused to aid the Commonwealth and waited for compensation from Russia. Events on the French front determined that proposals for partition reached Berlin only later. Catherine II used them to press Prussia to strengthen its engagement in France. The history of the intervention on the Seine also determined that Austria was eliminated from the partitioning powers, and the treaty signed in St. Petersburg in January, 1793, for the Second Partition foresaw the participation only of Russia and Prussia.13
Both the extent of the partition and the provocative behavior of the Russian dignitaries toward the truncated Commonwealth indicated that St. Petersburg inclined toward the complete liquidation of the Polish state. The outbreak of the Kościuszko Insurrection in March, 1794, accelerated this decision. In July, 1794, Catherine II invited Austria and Prussia to negotiate a further partition. Bargaining between Vienna and St. Petersburg over the extent of their gains delayed the final decision. Russia and Austria signed a treaty only in January, 1795; in October of that year Prussia reached a corresponding agreement with St. Petersburg and Vienna.14
As a result of the configuration of power in Central Europe that took shape already at the beginning of the Great Northern War, the Polish state had no chance to survive as an independent country in the eighteenth century. There remained only the struggle for the preservation of the nation. The enactment of the Constitution of 3 May made certain that that struggle would be victorious.
1. Józef Feldman, “Geneza konfederacji tarnogrodzkiej” (The genesis of the Confederation of Tarnogród), Kwartalnik Historyczny 42 (1928); Józef Andrzej Gierowski, Międzysaskim absolutjyzmem a zlotą wolnos’cią (Between Saxon absolutism and golden liberty) (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1953); Wcieniu Ligi Północnej (In the shadow of the Northern League) (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1971); Andrzej Kaminski, Konfederacja sandomierska wobec Rosji w okresie poaltransztadzkim 1706-1709 (The Confederation of Sandomierz in relation to Russia after the Treaty of Altranstädt) (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1969); Władysław Konopczyński, Le liberum veto (Paris: 1930); Michał Nycz, Geneza reform skarbowych sejmu niemego (The genesis of the financial reforms of the Dumb Diet) (Poznan: Poznanskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Nauk, 1983).
2. Józef Andrzej Gierowski, “Polityka pruska wobec Rzeczypospolitej po traktacie utrechckim” (Prussian policy toward the Commonwealth after the Treaty of Utrecht), in Gierowski, W cieniu Ligi Pólnocnej; Kazimierz Jarochowski, “Próba emancypacyjnej polityki Augustowej i intryga Posadowskiego, rezydenta pruskiego w Warszawie roku 1720” (August’s attempt at political emancipation and the intrigue of Posadowski, the Prussian resident in Warsaw in 1720), in Kazimierz Jarochowski, Nowe opowiadania i studia historyczne (Warszawa: 1882); L.R. Lewitter, “Poland, Russia, and the Treaty of Vienna of 5th January 1719,” Historical Journal 13 (1970); Fiodor Martens, ed., Sobraniie traktatov i konventsii zakliuchennich Rossiiu s inostrannimi derzhavami (Collected treaties and conventions concluded by Russia with foreign powers), vols. 4-5 (St. Petersburg: 1880-1883); Klaus Zernack, “Negative Polenpolitik als Grundlage deutsch-russischer Diplomatie in der Mächtepolitik des 18 Jahrhunderts,” in Uwe Liszkowski, ed., Russland und Deutschland (Stuttgart: E. Klett, 1974).
3. Counting on gaining the Polish throne after the death of August III, Paris meanwhile opposed reforms that could have ensured the succession of the Wettins.
4. Szymon Askenazy, “Fryderyk II i August III” (Frederick II and August III), in Szymon Askenazy, Dwa stulecia , vol. 1 (Warszawa: 1903); Klemens Kantecki, Stanisław Poniatowski, vols. 1-2 (Poznan: 1880); Walter Mediger, Moskauer Weg nach Europa (Braunschweig: 1952); Michael Müller, Polen zwischen Preussen und Russland (Berlin: Colloquium, 1983); Emanuel Rostworowski, O polską koronę. Polityka Francji w latach 1725-1733 (Struggle for the Polish crown: French policy in the years 1725 to 1733) (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1958); Mieczysław Skibiński, Europa a Polska w dobie wojny o sukcesję austriacką (Europe and Poland in the period of the War of the Austrian Succession), vols. 1-2 (Kraków: 1912-1913); Zofia Zielińska, Walka “familii” o reformę Rzeczypospolitej 1743-1752 (The struggle of “the family” for reform of the Commonwealth 1743-1752) (Warszawa: PWN, 1983).
5. Stanisław Bednarski, Upadek i odrodzenie szkóljezuickich w Polsce (The decline and renewal of Jesuit schools in Poland) (Kraków: 1933); Władysław Konopczyński, Mrok i swit (Darkness and dawn) (Warszawa: 1911); Polska w doble wojny siedmioletniej (Poland in the period of the Seven Years’ War), vols. 1-2 (Warszawa: 1909-1911); Stanisław Konarslk (Warszawa: 1926).
6. Szymon Askenazy, Die letzte polnische Königswahl (Göttingen: 1894); Jürgen Hoensch, “Der Streit um den polnischen Generalzoll 1764-1766,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 18 (1970); Władysław Kisielewski, Reforma książąt Czartoryskich na sejmie konwokacyjnym r. 1764 (The reforms of the Princes Czartoyski at the Convocation Diet of 1764) (Sambor: 1880); Aleksander Kraushar, Książę Repnin i Polska (Prince Repnin and Poland), vol. 1-2 (Warszawa: 1900); Maria Cecylia Łubieńska, Sprawa dysydencka 1764-1766(The problem of the Dissidents, 1764-1766) (Warszawa: 1911); George Tadeusz Lukowski, The Szlachta and the Confederacy of Radom, 1764-1767/8 (Rome: Institutum Historicum Polonicum Romae, 1977); Jerzy Michalski, “Problematyka aliansu polsko-rosyjskiego w czasach Stanisława Augusta, Lata 1764-1766” (Problems of a Polish-Russian alliance in the age of Stanisław August, 1764-1766), Przegląd Historyczny 75 (1984); Julian Nieć, Mlodosc ostatniego elekta (The youth of the last king) (Kraków: 1935); Emanuel Rostworowski, “Edukacja ostatniego króla” (The education of the last king), in Emanuel Rostworowski, Popiolyikorzenie (Kraków: Znak, 1985).
7. An unusually interesting hypothesis about the decisive role played by Zakhar Chernyshev in advocating the demands concerning the dissenters was put forward by the Russian historian Boris Nosov at the Polish-German-Russian Conference on the Partitions of Poland which took place in Moscow in June, 1994. He argued the necessity of paying greater attention than had hitherto been the case to the annexationist policies of Petersburg toward Poland beginning in the 1760’s. Further previously unknown arguments about Zakhar Chernyshev’s role in the realization of Russian annexationist plans in Poland were presented by Zofia Zielińska at the Polish-German conference in Torun in May, 1995. Chernyshev’s plan in 1763 was discussed by Sergei Soloviev Istoria Rossii s drevneishikh vremen (History of Russia from its earliest period), (Moskva: 1881), p. 302; U.L. Lehtonen, Die Polnischen Provinzen Russlands unter Katharina II in den Jahren 1772-1782, (Berlin, 1907), p. 174-175; see also Herbert H. Kaplan, The First Partition of Poland (New York: Columbia U. P. 1962) p. 28.
8. Adolf Beer, Die erste Teilung Polens, vols. 1-3 (Wien: 1873); Tadeusz Cegielski, Das alte Reich und die erste Teilung Polens (Stuttgart: 1988); David Bayne Horn, British Public Opinion and the First Partition of Poland (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1945); Kaplan, The First Partition of Poland, Władysław Konopczyński, Konfederacja barska (The Bar Confederation), vol. 1-2 (Warszawa: Volumen, 1991); Emanuel Rostworowski, “Gra trzech czarnych orlów” (The game of the three black eagles), in Popioly i korzenie; “Na drodze do pierwszego rozbioru” (The road to the First Partition), Roczniki Historyczne 18 (1949); Albert Sorel, La question d’orient (Paris: 1902).
9. Aleksander Czaja, Między tronem, buławą, a dworem petersburskim (Between the throne, the Hetman’s baton, and the court of St. Petersburg) (Warszawa: PWN, 1986); Władysław Konopczyrński, Geneza i ustanowienie Rady Nieustającej (The genesis and establishment of the Permanent Council) (Kraków: 1917); Stanisław Koscialkowski, Antoni Tyzenhauz, vols. 1-2 (Londyn: Wydawnictwo Spolecznosci Akademickiej Uniwersytetu Stefana Batorego w Londynie, 1970-1971); Jerzy Michalski, Polska w dobie wojny o sukcesję bawarską (Poland in the period of the War of the Bavarian Succession) (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1964); Kazimierz Marian Morawski, Ignacy Potocki (Kraków: 1911); Stanislas-Auguste, Mémoires, edited by Sergiej Gorianow, vols. 1-2 (St.Peterbourg-Leningrad: 1914-1924).
10. Józef Feldman, Na przełomie stosunkówpolsko-francuskich 1774-1787 (At the turning point in Polish-French relations, 1774-1787) (Kraków: 1935); Władysław Konopczyrński, “Anglia a Polska w XVIII w.” (England and Poland in the eighteenth century), Pamiętniki Biblioteki Kórnickiej 4 (1947); Fryderyk Wielki a Polska (Frederick the Great and Poland) (Poznan: Instytut Zachodni, 1947) ; Polska a Szwecja (Poland and Sweden) (Warszawa: 1924); Polska a Turcja (Poland and Turkey) (Warszawa: 1936); W. F. Reddaway, “Great Britain and Poland, 1762-1772,” Cambridge Historical Journal 4 (1934); Emanuel Rostworowski, “Polska w ukladzie sil politycznych Europy XVIII w.” (Poland in the European power structure of the eighteenth century), in Bogusław Leśnodorski, ed., Polska w epoce Oswiecenia (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1971).
11. Jean Fabre, Stanislas-Auguste et l’Europe des Lumières (Paris: Les belles lettres, 1952); Ambroise Jobert, La Commission d’Education Nationale en Pologne (Paris: Librairie Droz, 1941).
12. Bronisław Dembmski, Polska na przelomie (Poland at the turning point) (Warszawa: 1913); Walerian Kalinka, Sejm Czteroletni (The Four-Year Diet), vols. 1-2, (Warszawa: Volumen, 1991); Emanuel Rostworowski, Legendy i fakty XVIII w. (Legends and facts of the eighteenth century) (Warszawa: PWN, 1963); Ostatni król Rzeczypospolitej (The last king of the Commonwealth) (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1966); Sprawa aukcji wojska na tie sytuacji politycznej przed Sejmem Czteroletnim (The problem of military recruitment against the background of the political situation before the Four-Year Diet) (Warszawa: PWN, 1957).
13. Bronisław Dembiriski, “Ignatius Potocki’s Mission to Berlin, 1792,” in Baltic and Scandinavian Countries 3,1 (1937); Robert Howard Lord, The Second Partition of Poland (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press,1915).
14. Zbigniew Góralski, Austria a trzecirozbiór Polski (Austria and the third partition of Poland) (Warszawa: PWN, 1979); R. H. Lord, “The Third Partition of Poland,” Slavonic Review 3 (1924-1925); Michael Georg Müller, Die Teilungen Polens 1772, 1793, 1795 (München: 1984).
Translated by Philip Pajakowski