Poland’s Agony

In spring 1787 Catherine the Great of Russia set off on an imperial progress through her southern dominions. As she drifted down the Dnieper greeted by crowds of subjects lined up along the banks by her minister Prince Potemkin, King Stanisław Augustus left Warsaw to greet her on the Polish stretch of the river. On 6 May the imperial galley tied up at Kaniów, and the King came aboard. With the formal greetings over, the two monarchs, who had last met as lovers nearly thirty years before, retired for a tête-à-tête.

They emerged after only half an hour, and the assembled courtiers and diplomats sensed all was not well. The Empress entertained the King lavishly, but declined to go ashore for a ball he had arranged in her honour. Stanisław Augustus was mortified, and not just because his feelings were hurt. He had come to Kaniów to propose an alliance in Russia’s forthcoming war against Turkey. The Commonwealth would contribute a substantial army and at the same time fend off potential belligerent moves by Prussia and Sweden, in return for which it would acquire Moldavia and a Black Sea port. Apart from permitting the Commonwealth to raise and test an army, participation in such a war would have eased the tensions building up in Warsaw and strengthened the King’s position. Catherine’s rejection of the plan left him without a policy at a critical moment and played into the hands of his opponents.

While the King had bowed to the conditions imposed by Russia after the partition in 1772, many had refused to reconcile themselves to this state of affairs and his seemingly docile acceptance of it. By the late 1780s there was a growing feeling, particularly among the younger generations brought up on Rousseau’s pre-Romantic ideas on the rights of nations, that the time had come to shrug off the protection and the restrictions imposed by Russia, which stood in the way of almost any attempt at reform or modern—isation. A group of magnates, including some members of the Familia, Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław Małachowski, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, Stanisław Potocki and malcontents such as Karol Radziwiłł, who called themselves ‘Patriots’, began to stir up opposition to the King’s collaborationist policy.

Those who had believed in anarchy as a blessed state had seen their argument demolished by the partition. As they looked around, at states such as Russia and Prussia which expended two-thirds of their revenue on the army and appeared more and more to be driven by a philosophy of military success (even their monarchs wore uniform), most felt that Poland’s only hope of survival lay in abandoning the glorious liberties of the Commonwealth and turning it into an efficient modern state with an adequate army.

Prussia, which had just entered into an alliance with England and Holland aimed at checking Russian expansion, made it clear that the Commonwealth could count on military support were it to sever its connection with St Petersburg. With Russia engaged in wars against Turkey and Sweden, and with Prussia making friendly overtures to Poland and striking hostile attitudes at Russia and Austria, it looked as though the menacing concert of the Commonwealth’s neighbours had fallen into discord.

The Sejm which assembled in 1788 under the marshalcy of Stanisław Małachowski, which would be known as the Great Sejm, was dominated by the Patriots. It promptly voted an increase in the army, which was placed under the control of a Sejm commission. The conduct of foreign policy was vested in another such commission. In January 1789 the Sejm abolished the Permanent Council which had been ruling the country since 1775 and prolonged its own session indefinitely. In March it imposed a tax on income from land of 10 per cent for the szlachta and 20 for the Church, the first direct taxation ever to have been imposed on either.

The Patriots encountered little opposition. The King’s supporters were in disarray. Conservative and pro-Russian members were intimidated by events, which had taken on an ominous significance in the light of the revolution which broke out in France in the summer of 1789. On the night of 25 November 1789 Warsaw was illuminated for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Stanisław Augustus, which many feared might act as a provocation to the mob. While the rabble in the streets confined itself to abusive lampoons, a real revolution was being prepared in other quarters. In September 1789 the Sejm had appointed a commission under Ignacy Potocki to prepare a new constitution for the Commonwealth.

Debate on the question of reform had grown progressively more radical and was now dominated by two political thinkers of substance, Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj. Staszic (1755-1826) was a priest of plebeian origin who had been befriended by Józef Wybicki and promoted by Andrzej Zamoyski. He had travelled through Germany to Paris, where he became a friend of Buffon, whose Histoire Naturelle he translated and published in Poland, and thence to Rome, where he lost his faith. On his return to Poland he devoted himself to political writing. Later, in 1800, he would found the Society of Friends of Learning with a fortune he had built up in business, and in 1815 publish a seminal work on the geological formation of the Carpathian Mountains, while working on a verse translation of the Iliad.

Staszic was a republican who believed in the sovereignty of the Sejm, but realised that a nation surrounded by despotic states must have a strong executive, and he therefore argued for a hereditary monarchy. He saw the nation as a ‘moral entity’ consisting of all the citizens of the Commonwealth, whether they were szlachta or peasants, townspeople or Jews, and believed that all citizens should subject their individual will to its greater good.

Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812) was of a very different stamp. He had studied at the Jagiellon University and in Italy, where he became a priest, and subsequently worked on the Commission for National Education. He showed his organisational skills when he was given the task of reforming the Jagiellon University, whose Rector he became in 1782.

As the Great Sejm convened, he formed a political pressure group known as ‘the Forge’ with the aim of promoting reform of the whole system, or a ‘gentle revolution’, as he put it. In A Few Anonymous Letters to Stanisław Małachowski (1788) he addressed the Marshal and the assembling Sejm. ‘What then is Poland?’ he taunted them. ‘It is a poor, useless machine which cannot be worked by one man alone, which will not be worked by all men together, and which can be stopped by a single person.’ Like Staszic, he demanded a strong hereditary monarchy, the supremacy of the Sejm and the extension of the franchise. It was he who composed the memorandum presented to the King by the representatives of 141 towns, dressed in black like the États Généraux in Paris the previous year and led by Jan Dekert, on 2 December 1789. A commission was set up to devise a system of representation for the towns, and several hundred tradesmen were ennobled.

As soon as he realised the strength of the movement behind the Patriots, Stanisław Augustus shifted his position and began to work with them. He invited Ignacy Potocki, Kołłątaj and Małachowski to join him in drawing up a new constitution. They worked in secret, with the King’s secretary Scipione Piattoli editing the drafts. When the final draft was ready a wider group of reformists was invited to discuss it before the final wording was agreed.

Their project entailed the abolition of so many traditional rights and liberties that it was bound to encounter fierce opposition in the Sejm. They therefore prepared what amounted to a parliamentary coup. The support of the people of Warsaw was assured by a municipal law of 18 April 1791 giving seats in the Sejm to twenty-two representatives of major towns. Another law passed at the same time disenfranchised landless szlachta.

A date was chosen when many deputies and senators would still be on their way back to the capital after the Easter recess, and as a result, on 3 May 1791 only 182 deputies were present in the chamber, a hundred of them in on the secret. Outside, purposely mustered crowds surrounded the Royal Castle expectantly. The proposed constitution was passed overwhelmingly, after which the King was carried shoulder-high by the populace to the church of St John, where the Te Deum was sung.

The document which became law on 3 May 1791 was a pragmatic compromise between the republicanism of Potocki, the radicalism of Kołłątaj and the English-style constitutional monarch ism of the King. The opening clauses were purposely anodyne. Catholicism was enshrined as the religion of state, although every citizen was free to practise another without prejudice; the szlachta was declared to be the backbone of the nation; the peasantry was piously acknowledged as its lifeblood; all the privileges bestowed by Piast and Jagiellon kings remained inviolate. Hidden deeper in the thicket of print lay the substance. The throne was to be dynastically elective as it was under the Jagiellons, and since Stanisław Augustus had no legitimate children, Frederick Augustus of Saxony was designated as the founder of the new dynasty. The Sejm became the chief legislative and executive power in the Commonwealth, and voting was to be conducted by strict majority. Both the veto and the right of confederation were abolished. The government of the country was vested in the king and a royal council to be known as the Guardians of the National Laws. This was to include the Primate of Poland, five ministers and two secretaries, all appointed by the king for a period of two years. The king could direct policy, but no act of his was valid without the signature of at least one of the ministers, and they were answerable directly to the Sejm.

The constitution was hardly revolutionary in itself: it was the commissions and other organs it set up which were to carry through the real reforms. Under the slogan ‘The King with the People, the People with the King’, and aided by a barrage of propaganda emanating from Kołłątaj and his assistants there set to their work transforming the country. An economic constitution was to cover property relationships, the protection of labour, investment, the establishment of a national bank and the issue of a paper currency. Kołłątaj began work on plans to turn all labour-rents into money rents for the peasants, while the King and Piattoli began discussions with the elders of the Jewish community with a view to emancipating and integrating it.

The events in Poland were hailed far and wide. Political clubs in Paris voted to make Stanisław Augustus an honorary member. Condorcet and Thomas Paine acclaimed the constitution as a breakthrough, while Edmund Burke called it ‘the most pure’ public good ever bestowed upon mankind. For the same reasons, they alarmed Poland’s neighbours. The Prussian minister Count Hertzberg was convinced that ‘the Poles have given the coup de grace to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution much better than the English’, and warned that the Poles would sooner or later regain not only the lands taken from them in the partition, but also Prussia.

The fall of the Bastille in Paris two years before had caused fear in St Petersburg, Potsdam and Vienna, and the fact that what was viewed by their rulers as a second beacon of revolution had ignited in Warsaw induced a state of panic. They felt threatened by the revolutionary presence in their midst, if only because a steady trickle of runaways from all three countries flowed into Poland in search of new freedoms.

A year before the passing of the constitution, in March 1790, Poland had signed a treaty with Prussia, where Frederick II had been succeeded by Frederick William II. The immediate object was to make common war on Austria, from which Poland intended to recapture Galicia (as the Austrians had named their slice of Poland), but it also guaranteed Prussian military support if Poland were attacked by her eastern neighbour. Prussia then demanded that Poland give up Gdańsk, which was already cut off from the rest of the country by a Prussian corridor, in return for which Polish traffic on the Vistula would be granted customs-free passage. England, which was behind the Polish-Prussian alliance, and whose fleet was expected in the Baltic in the autumn, urged Poland to agree, but there was opposition in the Sejm.

In February 1791 the Emperor Joseph II was succeeded by Leopold II, who took a conciliatory line towards Prussia, but the international situation nevertheless remained favourable to Poland. Leopold and his Chancellor Kaunitz both believed that the passing of the constitution, far from being a threat, would probably prevent revolution in Central Europe.

Before the constitution was a year old, however, the inter national situation changed once more. On 9 January 1792 Russia signed the Peace of Jassy with Turkey and began to pull troops back from the southern front. On 14 February, at the first general election since its passing, the sejmiks throughout Poland voted overwhelmingly to endorse the constitution, to the dismay of the disenfranchised landless szlachta and conservatives who mourned the liberties of the Commonwealth, and much to the fury of Catherine, who had paid out fortunes in bribes to persuade them to reject it. In March she began moving her troops towards Poland. At the beginning of the month the Emperor Leopold died and was succeeded by Francis II. In April, revolutionary France went to war against him and Prussia. A few days later, on 27 April, Catherine sought out a number of Polish conservatives such as Seweryn Rzewuski, Feliks Potocki and Ksawery Branicki, who formed a confederation in St Petersburg. It was not proclaimed until 14 May in the border town of Targowica, under the slogan of defence of Polish ‘glorious freedoms’ against the ‘monarchical and democratic revolution of 3 May 1791’. Four days later the confederates crossed the border at the head of, or rather in the baggage of, 97,000 Russian troops.

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Against these veterans of the Turkish wars, the Commonwealth could field only 45,000 untried recruits. Frederick William of Prussia, who had written to Stanisław Augustus in May 1791 professing his ‘eagerness’ to ‘support the liberty and independence of Poland’, refused the appeal for help in June 1792, and the Polish forces went into action on their own. One corps, under the King’s nephew Józef Poniatowski, won a battle at Zieleńce, another under Tadeusz Kościuszko fought a fine rearguard action at Dubienka. But there was no real hope of stemming the Russian advance.

Stanisław Augustus tried to negotiate directly with Catherine, offering to bring Poland back within the Russian hegemony and to cede his throne to her grandson Constantine. Catherine demanded that he join the Confederation of Targowica. The King and his advisers, desperate to find a way out which could guarantee the integrity of the Commonwealth and the survival of the constitution, decided to bend to her will.

This act of humility was of little avail. In November, after the defeat of his armies by the French at Valmy, the King of Prussia demanded areas of Poland as compensation for his efforts to contain Revolutionary France. A second partition was agreed between Russia and Prussia, and signed in Petersburg on 3 January 1793. Catherine helped herself to 250,000 square kilometres, and Frederick William to 58,000. The Commonwealth now consisted of no more than 212,000 square kilometres, with a population of four million. Wielkopolska and most of Małopolska, the ethnic and historic heartlands of Poland, had gone, leaving a strange elongated and uneconomic rump. Even this was to be no more than a buffer state with a puppet king and a Russian garrison.

As with the first partition, Catherine insisted that the arrangement be ratified by the Sejm, to be held at Grodno in Lithuania rather than in the potentially explosive Warsaw. At first Stanisław Augustus refused to cooperate, but he was eventually browbeaten and blackmailed into going, and as he left his capital all hope and will to fight deserted him.

The Russian ambassador carefully selected candidates for the Sejm and used everything from bribery to physical assault in order to ensure their election. But once they had assembled at Grodno, some proved less than cooperative, in spite of the presence of Russian troops in the chamber who would drag out recalcitrant deputies and beat them up. At one stage, a battery of guns was trained on the building. After three months of stubbornness, the Sejm bowed to the inevitable and ratified the treaties.

The King returned to Warsaw. But it was the Russian ambassador that governed and Russian troops who policed the country. There was little possibility for action by patriots and most of them went into voluntary exile, some to Vienna, Italy and Saxony, others to Paris. Kościuszko was hatching a plan for military action based on a French victory against Prussia and Austria. Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki were thinking in terms of a national rising by the masses.

Catherine was unconsciously creating the perfect conditions for a revolution. She started by reducing the Polish army to 12,000 and disbanding the rest. Some 30,000 able-bodied fighting men were made redundant, and these patriotic vagrants were drawn to Warsaw, creating the revolutionary mob on which every upheaval depends. The way in which Poland had been carved up virtually precluded what was left from supporting itself. Cities had been cut off from their agricultural hinterland and trading patterns disrupted. Economic activity came to a virtual standstill, and in 1793 the six largest Warsaw banks declared insolvency. The country had to support a 40,000-strong Russian garrison and pay stringent customs dues imposed by Prussia. Thousands of unemployed cluttered Warsaw. The army was the focal point of discontent. When, on 21 February 1794, the Russians ordered a further reduction and the arrest of people suspected of subversive activity, revolution became inevitable.

On 12 March General Madaliński ordered his brigade into the field and marched on Kraków. Émigrés flocked back to Poland, and on 23 March Kościuszko arrived in Kraków. The following day he proclaimed an Act of Insurrection. He assumed dictatorial powers, took command of the armed forces and called on the nation to rise, delegating the conduct of the administration to a Supreme National Council with emergency powers. When the Insurrection was over all power was to be handed back to the Sejm.

From Kraków Kościuszko marched north. At Raclawice on 4 April he defeated a Russian army with a force of 4,000 regulars and 2,000 peasants armed with scythes. On 17 April the Warsaw cobbler Jan Kiliński raised the standard of revolt in the capital. After twenty-four hours of fighting the Russian troops abandoned the city, leaving 4,000 dead on the streets. On the night of 22 April the city of Wilno rose under the leadership of Colonel Jakub Jasiński, a fervent Jacobin, and several of the adherents of the Confederation of Targowica were lynched. But while Jasiński wrote to Kościuszko that he would prefer ‘to hang a hundred people, and save six million’, the dictator would have none of it. There had also been some lynchings in Warsaw, but Kościuszko put a stop to that when he reached the capital.

The Insurrection could hardly arouse optimism in the more settled sections of the population, and there remained uncertainty as to its real political nature. While the King remained in his castle, untouched by the mob and ostensibly recognised by the leaders of the Insurrection, a number of Jacobins waited in the wings to seize control. Kołłątaj, who had taken over the Treasury, implemented a number of revolutionary measures. He introduced graded taxation and issued paper currency as well as silver coinage, underwritten by confiscated Church property. Kościuszko’s proclamation, issued at Polaniec on 7 May, granting freedom and ownership of land to all peasants who came forward to defend the motherland, was a provocation to landowners.

Some magnates declared for the Insurrection and the King donated all his table-silver to the cause, but the majority of the szlachta were cautious, and most made sure their peasants never received the message of the Polaniec manifesto. It was only in the cities that large numbers came forward, and in Warsaw the Jewish community formed up and equipped a special regiment of its own under the command of Colonel Berek Joselewicz, the first Jewish military formation since Biblical times.

Kościuszko, who had marched out to meet the advancing Prussian army under King Frederick William, was outnumbered and defeated at Szczekociny on 6 May. On 15 June the Prussians entered Kraków. In July a combined Russo-Prussian army of 40,000 besieged Warsaw, but Kościuszko used a combination of earthworks and artillery to repel it, and after two months of siege the allies withdrew. Wilno fell to the Russians in mid-August, but a week later the Insurrection broke out in Wielkopolska and a corps under General Dąbrowski set off from Warsaw in support. He defeated a Prussian army near Bydgoszcz, then marched into Prussia.

The situation became hopeless when Austrian forces joined those of Prussia and Russia. Having extracted a pledge of neutrality from Turkey, Catherine ordered Suvorov’s army to move against Poland from the south-east. Kościuszko marched out to head him off, but was isolated from his supporting column and beaten at Maciejowice on 10 October. His defeat would have been no great blow in itself, but he was wounded and captured, along with other Polish generals.

The capture of Kościuszko induced political instability. The need for compromise badly affected the choice of his successor as commander-in-chief, which eventually fell on a Tomasz Wawrzecki. The Russians, who had been intending to retire to winter quarters, now decided to push home their advantage and on 4 November Suvorov attacked Warsaw. He had little difficulty in taking the eastbank suburb of Praga. Only four hundred of the 1,400 defenders survived, while the mainly Jewish population was butchered as a warning to Warsaw itself. The warning carried weight, and the army withdrew, allowing Warsaw to capitulate. On 16 November, Wawrzecki was surrounded and captured, and the Insurrection effectively came to an end.

Russian troops once again entered Warsaw, soon to be relieved by Prussians, as the three powers had decided to divide what was left of Poland between themselves and the capital fell to them. A new treaty of partition was signed in 1795, removing Poland from the map altogether. The King was bundled into a carriage and sent off to Grodno, where he was forced to abdicate, and the foreign diplomats accredited to the Polish court were ordered to leave. The Papal Nuncio, the British minister and the chargés d’affaires of Holland, Sweden and Saxony refused as a protest against the unceremonious liquidation of one of the states of Europe. Their embassies were also crammed with fugitives seeking asylum. It took the three powers more than two years to sort out the mess, and it was not until January 1797 that they were able to agree a treaty finally liquidating the debts of the King and the Commonwealth, after which they signed a protocol binding themselves to excise the name of Poland from all future documents, to remove any reference to it from diplomatic business and to strive by every means for its oblivion.

Mainly out of spite to the memory of his mother, Tsar Paul celebrated Catherine’s death in 1797 by freeing Kościuszko and other Polish prisoners, and inviting the ailing Stanisław Augustus to St Petersburg. Over the next months the Tsar repeatedly discussed with him plans to resurrect the Polish Commonwealth, and when the King died on 12 February 1798 Paul gave him a state funeral, personally leading the mourning.

It was not, however, the cranky behaviour of Paul that ensured the survival of the Polish cause. Stanisław Staszic had written that ‘Even a great nation may fall, but only a contemptible one can be destroyed,’ and the Poles did not see themselves as contemptible. They needed only to brandish the political testament of the dying Commonwealth, the constitution of 3 May, to claim their right to the esteem of other nations.

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