Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Poland’s century-old struggle with Russia, when the Republic of the Two Nations had a chance to change the course of history

Gniew, Poland, Aug 2020, Polish Hussars riding on horses and carrying emblems and flags, heavy cavalry, historical reenactment, Battle of Gniew (iStock, Dawid Kalisinski Photography)

“When the union of Krevo (1385) brought the Grand Duchy of Lithuania closer to the Kingdom of Poland, the latter automatically became drawn into the Lithuanian-Muscovite rivalry over who would permanently dominate the whole heritage of the former Kievan Rus’,” and there was a time when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, also called the Republic of the Two Nations, could reasonably be expected to win this rivalry, explains Polish historian Andrzej Nowak, specializing in the history of Eastern Europe.


An interview by Maciej Rosalak with Prof. Andrzej Nowak on the Polish-Russian rivalry

MACIEJ ROSALAK: We had a chance to create a truly powerful state – if ever – during the union of the Kingdom of Poland with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Jagiellonian state and the Republic of the Two Nations [the nobles’ republic of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ed.]. The question remains: could we have defeated Moscow and become the great Eastern European empire instead of Russia?

Prof. ANDRZEJ NOWAK: In Poland’s relations with Moscow, a fundamental change is brought about by the undertaking before 1340 by the Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan Kalita, of the slogan of “collecting the Ruthenian lands,” that is, ascribing to the Grand Duchy of Moscow the right to the entire historical heritage of the Grand Principality of Kiev. In the same period, when the Tatars’ pressure on Ruthenia weakened, the political vacuum in the vast areas from the Baltic to the Black Sea was filled by the Lithuanians. It is when the Lithuanian-Muscovite imperial rivalry arose. […]

At that time, by the way, Moscow covered a quarter of a million square kilometers, while Lithuania covered nearly a million. When the union of Krevo (1385) brought the Grand Duchy of Lithuania closer to the Kingdom of Poland, the latter automatically became drawn into the Lithuanian-Muscovite rivalry over who would permanently dominate the whole heritage of the former Kievan Rus’.

The key factor was the defeat of Prince Vytautas at Vorskla (1399) – where the Lithuanians, along with “their” fraction of Tatars and Polish reinforcements led by Spytek of Melsztyn, lost to the Muscovites and “their” fraction of Tatars led by a commander from the school of Timur Kulawy. This pushed Lithuania to the defensive in its rivalry with Moscow.

Let’s remember that the Lithuanians entered into a union with us to defend themselves against the Teutonic Knights. After the Battle of Grunwald and the recapture of Samogitia, the Teutonic danger was averted. If Vytautas had won against Moscow at the Vorskla River, it would have been the end of the Polish-Lithuanian union. He might have created a great empire, but it would have quickly turned into a gigantic Ruthenia, in which Lithuania would have melted like a crumb of sugar in a glass of water. Such a Ruthenia would have quickly lost interest in persisting in an alliance with tiny Poland. But Vytautas lost. Fortunately! I say this both from the Polish point of view and from the Lithuanian point of view. Otherwise, there would soon be no Lithuania.

Casimir IV Jagiellon concluded a perpetual peace with Moscow (1449), and in the 1470s he did not help Novgorod in its clash with the Moscow ruler. This is another key moment in this story.

If we looked at a map of the time, we would see the Novgorod state of 1.5 to 2 million (!) square kilometers, Lithuania of 900,000 square kilometers, while Moscow was three times smaller. Today, we might be tempted to claim enthusiastically that had Casimir fought and won together with Novgorod, he would have had an empire stretching all the way to the Ob River in Siberia! But our wise king did not want a state stretching from Cracow to the Ob for it would have been slashed with Moscow’s axe all too easily.

Ivan III, the actual creator of the power of the Moscow empire, his successor Vasily III, and then Ivan IV the Terrible usually prevailed in wars against the Jagiellonians. Five of them were Muscovite assaults, and only one (in the 1530s) was an unsuccessful attempt at a Polish-Lithuanian counteroffensive. Despite Konstantin Ostrogski’s magnificent victory at Orsha (1514), Lithuania lost the extremely important, from a strategic point of view, city of Smolensk and one-third of its territory in the course of the first four wars. That was more than 300,000 sq. km!

Moscow, by swallowing this territory, pushed Lithuania into a closer union with Poland, the magnificent embodiment of which became the Union of Lublin (1569). It was concluded under the pressure of another Moscow invasion. The influential Lithuanian magnates who resisted its swearing-in were forced to do so by Sigismund Augustus, who handed over the Ukrainian lands – to which he was entitled as Grand Duke of Lithuania – to the Polish Crown.

The slogan of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was perpetuated by historical writings, by historian Pawel Jasienica in particular. Let us remember that for people in the 15th and 16th centuries, there were clearly two states: The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Prussia was also incorporated at that time – with a dominant German element and considerable autonomy. Thus, we had a third element within the Republic of the Two Nations.

The Ruthenian nobility gained full entitlement with the Lithuanian and Polish nobility, without having to give up Orthodoxy. Thus, it did not constitute some second-class element in the Republic. In the second half of the 16th century, therefore, we cannot speak of a state of only “two nations.”

Extremely important changes came with the Reformation. Most of the nobility converted to Calvinism at that time. In the case of the Orthodox nobility, especially in Lithuania, it was only a stage – after a generation or two – towards Catholicism. And this only heated up the cultural cauldron in the It provoked protests, even if it was done without state coercion. The second factor stimulating turmoil in Ruthenia – besides the Reformation and Counter-Reformation – was Moscow.

Prof. Nowak’s latest book, „Polska i Rosja. Sąsiedztwo wolności i despotyzmu X–XXI w.” (Poland and Russia. The neighborship of freedom and despotism from the 10th to the 21st century), Wydawnictwo Biały Kruk, Kraków 2022.

Sigismund III Vasa brought about the Union of Brest in 1596, joining part of the Eastern Church to the Catholic Church. This caused conflicts, protests, and the killing of people in very dramatic circumstances. Some argue that from then on, the Orthodox felt like second-class citizens in the Polish-Lithuanian nobles’ republic, and Moscow was in a better situation to claim to be the defender of Orthodoxy. Was the Union of Brest a mistake of historical significance?

I think this is also a stereotype perpetuated mainly by historical writers and columnists, including Jerzy Giedroyc. It is an ahistorical stereotype. You cannot treat the union in isolation from the Reformation, which was initiated by Luther in 1517. It turned out that religious identity is not given once and for all. The religious turmoil quickly reached the Republic of the Two Nations.

The second circumstance, whose importance cannot be overstated, arose seven years before the Union of Brest when Moscow succeeded in installing a patriarchate at home. Thus, it potentially gained sovereignty over Orthodox Christians living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well.

The political conflict over dominance over the Ruthenian lands evolved around cultural and confessional differences. With the introduction of the Union of Brest, Sigismund III attempted to resolve it and preserve internal peace. The over-emphasized fanaticism of the Counter-Reformation and the zeal of the Jesuits played a secondary role in this matter. Above all, Sigismund wanted to appease the Orthodox population, to allow them to keep their existing Greek rites, i.e. their culture and customs, while curbing Moscow’s potentially destructive influence on the state.

Roman Catholic bishops kept their positions in the Senate, but let uss recall that in the late 16th century the majority of secular senators were non-Catholics.

The most powerful magnates in that century were the Orthodox Konstantin Ostrogski and Dmitry Wisniowiecki. The Radziwil family – as if to preserve their Lithuanian and ancestral separateness – embraced Protestantism most readily (though not always). The magnates retained the right to choose their religion, setting an example for the nobility (the peasants, of course, did not change their religion). The king also manipulated this right, introducing the union in Brest in the interest of the state, and he actually did so at the request of a majority of Orthodox hierarchs in Ruthenia.

Starting then, however, a ban on the legal functioning of the Orthodox Church in our country was in effect for 40 years, and the Republic truly ceased to be a common thing for all citizens. This cannot be denied. The ban contributed to heating up religious conflicts instead of calming them down, as its initiators wanted.

Let’s go back to the confrontation with Moscow 400 years ago. Stefan Batory’s three military expeditions against Ivan IV the Terrible (1579-1582) were militarily victorious. What did they bring us?

A favorable Truce of Yam-Zapolsky. At the same time as the victories, however, the idea of a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Moscow was developing. The eastern lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were horribly ravaged by fire and sword by Ivan IV. Something that could be called a pro-Moscow lobby was being generated – not in the sense of Moscow’s agents, but of elites seeking to get along with the tsar: It is better to satisfy the “beast” than to fight it… The possibility of a Muscovite king of Poland was being considered, not just – as later during the Time of Troubles – a Polish tsar of Moscow.

At the first two elections of a king for the Kingdom of Poland (who was also automatically Grand Duke of Lithuania, ed.), Ivan IV the Terrible was put forward as a candidate, and after his death (and that of Polish King Batory), his son Fyodor. At the sejmiks, the local nobles’ assemblies, these candidacies were seriously considered. Those who supported them cited the success of the experiment with Lithuania: the tsar, his entourage, and eventually the entire nation would take over our faith, laws, and customs. The opponents pointed to the enormity of the Moscow state, which will rather cause us to be dominated by the Orthodox.

During the Time of Troubles, the Dimitriads, and then the war we won (1610), we gained an advantage that we never had before and have never had since in our relations with Moscow. Victory at Klushino, our garrison in the Kremlin, the Shuisky tsars as captives paying tribute to the Polish king in Warsaw… Was there a real chance to take advantage of this moment in history and to put the course of events on a path that would have guaranteed our dominance in the future, perhaps for centuries?

How so? Proponents of political fiction pay no attention to real disparities. Russia’s Orthodox population was much more numerous. It also had a strong identity based on a strong connection between Orthodoxy and the state. Russia already reached as far as Siberia, even the Pacific Ocean. The Muscovite masses had perceived one enemy for centuries: it is the “Latins” (ie. the Western Roman Catholics and Protestants, ed.). It would have been extremely difficult to change this state of affairs, despite the nobles’ faith in the power of the example of Polish freedom.

However, it should be noted that at the beginning of the first Dimitriad, most of the sejmiks shared the opinion of the old chancellor Jan Zamoyski: let’s not get involved in these quarrels. The king took a different approach, because – having been preoccupied with the matter of the Swedish throne, which he had just been deprived of – he wanted to dominate Moscow and use it in his plans against Sweden. Moreover, he wanted to fulfill the Pope’s dream of returning all of Rus’ to the bosom of the legitimate Church, which Sigismund III shared, albeit not as fanatically as some say of him. He even accepted the false tsar Dmitry. False Dmitry I, however, did not enjoy his throne in the Kremlin for long; he was overthrown in a revolt, and his ashes were sent back to where he came from, i.e. the West…

Sigismund must have had this in mind when he decided to go to war with Moscow, the reason for which was the alliance of Tsar Shuisky with Sweden against the Republic of the Two Nations. At that time, the Sejmiks supported the king, because, after all, he had sworn in the pacta conventa that he would take back the lands lost by the Republic: Smolensk and the Chernihiv and Severian lands. We know what went on further: Smolensk was besieged by the king, Hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski defeated a Moscow-Swedish relief five times more numerous and entered the Kremlin in magnificent style – mainly thanks to his hussars. He did not have to conquer it, as the gates were opened to him by the Muscovites themselves.

In the deal he made with the boyars – exceeding his powers, incidentally – he gave up any territorial gains to Poland and agreed that not the king, but his son Prince Wladyslaw would become tsar. Sigismund knew, however, that Wladyslaw, even if he survived, would become an Orthodox ruler, having nothing to do with Poland anymore except his origin. Because that’s what the boyars demanded. Besides, he had a weighty political argument: he had to conquer Smolensk, as he had pledged to do so. He therefore put forward his own candidacy for the Moscow throne to see to the interests of the Republic.

Although the hetman won a dashing victory, in my opinion, it was the king who was right in August 1610. He did not succumb to illusions.

The hetman was allowed into the Kremlin in 1610. He was stationed there for a month, and the Polish crew he left behind stayed there for two more years.

Zolkiewski ordered firm discipline and, as long as he was there, rape and robbery did not occur. But later, the soldiery became unhinged and the swagger began. This was compounded by the religious factor, which was brilliantly exploited by the Orthodox monks. This is reminiscent of the siege of our Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, when it was only then, in the fight against the Protestant Swedish invasion (and the Orthodox Muscovite invasion from the east), that the concept of the “Polish Catholic” was developed. Forty-five years before the siege of Jasna Gora by the Swedes, an identical situation prevailed in the Muscovite state, invaded by Catholic Poles as well as by Protestant Swedes, who occupied Novgorod. There came a time of huge mobilization and growth of this Orthodox identity, hostile to the West.

Here is another interesting moment. The Polish crew entered the Kremlin as a result of an agreement with the boyar elite – representatives of the seven wealthiest families. But this elite did not exactly enjoy wider support from the masses in the center of Russia. It is possible that if the Poles had made contact with the so-called courtiers, the equivalent of our middle nobility, it might have been easier to gain more stable support for a rapprochement with Poland: the status of the Polish noble state might have proved attractive (at least this is how it is deduced by the most prominent Russian scholar of the Time of Troubles, Professor Boris Florya).

Poland’s arrangement with the boyar elite proved to be a misstep. Under pressure from the lower layers of society revolted by Orthodox agitation, the boyar elite eventually accepted the choice of a new dynasty against Poland, initiated by Mikhail Romanov.

So we lost the chance to permanently avert the danger from Moscow through a lack of political discernment?

We would have lost it in any case if we did not respect Russia’s Orthodox identity, that is if we would have chosen not to leave it as it was. I doubt if it could ever have become part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

At that time, one can already speak of the Moscow state as Russia. Cossacks in the service of the tsars had been conquering Siberia since the late 16th century, and the Russian state had achieved what is called strategic depth, which no conqueror could ever overcome. The Poles were in the Kremlin for two years, but this does not mean that we had conquered Russia. Nor did we conquer its most important spiritual fortress, which was the Troitsk-Sergiev Lavra (a kind of Russian Czestochowa), despite a nearly year-and-a-half-long siege by Polish-Lithuanian forces fighting under the command of Jan Piotr Sapieha as part of the army of False Dmitri II. The Troitsk-Sergiev Lavra Lavra lies just 80 kilometers east of Moscow. Could we have conquered territories several thousand kilometers from that city?

Delusions about the fact that the Polish crew in the Kremlin had Russia at its feet have little to do with reality. That’s why I defend Sigismund III’s decision. He gained what Poland could hold: Smolensk and the Chernihiv and Severian lands. He maintained and propagated Western culture there, that is, he created Eastern Europe in these areas. To create Europe all the way to the Pacific Ocean – where the Cossacks reached in the 1730s – was beyond our strength. Even if the whole of Europe had put its efforts in, it also would not have been able to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


This article was first published in Polish in the January 2023 issue of the Historia Do Rzeczy monthly.