Federalism or Force
A Sixteenth-Century Project for Eastern and Central Europe
The 1612 surrender of the Moscow Kremlin by the Polish contingent is, for the Russians, a key event in the history of their country. The anniversary of this event (November 4, or “the People’s Unity Day”) has recently replaced the October Revolution celebration, previously a key state holiday.
In contrast, many Polish historians have maintained that the Polish occupation of the Kremlin was a trivial and embarrassing example of anarchy prevailing in the Polish political circles at that time, and that the so-called Dimitriads, or attempts to extend support to two pretenders to the Moscow throne, amounted to adventurism of the undisciplined Polish nobles. Such views continue to dominate the postcommunist Polish historiography. (1)
Why such disparate assessments of the same cycle of events? Why are the events that define the modern Russian nationhood treated like a farce by the Poles? Briefly speaking, this is a result of a misinterpretation of Polish history by the Poles themselves. The occupation of the Kremlin was not a result of intrigues, anarchy, or selfishness of the Polish nobility. It was a result of a consistent and persistent policy of the Polish political elites aimed at bringing about the federalization of Eastern Europe and thus effecting a peaceful expansion of Europe eastward.
It is true that the Dimitriads themselves were composed by a number of plotters of diverse backgrounds. Among them were bankrupt nobles, former participants in the Zebrzydowski rebellion, Cossacks greedy for adventure, and the incredibly effective Lisowski soldiers.(2) On that issue there is no disagreement.
However, the Dimitriads were not conceived solely by the Poles. Andrzej Andrusiewicz, a specialist in the problems of the Moscow smuta, pointed out that the reasons for the “first Dimitrii’s” return to Moscow can be found in the internal struggles of Moscow‘s political elites. Dimitrii, who allegedly was a son of Ivan the Terrible, was not prompted to claim the throne by the Polish crown or by the unruly Polish nobles. His arrival in Moscow was a triumphant return to the homeland of its supposed legal ruler; it constituted a “victory of justice over Boris Godunow’s lawlessness.” (3)
It is also incorrect to assume that the help which Dimitrii received from the various Polish circles was a result of a foreign policy of the Polish Commonwealth eager to conquer Moscow. A majority of Poland’s statesmen at the time-Chancellor Jan Zamoyski being a prominent example-were against this venture, or at least distanced themselves from it. Polish King Sigismund III Vasa disapproved of the venture but did not intervene. Looking at things from the standpoint of Realpolitik, it was to Poland’s advantage to see the prolonged political disagreements in a country with which Poland was in a state of war for decades. Also, King Sigismund had other problems at that time, not the least of which was the Zebrzydowski rebellion and the war with Sweden looming on the horizon. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the Dimitriads did not have the sympathetic and legal approval of the Polish Seym, Senate, or the King himself. Rather, they were actions in direct conflict with the peaceful expansion-through-federalization attempted by the Polish Respublica (Commonwealth). The most prominent example of such an expansion was the Polish-Lithuanian Union of 1569. Whatever role they played in Russia itself, the Dimitriads actually went against the Polish national interest. One can only wonder why Polish historians stubbornly reduce Polish policy toward Moscow to Polish participation in these events.(4) The repeated expressions of this negative view make it difficult to reassess from a broader perspective the conflict between Moscow and the Polish Commonwealth.
Pax Polona: the federalizing policy of the local power
The Polish-Lithuanian Union of 1569 fundamentally changed the distribution of power in Europe. It brought into existence a regional power that remained the strongest player in Eastern and Central Europe until the mid-seventeenth century, and made it possible for Poland to participate in the decision-making processes on the European continent. The geopolitical situation of the Respublica of Two Nations (although, if truth be told, the nascent Ukrainian nation should have been included in the mix) made Poland a competitor of the two other aspiring powers in the region: the Grand Duchy of Moscow on the one hand, and Sweden on the other. At stake was the hegemony over Northeastern and Eastern Europe (Dominium Maris Baltici).
Unfortunately, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania brought conflict with Moscow as part of its “dowry.” Indeed, this conflict was the main reason why Vilnius committed itself to the Union. In the sixteenth century the Lithuanians began to lose ground in their protracted rivalry with Moscow, and a permanent union with Poland was expected to stop Moscow’s pressure on Lithuania’s eastern and northern territories. The Russian imperial power began to develop in the sixteenth century, by means of external expansion and through the centralization of power in Moscow.
The exceptionality of Poland in the premodern age consisted of the frequent use of peaceful federalization, which began to be practiced in Western Europe only in the second part of the twentieth century with the appearance of the European Union.
In northeastern Europe there was no room for two regional powers. From the geopolitical standpoint, the Polish-Muscovite conflict was thus inevitable. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could deal with this challenge in two ways: it could either try to weaken Muscovite power using the traditional diplomatic means, which might have ended in a military conflict; or-and this was a distinctly Polish invention-it could work for a third union [the Polish-Lithuanian personal union of 1386 being the first, and the 1569 full union the second], and thus enlarge the Commonwealth with a new political entity.
Incidentally, at that time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was really a union of three nations [four, if one counted the Ruthenians]. It is often forgotten that during the Seym debates in 1569 a Union with Royal Prussia was also signed. The exceptionality of Poland in the premodern age consisted of the frequent use of peaceful federalization, a process which began to be practiced in Western Europe only in the second part of the twentieth century with the appearance of the European Union.
The defeat of the Third Union and the beginning of the end for the Polish Commonwealth
Another little-remembered fact is that since the death of King Sigismund Augustus and the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Polish kings were elected not unlike modern-day presidents. During that first kingless period of 1572-74, one of the candidates for the Polish throne was the infamous Ivan IV (the Terrible) of Moscow. He was not elected, but his appearance as a candidate reminded the Polish nobles of the advantages of a union with Poland’s eastern neighbor. This idea was revived in 1584, after Ivan’s death. The then-Polish King Stefan Bathory presented the Muscovites with two options: either a union with Poland, or a war. In 1585 the Minsk Castellan Michael Haraburda was sent to Moscow as the King‘s envoy to negotiate the matter. As historian Władysław Konopczyński put it, he offered the Muscovites “a union with Poland whereby Poles and Lithuanians (who already made free elections a political custom in their countries) would elect the King, whereas the Muscovites (whose political heritage included a hereditary and absolute rule) would ratify this election.” (5) The Russians did not agree, and soon afterward King Bathory died. The plan did not work out.
When Ivan the Terrible’s son Fyodor died in 1598, the Ryurik dynasty died with him and the period of smuta [disorder] began in Muscovy. The Polish Respublica immediately sent its envoys to Moscow to again propose a federalization. Their task was to convince the boyars to hold back the selection of the new czar and, in the meantime, undertake negotiations with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth about the possibility of a personal union. A fraction of the boyars opposed the idea and immediately selected Boris Godunov to be the new czar. In 1600 another large group of envoys headed by the Lithuanian Chancellor Lew Sapieha was sent to Moscow. He presented the Muscovites with a plan of uniting Poland and Lithuania [and present-day Belarus and Ukraine] with Muscovite Russia. (6) The two states were to conduct a common foreign policy, build a common navy, and guarantee religious freedom to all citizens. The monarchs of this new federation were supposed to wear a double crown symbolizing Poland-Lithuania on the one hand, and Muscovite Russia on the other. There would be two monarchs: the Muscovites would have their czar, and Poland-Lithuania would elect its king. If the czar died without an heir, the [elected] Polish-Lithuanian king would ascend to the Moscow throne. If the [elected Polish-Lithuanian] king died, the Russian deputies would participate in the election of the new king, with the understanding that if the deceased king had children they would have the first claim to the throne (according to custom), rather than the czar’s children. These were rejected, and the Polish envoys brought back only the proposal of a peace treaty.
The Poles did not give up on the idea of a federation. They returned to it in 1606. This time, it was the Muscovites who started the negotiations. When the False Dimitrii ascended to the throne, he sent to Poland his envoy, Bezobrazov. In reality, Bezobrazov worked for the boyars who wanted to get rid of Dimitrii (the boyar faction included the future tsar Vasilii Shuiskii). On behalf of the boyars Bezobrazov proposed the selection to the Moscow throne of King Sigismund III’s son, Vladislas (Władysław). But King Sigismund was skeptical about the proposal.
Events in Moscow rolled on quickly. The False Dimitrii was murdered, and Vasilii Shuiskii ascended to the throne. Then, “miraculously,” the second Dimitrii materialized. His background was murky. In 1609 czar Vasilii Shuiskii and Swedish King Charles IX Vasa signed a treaty which to some extent duplicated the Polish proposal of 1600: Sweden and Muscovy were to conduct the same foreign policy, and Sweden would put at Moscow’s disposal some of its military force. Sigismund III Vasa took this to be a casus belli. His Swedish relative had betrayed him and allied himself with the Russians. In response, King Sigismund marched on Smolensk with a small army. A year later, one of his generals, Stanisław Žółkiewski, won a significant victory over the joint Russian-Swedish armies. In 1610 at Kłuszyn, he defeated a Russian-Swedish contingent that was five times the size of his own. Having done so, Žółkiewski marched on toward Moscow. Instead of looking for an opportunity to destroy the Muscovite military, however, he sought negotiations with the boyars. He understood the political truth that Europe came to understand only after the slaughter of the Second World War: permanent success cannot be achieved by soldiers and cannons, but has to be sought in diplomacy. As a result, Moscow opened its gates before Žółkiewski, and the boyars selected Sigismund III Vasa’s son Vladislas to be tsar. Thus transpired a rare historical event: the fruits of a military victory were speedily transformed into a political one. Again, a parallel suggests itself with the Allied treatment of West Germany after the Second World War.
Thus after thirty years of trying, the Polish-Muscovite personal union seemingly came to fruition. But Žółkiewski realized that he had only made the first step, and that the boyars were not acting in good faith. In a letter to Lew Sapieha he wrote: “It took us a hundred and sixty years to accomplish the union with the nation to which Your Excellency belongs [the Lithuanians]. Surely you understand that a few weeks is not enough to bring to fruition a similar union with the great Muscovite kingdom.” (7) Unfortunately, King Sigismund was impatient and did not understand Žółkiewski’s policy: he refused to ratify the agreement inviting Prince Vladislas to assume the Moscow throne. He wanted that throne for himself. His inability to cede the Moscow throne to his son had dire consequences. Sensing a lack of agreement among Poles, the majority of Muscovites who were hostile to the idea of a union with Poland to begin with-staged an uprising. Toward the end of 1612 the Poles surrendered the Kremlin to the Muscovites.
Even this abbreviated account undermines the view that Polish policy toward Moscow was reactive and devoid of long-term goals. While some actors in this drama acted impulsively, ever since Ivan the Terrible’s death there were statesmen in Poland/Lithuania who consistently raised the issue of federalism in Eastern Europe. The Polish Respublica played for the highest stakes: a federal state that would encompass the entire Eastern European area. This would have given the Respublica an upper hand in its struggle against Sweden over the Baltic coast. Even more importantly, it would have assured the security of the southern borders, then under attack by Turks and Tatars. This project had nothing to do with adventurism. Its goal was to assure a Pax Polona in the entire non-Germanic Central and Eastern Europe.
Had this third union succeeded, it is almost certain that the fourth union could also have been accomplished: the creation of a Ruthenian Duchy comprising the territory of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Bratslav [today’s eastern Ukraine], and giving the Duchy a similar federal status. Only such a solution could have solved the Cossack question. Alas, this had not been accomplished. The fourth union was attempted much later, in 1658, when an agreement with the Cossacks transformed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into a Commonwealth of Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians. But this agreement was never implemented, because by that time Moscow was already too strong, having conquered half of Siberia and having consolidated its power over the neighboring principalities.
Critics of the federalist project view it as unrealistic. The majority of historians on all sides consider the project of the sixteenth-century Polish-Muscovite union to have been utopian. Among the exceptions was Kraków historian Joseph Szujski. Szujski states, “Prince Vladislas had excellent chances to ascend to the Moscow throne and, had it not been for his father’s gross diplomatic mistakes, the Moscow throne would have passed on to the Vasa dynasty.“(8) However, both critics of and apologists for the Polish policy toward Moscow do not spend much time pondering its implications. They do not understand that the success or failure of the federalist idea would determine the future fate of the Polish Commonwealth. What was important about the entire issue was not whether Polish kings would wear the Moscow crown. The important issue, and one for which answers should be sought, is whether there existed a better alternative to the Polish eastern policy. As is well known, politics is the art of the possible, and it is worth considering the options which the Polish state had at that time.
Realpolitik options in Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century
Polish historians have treated the Polish expansion eastward as the major reason for the fall of the Polish state. It has been assumed that Poland was unable to consummate its union with Lithuania which, during the first dynastic union, comprised territories ranging from Estonia to Rostov on the Don in Ukraine. This view was prevalent among the so-called Kraków historians such as Michał Bobrzyński, among the right-wing Endecja, all the way to the recently-deceased historian Pawel Jasienica. This is, in fact, the canonical view of Poland’s historical establishment. It is assumed that if Lithuania was too big for Poland to digest, a union with Moscow would only have speeded up the fall of the Polish state. Such is the Realpolitik view today, and not only in Poland. It is said that the great powers decline because of imperial overstretch.
However, when applied to the sixteenth-century scene, this view appears ahistorical. It is better applicable to international realities which developed as a result of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and even more so, to the situation which arose as a result of the rise of nation states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Seventeenth-century Poland had three rivals on its eastern borders: the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire. If Poland acted according to the narrowly-understood self interest and rejected all religious, moral, or dynastic considerations, it would have tried to ally itself with one of these competitors against the other two. It would have striven for a military victory over its rivals at any cost. From the standpoint of Realpolitik, the most advantageous policy for Poland would have been an alliance with the Turks. However, Poland being Poland, it was unthinkable for her to enter into this kind of alliance. A strategic and aggressive alliance with Moslems against Christians was out of the question in Poland which, at that time, was deeply involved in the problems of Counter-Reformation. At most, it was possible to sign a temporary and defensive nonaggression pact with the Turks.
An alliance with Sweden was not possible because of the dynastic policy of Polish kings. A condition for an alliance with Sweden which Charles IX presented was renunciation by the Polish branch of the Vasa family of any future pretensions to the Swedish throne. King Sigismund was reluctant to deprive his successors of such future possibilities.
The Moscow option was the only one left. Unfortunately, the interests of Poland and of the Duchy of Moscow clashed regarding the territory of present-day Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Thus, instead of collaboration there developed hostility. An attempt to use the Moscow smuta to affect not a conquest but a federalization of Muscovite Russia and of the nations bordering on the Muscovite Kingdom in the west was therefore quite sensible, and it would have solved the problem of regional peace and security. A specialist in the problems of international balance of forces, Dariusz Kondrakiewicz, noted “a certain regularity concerning wars between Russia, Poland, and Sweden: it so happened that when one side was poised to prevail, the other two sides engaged if not in outright friendship, then in a temporary armistice which often took the form of assistance in the borderlands not threatened by the first power.”(9) One might have assumed that the balance of forces in the area could have been achieved, had all sides behaved rationally. Such rationality, however, is seldom seen in international relations. On the part of Poland, the proposed union with Muscovy was an attempt to transcend Realpolitik and make sure that the new political entity would wield regional hegemony.
But calculations about future stability were not the only ones that directed Polish statesmen toward a union with Moscow. The Polish political system stipulated that the Polish state could not conduct a war without the permission of the Seym (a similar rule is written into the U.S. Constitution). Thus, internationally, Poland behaved somewhat like the present-day democracies: she was unlikely to launch wars of conquest or enter into aggressive military alliances. She was not immune, however, to the tendency toward expansion which regional powers usually have, but it was an expansion through federalization. The Polish-Muscovite union, therefore, was the only way of solving the regional conflict. The potential of a Polish-Lithuanian-Prussian-Ruthenian-and Muscovite Union would have constituted a counterbalance both to the power of Sweden and to the Turkish threat. The policy aimed at federalization was a long-term policy conceived by conscientious statesmen. Its presumed steps were, first, a personal union (i.e., invitation by the boyars for Prince Vladislas to ascend to the Moscow throne) and then, in time, the kind of union that was established between Poland and Lithuania. Why then has this policy been forgotten and instead a grotesque distortion of it has dominated European and Polish historiography?
Vae victis: the winners write history
Historian Adam Zamoyski wrote the following:
The manipulation of historical consciousness had as its primary purpose the destruction of Polish identity, thereby depriving Poles of the foundation on which national communities are established. Within this framework it was important to convince Poles that the key moments of their history amounted to adventurism or farce rejected by the Zeitgeist. Here lie the root causes of the oft-suggested Polish immaturity, inferiority, peripherality, and the like. Alas, many Poles came to believe these cleverly constructed arguments. And, of course, many Europeans continue to believe them. The European and Russian interpretations of how Muscovy became the Russian empire (in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries) seldom assign to Poland her due role in the process. The usual mantra is that Russia gained its advantages at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. We are told that Peter the Great defeated Sweden at Poltava in 1709, thus eliminating that country from competition for hegemony in northeastern Europe. Then a series of victorious campaigns in the second part of the eighteenth century made Russia prevail over Turkey. Such is the standard European (and Russian) interpretation of Russian history today. But this is like describing the rise of Rome while deleting its struggle with Carthage, the Punic wars, and Hannibal.
In a federalized political system, liberum veto serves as an institutionalized circuit breaker. In that capacity, it exists in the present-day European Union, and it has recently been used to the EU’s advantage.
It does not take much study to realize that such an interpretation is mistaken. It is enough to look at three maps of Europe: the sixteenth-, seventeeth-, and eighteenth-century maps, while paying attention to the changes in the territorial possessions of Poland and her neighbors. From such a brief survey it would be difficult not to conclude that Russia acquired her hegemonic status because it managed to eliminate the strongest state in Central and Eastern Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Before the partitions Poland was not a peripheral country. For three centuries it was the anchor of Eastern and Central Europe. The failed union with Moscow was the beginning of the end for Poland. A hundred years after leaving the Kremlin, Poland became a Russian protectorate. When one realizes that, it becomes clear why for the Russians the removal of Poles from the Kremlin is the most important state holiday. If King Bathory, Chancellor Zamoyski, Chancellor Sapieha, or General Žółkiewski succeeded, the Grand Duchy of Moscow would have become not an empire but a part of the Eastern European Federation. This is why the disgrace of the partitions has to be remembered side by side with the Kłuszyn victory and the selection of Prince Vladislas IV Vasa as king not only of Poles, but also of the Muscovites.
Poland: a strange hegemon
While the Prussian and Russian propaganda distorted the perceived Polish history in ways described by Adam Zamoyski, it would be hard to deny that Polish hegemony in Eastern Europe did not follow the familiar patterns of an imperial power. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, (11) Paul Kennedy analyzes the political history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, referring to Poland in one casual sentence. He mentions Poland’s ethnic diversity and its feudal traditions, attributing to these factors the reason why Poland did not become a “modern nation-state.” But he passes over in silence the fact that in those centuries Poland was one of the key European powers. Obviously, Poland did not fit Paul Kennedy’s theory of empires. For Kennedy, empires have a primarily economic foundation. The economy dictates the country’s strength and its possibilities in the international arena. However, one could argue that the economy by itself is not a sufficient foundation for a great power. It is merely a force which serves to generate military means, thus enabling the state to conduct aggressive wars. Within the international system which, in Kennedy’s opinon, continues to be anarchistic, a country can gain the status of a great power and then confirm it through wars. International anarchy in modern and premodern Europe consisted precisely of the fact that at that time, there existed no institution regulating international affairs, and wars were the only means of correcting or changing the international order. Within this framework, it is clear why Kennedy bypassed Poland in his ennumeration of the European great powers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Polish Respublica became a power not through a war, but because of the political union with the ruler of Lithuania.
It is possible that the case of Poland is an exception confirming the general rule, but it is also clear that by slipping out of Kennedy’s preferred paradigm Poland ceased to exist as a political entity in his book (and in many others). What cannot be named and classified does not exist. Perhaps here lie the difficulties with Poland which not only Paul Kennedy but other Western historians have experienced. The historiographical rules prevailing in present-day scholarship cannot accommodate Poland. Thus the historiography of Europe as it is constituted today remains flawed.
A new revisionist school?
Unfortunately, in Poland too one observes faulty conceptualizations of Polish history. Poles continue to look at their history through the prism of such works as Michał Bobrzyński’s Dzieje Polski w zarysie . In Bobrzyński’s view, the Polish problem consisted of an inability to find adequate structural solutions for the multicultural Respublica. He faults the election of kings, democracy, liberum veto, pacta conventa [allowing the noble class the kind of democracy now enjoyed by all citizens in democratic countries], and King Henry Valesius’s concession of power to the petty gentry. Bobrzyński’s argument seems logical and realistic, and its cadenzas have the grace of mathematical equations. No wonder he has gained so many followers.
However, a second look at the systemic details of the old Polish Respublica inclines one toward skepticism with regard to Bobrzyński’s explanations. Let us consider the liberum veto concept [the veto power of individual members of the legislative body]. Every school textbook teaches Polish children that liberum veto was one of the reasons for the partitions of Poland. Not a single argument is advanced in support of this much-maligned institution. Yet a kind of liberum veto is necessary in all state systems based on federalism. Liberum veto makes sure that the stronger partner will never force his will upon the weaker one who, by means of this mechanism, gains an institutionalized circuit breaker. Furthermore, liberum veto is alive and well in the European Union today: each member of the Union can veto the decision of the Council of Europe if that decision significantly hurts its national interests. It is thanks to the existence of this circuit breaker that the unification of Europe has continued successfully for fifty years now. One could say that a federation based on the rules of democracy has to include a kind of liberum veto, because it prevents the stronger members from lording it over the weaker ones, forcing them instead to seek a consensus.
Is it really so difficult to understand that without the liberum veto, or the right of each member of the Seym to veto decisions injurious to him, the Polish-Lithuanian personal union signed in Krewa in 1385 would never have become the full union of 1569? Would it be too much to submit that it was thanks to the system of the liberum veto that Poland’s strength grew for over two centuries? Would we be splitting hairs if we asserted that one of the reasons for the partitions was not the free “I do not give my consent,” but rather an improper use of this formula?
I am happy to report that in recent years a number of scholarly works have appeared that criticized the conclusions of the Kraków school of historians. Their works converge in saying that it was not (or not only) the political system of the old Polish Respublica that led to its demise. Among such historians are Urszula Augustyniak, Jolanta Choińska-Mika, Jan Dzięgielewski, Janusz Ekes, Stefania Ochmann, and Edward Opaliński. They have defended the institutions of the Polish Commonwealth that are so savagely attacked in academic textbooks. By doing so, they have combatted the incorrect perception of Poles as a people unable to generate stable state structures.
But these are just the first steps. The real polemics against the “Kraków school” have to consider in detail the phenomenon of political power in the old Polish Commonwealth, rather than merely defending its institutions. The topic of discussion should shift from the fall of Poland to its birth and development, or to the ways in which democracy, free election of kings, and the possibility of liberum veto led Poland to become a great power in the sixteenth century. This shift of emphasis is necessary if Poles are to understand their own history distorted by colonial intervention. The history of the birth, flourishing, and fall of the great power which the old Polish Respublica most certainly was should attract scholars, and should find its way into academic debates in Poland and abroad.
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Last updated 1/20/06