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History and Geopolitics: A contest for Eastern Europe

Kimitaka Matsuzato

By Andrzej Nowak. Warsaw: Polish Institute of International Affairs (Warecka 1a, 00-950 Warsaw, pub<>), 2008. 363 pages. Index. ISBN 978-83-89607-28-7. Paper.

“The end of history” after the cold war should have been followed by the end of geopolitics. Neither has happened, however. China and Russia are reemerging as regional powers that openly criticize the “double standards” inherent in Euro-Atlantic democracy. Europe’s near rejection of Turkey’s sincere desire for EU accession has hardly discouraged Turkey from intensifying its petit-imperial activities in the Caucasus and Central Asia, with the help of its Islamic and ethnic network. As Andrzej Nowak remarks, it is difficult even for Poland to become a peripheral servant of the EU by forsaking its traditional Romantic and messianic attitude toward its Eastern hinterlands, as exemplified by Poland’s active intervention in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In fact, Poland has much in common with Turkey, displaying a similar petit-imperial syndrome in the periphery of Europe. If Poland is less imperial than Turkey, it may be due to Stalin’s “exchange of population” after the Second World War that drastically decreased the number of Poles in the former eastern peripheries of Rzeczpospolita (Polish Commonwealth). In contrast, Turkey continues to be concerned about the fate of the Turks’ coethnics (Azerbaijanis and Turkmen) in the Caucasus and the Near East. Another reason for Poland’s lesser imperialism seems to be the smaller responsibility that the Polish navy bears for the security of the Baltic Sea in comparison with that borne by Turkey in the Black Sea. Nowak’s book is quite timely, however, considering the fact that Russia’s military action in South Ossetia split Ukraine’s elites and public opinion instead of provoking anti-Russian solidarity of this nation. If the latter had been the case, people would merely read Nowak’s book as a warning against reimperializing Russia, rather than an attempt to understand empires and imperialism objectively.

The book examines the geopolitical competition between two influential powers in modern Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland. Its author is a historian from Kraków, renowned as editor-in-chief of the bimonthly Arcana and professor at Jagiellonian University and the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is one of the leading historians in the booming studies of empires, particularly the Russian and Polish, although he does not regard the Polish Commonwealth as an empire. The history of western (i.e., Polish) peripheries of the Russian empire has been tangibly studied more deeply than other regional history of this empire; therefore the book under review addresses many issues also present in other recent publications on this topic.[1]

Nowak first provides an overview of imperial histories of Russia and Poland. After the Mongolian invasion, Moscow principality was born in the very spot where peripheries of three traditions-Kyivan Rus, QipchÇq, and the Byzantine Commonwealth (or the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Ecumenical Church)-overlapped (16-18). This extraordinary location blessed the Moscow principality not only with the opportunities to expand and incorporate these historical zones, but also with the discourse to justify this expansion as a “recovery” of lost lands (in the case of the former Kyivan Rus and QipchÇq), or “succession” of declining authorities (regarding the Constantinople Church).[2] The war with Napoleon resulted in a significant step forward for this traditional triad of expansion by putting an end to the Russian elites’ Enlightenment discourse and popularizing instead a self-identification as the antipode of revolutionarizing Europe. Nowak traces this change in Russian political thought from Nikolai Karamzin to Petr Struve (chapters 1 and 11). On the other hand, Nowak repeats his controversial view that the Polish Commonwealth was not an empire, since it lacked the hegemonic relations between the core and peripheries.[3] Moreover, the Commonwealth was bi- or supra-confessional: a significant portion of its Lithuanian nobility was Orthodox; they competed with Moscow for recognition by the Constantinople Church throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and continued to be granted the same privileges that the Catholic nobility enjoyed until the seventeenth century (chapter 2). In the waning years of the Commonwealth, particularly facing the Partitions and the Napoleonic War, this purely republican structure changed, however. Ideologically, Poland ceased to be a self-sufficient entity and began to perceive itself as an outpost of Western European values in Eastern Europe, whose independence seemed possible only by popularizing liberation ideas among Poland’s eastern neighbors who were oppressed, as were the Poles, by the Russian Empire. Thus something akin to communist internationalism, or imperialism labeled “liberation,” took shape in Polish political thought (chapters 3-5). As mentioned before, during the same period Russia ceased to regard Europe as a model for its modernization (understandably, technical and engineering borrowings were an exception) and began to view Poland as a dangerous puppet of Europe. Bringing to bear materials from the declassified Russian archives, Nowak discerns the centuries-long undercurrent of Russia’s diplomacy to contain Poland with the help of Germany (a Chinese proverb calls this “Ally the Far, Beat the Near”), a strategy that started with Nikita Panin in the 1760s, was continued by Vladimir Lenin, culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939), and perhaps was revived in the Schröder-Putin agreement on the Baltic pipeline in 2005.[4] Chapter 6, dedicated to Lenin’s attempt to contain Poland during the Civil War, seems to be the most impressive chapter of this book from the empirical or fact-finding point of view. In an unfriendly international context, confederative and nonimperial reunification of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine was inconceivable, and therefore Józef Piłsudski’s republic emerged as a unitary state (chapter 7).

Critical assessments of the political behavior of the Polish szlachta (nobility), its messianism and megalomania, have became conventional in historical science,[5] and such historians as John Peter LeDonne and Orest Subtelny brilliantly described how cleverly the Russian Empire used for its own expansion the social/class contradictions in the surrounding empires.[6] Considering these tendencies, Nowak’s somewhat outmoded interpretation of modern Poland might seem strange.[7] However, we should take it as an attempt to revise the revisionist historiography rather than as mere conservatism. First, Nowak tries to contextualize the behavior of the Polish elites taking into account the recent studies of republican undercurrents in European thoughts.[8] Second, cognitive crafting appears more relevant to Nowak’s geopolitics than so-called real politics. If Nowak‘s focus is cognitive crafting, however, his relative indifference to Christianity seems strange. Nowak maintains that not only the Commonwealth but even the Second Republic was suprareligious because of the significant portion of Orthodox believers in their eastern borderlands, and he argues that only in socialist Poland (forced to move westward and streamlined as primarily a Catholic country) did Catholicism become a decisive factor in integrating the nation (189). I find this assertion questionable.

Nowak’s understanding of the notion of the Third Rome as an unhistorical driving force behind Russia’s expansion appears even more problematic. Orthodoxy’s “mental geography” has a strict hierarchy, putting the ancient Pentarchy at its top, the Apostolic churches (such as Georgian and Cyprian) on the second level, and locating other churches largely according to the antiquity of their autocephalization. Prince Vladimir’s conversion in the tenth century implies that the Russian Church was located at a significant distance from the Apostles. Perhaps the Orthodox world needed a consensus that Constantinople‘s Ecumenical Church was suffering a serious deviation (in the fifteenth century when it was ready to be integrated into the Roman Catholic Church to be saved from Ottoman assaults) or crisis (in the nineteenth century when it became obvious that it would share the dismal fate of its patron, the Ottoman Empire), in order for the Russian Church to be arrogant enough to request recognition as the Third Rome, despite its unprivileged status in Orthodoxy.[9] Nowak writes that the alleged harassment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire consolidated the Russian Church’s pretension to Third Rome status. In fact, however, the Third Rome notion was practically shelved for three centuries because Constantinople‘s Ecumenical Church experienced a revival due to the Ottoman Empire’s protection.[10] Needless to say, a group of previous studies on which Nowak relies is to blame here.

Nowak’s book represents a theoretical point of view accepted in the newest imperial studies that regards individual empires as no more than constituents of a transnational imperial mega-system. Nowak supplements this view with his conviction that empires can be vigorous and attractive when they challenge previous empires or the larger imperial system to which they belong (198-200). As a whole, Nowak’s book combines academic strictness with the author’s civic sense of responsibility, an approach that also characterizes the editorial strategy of the Kraków journal Arcana for which he is responsible. This appears yet another proof that Polishness, be it national or imperial, is an identity that cannot be satisfied unless it questions what it can do for mankind.

1. Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001); Mikhail Dolbilov and Aleksei Miller, Zapadnye okrainy Rossiiskoi imperii (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2006); Darius Staliunas, Making Russians: Meaning and Practice of Russification in Lithuania and Belarus after 1863 (Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2007).

2. The situation was similar to the emergence of the Qing Empire born exactly in the spot where the Tibetan Buddhist, Sino-Confucian, and Great Yuan traditions overlapped. This location enabled the Manchurians to vigorously absorb these historical zones.

3. He presented this view earlier as well: Andrzej Nowak, “Between Imperial Temptation and Anti-Imperial Function in Eastern European Politics: Poland from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Century,” Emerging Meso-Areas in the Former Socialist Countries: Histories Revived or Improvised? edited by K. Matsusato (Sapporo: SRC, 2005), 247-284. See also his dialogue with Roman Szproluk in Ab Imperio, no. 1 (2007).

4. When this agreement was signed Polish mass media identified it as a replay of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: Jerzy Nowakowski and Piotr Woêniak, “Gazowe okràženie Polski,” Wprost, 2005, Nr 27 (July 2005), 84-89. This line of argument eventually evoked protests from the German authorities.

5. Lukowski and Zawadzki, op. cit.

6. Orest Subtelny, Domination of Eastern Europe: Native Nobilities and Foreign Absolutism, 1500-1715 (Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986); John P. LeDonne, The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917: the Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

7. For example, he does not take seriously Aleksandr Pushkin’s criticism of Polish magnates, who could be crueler vis-à-vis serfs than the autocratic authorities (83).

8. See, for example, Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).

9. John Meyendorff, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantio-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989).

10. Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968).

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