A study of the patterns of Russian imperialism, and an articulation of structures of Russian and Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe, continue to be paramount for the understanding of the present situation not only in that region but outside it as well. This I say with great regret, because recently hopes have been raised that Russia has abandoned its imperialistic habits and policies. A recent twist in Polish-Russian relations can serve as an example of the relevance of historical patterns in that regard. One of the leaders of the SDP [Polish post-communist party], Jozef Oleksy, Prime Minister of Poland in 1994-1995, and before that Speaker of the Sejm, has been accused of passing state secrets to Soviet and Russian agents.
The Oleksy affair suggests that regardless of its color: red, white, or mixed, Moscow does not want the communist ties to be cut. The KGB (now FSS) operatives in Poland who surface on the Polish political stage from time to time are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg. Much deeper and less agent-dependent are the complicated Russian efforts to undermine Polish endeavors to join NATO and thus definitively allow Poland to spring away from Moscow's orbit. President Yeltsin said firmly that NATO expansion to Poland is a threat to Russia's security which could spread "the flame of war across the continent." And the first official statement of the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov (formerly the head of the KGB successor agency) was as follows: "Naturally, the rebirth of the Soviet Union in its old form is not on the agenda, but that does not cancel the need for the process of reintegration."
The ties to Moscow, "the flame of war" if Poland tries to cut them off, the process of reintegration of the empire.... In the background of these statements and threats are five hundred years of Polish-Russian relations. But are they only five centuries of Polish-Russian relations? This question leads into the heart of the matter: to the controversy over Ukraine, a nation situated between Poland and Russia.
It is easy to say when the Polish history began - in the second half of the tenth century, with the baptism of the Polish state founder Mieszko I. But when and where did Russian history begin? Almost every Russian historian would respond that the history of Russia goes back to the end of the ninth and beginning of the tenth century, i.e., to the period between the founding of the first Eastern Slavonic state by Scandinavian Normans, and the baptism of its great ruler Volodymyr. Kiev was the capital and the main cultural, political, and economic center of this state.
"We learned that somewhere near Warsaw lies not only the center of the Polish bourgeois government, but the center of the whole contemporary system of international imperialism, and that circumstances enabled us to shake that system, and conduct politics not only in Poland, but in Germany and England as well." (Lenin in 1920)
Alhough Poles joined the Western (Roman) Church, while Kievan Rus, the Eastern (Byzantine) Church, and although from the tenth century on the peoples of these two states lived in two different cultural worlds, there was nothing particularly antagonistic about their political relationship until the fourteenth century. The ruling families of Kievan Rus and Poland often intermarried; at times they formed profitable alliances, at other times they fought with each other; but a truly antagonistic atmosphere, one that often prevails between two incompatible political orientations, was missing.
Here it should be noted that the Ukrainians see the beginning of the Russian state differently. Several centuries of the existence of Kievan Rus are considered by Ukrainians as the glorious beginnings of their national history, and not that of the Russians. Kievan Rus was however undermined by the Mongol invasion in the middle of the thirteenth century, and that brutal war had momentous consequences for both facts and perceptions concerning Ukrainian ethnicity and nationhood. When the Mongol empire fell apart, Ukraine became a bone of contention between Poland and the newly established Muscovite state.
Indisputably, Kiev is now the center of a nation and the capital of the Ukrainian state. But up to the twentieth century Russians and Poles denied the Ukrainians a separate national identity. As a matter of fact, even nowadays most of the Russian political and cultural elite can hardly conceive of their country as separated from Ukraine, and can hardly grant Kiev psychological independence from Moscow. So-called liberals and Westernizers, such as the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, or former top-advisor to President Yeltsin, Sergei Stankevich (now in jail for corruption), have been as strongly opposed to Ukraine's separation from Russia as is the leading figure of the so-called Slavophile, nationalist wing of Russian culture: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Zbigniew Brzezinski observed that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire. If it is no longer an empire, it poses much less threat to Central Europe. But the Russian political and cultural elite, from Anatoly Sobchak to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, can hardly conceive of their country as separated from Ukraine.
Actually, the beginnings of the Russian statehood as it exists now are connected not so much with Kiev but rather with Moscow which is almost 700 miles to the north of the Ukrainian capital. Moscow's grand dukes were the real founders of the Russian state that came into existence at the end of the twelfth century. A mix of Slavic and Ugro-Finnic population of those northern European territories, and an addition of the Mongol invaders that occupied Moscow for two and a half centuries, constitute the ethnic and cultural origins of the Russian nation.
Before Moscow's grand dukes definitively threw off the Mongol yoke in the second half of the fifteenth century, all Ukrainian and Belarusian lands had been incorporated into the great Lithuanian state. During their expansion in the fourteenth century, Lithuanian grand dukes separated Poland and Russia by conquering most of the western and southern parts of the former Kievan Rus. It was the Lithuanians and not the Russians who deserve major credit for the disintegration of the Mongol empire. It was the ambition of Lithuania"s grand dukes to unite all land that historically belonged to the first state of Eastern Slavs, and to liberate it from Mongol domination. They were prevented from achieving this aim by the grand dukes of Moscow who controlled most of the eastern part of the former Kievan Rus and who also wanted to reunite all of it under their rule.
At the time when Moscow began to "gather the Russian lands" as the self-proclaimed successor of Kiev, the pagan rulers of Lithuania chose Poland as their principal ally and conveyor of Christianity and Western culture. The Polish-Lithuanian union began in 1385 with the marriage of the Lithuanian grand duke with a Polish princess. The union lasted for four hundred years, and it ended with the last partition of Poland in 1795. In the meantime, Moscow's formidable military efforts kept pushing the Lithuanians westward and forced them to relinquish more than a quarter of their territory to the Muscovites. Ivan III, who started a series of successful campaigns against the Lithuanians in 1486, clearly defined his goal: acquisition of the entire territory of the former Kievan Rus, i.e., all Ukraine and Belarus. This marked the real beginning of the Polish-Russian relations, the beginning of the great contest for Ukrainian and Belarusian territories, and the contest for the political, strategic and civilizational preponderance in Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1648, the power over the ancient Kievan Rus passed to the tsar, and the most important objective of Muscovite foreign policy, relentlessly pursued for two centuries, seemed to have been achieved. Shortly afterwards, Ukrainian leaders were either jailed or deported to Siberia. In 1685, the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was abolished.
British historian Hugh Seton-Watson compared the struggle between Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian state with the historical contest between France and Germany for the control of Burgundy, Lorraine, Holland and Belgium. Just as the Dutchmen and Lorrainers were neither French nor German, so were Ukrainians and Belarusians neither Poles nor Russians. "Ukraina" means "borderland," Seton-Watson reminds us. He is right, but at the same time he underrates the strategic and cultural importance of the Polish-Russian contest for the lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Burgundy, Lorraine, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and France all belong to the same Western culture and civilization. Germany without Holland, Lorraine, or Burgundy is still an important European power. France without Lorraine and Burgundy would be an important European power as well. Without Ukraine and Belarus Moscow would not be able to maintain an aggressive posture toward Central and Eastern Europe. For Poland, ceding these vast territories to Moscow meant mortal danger to her own independence. If Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania proved capable of overcoming the poisonous legacy of the past, they would be more than able to balance off the power of the Russian state.
There is little doubt that without the Polish-Lithuanian Catholic union the “fault line” between civilizations in Europe, the line that was recently redrawn by Samuel P. Huntington, would have been pushed westward, taking Belarus, Ukraine, all Baltic nations, and probably the whole Central Europe with Poland, Slovakia and Bohemia, away from Europe.
Francis Dvornik, who was a great expert on the medieval history of Eastern Slavs, stated that the Polish-Lithuanian union drew Poland quite unnecessarily into the duel between Lithuania and Muscovy, and that Lithuanian-Russian symbiosis would perhaps have been possible, had pagan Lithuania become Orthodox. He believed that if this had happened, the union of the former Kievan Rus lands would have been accelerated, thus giving the Poles an opportunity to act as a friendly transmitter of Western culture to the Orthodox Russians. However, another eminent historian, Piotr Wandycz, reminded us that there was no guarantee that such a huge Russo-Lithuanian state would not engulf the small Polish kingdom. Nor was there much reason to suppose that an Orthodox Russo-Lithuanian empire would have been more friendly to the West than Muscovy.
There is little doubt that without the Polish-Lithuanian Catholic union the "fault line" between civilizations in Europe, the line that was recently redrawn by Samuel P. Huntington, would have been pushed westward, taking the entire Belarus, Ukraine, all Baltic nations, and probably the whole Central Europe with Poland, Slovakia and Bohemia, into the Eastern zone, and cutting all these countries off from the common experiences of European history: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. In such a situation, chipping away at Germany in a series of East-West wars would have to follow, and `Fortress Western Europe" would have had slim chances of developing.
Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) describes the epochal meaning of the Polish-Russian contest inaugurated at the end of the fifteenth century. Launching his successive attacks on Lithuania, Ivan III exploited exactly this deeper meaning for his own, strictly political aims. It suited him and his successors well if stresses and strains arose between the Orthodox and Catholics in Ukraine and Belarus. Ivan posed as the protector of the Orthodox and intervened under this pretext. To pose as the protector of every conceivable minority - of course in neighbouring countries only, and not within the Russian state itself - has been a constant feature of Russian foreign policy since those days (the pressure put on the Baltic states concerning their Russian minorities is the most recent example). Ivan calculated that the Lithuanian -Ukrainian Orthodox nobility would desert to him with their vast resources and territories.
What King Sigismund proposed to the Muscovites in 1600 was a union that bears striking similarities to the European Union of today.
In the sixteenth century, however, the Lithuanian-Rus nobility demonstrated an astounding loyalty to the Polish-Lithuanian state, thus upsetting Ivan's (and his successors') calculations. After a hundred years of the union with Poland, the Lithuanian-Rus' nobility fell under the spell of Western thought and the Polish writings on power, law, and liberty with their emphasis on individual liberties and rights. Members of that nobility knew that the alternative, Muscovite autocracy reinforced by Mongol despotism, made Muscovy's relations between the government and the governed resemble those between the conqueror and the conquered. Thus there was no question of deserting to Moscow as long as Warsaw could ensure fairly equitable treatment of the nobility in all its lands: those that were ethnically Polish and those that were home to the Ruthenian and Lithuanian populations.
During the three centuries of confrontation with the Polish-Lithuanian state, the Polish pattern of political liberties and gentry privileges proved to be tempting for the Muscovite state-made and state-controlled nobility (the boyars). Andrei Kurbski, a leading representative of this group and a top advisor to Ivan IV (the Terrible), fled to Poland, becoming the first Russian political emigre. His flight stimulated an unprecedented reign of terror in Muscovy, so called opritchnina, organized by Ivan IV to prevent further defections.
Russian historian Evgenii Belov was the first to argue that the cruel measures taken by Ivan the Terrible diverted Russia decisively from the Polish model of government.... Andrei Kurbsky was the first Russian political emigre.
As Alexander Yanov pointed out in his book, it was the Russian historian, Evgenii Belov, who first argued persuasively that the cruel measures taken by Ivan the Terrible diverted Russia decisively from the Polish model of government. Had it not been for the opritchnina, wrote Belov, Russia would have been transformed into a second Poland. But to him, the acceptance of the Polish political and cultural model symbolized political disintegration and, in the final analysis, the loss of national distinctiveness for Russia. Belov assumed, of course, that the Polish national identity was about to expire.
But in the first decade of the seventeenth century, after the victorious Polish-Lithuanian offensive launched by King Stefan Batory, and after the end of the Rurik dynasty in Muscovy, it was the Russian autocratic tradition that was put in real danger. So far, the kings of Poland, who were dependent on the nobility, could not pursue a resolute foreign policy and were forced to leave the initiative to the neighboring kingdoms. But after eight wars fought between Muscovy-Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for Ukrainian lands and access to the Baltic sea, the Polish side launched a diplomatic offensive that was aimed at ending the entire contest. Envoys of Polish King Sigismund III Vasa came to Moscow in 1600 and proposed a close union between the two countries, a perpetual and firm defensive alliance. The subjects of both rulers were to be free to serve the other ruler, travel to his country, contract marriages with the other ruler's subjects, own land and go to school in the other ruler"s country. Finally, provision was to be made for a future personal union. In other words, what was proposed bears striking similarities to the European Union today.
Boris Godunov, who was the last of Rurik's successors, treated the offer as an ideological subversion that would bring the Muscovite nobility into the Polish camp. In response, he conceived one of the first plans of a partition of Poland-Lithuania, attempting to win over the Austrian emperor to this aim. But before the emperor had an opportunity to express his opinion of this proposal, the Muscovite state was engulfed in a civil war. The Poles and Lithuanians tried to intervene: they occupied Moscow in 1610, and they brought about the election as tsar of Wladyslaw, the oldest son of Sigismund III. This was the time of humiliation for the Russians: they call it the Time of Troubles. Poles had an opportunity to enforce with sword in hand the peaceful overture that had been rejected by Boris Godunov ten years earlier. As the father of Russian historiography Nikolai Karamzin pointed out, although Wladyslaw had been elected by the city of Moscow alone, he stood a good chance of becoming tsar of all Muscovy. He was to rule with the assistance of the boyar council called the Duma, and the council of all estates called the Zemsky Sobor, thus introducing "democracy for the nobility" into Russia, three hundred years before the first Russian State Duma gathered. Had this happened, the autocratic regime in Russia would have changed and with it the fate of Russia. Karamzin added that perhaps "the fate of Europe would also have changed for many centuries."
How important the 1612 victory over Poles still is to the Russians is demonstrated by the fact that November 7 was declared by Soviet leaders to be the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, and the post-Soviet Russian leaders declared in 1991 that November 7 would be a national holiday commemorating the chasing away of the Polish invaders from Moscow. Russian rancor toward the West as represented by Catholic Poland received a powerful impetus owing to this victory.
Sigismund, however, changed his mind and instead of sending his son to Moscow, offered himself for the Russian throne. This altered the whole picture. It amounted to a foreign ruler wishing to incorporate Muscovy into his kingdom. The result was a powerful Russian reaction, a surrender of the Polish garrison in the Kremlin on November 7, 1612, and a protracted war with Poland. How important this date still is to the Russians is demonstrated by the fact that November 7 was declared by Soviet leaders to be the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, and the post-Soviet Russian leaders declared in 1991 that November 7 would be a national holiday commemorating the chasing away of the Polish invaders from Moscow. Russian rancor toward the West as represented by Catholic Poland received a powerful impetus due to these events.
The policy of corrupting Poland's elite, preventing reforms, and interfering in domestic affairs reached perfection under Catherine II. Catherine recommended that her ambassadors form a "Russian party" in Poland, with a view to subverting Polish politics.
Two subsequent wars did not change a stalemate in the Polish-Russian contest. It was radically changed at last by the "great mute" of East European history: the Ukrainian people. The Cossacks, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, rebelled in 1648 against Polish landowners, many of whom insisted, contrary to the law, that Cossacks were no more than serfs whereas in fact, they were free people, and their leaders were entitled to all the rights and privileges of the nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By 1654, the Cossacks were in a desperate situation and were ready to recognize the supremacy of the tsar. Khmelnytsky treated a forthcoming union with Moscow as a temporary measure and not as a permanent merger of Ukraine with Muscovy. But Russian historiography tends to represent it as such, and since Western historians have taken most of their cues from Russians rather than from other East European peoples, such a view is now firmly enshrined in American textbooks of European history. Regardless of Khmelnytsky's intentions, however, in 1648, the power over the ancient Kievan Rus passed to the tsar, and the most important objective of Muscovite foreign policy, relentlessly pursued for two centuries, seemed to have been achieved.
Although Poland tried to improve her relations with Ukraine and succeeded in forging the so-called Hadziach Agreement with Khmelnytsky's successor, it was too late. Poles, Russians and Cossacks (divided into hostile factions) fought over Ukraine until the Polish-Russian armistice concluded in Andrusovo in 1667 partitioned Ukraine along the Dnieper River. Russia received eastern Ukraine, or the territories on the left bank including the city Kiev. Poland retained western Ukraine. In the east, most of the local Ukrainian leaders were either jailed or deported to Siberia. In 1685, the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was abolished. The basic principle of autocracy on which the Russian state was founded, implicitly precluded any kind of local representation or non-Russian national institutions of any kind. The traditionally free Cossack population was burdened with heavy taxes. When western Ukraine came under Russian rule after the second partition of Poland in 1793, it was not a reunion into the former autonomous and self-governing country, but a mere annexation into the autocratic Russian empire.
The acquisition of the bulk of Ukrainian territories by Russia in 1667 proved to be the most important turning point in the history of Polish-Russian relations. From that point on Russia never stopped her offensive - until 1920. Poland was no longer an equal partner. Under the leadership of Peter the Great, Russia became a great power. The new tsar replaced the old policy of territorial pressure by attempts to dominate and subvert the whole weakening Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The massive intervention of the Russians and the constant presence in Poland of Russian troops during the great war between Peter I and Charles XII of Sweden made Poland into a Russian protectorate. Since 1716, Russian ambassadors become the real rulers of the powerless Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Peter and his successors protected all that was ill in the Polish political system, all that prevented it from viable reforms. Only by distributing bribes to Polish dignitaries did Russian rulers indirectly admit that the Poles also had some say. Russian diplomats demanded insistently to be the sole arbiters in the internal matters of the Commonwealth.
The Russian nobility, liberated by Catherine in 1785, profited from the partitions. The Empress gave them 500,000 peasant serfs from the Polish-Lithuanian territories.
The policy of corrupting Poland's elite, preventing reforms, and interfering in domestic affairs reached perfection under Catherine II. Though Poland was treated with disrespect by European powers by then, she still occupied an important place in the system of Russian policies. Nikita Ivanovich Panin, the head of the Russian foreign policy under Catherine II, once stated: "We shall lose a third of our power and advantages if Poland is not dependent on us." To control better this gateway to Europe and to the West, Catherine recommended that her ambassadors form a "Russian party" in Poland, with a view to subverting Polish politics. Accordingly, the Empress" ambassadors made sure that the Polish careerists either collaborated with the pro-Russian party or forfeited their careers. Catherine II also used quite skillfully the old weapon of inflaming the Eastern Orthodox minority to undermine any prospects of political stability in Poland. Divide et impera has been the chief principle of Russian rule in Poland.
The 1939-1941 deportations wasted 1.5 million Polish lives. The so-called Katyn murders totalled 23,000 people, the elite of the Polish patriotic intelligentsia, killed on a single order. No Nuremberg trials followed, and the names of perpetrators slipped into obscurity.
One might remark here, what about the Poles? Isn't the principle of weakening your enemy a common principle of international politics? Yes and no. Western powers did not spend comparable amounts of effort and money on undermining each other's internal welfare and destroying each other's integrity, unceasingly, consistently. The details of that process have been obscured by the shadows cast by Russian power and international interests concurrent with it. As Richard Watt has observed, few historians are willing to exert themselves by going against the grain of Western perceptions of Russia's successes.
But for most Poles Catherine's efforts were too much at last. In the spring of 1768, the Polish nobility formed the Confederation of Bar. For four years they struggled with Russian forces, even though the prospect of success was dim from the beginning. The Bar Confederacy proved to the Russians, however, that generating internal political tensions in Poland might not be effective enough to control Poland in the future. Russian politicians started to think again about the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A struggle began at the court of St. Petersburg between the "protectorate party" and the "partitioning party." The latter prevailed. The protectorate policy with its distant goal of acquisition of the entire Polish-Lithuanian state was certainly the more prudent policy from the point of view of Russian imperial interests. But from 1768 on, the protectorate policy became too costly and was binding Russian forces needed for other aggressions. Accordingly, the notion of annexation of at least parts of the Commonwealth became more attractive.
Russia initiated negotiations with Prussia and Austria. The first partition treaty between the three powers was concluded on August 5, 1772. Poland-Lithuania lost 30% of its territory and 35% of its inhabitants, and what remained of the Kingdom continued to be a Russian protectorate. However, in the two decades after the first partition, Poles managed to reform their political system, giving the country a modern constitution of May 3, 1791. These reforms were possible because the international situation made it highly difficult for Russia to intervene. When Catherine II ended her wars against Turkey and Sweden, she started to plan a new intervention in Poland, for it ran counter to the fundamental principles of Russian policy to tolerate a strengthening and renewal of Poland.
A new justification for Russian colonialism arose with the Enlightenment. Russian writers, including Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin, and Alexander Pushkin, praised Russia"s imperial mission in its westward direction, depicting Poland as an island of retrograde, Catholic ideas that had to be suppressed by the more enlightened neighbors... Nikolai Karamzin wrote that `the destruction of the political existence of Poland informed the entire modern history of Russia."
Catherine once again revived the "Russian party" in Poland, or Polish opposition to the reforms. A group of traitors organized under her patronage a confederation in St. Petersburg, though officially in Targowica. This last name retained its meaning in Poland even now, as a symbol of high treason. Targowica participants formally requested that Catherine invade Poland in order to save old gentry liberties. In 1792, Russian armies crushed the Polish reformers' resistance and Catherine invited Prussia to the second partition. Again the Poles resisted, staged a great uprising under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and chased the Russian troops away from some parts of the country. But the result was only the final partitioning of Poland in 1795.
Thus Catherine took the whole of Lithuania, Belarus, and most of Ukrainian lands. Politically, however, it was only a coincidence, as the Austrian historian Walter Leitsch observed, that the territories acquired by Russia had been at one time part of the Kievan Rus. It did not occur to Catherine to rationalize her policy of expansion by arguments of national unity. All subsequent justifications, made either by the conservative Russian Slavophiles or by the liberals, merely reveal a bad conscience about the crimes committed by their ancestors.
The Russian nobility, liberated by Catherine in 1785, profited by the partitions quite substantially. It is estimated that the Empress gave them 500,000 peasant serfs from the Polish-Lithuanian territories. Strategic and economic reasons to keep the newly gained vast territories with Russia (territories that link her with Central Europe) account for a staunch opposition of the Russian society elite to any concessions for Poland. This has been a real foundation for Russian political consensus regarding Polish matters and not only Polish, one might add.
A new justification for Russian colonialism gathered strength from the Enlightenment. Reinforced by some of its ideas, Russia started to pose before Western Powers as protector of the Enlightenment ideas and of civilization in general. This "civilization" had to be brought to remote `barbarian" countries such as Turkey, the Central Asian khanates, Georgia, Armenia.... Gavrila Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin and, later, Alexander Pushkin, praised this imperial mission in its westward direction, depicting Poland as an island of retrograde, Catholic ideas that had to be suppressed by the more enlightened neighbors. But it was the leading figure of the European Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wisely counseled the Poles: "If you cannot prevent your enemies from swallowing you, at least you can prevent them from digesting you." This is exactly what the Poles did.
A short-lived change in Polish-Russian relations took place under Alexander I, who selected Prince Adam Czartoryski as his counsellor. Czartoryski attempted to win Alexander over to the plan of rebuilding Poland under the Romanovs. For a while, the oldest grandson of Catherine stepped back to her initial idea of a protectorate policy. Alexander was able to conceive of Poland being rebuilt, but only as a Russian outpost in Central Europe. During Alexander's negotiations with Napoleon in 1810, after the French emperor formed a small Warsaw Duchy as a substitute for the Polish state, the tsar demanded that a really independent Poland would never be rebuilt. Napoleon rejected the proposal and the war of 1812 became imminent.
After the failed rising of 1830, forced Russification of the "western provinces" took unprecedented forms of deportations, confiscations, and sociological experiments on a vast, national scale that had the complete uprooting of the Polish identity as their aim.
The victorious Alexander reverted once again to the modified protectorate policy. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, he forced the proclamation of the so- called Kingdom of Poland (in place of the former Duchy of Warsaw) under his rule. Now 82% of the pre-partition Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth found itself under Russian rule, while 11% remained under the Austrians and 7% under the Prussians. Most of these territories constituted the so-called Western, or Polish, Provinces of the Russian Empire. Virtually all Russian political elite backed the policy of forced Russification of this vast area and removal of any traces of former Polish rule or Polish cultural influence. The small western part of the former Commonwealth, now under the misleading name of the Kingdom of Poland, was given a self-government with a liberal constitution.
That artificial creation however could not last long. Giving voice to the entire Russian political opinion of his time, Nikolai Karamzin reminded the tsar in 1819 that any concessions of territory gained during the partitions would be a betrayal of Russia's raison d'etat. Karamzin and his bureaucratic and landowning milieu were of the opinion that "the destruction of the political existence of Poland informed the entire modern history of Russia." Karamzin asserted that the conquest of Poland had been "principally for the sake of enlarging the relations of Russia with other nations of Europe." But from the Polish point of view, expressed most clearly by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, only the restoration of the independence of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus,and Ukraine, up to the Dvina and the Dnieper Rivers, would create "an equilibrium and genuine friendship with the Russians." The next clash was inevitable.
1667 proved to be the turning point in the history of Polish-Russian relations. From that point on, Russia never stopped her offensive - until 1920.
In 1830 Poles rose in their biggest insurrection yet. It was crushed ten months later by the powerful Russian armies. The best and the brightest minds of Russia, Pushkin and Lermontov included, praised the suppression of the Polish national movement. Mutual national hatred prevailed decisively. National hatred of Russians toward Poles, however, had the vast imperial apparatus at its disposal. Consequently, the self-government of the small Kingdom of Poland was abolished, forced Russification of the "western provinces" took unprecedented forms of deportations, confiscations, and sociological experiments on the vast, national scale that had the complete uprooting of the Polish identity as their aim. There were only two sorts of Poles in the Russian empire - according to Tsar Nicholas I's saying - those whom he hated (Polish patriots) and those whom he despised (Polish careerist and collaborators). The former rose up once again in 1863, after a short and abortive attempt to regain autonomy for the Kingdom of Poland during the so-called "thaw" after the Russian defeat in the Crimean war in 1856. Russian revenge for this last, two-year- long insurrection was harsh beyond measure. Russian "Westerners" and liberals blamed the Poles for having provoked the conservative reaction that stopped internal reforms in the empire after 1863. This argument paved way for Western European liberal opinion that started to see the Polish national independence movement as harmful to the much more important issue of the progress of liberal reforms inside the vast Russian state. This argument works just as well in the 1990s, although concerning other nationalities. The Chechens are blamed for extremism as they try to find their way to independence from Russian rule.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, national rebirth of the peoples that lived on the western and southern borderlands of the Russian empire made the problem of its unity a real issue. Though Russians aggressively pursued the policy of forced Russification everywhere in the empire, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and even Belarusians began to awaken to their own identity. According to the official census of 1897, non-Russians constituted 57% of the entire population of the Empire. Poland became only part of the problem. A liberalization of political life in Russia that followed the 1905 revolution did not ameliorate the wretched relationship between the nations, or the intolerable conditions in the former Kingdom of Poland and in the western provinces generally. The Duma, or the first Russian parliament since the beginning of the seventeenth century, was no friendlier to the Poles than the tsar had been, and it effected a further partitioning of Poland. Out of nationalist motives, the Duma sanctioned a reduction of the territory of the former Kingdom of Poland, thus further diminishing the area in which vestiges of former Polish institutions remained. At the same time, the Duma confirmed the measures aiming at forced Russification introduced by earlier tsars.
Only after the Russian army had been driven out of Poland by the Germans during World War I, did Russian statesmen begin to think again about recreating the Polish state as a Russian outpost in Central Europe. But tsarist Russia collapsed. The short-lived democratic Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky acknowledged Poland's right to independence, but it made border delimitations subject to consent of the Russian Duma, and made a condition that the future independence of Poland would have to incorporate a military alliance with Russia. A new competitor for power in Russia, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), aptly termed such conditions as tantamount to a complete military subjugation of Poland.
But it was he, Lenin, and his Bolshevik Party that took up the tradition of a threat from the East. The new Soviet Russia threatened not only the reborn Poland but also the entire Eastern and Central Europe. At the end of 1918, with the collapse of Germany, the Bolsheviks began to advance along their western front. They wanted to link with the largest proletariat of Europe, that of Germany. In the path of a western advance lay the nascent Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. As the Red Army advanced, communist regimes were installed through a process of farcical "revolutionary self-determination."
Poland, led by Marshal Józef Pilsudski, measured up to the challenge, fighting this time not only for herself but for Ukraine as well. Pilsudski rejected the idea of assisting the Russian White generals who were fighting against the Bolsheviks at this time. He knew that "White" Russia was ready to acknowledge only a small and dependent Poland, while ruling out any hopes of independence for Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania. Pilsudski chose an alliance with Ukraine instead. The Ukrainian leader, Semyon Petlura, understood that at that time, his country's independence could not be achieved without Polish aid. Polish and Ukrainian armies managed to capture Kiev in May 1920. Then the Bolsheviks used nationalist propaganda to raise all Russians and Ruthenians (Ukrainians and Belarusians) against `Western invaders." The great Bolshevik offensive, prepared since January 1920, began in July and pushed the retreating Polish armies toward Warsaw. Lenin ordered the Red Army to march on the Polish capital. Let me quote his speech to a closed meeting at the Ninth Conference of the Russian Communist Party. He said: "We learned that somewhere near Warsaw lies not only the center of the Polish bourgeois government, but the center of the whole contemporary system of international imperialism, and that circumstances enabled us to shake that system, and to conduct politics not only in Poland, but in Germany and England".
Lenin intended to sovietize Poland and, afterwards, the whole of Central Europe including Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Germany. He thought that his offensive would be as successful as the previous attacks of the Red Army during the Civil War in Russia. He was sure that the unlettered masses did not respond to patriotic appeals, and that the Bolsheviks" appeals to the meanest, most primitive instincts of class hatred would be as successful in Poland as they were in Russia. He soon learned otherwise.
The Red Army was crushed in the battle of Warsaw and was pushed back 300 miles further east. Poland, however, did not have enough resources to continue the war. A settlement in Riga in 1921 established the boundary that lay almost half way between pre-partition Polish frontiers and the most westerly borders of the Russian empire. Piotr Wandycz observed: "So far as the basic objectives of Pilsudski and Lenin were concerned, the Treaty of Riga was not a compromise but a negation of the objectives of both men. It negated the Polish leader's Eastern Program, and the Russian leader's plan of making communist Poland a bridge to the West. The Bolsheviks viewed the settlement as a temporary expediency. Their long-range goals remained unchanged, and the Soviet entry into European politics in 1939 began with their tearing up of the Treaty of Riga.
Nevertheless, Polish victory in 1920 gave a twenty-year breathing space for the entire East Central Europe. Not only Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland were saved and could begin to build their newly gained independent life, but also the three Baltic republics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania received their first chance to experience modern independence. Even Belarus and Ukraine, paradoxically, profited in some ways from this twenty-year truce. They were partitioned once again between Russia and Poland, but today we can see that the partition was not entirely destructive. The most nationally conscious Belarusian and Ukrainian populations now come almost exclusively from the former interwar Polish provinces. They now constitute the core of the independence movements in their respective countries.
Russian "Westerners" and liberals blamed the Poles for having provoked the conservative reaction that stopped internal reforms in the empire after 1863. This argument paved way to Western European liberal opinion that started to see the Polish national independence movement as harmful to the much more important issue of the progress of liberal reforms inside the vast Russian state.
The rest we know all too well. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty that paved the way for Hitler to start the World War, and the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939, executed under the pretense of "protecting the oppressed minorities." Stalin went the same way that had been inaugurated five centuries earlier by Ivan III: again, deportations that wasted 1.5 million Polish lives (of these, 0.5 million perished in the Siberian and Kazakh labor camps); then the Katyn murders totaling 23,000 people, the elite of the Polish patriotic intelligentsia, killed on a single order; then, after a short period of cooperation with the Polish government-in-exile, cooperation which was forced on Stalin by the unexpected German invasion, preparations to install a new Russian (this time Soviet) party in Poland. A new Targowica group could be recruited only among the communists. But Stalin knew that he had to break the neck of the Polish society first to make it acquiesce to the new Russian-Soviet domination. His communist clients, whom he used to enslave Poland, knew it even better.
Alfred Lampe, a godfather of the new Polish communist ruling elite, stated explicitly in 1943: "Even if in the final phase of the war, thanks to the liberation of Poland from the Hitlerite yoke by the Red Army, a favorable atmosphere toward the Soviet Union were created, and even if a government oriented toward cooperation with the Soviet Union were formed, such a state of affairs would not be lasting.... Without destroying the sociopolitical structure, the old Poland could not reorient itself in earnest and for long." What followed was 45 years of "internalization" of this "revolution from abroad" so precisely depicted by J. T. Gross in a book under this title. Was the process successful? This is the big question.
Like every other imperialism, the Russian-Soviet imperialism entered the period of decay at last. The Soviet Russian rulers were forced to adjust their overextended power to the world system. In the 1980s, they understood that it was impossible to continue with a colonial empire based on coercion only. They chose a path of transformations from formal to informal empire, based this time not on coercion only but on the logic of a division of labor and the `natural" gravitation of markets, on one hand, and on the other, on the hidden heritage of the communist rule.
A study of the patterns of Russian imperialism, and an articulation of structures of Russian and Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe, continue to be paramount for the understanding of the present situation not only in that region but outside it as well.
To conclude: after 16 wars, of which two were waged aggressively by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and 14 belonging to a series of Russian expansion movements; after 250 years of Russian domination in Poland that provoked six Polish uprisings (Poland dominated Russia for two years and was driven out by the only Russian uprising ever), Poland seems to be free. And what is maybe even more important, Ukraine and the Baltic republics are independent as well. Belarus seems to self-exclude itself from this group, and tries to merge once again with Russia.
What are the prospects? We can observe a clash of two processes, as a Polish sociologist, Jadwiga Staniszkis, has observed. On the one hand, there is an effort on the part of the emancipating Eastern and Central European societies (and their political elite), to create an entity whose structural properties congeal into a nation-state ruled by a constitutional government. On the other hand, a process is going on whereby a new form of colonial state may emerge, as the case of Belarus demonstrates. Which of the two processes will prevail? We will soon know. The geopolitical future of Central and Eastern Europe will be affected not only by the degree to which Europe and the Euro-Atlantic security system extends eastward, but also by Ukraine’s and the other former Soviet republics’ capacity to overcome colonial dependency and sustain their national sovereignty.
Zbigniew Brzezinski has rightly stressed the importance of Ukraine in this process. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire. If it is no longer an empire, it poses much less threat to Central Europe. The geopolitical condition of Central Europe becomes transformed by Ukraine's continued independence. The same process would, over time, transform Ukraine (along with the Baltic republics) into a Central European state. "The degree to which Russia accommodates herself to this process of Europe's expansion will probably be measured by the degree to which Russia democratizes. The process of Europe’s eastward expansion cannot be artificially halted in order to accommodate narrowly conceived Russian interests. A Russia that is focused on modernization and on democratization need not fear the expansion of Europe and of the Euro-Atlantic system," says Brzezinski. One can only subscribe to this opinion. With Russia democratized and liberalized, and with Ukraine independent, the historical Polish-Russian contest would be finally put to rest.
Andrzej Nowak is a research fellow at the Polish Academy of Sciences and author of numerous books, among them Jak rozbic rosyjskie imperium? (1995) and Miedzy carem a rewolucja (1994).
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to January 1997 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 02/06/03