The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-95: Light and Flame 
by Richard Butterwick.
Yale, 482 pp., £30, November 2020, 978 0 300 25220 0
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Catherine​ would have understood. Like Vladimir Putin, the Empress Catherine II couldn’t rest until her soldiers’ boots had stamped the space between Russia and Western Europe into an obedient lawn. For Putin, so far, the space is Ukraine. For her, Robert Burns’s evil ‘Auld Kate’, it was Poland, though not the compact Polish state of today. It was the enormous, ramshackle Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the ancient Rzeczpospolita or ‘kingly republic’. Its borders changed erratically, but most of the time they included the majority of modern Poland and Lithuania, parts of Prussia, all of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnieper: a grand swathe of the continent stretching from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea.

In the wolf garden of that Europe, there were two ways for a state to survive. One was to be strong. Muscovy and Prussia, on either side of the Commonwealth, grew into despotic, centralised military powers, soon to become predatory empires. The other path to safety, strangely, was to be weak, malleable and manipulable. Authority in Poland-Lithuania was widely distributed, to put it mildly. That suited neighbours like Russia: factions could be bought and bribed to steer the country towards foreign agendas. Russian armies had to be sent in occasionally, but after about 1700 the Commonwealth presented little threat to other realms. And lumps of its sprawling territory could be sliced off and used as currency to buy alliances.

This was the situation for much of the 18th century. Two centuries earlier, the Commonwealth had been a great power, its wealth and tolerance envied, its armies feared. Now it was in decline. For Catherine, as for Prussia and Austria, the name of the game was to preserve the bizarre institutions and conventions that kept the Commonwealth chaotic and easy to manipulate. But towards the end of her reign a flame of patriotic rage and humiliation ran across Poland, briefly uniting the king with most of his domestic enemies. The revolutionary constitution of 3 May 1791 brought radical reform, Enlightenment ideas and – at last – coherent central authority to the country. This astonishing and brilliant revival of independence and creative energy is the subject of Richard Butterwick’s book. For Catherine, though, as for the Habsburg emperor and the Prussian king, this resurrection was insufferable. In 1795 the armies of all three tramped in to carry out the last of the late 18th-century partitions of the Commonwealth and tear the Polish page out of the atlas for the next 123 years.

The ichneumon wasp does not kill its caterpillar prey but injects a toxin, leaving it paralysed and submissive. Russia has always been ichneumonic to its neighbours. Catherine might have preferred to keep Poland paralysed rather than to destroy it, but the caterpillar unexpectedly showed signs of life. Today, Putin is failing either to inject Ukraine with timid compliance or to annex it. Both options require a cadre of willing traitors (‘healthy elements’) to take over government. In Ukraine, Putin expected to find them among the local oligarchs and their political lackeys, who for many years have hedged their bets and investments between Kyiv and Moscow. For Catherine, the cadre was recruited among the grandest noble families, the landowning magnates whose estates might be the size of Belgium.

The nobility of Poland-Lithuania – the ‘szlachta’ – are the core of this story. The last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, remains a secondary actor in spite of his thirty-year struggle to modernise his kingdom and rebuild its independence. The szlachta were not like Western aristocracies. This sociopolitical grouping, superbly quarrelsome and eccentric, left every Western visitor with a lifetime of traveller’s tales. As Butterwick points out, the early 18th century put many European monarchies on the track to central control and absolutism, but the szlachta pushed the Commonwealth in the opposite direction. ‘Throughout much of continental Europe, representative institutions were in retreat, while nobles had become monarchs’ partners in quests for glory. The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania … had not taken that path. Their political communities had come together to enjoy liberty. The republican values of the Commonwealth … retained their power to inspire.’ Liberty? Republican? The words sound Cromwellian, but their meaning was different.

The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed first a personal union (with a single shared monarch) and then in 1569 a full union of parliaments: the Commonwealth. For various reasons, the noble estate expanded uncontrollably until it numbered between 6 and 8 per cent of the entire population. Unlike other nobilities, the szlachta insisted on a romantic equality of esteem which affected to ignore differences of wealth and social standing. The illiterate petty noble with holes in his breeks, digging his own patch because he was too poor to employ a labourer, was accepted as the social equal of a French-speaking grandee with a quarter of a million serfs and tenants. One muddy village might be inhabited by peasants; the next – just as muddy and dilapidated – by families with proud titles.

Early medieval kingship in Europe was often contractual, but gradually became a matter of inherited right, and eventually divine right. Poland went the other way. The nobles tightened the contract until the king’s terms of employment (the ‘pacta conventa’) left him largely powerless. A member of the szlachta could not be imprisoned without trial or taxed without his consent. From the early 16th century, the king could undertake ‘nothing new … to the prejudice and inconvenience of the Res Publica’ without the approval of the Sejm, the powerful and turbulent bicameral parliament. The Sejm was in turn elected by local assemblies (‘sejmiki’) in which thousands of big and small szlachta nobles took part. The envoys they sent to the Sejm spoke and voted according to sejmiki instructions. But freedoms did not reach far beyond the szlachta. As the feudal system fossilised into serfdom, a landowning noble had almost limitless powers over ‘his people’: a noble who murdered his serf faced at most a small fine. Serfdom kept agriculture backward and wasteful, though it allowed the magnate estates to sell grain to Western Europe at a massive profit.

As the centuries passed, the szlachta adopted an astonishing myth or ideology of their own origins. In this version of history, Poland and Lithuania had been briefly conquered and colonised by the Sarmatians – mounted Iranian peoples who emerged from the steppe to challenge the late Roman Empire and advance into Europe. Soon the szlachta began to believe that they were the physical descendants of those Sarmatian knights, and racially superior to the Slav peasantry. Sarmatism became a style: a shaven head with drooping moustaches, an oriental ‘kontusz’ robe held in by a rich sash, a sabre, soft leather thigh boots. But it was also a style of mind. A petty Sarmatian noble in his wooden manor house did as he pleased: brutal at one moment, insanely generous the next, passionately Catholic and, above all, convinced that he lived in the best of all possible worlds – Sarmatia Felix, the land of Golden Freedom. Bewildered readers may remember the way the Mitford sisters described their ‘Farve’, Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s books. Here was a real English Sarmatian: a ferocious backwoods peer who boasted that he had only read one book in his life, who sometimes hunted his daughters with hounds, and who spoke for all Sarmatians when he said: ‘Abroad is unutterably bloody, and foreigners are fiends!’ Poland, in the period that interests Butterwick, contained three-quarters of a million Uncle Matthews. Nobody envied a king who proposed to reign over them.

In reality, the szlachta’s claim to embody the nation contradicted the Commonwealth’s wonderful diversity. A score of ethnicities lived there, from German and Scottish settlers through Lithuanian Balts to Tatars and the world’s largest Jewish population. Even the Slavs could be divided into Polish, Kashubian, Ruthenian and Russian speakers. In religion, Roman Catholicism faced Orthodox and Greek Catholic loyalties in the east, and until the Counter-Reformation there was a large and influential Protestant minority, especially among the better-educated nobility. Under the 1573 Confederacy of Warsaw, the main faiths agreed to ‘refrain from mutual persecution’. As Butterwick shrewdly points out, this was not so much an act of toleration from on high as a pragmatic ceasefire between equals.

If ‘Sarmatia Felix’ was perfection, politics could only mean ensuring that nothing changed. Accordingly, the nation (which meant the rural szlachta and – grudgingly – some of the burghers) united to prevent any growth in meddling royal power. Kings were elected. When one of them died, a long, rather exciting interregnum followed as candidates emerged. Then every nobleman in the land was entitled to assemble on a field at Wola, on Warsaw’s outskirts, for days and nights of uproarious canvassing, drinking, bribing and fighting until – somehow – one candidate was agreed to have won. (The British ambassador was puzzled to see his butler strapping on a sword and setting off for Wola. ‘I am noble,’ the butler explained, ‘and … not less competent to be raised to the throne than the first nobleman in the republic.’)

Another limit on power was the ‘liberum veto’, which crystallised in the 17th century. By standing up and proclaiming ‘I do not permit!’ a single Sejm member could bring the whole parliamentary session to a crashing halt and annul its legislation. For the happy Sarmatians, this rule was a pillar of their Golden Freedom. But for a reforming king like Stanisław August, the liberum veto and royal election itself were lethal institutions. Both made it easy for great magnates and foreign governments to bribe envoys to sabotage any legislation, candidate or debate they didn’t fancy. Both made almost impossible a strong executive state with efficient finances or the creation of a modern army to defend that state. In 1688, Butterwick writes, ‘an envoy ruptured the Sejm before it could elect its marshal (speaker), that is, before it had been legally constituted. Roughly half of the Sejms in the second half of the 17th century were broken up by the liberum veto.’

When nobles and scholars spoke of a ‘republic’ in those days, their model was the Roman Republic, the res publica with its representative democracy which eventually extended to ‘plebs’ (but not to slaves). Most historians have blamed the szlachta and their republican obsession for the decline and fall of the Commonwealth, but Butterwick doesn’t share that disapproval. There is much about szlachta behaviour which is indefensible, but the system meant that a far greater share of the population participated in politics than in any other European state of similar size. ‘Republicanism was the predominant persuasion of the established and aspirant political community,’ Butterwick writes, ‘rather than a radical fringe, as it became … in 17th and 18th-century England.’ As he says, ‘the purpose of this political community was not territorial expansion … It was liberty.’ The old saying was ‘Polska nierządem stoi’ (‘Poland is founded on disorder’).

By the start of the 18th century, the Commonwealth was past its peak, weakened by a huge Cossack rising in Polish Ukraine and a devastating Swedish invasion known as the Deluge. To the east, Peter the Great was transforming old Muscovy into an expanding Russian empire, concluding that the Commonwealth was blocking its way into Europe. It was Peter, backed by the ambitious Prussian kings, who founded the policy of using Poland’s ‘liberty’ against it to block any serious reform. This involved paying for the regular misuse of the liberum veto, and bribing magnates to elect Russia’s preferred candidate for king. Things came to a head in 1733, after Peter’s death. Patriotically outraged at foreign interference, 13,500 nobles rode to Warsaw, ignored the candidates sponsored by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and with a threefold bellow of ‘Zgoda!’ (‘Agreed!’) elected Stanisław Leszczyński, a Pole, as king. Russian invasion followed. The new king was chased out and replaced by a Saxon prince, Augustus III.

Butterwick’s elaborate account of the century that followed goes into the details not only of high politics but of people and processes, as Enlightenment ideas percolated into the country, often through Piarist and Jesuit education, which trained bright pupils to turn away from the prejudices of their szlachta parents and plan the repair of the Commonwealth. (When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773, their estates were used to fund the Commission of National Education, Europe’s first ministry of education.) Looking far beyond Warsaw, Butterwick gives generous space to the evolving society and culture in the partner capital, Wilno (Vilnius), in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He also tackles the tricky job of plotting the great noble clans: their shifting allegiances and strategic intermarriages, and the spectacular aristocrats, dazzling or repulsive, whose intrigues shaped the policies of the Commonwealth. The ‘Familia’ – originally the alliance of the Czartoryski and Poniatowski clans – was often close to the king but also took care to keep in with Russia. The Potockis, less cohesive, courted French support. The grand hetman (army commander) Jan Klemens Branicki talked about ‘republican liberties’ but thirsted for power.

Catherine became empress of Russia in 1762. Two years later, her former lover Stanisław August Poniatowski was elected king in Warsaw. He was an intelligent, well-travelled man who had ideas but not an overflowing supply of courage. It was years since he had seen her, but he hoped for a sensible partnership between their two countries. Perhaps she would even marry him. Perhaps she would agree with his reform plans. But each monarch was wrong about the other. Catherine thought the king would be pliable, and completely underestimated his determination to defend Poland’s independence. It took Stanisław August a few years to realise that the empress was only interested in a submissive and above all unreformed Poland, which would take orders from her ambassador. Her main weapon looked enlightened, but was in fact designed to destabilise the political system: she demanded equal political rights for ‘dissidents’ – non-Catholics. Stanisław August, who may privately have sympathised with this idea, knew that he would lose all authority over the fervently Catholic szlachta if he imposed it. The Sejm howled down Catherine’s plans, reaffirmed all anti-dissident legislation and showed its suspicion of the king by entrenching liberum veto in law and scrapping amendments which had weakened it. Catherine, furious, began to foment a rebellious ‘confederacy’ against the king, led by Orthodox and Lutheran magnates who were ‘united … by their detestation of the new monarch … and their fear of novelty’.

There were Russian troops in the Warsaw streets when the next Sejm met in 1766. Catherine’s ambassador, Prince Nicholas Repnin, arrested a handful of patriotic peers and bishops and deported them to Russian exile for five years. Intimidated, the Sejm let him nominate a committee to draft a ‘guarantee treaty’, by which, in effect, the Commonwealth would promise Russia not to change its constitution. As Butterwick comments, ‘the Commonwealth was de jure, as well as de facto, no longer a sovereign state.’

Trouble broke out only two years later. The armed conspiracy known as the Confederation of Bar declared itself to be acting ‘in defence of the faith and liberty of the Polish noble nation’. From their first base in Bar (now in Ukraine), the fanatically anti-Russian plotters demanded the crushing of heretics (non-Catholics) and the sacking of the ‘godless’ king. Their rebellion touched off a massacre of Jews and Polish Catholic landlords by the local Ruthenian peasantry (who were mainly Orthodox), which was eventually suppressed by Russian and Polish troops in reluctant co-operation. But risings inspired by the confederation kept breaking out all over Poland; at one point Stanisław August himself was kidnapped. A Barist appeal to France tempted Rousseau to sketch a free Polish constitution, which Butterwick calls ‘wondrously beautiful in its romantic impracticality’. Rousseau persuaded himself that disorder was precisely what kept Polish liberty alive. If the peoples of the Commonwealth sought only economic and military strength, he proclaimed, they would cease to be Poles.

By the 1770s, Poland’s irrepressible chaos and defiance led Catherine to believe that Russia could no longer control the vast Commonwealth by itself. In August 1772, after the defeat of the Confederation of Bar, the First Partition took place, with Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire stripping the Commonwealth of a third of its territory and more than a third of its population. By expanding into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Russia acquired its first Catholic minority and, more significantly, its first large Jewish population. After dramatic protests, the Sejm was bullied by the Russian ambassador into accepting partition.

In his mutilated kingdom, Stanisław August tried to press ahead with some reforms. A plan to codify and limit serfdom was blocked by the landowner mass in the Sejm, but judicial torture and the death penalty for witchcraft were abolished. The king made a last attempt to placate Catherine in 1787. Amid a flotilla of gorgeously furnished galleys at Kaniów (now known as Kaniv) on the Dnieper, the two ex-lovers met for the first time in three decades. The empress granted the king only a brief interview. She said she would look at his proposal for a friendship treaty between two equal nations, but never gave it a full answer. Back in Warsaw, the king was increasingly worried by the ferment around him. A restless, educated generation soused in Enlightenment ideals was wrestling with the Sarmatian patriotism of noble landowners who were worried about reforms that might dilute Catholic influence and loosen their grip on their serf estates. Satirists enjoyed the ‘war between periwigs and whiskers’ but Butterwick writes that ‘the atmosphere of enlightened but deeply emotional patriotism … bridged political divides … This ferment and a change in international circumstances were about to launch the Commonwealth on its meteoric trajectory of light and flame.’

The meteor took off in 1788, when the Sejm met in Warsaw (the session is still remembered as ‘the Great Sejm’). It was to sit for four years and hear more than thirty thousand speeches. It was not a revolution, but it was revolutionary in its transformation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into something approaching modernity and in its cavalry charge against reactionary abuses once thought unalterable. Butterwick lists three fundamental changes. The Sejm reclaimed the state’s sovereignty, breaking the shackles of Catherine’s guarantee. It redefined the nation as the collective of all the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, not just the szlachta. Third, it turned away from ‘hardline noble republicanism’ towards ‘limited parliamentary monarchy’.

While backing these changes, Stanisław August tried vainly to rein in the reckless enthusiasm gripping the Sejm’s envoys as they demanded the removal of all Russian troops, defied Catherine’s once all-powerful ambassador when he tried to organise a counter-revolution, and roared assent to swingeing new taxes on the Church and on themselves. As one ecstatic member said in 1789, ‘where what we are, and what we possess, is ours, then sharing our wealth with the Fatherland becomes pleasant, because … we give it as free men without coercion, not as subjects to a despot, but we ourselves offer the tax to ourselves.’ Here the current of an archaic republicanism was pouring into the stream of Enlightenment democracy – a torrent that would flood France only a few months later.

Patriotism drove townspeople who had nothing to do with backwoods squirearchy to wear gaudy Sarmatian robes and shave their skulls. The ‘middle szlachta’ turned towards the urban burghers as allies against the elite of great magnates. A spate of legislation began, reforming the franchise and the structures of the Sejm and the executive, abolishing the liberum veto and – against hot opposition – replacing the election of kings with what was, in effect, hereditary succession. Butterwick makes a vivid narrative out of the three-way struggle behind these changes. Stanisław August and his team of reformers had to win over the middle szlachta: ‘the bucking horse of noble opinion had first to be mounted and calmed by the king before he could ride it towards enlightened reform,’ as Butterwick puts it. The excited but ‘anarchic’ nobles filling the Sejm were thrilled by Poland’s surge towards genuine independence, but suspicious of reforms undermining their Golden Freedom. Last, the magnates (the Branickis, Potockis and Rzewuskis, the oligarchs of their time), were secretly courting Russian intervention to protect them against Jacobin democrats and restore their ascendancy.

All this culminated in the constitution of 3 May 1791, still a sacred day in national history. Exultant crowds pushed into the Sejm chamber and galleries. The new Law on Government was debated through hours of uproar. But although the mass of envoys thundered ‘Zgoda!’, a few obstinate members stuck to their objections – until finally, in the evening, the king stood on a chair and swore an oath of loyalty to the constitution. Edmund Burke contrasted Poland’s ‘glorious conspiracy in favour of the true and genuine rights and interests of men’ with the radicalism of the French Revolution, which he detested. And in truth the 3 May constitution was radical only in that it represented an enormous leap away from Poland’s past, and in its contrast with the grim autocracies of neighbouring Prussia and Russia. It gave the Commonwealth a rational form of parliamentary government, decentralised and yet – by making the monarchy hereditary – with a reliable continuity in leadership. But Catholicism was reaffirmed as the dominant religion (most Polish reformers were horrified by the fierce anticlericalism of the French Revolution). And, notoriously, the institution of serfdom survived, though modified and now regulated by the state: the radical reformers knew that immediate abolition would alienate the whole nobility. After May 1791, they set out on a programme for further transformations: an ‘economic constitution’ introducing the ideas of Adam Smith, and a ‘moral constitution’ to overhaul the legal and judicial systems.

Somehow, Stanisław August deluded himself that Catherine could be brought to accept all this. But just as Ukraine’s turn towards the West proved insufferable to Putin, the democracy of the Commonwealth’s new constitution was intolerable to the empress. An overwhelming Russian invasion came a little more than a year later, supported by the Confederation of Targowica – a treacherous league of Polish grandees led by Ksawery Branicki and Feliks Potocki, but organised in St Petersburg. The Poles fought bravely but stood no chance, and two months later the king effectively surrendered, abandoning the 3 May constitution and agreeing to join the Targowica confederation as the price of opening armistice talks. For that, very unfairly, Stanisław August has gone down in Polish nationalist myth as a cowardly betrayer.

‘The trajectory of the Commonwealth now turned away from the bright future promised by the Polish Revolution,’ Butterwick writes. A second partition in 1793 left only a rump Poland around Warsaw. But the volcanic events that followed did more to shape Polish consciousness in the next hundred years than the brilliant revolution of 1791. The immense insurrection of 1794, launched in Kraków but spreading across Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, can be seen as the first of three sacrificial national uprisings – 1794, then the November Uprising of 1831, then the January Uprising of 1863 – which shaped Polish imagination for a century (many people would add the Warsaw Rising of 1944 to that heroic succession).

The first eruption was led by Tadeusz Kościuszko. A veteran of the American War of Independence, he proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs, and his peasant battalions, charging with scythes, broke through Russia’s regular infantry at the battle of Racławice. The people of Warsaw rose, slaughtered their Russian garrison and hanged some of the Targowica nobles in the street. But the odds were once again too great. Kościuszko was wounded and captured, and Warsaw surrendered after General Suvorov – still a Russian hero today – stormed the suburb of Praga and butchered its civilian population. A final obliterating partition took place in 1795. Stanisław August abdicated, and the three partitioning powers set out to ‘abolish everything which could recall the existence of the kingdom of Poland’.

They failed. The Polish Question continued to torment Europe and enrage Russia until the Treaty of Versailles recognised Poland’s 1918 resurrection. Splitting the country between them after invading in 1939, Hitler and Stalin asserted – just as Putin asserts about Ukraine today – that Poland was a fake nation with no ‘historical authenticity’. Granules of the old Commonwealth, that strange union-state, still lurk in the collective memory. Was it not, in some ways, a precursor of the European Union and its ideals? Enormous and with ill-defined limits, multinational and generally tolerant of religious diversity, unwieldy in its widely distributed grassroots authority which kept the weak centre almost incapable of decisive action: this was the opposite of the clanking, armoured, centralised nation-states which grew up around it. And doesn’t the EU – vast, rich, soft-shelled, beautiful and touchingly hopeless in sudden emergencies – have something in common with that half-forgotten Rzeczpospolita?

Butterwick’s book has one lack: there is no introductory chapter to explain two institutions which must seem baffling to non-experts. A ‘confederation’ was both a legalised conspiracy and a way of securing parliament against disruption. Above all, there’s the szlachta: how did Poland develop this extraordinary mass nobility, unique in Europe, which dominated politics for three hundred years in the name of its own idea of liberty? Did that class, as it’s usually said, drag the Commonwealth to destruction through its arrogance and solipsism? Subversively, Butterwick hints that there’s something to be said for the szlachta, with its Golden Freedom and uncouth democracy, its insistence on participation (‘Nothing about us without us’), its equality of esteem, and its instinctive flinch against anything resembling despotic authority. It’s fortunate that Poles still harbour a Sarmatian gene.

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