Russian Involvement in Partitions of XVIIIth Century Poland

Recently I got interested in some parts Polish history, which I think are quite relevant to what we've been seeing in the world in recent years.

In XVIIIth century Poland by unfortuante decisions and aspirations of the King Augustus II the Strong got under influence of Russia. Almost all XVIIIth century Polish monarchs and influencial aristocratic families where trying to reform the country, strengthen it's weak political system and get out of dependence on russian tsars. Unfortunatelly without success. The polish kings weren't able to reform the finance system, nor do a military reform or change systemic weeknesses.

This led to three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1792 and 1793 after which the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania cised to exist. It's theritories were split into three neighbouring powers: Russia, Prusia and Austria.

At least until the begining of the 1990's the understanding of this period was partial, which is rather a mild statetement. Historians had only access to prussian, austrian and polish documents from XVIIIth century, but the lack, as it turns out the most imporant part of the picture: the russian side. At that time the only avaialble russian narrative was available from Sergey Solovyov. However he wasn't interested in answering the question how partition of Poland was achieved, he was creating narrative to support imperial interests of Russia. A narrative which pushed the responsibility for the russian consipration far away from its source.

Historian's understanding of that period dramatically changed when russian archives in Moscow started to be available. It turned out that the first partition of Poland wasn't achieved through Prussian and Austrian domination, but through intricate dyplomatic play, manipulation of Polish society and briberies done by Russian amasadors. Russians played the active role, and came to conclusion that inviting Prussia and Austrian to take part of it is a small and acceptable price to pay to keep Poland under its own sphere of influence and project a powerful image to the western countries of its domination in the region.

The secret documents show that Russian doctrine towards Poland was to keep polish crown in hands of a weak, somebody who is devoted to the tsar, with no strong connections to european aristocratic families, preferably somebody of weak intelectual abilities. It didn't work that well, but certainly polish kings were heavily constrained. In 1974, tsar Catharina II came up with yet another way of introducing her influence over polish political scene. She wanted to install a russian party indisguise, which could be used to directly influence parlamentarian sessions. This party was supposed to be created by non-catholics. For that Russia requested that all non-catholics would have equal political rights. Something unheard of in all european countries at that time. It's also worth to note that at that time Poland was one of the most friendly country for many religions, although not without problems. It's also worth to mention that Russia didn't bother with such rights and freedoms on its own soil. However it was also very useful for creating a narrative about how modern the young at that time tsar Catharina II was.

Thanks to open russian archives the process which lead to the first partition in 1772 is known in great detail. Whenever short time strategy of influence was not working russians changed their ambassador and adapted their strategy, sometimes leaving to the ambasador open doors to improvise (something that Vlad Vexler explains quite well in his youtube channel). Sometimes using bribery, sometimes playing various Polish institutions against each other. What was surprising for historians is that the biggest Russian threat was an exagerated fear of French influence. Because of strong statement of polish king Russians considered dethroning the king, but they feared of the chaos of a free election (Polish Kings were elected by the nobel class). This could lead to unpredictable consequences. Polish King at that time was able negotiate hard, since Russia was at war with Turkey. At the end tsar allowed Prussia and Austria to the table. In a secret letter Cathrine II suggested that she's ready to abandon Russian guarnatees of Polish boarders. That was a clear signal for Prussia, as it was looking forward for teritorail gains for a long time without much success.

The XVIIIth century contains many other very interesting moments, where Russian used all their playbook tricks: spreading fear and misinformation, bribery, army movements (e.g. move out to release tension, just to come back shortly) or being very careful to not even show a shadow of weekeness at the european geopolitical scene. Forexample, the biggest threat for polish noble class (the only class that had political rights), was the Polish King for historical reasons. Hence the liberum veto: a tool to break a parlamentarian session without making any progress. Until XVIIIth century it was only used to defend the rights of the nobel class, who were more afraid of bad reforms than not making progress with good ones. But in XVIIIth century that proved to be one of the primary weeknesses strongly defended by tsars and used against Poland.

There were other weekensses of Poland at that time. One was the treasury system. The taxes were not high enough to reform the country, provide good adminstration and have a modern army. The nobel class had fears that raised taxes will stay forever, more than the Russian or Prussian armies stationing in the country, although eventualy due to rapes and robberies the climat slightly changed. Although at that time it was too late. Lack of needed reform caused the polish king to borrow many under his name to fund the country, which made him personally vulnerable even more - which was used against him in the final round.

At that time Polish society wasn't yet prepared for recognising the real threats, nither how the russians operated. That has been learned the hard way in XIXth and XXth centuries, through national uprisings, with tremendous costs (many people were sent to Sibiria), many war crimes, or horific crimes in the 50th of XXth century done by communist aparatus.


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