WHILE Russia had thus become a great Empire, with a dominant voice in the European concert, Poland had almost ceased to exist politically. The thirty years of the reign of Augustus III (1733-1763) were a period of sheer stagnation. There was no government to speak of. The King rarely visited his kingdom ; and his chief minister Heinrich Brühl, omnipotent in Saxony, was powerless in Poland. And, if there was no executive, there was also no legislature. The Seim continued, indeed, to be elected and assembled as usual, every two years; but it was so regularly exploded by the application of the liberum veto that no laws had been passed and no business done for more than a generation. Thinking men had shaken their heads in the reign of Augustus II, when no fewer than seven Diets had thus been extinguished ; but in the reign of Augustus III not one of the fifteen Diets which solemnly assembled at Warsaw or Grodno, did anything at all, and all for the same reason.
The long-sought political utopia of the szlachta had, in fact, at last been realised : they lived in a land where every gentleman had nothing to do but please himself. All onerous restrictions had long since been removed. The army had virtually been abolished because the Polish squire would not pay for it. The diplomatic service had been done away with because he did not see the use of expensively maintaining any regular intercourse with foreign powers. On leaving school, with nothing in his head but a smattering of Latin, the young szlachcic, or squire, hastened to the court of the nearest Pan, or Lord, who ruled like an independent prince in his own district, and there swelled the numberless mob of the great man’s retainers and hirelings. These little courts and there were hundreds of them were now the focuses of whatever of social and political life still survived in Poland. Many of the Polish magnates were fabulously wealthy. The estates of the Potocy, in the Ukraine alone, extended over thousands of square miles. The Radziwills were equally opulent. One member alone of that princely house, Michael Casimir, was worth 3o millions sterling. It would have been a small thing to many of these great nobles to have contributed towards the national defence by training to the use of arms a few thousands of the heydukes, cossacks and poorer gentlemen who ate the bread of idleness in their service ; and never was the Republic so sorely in need of a military police as during the reign of the second absentee King of the Saxon dynasty. That period was for central Europe a period of almost incessant warfare ; Poland, unfortunately for herself, lay in the direct path of the belligerents ; and, despite her neutrality, her territories were systematically traversed, exploited, and ravaged as if the Republic were a no man’s land which everybody might make free with. Yet what could be expected from private enterprise when the Grand-Hetman, Potocki, the dignitary officially responsible for the defence of the country, would not even place an observation corps on the threatened Silesian frontier for fear of provoking hostilities, and when even such a friend of reform as Waclaw Rzewuski, who resigned a high. position in order the better to serve his country, could flippantly exclaim, “The Republic died long ago, only it has forgotten to tumble down.”
In justice to the Saxon Court it must be admitted that it attempted to strike at the root of the prevalent anarchy by abolishing the liberum veto, especially after the peace of Aix la Chapelle, when Augustus III had somewhat strengthened his position by matrimonial alliances with the Courts of Vienna and Versailles. But all these efforts foundered on the opposition of the Austrian Court and the determined opposition of the Poles themselves.
In Poland itself the standard of reform was conscientiously upheld by the Czartoryscy, a princely family of Lithuanian origin, which, though akin to the ancient Jagiellos, had only risen to eminence towards the end of the 17th century. Its principal members were prince Michael, Grand-Chancellor of Lithuania, the statesman of the family, and Prince Augustus, its chief military celebrity, who had been decorated with a sword of honour by Prince Eugene for pre-eminent valour at the storming of Belgrade, and, on returning home, had rehabilitated the somewhat drooping fortunes of his House by espousing the great heiress, Sophia Sieniawska. Their sister, Constantia, was married to Stanislaus Poniatowski, the father of the future king of the same name.
The Czartoryscy were superior to all their Polish contemporaries in ability, patriotism and public spirit. They warmly sympathised with the new ideas of enlightenment which came from the banks of the Seine ; they encouraged and supported the great educational reformer, Stanislaus Konarsky, who was familiarising his countrymen with these ideas. Their palaces were schools for promising young men selected from every class, and carefully trained to be their political pupils; for the end and aim of all the efforts of “The Family I” was the reform of the constitution, an object which they rightly regarded as indispensable. But they clearly recognised that only by -educating, and thereby transforming public opinion could they hope to realise their aspirations.
At first the Czartoryscy co-operated with the Saxon Court where from 1733 to 1753 their influence was predominant. But, when their opponents in Poland exploded every Diet favourable to them, and nullified all their confederations by counter-confederations, while the Saxon Court, fearful of losing Poland altogether, refused to interfere on their behalf, then they fell out with their old friend Brühl and began to plot against Augustus III. They endeavoured to dethrone him, with the aid of Russia, to whom they appealed, through Kayserling, the Russian minister at Warsaw, for help to reform the constitution, promising, in return, to recognise the Russian imperial title, a thing the Republic had hitherto steadily refused to do. There is no reason whatever to question the bona fides or the patriotism of the Czartoryscy on this occasion. But that they should seriously have believed that Russia would consent to strengthen and rehabilitate her ancient enemy (for that is what their appeal amounted to) is the strongest proof of their incompetence as statesmen. They were, in fact, sentimental dreamers, mere children in politics, utterly without practical experience, hopelessly blind to the realities of the situation.
Catherine II, whose own situation, for some months after her accession to the throne, was somewhat precarious, declined to interfere till after the death of Augustus III. That event took place on October 5, 1763, whereupon the Czartoryscy immediately resumed their appeal to the Russian Empress. At the end of February, 1764, they went still further, and demanded an army-corps to protect them against the violence of their enemies. Their demands were supported by the new Russian ambassador at Warsaw, the energetic and masterful Prince Nicholas Repnin, who reported that, in view of the state of parties, the presence of a Russian army in Poland was indispensable. In March, 8000 of the Empress’ troops entered Poland ; in June a general confederation, formed by the Czartoryscy, declared that only a native candidate was eligible; while their Russian allies simultaneously suppressed all the enemies of ” The Family.” The elective Diet met at Warsaw (August 1626) and elected, unanimously, Stanislaus Poniatowski, the nephew of the Czartoryscy, King of Poland. The issue could scarce be otherwise, as the electors were overawed by the proximity of 8000 Russian veterans.
The new king was a strikingly handsome man, thirty-two years of age, brilliantly educated, brimful of the noblest ideas of the new era of enlightenment, but prone to luxury and indolence, and with no force of character, though he had a much better judgment than either of his uncles, and, in the course of his royal career, learnt to be a very fair diplomatist. He had first made the aquaintance of Catherine in 1755, at St Petersburg, whither he had come, nominally in the suite of the new English minister, Sir Hanbury Williams, but really as the secret agent of the Czartoryscy. The Grand-Duchess, as she then was, at once appropriated the Polish Adonis, body and soul ; and he was mixed up in the mysterious intrigues which resulted in the fall of Bestuzhev and very nearly in the ruin of Catherine herself. On discarding the sentimental Poniatowski for the more virile Orlov, Catherine sent the former back to Poland with a promise of the Polish crown on the death of Augustus III. She already read her paramour through and through. She described him, subsequently, to Frederick the Great, as “the candidate most suitable for our purposes “; and it is clear, from her instructions to Prince Nicholas Repnin, that she meant the crowned Stanislaus to be the mere tool and hireling of Russia. Stanislaus was certainly not of the stuff of which heroes are made ; but it is only fair to add that, as King, he tried to do his duty to his country so far as his almost absolute financial dependence upon the Russian Empress (who allowed him 3000 ducats per annum to start with) would permit him to do so.
Their candidate thus established on the throne, the Czartoryscy now insisted upon the prompt carrying out of their reforms, which included the limitation of the liberum veto and the establishment of an hereditary monarchy. Stanislaus also privately represented to Catherine that such reforms were indispensable. But, if constitutional reform was the vital question for Poland, the vital question for Russia was the establishment of her own hegemony in Poland, which she proposed to bring about by placing the few and scattered religious Dissidents there on an equality with the overwhelming Catholic majority. The success of such a project, she argued, would not only win for her the suffrages of the Orthodox population of Poland, but would make her extremely popular in Russia also ; and popularity was what this new sovereign, of German origin, was most in need of. In reply therefore to the King and his uncles, she declared that the constitutional question must be postponed to the question of the religious Dissidents. So important indeed did the adjustment of the Dissident question seem to Catherine, that, in case of success herein, she was not unwilling to permit some amelioration of the Polish constitution. Compared with her policy, at this period, the policy of her Prussian ally seems narrow and selfish, aiming as it did at pure aggrandisement. But the policy of Prussia was, anyhow, easy because of its very simplicity, whereas the Dissident question ultimately proved too difficult even for Catherine because she overrated the number and importance of the Polish Dissidents and underrated the force of Polish catholicism.
At this time, too, there was no thought at St Petersburg of any regular partition of Poland. At the council summoned immediately after the death of Augustus III, Count Zachary Chernuishev did indeed suggest the advisability of a “rectification” of the frontiers of the Republic; but the idea was scouted because the Russian Cabinet, and the Empress herself, were under the influence of Count Panin, who preferred to fit Poland into his ingenious ” Northern Accord” system instead of destroying her.
Nikita Ivanovich Panin was a pupil of Bestuzhev whose “system ” he had followed with brilliant success as ambassador at Copenhagen and Stockholm. Towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, he was appointed to the important post of Governor of the little Grand Duke Paul, whom, on the fall of Peter III, he would have placed on the throne instead of Catherine, had he been able to do so. Panin’s intimate acquaintance with European diplomacy made him indispensable to Catherine when she ascended the throne. He was her political mentor during the first half of her reign, and, though never made Chancellor or even Vice-Chancellor, he stood on an altogether different footing to the counsellors of her later years, who were very little more than superior foreign-office clerks, though some of them, Alexander Bezborodko for instance, were even superior to Panin in sagacity. Panin on the other hand steadily resisted the generally pernicious influence of the imperial favourites, which none of his successors had the courage to do.
Panin was the inventor of the famous “Northern League or Accord ” which aimed at opposing a combination of Russia, Prussia, Poland, Sweden and, if possible, Great Britain, against the Bourbon-Hapsburg League, so as to preserve the peace of the North. Such an attempt to bind together, indissolubly, nations with such different aims and characters was doomed to failure. Frederick the Great, in particular, deeply resented what he regarded as an attempt to fetter his liberty of action ; while Great Britain could never be persuaded that it was as much in her interests as in the interests of Russia to subsidise the anti-French faction, the “Caps,” in Sweden. Yet the idea of the “Northern Accord,” though never realised, had important political consequences, and influenced the policy of Russia for many years. It explains, too, Panin’s strange tenderness towards Poland. For a long time, he could not endure the thought of destroying her, because he regarded her as an indispensable member of his “Accord,” wherein she was to supply the place of Austria, especially in case of oriental complications. There can also be little doubt that, if the plan could have been realised, it would have been good for Poland. It might even, perhaps, have saved her from being partitioned, and given her a chance of re-establishing herself.
But in order to become serviceable Poland had first to be made subservient. In February 1765) Panin warned Repnin that he must be prepared to support the cause of the Dissidents by force of arms, and that, consequently, the Russian troops must remain in Poland and be quartered on the anti-Dissidents. But it was only now that the difficulties of Repnin began. On September 19 the Russian, Prussian, British, and Danish Ministers waited upon the Primate and the Senate to demand equality of rights for the Dissidents. The Czartoryscy replied that they would willingly promise toleration, but to grant equality was impossible. Even when Repnin threatened to seize their estates they replied, with dignity, that they were ready to be ruined, if necessary, but they could not gratify Russia in this particular.
The Diet of 1766 was of the same mind, and, in spite of considerable pressure, dissolved after referring the whole question to the decision of the bishops. Violence and corruption were now the weapons which Repnin unscrupulously employed. Troops were quartered on the estates of the bishops and magnates. With great difficulty and considerable expense, so-called Dissident confederations were formed at Thorn and Slucz. The royal referendarius, Gabriel Podoski, Repnin’s secretary and hireling, and the most despised ecclesiastic in ‘ Poland, was, through Russian influence, raised to the primacy to shew that “the friends of Russia might expect anything and everything.” All the enemies of the Czartoryscy were recalled to Poland, professed themselves “the humble servants of the Empress,” and ( July 12, 1767) formed a confederation at Radom which petitioned Catherine to guarantee the national liberties, including the liberum veto, assist the Dissidents to their rights, and contract a protective alliance with the Republic. On the other hand the new papal nuncio, Durini, armed with an encyclical from Clement XIII, urging the faithful to uncompromising resistance, and supported by the bishops, prominent among whom was the courageous Kajetan Ignaty Soltyk, Bishop of Cracow, frustrated all the efforts of Repnin. During the elections, the few partisans of Russia were only saved from destruction by the Russian soldiers ; and the Diet of 1767 met, on September 23, in a white heat of religious enthusiasm.
But the elections had still further damaged the Russian cause by laying bare the utter artificiality of the Dissident agitation. One of the most disconcerting novelties of the political struggle was a spontaneous petition from the Dissidents themselves to the Diet protesting against being forced to accept high office ; and Repnin was compelled to admit in his correspondence with Panin, that, at present, they certainly were unfit for political equality. “For’ some time,” he writes, “I have been trying to find among them someone even moderately capable, but up to now I have been unable to find anybody. They are all tillers of the soil and without any education. If you want a Polish Orthodox gentleman you must look for him in the Russian monasteries.” The Dissident question was consequently subordinated to the question of political supremacy on the basis of the confederation of Radom. A Russian army corps was stationed within five miles of Warsaw ; a regiment of grenadiers was quartered in the capital ; and all opposition in the chamber itself was silenced by the arrest of four bishops, including Soltyk, three senators, and the Grand-Hetman of the Crown, Rzewuski, and his son, all of whom were deported to Russia (October 13, 1767). It is due to Repnin to add that he did not like his work and despised himself for doing it. He reported that all the best people were in favour of a limitation of the liberum veto; and that to guarantee the old constitution would be to alienate them for ever and convince the nation at large that Russia only desired its ruin. He concluded by observing that, personally, he believed in the possibility of combining politics and philanthropy. Catherine, somewhat impressed, now declared her willingness to consent to some limitation in the liberum veto in regard to financial affairs; and on the strength of this half promise) Repnin finally induced the helpless and leaderless Diet of 1768 to repeal all the edicts against the Dissidents, to declare free elections and the liberum veto essential and irrevocable articles of the Polish constitution, and to place that constitution, in its entirety, under the guarantee of Russia (Feb. 24, 1768).
But now, just as the triumph of Russia seemed most complete, alarming news reached Warsaw from the distant Ukraine.
On February 29, 1768, a score or so of country gentlemen, some hundreds of peasants and a few priests and monks assembled at the little Podolian fort of Bar, and formed, beneath the banner of the blessed Virgin, a Confederation to protest against the resolutions of the last Diet. Without money, influence or organisation for not one of the magnates or prelates adhered to it the Confederation of Bar appeared at first sight insignificant enough. But it owed its real importance to the fact that it was a genuine popular rising, inspired by a patriotism and a devotion utterly unknown to the official classes ; and its consequences were momentous and far-reaching. The original Confederates were, indeed, easily scattered by the Russian troops ; but, stamped out in one place, the insurrection instantly burst forth in half a dozen other places, and, at last, the whole Republic was, as Repnin put it, ” ablaze with the fire of Bar.” Presently, fresh complications arose. At the end of i 768, a band of Cossacks, in pursuit of the Confederates, crossed the border and destroyed the Turkish town of Galta ; whereupon the Grand Vizier, already seriously alarmed by the recent events in Poland, delivered an ultimatum to the Russian ambassador Obryezkov, threatening Russia with war if she did not instantly cancel the guarantee and withdraw her 40,000 troops from the territories of the Republic.
Almost simultaneously, Choiseul, very jealous of the upstart young Empire which had dared to traverse the designs of the ancient French monarchy, promised to send the Confederates money and officers ; and, during an interview with Krasinski, Bishop of Kamieniec, one of Repnin’s victims, undertook to advance 3,000,000 livres to any party in Poland strong enough to overthrow Stanislaus and place the Prince of Condé, or some other French candidate, on the Polish throne.
Catherine was seriously embarrassed. Unable to prevent the inconvenient and unexpected outbreak of the first Turkish War’, which absorbed for a time all her forces, she felt obliged to make some concession to the Republic. On March 31, 1769, Repnin was superseded by Prince Michael Volkonsky, who was instructed to be conciliatory and pacific without making the slightest concession. From the Russian point of view the supersession of Repnin was a mistake, as the change of ambassadors necessarily implied a change of system. Fortunately for Russia, the extreme weakness of Poland minimised the consequences of the blunder. Stanislaus was so poor that he was glad to borrow 10,000 ducats from Volkonsky2 soon after his arrival ; and the Grand-Hetman Rzewuski accepted 3000 ducats more in order to put the liliputian Polish army on a war footing, Rzewuski undertaking to defend Kamieniec in case the Turks attacked it. Nevertheless, it was quite clear that neither the King nor the Czartoryscy would submit much longer to Russian dictation. When Volkonsky asked Stanislaus whether he imagined he could keep his throne without the aid of the Empress, the King simply shrugged his shoulders. The Senate too, at the suggestion of the Czartoryscy, after despatching an embassy to St Petersburg complaining that the treaty of 1768 had been extorted by the violence of Repnin, endeavoured by diplomatic means to secure the good offices of Great Britain at Stambul, and assured the Porte, by a special envoy, that the Republic would remain neutral during the war.
It was only now, when Poland seemed about to break with Russia, and Russia herself was immeshed in the Turkish War, that the partition project, which had long been in the air, suddenly became a prominent political factor.
So early as the end of 1768, the Courts of Vienna, Versailles and Copenhagen became aware that the King of Prussia was about to ” compensate himself” at the expense of Poland for the subsidies that he was bound, by treaty, to pay the Russian Empress on the outbreak of the Turkish War. The first partition scheme, the so-called Lynar project though it was not the Saxon Minister Lynar but Frederick himself who was the real author of it was sent to Count Solms, the Prussian Minister at St Petersburg, at the beginning of 1769. Panin, however, was not much pleased with it. The territory of Russia, he said, was so vast already, that he doubted whether it would be any advantage to her to increase it. His real objection to it was that it ran counter to his ” Northern Accord.” He preferred to keep Poland Russianised but intact. Frederick was profoundly irritated. He wanted an increase of territory sufficient to counterpoise any possible acquisitions of Russia from Turkey, and, above all, he wanted it without the risks of war. For the Frederick of 1769 was a very different man from the Frederick of 1741 or 1756. The terrible experiences of the Seven Years’ War had converted the brilliant military adventurer into a cautious, almost timorous, statesman, whose invincible dread of war coloured the whole policy of his later years. Of the ” bears of the Holy Roman Empire 1″ whose mortal hug had all but crushed him to death at Kunersdorf, he was particularly fearful ; while Poland then, as Turkey is now, ” the sick man of Europe,” seemed expressly at hand to adjust all differences and reconcile all ambitions. With Russia on his side, he had no reason to apprehend the interference of the other European Powers, who regarded the partition of Poland as an unavoidable and, indeed, not altogether undesirable event of the near future, as it might have an equilibrating effect. The only question was, which of the Powers should benefit by it, and how. The Court of Vienna at first considered it disadvantageous for Austria to transgress her natural boundaries, the Carpathians, by annexing the Polish lands beyond ; but it was willing to allow Frederick a free hand in that direction if only he first restored Silesia. Saxony wanted a slice of Poland big enough to enable her Elector to assume the royal title ; she was indifferent as to what became of the rest. Choiseul, in order to anticipate what Panin called ” the sordid designs of the King of Prussia,” suggested that Austria should take the first step and appropriate as much of Polish territory as she wanted and Choiseul was ostensibly the friend of Poland ! Even the Porte, which had actually taken up arms on behalf of the Republic, proposed (in 1770) that Austria and Turkey should partition Poland between them in order to circumvent Russia and Prussia. Great Britain had no interest in the matter except in so far as it might affect her commerce. Thus, oddly as it may sound now, the only serious opposition to a partition came from Russia.
Joseph II’s fear and jealousy of Frederick, and the aged Kaunitz’s desire to go down to posterity as a famous acquisitor of territory, especially after it became quite clear to him that nothing could be gained by pretending to advocate the cause of Turkey, were the causes of Austria’s final adhesion to the partition project. But Maria Theresa revolted at the idea of despoiling a friendly Catholic Power. Only the urgent representations of her son and her chancellor, who assured her that Austria could not safely sit still while Russia and Prussia aggrandised themselves at the expense of Poland, only the sophistries of her spiritual directors who drew subtle distinctions between political and private morality, induced the devout and scrupulous old lady to put her hand to a deed which she abhorred. The subsequent alacrity of Austria to secure her share of the spoil certainly contrasted strangely with her previous backwardness. The new understanding with Prussia was cemented at the meeting between Frederick, Joseph II and Kaunitz, at Neustadt in Bohemia, at the beginning of September 1770 ; and immediately afterwards Austria formally’ annexed the Zips counties, a district in north Hungary, which had been mortgaged to Poland in 1412 and never redeemed. The occupation of Zips was followed up by Frederick’s proposed joint mediation of Prussia and Austria between Russia and the Turks (September), and the despatch of Prince Henry of Prussia to St Petersburg (October) to accelerate the adhesion of Russia to the partition project. Catherine resented being hurried into a compact for which she had no great relish. At the end of December she shewed Prince Henry that she had penetrated the designs of his brother by hinting, facetiously, that as Austria had already seized Polish territory, Prussia might just as well follow suit. In January 1771, Frederick applied still further pressure by informing the Court of St Petersburg that he could not guarantee the neutrality of Austria if the Turkish war continued, and at the same time dictated the terms with which he thought Russia should be content. Catherine was justly indignant. ” Be firm !” she wrote to Panin, ” not one step backwards ! If we are hurried into a peace it will be a bad peace.” Although it is highly probable that the details of the first partition were settled with Prince Henry, it is evident that Catherine and Panin would have separated the Polish from the Turkish question and spared Poland as much as possible. The Russian government was even inclined to compensate Poland with Moldavia and Wallachia ; but Prussia and Austria would allow Russia neither to retain those conquered provinces herself nor to transfer them.
On the other hand, though Frederick was quite capable of seizing Polish territory as unceremoniously as he had seized Silesia, he was not insensible to the outcry which such an act of political brigandage would inevitably call forth. It was necessary, therefore, that the spoil should be shared with the two Empires. Common action would be the safest course to follow in the present, and the best guarantee for the future. But the hand of the Russian government was still held back by some scruples of honour. In February 1771, Panin, in reply to another impatient reminder from Potsdam, informed the Prussian Minister, Solms, that the Empress had so often and so solemnly guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Republic, that the open violation of that principle must produce everywhere the most unpleasant effect. He added that Frederick’s suggestion that Russia should compensate herself in Poland for losses sustained elsewhere was regarded at St Petersburg as “hard and offensive.” March, April and May passed ; and still there was no further reply from the Russian Court. During this time Panin was struggling against a combination of all his enemies in the cabinet, including the War Minister Chernuishev and the Orlovs, whose chief and incontrovertible argument was the ease and profitableness of a partition. At length they prevailed, and Catherine directed Panin to carry out the details of the partition. It was a hard blow for the old minister thus to violate the principles of his ” Northern Accord “; but he comforted himself with the reflection that, even after a partition, Poland would still be a considerable Power, and he saw to it that both Prussia and Austria abated their claims ” considerably, at the last moment.
Panin’s public justification of the Empress’s change of front was the damage done to Russia by the Polish Confederates, for which Russia claimed to be recouped by the ungrateful Republic she had vainly endeavoured to serve. The Con-federates, who, up to 1770, had been favoured by Austria, who had allowed them to make their headquarters at Eperies in Hungary, and by France, who had sent Dumouriez to organise their undisciplined bands, were now promptly sup-pressed at the end of 1771, by Suvarov, just as they threatened to become most dangerous’. A general “pacification” was indeed the necessary preliminary of a partition.
Poland, meanwhile, was the only country in Europe where there was still no suspicion of the coming partition. Stanislaus and the Czartoryscy naively imagined that the Republic was far too essential a part of the continental system to be dealt with thus summarily. Even when military cordons began to be formed, along the Netze by Prussia and on the Galician border by Austria; even when the suave and courtly Volkonsky was superseded by the brutal Saldern and the contemptuous Stackelberg, they failed to discern a fresh change of system at the Russian Court, and obstinately shut their eyes to facts. On September 7, 1771, Stackelberg presented the partition project to the Polish Ministers, who, in their utter helplessness, could only fall back on passive resistance and procrastination. At the end of October the Russian Minister put fresh pressure upon the King at a private interview. Stanislaus, characteristically, took to posing and haranguing. ” I would beg your Majesty to leave Plutarch and antiquity alone,” interrupted Stackelberg, ” and deign to consider the history of modern Poland and of Count Stanislaus Poniatowski.” He then assured him that his political existence depended upon two things, the summoning of a Diet at Grodno to consider the propositions of the Powers, and his own abstention from intrigue2 in the future. Nevertheless, two days later, Stanislaus made a last desperate effort to save his country by sending a secret embassy to Versailles. But Choiseul, the only French Minister who, even now, might have seriously embarrassed the partitioning powers, had been dismissed from office scarce twelve months before (Dec. Io, 1770) for failing to show proper respect to the infamous Du Barry ; and the Polish envoys brought home with them nothing but polite condolences. There was now nothing for it but to submit.
After innumerable declarations and diplomatic notes had been exchanged between the three Powers, the definite treaty of partition was signed at St Petersburg on August 5, 1772. On September 18, 1773, the miserable shadow of a Diet, which assembled at Grodno beneath the “protection” of Russian bayonets, was forced to confirm it. By the first partition Poland lost about 214,000 square kilometres of her total territory (7,511,000). Austria got the lion’s share, consisting of the palatinates of Lemberg and Belz, half the palatinates of Cracow and Sandomir, and parts of Podolia and western Galicia, together with 70,480 square kilometres with a population of 2,700,000 and a revenue of 1,408,000 Polish gulden. Prussia got the modern West Prussia, exclusive of Dantzic and Thorn, with the Netze district, altogether 34,741 square kilo-metres with a population of 416,000 and a revenue of 534,750 thalers. Russia got Polish Livonia, the palatinates of Witebsk and Mstislavl and half of the palatinates of Polock and Minsk, altogether 108,750 square kilometres, with a population of 1,800,000 and a revenue of 920,480 Polish gulden.
None of the contemporaries of the first partition seems to have regarded it unfavourably either from a political or from a moral point of view. The general condemnation of it was of a later date and largely due to a growing dislike of Catherine’s policy in general, and Panin’s methods in particular. Russia comes the best out of the wretched business. She prevented the partition as long as possible, and she won her share of it (which, by the way, consisted entirely of old Russian lands) at least by right of conquest, whereas Austria and Prussia got their portions of the spoil by no right at all. It is therefore unfair and humiliating to Russia to place her in the same class as her accomplices. In fact the hand of Catherine was forced by Frederick II, who, taking advantage of her difficulties with his usual astuteness and unscrupulousness, compelled her to sacrifice her interests to those of Prussia. Catherine never forgave Frederick for this exhibition of tactical superiority, and, diplomatically considered, the first partition of Poland marks the beginning of the estrangement between Russia and Prussia, and its corollary, the re-approximation of Russia and Austria.
It cannot fairly be said that the diminution of the Polish State was, in any way, injurious to the Polish people. Panin’s contention that the wrested provinces would benefit by the transfer was perfectly true ; and it must also be added that the new constitution adopted by the Diet of 1775, which the Russians invented to meet the new conditions of the Republic, was, sentiment apart, far superior to anything of the kind which the Poles themselves had ever been able to devise.
The throne continued, indeed, to be elective, though the candidates were to be limited to native Poles, always excepting the sons and grandsons of the reigning King. The liberum veto was also retained. But everywhere we trace the hand of Panin endeavouring to make Poland a serviceable but not too formidable an ally. The executive was intrusted to a Rada Nieustajaca, or Permanent Council of State, consisting of 36 members, 18 senators and 18 deputies, elected biennially by ballot and subdivided into the five departments of War, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Police and Finances, on the model of the Swedish constitution overthrown by Gustavus III in 1772. The King was to preside over the Council, summon the Diet with its consent, and select all senators, ministers and bishops from a list of three candidates submitted to him by the Council. For the first time in Polish history the King received a decent civil list and the chief officers of state adequate, but not extravagant, salaries. The yearly budget was fixed at between 32,000,000 and 35,000,000 Polish guldens.
The regular army was to consist of 30,000 men of all arms, a force five times as large as it used to be when Poland was in the plenitude of her power.
On the whole, then, the new Polish constitution, though it restricted the Republic within a very moderate political programme, made for order, economy and stability. But, whatever its merits, it was, after all, the invention of the enemy, and therefore abominable to Polish patriotism. The opportunity of replacing it by something better did not occur, however, till fourteen years later, when (in 1787) the insolent and provocative policy of Catherine H suddenly involved herself and her ally Joseph II in a second war with the Turks, far more dangerous than the first, which speedily engrossed her attention.
It was therefore in the most favourable circumstances conceivable that the famous Czteroletni Sejm, or Quadrennial Diet, assembled at Warsaw on October 16, 17 88. The patriots were justified in hoping much from a national assembly which differed materially and advantageously from all its predecessors. Its benches were crowded by youthful enthusiasts, elected under the immediate stimulus of agitating events, and brimful of public spirit. Their first act was to elect, as Marshal, Stanislaus Malachowski, almost the only nobleman in the land quite free from aristocratic prejudices, whose civic virtues had won for him the title of ” the Polish Aristides.” These young reformers grouped themselves round Adam Casimir Czartoryski and Ignatius Potocki. The conservatives and reactionaries followed the lead of the immensely wealthy Grand Hetmans, Felix Potocki and Xavier Branicki, both of them avowed Russophils who had fought without shame against their own countrymen in the open field and been liberally rewarded by Catherine for their valuable services during the time of the first partition. The King had his own party. He was in favour of an alliance with Russia, but a free and independent alliance, on equal terms, which would not exclude constitutional reform. It is quite clear that Stanislaus grasped the whole political situation far better than any of his Polish contemporaries ; unfortunately, the correctness of his views was more than counterbalanced by the instability of his character.
The first political acts of the Sejm were the repudiation of the Russian guarantees of 1775, and the rejection of a proposal from St Petersburg for a new alliance hazardous proceedings so long as Poland did not possess a stable government and a powerful army of her own. But it must be remembered that the Poles of 1788 were ‘prentice hands in the trade of politics, with no practical knowledge of foreign affairs, and animated by a fierce and very natural hatred of Russia. They were encouraged in these sentiments by Frederick William II of Prussia and his ministers, who, uneasy at the ambition of Catherine II and Joseph II, were disposed to make use of Poland as a political cat’s-paw. It was the Prussian envoy Lucchesini who first suggested that the Sejm should demand the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Poland–another foolish step which needlessly irritated Russia without bestowing any corresponding benefit on Poland. Then Frederick William, going a step further, renounced Prussia’s guarantee of the constitution of 1775, and recognised, in the most emphatic way, the right of the Sejm to frame a constitution of its own. Emboldened by this neighbourly support, the patriots proceeded to abolish the Permanent Council of State (Jan. 19, 1789). The brilliant victories of the Russians and Austrians over the ‘Turks, in the course of 17891, so frightened Frederick William and Hertzberg that they attempted to form a political combination, strong enough to compel the allies to make peace with Turkey on the basis of the status quo. The combination failed ultimately because Pitt refused to accede to it, but it drew Poland completely within the orbit of Prussia.
The Prussian “system ” was based on a complicated scheme of territorial exchanges. Poland was to surrender Dantzic and Thorn to Prussia, and receive back Galicia from Austria, who, in her turn, was to be compensated, at the expense of Turkey, by the restoration of the Passarowicz frontier, while Prussia and Austria were to assist the Porte to get the best terms procurable from Russia. Lucchesini, the Prussian minister at Warsaw, was instructed to caress and flatter the Poles to the top of their bent, and insinuate the Dantzic-Thorn exchange project at every convenient opportunity. Great Britain regarded the proposed cession favourably, and offered, in case of Polish compliance, herself to conclude, and to make Prussia conclude, treaties of commerce so advantageous to the Republic that her economical rehabilitation, by means thereof, would only have been a matter of a few years’ time. Prussia at the same time offered to conclude an offensive and defensive alliance with Poland, guaranteeing her territorial integrity; and Pitt, on this occasion, said to Oginski, the Polish minister in London : ” I will speak plainly to you. I mean to coerce Russia if you will oblige Prussia.”
It is obvious that for such services as Prussia was prepared, for her own sake, to render to Poland, the weaker confederate was bound to pay handsomely. Moreover, the Frederician tolls had so ruined the trade of Dantzic and Thorn, that those cities were now mere skeletons of their magnificent former selves, and of no advantage whatever to Poland. Unfortunately, the Diet, misled by a false patriotism, refused to make the required sacrifice ; and Frederick William II, unable to obtain, by an open, amicable agreement, what he so keenly coveted, henceforth sought to secure it by underhand treacherous ways. Nevertheless circumstances prevented him from breaking with Poland immediately. The growing interest which Austria, under the new Emperor Leopold II (Feb. 1790 to March 1792), took in the welfare of the Republic seriously alarmed Frederick William. On March 20, 1790, a defensive alliance was concluded between Prussia and Poland whereby they engaged to guarantee each other’s possessions ; and, when the Polish Diet proclaimed the new Constitution, the King of Prussia officially congratulated the King of Poland on the success of “the happy revolution which has, at last, given to Poland a wise and regular government.” He declared, at the same time, that it should henceforth be his chief care to maintain and strengthen the ties which unite us.”
The May Constitution was the result of a coup d’état skilfully conducted by the patriots and the royal faction combined. The experience of the last three years having convinced all men of good will in Poland that the small reactionary’ minority of the Diet would never consent to a sweeping revolution, they took advantage of the Easter recess when most of the malcontent magnates were out of town, and (May 3, 1791), suddenly bringing the question of a reform of the Constitution before the Diet, demanded urgency for it. Before the Opposition could recover from its surprise, the Marshal produced, and read aloud, the latest foreign despatches, which unanimously predicted a fresh partition ; and, while the excitement caused thereby was at its height, Ignatius Potocki, as pre-arranged, arose and solemnly adjured the King to provide for the safety of the Republic. Stanislaus thereupon produced a form of constitution, originally drafted by himself, in French, on the model of the British constitution. In a perfervid speech from the throne, he exhorted the deputies to accept this new constitution as the last and best means of saving their country, and himself set the example by taking an oath on the Gospels to defend it. The Diet, in an access of enthusiasm, followed suit, whereupon the whole Assembly marched in procession to the Church of St John where a Te Deum was sung, amidst salvos of artillery.
The Revolution of May 3, 1791, converted Poland into an hereditary1 limited monarchy, with ministerial responsibility and biennial parliaments. The liberum veto was for ever abolished. All invidious class distinctions were done away with. The franchise was extended to the towns. Serfdom was ameliorated, as a first step towards its abolition. Absolute religious toleration was established, and every citizen was declared equal before the law.
The alarm of the Russian Empress was the most conclusive testimony to the excellence of the new Polish constitution. Cobenzl, the Austrian minister at Petersburg, writing to his Court immediately after the reception of the tidings at the Russian capital, describes Catherine as full of consternation at the idea that Poland, under an hereditary dynasty, might, once more, become a considerable power. But Turkey still engaged her anxious attention, so she was obliged to watch, in furious impotence, the collapse of her party in Poland, and submit to the double humiliation of recalling her ambassador and withdrawing her army from that country. Even after the Peace of Jassy (Jan. 9, 1792) she waited patiently for the Polish malcontents themselves to afford her a pretext for direct intervention. She had not long to wait. The Constitution of May 3, 1791, had scarce been signed, when Felix Potocki, Severin Rzewuski and Xavier Branicki, three of the chief dignitaries of Poland, hastened to St Petersburg, and there entered into a secret convention with Catherine, whereby she undertook to restore the old constitution by force of arms, but, at the same time, promised to respect the territorial integrity of the Republic. On May 14, 1792, the conspirators formed a so-called Confederation at the little town of Targowicz, in the Ukraine, protesting against the Constitution of May 3; and, almost simultaneously, the new Russian minister at Warsaw presented a formal declaration of war to the King and Diet. The Diet met the crisis with dignity and firmness. The army was at once despatched to the frontier ; the male population was called to arms ; Ignatius Potocki was sent to Berlin to obtain the assistance stipulated by the treaty of March 19, 1791; and, after declaring the King Dictator so long as the war lasted, the Diet dissolved so as to leave the executive perfectly free. A few days later Ignatius Potocki returned from Berlin empty-handed. The King of Prussia (having, in the meantime, privately come to terms with Russia) now declined to defend a constitution which ” had never had his concurrence.”
All that Poland now had to depend upon was a small, ill-provided army of 46,000 men, whose only possible strategy, in the circumstances, was to keep the enemy, some 100,000 strong, at bay, till the King came to their assistance with the reserves. Mistakes were made at first, and there was some treachery among the higher officers, but, on the whole, the brief campaign was most creditable to the Poles. For three months the southern army, under Prince Joseph Poniatowski, the King’s nephew, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, in their slow retreat on the capital, skilfully and valiantly retarded the advance of the Russians. At Polonna the enemy was repulsed with the loss of 3000 men. At Dubienka, Kosciuszko, with only 4000 men, defended the line of the Bug against 20,000 for five days ; and Kochovski’s unsuccessful attempt to cut off the hero’s retreat cost him 4000 men. The northern army, too, under Judycki, made good its retreat through the fens and forests of Lithuania. Both armies, converging upon Warsaw, were about to risk everything in a great general engagement, when the King, despairing of success, and hoping thereby to receive better terms for Poland, acceded to the Confederation of Targowicz. Most of the Polish officers thereupon threw up their commissions and fled to Saxony, where they were joined by the principal members of the Quadrennial Diet (see p. 499). The army was then dispersed all over the country. Throughout the autumn the Russians poured by thousands into eastern Poland, while the Prussians occupied Great Poland. The two Powers then declared their intention of annexing the occupied territory, and summoned a carefully selected assembly of renegades and reactionaries, who represented only 17 out of 32 palatinates, “to come to an amicable understanding.” Yet even this helpless and debased assembly revolted against its tyrants. Only after twelve weeks of the most brutal violence was the second partition-treaty signed (Jan. 4, 1793), whereby Russia gained 250,700 and Prussia 583370 square kilometres more of Polish soil1. The miserable remnant of the ancient kingdom was then compelled to reaccept its vicious old constitution under the guarantee of the partitioning Powers.
The first partition of Poland has sometimes been plausibly defended as a regrettable necessity, but no sophistry in the world can extenuate the villainy of the second partition. The theft of territory is its least offensive feature. It is the forcible suppression of a national movement of reform, the hurling back into the abyss of anarchy and corruption of a people who, by incredible efforts and sacrifices, had struggled back to liberty and order, which makes this great political crime so wholly infamous. Yet here again the methods of the Russian Empress were less vile than those of the Prussian King. Catherine openly took the risks of a bandit who attacks an enemy against whom he has a grudge ; Frederick William II came up, when the fight was over, to help pillage a victim whom he had sworn to defend.
But Poland was not to perish utterly without one last exhibition of splendid valour whose very failure was far more glorious than all the victories of her enemies.
After the second partition the Polish refugees made Leipsic their headquarters. They now placed all their hopes in revolutionary France. Here again their simplicity and inexperience misled them. They imagined that republican tance. was the natural ally of all republics, their own included. They discovered that the Jacobins regarded them as aristocrats, and were far more inclined to make peace with Prussia, even at the expense of Poland, than to help the Polish patriots. Hence the inevitable failure of Kosciuszko’s mission to Paris at the beginning of 1793. Nay, it was worse than a failure, for, coinciding as it did with the execution of Louis XVI, it prejudiced all the other Powers against Poland.
Kosciuszko would have waited for better times, but his hand was forced by a popular rising in Poland itself, headed by the officers and soldiers of the disbanded Polish regiments. He blamed severely the impetuosity of his countrymen, but leave them in the lurch he could not; and on February 12, 1794, he appeared at Cracow, with a brigade of volunteers. His first act was to attend mass at the Church of the Capuchins, where the prior, according to ancient custom, solemnly consecrated the arms of the patriots to the service of God and their country. From March 24 to April 1 Kosciuszko remained at Cracow organising his forces, which consisted entirely of small squires, citizens of Cracow, and peasants, armed only with scythes and pikes. Yet with this rude army he routed General Tormasov at Raclawice (April 5), the scythemen capturing all the Russian guns by an impetuous rush. For the next two months necessity detained him in his camp at Pinczów. He depended for everything on. the voluntary offerings of a depressed and impoverished people, for the insurrection of 1794 was entirely a popular rising ; not one of the great nobles joined it, for fear of losing his estates in case of disaster. But the people flocked to Kosciuszko in thousands ; the churches and monasteries sent him their gold and silver plate for the mint; and, as the news of Raclawice spread through the land, the Polish officers and soldiers, incorporated in the various Russian regiments, broke away from their colours and hastened to join the Liberator whose first manifesto had proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs. By the middle of June his army had increased to 14,000 men, of whom 11,000 were regulars.
The nation too had, by this time, declared for him. On April 17 the citizens of Warsaw rose and expelled the strong Russian garrison. On April 2223 Wilna followed the example of Warsaw. Soon all Poland, except Podolia, Volhynia and the Ukraine, was at the Liberator’s disposal.
In all his proclamations, Kosciuszko had been careful to indicate the Moscovite as the sole irreconcilable enemy who must be fought à outrance. Austria he looked upon as a possible friend, Prussia as a neutral. He never suspected that both these Powers had already resolved to profit by the insurrection and assist Russia to repress it as speedily as possible. His eyes were first opened when, on June 5, at Szczekocina he and his 14,000 Poles came upon the combined Russian and Prussian forces, 26,000 strong, with 124 guns, where he had only expected to find the Russian division of General Denisov. At nightfall, after a desperate encounter, the Poles fell back upon Warsaw leaving i000 dead and eight guns upon the field. What was still more serious, four out of their six best generals had been placed hors-de-combat. And now Job’s messengers came hurrying in from all parts of the country. On June 8 Zajonczek had been defeated at Chelm. Shortly afterwards Cracow was taken. Loud cries of treachery were raised at Warsaw ; and the provisional government could or would not prevent the mob from dragging the political prisoners out of prison and hanging them without a trial. Then fierce dissensions broke out among the Poles themselves, the moderates accusing the radicals of Jacobinism, and the radicals retorting by denouncing the moderates as traitors. It was as much as Kosciuszko could do to restore even the semblance of order ; and by the time he had drafted 1 o,000 of the mob into his army, and compelled the two conflicting factions to work together harmoniously for the common weal, the Prussians were already beneath the walls of Warsaw, with 25,000 men and 179 guns, exclusive of an auxiliary Russian division of 16,000 men and 74 guns, and a covering army of 11,000. To these forces Kosciuszko could only oppose 26,000 men, of whom i6,000 were regulars and 9000 volunteers from Warsaw. But his position was strong ; his skill in engineering was great; and the whole population was trans-formed by his enthusiasm.
The siege of Warsaw lasted from July 9 to September 6. Two unsuccessful attempts to storm the city were made on August 28 and September 1, and then the tidings of a general rising in Great Poland induced Frederick William II to raise the siege. This was Kosciuszko’s last great victory. Every-where else the Poles had been worsted, not so much by overwhelming numbers as by their own insane and incurable dissensions. A general, however able, had only to suffer a temporary and unavoidable reverse, to be instantly suspected of treason by the central government, and superseded. Kosciuszko alone did his duty heroically to the very end. The Quadrennial Diet, with all the resources of the Republic at its disposal, could only put 65,000 men into the field, whereas he, in a few month’s time, had organised and equipped 149, 000. Both as an administrator and as a soldier he performed prodigies ; and his unconquerable optimism and inexhaustible energy put heart into thousands who but for him would long since have despaired. It was he who planned the invasion of Prussia by Prince Joseph Poniatowski and Jan Henrik Dombrowski, which resulted in the storming of Bydgoszcz and the retreat of General Schwerin. At one time, the Prussian government even feared Dantzic was lost. But the victorious Russians were now close upon the capital ; and, in attempting to save it with his little army, Kosciuszko was routed, wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Maciejowice (Oct. 10, 1794). Three weeks later, Suvarov, at a fearful cost, stormed the fortified suburb of Praga ; and the whole insurrection collapsed in torrents of blood1. (Nov. 3, 1794).
Poland lay at the feet of her conquerors ; and, now that Panin and the Emperor Leopold II were both dead, there was no one to plead for or protect her. The jealousy and rapacity of the three partitioning Powers (the demands of Prussia, in particular, were monstrous) nearly led to a war over the distribution of the spoil; but, chiefly owing to the firmness of Catherine, all disputes were finally adjusted.
On January 3, 1795, Russia and Austria concluded their treaty ; and Prussia, after holding out for nine months longer, and seriously counting the cost of a war against the two Empires combined, acceded, on October 24, to the January compact. Prussia got the whole district between the Oder, Bug and Niemen 2, 54,898 square kilometres with a population of 1,000,000 ; Austria got Cracow, with the palatinates of Sandomir and Lubelsk, also with a population of 1,000,000 ; and Russia the remainder, 1,11780 kilometres with a population of 1,200,000.