Polish and Russian Political History – Introductory

FROM the vague indications of the ancient lyetopisi, or Slavonic chronicles, it would seem that, about the middle of the ninth century, what is now, roughly speaking, Russia, was then divided between two races, a north-western race paying a tribute of pelts to the Varangians or Northmen, and a south-eastern race paying a similar tribute to the Kozars or Chazars, a mixed race, living in tent-waggons, on the con-fines of Europe and Asia, principally along the Volga, whose Kagan or King was a Jew. Somewhat later, the northern tribes, Finns and Slavonians alike, invited the Varangian chieftain, Ruric, to come and rule over their hopelessly distracted tribal communities ; and with the coming of Ruric (circa 862) Russian history may be said to begin. Ruric endeavoured to curb and concentrate the tribes by building fortress towns ; and his successor, Oleg (circa 872), extended the new dominion southwards, the tribes who there had hitherto borne the heavy yoke of the Chazars, willingly exchanging it for Oleg’s comparatively light one. Oleg made Kiev his capital. Here was the best soil and the most equable climate. Its situation also tempted him. Kiev commanded the Dnieper, the easiest route to the Euxine. It also abutted immediately upon the vast southeastern steppe. Thus it was an ideal starting-point, and resting-place, for predatory barbarians with a taste for adventure. Thence, by water, Askold and Dir (circa 866) led the first raid of the Northmen against Constantinople. The raid failed. But in 907 Oleg himself United all the tribes in a military expedition against the imperial city, and exacted a heavy tribute’. The subsequent expeditions of Igor (912—945 ), Oleg’s successor, were less fortunate ; and in 945 he made a perpetual peace with the Greeks.

It is in Igor’s reign that we hear, for the first time, of “the land of Rus,” a sign that the country was growing in political cohesion. Christianity was also beginning to permeate among the Slays. Thus the Greek historians now begin to differentiate the christian from the heathen Rus, and we hear of the Church of St Elias at Kiev. “The wise Olga,” who ruled the Rus during the minority of her son Svyatoslav (945-957), was actually baptised at Constantinople by the Patriarch Polyeuktes, in the presence of the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who has left us an account of the ceremony ; but it was not till the eighth year of the reign of her grandson, Vladimir (98o-1o15), that the Rus were formally received into the Orthodox Eastern Church. Vladimir, after a singularly irregular and turbulent youth, seems to have deliberately chosen Christianity for his religion in preference to both Judaism and Mohammedanism, with both of which he had become acquainted during his numerous wars with the barbarians of the eastern steppe. Judaism repelled him as being the religion of a people without a country and there-fore, obviously, under the wrath of God. Mohammedanism was objectionable because it proscribed fermented liquors. Christianity, already recommendable as the faith of his grand-mother Olga, “the wisest of us all,” impressed him by the ajesty of its ritual. It also promised obvious political advantages. It was as the ally of the Greek Emperor, whose daughter Anne he wedded at the same time, that Vladimir was baptised at Korsun in the Crimea (988). Two years later, the Kievlians were immersed in the waters of the Dnieper by Greek missionary priests. Thus the narrow strip of territory from Kiev to Novgorod became the nucleus of a new Christian State, environed and hard pressed by savage pagans, the most formidable of whom were the Pechenegs, a Mongolian race, who, some fifty years before, had annihilated and supplanted the Chazars. They are described by the German missionary, Bruno, who lived among them (circa 1007), as the cruellest of the heathen, and were very evil neighbours to Russia for generations to come. Meanwhile, another enemy had arisen in the West behind the Bug, now the boundary of the two States, in the shape of the young kingdom of Poland.

We possess no certain historical data relating to Poland till the end of the tenth century. It would seem that the progenitors of the Poles,. originally established on the Danube, were driven thence to the still wilder wildernesses of central Europe, settling finally among the forests and morasses of the basin of the upper Oder and Vistula, where they dwelt, in loosely-connected communities, as hunters, herdsmen, and tillers of the soil, till the pressure of rapacious neighbours compelled them to combine for mutual defence, and form the semi-mythical kingdom of the Piasts, from Piast its supposed founder. The Piasts wrested Chrobacya, a province extending from the Carpathians to the Bug, from the shadowy Moravian Empire, which subsequently collapsed before the intrusion of the Magyars, itself a. capital fact in European history resulting in the permanent separation of the southeastern from the north-western Slays. Under Mieszko I (962-992), Poland nominally accepted Christianity from the Eastern Church, but was re-converted by the Roman Church at the instigation of Boleslaus I (992-1025) in order that he might obtain the protection of the Holy See against the persistent pressure of the Germans from the West. It was Boleslaus who founded the primatial see of Gnesen with jurisdiction over the bishoprics of Cracow, Breslau and Kolberg, all three of which were in territory conquered by Boleslaus ; for, hitherto, Cracow and Breslau had been Bohemian cities, while Kolberg was founded to curb the lately subjugated Pomeranians. Boleslaus was also the first Polish Prince to bear the royal title (circa l000); and he founded an empire which extended from the Baltic to the Carpathians, and from the Elbe to the Bug, an empire which twenty years after his death collapsed before a combined attack of all Poland’s enemies. Simultaneously a terrible pagan reaction swept away the poor remnants of christianity and civilisation. Under Boleslaus II (1058–1079) and Boleslaus III (1102–1138) some of the lost provinces, notably Silesia and Pomerania, were temporarily recovered, and Poland was at least able to maintain her independence against the ever-hostile Germans ; but, on the death of Boleslaus III, whose last act was to divide his territories among his numerous sons, a period of disintegration (“the partitional period” of Polish historians) began, lasting from 1138 to 1305, during which the land was divided into a dozen independent principalities, and lost all political significance.

Russia and Poland first came into serious collision on the death of Vladimir the Great (1015), when Boleslaus intervened energetically to place Vladimir’s eldest son, Svyatopulk, on the throne of Kiev. But, according to the lyetopici, both Rusya and Slavonya were on the side of Yaroslav, a younger son of Vladimir, who may consequently be regarded as the national candidate. In a great battle fought on the Alta, Yaroslav defeated and slew Svyatopulk and became sole ruler (1019–1054). His long and glorious reign was very beneficial to Russia. He extended his sway to Lake Peipus, building the town of Yur’ev, later Dorpat, to secure his conquests (1030); incorporated part of Finland ; subdued the Pechenegs ; and established an ecclesiastical hierarchy at Kiev, independent of the Constantinopolitan Patriarch. We hear great things of his stately capital enriched by the Greek trade ; of his famous druzhina (bodyguard) and his brilliant court ; of his love of scholars who resorted to the learned Prince laden with MSS, which he helped them to translate into Slavonic ; of the marriages of three of his daughters to the Kings of France, Hungary, and Norway respectively. From his reign too dates the first Russian civil law, the so-called Ruskaya Pravda.

Yaroslav divided his dominions among his five sons, exhorting them, on his deathbed, to look up to and love their elder brother, Izyaslav, whom he placed on the throne of Kiev. This was the beginning of that singular family system which differentiated the Russian Government from all the Governments of the West, and was the principal obstacle to the establishment of feudalism in the east Slavonic lands. Ac-cording to this system, all the Russian lands, taken together, . belonged theoretically to the members of the whole princely family. The senior Prince, subsequently called the Veliki Knyaz, or Dux principalis, reigned in the metropolitan city of Kiev; and his “younger brothers,” in other words all the junior members of the family, deferred to him, not as the common sovereign, for each was autonomous in his own principality, but as the common father. Each member of the princely line might become senior in turn and therefore be entitled to sit on the primatial throne of Kiev. But no Prince could become the eldest of the line if his father before him had never attained to the seniority, that is to say if he, the father, had, died while his eldest brother was still Veliki Knyaz. In such cases the seniority passed to the next eldest brother of the last Grand Duke. Such excluded Princes were called izgovuie, or “the expelled” ; and, as time went on, a second class of izgovuie arose, consisting of Princes who had been deprived of their right of seniority, often arbitrarily enough, for other reasons. On the death of the senior Prince a general exchange of thrones immediately ensued. The next senior Prince was duly installed, or, most often, installed himself, at Kiev, with his druzhina ; and the other principalities were redistributed according to the dignity or power of their respective holders. Originally, for the whole subject is very obscure, there seem to have been six principalities, Kiev, Polock, Chernigov, Pereyaslavl, Smolensk, and Vladimir Voluinsk. Great Novgorod, at first dependent on Kiev, presently set up a Republic of her own. As the izgovuie carved out separate dominions, other principalities arose, such as Ryazan, Vladimir on the Klyazma, Rostov, Suzdal, and Halich, so that, towards the end of this period (circa 1240), the Russian lands extended, roughly speaking, from the Gulf of Finland to the Dnieperian steppes, and from the Carpathians to the Upper Volga. Such a system made for anarchy; and, indeed,. the history of this dyelnoe or “divisional period,” as Russian historians call it (i o 14-1240), is one interminable record of internecine wars. Now and again the bright and gracious figure of some valiant champion, or saintly ruler, crosses the darkling scene. Such an one was the great national hero, Vladimir Monomakh (1107-1125), whose great victory at Salnitsa (1109) beyond the Don, temporarily freed Russia from the yoke of the Polovtsui, the supplanters of the Pechenegs, who tormented the Russian lands till they themselves were supplanted by the Tatars. Kiev preserved its ascendency till 1170, when it was taken and burnt by Andrew Bogolyubski, Prince of Suzdal, who thereupon established himself at Vladimir. From this event is to be dated the decline of the family system and the enmity between the Russkie Dyetskie (Russian children), as the chronicle now calls the southern Princes, and their northern rivals. Autocracy was first definitely established in the north by Vsevolod III (1176-1212), who also subdued most of the south, and enforced allegiance not only to himself but to his children, a significant innovation. Meanwhile the extreme south-western principalities, Halich and Volhynia, had gone their own way, and, despite the constant interference of Hungary and Poland, seemed about to establish new centres of Russian influence and civilisation at Lemberg and Vladimir Voluinsk. Daniel Romanovich, Prince of Halich (1247-1261), is especially memorable for his prowess and enterprise.

The terrible Tatar invasions (1224–1242) profoundly influenced the fate of the Slavonic lands. Its immediate effect upon Poland was to introduce a middle-class element there for the first time. The only way of filling up the gaps in the population, due to the ravages of Batu, was to invite foreign immigrants of a superior sort, chapmen and handicraftsmen capable of building strong cities and defending them afterwards. Such immigrants, naturally, could only be obtained from the civilised West on their own terms. Immediately dependent upon the Prince from whom they obtained their privileges, these traders soon became an important factor in the State, balancing, to some extent, the influence of the gentry and enriching the land by developing its resources. But these were not the only Germans with whom the young Polish State had now to deal. In the first year of the thirteenth century, the Knights of the Sword had been founded in Livonia to convert the pagan Letts ; and in 1208 the still more powerful Teutonic Order was invited by Prince Conrad of Masovia to settle in the district of Culm (roughly corresponding to the modern West Prussia) to protect his territories from the incursions of the barbarian Prussians. The Teutonic Order, which had just been expelled from Hungary by Andrew II, joyfully accepted this new domicile ; and its position in the North was definitely established by the compact of Kruszewicz (1230). A second Tatar invasion, in 12391 still further depressed Poland ; and, simultaneously, another enemy appeared on her north-eastern border the Lithuanians. This interesting people originally dwelt among the impenetrable forests and marshes of the Upper Niemen, where they were able to preserve their original savagery longer than any of their neighbours, and foster a tenacious and enterprising valour which made them very formidable to all the surrounding States. They first emerge into the light of history at the time of the settlement of the Teutonic Order in the North. Rumours of the war of extermination, waged by the Knights against their near kinsfolk the wild Prussians, first awoke the Lithuanians to a sense of their own danger. They immediately abandoned their loose communal system for a monarchical form of government, and under a series of exceptionally capable Princes, notably Mendovg (1240—1263) and Gedymin (1315-1341), began an astonishing career of conquest, mainly at the expense of Russia, so that at the death of Gedymin the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as it was now called, extended from Courland to the Carpathians and from the Bug to the Desna, including the old Russian principalities of Polock, Kiev and Chernigov. Indeed, at one time, it seemed as if this new, non-Slavonic, State was about to eclipse and absorb all the Slavonic States to the east and west of her. Poland just then seemed to be dropping to pieces. Even the urgent and reiterated exhortations of the Popes failed to make her score of Princes unite for mutual defence ; and, towards the end of the fourteenth century, it seemed highly probable that she would become either a dependency of the new Bohemian Empire of Waclaw II, or the prey of the Teutonic Knights. From both dangers she was saved by the valour and genius of Wladislaus I, Lokietek, ” Span-long,” so called from his diminutive stature (1309—1339), who reunited Great and Little Poland, revived the royal dignity (1320), and taught the Poles, on the bloody field of Plowce, (1332) that the Knights were not invincible. The fruits of his labours were richly reaped by his son Casimir III (1333—1370), Poland’s first great statesman, who, by a most skilful system of matrimonial alliances, reintroduced his long isolated country into the European family and gave it a beneficial rest of 37 years. A born ruler, he introduced a whole series of administrative and economical reforms, protected the townsmen (whom he admitted to the franchise) against the tyranny of the nobles, and added the greater part of Galicia to the Polish dominions.

Very different was the fate of Russia. The Tatar invasions so weakened her southern principalities that, one by one, they submitted to the yoke of Lithuania. The current of the national life was now forced to flow north-eastwards instead of following its natural south-western course as heretofore. It was in the rude climate and amidst the vast virgin forests of the plain of the Upper Volga that the Russian Princes, entirely cut off from western civilisation, began with characteristic doggedness, painfully and laboriously, to build up again the Russian State. At first their position was desperate. For some time to come they were the tributaries of the Grand-Khan who ruled the Golden Horde at Sarai on the Volga (founded 1242) ; Tatar Bashkaks made regular censuses of the taxable population ; and the pretenders to the various Russian thrones went personally to the Horde to receive their yarluiki, or articles of investiture. Even the greatest of these early northern Princes, Alexander Nevsky, who defeated a league of the German Knights, Swedes and Lithuanians at the famous “Ice-Battle” on Lake Peipus (1242), and first established the sway of Russia over the Baltic Provinces, even Alexander Nevsky accepted his crown from the Grand-Khan Sartak. The most grinding period of the Tatar rule was between 1235 and 1 z 6o. Subsequently the grip of the Horde gradually relaxed, especially after the victories of the Lithuanian Princes, who pursued them into the very heart of the steppe. They now became as much the confederates as the tyrants of the constantly contending Russian Princes, as the Pechenegs and the Polovtsui had been before them. It was now (circa 1270) that the dominant Russian Dukes began to assume the title of Grand Dukes, and to aggrandise themselves at the expense of the weaker principalities. Vladimir, Tver, and Moscow were, successively, or alternately, the seats of these new Grand Dukes ; while Novgorod, whose territories and colonies then extended from Lake Ilmen and the Gulf of Finland to the Arctic Ocean and the northern Urals, set up a quasi-independent Republic of its own, more or less dependent upon the Lithuanian Grand Dukes whom they, not unskilfully, played off against the Russian Princes. The ascendency of Moscow dates from Ivan I Kalita (1330-1339), in whose reign the Russian Metropolitan transferred his See from Vladimir to Moscow’ to the great advantage of the latter city and its rulers, who freely employed his ecclesiastical authority to promote their not very scrupulous political ambition. Kalita’s son Simeon Gordy (1340–1353) still further improved the position of Moscow, and was even admitted into Great Novgorod as the protector of that city.

The further progress of Moscow was, for some time, seriously impeded by the warlike Princes of Lithuania, who, by now, had extended their dominions to the shores of the Black Sea. One of them, Olgierd, twice besieged Moscow (1363 and 1370) though unsuccessfully. On the other hand, the Golden Horde (circa 136o) split up into three con-,tending sections, which encouraged the Grand Duke Demetrius of Moscow (1362-1389) to lead a combination of. all the northern Russian Princes into the steppe to fight the Tatars. He vanquished them at Kulikovo on Don (Sept. 30, 1380), but paid very dearly for his victory the following year, when the Khan Toktamuish led a punitive expedition against Moscow, which he took and burned. Tver and Vladimir shared the same fate. But in 1395 Tamerlane treated the Tatars as the Tatars had treated the Russians ; and. during the next twelve years the Horde was too feeble to extort the usual tribute. But now Witowt, Grand Duke of Lithuania, seized upon Smolensk and other Russian territory ; and the Grand Duke Vasily I of Moscow (1389–1425) was glad to make an ally of his rival by marrying his daughter Sophia. Vasily I’s son and successor, Vasily II Temny1 (1425–1462), suffered greatly at the hands of the Tatars, who worried him perpetually and burnt and blackmailed Moscow in 1444. But he suffered still more from his rebellious magnates, who blinded and deposed him (1446). The same year he was restored to his throne by the clergy and people, and devoted the remainder of his long reign to gathering together under one sceptre all the northern and central Russian lands, a process which began with the incorporation of Mozhaisk in 1454 and ended with the incorporation of Vyatka in 1459. Thus, by the middle of the fifteenth century, the political life of north-eastern Russia had concentrated in and around Moscow, which was to give its name to the new State till Peter the Great converted Moscovy into Russia. South-western Russia meanwhile had been merged in another great Slavonic State, whose existence also dates from the fifteenth century the century which saw the collapse of mediaevalism and the beginning of the nationalities of modern Europe.

For nearly twenty years after the death of Casimir the Great (1370–1386) Poland was, technically, part of the vast Hungarian Empire of the Angevins, but, in 1383, Jadwiga, the youthful granddaughter of Wladislaus Lokietek, and the niece of Casimir the Great, was elected Queen by the Poles. In 1386 she was married to Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who, three days previously, had been baptised and crowned King of Poland at Cracow, under the title of Wladislaus II. The union of Poland and Lithuania, as two independent States under a common King, had been brought about by their common fear of the Teutonic Order. But the transformation of the pagan Lithuanian chieftain into a Catholic King was a serious blow to the Knights also. The inevitable and immediate consequence of this great event was the formal reception of the Lithuanian nation into the fold of the Church. What the Knights had vainly endeavoured to bring about by fire and sword during two centuries, was, nominally and peaceably, brought about by Jagiello in the course of a single generation. The conversion of Lithuania menaced the very existence of the Knights. Originally planted on the Baltic shore for the express purpose of christianising their savage neighbours, these crusading monks had freely exploited the wealth and the valour of the West, originally in the cause of religion, but latterly for the purpose of founding a dominion of their own. This dominion was now little more than a German military outpost, extending from Pomerania to the Niemen, excluding the Slays from the sea and thriving at their expense. But, if the Order had now become an anachronism, it was still the strongest military organisation in Europe. The pick of the feudal chivalry composed its ranks ; with all Christendom to draw upon, its resources seemed inexhaustible ; and centuries of political experience had made it as formidable in diplomacy as in warfare.

In the circumstances, war between Poland and the Knights was inevitable. It began in 1391 and was waged with varying success till 1410, when Wladislaus and his cousin Witowt (to whom, by the compact of Wilna, 1401, he had surrendered the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on the understanding that the two States were to have a common policy and jointly elected Sovereigns) inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Knights at Griinewald or Tannenburg (July 15), which brought about the surrender of the towns of Thorn, Elbing, Brunsberg, and Dantzig to the Polish King. But the excessive caution of Jagiello after the victory, the withdrawal of Witowt to oppose a Tatar invasion in the East, and the unruliness of the Polish levies, gave the Knights time to recover somewhat from the blow. At the first Peace of Thorn (Feb. 11, 1411) they only ceded Samogitia and Dobrzyn and paid a war indemnity of 100,000 marks. One important result of this war was the Union of Horodlo (Oct. 2, 1413) for the purpose of binding Poland and Lithuania still more closely together. It enacted that henceforth there should be an absolute parity of the institutions, the official hierarchy, and the nobility of the two States. The Lithuanian Grand Duke was declared to be the equal in all respects of the Polish King and only eligible by the Senates of Poland and Lithuania conjointly, just as the King of Poland could only be elected by the Senates of Lithuania and Poland. The privileges of the newly-created Lithuanian nobility were, however, to be conditional upon their profession of Catholicism, experience having demonstrated that difference of religion in Lithuania meant difference of politics, the majority of the Lithuanian Boyars inhabiting the old Russian lands being of the Greek Orthodox confession, with a consequent tendency towards Moscow.

During the remainder of the reign of Wladislaus II, the repeated attempts of the Teutonic Order to evade the obligations of the Treaty of Thorn gave Poland much trouble. The long contest, mainly fought with diplomatic weapons at Rome and elsewhere, was still undecided at the death of Wladislaus in 1434. During his long reign of 49 years, Poland had gradually risen to the rank of a great power a result due in no small measure to the sagacity, tact and patience of the first of the Jagiellos. Wladislaus had sacrificed every other consideration to the vital necessity of welding the central Slays into a compact and homogeneous State ; and his success had been commensurate with his efforts. The next ten years tested severely the stability of his great work. But neither a turbulent minority, nor the neglect of an absentee King, nor the revival of separatist tendencies in Lithuania, nor the outbreak of aristocratic lawlessness in Poland, could do more than shake slightly the superstructure of the imposing edifice. Fortunately too, after the death at Varna, in 1444, of Jagiello’s eldest son and immediate successor, Wladislaus III (whose history belongs rather to Hungary than to Poland), another great statesman, in no wise inferior to Wladislaus II, was at hand at a critical juncture, to complete and consolidate his father’s work. This was Wladislaus’ second son, Casimir IV, with whom the modern history of Poland properly begins.