On Wednesday, 5 October 2011, Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz delivered the third lecture in his ongoing series on the Intermarium, i.e. the Central-Eastern European region between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. The lecture addressed the region’s Golden Age, which spanned roughly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Prof. Chodakiewicz began by discussing Rus’ (Ruthenia) under the Mongol yoke. The rise of an initially tiny, backwater town of Moscow would eventually exert an increasingly powerful and negative impact on the historical destiny of both Rus’ and the Intermarium. The Muscovites waxed as the Mongol overlords’ willing auxiliaries and de facto prisoner trustees and tax-collectors became complicit in the khans’ oppression of the Ruthenian principalities and people. In fact, their Mongol masters referred to the Prince of Muscovy as “Moi kholop” or “my slave.” Although the Muscovite rulers eventually managed to wriggle free of these bonds during the fifteenth century, the powerful Mongol influence remained and defined the system of what eventually became the “Russian” Tsardom. In spite of such Byzantine influences as Cesaropapism – i.e. the secular ruler’s simultaneous position as the head of the church (as opposed to St. Augustine’s divide between the ecclesiastical and secular realms, which took hold in the Latin West) – it was precisely the legacy of the khans which came to dominate. Thus, Muscovy evolved into a patrimonial state, i.e. a tyrannical autocracy with no property or civic rights.
Yet, Prof. Chodakiewicz emphasized, Rus’ was not doomed to follow the Muscovite model. After all, the northern Ruthenian Principality of Novgorod the Great enjoyed relative freedom under a mixed oligarchical-democratic system. Nevertheless, Novgorod became “the great unfulfilled hope of the Eastern Slavs,” for, at the end of the fifteenth century, the Muscovites conquered the principality. In the sixteenth century they sacked Novgorod, massacring most of the city’s population, and resettling the remainder. Interestingly, the main accusation the Muscovites levied against the Novgorodians was that the latter served as the alleged “spies” of the Poles and suffered from the “Polish disease” – freedom!
By the time Moscow snuffed out Novgorod, the Muscovites and Poles-Lithuanians had already been engaged in a struggle for the easternmost frontiers of the Intermarium, which also constituted the eastern borderlands of the West.
In 1386, a powerful entity arose in the Intermarium as a personal union – solidified by the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania (Władysław Jagiełło/Jogaila) and the female King of Poland (Jadwiga d’Anjou) – was formed. The Kingdom of Poland joined forces with Lithuania, saving the latter from the aggressive Teutonic Knights. In the process, the Poles – through the lips of the great Paweł Włodkowic – pushed the novel conception that, as God’s children, even pagans have rights and should not be converted by the sword (fides ex necessitae esse non debet).
The Polish-Lithuanian state would exist for the next four centuries and ranked among Europe’s great powers. At its height, during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Jagiellonian Dynasty would rule over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as the Kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, i.e. much of the Intermarium. It also conducted an active defense by launching crusades into the Balkans with the aim of stemming yet another outside invader attempting to penetrate and subdue the region – the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans would eventually succeed in conquering the Balkans and even most of Hungary, and were forced to halt only at the gates of Vienna and the borders of Poland-Lithuania.
The Jagiellonian polity constituted a stark antithesis of both Muscovy and Turkey. Ownership rights were a cornerstone of the system, and even women could inherit property, a most rare legal arrangement at the time. In addition, the subjects of the Jagiellonian kings were citizens who enjoyed not only civic and religious rights. Eventually, the nobility won the right to elect their monarch. Poland-Lithuania’s level of political representation, with up to 3 million noble citizens participating, was, in fact, unmatched until the 1820s, which saw political reforms in Britain and the advent of Jacksonian democracy in the U.S. The “Polish” noble – whose status was tied to his rights and military service, not his wealth – fought for and obtained such key legislation as neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum (1436), i.e. habeas corpus; nihil novi (1505), i.e. no taxation without representation; and the guarantees of religious freedom for all faiths, including Protestants, Muslims, and Jews (Confederation of Warsaw, 1573). In fact, a Jewish convert to Catholicism was automatically ennobled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Last but not least, any individual Polish parliamentarian could invoke the liberum veto, a device intended theoretically to defend the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Such freedoms were unique and unheard of anywhere in the world until the birth of the United States of America, whose Founding Fathers were, in fact, familiar with the Polish-Lithuanian political system and, even more, the Roman republic upon which the Poles modeled theirs.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth’s elites grew complacent and indulgent. They increasingly abused their liberties, which degenerated into license and outright anarchy. As the once-powerful state rotted from within, the political power vacuum was filled by other powers. Thus, Warsaw was the only European capital which allowed foreign lobbies to operate and bribe political figures unchecked. By the eighteenth century, Swedish, Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies crisscrossed Poland-Lithuania with impudence. By the end of that century, the three neighboring powers – Prussia, Austria, and Russia – simply partitioned the country out of existence. Of course, the Commonwealth did eventually generate a sui generis impulse toward reform – the Constitution of Third May (1791). Alas, this desperate effort to salvage the realm came at least a century too late.
This lecture was part of a series entitled “Intermarium: The Lands on Edge,” sponsored by the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies.