Augustus the Strong
For 6 years, Swedish King Charles XII turned his attentions on Poland/Saxony; chasing its king, Augustus the Strong, throughout his dominions till forcing his abdication in 1706 from the Polish throne and a termination of his alliance with Russia.
Polish and Saxon armies in Wilanow in 1732
The Republic of Poland-Lithuania was the principal European casualty of Russia’s expansion. Indeed, the Republic’s demise was the sine qua non of the Russian Empire’s success. Like its former province of Ukraine, the Republic was the object first of Muscovite penetration and then of alternating periods of indirect and direct rule. Muscovite influence rose steadily after the death of Sobieski in 1696.
In the course of the Great Northern War, it reached the stage where a Russian protectorate could be established in all but name. Then, after decades of turmoil between would-be Polish reformers and Russian-backed agents of the status quo, it moved towards the logical conclusion of the Partitions. Between 1772 and 1795, Russia led the feast in which the Republic was totally consumed.
John Sobieski (r. 1674–96) earned glory abroad whilst neglecting problems at home. The Siege of Vienna showed that the Republic was still a first-rate military power; but it was the final fling. Lithuania was left to stew in civil war; the Sejm was repeatedly broken by the liberum veto; the magnates went unpunished; central legislation and taxation ground to a halt. By the unratified ‘Eternal Treaty’ with Moscow in 1686, Ukraine was abandoned. The King spent his strength fighting for the Holy League, hoping to carve out a base for his son in Moldavia. Many years later, gazing at Sobieski’s statue in Warsaw, a Russian Tsar was to remark: ‘Here is another [like me] who wasted his life fighting the Turk’.
The royal election of 1697 dashed all the Sobieskis’ schemes. Jakub Sobieski did not gain the electors’ confidence; the Austrian candidate was outbribed; the French candidate, the Due de Conti, was shipwrecked off the coast of Danzig. Thanks to Russian gold and a timely conversion to Catholicism, the prize was won by Friedrich-August, Elector of Saxony, who took to the throne as Augustus II. The exiled Sobieskis had nothing left but to marry their daughter to the exiled Stuarts, who came to grief at the same time. Bonnie Prince Charlie had a Polish mother.
The Saxon period—under Augustus II (r. 1697–1704, 1710–33) and Augustus III (r. 1733–63)—is generally judged to be the nadir of Polish history. The Great Northern War, in which the Polish King, in his capacity as Elector of Saxony, was a leading combatant, brought endless disasters and divisions. Poland-Lithuania was fought over as the main theatre of operations between Swedes and Russians, each of whom was supported by a rival confederation of Polish nobles. It was treated by the Saxon court as a counterweight to neighbouring Prussia and as a source of plunder. The Saxon army, when deployed in Poland, was immune to the protests of the Sejm. Its depredations led to the conflict between King and nobility which had much in common with the parallel conflict in nearby Hungary. This in turn gave an opening for direct Russian intervention.
After the Russian victory at Poltava in 1709, Augustus II only recovered his Polish throne with the aid of Russian troops. Thereafter he was seen as a double danger, both as a pawn of the Tsar and as an ‘absolutist’ in his own right. In 1715–16 open warfare broke out between the King and his opponents. For the Tsar, it was a heaven-sent opportunity. By acting as mediator, Peter the Great could save the Polish nobles from their Saxon king whilst imposing conditions that would reduce the Republic to dependence. At the ‘Silent Sejm’ or ‘Dumb Diet’ summoned to Warsaw in January 1717, the Russian army stood by as the following pre-arranged resolutions were passed without debate:
1.The King’s Saxon army was to be banished from the Republic. (In other words, the King lost all semblance of an independent power base.)
2.The ‘golden liberties’ of the nobility were to be upheld. (In other words, through the preservation of the liberum veto, the central government of the Republic could be paralysed whenever convenient)
3.The armed forces of the Republic were to be limited to 24,000 men. (In other words, Poland-Lithuania was to be rendered defenceless.)
4.The armed forces were to be financed through allocations from a list of royal, ecclesiastical, and magnatial estates. (In other words, they were put beyond the control of king or Sejm.)
5.The settlement was to be guaranteed by the Tsar. (In other words, the Tsar could intervene in Poland-Lithuania at any time, and could legally suppress any movement for Reform.)
Henceforth, to all intents and purposes the Republic of Poland-Lithuania became a Russian protectorate, a mere appendage to the Russian Empire, a vast buffer-state which sheltered Russia from the West but cost nothing to maintain.
Under Augustus III the central government collapsed completely. The King had to be installed by a Russian army which had overturned the re-election of Stanislaw Leszczyński, thereby sparking off the War of the Polish Succession; but he usually stayed in Dresden. The Sejm was regularly summoned, but regularly blocked by the liberum veto before it could meet. Only one session in 30 years was able to pass legislation. By an extreme example of the principle of subsidiarity, government was left to the magnates and to the provincial dietines. The Republic had no diplomacy, no treasury, no defence. It could enact no reforms. It was the butt of the philosophes. When the first volume of the French Encyclopédie was published in 1751, the prominent article on ‘Anarchie’ was all about Poland.
The reforming party fled abroad, thereby starting the unbroken Polish tradition of political emigration. Stanisław Leszczyński, twice elected king and twice driven out by the Russians, took refuge in France. Having married his daughter to Louis XV he was given the Duchy of Lorraine where, at Nancy, as Ie bon roi Stanislas he could practise the enlightened government forbidden at home.
Stanisław August Poniatowski (r. 1764–95), the last King of Poland, was a tragic and in some ways a noble figure. One of Catherine the Great’s earlier lovers, he was put in place with the impossible task of reforming the Republic whilst preserving the Russian supremacy. As it was, shackled by the constitution of 1717, he provoked the very convulsions which reform was supposed to avoid. How could one curtail the nobles’ sacred right of resistance without some nobles’ resisting? How could one limit the Russians’ right of intervention without the Russians intervening? How could one abolish the liberum veto without someone exercising the liberum veto. The King tried to break the vicious circle on three occasions; and on three occasions he failed. On each occasion a Russian army arrived to restore order, and on each occasion the Republic was punished with partition. In the 1760s the King’s proposals for reform led to the war of the Confederation of Bar (1768–72) and to the First Partition. In 1787–92 the King’s support for the reforms of the Great Sejm and the Constitution of 3 May (1791) led to the Confederation of Targowica and the Second Partition. In 1794–5 the King’s adherence to the national rising of Tadeusz Kościuszko led to the final denouement. After the Third Partition, there was no Republic left over which to reign. Poniatowski abdicated on St Catherine’s Day 1795, and died in Russian exile.