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Haughty Pole and Faithful Rus

Haughty Pole and Faithful Rus

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The enmity between Russia and Poland, in history as today, is rooted in the struggle for leadership of the Slavic world. This perspective was notably articulated by Alexander Pushkin in response to the Polish November Uprising of 1830-1831 and the broader Russian-Polish confrontation. Pushkin viewed the uprising as an internal struggle between two Slavic powers, each striving to lead and define the soul of Slavdom, and it was in response to this uprising, and specifically the European outrage in response to the Russian suppression, that Pushkin wrote Klevetnikam Rossii (To the Slanderers of Russia), in which he addresses the European reader:

For ages past still have contended
These races, though so near allied:
And oft 'neath Victory's storm has bended
Now Poland's, and now Russia's side.
Which shall stand fast in such commotion,
The haughty Pole, or faithful Russ?
And shall Slavonic streams meet in a Russian ocean —
Or dry up? This is the point for us.1

For Pushkin, the uprising was “a quarrel of Slavs among themselves,” and Western Europe had no right to interfere. This perspective was widely shared among the Russians in civil society who felt that Poland, having lost the historic conflict in the 18th century, should recognize Russia’s supremacy and support it in a common task of building a Slavic or Russian state, the two terms being used interchangeably. Pushkin encapsulates this in his poem, emphasizing that all Slavs must eventually amalgamate into the “Russian sea” lest they face extinction.

However, Poland had been a power with its own imperial mission, with longer history of statehood, with its own high culture and a fiercely loyal elite. Despite Russia’s efforts towards assimilation, the Polish nobility for the most part resisted. The Polish nobility indeed resented their conquerors, to whom they considered themselves culturally superior. After all, Poland was a developed kingdom while Moscow was a backwater not yet elevated by the khans to princedom. This created an additional problem for the Russian Empire whose tried-and-true methods were no longer true concerning the Poles. The Russian strategy had been to assimilate local elites by striking deals with them at the expense of the lower classes, thus establishing supremacy. A deal was made in this case as well, mostly affecting the eastern Orthodox Slavs, but the local elites were not fully cooperative and occasionally refused to cooperate at all.2 More than once did the Poles took up arms, not merely to voice their demands or negotiate better terms, but to overthrow Russian rule entirely and restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to its pre-partition borders. The Polish land was conquered but the spirit was not, hence the Polish anthem begins with the words “Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live.”  

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 the conflict was officially called the second Polish campaign. In the first Polish campaign between 1806-1807 Napoleon had defeated the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian troops, creating the Duchy of Warsaw from the Prussian share of partitioned Poland. The objective of the second campaign was to restore the Kingdom of Poland, this time including territories from the Russian share.3 The prospect of avenging a major historical tragedy by the restoration of Polish statehood galvanized the Polish martial spirit, leading to widespread participation in Napoleon’s invasion. Close to 100’000 Poles marched under Napoleon’s banner, or in other words, every sixth soldier in his Grand Army was a Pole.4 The campaign ended in defeat for Napoleon’s empire and was a major setback for Poland, but the spectre of Polish independence continued to haunt Russia.

In December 1812, Tsar Alexander issued a manifesto in which he addressed the Poles in fraternal terms, offering amnesty to those who had fought against Russia. His answer to the Polish question was to the establish Congress Poland – called a kingdom and a tsardom in Polish and Russian respectively – which had jurisdiction over the lands taken previously by Prussia. Alexander thus took on the new title of Tsar of Poland, creating the appearance of a dynastic union to justify Russia’s continued domination. This move was part of his long-held aspiration to become a constitutional monarch and that if he could not achieve this in autocratic Russia, he could at least do so in a part of the country which has a long history of constitutionalism. Congress Poland would last only five years after Alexander’s death, which came in 1825. In November 1830, young Polish soldiers tried to assassinate the Grand Duke Konstantin for his repressive governance, which escalated into open rebellion and Tsar Nicholas integrated Poland back to absolute rule from Moscow.5

The strategy of imperial expansion and integration of new territories based on assimilating the local elite had failed to function in the case of the territories taken from Poland, and the Polish uprising drove home to the Russian imperial elite to the uncomfortable truth that they had to reexamine their own identity. The Polish national mobilization of the Napoleonic era, followed by the Polish revolt, prompted the Russian search for the political, cultural, and ethnic roots of the empire’s new identity. It was in dialectic with the Polish identity that the new imperial minister of education, Count Sergei Uvarov, came to define Russia’s own. Uvarov claimed that Russian education, and Russian identity itself, should be based on the triad: Orthodox faith, autocratic rule, and nationality. It was nationality or narodnost’ that is Uvarov’s principle innovation.6

Although nationality was introduced as a new component of the official Russian ideology, it was a third in Uvarov’s priorities as articulated in his memorandum to the tsar. He did not envision it as equivalent to modern nationalism, instead he understood “nationality” as the traditions rooted in Russia’s historical development. For that reason the Russian term is more accurate to render in English as “national way of life.” Nationality, as Uvarov defined it, was what ensured the continuity of the other two key elements of Russian identity, religion and autocracy, in an age marked by revolutionary ideas. While throughout Europe the idea of a nation is associated with popular representation and consent of the governed, i.e. challenges to absolutism, in Russia it was supposed to strengthen it. Uvarov did not seek to justify the tsar’s autocratic rule by claiming that it was based on divine right, as was customary in the age of absolutism, nor did he look to the church’s approval. Instead he linked the autocracy with his definition of nationality, claiming that “one and the other flow from the same source and are conjoined on every page of the history of the Russian people.”7

Such a way of thinking, and any ideology that may arise from it, is fundamentally irreconcilable with the Polish mentality. Here it is important to reaffirm that the mentality of a state’s elite reinforces the way of thinking of the society. The elites enforce policies and norms in culture that select for desired behaviour from their subjects, and whereas the Polish elite fostered a culture of resistance and personal initiative, the Russian elite fostered a culture of obedience and passivity.

The Polish model of society has long been shaped by that of nobles’ democracy, or what was called the Golden Rule. It was a system in which all nobles, regardless of their wealth or landholdings, were equal in political power. Correlating with this egalitarianism among the nobility was the fact that around every tenth Pole was a szlachcic, a member of one noble family or another, which is remarkably high compared to the other European nations of time.8 This principle was formalized as law in 1505, but a similar function can be found in the wiec that were convened before the founding of the Kingdom of Poland, where issues were first debated by the elders and leaders and later presented to all freemen for further discussion.9

Moreover, the practice of popular sovereignty has been a tradition for the nobles and freemen of the white race since time immemorial. The Anglo-Saxons held their witenagemot in the broad Germanic tradition of the Thing. The Irish chiefs and kings were chosen by members of the family and tribe. In classical antiquity it is found in Roman political philosophy, as well as Greek political philosophy including Plato and Aristotle. It was present in medieval Rus and survived in the polity of Novgorod after the sack of Kyiv and the subsequent Mongol yoke. There they elected their princes who had checks and balances imposed from the veche,10 however once the city fell under the control of Muscovite Prince Ivan III, the symbolic bell of Novgorod, which was rung to call for political meetings was removed. Its history ended when Ivan IV torched the city to the ground.

This blind submission to the Tsar’s will throughout Russian history comes from the Muscovite elites viewing him as the ultimate authority on Earth. The servile obedience from such an enslaved mentality leads to passively entrusting one’s fate to higher powers, suppressing individual initiative, along with all the negative consequences of unquestioned autocracy. One can see the slavish capitulation of the boyars to Ivan IV’s reign of terror reflected in the Soviet politburo’s capitulation to Stalin’s red terror, as well as the Duma’s capitulation to Putin to avoid the fate of a terror victim. All of this subservience and fear as a consequence was implanted into the consciousness of the people. Adam Mickiewicz, having gotten to know Russia intimately from inside, expressed the differences between the Polish and Russian mentalities aptly: “We serve God as the Muscovites serve the Tsar.”11

The Russian authorities’ inability to understand a mentality different than their own, especially one as radically different as the Polish one, ended up fuelling each successive Polish uprising. A notable example is Nicholas I’s speech in October 1835 to the Warsaw delegation in Łazienki Park, where he asserted that the Poles had to prove their worthiness as Russian subjects through absolute, unquestioning obedience, or else Warsaw would be razed to the ground. The later resumed, brutish behaviour of the authorities only continued to incite the Polish insurrections. That which Pushkin saw in the Poles and called “haughty” would be called by that attribute’s bearers dignity, a right gifted by God and deprived by none other, and that which he saw in his own compatriots and called “faithful” the Poles would also use a different word – servitude.

As it relates to Ukraine, the valiant resistance against Russia also comes from their vision of Slavdom, and of course Ukraine’s place within. These sons of the Cossack race wish to live life with the same personal and collective dignity which their forefathers had done, and every hour they spend fighting the numerically superior enemy is further proof. In this sense, the Ukrainian vision for freedom and independence aligns with the Polish vision of Slavdom. It is only natural that these two nations have pushed past grievances aside to confront an enemy to whom laws and treaties mean nothing and destroying that alternative vision means everything. However, because of Ukraine’s underdeveloped state and the damages of the past two years, which will continue on, it is Poland which is equipped for the great political and civilizational projects of that vision. There will be some time until Ukraine rebuilds and prospers to the level that it can offer a balance in the Slavic world after Russian defeat, but as things stand currently, only Poland is in a position of leadership.

Inasmuch as Poles, Ukrainians and Russians are Slavic kin, the enmity between the first two and the latter goes beyond the international space and into the civilizational one: it is a fight for the soul of Slavdom. The Polish and Ukrainian resistance is a Slavdom which breathes in freedom and dignity, a wish to live and die as freemen, while the Russian conception is pacified, either demoralized of all hope for a future as freemen or learned to love their own slavery. As long as Poland is willing to continue its role as leader, provided it has the ideological guidance from its elite, and Ukraine is able to rebuild, their united front against imperialist Russia offers a vision for the Slavic world. On one side of the conflict is the Slavic tradition of nobles’ democracy, on the other side is the Mongol yoke rebuilt by Rurikids, Romanovs, Bolsheviks and the new rich gangsters. Haughty Józef Piłsudski and Symon Petliura are on one side of the Vistula, faithful Stalin and Trotsky are on the other.

  1. Translation by Thomas Budd Shaw. 1845. ↩︎
  2. Lost Kingdom. Serhii Plokhy, p72. ↩︎
  3. ibid., p73. ↩︎
  4. ibid., p74. ↩︎
  5. ibid., p76. ↩︎
  6. ibid., p80-81. ↩︎
  7. ibid., p83. ↩︎
  8. The Commonwealth of Poland. Encyclopedia Britannica. Edited Jun 20, 2024.  ↩︎
  9. Historia państwa i prawa polskiego, Juliusz Bardach et al. p20, p26-27. ↩︎
  10. The word veche (вече) shares the same etymological root as wiec, which originates from the Proto-Slavic verb to talk. ↩︎
  11. Complete Works. Parliamentary edition. Warsaw. 1933. vol. 16, p219. ↩︎

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