OLD POLISH ON-LINE
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T H E
Michael J. Miko¶
The reign of Władysław IV Vasa (1632-1648) brought the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania a period of relative calm and prosperity. As a result of a peace treaty signed with Muscovy in Polanowo in 1634, with Sweden in Stumsdorf in 1635, and with Turkey in 1634 and 1635, the territory of the Commonwealth extended to almost 390,000 square miles, with a population of more than ten million people. The King was able to reorganize the army, which grew to about thirty thousand men, modernize the artillery, strengthen fortifications, build new Baltic ports, and enlarge a commercial fleet. Exports kept growing until the middle of the century, reaching an average of 140,000 metric tons of grain annually, while trade in livestock brought additional profits.
But signs of the internal weakening of the state, already visible at the end of the sixteenth century, were proliferating. The role of the central administration, which had no officers in the provinces, was diminishing. The powerful magnates gained influence over the landless gentry and, using their services, reduced the effectiveness of the Sejm, while gaining control over the Senate and local dietines, most importantly in matters of taxation. The huge estates became for all practical purposes independent fiefdoms, in which great noblemen maintained strong armies, employed impoverished clients, and exercised a firm control over their subjects.
The lot of the peasants, who constituted almost 70% of the population, was steadily getting worse. The Polish economy, which was mainly based on industrial agriculture, relied mostly on exports of foodstuffs and raw materials, while its imports consisted of finished products and colonial goods. With a gradual but steady fall in prices of grain in Western Europe, the landowners were increasing the exploitation of the peasants. They demanded more serf labor, instituted various monopolies, and required payments in kind. In many regions of the country, peasants were obliged to work four days a week on the lord's estate. They responded by slower work. At the same time, unable to cultivate their own land efficiently, they limited themselves to subsistence farming. With overall productivity declining, many peasants became impoverished, not a few lost their land. Dissatisfied and unable to find redress in courts, they frequently resorted to desertion and at times to armed uprisings.
Nowhere was the situation more inflamed than in the eastern territories of the Commonwealth, especially in the Ukraine. The vast and fertile plains were the home of the Cossacks, free soldiers who established their own units and armies for the defense of the local population against the Tartars and Turks. They also engaged in audacious raids south of the border, penetrating at times as far as Crimea and even the outskirts of Constantinople. The Commonwealth enlisted some Cossack units and used them to defend its borders. Those Cossacks who were not registered in the service of Poland and who persisted in their adventurous exploits, thus exposing the country to retaliatory attacks launched by the Ottoman Empire, were being forced to disband and to join the local population in serf labor. The majority of Cossacks refused to be relegated to serfdom. Since most of them were of Ruthenian origin, they raised the banner of the Orthodox faith in order to find support among the masses of peasants and to rally them against the local magnates, who owned close to 80% of houses and land in the major areas of the Ukraine. Inevitably, they ran into conflict with Polish authorities. Beginning in the 1580's, sporadic Cossack rebellions and uprisings erupted throughout the Ukraine and Byelorussia, followed by hard-fought battles, and bloody reprisals.
In 1648, the grandiose plans of King Władysław IV of liberating the Balkans from the Turkish yoke failed for lack of support in the Sejm and among his foreign allies. The Cossacks, whose participation in an anti-Turkish campaign was sought after and who were promised new privileges, felt betrayed. After reaching an alliance with the Crimean Tartars, they rose in rebellion under the leadership of Bohdan Chmielnicki. When they defeated the Polish army at Żółte Wody and Korsuń in the spring of 1648, most of the local population took up arms, and large regions of the Ukraine were engulfed in fire and drenched with blood.
In June 1651, the Polish army led by Prince Jeremi Wi¶niowiecki defeated the combined forces of Cossacks and Tartars at Beresteczko. Unable to fight against Poland on his own, Chmielnicki turned for help to Tsar Alexis. The treaty of Perejasław in January 1654, which stipulated the incorporation of the Ukraine into Russia in return for military assistance, was followed in the spring of that year by the Russian invasion of Poland. When the war was finally over and the truce signed in Andruszów in 1667, Poland lost vast territories of the Ukraine, nearly the whole region falling under the sway of Russia.
The situation of Poland deteriorated rapidly in July 1655 when the army of Charles Gustavus of Sweden crossed the borders of Great Poland and Lithuania. Aided by treacherous magnates, among them Krzysztof Opaliński, the Voivode of Great Poland, and Janusz Radziwiłł, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, who surrendered their whole provinces to the enemy, the Swedish army quickly overran the country, taking Warsaw in September and Cracow in October. The Swedes, who plundered and burned down churches, castles, and towns in their path, were followed by the invading forces of Frederick William, the Elector of Brandenburg, and George Rakocsi, Prince of Transylvania, eager to have a hand in the partition of the Commonwealth.
King Jan Kazimierz (1648-1668), who succeeded his brother, was forced to seek refuge in Silesia, from where he issued calls for resistance. Appalled by the rapacity of the invaders, Polish peasants, then burghers and noblemen, took arms in various parts of the country, engaging the enemy in partisan warfare. The heroic forty days' defense of the monastery of Częstochowa, the shrine of the venerated Black Madonna, was one of the turning points of the war. Before long the whole nation rose against the invaders. The King returned in January 1656, rallying his forces, which were led brilliantly by Stefan Czarniecki. In 1656, threatened with defeat, Charles Gustavus and the major units of his army beat a retreat. In the peace treaty signed with the Swedes in Oliwa in 1660, Poland regained its territories.
The Cossack rebellion and Swedish invasion brought enormous devastation to the whole country. The size of the Commonwealth was reduced by more than twenty five percent, mostly in the east, its population dropped from ten to six million. The richest regions of the Republic lay in ruins. The crops in many areas were razed, the countryside was ravished by famine and plague. Large fields of arable land lay waste, the quantity of livestock was reduced, crop yields fell significantly. Grain production in 1657 decreased by more than fifty percent compared to the pre-1655 level. About twenty percent of towns and villages were destroyed. The urban population declined by close to seventy per cent. Major cities of Warsaw, Cracow, Poznań, Lublin, and Wilno lay in ruins, only Gdańsk and Lwów survived intact. Revenues of the treasury shrank drastically, causing devaluation, while useless currency was flooding the market, bringing chaos.
As big as these losses were, the political system of the Commonwealth suffered even more. In 1652, the debates of the Sejm were broken by a single deputy, a client of Janusz Radziwiłł. From that time on, by exercising the rule of the
(free dissent), which originated to protect the rights of the minority, hired deputies were able to paralyze parliamentary procedures, on occasions using it even before the debates of the Sejm began. When King Jan Kazimierz presented a program of parliamentary and electoral reforms (1661-62), powerful nobles led by Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski and supported by Vienna and Berlin defeated the bills. Sentenced to banishment and disgrace for high treason by the Sejm Tribunal, Lubomirski attacked the royal forces at the head of the rebellious army. After two years of a fratricidal war that devastated the country, Lubomirski defeated the royal troops at M±twy (1667). Even though he won the battle, Lubomirski asked pardon of the King and retired in Austrian Silesia. The King, his authority destroyed and his reforms thwarted, abdicated after his wife's death in 1668 and went to France, where he died four years later.
The new king, Michał Korybut Wi¶niowiecki (1669-1673), Prince Jeremi's son, showed himself incapable of managing Poland's internal and international affairs. When in 1672 the Turkish forces of Sultan Mohammed IV invaded Podolia and captured the fortress of Kamieniec Podolski, Poland surrendered at Buczacz the whole province and the southern part of the Kiev region, agreeing in addition to pay a yearly tribute. The ignominy of the treaty was erased by Hetman Jan Sobieski, who in 1673 led the Polish army to a splendid victory over the Ottoman forces at Chocim and was rewarded with the royal crown.
King Jan III Sobieski (1674-1696) was a shrewd politician and a brilliant military commander. He reformed the army and after a series of victorious campaigns secured a temporary peace treaty with Turkey in 1676. But the danger of Turkish invasion did not recede. In 1683 Poland concluded an alliance with Austria and when in July of that year a Turkish army of over one hundred thousand men lay siege to Vienna, Sobieski rapidly led Polish forces of twenty six thousand men to relieve the capital city.
On September 12, 1683, Sobieski as Commander-in-Chief of the combined allied forces of seventy four thousand men, led his army to a splendid victory over the Grand Vizier's forces. The furious charge of the winged Hussars, the heavy cavalry strike force that swooped down from the heights of the Schafberg straight towards the Vizier's white tent, broke the resistance of the enemies. The Ottoman army was in flight and the King of Poland triumphantly entered the walls of Vienna, hailed as the savior of Christian Europe.
Yet this great victory proved to be no panacea for the political and economic crisis that gripped the country. Exhausted by constant warfare that had devastated its territory since 1648, Poland was in no position to take part in new military expeditions, launched by the Holy League against the Turks. The King, who was personally involved in unsuccessful military campaigns in Moldavia, was unable to stem the spreading anarchy or to carry through any constitutional reforms. Ailing and disillusioned, he withdrew to his residence in Wilanów, and when he died in 1696, the once proud Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania entered its final period of existence.
Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology
, by Michael J. Miko¶, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.