Poland-Lithuania Russia and Peter the Great: Robert Frost Reveals a Neglected Influence on His Reforms

Article excerpt

In August 1698, on the way back from his famous embassy to western Europe, Peter I stopped off at Rawa Ruska in south-east Poland to meet Augustus II, elector of Saxony and the newly-elected king of Poland-Lithuania. Lubricated by four days of stupendously outrageous drinking, Peter and Augustus sealed their friendship with an informal agreement to wage war on Charles XII of Sweden, although it was another fifteen months before Augustus opened hostilities by attacking Riga, and it was not until two years after Rawa that the crushing of the revolt of the strel'tsy and the signing of peace with the Ottoman Empire enabled Peter to enter the war which was to end, twenty-one years later, with the defeat of Sweden and the definitive establishment of Russia as one of Europe's great powers. By the time of his death in 1733, Augustus's ambitious plans lay in ruins, and Poland-Lithuania had been eclipsed by Russia. Sixty-two years later, it no longer existed, after Russia had taken the lion's share of its territory in the pardons of 1772, 1793 and 1795.

Hindsight often turns historians into wiseguys after the event, and the unfortunate Augustus has not been spared the witticisms. Known as Augustus the Strong --his party tricks included snapping horseshoes and crushing silver goblets with his bare hands--he was also a prodigiously talented philanderer, seducing many of Europe's leading beauties and fathering a brood of illegitimate children. In 1734, a year after Augustus's death, his reputation was sealed by the publication of La Saxe Gallante by Karl Ludwig von Pollnitz, which recounted his energetic pursuit of Eros in salacious detail. Historians ever since have enjoyed jokes at Augustus's expense: Norman Davies's observation that his spermatazoa hit their targets more frequently than his political projects may raise a laugh, but is based on the claim that Augustus sired an improbable 354 children. Like all bedroom boasts, this is a slight exaggeration. The actual total was nine.

Nevertheless, if Augustus fired more blanks in the boudoir than legend suggests, the jibe is not without some basis. Although one of his eight illegitimate children grew up to become the Marechal de Saxe, one of the finest generals of his age, Augustus's own career demonstrated that an excess of testosterone does not necessarily imply military talent: from the moment he turned up to besiege Riga in 1700 with cannonballs too large for his guns, he suffered defeat after defeat. Charles XII chased him out of Poland in 1706 and invaded Saxony itself, forcing Augustus to abdicate the Polish throne in favour of Stanislaw Leszczynski, a Swedish puppet; it was only Peter's crushing victory at Poltava which allowed Augustus to regain the Polish throne in 1709. Thereafter, he met fierce opposition to his plans for increasing royal power, and was forced to abandon his ambitious foreign policy. After 1717, Poland-Lithuania was more the object than a subject of European diplomacy.

1698: Polish dominance in eastern Europe

Historians of Russia, with the benefit of hindsight, generally pay little attention to Polish history, content to assume that the rise of Russia to the status of a great power was inevitable; a process in which the reign of Peter I was merely the period in which manifest destiny was realised. Yet in 1698, it was Augustus--the elder by two years--who was the dominant figure. Elector of Saxony since 1694, he had audaciously snatched the Polish throne from under the nose of the French candidate, the duc de Conti, in 1697. It is true that Poland-Lithuania had experienced significant problems since the early seventeenth century, when it had dominated north-eastern Europe, and had suffered territorial losses, including the cession of Livonia to Sweden in 1660, and of Kiev, Smolensk and Chernigov to Russia in 1667. Nevertheless, it still had a substantial population of eleven million, and under John III Sobieski (1674-96) it had played a significant part in the long wars of the Holy League against the Turks which ended successfully with the Peace of Carlowitz in 1699. …