IN THE 18TH CENTURY, the great powers of Europe--Russia, Austria, and Prussia--waged war three times against the weakening Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result of the first two campaigns, Poland's victorious neighbors took great swaths of land. Finally, in 1795, the Third Partition devoured what was left, putting an end to Poland as a state.
Catherine II, who wanted to increase the Polish nobility's dependency on Russia, suggested that some aristocratic families send their sons to St. Petersburg. Honoring the sons of Poland with the opportunity to make a career in the capital of the empire had a sinister resemblance to the ancient Asian practice of holding prominent members of conquered peoples hostage at the court of the conqueror--but nobody dared object.
Such were the circumstances that brought Adam Czartoryski to St. Petersburg. Much later, when he was already old and gray and living in emigration in France, he recalled how isolated he had felt in the foreign city, where all the courtiers demonstratively snubbed him. One of the few people who was friendly toward the young Pole was the Grand Duke Alexander--the future Emperor Alexander I (1801-1825). The tsarevich confided in Czartoryski his strong, negative feelings--and those of his young wife--about the partition of Poland, and informed Czartoryski that, when he ascended to the throne, he planned to restore independence to the dismembered country. This amazing piece of history is testimony not only to the nature of the friendship that was born between the future Russian emperor and the Polish aristocrat, but also to the plans being nurtured by the young Grand Duke.
These plans were truly grandiose. Poland was not to be the only object of his benevolence. Alexander was planning to give Russia a constitution and to liberate the serfs. Alas, life, as we know, was not kind to the Grand Duke and his rosy dreams. To achieve power, he was forced to give his ascent to a plot against his own father (Tsar Paul)--something that roiled his conscience for the remainder of his life. The only way to justify this patricide would have been to bring his lofty plans to fruition. But here, too, things did not work out very well. There was much talk of reform, but it led to just a few minor changes, and the hopes that had been raised in society were dashed, leading to a strong sense of disappointment in the young tsar, who at first had appeared to be an angel in human form.
Alexander, however, did not give up. Torn between his own dreams, his tormented conscience, and fear that the nobility might be plotting against him, he nevertheless continued to stubbornly return to the idea of a constitution. But over and over he lost his nerve and stopped short of taking the decisive step. Countless committees were formed to develop the reforms--some met under a shroud of secrecy, while others were fairly public--but every time they terminated their work without achieving anything.
Throughout this vacillation, Alexander did not forget the promise he had given his Polish friend. Almost two decades had passed since the two young men had first discussed the matter, and, during the interim, Europe had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars. Poland had been resurrected under the authority of the French emperor, who had formed the Duchy of Warsaw, but, with the defeat of Napoleon, the fate of the beleaguered Polish state was again in question. At the Congress of Vienna, where the future of post-Napoleonic Europe was being decided by its monarchs, Alexander tried to have all Polish lands placed under Russian authority, but of course neither Austria nor Prussia were willing to part with their shares.
However, Russian Poland--those lands that had gone to Russia in the 18th century--was now made into the Kingdom of Poland, ruled by Emperor Alexander. The Poles rejoiced to learn that Alexander would restore their red and white flag, permit them to form their own army, and even give them a constitution. …