The Geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski

[in:] Przeklęte miejsce Europy? Dylematy polskiej geopolityki, OMP, Cracow 2009.



The history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth spans more than two centuries – between the joyful year of its birth – 1569, and the tragic year of its death – 1795. During the period, with its territory remaining largely unchanged, the Polish-Lithuanian state managed to be both a superpower, at least on a Central and East European scale, and an involuntary battlefield, over which, in the 18th century, foreign armies rolled over as if it was some ownerless wasteland, waging their own wars. Of course, the power and then the weakness of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulted largely from the evolution of its internal political system, which has been deliberated on in hundreds, if not thousands of, studies, and yet the key determinant (and at the same the factor which influenced the quality of its elites, and thus also its internal political life) was geopolitics in the broad sense as the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not in the least more tragic or more anarchy-ridden than that of the other great European nations. It did not experience the kind of devastating religious wars which the Reich did. The rebellions of the Polish nobility or magnates were not more violent or longer than the war between the English king and the Parliament or the French Fronde. The magnates (also known as “little kings”) of the Eastern Borderlands were not more independent of the Polish king than the dukes of the Reich were of the Emperor. Thus the stereotype of the anarchic Poles as opposed to order-loving Germans can be easily rejected, given that it was the latter that lived in 300 different states, until the violence of the Napoleonic France reduced the number to 30. The above example is to illustrate the main assertion I will try to prove in this text, namely that, despite all the known and serious defects of the political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was not those internal diseases (most frequently identified to date as the cause of its demise – apparently not more grave and terrible than those which affected other nations), but rather the geopolitics that sealed its fate. Naturally, this does not mean that our forefathers could not have handled the challenges posed by the external forces in a more effective manner and that the downfall is to be attributed exclusively to the pressure from our neighbours. On the contrary, it should be explained by Poland’s inability to solve the Cossack problem, which was both caused by geopolitics and determined it in a key moment after 1648. It should be remembered here that the assertion that the history of Poland and Lithuania carried a germ of the Partitions from the very start is just as false as the notion that the history of France was leading,  from the very beginning, to Austerlitz, or just the opposite – to Sedan, and that the goal of the famous Wagon of Compiègne was only to witness the surrender of the German army in 1918, or to become the place where the “defeat of Marianne” was sealed in 1940.

The author does not support the theory about the curse of the geopolitical situation of Poland sandwiched between Germany and Russia, which allegedly determined its tragic history. The view is false because Poland, as we all know, lies between Germany and Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, and it is only together with them – for example in the political form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – that it borders on the two great neighbours. At the time when it was living between them and moving nowhere, the Commonwealth was both able to attain the status of a superpower and ceased to exist completely. This is because its international position and condition actually depended on two things: firstly, on the degree of political consolidation and harmonious cooperation in defence of its fundamental interests which the nations inhabiting the former Commonwealth were capable of, and secondly, on the power of its neighbours – their position on the European and global political scene, as well as on the mutual relations between them, in other words, on geopolitics.

Describing the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth requires stressing two key facts. Firstly, the concept was unknown in the period discussed here (the term geopolitics was coined in 1899, when it was used for the first time in a scholarly article by the Swedish researcher of international relations and politician Rudolf Kjellén). Thus it was absent from the political debate, and it was not taken into account in the decision-making process either by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or by its neighbours. Naturally, this does not mean that the contemporaries did not realise the importance of changes in the international situation and the balance of powers between the Polish Commonwealth and its neighbours. Obviously, the importance of this factor varied from period to period. Secondly, the period in question spans as many as 226 years – more than two centuries – or nine generations, in which in many respects – in demographic, social, economic, ideological, cultural, technology and civilisational terms – the world around the Commonwealth changed in a radical way, which obviously had a crucial impact on the geopolitical position of the Polish-Lithuanian union. Thus this study will focus on the evolution of the situation around Poland and Lithuania, its influence on the international position of the common state, not only of the Poles and Lithuanians, but also, to use today's terminology: Ukrainians, Belarusians, Latvians, and during some periods also the Gdańsk, Prussian and Livonian Germans, as well as on its attempts to influence the surroundings. We will seek to answer questions about the geopolitical horizon of the contemporary elites of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth understood as the limit of their political, rather than cultural interests. How did the horizon evolve? What internal and external political actors influenced the international position of Poland and Lithuania? How did their changing relations with Cracow, Vilnius and Warsaw, as well as their mutual relationships, affect the position of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? How did the Polish-Lithuanian state or the non-state political actors active within its borders influence their surroundings, what methods did they use, and how effective were they? What geopolitical periods can be distinguished in the history of that state and what characterised each of them?

The author of this study is not a researcher of the history of the  Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Therefore the ambition of this study is not to discover unknown facts in its history, or to present a scholarly reinterpretation of its history. This text is rather a kind of intellectual historical and philosophical exercise, and a pretext for formulating general conclusions regarding the nature of the international game in which the Poles and the other nations – the heirs of the Jagiellonian heritage – participated for centuries.


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth appeared on the map of Europe as a result of the pressure of geopolitics. Its formation was triggered by the Teutonic threat, which led to the Union of Krewa, and its birth was sealed by the Union of Lublin, which the Lithuanian elite were forced to enter into as a result of the threat of Muscovite raids. The motivation behind the decision taken in 1561 by Gotthard Kettler, whereby he handed Livonia over under the protection of Poland and Lithuania, was similar. In that period, namely in the second half of the 16th century, the Commonwealth mainly faced the pressure from Moscow, which had been propagating the idea of “gathering the Russian lands,” and had been waving the banner of the “Third Rome” – an Orthodox and the “only true” one, for nearly 100 years. In intellectual terms, the idea was challenged only by John Paul II, who reminded the world in 2002 – while addressing the Ukrainians in their own language – that Moscow is not a Rome, but “the Dnieper became as it were the ‘Jordan of Ukraine,’ and the capital Kyiv a ‘new Jerusalem,’ the mother of Slav Christianity in Eastern Europe.”

From the end of the 16th century, the fact that the Lithuanian-Ruthenian lands were inhabited mostly by the Orthodox population, and that, on the east, they bordered on a vast and expansive state which considered itself to be the centre and mainstay of that religion, strongly defined one of the most important elements of the geopolitical position of the Polish-Lithuanian state at the time. The factor was of huge importance because at the time all the other centres of the Orthodox faith either lied within the territory of The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or had been absorbed by the Ottoman Empire and reduced to the role of religious centres for nations deprived of their political independence. The distant and thus isolated centres of Eastern Christianity in Georgia, or the isolated, local variety of the faith in Armenia (even though for centuries the cultural role of the Armenians in Lithuania and in Poland was quite significant) had no political influence on the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. The small Carpathian Ruthenia, which was owned by the Habsburgs, was irrelevant in this respect. From the perspective of the geopolitical situation of Poland at the time, they can be disregarded in farther deliberations. The merchant republics of Pskov and Veliky Novgorod were conquered by Moscow as early as the 15th century, with the remnants of the memory of the latter’s splendour brutally erased from the mentality of the people of northern Russia by the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, just a year after the conclusion of the Union of Lublin. Thus the geopolitics of the period in question made it possible for Poland and Lithuania to fight the interstate conflicts behind their eastern border (naturally, they could take advantage of the conflicts within the Tsardom of Muscovy, which, as we know, they did in the early 17th century, which was, however, just an episode in history, and not a permanent element of the geopolitical situation which would prevail east of the Commonwealth).

Founded from the start on common resistance against the expansion of the Teutonic Knights, the multinational and multi-faith Polish-Lithuanian Union (in cultural terms, it was essentially a Polish-Ruthenian union) was necessarily a country of religious tolerance. Otherwise it would have disintegrated. The conversion by sword practiced by the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem could not have found and did not find many followers in the heritage of the Jagiellonian dynasty. On the contrary, the experience gave rise to the famous Tractatus de potestate Papae et imperatoris respectu infidelium by Paweł Włodkowic. Based on the above experience, the common practice of harmonious everyday co-existence of the Catholics and members of the Orthodox Church developed naturally within the framework of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, allowing Reformation to evolve smoothly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The emergence, alongside the two existing traditional denominations (Catholicism and Orthodoxy), of new, Protestant ones, was merely a quantitative change rather than a qualitative one, and it did not cause tremors similar to those which were shaking up Western Europe for more than a century. Thus the geopolitics of the previous period (the Teutonic pressure) laid foundations for what can be referred to as “internal geopolitics,” which in turn shaped the principles of religious freedom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Hence the famous declaration “I am not the king of your conscience” made by Sigismund Augustus, and hence the Warsaw Confederation enacted in 1573 and the stately words by Chancellor and Grand Hetman of the Crown Jan Zamoyski: “If only it was possible for you all to be papists (i.e. Catholics – P.Ż.G.), I would give half of my health for this to happen, so that I could watch the sacred unity while living the other half. But should anyone do any violence to you, I will stand up to defend you giving all my health so that I do not look at your captivity.”

Born towards the end of the Jagiellonian period, which determined its cultural character, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled the capital of the Orthodoxy of the eastern Slav lands – Kiev, and the raison d'etat of the Polish-Lithuanian state required that the role of that centre be strengthened for geopolitical reasons and that the centre of the faith did not, under any circumstances, move beyond its borders. Disregarding this imperative by Sigismund III Vasa, who did not understand the country he was ruling and was seeking the Union of Brest, had a tragic effect on the cohesion of the state in the decades which followed 1596, significantly impairing its geopolitical situation and giving Moscow an ideological weapon extremely useful in interfering with the internal affairs of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The first and most important aspect of the geopolitical situation of Lithuania and Poland was its border-like nature – the fact that the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian lands were dissected by the cultural border between the Latin and Orthodox worlds, which was naturally a blurred, non-continuous line, but rather a series of interim situations, whether because of the mixing of population, or the nature of the denominations themselves, like the Uniates, which are a model example in this respect. I will even dare to argue that the eastern borderlands of the Latin world were much more important for the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth than the southern dimension. This follows from the fact that the Ukrainian border areas marked not only the border of Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, but also Christianity in general. Beyond stretched Dar al Islam – the land on Islam, if not in religious terms (this was only the case with the Crimean Khanate), then certainly in political terms. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled it directly or indirectly, was a completely different civilisation. But because this cultural divide was deeper, more clear-cut and obvious in the south, the threat coming from that direction was military, rather than cultural and political in nature. Exerting an ideological pressure on the internal situation in Poland and Lithuania without conquering them first was impossible. There was also no ethno-linguistic relationship between Turks and any major group of population in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Consequently, Turkish influences did not undermine the countries of the Crown and of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania internally, while Muscovy influences did. Moscow, as was clearly demonstrated later in the 18th and 19th centuries, was indeed able to use Orthodoxy and the Slav identity to enfeeble internally not only the Commonwealth, but also the Ottoman Empire, causing many problems to the Habsburgs, too.

In the Polish political thinking of the 19th century (i.e. already after the Partitions), the Russian Empire began to be perceived as a combination of three elements – the Finno-Ugric, the Slavic and Turanian ones. The former one had no centre of integration that could be competitive against Moscow. Such centre could not have been formed by Finland and Estonia, which were dependent first on Sweden, and then on Russia, nor by Hungary, which was distant and dominated by Austria. Thus, from this perspective, Moscow had two natural geopolitical rivals – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which embodied the Slav idea in a liberal, federalist, and European form) and Turkey (which aspired to be the leader in the Turanian world). However, as was mentioned above, this vision was a retrospective view, explaining post factum the nature of the relationship within the Commonwealth-Moscow-Turkey triangle. At the time when the big game between those three actors for the control over this part of the world was still going on, this was not seen that way. At the time when the Polish-Lithuanian state was a superpower, Moscow's skill in using the Orthodox Church and the Ruthenian ethnos did not matter much, and both of these factors (religion and ethnicity) could be turned around like a vector and used for political purposes by the Commonwealth. (After all, in 1610 Prince Władysław Vasa was elected to the throne of Moscow on condition that he would convert to Orthodoxy). By contrast, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was weak, they were becoming a mortal threat to it, as was exemplified by the Pereyaslav Council (1654), or the issue of dissidents – infidels, which was so topical in the late 1760s, and directly led, through the Słuck and Toruń Confederations, to Russian intervention, the Bar Confederation, and the First Partition of Poland.

The geopolitics resulting from religious divisions was also felt in the context of the Polish-Swedish wars, when once again the enemies of Poland and Lithuania used the instrument of undermining internally their rule in the disputed provinces. The predominant religion of the population of, for example, Livonia or the Duchy of Prussia caused both these fiefdoms of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to gravitate towards the Protestant Sweden. The religious aspect (symbolised e.g. by the Calvinism of Janusz Radziwił) was also present at the time of the Deluge and contributed to a decline in the level of religious tolerance in the Polish-Lithuanian state threatened by the invasions of infidel powers.

The first and most important conclusion about the geopolitical position of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth is, therefore, that it lied not at the crossroads of various ethnicities (ethnicity did not matter much at the time), but rather at the meeting point of various religions and in the borderland of the Latin Europe. In this respect, this made it similar to Hungary (including Croatia) and the Republic of Venice, which also bordered on the Orthodox world and Turkey, except that the former had a high percentage of infidels, including Orthodox Romanians and Serbs, as well as a number of Calvinists among its own ruling elites. Poland and Lithuania were distinguishable for the geographic size of their Eastern neighbourhood.


Given the civilisational, technical, and demographic conditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, closing and controlling (according to the then prevailing standards) their south-east border, which ran across the steppes on the Black Sea, was a problem the solving of which was beyond the means of any state at the time (not only of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). If one was standing at the time on the western, high, right bank of the Dnieper in Kiev, one would have seen steppe, which, metaphorically speaking, “was beginning somewhere there, and ended nowhere.” In fact, the relatively dense farming settlement at the time reached Chyhyryn, and beyond stretched the so-called Wild Fields, which were formally separated by a border, but actually formed a wide belt of the Great Steppe reaching as far as the frontiers of Manchuria. Stabilising those borderlands was a major problem, not only in administrative and military, but also geopolitical terms. This concerned both the defence (effective fighting off the plundering raids of the Tartars), and enforcing the Commonwealth’s own state power (preventing expeditions of Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Ottoman dominions, which were likely to lead to war with Turkey). Geography determined the politics here. The openness of the borders courted raids, which not only discouraged the expansion of settlement (had it progressed, it would have changed the nature of the country and would have allowed it to be controlled normally), but also, given that the state failed to fulfil its fundamental duty, i.e. protect its citizens, led to the emergence of the Cossacks, which were self-defence formations protecting the population, and to the mastering of war skills by the latter, which in turn attracted a variety of restless spirits, hindered control over the rebellious province, and provoked conflict with the Ottoman Porte, and eventually caused the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian state. The inability to solve the Cossack problem ultimately led to a civil war between Zaporozhye, later joined by the rest of Ukraine, and the other parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provoked the first intervention of the Crimea in the mid-17th century, then the destructive invasion of Lithuania by Moscow, and finally the Swedish and Transylvanian invasion supported by Prussia and Brandenburg. The Polish-Lithuanian state, which then faced the threat of being partitioned for the first time, fortunately an unrealised one this time, was first immersed in a civil war and foreign invasions, to be subsequently saved by geopolitics, as well as its own efforts. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth survived, but its previous international position was undermined irreparably. Lithuania and the Crown were on a downward race of increasing disproportions of power between them and their neighbours, and were never – until their downfall – to recover their ability to reverse the trend permanently.


In addition to the above factors, the great geopolitics also added to the crisis of the Polish-Lithuanian state in the mid-17th century. The tension between the Commonwealth and the Zaporozhye occurred at the time when none of the interested parties felt threatened from the outside, and thus was not willing to compromise. So let us take a closer look at the geopolitical situation of Lithuania and the Crown in the memorable year 1648.

The year is a turning point not only in the history of Poland, but also in the history of the world. The Peace of Westphalia, made at the time and remembered as the beginning of a new international order based on the sovereignty of states, ended the Thirty Years War, which had ravaged the Reich since 1618, engaged Sweden and the Habsburgs, and made the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a desired ally, courted both by Vienna and Paris, and by the Czech states. If they had looked westwards, contemporary Poles, who, except for those living in the eastern borderlands or in Pomerania, had not experienced any war on their own territory for 200 years, would have seen a country in a condition allowing them to rename “Germany” as “Misery, Poverty, or Hardship” since anyone would have easily guessed what they were referring to anyway. If they looked eastwards, they would see a barbaria, which even the Zaporozhian Cossacks – whose manners were, after all, far from exquisite – characterised 22 years later in their camp at Chudnov by writing “Moskwa hruba duże” (Moscow is very crude). They had a fresh memory of the victories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over the state of the tsars both at Smolensk in the years 1633-1634 and the earlier ones at Klushino (1610), or those dating back to Batory’s wars. For seventy years, any clash with Russia had invariably ended in a victory. Given this, there was hardly any sense of danger. The mood in Zaporozhye was the same. The effective intervention of the Sich during the internal fighting in the Crimea in the 1740s, and especially the key role of the Cossacks led by Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny in stopping the Turkish invasion at Chocim in 1621, made it impossible for the armed community, which had experienced a victorious clash with one of the greatest powers of the world at the time, to fear the wrath of even the most powerful magnates and to accept meekly the fate of “common folk turned into peasants” which was being planned for them. After the Battle of Kirchholm (1605) and the somewhat more strenuous, but ultimately victorious, war at the mouth of the Vistula River in the years 1626-1629, despite the loss of most of Livonia (1622), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not fear Sweden, either. The fight of the latter for the dominion Maris Baltici was an important component of the geopolitical situation of Polish and Lithuania from the mid-16th century, throughout the 17th century, and in the early 18th century. It resulted in various combinations of alliance changing and conflicts between the Polish-Lithuanian state and Sweden, Moscow, and Denmark. However, until 1648, the powerful and populous Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not afraid of being conquered by its poor, rocky and sparsely populated Scandinavian neighbour. It might have caused trouble, which were dealt with in a better or worse way, but it did not arouse terror.

As a consequence of the excellent geopolitical situation of the Commonwealth – the conviction of its strength and of its neighbours’ weakness, both parties of the internal conflict remained tenacious, and the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian forces had no impulse to unite, such as was the threat from the Teutonic Knights in 1385, and from Moscow in 1569. It would be hard to imagine that the elders and ordinary Cossacks who decided to rebel and the Polish magnates and dignitaries, who failed to prevent the outbreak in time by political means, were giving a thought to the geopolitical position of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in Europe. However, the very fact that they failed to do it with due diligence rebounded cruelly on all the nations of the Polish-Lithuanian state.

Therefore geopolitics contributed to the crisis into which the Commonwealth was plunged in the second half of the 17th century, but, as was mentioned above, it also helped overcome it and save the Polish-Lithuanian statehood for another century. Crimea did not wish to strengthen Russia and made an about-turn. Moscow looked suspiciously at the success of Sweden, with which it was competing in the Baltic region, Denmark took advantage of the Swedish engagement in Poland and rose up against its northern rival, and finally, the Habsburgs, remembering the recently ended struggle with the Protestants in the Reich, who largely relied on Stockholm, were not yet ready to seal the fate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time. However, the losses were already irreversible. The demographic and cultural breakdown is only comparable to that which Poland experienced during the now forgotten Great Northern War (1700-1721) and World War II. Left-bank Ukraine with Kiev was lost for Moscow, changing the geopolitical balance of power in the east. Warsaw also lost control over Prussia. The depopulated Lithuania, in particular Belarus, started to decline towards being a poor province, rather than an equal member of a common state. However, the collapse of civilization and culture was the most tragic consequence of all. The sons of nobility stopped studying in Padua and Bologna (which was common among the generation of Jan Zamoyski and Jan Kochanowski) since their fathers could no longer afford it.  The great numbers of possessionless nobles, whose villages had been burnt in the successive wars, were at the disposal of the magnates. Meanwhile, the oligarchs started to “divide the cloth of the Commonwealth among themselves,” and encouraged by the example of unpunished aristocratic traitors, who were personified in the collective memory by Hieronim Radziejowski and Bogusław Radziwiłł, accept money from foreign courts.

This brings us to the second conclusion ensuing from the analysis of the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which points to the political effects of the geographical vastness of the eastern neighbourhood of the Polish-Lithuanian state, and the changes or evolution over time of the impact of the vastness. The empty and unsettled spaces of the south-east borderlands produced a growing geopolitical vacuum in the 16th century, and even more so in the 17th century, which gave rise to internal instability and a threat of domestic conflicts within the Polish-Lithuanian state, which attracted foreign interventions. Had the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had weaker neighbours, more technological and administrative advantage, and greater demographic potential, such as to allow it to colonise the east, the vast, uninhabited spaces could have been a source of power and played a similar role in the history of this part of Europe as did the colonisation of the American prairie by settlers arriving from Europe. However, Poland and Lithuania was not confronted with Indians, but Moscow and Turkey. The level of technical civilisation at the time when the fate of the lands was being decided was that of the 17th century, and not that of the 19th century, as was the case in the US, and the demographic potential of the Commonwealth collapsed after 1648, with no massive settlement from other parts of Europe to be counted on.

It was also the geographical conditions that allowed non-state actors – as we would refer to them today – to play a significant role in the region, including the Zaporizhian Sich before 1648 (in fact, the Khmelnytsky Uprising transformed the Ukrainian Cossack community into a state), and the magnates of the Eastern Borderlands. Their private expeditions for spoils to the Crimea or Turkey, or the influence over the Danubian Principalities and the Crimea, were possible only thanks to the demographic and civilisational vacuum mentioned above, which built their lawlessness and attracted “loose sabres.” Also the most important and the largest operation of the non-state actors who acted from the territory of the Commonwealth – the Muscovite Dymitriade during the Russian Time of Troubles – a joint “private initiative” of the Polish magnates and the Zaporozhe, was possible only thanks to the geopolitical circumstances, which both created an opportunity (weakness of the Muscovite state) and encouraged those willing to seize it.

The geopolitical system described here faded in the 18th century. What made up the political mosaic of the region in the 16th and the 17th centuries, namely the world of the Tatars, Cossacks, magnate’s armies, as well as Moldavia and Wallachia, which were manoeuvring between the Commonwealth and Turkey, went into the past. The conquest and colonisation of the Black Sea steppes by Russia, the downfall of the Crimean Khanate and liquidation of the Zaporozhian army filled the vacuum which had existed in the previous centuries in the Wild Fields. Of the various political powers which had impacted the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth within its south-eastern borderlands, only Russia and Turkey remained.


While speaking about Turkey as a factor affecting the geopolitical position of the Polish-Lithuanian state, one must also remember about the difference between what the Ottoman Empire was in the 16th and 17th centuries, and what it amounted to in the 18th century. In the two former centuries, the rule of the Ottoman Porte started right behind Bratislava (known at the time as Pozsony or Prešporok), reaching as far as the Caucasus and the borders of Persia in the east, the north-eastern and western coasts of the Arabian Peninsula in the south, and as far as Algeria in the west. At the time, the Ottoman Empire matched, in terms of military technology and administrative potential, the European powers. It was a dangerous and expansive power, and in the 1670s it even created a deadly threat to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, depriving it of Podole and trying to impose the status of the sultan's fief. This threat was averted by Poland’s military effort in the Battles of Vienna and Párkány in 1683, irreversibly changing the geopolitics south of its borders. From being an expansive power Turkey turned into a waning empire, which was forced from then until its fall to concentrate on the generally unsuccessful defence of its existing lands, rather than on new conquests. After the 1697 Podhajce campaign – the last Polish-Turkish war – the nature of Poland’s neighbourhood with the Ottoman Empire began to change. Both countries, threatened by the imperial appetites of Russia, ceased to war with each other, and the Sublime Porte, as the only one, supported Poland militarily after the latter rose up against Russia to regain independence in 1768. After 1683, the weakness of Turkey benefited not the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but first, the Habsburg monarchy, and then Russia. Thus, at the peak of its power in the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was a dangerous neighbour of the Commonwealth to slowly decline in the next century and become its ally, unfortunately too weak at the time to be effective.


The third factor (in addition to the above ones – the Catholic-Orthodox borderlands in the east and the Christian-Muslim borderlands in the south, and the demographic vacuum of the steppes in the Wild Fields) which determined the geopolitical architecture of Europe in the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, were dynastic interests. This applies both to the ambitions of the rulers of Poland and Lithuania, and the rulers of the neighbour countries. Given the internal polity of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth – which was a state of the nobility-citizens, and not of the king-heir – the importance of the parliament and the fact that monarchs were elected, dynastic ambitions did not dominate the geopolitical thinking of the elites. The rivalry between the Jagiellonian and Habsburg dynasties for the rule over Bohemia and Hungary had been resolved earlier, i.e. in the second and third decades of the 16th century, and then became irrelevant because of the Turkish expansion. Thus, in its early period, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not have interests which would clash drastically with those of the Habsburg House. The 1588 incident, i.e. the expedition by Archduke Maximilian, which confirmed Poland’s supremacy in the Battle of Byczyna, consolidated the state of affairs for the next few generations, and the Turkish and Swedish threat, which continued throughout the 17th century, pushed the two countries towards an alliance rather than mutual conflicts. Despite this, the Byczyna episode implies that the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not only shaped by the religious and national reality (the nobles, which were hostile to the Habsburgs, would stress when rejecting the candidacy of Maximilian that “we don’t want a German, not until we are dead”), but also by the ambitions of the European ruling dynasties. However, the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not attractive to everyone, as was evidenced by the short reign of Henryk Valezy, which ended with his escape from the country.

The political and military power of the Polish-Lithuanian state, whose elites were able – arms in their hand – to defend effectively the right to free elections against the designs of foreign powers, as is proven by the Battle of Byczyna, meant that, until the weakening of the Commonwealth in the second half of the 17th century, it was rather the ambitions of its own rulers, and not foreign contenders, that dominated the dynastic dimension of its geopolitical position. The House of Vasa played an important role in this aspect of the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as their claim to the Swedish throne and the inept attempt to gain the crown of the tsars complicated the relations between Poland and Lithuania and their northern and eastern neighbours respectively, even though they did not determine them. However, after the crisis of the Cossack-Russian-Swedish wars, foreign courts finally got an opportunity to realise their ambitions. Their first attempts were still ineffective. The le Grand Condé’s endeavours to have the French candidate elected ended in his failure and caused the idea of the “King from the Piast Dynasty” to prevail, as a result of which Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki was elected to the Polish-Lithuanian throne.   The next ruler of the Commonwealth, Jan III Sobieski, again, was planning a dynastic future for his children, seeking to wed them to the Austrian or Bavarian houses, or hoping that his son Jakub would be elected to the Polish-Lithuanian throne, but those projects had no significant effect on the geopolitical situation of the state.

The personal ambitions of the ruler had the most serious impact on the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the reign of Augustus II the Strong, who entangled Poland in the maze of the Great Northern War, causing devastation of the country and, as it turned out, its permanent degradation, by it being reduced, in the 18th century, to an object of international games. That war radically changed the geopolitical structure of Central Europe. It led to an unprecedented rise of Russia, which had a number of major successes: it solved in its favour two hundred years of rivalry with Sweden, depriving the latter once and for all of the status of a European power, and – as a result of its conquest of Livonia – opened up a wide front in the Baltic area; It deprived Zaporozhye of its political subjectivity (in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, where, after all, not only the Swedish army, but also the allied Zaporizhian Host led by Hetman Ivan Mazepa, were defeated. From that date until 1918, no independent centre of political will in Ukraine would be capable of influencing the balance of power in the region), and actually turned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into a vassal, which actually became a protectorate of Russia from the time of the Silent Sejm (1717).

In the new balance of powers – with the decline of the old players (Sweden and Turkey), the geopolitical situation around Poland and Lithuania started to be determined by relations symbolised by the “Treaty of the Three Black Eagles” (1732). Naturally, the agreement, also known as the Löwenwolde's Treaty, should be seen here just as a signum temporis of the new period when the fate of the Commonwealth was to be decided by the future partitioning powers – two old ones (one of which – Russia – was the traditional enemy, whereas the other – Austria, had been more often an ally, rather than a rival), and a new one – Prussia, which was growing in strength. It could be added here that the survival of Prussia in the 17th century and the orientation of its state ambitions resulted from the fact that in 1618 Sigismund III Vasa and the then political elite of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ignored the key rules of geopolitics by allowing the Brandenburg branch of the Hohenzollern dynasty to ascend to the throne in the Duchy of Prussia after the Hohenzollern dynasty expired there. It was easy to guess that the dynasty will strive to connect its territories separated by Gdańsk Pomerania or the Royal Prussia, as it was referred to at the time.  The first attempt to implement the policy required the Royal Prussia to liberate itself from the feudal allegiance to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was achieved in 1657. The weakening of Poland and Lithuania in the eighteenth century opened for that small state in the eastern borderlands of the German world an opportunity of expansion and geopolitical rise its rulers had not even dreamt of in previous centuries.

The personal union between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Saxony did not break the geopolitical noose which was being tightened around the Commonwealth by hostile powers. The potential of Saxony was too small to achieve this, and the intention of its Elector, who treated his reign as a pool of resources useful in realising his ambitions (as we remember, the policy of the House of Wettin, who were put on the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, represented the dynastic geopolitics). In addition, it was a period when, for the first time, France started to enter more seriously the orbit of the geopolitical powers around the Polish-Lithuanian state, either indirectly – through an alliance with Saxony, or directly – through the support which the Bourbon monarchy provided to Stanisław Leszczyński. The War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), with France, Spain, Bavaria and the supporters of Leszczyński on one side, and Austria, Russia, Prussia, Saxony, Denmark and the supporters of Augustus III on the other, gave a truly European dimension to the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a tragic dimension though. The defeat and helplessness which was experienced by the Polish nobility during the war resulted in their deep pacifism in the decades to come, which was associated with their feeling weak. The pacifism, in turn, was the reason why no attempts were made to take advantage of the emerging, geopolitics-based opportunities to shake off the Russian dominance, or at least to increase the army, which were created by the wars of Russia and Austria with Turkey (1737-1739), the Russo-Swedish War (1740-1743), or the three Silesian Wars (1740-1763), including the greatest one, the Seven Years’ War, which was actually the first global conflict. The Commonwealth did not join them, even though the foreign armies were moving across its territory, and seeing the passivity of the Polish-Lithuanian state, were exploiting its material and human resources.

The pacifism was overcome only by the brutal violence of the Russian ambassador Repnin. By kidnapping the hetman and bishops he attacked both the state and the dominant religion, and because this was done by a foreign force and in the name of defending non-Catholic minorities, it sparked a four-year partisan war, which was waged not by the Polish-Lithuanian state, but by its citizens – the nobility. This followed from the fact that it was then – at the turn of February and March 1768 – that large numbers of the gentry realised for the first time the terror of the geopolitical situation of Poland and Lithuania, which planted the seed of the notion of independence in their minds. After all, never before had they imagined that the Commonwealth might cease to exist. The nobility responded to the threat by establishing the Bar Confederation in Podolia with the aim of saving the independence and defending the faith. Quickly nipped in the bud, the Confederation spread all over the country, supported by local, poviat-level confederations, which were formed because “it would be a disgrace after seeing our brothers’ innocent blood spilt not to rush to have our due revenge.”

Even though the Bar Confederation was remembered as a patriotic and religious movement, with a strong stress on the latter adjective, the 1768-1772 alliances do not allow the nature of the conflict to be perceived in terms of stereotypes concerning religious differences or affinities. It was not religion, but geopolitics that encouraged the the Muslim Turkey to support the Catholic Confederates, who eagerly accepted the help and were looking forward to its effects. Meanwhile, the alliance against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed by the Orthodox Russia, the Protestant Prussia, and the extremely Catholic Austria. In addition, the French support for the Confederacy was in no way motivated politically. Instead, it confirmed the long tradition of anti-Habsburg cooperation between Turkey and France, and the abovementioned growing tendency for France to interfere in the geopolitical area of ​​the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was, in turn, a sign of the decreasing “political distance” between the different parts of Europe and the increasing intertwinement of the developments in its various regions in previous centuries, which had been far more loosely interlinked. The area of security of the early-modern European states was expanding, the network of interrelations between them was growing ever more dense, and the interdependence of their future more and more obvious. The Central and East European political stage was turning from a regional one into a pan-European one.

This was reflected in the changes of mentality and standards of education, which started to spread in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early Enlightenment, dispelling slowly the darkness of the “Saxon night.” Bearing this in mind, we come to the next aspect of the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, namely its consciousness- or awareness-related dimension. Naturally, the awareness was changing over the course of the more than 200 years along with the expanding human knowledge about the surrounding world. Assessing the evolution would require extensive studies of memoirs and letters. Nevertheless, we can probably venture assuming that until as late as the 18th century our geopolitical interests, understood as our awareness of the country’s international position, was limited, except for the narrow elites, to recognising our immediate neighbours and possibly the enemies of our enemies. The education of a Polish nobleman-citizen consisted of learning “how to charge on horseback, and use a lance” rather than what the political map of Europe looked like. A different view on the usefulness of the kind of political knowledge started to be propagated more widely only in the last decades of the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when magnates and wealthier gentry returned to travelling abroad, even if this was not always done for studying purposes. As most of us probably remember from our obligatory school reading, exploring the world and thus also becoming familiar with the political reality in Europe, was advocated by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz in his Powrót posła (Return of the Deputy), which he did however – and this is important for our further deliberations – by mocking ignorance.

The developing educational system, notably the Corps of Cadets in Warsaw (Szkoła Rycerska), prepared in the late 18th century the cadres – younger and much better educated than their predecessors – for the last game in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to take part.

The Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) and the associated Russo-Swedish War (1788-1790) created a new geopolitical opportunity for reforming the state and throwing off the Russian rule, which had from 1768 the status of a protectorate formalised by the guarantees of the Empress. This time decision was taken to “take advantage of the time Europe was going through and seize the ending moment which returned our country to us, free from the disgracing violence of the foreign rule.” The opportunity arose from the game played between the European powers. Russia was supported by Denmark, which attacked Sweden, and by Austria, which started a war with Turkey, which was, in turn, supported by the diplomacies of England and France. In addition to Great Britain, Sweden was supported by the Netherlands and Prussia. Once again, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth become a potentially attractive ally. The geopolitical rivalry with other powers prompted Catherine II to allow the Polish and Lithuanian armies to be assembled in the hope that they will be used against Turkey. Meanwhile Berlin, which competed for political power with Vienna and was fearful of the rise of Russia, supported the reforms undertaken in Warsaw by promising it an anti-Russian alliance. The “exchange plan” conceived at the time by Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg was a clear illustration of the essence of the geopolitical position of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the last years of its existence. According to the plan, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to cede Gdańsk and Toruń to Prussia, in return for which Prussia was to induce Vienna, demonstrating its military power in Silesia, Galicia, Hungary, and the Austrian Netherlands, to return Galicia to Poland and seek compensation for the loss through acquisitions in Turkish provinces. However, the latter was objected to by England, which feared that the Ottoman Empire would be weakened too much and that Russia would grow too strong around the Turkish Straits.

The end of the Russo-Turkish and Russo-Swedish wars, and the outbreak of the war of Austria and Prussia with the revolutionary France buried the geopolitical situation which had created favourable international conditions for the reforms of the Great Sejm. United by the fresh anti-French alliance, Berlin and Vienna decided to give a free hand to Russia as to Poland and Lithuania, only seeing to it, with a better (as was the case with Prussia) or worse (Austria) effect that they get their own share of the loot. Meanwhile, Russia soon became a valuable ally of Great Britain, which was threatened by the expansion of France, and was instrumental in the diplomatic efforts of England, which was always acting with the same intention of restoring the balance of power on the continent which was threatened with the French hegemony. Thus, geopolitics sealed the fate of the declining Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the survival of which – for the mere purpose of using it as an ad-hoc diversionary force on the rear of the enemies – was only in the interest of France, which was waging war with the First Coalition. Our former enemies – the Swedes and the Turks, who had significantly weakened the Commonwealth in the 17th century, were, a century later, perfect candidates for our allies as the enemies of our enemies, but were at the time only a shadow of their previous power. Meanwhile, Poland’s former ally, Austria, had just committed a geopolitical mistake that proved decisive for its future, exchanging the quiet neighbourhood on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a rogue partnership with Prussia (which used the Partitions of Poland and the alliance with Russia sealed by them as a foundation for building its future power useful in its later rivalry with the Habsburgs in the Reich) and with Russia (which turned, in the next century, the Pan-Slavic ideas into the credo of its state policy, contributing in a significant way to undermining the Danubian Monarchy internally in the second half of the century and causing its ultimate collapse in 1918).


Thus the geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had several dimensions: the religious and cultural, geographical and spatial, ethnic, dynastic, awareness-based – and though this may sound a little strange – the internal dimension, meaning that geopolitics affected the internal political scene of the Polish-Lithuanian state, both in terms of its political culture, and problems with maintaining its stability. The latter dimension proved to be of conclusive importance for the decisive moment of the history of the state which failed to form a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian union. According to the author of these words, the moment was the year 1648.

The international position of Poland and Lithuania in the period under study underwent a profound evolution, which allows us to distinguish five “geopolitical periods” in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth:

1.                       The superpower period (1569-1648), when the material and cultural power of that monarchical republic was associated with the simultaneous weakness of its neighbours: Russia, which was backward in civilisation terms, destroyed internally by the rule of a sadistic madman (Ivan the Terrible), and then immersed for a long time in the anarchy of the Time of Troubles, and Germany, which was divided into small warring kingdoms and led to the brink of despair as well as material and demographic ruin caused by the Thirty Years’ War. Turkey, which was – like Poland and Lithuania – at the height of its power at the time, was fighting wars on other fronts with coalitions of various Christian states, ranging from Spain, Venice to Austria. It was also forced to confront the Persian rivalry. As a result, it could not deploy all its forces against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with the latter even launching an offensive military operation against it, which ended in a failure though (the defeat in the Battle of Cecora). It was also a period when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or non-state actors operating from its territory (magnates or the Zaporizhian Sich) attempted to expand externally through armed interventions in Moscow, in the Crimea, or in the Danubian Principalities.

2.           The state crisis period (1648-1660), which started with the Khmelnytsky Uprising, supported by the Crimea, and reached its peak during the Muscovite, Swedish, Brandenburg-Prussian, and Transylvanian invasions. What revealed itself most forcefully at the time was “internal geopolitics” (i.e. the balance of powers within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between its Catholic and Protestant elements – “on the Swedish and Polish front,” the Latin and Ruthenian or Orthodox elements, complicated by the conflicts of social nature which added to the divisions – “on the Muscovite front”), and the impact of “external geopolitics” on the internal situation, whether the unwillingness to compromise stemming from the non-existence of a sense of external threat, or the foreign interventions of the neighbours, which were seizing the opportunity.

3.            The period of armed defence of the subjectivity of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1660-1699), when the latter stabilised its eastern borders and temporarily stopped further expansion of Moscow, but accepted the huge territorial losses to Russia, and fought a dramatic conflict with Turkey, whereby it lost Podole first to regain it later, putting a permanent stop to Turkey’s ability to effectively expand not only against Poland and Lithuania, but also generally in Europe. It was also a time when the Commonwealth demonstrated for the last time – in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 – its ability to effectively project its military power beyond its own borders.

Throughout the second half of the 17th century, the geopolitical political position of Poland and Lithuania was being determined not only by the pressure from external and internal enemies, which were taking advantage of its growing weakness (Moscow, Sweden, Turkey, Crimea, Prussia, Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks, and Transylvania), but also by the anti-Swedish and anti-Turkish alliance with Austria, and the conflict of interests between the enemies of the Commonwealth, which mutually feared that their competitors would be strengthened.

4.          The period of the decline (1700-1788), when as a result of the Great Northern War, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the subject of a game of the surrounding powers and was trapped in the triangle of the black eagles, with the dominant role of Russia and the rising power of Prussia, the parallel fading of the Polish-Austrian alliance, and the reversing role of Sweden, and in particular Turkey, as rivals of the tsarist empire. It was also a period when the demographic and civilisational vacuum in the Wild Fields and the importance of non-state actors faded, and when the technological leap was made in the field of administration and military technology which affected the balance of powers between the Polish-Lithuanian state (and Turkey) and the quickly modernising Enlightenment absolutist monarchies at its borders.

5.           The reform period ended in a sudden death (1788-1795) under the blows of the armed violence from Poland’s neighbours, when the tangle of the armed conflicts Russia was involved in created an opportunity for shaking off its rule, and the end of those conflicts, combined with the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, which consolidated the solidarity of the partitioning powers and gave them support from London, which was in conflict with Paris, sealed the fate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, erasing it for 123 years from the map of Europe, to which it was to return only as a result of the fundamental change in the geopolitical structure of the continent as a result of the First World War.


Recently added articles


This website is a part of the project entitled ‘Polish Political Thought and Independence: A Program for the Promotion of Polish Intellectual Heritage Abroad’, generously funded
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as A part of ‘Public Diplomacy 2017’ programme, component ‘Collaboration in the field of Public Diplomacy 2017’.
Design by Stereoplan