[Patrick Foley and Henry Ware]

Poland’s complex history is fraught with dissolution, partition, and foreign intervention. However, some form of a nascent form of national identity among the Poles endured over countless generations and formed a common bond amongst the people inhabiting the territory. The history of Poland fascinates scholars because of the nation’s resilience and ever-shifting orientation. In place of focusing on these particular aspects of Polish history, such as whether Poland is oriented towards Europe in the West or Russia in the East, a brief overview of Polish history within the context of its foreign neighbors may prove more useful in understanding the nature of Poland as a borderland.

The history of Russian intervention in the territory from the early Russification policies of the tsarist administration to the Sovietization policies employed by the Soviet administration demonstrates the unique character of the Poles. Despite various campaigns against and partitions of their territory, the Poles have continued to survive. Traditionally, Russia served as a leader in the occupation of Polish territory. Therefore, Poland’s history from the time of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth to the present day is inextricably tied to Russian occupation and efforts to incorporate the Poles into a distinctly Russian framework of empire.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, often ignored by modern scholars as an irrelevant Empire, dominated the political affairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the borderlands. Russia’s foreign policy focused extensively on the threat posed by the joint commonwealth. A general for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Zolkiewski, even led a successful military advance towards Moscow from 1610-1612 (Davies, 266). For a period of nearly two centuries, the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth permeated throughout much of Eastern Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth thrived during the Vasa period as a result of increased agricultural exports and the new availability of shipping ports along the Baltic Sea (Stone, 191). However, the period of military decline in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century marked a major transition. Wars, both external and internal, devastated the Republic from 1648 to 1715 and the economic success of the empire declined as agricultural production and cultivation decreased by nearly fifty percent (Stone, 289). Meanwhile, Russia grew increasingly powerful and the status of the Polish Republic was slowly weakened.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the once powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was merely a vestige of its former self. In 1763, following the death of the head of the Polish throne, Augustus III, Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great actively intervened in the internal politics of the region by proposing a new King for the Polish monarchy (Eversley, 35). Polish dissidents, often motivated by religious considerations, challenged the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Orthodox Christians claimed that Catholic leaders abused Orthodox worshippers and pleaded for protection by the Russians throughout the 1760s (Alexander, 123). The strategic importance of Poland also made it a ripe target for Russia. Catherine the Great’s desire to orient her empire towards the West was another contributing factor in her decision to expand into the Polish realm.

Catherine the Great's desire to reorient her empire towards the West led her to take an active interest in acquiring territories from Poland (Image courtesy of nndb.com).

The first of three separate partitions of Poland took place in 1772. Russia, Austria, and Prussia divided the Polish lands into different administrative territories that were incorporated into their respective empires. While Catherine the Great initially had the dominant position of the three powers, Russia’s territorial gains during the first partition were actually less than one might expect. Russia acquired 12.7 percent of the Polish territory, but this territory did not contain a significant amount of mineral wealth or arable land (Kaplan, 188-189). The major powers were not yet finished with the Poland question. Military campaigns against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth continued throughout the 1770s and 1780s. The second partition came about after the formation of a Russo-Austrian alliance agreed on terms for a joint annexation of Polish lands in 1793 (Alexander, 274). The three powers reached a final agreement on 26 January 1797 that divided the remaining bulk of Polish territory (Lukowski, 182). For all intents and purposes, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth no longer existed. Poland no longer remained on equal terms with the major powers of the region. The Congress of Vienna only confirmed the subservient status of Poland to these major empires. During the Congress, Tsar Alexander I claimed sovereignty over the near entirety of the Duchy of Warsaw, and assumed control over the administration of the Polish territory (Eversley, 278). While the state no longer formally existed, Poland lived on through the resistance movement led by individuals who still identified themselves as Polish.

Polish resistance against the Tsar endured throughout the nineteenth century. Polish resistance took on a variety of unique aspects, particularly the role of religion. Polish patriotism has often been linked to the teachings of the Catholic Church. While a plethora of different loyalties and nationalities within Poland divided the nation during the nineteenth century, the Church also stood as a symbol of opposition to the oppressive policies enacted by Tsar Nicholas I and his administration (Davies, 240-241). Many scholars have discussed Catholicism in Poland as an aspect of Solidarity under Lech Walesa and resistance to Soviet policies. The same could be said of Polish resistance within the tsarist context. Similarly, Jews in Poland played a prominent role in resistance against the Russians. The high population of Jews remained an active source of opposition to the Russians until the mass extermination of Polish Jews during the Second World War at the hands of Germany.

The continued presence of these opposition groups in Poland allowed for the resurrection of Polish territorial claims during negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The Europeans recognized Poland as a legitimate nationality, and the respectability of a Polish ethnic group afforded Poland certain territorial privileges in keeping with the notion of national self-determination. The Soviets would later order their empire around the similar concept of titular nationality.  Poland benefited greatly from the consensus among the Western powers after World War One over the question of self-determination, and received massive land grants to restore their nation to prominence. The Second Republic officially formed on 11 November 1918, and many Poles viewed it as the reincarnation of the truly legitimate government that existed during the First Republic (Davies, 100-101). Despite this newfound independence, the restoration of Poland did not mark the end of Russian intervention in Polish affairs. The Soviet Union made a concerted effort to incorporate the Poles into their rapidly expanding sphere of influence.

Poland and Russia Since 1918 [H. Joseph Ware]

The Polish state that formed in the aftermath of the First World War under the helm of Josef Piłsudski had to immediately address the fact that it was seen by Russia as a border, or buffer zone. It was true that Poland had been the border of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the past, but with both of these powers emasculated by defeat in the war, Russia alone had the ability to define the position of this state. The section will examine Poland’s encounters with its powerful neighbor throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Josef PiludskiIn its birth pangs, the new Polish republic (called the Second Republic by Poles because it was seen as a reincarnation of the 18th century Polish republic) fought six border wars with its neighbors (Davies 1984, 115-6). The most significant of these was the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920; it was fought over land that both Poles and Russians considered essential to their territory, but which was inhabited by people who professed no identity other than that of being border people (ibid.; Davies 1972, 35). (At his more heady moments, Piłsudski himself envisioned a Federation of Borders including Poland and extending to the Ukraine (ibid., 30).)

For Poles, whose identity had been nurtured during the years of the partition by the memory of the historic Poland, kept alive by writers like Mickiewicz and Sienkiewicz, a Poland without the Eastern borders was no Poland at all. For the newly Soviet Russians, considerations of national integrity were less important. Instead, the Bolsheviks saw control of the Eastern borders as essential to spreading the international proletarian revolution into Europe. It is important to recall that spreading the revolution was seen as an existential necessity by the Bolsheviks, for whom a lone Soviet Russia seemed doomed to failure (ibid., 29).

These ideological considerations aside, the Polish-Soviet war began quite contingently. In early 1919, with both Polish and Soviet forces in disarray, war seemed impossible. But the German army in Ober-Ost that had separated the two forces began to withdraw, and the two began to, as Norman Davies has put it, spontaneously flow into the border regions, leading to abortive fighting throughout the year. This fighting was to die down in the autumn of 1919 (ibid., 27, 38, 41, 77).

In the beginning, neither side was committed to the conflict. The Bolsheviks had no resources to spare for the Polish front, as they had yet to defeat the White Russians. The Poles, themselves pressed for resources, also feared the White Russians, whom they saw as being especially committed to the inclusion of Poland into Russia, more than the Bolsheviks. But, after the winter of 1919, the war quickly turned from a contingent, casually prosecuted affair to something more. Encouraged by success against the White Russians and inspired by the call to carry the revolution abroad, the Soviets began to mass troops in the area. Piłsudski, for his part, solidified his commitment to Petlura’s independent government of Ukraine by launching an invasion of Ukraine on May 7 (Zamoyski, 337).

With the intensification of the war, the situation for Poland worsened steadily. The invasion of Ukraine proved abortive, actually opening another front for the Soviet invasion, and Piłsudski was forced to retreat (Davies, 1972, 126-7). The Soviet invasion of Poland proceeded apace, and August 1920 brought them to the gates of Warsaw. All thought that this would be the end of independent Poland (Zamoyski, 337-8).

Polish Soldiers near RadzyminBut the Soviet army was overextended in an increasingly hostile countryside (Lenin had expected the Poles to welcome the Bolsheviks as liberators), and Josef Piłsudski, whose role in Polish victory has been historically written off, was able to turn back the Russians at Warsaw by delaying the Russian advance long enough to defend the city (Davies 1972, 209; Davies 1984, 118). The Poles then counterattacked at Zamosc and again at the Battle of Niemen—actions which broke the strength of the Russian army (Davies 1972, 226; Zamoyski, 338). The Bolsheviks sued for peace, and, on October 18, 1920, both sides observed a ceasefire (Daveis 1972, 257). Poland’s victory was confirmed by the 1921 Treaty of Riga, which granted them the line they held at the armistice with some adjustments in their favor, plus fiscal compensation from the Soviet Union (ibid., 261).

Between the world wars, Poland, like many other European nations of the period, saw the failure of its parliamentary government and its replacement with one more authoritarian at the hands of Piłsudski in 1926 (Davies 1984, 121-4). Piłsudski himself hovered on the margins of power, pulling strings and developing the “Doctrine of Two Enemies”, in which he saw Poland trapped between her two mortal enemies, Germany and Russia (ibid., 126; Zaboyski, 342). Skeptical of its nominal allies in Western Europe and conscious that it had no bargaining chip other than its use as a theater of war, the Polish government pursued a path of peace at any price, negotiating non-aggression pacts with the Soviet Union and Germany in 1932 and 1934, respectively (ibid., 353-4).

Polish strategic planning for the possibility of a German invasion relied on assurances of intervention from the French and the British. If the Polish could hold out for two weeks, the thinking ran, that would give enough time for the French to throw forces across the Rhine. As it happened, when Germany invaded in 1939, the Polish were able to hold a line against them for as long as four weeks in some areas, but their allies did no more than declare war on Germany. As soon as Stalin saw that no other intervention was forthcoming, he sent troops into Poland to claim his share. By October, independent Poland was only a memory, and the two powers divvied up Poland’s land and people, with 1,700,000 million Poles being sent to Siberia (ibid., 357). Both Germany and the Soviet Union prosecuted particularly ruthless campaigns, with 15,000 Polish officers disappearing under Soviet custody, including nearly 5,000 murdered in the town of Katyn, an event which is remembered as the Katyn Massacre (Davies 1984, 67).

Although Germany’s invasion of Russia in June of 1941 made the Soviet Union an ally of Poland’s allies, the relationship between the erstwhile enemies did not resolve itself overnight. For a time, the Soviet Union did recognize General Władysław Sikorski’s government-in-exile in London, yet continued to work to build Soviet parallels in Poland (Zamoyski, 361). Although it was willing to return Polish prisoners to help the new Polish army under the direction of General Anders, it harassed this army continually, forcing it to decamp to Iran, where it could assist the British (Ibid., 372). They also steadfastly refused to aid the AK, the Polish Home Army.

The most tragic example of this is found in the Battle of Warsaw, which began on August 1, 1944 with an uprising by the AK, expecting that nearby Soviet forces would come to their aid in unseating the Germans. Stalin, who saw the AK as an obstacle to molding Polish society to meet Soviet expectations after the war, did not lift a finger, eventually even suspending the routine shelling of German positions in the area. This led to the German destruction of Warsaw after one of the bloodiest battles of the European war (ibid., 365-8).

Curzon lineBy occupying much of Poland before the Allies or the Polish army were able to, Stalin was in a position to outmaneuver the Allies diplomatically over the fate of postwar Poland and win, for the Soviets, 16 out of 21 constituents of the interim government formed in 1945, a government which won Allied recognition over the exile government in London. The boundaries of Poland were trimmed to the Curzon line (which is approximately the boundary today). Poland, which had lost 38 percent of its national assets in the war, was forbidden to take money from the Marshall Plan (ibid., 369, 376). Sham elections in 1947 were held to satisfy Western observers, and were followed by a purge which replaced all key party positions with trusted Stalinists. In 1952, Poland became the People’s Republic of Poland (ibid., 370-1). Throughout the Soviet period, Poland was economically subservient to the Soviet Union; for example, it was forced to give to the Soviets thousands of tons of coal between 1946 and 1955 (ibid. 376).

By and large, the Polish party system successfully replicated the Soviet model. Poland had its own home-grown (if watered down by the Soviets) nomenklatura, and the party became filled with functionaries (ibid., 374). But there were exceptions to the spread of the Soviet model. Poland remained an exceptionally religious country, with some expressions of Catholicism actually intensifying under Communist rule. Poland hosted the only counter-elite of the Communist and had an exceptionally militant working class, which would lead to the emergence of the Solidarity (Kotkin, 100, 101).

The end of Communist rule in Poland brought a change to Russian-Polish relations. Both Russian and Polish leaders adopted strategies of caution in order to avoid conflict. For the first time, Gorbachev admitted Russian culpability in the Katyn massacre. And Polish leaders were also eager to compromise—the most notable example being that of Foreign Minister Skubiszewski, whose adept handling of the return of the 58,000 Russian troops stationed in Poland reduced the Russian force to a 6,000 skeleton crew by 1993 (Library of Congress). More recently, Poland’s admittance to the EU and negotiation for US missile sites has strained relations, but they remain open, if unstable (Wikipedia).


Works Cited:

  • John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  • Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: the Past in Poland’s Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • ________, Heart of Europe: a short history of Poland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
  • ________, White eagle, red star; the Polish-Soviet war, 1919-20 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972).
  • G. Shaw Eversley, The Partitions of Poland (New York: H. Fertig, 1973).
  • Herbert H. Kaplan, The First Partition of Poland (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962).
  • Stephen Kotkin, Jan Tomasz Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (New York: Modern Library, 2009).
  • Library of Congress, “Soviet Union and Russia.” Accessed April 23, 2012.http://countrystudies.us/poland/89.htm.
  • Jerzy Lukowski, The Partitions of Poland: 1772, 1793, 1795 (London: Longman, 1999).
  • Daniel Stone, The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).
  • Piotr Stefan Wandycz, The Lands of Partitioned Poland 1795-1918, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974).
  • Wikipedia. Wikipedia, s.v. “Poland–Russia relations.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poland–Russia_relations (accessed April 23, 2012).
  • Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture (New York: F. Watts, 1988).


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