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East Central Europe, A History of
11: The Later Sixteenth Century
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The countries of East Central Europe never had easy access to the sea. In the south they indeed approached the Mediterranean, and in particular two of its main bays, the Adriatic and the Black Sea. But the Southern , who had reached the Adriatic through their migrations in the early Middle Ages, were soon almost entirely cut off from its shores by Venetian conquests. Croatia, in union with Hungary, retained only the port of Fiume. At the southern tip of Dalmatia, the port of Dubrovnik (Ragusa) had developed into a small, practically independent republic on the Venetian pattern. As to the Black Sea, Bulgaria, both Rumanian principalities, and the Ruthenian provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Federation had long been in possession of important sections of its coast, but Ottoman expansion in the sixteenth century made the Black Sea a Turkish lake, since the Crimean Tartars, who were vassals of the empire, controlled the steppes from the Crimea to Moldavia, also under Turkish suzerainty.
For the Jagellonian Union, which therefore only nominally reached the Black Sea between the mouths of the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, under such conditions it was of paramount importance to have at least free and broad access to the Baltic, on the northern side of the wide isthmus which was the geographical basis of the whole federal system. In 1466 Poland had indeed regained Eastern Pomerania, together with the important port of Danzig. But Lithuania never possessed more than a small strip of the Baltic coast, with no port at all. Furthermore, these two coast sections of the federated countries were separated by East Prussia, a Polish fief, but under German administration and of dubious loyalty before and after the secularization of 1525. And even Danzig interpreted its royal charters as confirmation of its position as a free city with its own Baltic policy dictated by local trade interests.
For all these reasons the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although by far the largest Baltic power, was not at all the strongest rival in the contest for Baltic supremacy which opened with the disintegration of one of the smallest but crucially situated Baltic states, the semi-ecclesiastical German colony of Livonia. Its position was so important because Livonia had some excellent ports in Riga, Reval (Tallin), Narva, etc., and ancient trade relations with the Lithuanian and Russian hinterland. Also because that central sector of the southeastern coast of the Baltic was in close commercial and political relations with Germany proper, another Baltic power, thanks to the old Hanseatic center of Lübeck and to the coastlines of Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania. These traditional relations with the homeland of the German settlers and masters of Livonia seemed to assure them the permanent protection of the empire.
This rather theoretical protection, however, had never helped them much against the most serious danger which had threatened them since Moscow’s conquest of the neighboring republics of Pskov and Novgorod. That danger was the pressure of a Russia which was now united under Moscow’s leadership and anxious to gain for herself an access to the Baltic which would be larger than her small strip of coast between the Narva River and the Finnish border, with no port of any significance. That situation created some kind of solidarity between Livonia and Sweden, to which Finland, on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, had belonged from the twelfth century. In the sixteenth century Finland was made an autonomous grand duchy, but she always remained exposed to Russian invasions along her wide land border. Equally interested in the fate of Livonia was another Scandinavian country, Denmark, so powerful in the Baltic during the Middle Ages and always remembering that Estonia—the northern part of Livonia—had been a Danish province from 1219 to 1346. But Denmark, Sweden’s deadly enemy since the dissolution of the Union of Kalmar in 1523, was rather prepared to cooperate with Moscow—first allied with her in 1493—with a view to establishing free navigation from the Russian-controlled mouth of the Narva River through the Danish-controlled Sound to the open ocean.
The problems of the Baltic were therefore hardly less complicated than those of the Mediterranean, so that the Baltic Sea was sometimes called the “Mediterranean of the North.” The precarious balance of power system of that region was completely upset when it became apparent that Livonia was no longer in a position to defend her independence. From 1237, when the Livonian military order, the Knights of the Sword, joined the Teutonic Knights of Prussia, Livonia had always been dependent on the support of that much stronger German Order of knighthood, and the Livonian land master willingly recognized the overlordship of the grand master of Prussia. When Albrecht of Hohenzollern secularized the Order in Prussia in 1525, Livonia could hardly enjoy her complete sovereignty. Even the prominent land master of that period, Walter von Plettenberg, famous because of his victories over the Russians in 1501 -1502, had serious difficulties in ruling a territory which remained divided into possessions of the Order, of the hierarchy under the powerful Archbishop of Riga, and of the rich cities. Moreover, as in Prussia, the spread of Lutheranism disorganized the ecclesiastical institutions which were supposed to maintain the body politic.
After the death of Plettenberg in 1535, the decline of Livonia made such rapid progress that all her neighbors became interested in the possibility of acquiring part or all of her territory. Even the Hohenzollern dynasty which had so easily gained Prussia, had some hope of repeating that successful experience in Livonia, since a brother of Albrecht of Prussia, Wilhelm, became first coadjutor and eventually Archbishop of Riga. Among the Livonian knights there were, however, two main parties. One of them tried to save the country through a policy of appeasing Russia, whose pressure became particularly threatening under Ivan the Terrible. The other favored some kind of agreement with the Jagellonian dynasty in order to obtain Lithuanian and possibly also Polish protection, and while Sigismund I had already shown some interest in the Livonian problem, Sigismund Augustus followed it with special attention.
In 1554 land master von Galen, a partisan of the Russian orientation, made a treaty with Ivan the Terrible for fifteen years. He promised not to enter into any understanding with Lithuania. Nevertheless, three years later, Galen’s successor, Wilhelm von Fürstenberg, in conflict with the Archbishop of Riga and after a diplomatic incident with the King of Poland (the traditional protector of the archbishopric), who had mobilized strong forces at the Livonian border, made an agreement with Sigismund Augustus. The czar regarded this as a breach of the treaty of 1554, and in 1558 he invaded Livonia, taking Narva and Dorpat, and terribly devastated the country. Now the majority of the Livonians, under their new land master, Gotthard Kettler, were convinced that only the Polish-Lithuanian federation could save them from Muscovite conquest. They formally asked for the protection of Sigismund Augustus, first, in 1559, in a limited form which proved inadequate, and then in a formal treaty of union which was concluded in 1561. Kettler, who secularized the Livonian Order, was made hereditary Duke of Curland (the southern part of Livonia) under the king’s suzerainty. The rest of the country was placed under Lithuanian administration with a large autonomy, including guaranties for the Protestant faith and the German language and with the prospect of being federated with both Lithuania and Poland, as really happened by the Union of Lublin. After the secularization of the archbishopric, the city of Riga joined the agreement in 1562.
But it was little more than that port and its environs which the Polish-Lithuanian forces succeeded in protecting against foreign invaders. Possible claims of the Hohenzollerns were eliminated when, in compensation, the electoral line in Brandenburg was granted the right of succession in East Prussia. But Ivan the Terrible continued to occupy a large part of Livonia, and at the same time both Sweden and Denmark entered the contest, thus making it a war among all Baltic powers, the first “Northern War.” In spite of the traditional Danish-Russian alliance, renewed in 1563, and in spite of an obvious community of interest between Sweden and the Jagellonian Union, in the first phase of the war there seemed to be a strange reversal of alliances. Eric XIV of Sweden, who occupied Estonia and even parts of Livonia proper as early as 1560, sided with Ivan the Terrible. But the king—a ruthless tyrant like his ally—was deposed in 1568 by his brother John, the Duke of Finland, who was fully aware of the Russian danger and married to a sister of Sigismund Augustus. Now Sweden was again aligned against Russia, while with Russian support Denmark hoped to get a “Livonian Kingdom” for Magnus, a brother of her king, who actually seized the island of Oesel and some territories on the mainland.
The war remained undecided, just like the struggle at the Russian-Lithuanian border. In the same year (1570), when an armistice was concluded by a joint Polish-Lithuanian mission sent to Moscow after the Union of Lublin, an international congress, without Russian participation, met in Stettin to settle the Baltic problem which began to raise a serious interest even among the Western powers, including France. No final decision was reached, especially since even the emperor wanted his suzerainty over Livonia to be recognized, though this no longer had any practical significance. But peace was restored between the Scandinavian kingdoms and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while a precarious status quo continued in Livonia, which was soon to be troubled by another Russian invasion. It required the energetic action of a new Polish king to obtain a more durable solution.
FROM STEPHEN BÁTHORY TO SIGISMUND VASA
Since the commonwealth created by the Union of Lublin was now the only independent body politic in East Central Europe, the problem of the succession after the last Jagellonian was of general importance for the whole continent. And since no native candidate had any chance of being elected, it was easy to foresee that the Polish-Lithuanian Federation would enter in turn into a union, at least of a dynastic character, with some other European country, thus affecting the whole balance of power.
During the interregnum after the death of Sigismund Augustus, on July 7, 1572, it was decided that the common election of the king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, provided for in the Lublin Covenant, would be made viritim, i.e., through the votes of all members of the szlachta who would attend the election Diet at Warsaw. At the same time new limitations of the royal power were drafted in the form of articles which any candidate would have to accept in the future, in addition to special conditions which would constitute the pacta conventa of each individual election. Nevertheless, practically all neighbors were anxious to acquire the crown of one of the largest countries of Europe, and besides the Habsburgs, who appeared as candidates in all three Polish elections of the later sixteenth century, even Ivan the Terrible made attempts to gain, if not the whole commonwealth, at least the grand duchy of Lithuania for himself or his son, possibly leaving the kingdom of Poland to a Habsburg.
Such a solution was, of course, even less acceptable to the electors than the Austrian succession had been, and all such projects opposed by Sigismund Augustus himself when, anticipating his childless death, he was considering the future of his country. The solution which he had favored and prepared in secret negotiations appealed to most of those who participated in the election of 1573, and Henry of Valois, the younger brother of Charles IX of France, was finally chosen. Dynastic ties with France were indeed no danger to Poland’s independence, and they seemed to open promising possibilities of cooperation between the leading powers of Western and East Central Europe, guaranteeing their security against Habsburg imperialism and Russian aggression. Henry accepted all conditions, including the promise of religious freedom embodied in the Warsaw Confederation, but after staying only four months in Poland he immediately returned to France when his brother died in 1574. Again the Polish throne had to be declared vacant.
The election of the following year created a dangerous division. This time the partisans of the Habsburgs chose Emperor Maximilian II himself, while the majority of the gentry under the leadership of the prominent statesman, Jan Zamoyski, formally elected Anna, a sister of the last Jagellonian, together with her prospective husband, Stefan Báthory, who after Maximilian’s death in 1576 became undisputed king. His choice was rather unexpected, since he was only Prince of Transylvania. But besides Poland, that comparatively insignificant territory was the only free land in East Central Europe. Báthory, a Hungarian nobleman of great military ability, defended Transylvania against the Habsburgs with a view to liberating all Hungary from them. At the same time he was trying to reduce the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire to a mere fiction and to secure peace with the Turks until the moment when he would be strong enough to turn against them.
In Poland he proved a remarkable ruler. He respected the constitution and completed the reforms of his predecessors by creating a supreme court of appeal, but with the loyal cooperation of Zamoyski he also strengthened the authority of the crown. At the very beginning of his reign he had to face serious troubles in Danzig. After supporting the Austrian candidate, this city wanted to seize the opportunity of internal division to enlarge the special privileges of the city. After a military victory the king was satisfied with a reasonable compromise which left Danzig an autonomous but henceforth loyal part of the commonwealth. Batory—as he was called in Poland—perfectly realized that Poland’s position on the Baltic Sea, as well as her security in general, depended primarily on a solution of the conflict with Ivan the Terrible.
The czar had profited from the Danzig crisis in order to resume the hostilities interrupted in 1570. He started by again attacking that part of Livonia which remained under Polish-Lithuanian control, but Batory and Zamoyski (the latter was not only grand chancellor but also grand hetman, i.e., commander in chief of the Polish forces), answered his aggression by trying to reconquer the White Ruthenian border lands of the grand duchy which Moscow had occupied in the preceding wars. In three campaigns the Polish-Lithuanian armies, increased thanks to unusual taxes voted by the Diet, gained considerable success. In 1579 Polotsk was retaken, and that important city now became for two centuries an outpost of Western culture. Here Batory, soon after creating a university in Wilno, founded a Jesuit college. The conquest of another fortress, Wielkie Luki, which had long ago been lost, followed in 1580. In 1581 purely Russian territory was entered. A cavalry raid almost reached Moscow, and the city of Pskov was besieged.
In that critical situation Ivan the Terrible made a skillful diplomatic move. He asked for the mediation of the Holy See, making Rome believe, as his predecessors had done on several occasions, that Moscow would be prepared for a religious union with the Catholic church. Antonio Possevino, a member of the Jesuit order who was particularly interested in this project, was indeed delegated by Pope Gregory XIII as a negotiator. But he was soon to convince himself that the hopes raised by the czar were nothing but deceptive illusions. In endless theological discussions with Ivan it became apparent that there was no chance of any understanding between Rome and Moscow which in the religious sphere, just as in the political philosophy so typically represented by the first czar, was definitely outside the Western community. It therefore only remained to fix the eastern boundaries of that community, identical with those of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Batory, too, after an exhausting effort and with the siege of Pskov dragging on, was ready to make peace. But since Moscow refused to restore Smolensk to Lithuania, only a truce was concluded at Yam Zapolsky at the end of 1581. In addition to Polotsk, Ivan had to give up all that he had occupied in Livonia, and that province was now safely in the joint possession of Poland and Lithuania. Its administration was well organized under Batory; Riga developed, besides Danzig, into a second great Baltic port of the commonwealth; and Polish Jesuits who tried to propagate Catholicism in a region which the German upper class had made almost completely Lutheran showed a real interest in the neglected native population, the Letts and Estonians and in their languages.
Sweden, which continued to hold the main northern section of Estonia, with the ports of Reval (Tallin) and Narva, had been an ally in the war with Ivan the Terrible. Making peace with him in the following year (1582), King John III of Sweden gained that section of the coast at the lower end of the Gulf of Finland which connected Estonia and Finland, thus entirely cutting off Russia from the Baltic. The cooperation against the main enemy of both countries, and the rise of Swedish power on the Baltic, were to be important factors in determining the choice of Batory’s successor.
In spite of internal difficulties toward the end of his reign, when he had to crush the opposition of the powerful Zborowski family, King Stefan Batory was considering far-reaching projects of an anti-Ottoman league, possibly in cooperation with Russia after the death of Ivan the Terrible, when he himself suddenly died two years later, in 1586, without having children. His faithful collaborator, Zamoyski again opposed the Austrian candidate to the crown, Archduke Maximilian, and the interregnum of 1587 once more resulted in a twofold election, the candidate of the majority being Sigismund, son of the King of Sweden and of Catherine, the elder sister of Sigismund Augustus.
The idea of a personal union with Sweden, where the crown was hereditary and where Sigismund III (as he was called as King of Poland) succeeded John III Vasa after his death in 1592, seemed to be in the interest of both countries. They could now join their forces in checking the Russian danger and controlling the Baltic, and finally settle their controversy over Estonia. When Zamoyski defeated Maximilian and his partisans in the Battle of Byczyna, the reign of the Vasa King, now universally recognized, began under favorable auspices. Soon, however, he disappointed both Poles and Swedes. Contrary to the expectations of Zamoyski, with whom he never established friendly relations, Sigismund III engaged in a policy of appeasing the Habsburgs. He was even suspected of clandestine negotiations with Emperor Rudolf II with a view to ceding the Polish crown to another archduke, his own interests being primarily with Sweden. But in his country of origin he was even less popular, since being a devout Catholic himself, he wanted to restore the traditional faith in a nation which long before had become almost completely Lutheran.
Sweden was definitely lost to him when he failed to gain the confidence of her people on a first visit in 1593 and when the forces loyal to the king were defeated near Stockholm five years later. His own uncle, Prince Charles of Södermanland, was the leader of the opposition, and first named regent in the place of the deposed Sigismund, he himself finally became king as Charles IX. The result was a long-lasting conflict between the two lines of the Vasas which destroyed all prospects of Polish-Swedish cooperation and led to a completely unnecessary series of wars between the two kingdoms. But before that protracted struggle started at the very turn of the century, Sigismund III who never renounced his Swedish title, had to face serious problems as King of Poland. The internal situation improved after the “inquisition” Diet of 1592, which apparently cleared the king of all suspicions, but two new issues proved of decisive importance for Poland’s position in East Central Europe.
THE UNION OF BREST
A king as decidedly Catholic as Sigismund III was of course deeply interested in the problem of religious unity within the limits of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When he was elected in 1587, Protestantism was already in retreat. Stefan Batory, though very respectful of religious freedom, had greatly contributed to the progress of a peaceful Catholic restoration. This had already started at the end of the reign of Sigismund Augustus and had found its clearest expression in the formal acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Trent by a synod of the Polish hierarchy held in Piotrkow in 1579. Under Sigismund III there was also no persecution of what remained of the once powerful Protestant minority. The new king even continued to appoint some of its leaders to high office, and excesses against Protestant churches were exceptional actions of an uncontrolled populace. But the sympathies of Sigismund III were indeed with the Catholics, and he was concerned with the problem of the Greek Orthodox who were not a small minority group but the bulk of the population in all White Ruthenian and Ukrainian lands of the commonwealth.
The temporary progress which Protestantism had made in these regions also contributed to the disintegration of the Orthodox Church which, though practically free under the Catholic rule of both Poland and Lithuania, was definitely in decline, since its head, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was under Turkish control, while the relations with Orthodox Moscow were consistently bad. On the other hand, the tradition of the Union of Florence was never entirely obliterated in these regions, and through their political union with Poland they were in permanent contact with the Catholic West.
The Polish Jesuits were the first to realize the opportunity for restoring the Union of Florence in that only section of Orthodox Christendom where such a project had any chance of success. The famous preacher, writer, and educator, Father Peter Skarga, was particularly active in that respect. In 1578, the very year when he became the first rector of the University of Wilno, he published the first edition of his treatise on “The Unity of the Church of God.” Impressed by the reports of the papal nuncios in Poland, the Holy See also had become interested in that idea in the time of Batory. If foreign Catholic leaders sometimes had the illusion that such a regional reunion would eventually lead to the conversion of all Russia, they soon realized, including Possevino himself, that the only compensation which the Catholic church could possibly find for its great losses in Western Europe was a religious union supplementing the political federation in East Central Europe.
Even here, however, no lasting success was possible without the spontaneous initiative and cooperation of the Orthodox leaders themselves. As far as laymen were concerned, the most prominent of these leaders was Prince Constantine Ostrogski, palatine of Kiev and the wealthiest landowner in the Ukraine. Seriously concerned with the critical situation of the Ruthenian church, he founded an academy in his own city of Ostrog. To this institution he invited quite remarkable teachers, choosing them, however, without much discernment and even from among theologians having distinctly Calvinistic leanings. With the papal nuncios and with members of the Catholic hierarchy he had already discussed the possibility of a reunion with Rome during Batory’s reign. But it was not until 1590 that some of the Orthodox bishops also expressed themselves in favor of such a solution.
A series of meetings of these bishops followed. In these the plan of such a union was carefully worked out, although not all of them were equally sincere in their endeavors. Thus Gedeon Balaban, the Orthodox Bishop of Lwow, a city where a Latin archbishopric had long ago been established, joined the union movement merely because of a personal conflict with the Orthodox brotherhood of the same city, one of the lay groups which tried to revive the Orthodox tradition. Much more genuine was the interest in the union shown by the Ruthenian Bishop of Lutsk, Cyril Terlecki, whose attitude was of special importance. He had been made an exarch or personal representative of the patriarchate of Constantinople when, in 1589, Patriarch Jeremiah visited the Ukraine on his way to and from Moscow where he elevated the metropolitan to the rank of patriarch. The danger of Moscow’s supremacy among all the Orthodox of North East Europe was another argument in favor of union with Rome for the Eastern Church in the Ruthenian lands where Jeremiah’s interference only resulted in growing confusion. Terlecki was encouraged to turn toward Rome by the Latin bishop of the same city of Lutsk, the future Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski. The decisive role was played, however, by another Orthodox, Hypatius Pociey, Bishop of Brest and of Volodymir in Volhynia, a former lay dignitary who had entered ecclesiastical life out of a profound desire to contribute to a better future for the Ruthenian church.
As soon as he became convinced that a return to the Union of Florence was the only solution, he tried to gain the support of the Metropolitan of Kiev, Michael Rahoza, who indeed joined the movement though not without some wavering, and also of Prince Ostrogski, with whom he had some interesting correspondence in 1593. It appeared, however, that the proud magnate, offended by not having been consulted from the outset of the discussions among the hierarchy, had a different approach to the problem. He wanted to combine the Union with some basic changes in the Protestant spirit, and he put forward the impossible condition of including the Orthodox churches of Moscow and Wallachia. For reasons insufficiently explained, he gradually became a violent opponent of the Union, a situation which seriously alarmed the king and the Polish authorities when at last, in 1595, the Ruthenian bishops, apparently unanimously, turned to them for official support. Their project seemed so desirable, however, that after consultations in Cracow, in which the papal nuncio participated, it was decided that Pociey and Terlecki should go to Rome at once and submit their desire for reunion to Clement VIII.
The Pope, a former legate to Poland, received them at the Vatican with great pleasure. There, on December 23, 1595, the union was concluded in an impressive ceremony. The two representatives of the Ruthenian hierarchy made a profession of faith in full conformity with the Catholic doctrine and with the decrees of the Council of Trent, while the Pope granted their request that the Ruthenian church be permitted to keep the Eastern rite, as recognized by the Council of Florence. There was general agreement, however, that the union had to be confirmed at a local synod of the Ruthenian church. This was finally convoked at Brest, near the Polish-Lithuanian frontier, early in October of the following year, 1596.
Despite the presence of three royal delegates who tried to mediate between partisans and opponents of the Union, that synod resulted in a split among the Ruthenians. The majority of their hierarchy, including the Metropolitan of Kiev, the Archbishop of Polotsk, and four bishops, declared in favor of the Union which was solemnly proclaimed in the Brest cathedral on the ninth of October. But two bishops, those of Lwow and Przemysl, where Catholic and Polish influence should have been strongest, joined the opposition led by Prince Ostrogski. Contrary to the king’s interdiction, he brought to Brest not only private armed forces but also foreigners. These included two Greeks who pretended to represent the patriarchate of Constantinople, then vacant, and who were suspected of being Turkish spies. One of them was the famous Cyril Lucaris, formerly a teacher at the Ostrog academy, later Patriarch of Constantinople.
In the seventeenth century Constantinople’s and Moscow’s hostility to the Union of Brest was time and again to affect Poland’s foreign relations. But internal difficulties set in at once after the synod of 1596. The opposition, which held an antisynod in the home of a Unitarian at Brest, created a common front with the Protestants with whom Ostrogski had already established contact the year before, and with whom he later made a formal agreement in 1599. In the diets of the following years those Ruthenians who rejected the Union, and in contradistinction to the Uniates were called “Dis-Uniates,” were supported by all “Dissidents” (the common designation of the non-Catholics) when they claimed for themselves all the rights and properties of the Eastern church. The government regarded the Uniates as the legitimate representatives of that church, but hesitated to take any action which would threaten religious peace. Contrary to the promises which had been made, the Uniate bishops were not granted seats in the senate. Thus they had great difficulty in defending their cause, even when the energetic Pociey became metropolitan after Rahoza’s death in 1600.
Nevertheless the Union of Brest had two equally important, though apparently contradictory, consequences. First, a large section of the White Ruthenian and Ukrainian population of the commonwealth, gradually growing in number, were henceforth Catholics, like the Poles and the Lithuanians. Though attached to their Eastern liturgy, they were now much nearer to the Western community than before and were no longer subject to any influence coming from the Muscovite or Ottoman East. On the other hand, the cultural progress and greater vitality of the Ruthenian element, which resulted from the Union, was not limited to those who joined the movement but also stimulated those who opposed it. A rich polemical literature discussing all the controversial problems which were involved theological, historic, and legal soon developed as an expression of that spiritual revival, and even when criticizing the decisions made at Brest, this contributed to closer intellectual relations between the distant Ruthenian lands and the Western world, whether Catholic or Protestant.
It is, therefore, no exaggeration to consider the Union of Brest a last great achievement, not only of the spirit of federalism which the political Jagellonian Union had developed in East Central Europe but also of the humanistic Renaissance culture which through that Union had reached those border regions of the European community. But all depended on the issue as to whether the religious controversies would continue as a merely cultural problem in an atmosphere of peace, social and political, internal and external, particularly indispensable in such regions. They were, however, seriously troubled in the very year of the Union of Brest by a revolutionary movement of local origin which was to influence all conditions of life in the Ukraine.
THE ORIGINS OF THE UKRAINIAN COZACKS
Ukraina was originally the common designation for all frontier regions of old Rus or Ruthenia. It gradually became a proper name, localized in the region where no frontier line was ever clearly fixed and where conditions remained unsettled. That was the case in the southeastern part of what had once been the Kievan State, in the wide steppes which separated the last permanent settlements and centers of administration from the shores of the Black Sea, and which were open to continuous invasions by Asiatic tribes.
The sparse population of that specific frontier territory was, in its great majority, Ruthenian. But only much later, not before the nineteenth century, the name of Ruthenians or Little Russians, always subject to confusion with the Great Russians or Russians proper, was gradually replaced by the name of Ukrainians and the whole area of that nation was called Ukraine. One of the reasons for such a change in terminology was the historical fact that it was in the original Ukraine, the southeastern border region, that not later than the sixteenth century a movement originated which gradually identified itself with the rise of modern Ruthenian nationalism. It was represented by the Ukrainian Cozacks.
The name Cozack, rather than Cossack, is of Turko-Tartar origin. In the fifteenth century it was already used for designating undisciplined groups of people, outside any stable political organization. These would sometimes appear as inspiring heroes, sometimes as dangerous brigands, in regions favorable to a life of bold adventure. Such a group also developed at the southeastern border of Muscovite Russia, in the Don region. There it was to create serious trouble for the Russian State until, after a whole series of revolts, these Don Cozacks came under strict government control and were turned into a well-known part of the Russian armed forces. Even more involved was the problem of the Ukrainian Cozacks in the Dnieper region, because when they emerged as an organization, Orthodox in faith and predominantly Ruthenian in ethnic composition, the Ukraine was part of the grand duchy of Lithuania, a Catholic state under Lithuanian leadership and federated with Catholic Poland.
So long as that state was firmly in control of the steppes as far as the Black Sea and in a position to check, one way or another, the neighboring Tartar Khanate of the Crimea, the southeastern provinces of the grand duchy, particularly Kiev autonomous under local dukes until 1471 and Eastern Podolia with Bratslav, were comparatively safe and normal conditions of life prevailed. But as soon as the Tartar invasions, never completely stopped, became a regular plague, the Khanate of the Crimea being a vassal of the advancing Ottoman Empire and frequently allied with Moscow, the steppes north of the Black Sea on both sides of the lower Dnieper and beyond its famous cataracts—therefore in Ruthenian called zaporoshe—were practically a no man’s land where the Cozack movement found a great opportunity both to supplement the inadequate defense of the country and to raid the Crimea or even Turkish possessions in turn.
The Lithuanian administration was equally aware of the services which the warlike Cozacks could render and of the danger of being involved in hostilities with Tartars or Turks through retaliatory expeditions made even in times of peace. Already under Sigismund I some of the starostas (governors) of the most exposed frontier districts south of Kiev would submit proposals for using the Cozacks as a permanent frontier guard under government control. Under Sigismund Augustus, an adventurous magnate, Prince Demetrius Wisniowiecki, organized some Cozacks on one of the Dnieper islands and led them as far as the Caucasian region and Moldavia until he was captured and executed by the Turks.
A few years later the Ukraine proper, together with the whole provinces of Kiev and Bratslav, and with Volhynia in the background, was transferred from Lithuania to Poland by the Lublin Treaty of 1569. It was now the Polish administration which, along with the whole problem of the defense of the southeastern frontier of the commonwealth, had to deal with the Cozacks. This was, at the same time, a serious social question. While all other classes of the population in the Ruthenian provinces had already been assimilated to the social pattern of Poland, the Cozacks occupied a unique position between the gentry and the peasants. Almost immediately after the Union of Lublin, Sigismund Augustus decided to grant a limited number of Cozacks the status of a military organization with self-government under their own leader but under the control of the commander in chief of the Polish forces, while the others were supposed to be mere peasants. And it was precisely that basic conception which was also followed by the king’s successors, with only the number of the so-called registered Cozacks varying in accordance with the political situation.
Stefan Batory, who needed the Cozacks in his struggle against Ivan the Terrible, developed that system but without any fundamental changes. He favored the establishment of a permanent Cozack center in the Ukraine, but one of their leaders who made an arbitrary expedition into Moldavia was executed because of Turkey’s protest. At the same time the progress of systematic colonization in the Ukrainian region by landowners belonging to both the native Ruthenian and the Polish nobility reduced the territory where the Cozacks could move freely and created endless conflicts in individual cases.
The first of these conflicts, which provoked a formal revolt of Cozack lands, started in 1592 between one of their leaders of Polish origin, Christopher Kositiski, and the most prominent Orthodox Ruthenian magnate, Prince Constantine Ostrogski, whose estates were badly devastated. Much more serious was the rebellion under Loboda and Nalevayko, which broke out in the very year of the Union of Brest, thus contributing to the tense situation in the Ruthenian lands but without having any religious motives. What increased the danger and encouraged the Cozacks, was the fact that shortly before that insurrection they had established independent relations with a foreign power, Emperor Rudolf II, thus for the first time making the Cozack question an international issue.
While Poland hesitated to join the league against the Turks planned by the Habsburgs, in 1593 the Cozacks received an Austrian envoy who was impressed by their military organization and, supported by papal diplomacy, he induced them to invade Transylvania and the Moldavian principalities the following year. This spectacular action in support of Austrian influence was not at all coordinated with Poland’s official policy. Grand Chancellor Zamoyski also led armed forces into Moldavia, but in order to establish the Mohyla (Movila) family under Polish suzerainty there, and in 1595 he made a treaty with Turkey which recognized that situation.
In the same year the Cozack leaders who had cooperated with Rudolf II turned against the Polish authorities and made devastating raids as far as Volhynia and White Ruthenia. It was not before 1596 that a Polish army under Stanislaw Zolkiewski forced the Cozacks to capitulate. Loboda was killed in a struggle with an opposing faction, and Nalevayko was captured and executed. That bloody civil war was a first momentous warning that the Cozack problem was far from being solved and that the Ukraine remained a latent center of unrest. If new troubles did not break out in the following two decades, it was because the same Polish leaders who had opposed and crushed the rebellion used Cozacks in increasing numbers, far beyond the planned “register,” in the foreign wars which started at the turn of the century.
The Cozacks fought, indeed, on the Polish side when in 1600 new troubles in Transylvania and Moldavia called for another Polish intervention. In the preceding year the Austrians had defeated the last descendants of the Báthory family and temporarily recognized Prince Michael the Brave of Wallachia as ruler of Transylvania. He also now wanted to conquer Moldavia. Zamoyski and Zolkiewski succeeded, however, in restoring the pro-Polish Mohylas in Moldavia.
Though the frontier where the Cozacks were usually fighting was now comparatively quiet, they soon found other occasions for satisfying their warlike spirit in Poland’s campaigns against distant Sweden and Orthodox Moscow. This clearly indicates that they did not yet have any independent policy of their own or any special sympathies with their coreligionists. But as a group they indeed remained foreign to Poland’s social structure and culture and much less integrated with the Western world than the other parts of the commonwealth. Although they so often proved to be an outpost defending the borders not only of Poland but of Christendom, and were to prove it again in the future, they could at any moment turn again against their official masters and create troubles in a crucial region where a transition between different civilizations was taking place. The question as to which side they would finally take was to be decisive for the future of the Ukraine and of the Ruthenian people in general, and especially for the fate of the Union of Brest in which the Cozacks originally showed little interest.
It was here in the Ukrainian steppes that Renaissance culture, after advancing so far in the eastern direction, was gradually disappearing, and it was here too that political trends, coming both from the Catholic West and from the Orthodox and Mohammedan East, were meeting and making that region near the Black Sea equally as important for the European balance of power as was the Livonian region on the Baltic. And it was precisely at the time when the Cozack wars started that even Western Europe, particularly France, began to realize that in the balance of power system the countries of East Central Europe were an indispensable element.
From the reign of Henry IV (1589—1610), French policy was also aware that Poland occupied a key position in that part of Europe. But France wanted her to cooperate with two other prospective allies against the Habsburgs, with Sweden and Turkey, and while the dynastic policy of the Vasas created a Polish-Swedish conflict instead, the Cozack problem was one of the factors which in the seventeenth century led to the long-postponed struggle between Poland and the Ottoman Empire.
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Â© 1990-2007 Donald J. Mabry / The Historical Text Archive
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