Tsar Alexander I’s future was foretold: a great war with a man on a white horse—Napoleon—and then the distant future of twentieth-century Russia: the nation overcome by a red wave of destruction and then war in which millions would perish.
When Prince Adam Czartoryski of Poland found himself a prisoner of the Russian Tsar, Catherine the Great, following the failure of the Polish uprising of 1794 of which his family—previously sympathetic to Russia—had been a part, he befriended Catherine’s grandson, Alexander, then being groomed to one day follow in Catherine’s footsteps. During one conversation between the two noblemen, the Polish Prince expressed the opinion that hereditary monarchy is the truly just and right form of government, to which Alexander, presumptive heir to the Russian throne, replied that, no, rulers ought to be elected by citizens of republics, and it is toward republican government that the world must rightly progress. To this, his prisoner, the Polish Prince, retorted that this cannot be, for it was freedom of election that destroyed his Polish fatherland; it was the free election of Kings that so weakened Poland as to lead to her demise and dismemberment by Austria, Prussia and Russia. Alexander—future Tsar of Russia—grew passionate with anger:
The partition of Poland is one of the greatest crimes of the century! My grandmother—a German—has destroyed a slavic kingdom in cooperation with Prussia ! What need does Russia have for more land?! It is hard enough for us to rule what we already have! If I ever ascend to the throne, I will repay Poland this hideous and scandalous robbery! I will restore her freedom and restore the lands we have taken from Poland!
This brief exchange between one of Poland’s greatest Princes and the man whom Catherine the Great named for Aristotle’s imperial student illustrates the entire, complex spectrum of Eastern European affairs for all time. To the Western observer, this account no doubt seems absurd and rife with contradictions. Western rationalism makes it difficult to comprehend how this dialogue could come about. To make sense of this conversation, and of Eastern Europe and Russia, the Western mind must abandon rationalism and embrace religious imagination. Alexander himself, though trained by Voltaire’s master student, understood the religious imagination very well.
One of the greatest books ever conceived by Leo Tolstoy recounts how, towards the end of his life, Tsar Alexander would stage his own death in order to forsake political rule, travel deep into the frozen wasteland of Siberia and lead the life of a Christian hermit. Alexander’s religious imagination was awakened in him at an early age by a gypsy prostitute whom he loved with the courage of a Russian officer who is expected to love women other than his wife. Marusia, who played Diotima to Alexander’s Socrates, unaware of his true identity, explained to Alexander during one of their erotic encounters that contrary to the prejudices of the time according to which Roma Gypsies are devil worshippers, she and her people (who migrated to Europe from India) were actually devout Christians under the patronage of the first Christian martyr: St. Romi. St. Romi was a Roman centurion charged with preparing the nails which were to be driven into the flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ. St. Romi wanted no part in the crucifixion, and his creative refusals incensed his superiors who had him executed—Christ’s first martyr and now patron saint of all Roma gypsies. Alexander’s lover led him to her family who foretold the Tsar’s future: a great war with a man on a white horse—Napoleon—and then the distant future of twentieth-century Russia: the nation overcome by a red wave of destruction and then war in which millions would perish.
Prior to his introduction to Christian religious imagination by a prostitute and a gypsy soothsayer, Alexander was a deist in the Western mould, like his grandmother, taught to honor religion in earnest as a matter of political wisdom. Catherine had arrived in a Russia mired in political crisis as a young, beautiful German princess and found Russian elites who spoke only French and hated their Church. She immediately set about learning Russian and made a point of attending the Orthodox masses, which lasted several hours, with regularity and respect. Eventually, she gained the support of the people and the respect of the army and ascended the throne in the place of her deranged husband. Spying the predispositions for greatness in her grandson Alexander, she saw to the boy’s liberal education with a view to statesmanship. Tutored in history, politics and languages, young Alexander was forced to live a spartan existence so as to form in him a character resilient to the banal temptations of monarchy which make for soft and effeminate rulers. Catherine forbade him coming into close contact with women, and when it was reported that his bed sheets were found wet one morning following dreams of tender chambermaids, she quickly brought an upright German princess to Russia for Alexander to marry, because German women are obedient and bear many children. Luisa renounced Luther, was baptized Orthodox, and took the name Elizabeth.
Alexander’s political convictions matured along lines similar to those of his grandmother who yearned to enlighten and civilize Russia. Catherine read all the great literature and political philosophy of the age, becoming particularly fond of Rousseau and Voltaire. When Alexander ascended to the throne, he spoke of his desire to continue his grandmother’s reforms, to harken back to the visionary and progressive program of Peter the Great. “I want Russia to be a respected European country, not only feared.” Yet Alexander was likewise aware, as his grandmother had become aware, that within the seeds of Western Enlightenment philosophy lay buried a terrible, revolutionary poison that had shocked Catherine and all of the enlightened minds of the East, who witnessed the insane and barbaric spectacle of the French revolution. Alexander had no illusions.
One did not need to look far to see where the application of Enlightenment philosophy would lead. Russia did not need to look to France—it was enough to look to Poland, the most Western slavic kingdom and to the chaos in Moscow itself when Catherine arrived. Moscow was then ruled by a man who was too embarrassed of “Russian barbarism” to speak his own language and admired the Prussian king who was defeating Russia’s armies on the battlefield. The ills of the Enlightenment were visible even after Catherine’s ascent, in Poland. The King of Poland, Stanisław Poniatowski, was the most brilliant and enlightened ruler in Europe. His Palace on the Water is—even today—a veritable temple to ancient Greek virtues, as is the entire park surrounding it in Warsaw. This monarch of exquisite taste, English education, diplomatic grace, and liberal dispositions was Catherine the Great’s lover, but despite his efforts to convince Austria and Prussia of Poland’s great service to Europe in the defense of Vienna against Islamic invasion, he was incapable of stopping the culmination of internal political weakness and halting the appetites of German princes for Polish land. Faced with a weakened Poland no longer able to defend itself against the vicious appetite of Western Empires and preoccupied by war with Islamic Princes, Catherine agreed to a settlement with Austria and Prussia which partitioned Poland. The Polish republic attempted to fight back in a war against Russia, goaded on by promises of Prussian support, but this war only sealed the nation’s doom when Western guarantees of military aid went unfulfilled. The genesis of this horrific fate was, as Poland’s Prince Adam Czartoryski would warn Tsar Alexander in the future, essentially one thing: Western Democracy, or as the Prince called it “free elections.”
Yet while the French revolution brought so much disorder and fear to Russia (Catherine ordered Russia’s French populace to swear allegiance to the heir to the French throne), young Alexander never lost his republican enthusiasm. Prince Adam Czartoryski of Poland, Alexander noted, was a prisoner of Russia yet behaved like a free man. Czartoryski’s intelligence won over his Russian captor and the two became friends. Alexander, the republican whose monarchy had vanquished the Polish republic, was stunned by Polish Prince Czartoryski’s principled royalism. Alexander confided to his Polish friend that he wished to relinquish all rights to his throne and move to Virginia, where he hoped to buy a cotton plantation and live the life of an agrarian republican. His prisoner, Poland’s Prince Adam Czartoryski, chided him: “Sire! You cannot! Think of Russia! You are bound to your duty just as the Russian peasant is bound to his! You cannot relinquish your duty!”
As has always been the case with Poland’s greatest political thinkers, Prince Adam Czartoryski—though magnificent enough to compel Alexander to do his duty to Russia—was not successful in compelling his countrymen to do theirs to Poland. The political disintergration of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was not entirely due to internal factors, but the fact that there is even a serious debate as to whether internal or external factors were at fault indicates that the internal political malice of Poland was severe. The Kościuszko Uprising was therefore not only a reaction to Russian political rule, but a symptom of the weakness of Poland’s politics which were incapable of sustaining stable government. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Prince Adam Czartoryski was the most important Polish statesman to attend the peace conference, brought to Vienna by Tsar Alexander I. Czartoryski supported the creation of a Polish constitutional monarchy. The new Polish state was named the “Congress Kingdom” after the Congress of Vienna. The basic idea of the Congress Kingdom was that Poland would be ruled by a Western style, liberal constitution guaranteeing her liberty and that this constitutional order would be guaranteed by Poland’s new King: the Tsar of Russia. Territorialy, Congress Poland was a shadow of the former commonwealth—but this fact is acknowledged by all serious historians to be a function of internal factors. Even Prince Czartoryski opined that it was due to “free elections.” European prejudice attributed the demise to Polish Jacobism. Symptoms of this internal discord persist to the present day.
Modern Polish patriots, frequently extreme in their dislike of Russia, delight often in singing the patriotic hymn “God who Hath Preserved Poland.” In the modern age, this patriotic song is widely associated with the rebirth of Poland in 1918. This association is symptomatic of Polish weakness: ignorance of Polish political history in favor of revolutionary mythology. In fact, the song sounds silly in the mouths of its modern anti-Russian proponents since it was originally composed by a grateful citizenry in Warsaw in honor of none other but Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King of Poland. In Warsaw, the Polish King, Tsar Alexander spoke to the parliament thus:
Your hopes are fulfilled along with my wishes… You have given me the means by which I may demonstrate to my fatherland what it is that I have in store for her and what it is that my fatherland will eventually receive given that this great political project will develop here first… representatives of the Kingdom of Poland: live up to the majesty of your duty! You are called upon to set an example for all of Europe! All of Europe turns its eyes upon you! The effects of your work will demonstrate to me whether I will be able to expand upon what I have already endeavored.
The Republican Tsar made it clear that the success of constitutional monarchy in Poland would, he hoped, pave the way for greater liberty in the entire Russian Empire. The basis of this republican liberty was to be the monarchial order. Republican liberty would grow, guarded from the perils of revolutionary whirlwinds by a strong monarchy and a strong religious sentiment. Even the possibility of reuniting the schismatic Churches of Rome and Moscow existed, particularly when Alexander’s brother, governor of Warsaw, married a Polish Catholic. While there was disagreement over who was at fault for the schism, both parties agreed that the schism was vile. Catholic Jesuits, though they had suffered under previous Tsars, knew well that it was Paul I, Alexander’s father, who had come to their defense against Napoleon. Tsar Alexander planned to expand the Kingdom with the lands promised to Prince Adam Czartoryski—the inflanty, Galicia. Alexander even alarmed the Prussians during his visits to Poland when he traveled West and spoke vigorously in favor of Polish claims to Poznan, birthplace of the first Polish Kings almost 1000 years earlier.
Yet Alexander would be sorely disappointed by the eruption of an anti-Russian conspiracy amongst segments of the Polish army in 1824. The humiliation was all the greater since the Polish army under Alexander I was considered one of the most powerful in all of Europe and feared by German Princes. Alexander I spared the Polish conspirators harsh punishment, they were sentenced in Warsaw to six to nine years of hard labor, but Alexander did demand the public humiliation of Major Łulasiński, founder of the Patriotic Association and principle conspirator. The Major was stripped of his uniform in public. “I alone bartered a Polish state in Europe for them in Vienna on their behalf,” Alexander growled, “I gave them a constitution more splendid than even that which Ludvik XVIII gave the French. But none of it is good enough, nothing satisfies them. They constantly plot and conspire!”
Naturally, one could argue that the yearning for complete independence from foreign rule was so strong a sentiment, that full sovereignty and republicanism without Russian monarchy was such a clear natural right that Alexander’s liberalism would never suffice, that only his abdication along with the collapse of the black eagles would satisfy justice. Yet if one recalls the precise mechanism by which Poland was partitioned, one will readily observe that this mechanism was liberum veto, an extreme form of democracy for the time, and the lack of even a trace of republican virtue amongst so many of the Polish gentleman who gave themselves the right to exercise this veto, as exemplified by the fact that so many Polish parliamentarians were quick to vote on the basis of how much money competing Russian, German and Austrian princes would pay them. The Polish republic did not collapse from a sudden immediate outside intervention. It collapsed due to a Polish ruling elite who had made of themselves the executors of the wishes of foreign princes—for a price—rather than making of their country a splendid republic. Those who argue that Alexander’s noble speeches to the Congress Kingdom of Poland following the Napoleonic wars were mere rhetoric, that the slow erosion of constitutionalism in favor of greater Tsarist dominion was a premeditated policy, fail to ground their theories in anything but romantic dithering.
The fact of the matter is that the European order which emerged from the concert of Vienna was an attempt to create the political foundations for the progress of liberty and wider republican government on the one hand, while preserving republican ideals against revolutionary tendencies on the other. No one would accept the implementation of Napoleonic and Jacobin radicalism in Poland, nor a return to the “golden liberty,” which was nothing but practical anarchy and national suicide in the form of the old liberum veto. Had Poland under Alexander developed moderate and wise constitutional republicanism rather than taken the quick and easy immediate route of uprisings, the fate of Congress Poland may have been very different from what it was. A well-governed Poland could have been a beacon for republican government in Russia, just as Alexander had hoped it would be.
Sadly, such was not the case. Each uprising merely served to convince Moscow that republican forms, even under constitutional monarchy, were bound to eventually produce revolution and anarchy. Prince Adam Czartoryski, who should have played an important role in the development of Polish republicanism instead found himself in the age-old tragic role of an émigré statesmen dreaming up visions of Polish glory from Western capitals. His important political works called for the rebirth of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, but by committing himself to teaching Western men the virtues of a Polish republic, he did little to teach his own people. He died in 1861, living in France. His failure to become the statesman that Poland required was not his alone. He often opposed popular excess, but was powerless to stop either his countrymen shooting themselves in the foot or Russia from shooting their other foot. Poles often study his idealistic writings composed from France when they would do better to study his political practice and the anarchic vices of Poland which made it impossible for him to stand at the head of her government for more than half a year before resigning in disgust and throwing his life away by joining an anti-Russian uprising led by an Italian. Prince Adam Czartoryski could have and should have been the pre-eminent statesman of Poland in XIX century Europe. That he was not demands attention. Meanwhile, the Polish Prince’s dear Russian friend, though widely suspected of dying, is thought by some—Tolstoy amongst them—to have abandoned all hope in republican ideals, staged his death, and set off for Siberia to commune with the Almighty until breathing his last breath.
Today, as Europe struggles to maintain a faltering political order in the face of new challenges, all eyes once more turn to Poland: eyes largely unaware of the thousand-year tumults of this region; eyes largely blind to the fact that “Ukraine” is eastern Poland, that the III Republic is akin to the Congress Kingdom, that the new Congress of Vienna was the array of political agreements which forged modern Europe in 1989, and that if Poland does not now live up to the dreams of its old Russian republican King, Alexander, then Europe will once again be consumed by revolution, war, and poverty. Yet given the fact that the modern patriots of Poland who march through the streets chanting “God who Hath Preserved Poland,” and those doing the bidding of Western paymasters egging on their hatred of Russia do not even know that the patriotic songs they sing were composed to honor the Russian Tsar who gave them a Republic—the chances are that those of us hoping for the triumph of liberty might have to take flight. We have two possible routes: a hotel in France where fables of a republican Poland might be composed, or Siberia where we can liberate ourselves from the cares of this cruel life and find our peace with Alexander’s God. It is up to Poles to prove the pessimists wrong and live up to the republican hopes expressed for her by Russia’s republican Tsar.
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Author’s note: The above essay is a political reflection upon the vie romance and other works composed by World War II Polish army veteran (1939 September campaign) and Harvard University scholar Marian Kamil Dziewanowski.
The featured image is a detail from “Portrait of Emperor Alexander I” (1826) by George Dawe (1781–1829) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.