What would the world look like if Poland had not won that war?
Russia was the most important among the partitioning powers. It was that state that seized the largest part of the old Polish Common- wealth. In this arrangement, which lasted for 100 years after being confirmed in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, Russia occupied 82 percent of pre-partition Commonwealth territory (Austria took 11 percent, Prussia 7 percent), which included the capital, Warsaw. The struggle for Polish independence seemed to push Poles into taking armed action against Russia. It was Russia, then, that became enemy number one during this struggle. Two great uprisings broke out against Russia, and were suppressed with much loss of blood: the November (1830-1831) and January (1863-1864) uprisings. These followed earlier uprisings that broke out against Russia while the Commonwealth still existed (The Bar Confederation of 1768-1772; and Kosciuszko’s Insurrection of 1794).
There were nine wars, in which Poland was victorious in two, and Russia in seven; and four uprisings – all unsuccessful for Poland. Russia rose against Polish-Lithuanian domination in Muscovy when for two years (1610-1612) Poles occupied the Kremlin. The Russian uprising was successful. This was the total time that the Commonwealth was dominant over Russia – two years. Russia ruled Polish lands for over 200 years. In- directly at first during the Reign of Peter I, that is, from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the final partition; and then directly – until the disaster of World War I.
During those 200 years, hundreds of thousands of people passed through Russian prisons, incarcerated for their participation in the fight for the rights “of the unreasonable Polish nation”. No less than one hundred thousand people were sent to Siberia or to other distant outposts of the Russian Empire. No less than one hundred thousand persons fell in the uprisings against Russia, or were executed by the Russian authorities. Hundreds of thousands were deprived of their land and property. No less than a quarter million were forcibly inducted into the Russian army after 1832 (of which about 150 thousand died in the Tsar’s service). This was the most mensurable summation of the po- litical relations between Poland and Russia, at the mo- ment when Poland recovered its independence.
Was the war of 1919-1920 the tenth war in this cycle? One more Polish-Russian war? Before we answer this question, it seems worthwhile to recall this history, even in an abbreviated version, regardless of what that answer may be. After all, it had an enormous impact on the political imagination of those of the generation which defended Warsaw in 1920 as well as among those who tried to capture it. Józef Piłsudski, the first head of the reconstituted Polish nation state, was raised by his mother in the spirit of the insurrectionist tradition, under the influence of the legend of the Jan- uary Uprising. To him, Tsarist Russia was the arch-enemy. He was not the only one to think this. Most Poles at that time remembered the subjugation of the nineteenth century through family experiences. Moreover, the great literary works – chiefly by the Polish romantic authors Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński – recorded a vision of the Polish-Russian conflict on a spiritual plane. This still was still able to inspire active resonance in thought and emotions.
Excerpt translated by Peter Obst
What would the world look like if Poland had not won that war?
On 25 August, 1920, at a critical stage of the war with Poland, at a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, Lenin presented an innovative idea. He suggested dressing up the Red Army soldiers as “greens” (the term he used), and make an incursion of several kilometres into Estonia and Latvia, in order to hang “kulaks, priests and landowners”. The association is obvious – “green men” spreading terror in today’s Ukraine.
The story from one hundred years ago is presented by Professor Andrzej Nowak in his book Defeat of the Evil Empire. The year 1920. This is not coincidental. It is not just a story about the causes, course and effects of the Polish-Bolshevik War. The Krakow historian, who is also an outstanding expert on Russia, shows what the 1920 clash really was: a war of two worlds, different civilisations, the confrontation of good and evil. To realise this, it’s worth going beyond the factography and even beyond the time about which he writes. It is important to present the nature of the evil that Poles managed to stop, but not eradicate, in the summer of Professor Nowak quotes the words of Ronald Reagan, who spoke about the “evil empire” in 1982. He describes the nature of Soviet imperialism by referring to the year 1920.
Key in this book are the circumstances of Lenin’s rejection of an offer made by the British in July of 1920. This went beyond generosity. It would not only have recognized the Soviet Union as a partner, but granted it extensive territory in Galicia. Yet it was rejected, because evil does not compromise, it goes for the entire prize. What would the world look like if Poland had not won that war? Was Józef Mackiewicz right in accusing Piłsudski of the sin of giving up in 1919? What was behind the “first betrayal by the West”? Was it possible to get more in Riga? Answers to these and many other questions can be found in the latest book by Andrzej Nowak, illustrated with never-before- published photos taken by Captain Adam Paulo de Silva a century ago.
Translated by Peter Obst
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