The Collission of the Free and the Unfree World

The mid-17th century conflict in Ukraine, which at that time was part of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth (henceforth, the PLC), between the free cossacs and the Polish nobility who wanted to subjugate them was closely followed from Moscow as the neighbouring country sought a revenge for numerous humiliations it suffered in the early 17th century and yearned for the surrendered territories. In 1650, the Tsar’s emissaries demanded that Polish and Lithuanian officials write the Tsar’s titles “in a right manner”. Among other things, they also urged to ban “bad” books about the Tsar and his country and to put an end to the persecution of the Orthodox Church. In response, the PLC officials would emphasise that everyone is free to publish anything in their free country and the state bears no responsibility for that. In certain instances, however, the alledgedly offensive pages were torn out and burned down in public under the threat of war from the Muscovites. People in Warsaw considered it a humiliation saying they would rather prefer war. In fact, Moscow was merely building an ideological background before joining the conflict. The various “injustices” served the principal cause for Russia to declare a war against the PLC in 1653.

The “infection” of noble liberties in the Ruthenian lands

As the cossacs were preparing to sign a treaty with Russia in the beginning of 1654 in the Ukraininan city of Pereyeslavl, they expected the Muscovites to swear an oath in their Tsar’s name pledging to take care of the cossacs and guarantee all of their freedoms and lands, just the way the ruler of the PLC used to act. The Muscovites rejected the request arguing that the Tsar was an autocrat (Russian: самодержец) whom everybody must obey. Once the Tsar had promised to maintain all the freedoms, everybody should believe him. In 1654, as the war was in full swing, the commander of the cossac insurgents, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, wrote to the Russian Tsar asking for money “because a cossac, as any free man cannot serve without money.” That must have sounded as a shock to many Muscovites because just a short time ago the cossacs themselves had asked for military assistance. It was the cossacs that voluntarily surrendered under the Tsar’s patronage and it was in their sake that the Tsar entered the war. And now the cossacs were asking the Tsar to pay for their fight for freedom. The standpoint that a free individual has a right to serve for money to anyone and anytime was widespread among the PLC nobility who formally were all equal and even their king was merely first among equals. In Russia, though, every single person was a Tsar’s subject. Even dukes called themselves Tsar’s serfs (Russian: холоп) in their letters and would bend down to the ground (Russian: челобитие) in complete self-humiliation before addressing the ruler.

In 1653, Khmelnytsky promised the Russian emissary that he would send letters “to Belarusians living under the Lithuanian rule” immediately after the Tsar’s first attack on the PLC. Khmelnytsky expected as much as 200,000 Belarusians to join the uprising. The Tsar too sent letters to the leaders of the Orthodox Church within the PLC in the early stages of the war asking them to rise up for their faith and against all injustices. Nothing happened though. In order to attract the people of the occupied lands, the Tsar instructed his commanders to treat them well in the beginning of the war, especially those adhering to the Orthodox Church. He also ordered to preserve self-govenment in cities and protect the liberties enjoyed by the nobility.

Many members of the Orthodox Church in the PLC greeted the Muscovites as their brothers in faith and many of their cities simply surrendered. However, there were no major pro-Russian uprisings and only a small part of soldiers joined the Russian army.

Very soon, the newly occupied lands began experiencing the Tsar’s hard hand and the Russian-style rule which prompted some of them to launch a guerrilla warfare against the Muscovites. There is no knowledge of similar appeals by the Tsar sent to the Lithuanian lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or to the Catholic congregations. The Tsar would deliver his orders excludively through the occupant administration. Interestingly, the books of the Vilnius magistrate surviving from the period of occupation never mention the Tsar as the ruler of the city or of the entire country. Similar books from Polotsk, on the contrary, feature the Tsar as the ruler in almost every document.

On the “flippancy” of the nobility

The Tsarist administration in all occupied lands ordered people, including the nobility, the clergy, city dwellers, and peasants, to swear an oath of allegiance to the Tsar or else he will now grant their rights and freedoms. With no viable alternative in sight, thousands of people representing different estates did exactly that because almost the entire country was occupied and the king himself had fled. It is safe to assume though that many of them, particularly the nobility, considered the forced oath null and void. They would use every opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the legitimate ruler of the PLC.

The occupational administration saw it could very rarely rely on the new subjects, but it was very difficult for Muscovites to realise that every free individual was free to choose.

Russian historian V. Vasilevsky wrote in the second half of the 19th century that Russians had punished treason severely because they “despised and resented the lawlessness and frivolity of Poles and could not comprehend how one could ignore an oath given to the Tsar.” Historical documents provide a number of examples when the same individual, especially a representative of the nobility who could choose freely, would give an oath – under pressure or in his or her personal interest – to both the Swedish king and the Russian Tsar only to revert to his or her own king later and the story would repeat once again after some time. Some representatives of the nobility would collaborate with the Russian occupants rather than the Swesdish ones but only because the Swedes usually could not speak Russian, the language that the majority of the Lithuanian nobility knew. According to a contemporary, “some of the survived apply for the documents [permitting them to keep their possessions in their disposal] from the Russian administration which they receive for six groszes after swearing an oath to the Tsar while various other people get other lands [i. e. taken from those who refused to give an oath] when they approach the Muscovites voluntarily.” Poklonski, a colonel who betrayed his country in 1654 and even fought against it, did the opposite in 1655 and explained his motives:

“They wrote golden words in papers intended for the nobility and the cities but instead they put iron freedoms on the legs of the nobility and burghers.

Alas, we are in total prison instead of prosperity.”

The free world of the nobility was strong enough at the time to resist the despotic rule. After reinstalling the legitimate administration of the PLC, many representatives of the nobility who had collaborated with the occupants were sentenced to death. On the other hand, many traitors were pardoned mainly because of the prevailing idea of the time that “an individual is able to betray yet the nobility as a whole cannot” (M. Kulecki). The extreme conditions forced the nobility to side with the occupants because they had promised to preserve their freedoms, religion, property and legislation. As the situation changed, however, the sin of treason would on many occasions be exonerated. Sadly, as the later history shows, in the recurrent conditions of occupation the absolute value of the freedoms promoted by the nobility led to the situation in the late 18th century when their free world eventually capitulated to the unfree world that was enlightened yet despotic.

Literature: XVII a. vidurio Maskvos okupacijos Lietuvoje šaltiniai, sudarė E. Meilus, T. I ir II, Vilnius, 2011.

Elmantas Meilus