The last Sejm of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations in Grodno

The last Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place on 17 June – 23 November 1793 under the conditions of Russian occupation. The Sejm was convened at the request of the Empress Catherine II of Russia. By concluding agreements between Russia and Prussia on handing over certain territories it was sought, on behalf of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to legalise the Second Partition of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations that had already been carried out by Russia and Prussia, to sign a new agreement with Russia on the union and the guarantee, to establish a new state system after the previous one introduced by the Four-Year Sejm (1788-1792) had been repealed. Catherine II chose the location for the sessions of the Sejm – the town of Grodno – on the basis of the law on the alternative location of the Sejm according to which every third Sejm had to be convened in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – in Grodno. In this way it was sought to avoid a possible patriotic influence of the residents of Warsaw on the representatives of the Sejm.

An argument in negotiations – cannons outside the window

The pre-election sejmiks (conventions of the gentry to elect the representatives of the Sejm) were strictly controlled by the Targowica confederates, the sejmiks were encircled by the Russian soldiers, and the individuals whose candidatures were approved by the Ambassador of Russia Jacob Johann von Sievers in advance were elected representatives of the Sejm.

The greatest majority of the representatives of the Sejm in Grodno were disposed to oppose the approval of the Partition.

The Sejm started work on 17 June 1793. Stanisław Kostka Bieliński was elected Marshal of the Sejm. After he had been elected, fierce disputes about the formulation of the Marshal’s oath that lasted for two days arose, Jacob Johann von Sievers gave the order to arrest 5 active representatives of the opposition. On 19 June 1793, the Sejm permitted Stanisław Kostka Bieliński to take an oath and declared itself to be a confederate (the liberum veto law was invalid at such Sejms). On 20 June 1793, the Ambassador of Russia Jacob Johann von Sievers and the envoy of Prussia L. von Buchholtz submitted notes to the Sejm, demanded that a delegation for the negotiations over handing over the territories should be formed. Encouraged by King Stanislaw August, the Sejm rejected this demand, however, after two sittings, on 26 June 1793, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Livonia Joseph Kossakowski, decided to negotiate only with Russia over handing over the territories. The formation of this delegation lasted until 11 July 1793, it was formed only after Jacob Johann von Sievers had resorted to repressions (Stanislaw August’s use of income was restricted, seven representatives of the Sejm were temporarily arrested, two more representatives from Grodno were sent back home, etc.). On 13 July 1793, the “negotiations” of the Sejm Commission with Jacob Johann von Sievers started and ended, the Commission received the prepared draft of the agreement. On 17 July 1793, after long resistance on the part of the opposition, after Stanislaw August and Joseph Kossakowski declared that all the possibilities of resistance had been exploited already, the Sejm approved the agreement with Russia, which was signed on 22 July 1793 07.

A silent rebellion

On 23 July 1793, L. Buchholtz’s note was read at the Sejm, which demanded to delegate the same Commission to start the negotiations with him. After the heated protests, on 31 July 1793, the Sejm delegated the Commission to negotiate with L. Buchholtz over the issues of trade only. On 5 August 1793, the Commission started the negotiations through the mediation of Jacob Johann von Sievers. 

The intermediary submitted the draft agreement between the Commonwealth of the Two Nations and Prussia by which respective lands were handed over to Prussia in exchange for the prospective trade agreement with Poland and Lithuania, which reduced the tariffs of Prussia down to 2 per cent. L. Buchholtz approved of the draft. On 26 August 1793, the Commission submitted the draft agreement with Prussia to the Sejm. A wave of indignation swept over the Sejm. Seeking to make the Sejm confirm the agreement with Prussia, on 2 September 1793, the Russian armed forces encircled the Castle of Grodno where the Sejm sat in conference. The Russian General Rautenfeld with a group of officers occupied the seats in the Sejm hall, the Sejm was told that nobody would be allowed to leave the hall until the agreement with Prussia had been confirmed. The Sejm commissioned the Commission to sign the agreement but stated that it would be ratified only after the trade agreement had been signed. L. Buchholtz rejected these conditions of the Sejm, and Jacob Johann von Sievers decided to finally end the ratification procedure because he had the instruction of the Empress Catherine II of Russia to begin concluding the Union Treaty with Poland and Lithuania as soon as possible. On 23 September 1793, he repeated his scenario of the 23rd of September: towards morning the Cossacks took 5 oppositionists home from Grodno, the Russian soldiers encircled the Castle again, the Russian officers entered the hall of the Sejm, and the Sejm was demanded to unconditionally confirm the agreement with Prussia. On 24 September 1793, at 4 o’clock in the morning, the Marshal of the Sejm Stanisław Kostka Bieliński asked if the Sejm permitted the Commission to sign the agreement with Prussia. With all the representatives being silent, he declared that silence meant consent therefore the resolution was deemed to have been adopted. The Agreement with Prussia was signed on 26 September 1793.

Occupation in camouflage clothing

On 14 October 1793, the Sejm confirmed the Agreement on the union with Russia. According to that agreement, Russia was granted the right to take charge of the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in case of war, to locate the Russian Armed Forces in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to enter it and leave it freely. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth promised not to conclude any international agreements without Russia’s permission. Russia was granted the right to represent the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where the latter did not have its own envoys. Russia guaranteed the future state system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

From the point of view of the internal policy, the Sejm dissolved Targowica Confederation, repealed many of its decisions, decided to reduce the Army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth down to 15 000 soldiers. On 23 November 1793, during its last session, the Sejm confirmed a new law on the state system, which was prepared by Stanislaw August and the Great Marshal of Poland Fryderyk Józef Jan Kanty Moszyński under the supervision of Jacob Johann von Sievers. According to that law the system of 1775 was brought back. The Permanent Council, separate Commissions of War and Treasury of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were re-established; the Sejms had to be convened once in four years because they caused anxiety to Russia.

The procedure established by the Sejm of Grodno was in effect until the Tadeusz Kościuszko Uprising against Imperial Russia in March 1794, however, it did not acquire any real significance because even the smallest issues were addressed by the Ambassadors of Russia Jacob Johann von Sievers and Iosif Igelström.

Eligijus Raila