Auctioning off some Russian foreign affairs correspondence

by fpman

This letter, from 1762, is going to be auctioned on November 19 in Paris. In it, the Russian Empress Catherine II (actually a lady of German origin) is writing to her lover, Stanisław August Poniatowski, who would be King of Poland as Stanisław II only two years later. Catherine has just inherited the Russian throne and is in a precarious situation. She is sending some vital instructions to Stanisław to avoid unnecessary trouble. As quoted here (at the end of the article in question):

“You read my letters with very little attention. I’ve told you and repeated that I risk being assaulted from all sides if you put one foot back in Russia.”

Life was to become only more complicated later on…

CatherineIIWords of discontent in the letter…

For about 10 to 12 thousand Euros you may have the rest of the letter as well. And here you find the rest of the private letters written by famous women that will be auctioned on the same day, if you have some more money to spend…

But I wish to stop by the story of Catherine and Stanisław because theirs is a particularly interesting historical case with a view to the role of personal relationships in politics.

It was Catherine’s hope, and of those around her in St. Petersburg, that they would be in control of Stanisław just like they were in control of many other key figures in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth who were their paid clients at the time, including the Hetmans or the Commanders of the Polish and Lithuanian Armies. Palace intrigue played a role in why Catherine and Stanisław came together back in 1755, but they felt genuine attraction towards one another and would eventually consider marrying each other, before the idea became inconvenient (once Catherine had become ruler of Russia). And Anna Petrovna, Catherine’s second child, was possibly their daughter. In 1764, when Stanisław would be elected as King of the Polish noble republic, Russia spent a lot of money on getting him there and even positioned their troops near the site of the election assembly to make sure they got the result they wanted.

In the end, however,

“Stanisław-August, despite his links with the Empress Catherine, was the leader of Reform in Poland: the Empress, despite her links with the Enlightenment, was the paymistress of Poland’s conservative establishment.” (Davies, 2001: 270)

In other words: Stanisław II was independent-minded and attempted to carry out major reform of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including some very progressive and liberal policies, at the same time as he sought to strengthen the autonomy of his state. He was, after all, one out of only four Polish kings out of the eleven elected Kings of the Polish noble republic (the others were foreigners). Yet he was to be the last one.

It was his quest for highly timely reform that resulted in the end in the Partition of Poland. Russia considered the reforms a threat to its control over what it saw as a client state and a useful buffer zone against threats from the West: Prussia and Austria. Russia thus intervened, and once it did so it was forced by the logic of power politics to enter into talks over Poland’s future, resulting in the three-stage, three-way partition of the country at the end of which nothing was left of it, by 1795.

Reference

Norman Davies: Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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