We are often told today that multiculturalism, that is to say a state made up of a diversity of peoples, is a great strength. No, it is in fact our greatest strength! To state any concerns or criticisms, no matter how mild, is seen as sacrilegious.
However, the opposite is true and throughout history where there are many examples of diverse and multicultural societies falling into discord and strife. The focus of this piece will be on a place that has been praised in hindsight for its liberalism and tolerance: the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania.
Poland-Lithuania came into being after the 1569 Treaty of Lublin when the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were unified and made into one country. Prior to this, in the 1385 Union of Krewo, the two were linked in a personal union under the reigning Lithuanian monarch. Before 1569 what are now Belarus and the bulk of Ukraine[i] were also part of the Grand Duchy, which was the largest European country at the time. As per the 1569 treaty, however, Ukraine was handed over to Poland, thus setting the stage for a violent future of ethnic conflict.
The Polish nobility or szlachta was used to a high degree of autonomy which only became greater after the old Lithuanian Jagellonian dynasty died out. After this occurred, the monarchy was elected and became increasingly subservient to the nobles. The szlachta, it should be noted, was not entirely ethnically Polish. It would come to include Lithuanian, Ukrainian and other non-Polish noble houses that Polonized to such an extent that they may as well have been ethnically Polish. Examples of the power to which the nobility held include their ability to bring back serfdom (so-called neo-serfdom) and a 1518 law which stated that the king could not accept in his royal courts complaints of subjects on noble land, giving the nobility a free hand. Nobles eventually gave themselves power to introduce corvée labour, seize peasant land and the peasants working it.[ii]
Yet all was not well with the nobility during the years leading up to the tumultuous seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
Perceptive foreigners… saw, for instance, that the much vaunted freedom of the szlachta, which gave Poland the reputation of being one of the freest states in the world, rested on the complete deprivation of rights and enslavement of all the other classes of the population, that along with the unlimited freedom of the nobles, the burgesses were deprived of all participation in political life, hampered in their economic development, and shut within the walls of the towns. Parliamentarianism was flourishing in Poland, but alongside it, the executive was powerless to function. … The royal power was rigidly limited, and all decisions were made by the powerful ruling classes of nobles. This class, moreover, was degenerating. The Polish nobles had lost their former chivalrous and fighting spirit. They were corrupted by wealth and had lost their former energy which could now be aroused only to fight for privileges against real or imaginary attacks by the royal power.[iii]
Not only were they corrupted by vice and power, but the szlachta had ceased to see themselves as having any relation to the people they ruled over. The nobility had developed, from the sixteenth century on, an ideology known as Sarmatianism, which erroneously said szlachta were the descendants of Sarmatians, a steppe people originating in what is now southern Russia. Importantly, szlachta saw themselves as ethnically distinct from even the Polish peasants.[iv] It also came to view Roman Catholicism as the only true form of Christianity. Such an ideology was bound to create sharp social divisions but especially with their Ukrainian subjects. This was to have a great and terrible impact on the Commonwealth in the mid-late seventeenth century.
Poland-Lithuania was by the standards of the time, incredibly tolerant and liberal towards religious matters. However, in practice Orthodox Christianity was generally not afforded the same rights and privileges as other Christian sects or even the Jews, who of course, are not a purely religious group but an ethnic one as well. For example, Jesuits managed to push through an Act of Union in 1596 which made the Orthodox church (which was almost exclusively the church of Ukrainians) part of the Catholic Church, thus creating the Uniate Church. However, most Orthodox priests refused to adhere to this.[v] It was only in 1632 that Orthodoxy was legally recognized, but by then the Ukrainian population had been split between Uniate and Orthodox and a great number had fled to Russia.
The role of Jewry in society was an important factor in the mass violence of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries so it is worth briefly explaining their situation in society.
Jews first came en masse into Poland at the behest of king Bolesław III in the 1090s. Jews were given the freedom to form their own self-government as well as privileges concerning religious festivals, restrictions, et al. Poland was for centuries the home to the largest Jewish community in Europe and was even called a Jewish Paradise —paradisus Iudaeorum. Much economic competition existed between them and Christians, but competition also existed between native Christians and foreign Christians who had also been allowed to settle in Poland-Lithuania. The countryside was largely homogenous but the towns and cities hosted a bewildering array of nationalities from as far afield as Scotland to the west and Armenia to the east.
The city dwellers, divided amongst themselves and politically impotent, were the major bearers of anti-Jewish animus. However, as long as there were also a bewildering variety of other national groups pursuing occupations similar to those of the Jews, this animus was somewhat diffused.[vi]
Multiculturalism, then as now, diluted any major outbreaks of anti-Semitism. However, conflicts did arise as a result of economic competition and attempts were made by individual townships to restrict Jews. But on the whole Poland-Lithuania was incredibly welcoming to and tolerant of Jews and this remained so even after the nobles had usurped all powers from the monarchy. In fact, they were to enhance Jewish power and privilege in Polish Ukraine.
Landowners wanted to exploit resources, but had little interest in administrating their lands or developing commercial skills. Instead they preferred to “cultivate their luxurious habits and cultural pursuits.”[vii] Thus they turned to Jews who had both the money and experience. The Jews acted as intermediaries and agents on the vast estates of the nobility and they rented and leased flour mills, breweries, markets, inns and ferries (among other services), “exacting heavy duties, and exhibiting great ingenuity in inventing ever-new methods of squeezing fresh tolls and taxes out of the population.”[viii] Not only were Jews looked upon with contempt for their professions but for how they acted in these professions; they readily exploited the masses for their own gain as much as for the aloof szlachta.
There was one group, however, that sided with the Ukrainian masses. This group were the Cossacks. Cossacks were people who had a semi-nomadic lifestyle and were ruled by a Sich or commune of elected elders. They responded to Tatar and Turkish raids with raiding of their own; including naval assaults upon Anatolia.
The Polish nobles detested the Cossacks who answered only to the king and therefore wished to curb the power of the Cossacks, to make them as readily pliable as serfs. The Ukrainians were ruled over by an elite that was foreign to the masses; they had their religion attacked; had their defenders, the Cossacks, condemned; and of course had to put up with a nepotistic ethno-religious group that eagerly exploited them with full support of the nobility. It was only a matter of time before violence erupted.
In 1648 Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a leading Cossack, had his estate plundered, his son killed and his mistress abducted by a neighbouring noble. This event led to Khmelnytsky and his fellow Cossacks to launch a rebellion against the Poles. Khmelnytsky is not believed to have wanted independence, but that is clearly how many Ukrainians saw the rebellion. The revolt was highly popular throughout Ukraine — for example, “the whole of the province of Kyiv rose to a man.”[ix] The revolt quickly led to ethnic cleansing, as the largely Ukrainian peasantry burned down the landowners’ manors and plundered their possessions, killing them and those associated with them; of course the nobles weren’t Ukrainian; they were all Poles or Ukrainians who were so Polonized that they may as well have been Poles. Catholic clergy were also killed and so too were Jews.
The Jews in particular were targeted by the rebels who finally felt able to release their pent-up hatred and frustration at Jewish oppression. It is believed that upwards to one million people were killed or forced to flee the region because of the violence. Thousands of them were Jews.
It is believed that the Jews provoked the special hatred of the population by their petty, mean exploitation as collectors of all sorts of tolls and taxes, and as dishonest vendors of necessities at exorbitant prices.[x]
Khmelnytsky’s Revolt lasted for nine years and was a major reason for the so-called Deluge period of Polish history. Khmelnytsky’s memory is a mixed one in the minds Ukrainians who have both lauded him as a hero and condemned him as a traitor. He is known to have allied with the Crimean Tatars and given them free reign over much of the Ukraine in search of slaves to sell in the Turkish market. Perhaps more importantly, he brought Moscow into Ukrainian affairs after the signing of the Pereyaslav treaty in 1654, which the Russians interpreted as meaning the Cossacks were swearing allegiance to them. In the end, the revolt saw the splitting of Cossack territory between Poland and Moscow, which had used the uprising as a chance to intercede in Polish affairs.
In what remained of Polish Ukraine it was not long before life went back to how it had been prior to 1648. This included the system of governance. Poles resurrected their old system of governance in Ukraine, except this time the number of noble families with true power was limited to a small handful who had survived the trials of the Deluge and were now engaged in internal power struggles.[xi] The flight of Ukrainians eastwards and the end of Cossack influence made it easier to impose Catholicism[xii] and for the nobles to once again act with impunity. This meant, yet again, that Jews were brought in as tax-farmers, agents on noble land, etc., much to the consternation of the locals.
During the eighteenth century another rebellion occurred as a result of the actions of the Polish elite and Jews — the Haidamak rebellion. This rebellion, however, was generally more of a low-level guerrilla-style conflict, although major battles did occur such as the Siege of Uman in 1768, which resulted in the massacre of Poles and Jews by the victorious Haidamaky Cossacks. The Haidamaky used Russian territory as a base of operations to conduct their attacks and this inevitably resulted in a diplomatic row. The Haidamak revolt was put down in 1769 when a group of Haidamaky had raided Ottoman territory. The Turks threatened war with Russia over this, so the Russians decided not only to stop assisting the rebels, but to help the Poles crush them. The reason the Haidamaky had crossed into Turkey? They were chasing a group of Jews.[xiii]
After 1795, Poland-Lithuania ceased to exist, having been partitioned for the third and final time by Prussia, Austria and Russia. Its Ukrainian territories were split between the Russians and the Austrians. Life remained the same as it had for centuries. However, there were to be no major outbreaks of violence involving ethnic cleansing in either Austrian or Russian Ukraine. The reasons for this are as follows:
In the Austrian zone the szlachta’s powers were broken and they were brought under royal control (although Polish nobility continued to rule the area). In 1781 Austrian Emperor Joseph II ended serfdom, although aspects of it were brought back by his successor and peasantry continued to live in poverty, this was seen as a great accomplishment by the peasants.[xiv] The monarchy was shown to be an effective force that could intervene on the behalf of Ukrainians. After 1848 the monarchy even went so far as to actively promote Ukrainian national consciousness as a way of countering Polish nationalism. It helped, too, that most Ukrainians in Austria were Uniate and Joseph II gave Uniate church the same rights as mainstream Catholicism which even the Poles had not done.[xv] However, a short-lived bout of violence did occur in 1846 but it was more akin to the earlier Cossack and Haidamak uprisings in that it largely targeted Poles and not the Austrian government (which reacted to the rebellion by finally abolishing serfdom).
As for the hated Jews, Joseph II wanted to fully assimilate Jewry and so he made them liable for military service, got rid of their separate system of governance, made them pay the same taxes as everyone else and use German instead of Yiddish. Restrictions on movement and ability to serve in certain professions remained, however.[xvi] Thus, it appeared the Jewish problem was being solved by a liberal policy of integration combined with mechanisms to lower competition with Jews.
In the Russian zone the shared Orthodoxy of Russians and Ukrainians greatly helped and so did the destruction of the szlachta system. However, serfdom remained in force until the 1860s and the power of the Cossacks in Russia was destroyed in the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The Russians relied on autocracy to keep everyone in line and increasingly on Russification. Though this caused resentment, it did not lead to outright rebellion. No doubt it helped that the Russians, too, appeared to be solving the Jewish problem. As in Austria, the Jews lost much of their previous power and their separate system of governance. There were also restrictions on where Jews could settle. Under Russian rule, Jewry were largely kept under control at first but eventually the same problems erupted although in a far less violent or dramatic way. The so-called Pale of Settlement (i.e., the area where the vast majority of Jews could legally live) was largely in Ukraine and it was here that the highly exaggerated pogroms of the late nineteenth century would occur.
In both cases it should be noted that foreign rule was tolerated but it was not fully accepted. As soon as the empires began to crumble, Ukrainians were quick to declare independence. Even in the Hapsburg lands where, as explained earlier, there was greater cultural autonomy.
Multiculturalism failed in Poland-Lithuania, just as it did later on in Austria-Hungary and indeed has throughout history. The Polish case is especially interesting as it is often held up today as an example of a great multicultural state where the various disparate groups lived in peace and harmony. Reality, on the other hand, is much different, especially when it comes to the Ukrainian portions.
It is interesting to note the behaviour of the non-Jewish elites. Then, as now, they looked only at what would benefit themselves and completely cut any ties they had with the masses. The major difference between Polish Ukraine and the situation in the Occident today is that the elites were a foreign ethnie. Generally speaking, our (non-Jewish) elites are ethnically the same as the majority.
We can see similar connections today, again to the detriment of the majority. It is also interesting to note that multiculturalism failed for a people who today are its most prominent supporters: Jewry.
Another point to note is how there could be so much slaughter and violence between not only Ukrainians and Jews but Ukrainians and Poles. Both are Slavs, both are White, both are Christian. Advocates of multiracial states are incredibly short-sighted as they ignore the many incidences of intra-racial violence yet expect inter-racial societies to work out just fine.
[i]Crimea and the southern portions of Ukraine were at this time under control of the Turks and Tatars. The Russians eventually wrested these lands away from the Muslims in the 18th century.
[iii]Dmytro Doroshenko, A Survey of Ukrainian History. Trident Press Limited. Winnipeg. 1975. Page 214
[iv]Adam Zamoyski, A History of Poland. HarperPress, London. 2009. Page 94
[vi]Gershon Hundert, “The Implications of Jewish Economic Activities for Christian-Jewish Relations in the Polish Commonwealth,” The Jews in Poland ed. By Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyck and Anthony Polansky
[vii]Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. 1996. Page 147
[viii]Dmytro Doroshenko. 216
[xii]Paul Robert Magocsi. 293