• November 3, 2021
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Constitution of May 3, work of many nations. Conference of Polish Scientists in Lithuania.

Constitution of May 3, whom 230. anniversary we celebrated this year, was a child of its age. It came into existence based on discussion and with a compromise between elites of the Crown along with Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Association of Polish Scientists of Lithuania (SNPL) organized a conference ent. “Premisses for enacting Constitution of May 3, 1791, and its influence on the further fate of East-Central Europe nations (geopolitical, historical, legal, economical, social, and cultural aspects)”. The conference was held on October 15-17 at Pac Palace and The House of Polish Culture in Vilnius.

‘On May 3 presidents of Poland and Lithuania met in Warsaw to celebrate 230. Anniversary of enacting Constitution, and in a few days here, in Vilnius, with the participation of both presidents, we will celebrate 230. Anniversary of The Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations, that is, passing executive act for Constitution of May 3, in which multi-ethnic community strength based on republican views was confirmed’ with these words Urszula Doroszewska, the Polish ambassador in Lithuania greeted the attendees.

Not only Lithuania’s ethnic

Scientists from four countries, which back in the day were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, attended the conference.

‘Of course, it was a Polish-Lithuanian project, but at that time Lithuania was not confined to current Lithuanian borders. Lithuania, or The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, included what is now Ukraine and Belarus.

For that reason, Belarusians and Ukrainians are the real ancestors of individuals who were Constitution of May 3 signatories. We needed to invite these countries’ representatives to the conference, to not limit ourselves only to ethnic Lithuania’ Wojciech Stankiewicz, chairman of SNPL explains the purpose of the conference during the talk with Kurier Wileński.

The Conference entered into the SNPL mission.

‘The fundamental goal of our association is the promotion of higher education and encouraging students to study. Simultaneously, as scientists, we want to show our level and our competencies by organizing such conferences. History teachers from Polish schools ­in Lithuania and students of history departments attend the conference, therefore this knowledge will be broadcasted on wide-scale. It won’t be limited only to a group of scientists’ emphasized Stankiewicz, who believes that SNPL significantly rejuvenated – about 20 people with doctoral degrees up to 40 years old were accepted.

“In The Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations, multi-ethnic community strength based on republican views was confirmed – said ambassador Urszula Doroszewska.”

Approval of Catherine II

The Constitution of May 3 was a display of enlightenment thinking.

‘In 18th century Europe there was a belief that socio-political reality must be described using the law, using the constitution, that is the basic law. We find thoughts like these among the classics of English and French enlightenment. It was an inspiration for Polish political elite in the latter part of 18th century, when people started to realize the Republic of Poland requires a thorough reform because of being surrounded by hostile neighbors. After The First Partition conviction about the need of reform grew larger, so that the nation could face outside threats. It was crucial for establishing dialogue or keeping up with the development of Western Europe nations, back then treated as some sort of role model. It is about Great Britain in particular’ Piotr Ugniewski, PhD. from the Institute of History, University of Warsaw, shares his thoughts. 

Polish historian also brought more of the geopolitical situation, which allowed carrying out reforms inside the Republic. After The First Partition, conducted in 1772, all internal reforms were blocked by Russia. 

War as unexpected opportunity

‘Suddenly, in a rather unexpected way, an opportunity presented itself. In 1787 Russo-Turkish war began; a second war during the reign of Catherine II. It was a very serious military conflict in southern Europe. Sweden contributed to it too, with king Gustav III also standing against the Russian empress. Polish elite decided to seize the moment’ told Piotr Ugniewski, PhD.

‘The king managed to get the approval of Catherine II for calling confederated sejm. It is an important detail, because confederated sejm operated on majority voting, so famous Polish liberum veto had no power here. There was not a chance for the vote of one deputy ruining the whole Sejm session. It was quite a surprise that Catherine II allowed it. She was however aware of dangerous tension arising amongst Polish nobility, baronage and aristocracy, so they needed to be distracted with something. And that is exactly what happened in October 1788. Right away, during the first few days, it turned out that the sejm decided to reject Russian protectorate. Indeed it denounced Russian promise about the invariability of the Polish system and that was what opened the door to the future constitutional work’ he added.

The scientist pointed out that although there were a lot of reform opponents in the country, an agreement was reached and the Constitution was passed after all.

Lithuanian nobility looks for a place

‘The Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations enacted in 20 October, 1791, was an important element of the Constitution of May 3. This document underlined The Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s individuality and was a kind of compromise between Poland and Lithuania’ recalled dr Eligijus Raila from Vilnius University during the discussion.

‘It is indeed really hard to tell what is this guarantee, bearing in mind that this historical and legal document was not well known in Lithuanian historiography or society for a long time. It was not understood; many did not know about its existence at all. Besides, even the Constitution of May 3 is not fully known to the Lithuanian society. And that is where act called The Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations comes into play. Therefore it must be noted that Lithuanian nobility and baronage searched for certain legal solutions. The document was born of this exact search, striving for establishment of mutual relations between the Crown and GDoL. The Constitution on its own was a unique phenomenon that positively shocked the Republic’s whole society. The Guarantee of Two Nations is born based on a certain political discussion. Constitution of May 3 says nothing about relations between Poland and Lithuania. This concealment caused the creation of certain freedom of thought. Lithuanian nobility and baronage had a very clear national consciousness. The consciousness was still very much alive’ explained Lithuanian historian.

In addition, he underlined that the end of 18th century is the time during which first beginnings of future contemporary nations started to arise. ‘Of course, they did not think that way, since everyone thought Polish. It is largely due to Kazimierz Nestor Saphieha that the Polish Parliament operated on a basis of two confederations: Polish and Lithuanian. Lithuanian confederation was led by Sapieha. The confederation was not favorable to the constitution at first, Braniecki’s influence was strong within’ mentioned Raila.

From the constitution to Maidan

Constitution of May 3 might have caused big changes in the region, which is why it was negatively received by adjacent countries. ‘It is true that the Republic of Poland was convenient for neighbors when it was weak and undeveloped, and reform was therefore seen as danger. Russian judgment of constitution was not easy. Several issues were considered.

Firstly, the constitution was Republic’s way out of the Russian geopolitical influence.

Secondly, by becoming a country that got nowhere to go but up, the Republic of Poland was going into the next century, which could meant positive modernization of a large area of Europe.

It was negative from the Russian system of power’s point of view’ said dr Vadim Anipiarkou from Belarus, who studied Russian empire’s business correspondence of that time about the Constitution of May 3 and the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations.

Researcher from Belarus emphasized it was The French Revolution that had influence on Russian position in relation to the Republic.

‘It was not only a justification for the intervention of military Russia. Petersburg and other absolute monarchies looked at these part of Europe where some legal changes were introduced. These were completely different visions of Europe than those reigning so far. It was a vision of more free Europe with very limited monarchal authority’ Anipiarkou pointed out.

Constitution of May 3 and Ukraine

Natalia Starchenko, PhD from Kiev, in her speech referred to the current situation in Ukraine.

‘It seems to me that sometimes we accuse the Republic of Poland of not having enough strength to successfully resist the aggressor. Historians do not like and do not have to modernize history. We can see the same in recent history, that is, in the history of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. We see the same motivation, to make people think Ukraine with its Maidan was a threat to Russia. Or on the principle that Ukraine with its Maidan was too weak, therefore things must get organized there. We also catch a glimpse of the analogy between defending orthodox citizens of Polish Republic and defending laws of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens’ historian from Ukraine stated her views.

Article was published in the magazine edition of Kurier Wileński number 43(124) 23-29/10/2021.

Translated by Sonia Dados within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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