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Poland-Lithuania was one of the great powers of continental Europe after the treaty of Lublin in 1569. But after the rise of Russia as a great power after its defeat of the Swedish Empire it became gradually weakened and a protectorate of Russia. This led to civil war in Poland and its eventual complete annexation by Austria, Prussia and Russia in a series of three partitions in the second half of the 1700s.

After the first partition in 1772, King Poniatowski of Poland attempted to strengthen Poland militarily and civilly in a series of reforms culminating in the May Constitution of 1791 adopted by the Great Sejm and which would have turned Poland into a Constitutional Monarchy.

However, a group of Polish nobleman, angered by the removal of their privileges, formed the Targowica Confederation in St. Petersburg with the backing of Empress Catherine II. They criticised

The contagion of democratic ideas

And

The Parliament ... has broken all fundamental laws, swept away all liberties of the gentry, and on the 3rd May 1791 turned it into a revolution and a conspiracy.

This led to the Polish-Russian War of 1792. Neither side scored a decisive victory and eventually King Poniatowski sought a diplomatic solution and was forced to join the confederacy at the insistance of the Russian Empire. This led to the second partition of Poland reducing its size to a third of its former size and which was ratified by a coerced sejm on 23 November 1793. Two years later, Polish sovereignty was entirely extinguished when the region was annexed by Austria, Prussia and Russia.

This came mostly as a surprise to members of the confederacy who had only wished to see the status quo restored. According to Wikipedia, Targowiczanin meas traitor in Polish even today.

Q. Why did the Targowica Confederation not forsee the eventual outcome of their armed resistance to the democratic reforms instituted by King Poniatowski?

2 Answers 2

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It wasn't that they did not foresee the consequences; rather, they saw the consequences of accepting the Constitution as the greater evil.

Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791 was aimed at reducing inequality between the citizens of Poland. The Targowica Confederation opposing it was headed by magnates - the upper crust of Polish aristoracy. Sure, legally all szlachta were equals - but only the wealthy and influential magnates held real political power. These families were extremely influential, to the point where 17-18th century Poland is sometimes viewed as being an oligarchy; and the practical anarchy their squabbles drove Poland to was of little concern to them.

The constitution was only passed because the reformists managed to pull something of a coup - the Sejm (Polish parliament) was gathered two days before the original date of the debates, and the opposing deputies were not informed about the change of the date. That's the "revolution and conspiracy" from the quote - only 182 deputies were present, about half from the original number. Obviously, the perspective of losing their privileges and influence did not sit well with the oligarchs; but the fact that opposition managed this feat meant their influence already started to wane, and there was no confidence that the magnateria would manage to quell this movement all by themselves. On the other hand, while the absolute monarchies of Austria, Prussia and Russia would also put the Złota Wolność of szlachta to end - they would not threaten the privileges and wealth of the magnates as much as the shift to democracy would.

Thus, the Confederation's leaders sacrificed Polish independence to preserve their aristocratic privileges.

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I think it is more the size of the land loss and the participation of Prussia that was surprising to the Confederates.

In 1764, the king August Poniatowski has been hand-picket by Catherine II of Russia as a king of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and it became a country under Russia's protectorate. After the failure of the Bar Confederation (1768 - 1772) Poland has lost about 30% of its territory (the first Partitioning of Poland), but you have to remember, that quite big chunk of it (one seized by Russia) was not ethnically Polish, and it was often viewed as "troublesome". That, and the fact that Catherine was supporting the Golden Liberty (which was keeping the Commonwealth weak and decentralised), could be perceived by the magnates that in fact Russia had Polish best interest at heart. in contrast, the land lost to Prussia and Austria was very valuable, as the Commonwealth has lost access to the Baltic Sea and very rich salt mines in Bochnia and Wieliczka,

It would be safe to assume that the participants of the Targowica Confederation were expecting some losses to Russia. Still, they were happy to pay that price to keep themselves rich and in power. During the Grodno Sejm, the opposition to Russian demands was relatively weak, and the Russians were celebrated as liberators, but everyone was shocked when a similar territorial demand came from Prussia. Only when the Cossacks have arrested leaders of the opposition and the Russian army has surrounded the Grodno castle, the agreement with Prussia has been accepted by no one daring to say anything.

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