V984 5 June 1998

The First Partition of Poland (1772)

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Augustus III of Polandprince A. Jerz ChartoryskiPeter III of RussiaCatherine II of RussiaFrederick II of PrussiaStanislas Augustus of PolandMap of the 1st Partition of Poland (1772)
Marlen Miliadi
B.A. (Hist.)

The question of the first Partition of Poland is a complex one and it involves several factors, such as the weak internal political system of Poland and the aspirations of the foreign powers involving the country due to its central geographical position in the map of Europe. In this paper the events leading up to the partition of 1772 will be examined for they provide the explanation to the partition. Primarily the role of Russia in the internal affairs of Poland will be discussed but the role of Prussia and Austria will be examined as well. The departure point of this paper will be the year 1762 and the events thereafter will be examined.

The year 1762 marked the end of the Seven Years War which proved devastating for all powers involved. Especially Austria and France were greatly weakened. There was now place for Russia to improve its status in Europe. During the war Poland had served as a battlefield under the leadership of King Augustus III. However the true political power in the country was in the hands of two families: the Francophile Potockis and the pro-Russian Czartoryskis. Prior to the Seven Years War the Czartoryskis had monopolized power and in the period after they were often used by Catherine II of Russia to promote her policies. The Czartoryskis wanted to do away with the liberum veto (nie pozwalam, meaning I forbid) which was a constitutional right in Poland. According to the Polish tradition, all citizens were equal politically and free. Therefore every measure adopted by the Polish Diet should be voted for unanimously, with no opposition. This system often created problems, because members of the Diet could be bribed or threatened to have a policy not passed. This practice " ... not only continued the anarchy and the lack of effective government in the Commonwealth but also gave opportunity to neighboring powers to interfere in the internal affairs of the state ". (Kaplan, pp. 3-4) Such a power was Russia.

When Imperatrice Elizabeth of Russia died she was succeeded by Peter III. Peteradmired Frederick II of Prussia and worked for the rapprochement of the two countries, since he was himself a Holsteiner, a German. This attempt resulted in the armistice of May 5, 1762. A treaty concerning the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to follow, however this was signed by Catherine II who replaced her husband successfully. According to this treaty, in case of Augustus' III death, his successor would be a suitable Pole, chosen by the two powers; Georg-Ludwig of Holstein-Gottorp would become Duke of Kurland, and the Dissidents, people of religion other than Catholic living in the Commonwealth, would enjoy liberties which had been taken away from them. (Kaplan, pp. 6) Catherine II confirmed that she ratified the treaty of peace with Prussia, however she refused to ratify the treaty of alliance between the two powers which Peter III had signed. Catherine did not want too close a relationship with the Prussians, as she had other plans for Russia. (de Madariaga, pp. 187).

Kurland was a strategically important province of the Polish Commonwealth, as it neighbored Livonia and offered access to the Baltic Sea. Catherine II was very interested in controlling the area and she succeeded by placing a man she trusted as Duke of Kurland. Despite the agreement with Prussia, Catherine imposed in Kurland the rule of Ernst Johann Biron, by sending 15.000 Russian troops there. With Biron in power, Kurland became a "Russian protectorate" and Catherine could take advantage of its geographical position. (Kaplan, pp. 6-7) On August 4, 1762 Biron had signed an agreement which reflected his complete dependence on Russia: he was to protect the Orthodox Church, "to favor Russian merchants, to have no dealings with enemies of Russia, to allow Russian troops free passage, and Russian ships free use of his harbors, and to be attentive to Russian requests for the leasing of estates. " (de Madariaga, pp. 188) This was the first bold interference of Catherine in the Po1ish internal affairs.

A crucial problem in Polish politics which allowed for foreign interference was the problem of the Dissidents. It is estimated that in 1763 in Poland, there were approximately 600.000 Greek Orthodox and 200.000 Protestants. (Kaplan, pp. 6) The Greek Orthodox especially asked for the Russian support whenever they faced difficulties. Although the Dissidents had been granted freedom of religion and equal rights within the Commonwealth by the Confederation of Warsaw in 1573, this policy was slowly abandoned within the 17th century. By 1736 the Dissidents had no right to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate, or any public office. Moreover, they were prevented from building new churches or restoring the old ones, they were not allowed to worship in public, and the estates of their churches were heavily taxed so that they would go bankrupt. In a further attempt to limit the number of Dissidents, Poles forced many of them to convert to the Uniat rite, a rite formed which allowed the Orthodox to maintain their religious practices but forced them to accept the authority of the Pope. (Kaplan, pp. 7-10)

Needless to say, the Dissidents disliked their treatment by the Poles. Their first cry for help to Russia came in 1674 when the Russian Resident in Warsaw was ordered to protect the Greek Orthodox activities in Poland-Lithuania. In 1686 the treaty of Perpetual Peace was signed between Russia and Poland which prohibited the King of Poland from oppressing the Greek Orthodox living in his country. Moreover there was a restriction on conversion attempts to the Roman Catholic or the Uniat Church. However, the virtual persecution of the Dissidents continued for a century onward, despite the intervention of other Great Powers, such as Prussia (Kaplan, pp. 10) The Dissident issue therefore provided an excellent excuse for Catherine II to become more involved in Polish politics.

The succession of the throne of Poland in the event of the death of Augustus III remained open. As already mentioned, Russia had signed an agreement with Prussia on the matter. The other choice would be that of a Saxon candidate, supported by Austria and France. Catherine II had already made up her mind: her choice was Stanislas Poniatowski, of the pro-Russian family of Czartoryski and a former lover of hers. To support his claim, she sent a new ambassador to Poland, Count Herman Charles Keyserling. To Poniatowski she wrote on August 2/13, 1762.

I am sending at once Count Keyserling as ambassador to Poland to declare you King after the death of the present monarch and, in the event of his not proving successful, so far as you are concerned, I want it to be Prince Adam (Czartoryski) ... "(Kaplan, pp. 13)

However powerful Catherine II might have been, she needed the support of other Great Powers as well, in order to impose a King in Poland. As already mentioned, Austria and France would support the Saxon claim, therefore the only Powers that Catherine could turn to for support were Great Britain and Prussia. The British and the Russians had a history of cooperation, examples of which are the Anglo-Russian treaty of alliance of 1742 and the treaty of commerce of 1734. In August 1762 a new British envoy was sent to the Russian court, the Earl of Buckinghamshire. (de Madariaga pp. 188-89) When he asked of Catherine to reveal her intentions about the successor to the Polish throne, she did not give him a name, but merely stated that she needed the British support to her claim to prevent the French-supported candidate from prevailing and promoting the French influence in Eastern Europe. (Kaplan. pp. 16) The British had no sympathy for the French and Catherine played upon this fact. However no formal negotiations took place on the matter at the time. Later on, shortly before Augustus' death, Russia attempted to sign a treaty with Britain, according to which the British would support the Russian claim in Poland and even provide a subsidy of 500.000 rubles to Poland. However, this plan was rejected by the British, who refused to pay subsidies during peace. (de Madariaga, pp. 190)

Fortunately for Russia, Catherine II was more successful with Frederick II of Prussia. Once the Peace of Hubertsburg was signed between Prussia and Austria on 4-15 February 1763, Frederick was open to negotiations. A defensive alliance was concluded between the two powers, on March 31/April 11, 1764, which among other clauses stated that the two signatories would prohibit any changes to the Polish constitution and even resort to arms to protect it. Moreover, another convention assured Prussia's support of the candidacy of Stanislas Poniatowski to the throne of Poland, and a declaration of 12-13 April, 1764, stated that both powers would protect the Dissidents in Poland. (de Madariaga. pp. 189-191) This served Prussian interests as well, since Frederick already envisioned a greater Prussia: "Following Sweden's collapse as a great power in the Baltic area, and parallel to the continuing decline in Poland's strength, Prussia acquired the chance of forming a larger, cohesive state occupying eastern and northern central Europe, grounds indeed for claiming to be a great power. " (Von Thadden, pp. 18)

Poniatowski emerged as the strongest candidate to the throne by a game of fate as well: the Saxon candidate, who was supported by Austria and France died of smallpox on December 17, 1763. His successor was his thirteen-year old son, and the new Saxon claimant to the Polish throne was Prince Xavier, son of Augustus III. Austria wasn't enthusiastic about him, nor were the French who at the time had become very preoccupied with their defeat in the Seven Years War. Therefore Poniatowski faced no true opponent on his way to the Polish throne, save for Jan Branicki, the anti-Russian Crown hetman who controlled the 1.200 troops which were under the authority of the Polish King. However, he wasn't able to achieve much, as his protests against Poniatowski were hushed under the threat of the Russian troops. Finally, Poniatowski was elected King Stanislas-Augustus, on August 26-September 6, 1764. (de Madariaga, pp. 190-91) Thus Catherine II had succeeded in achieving total control in Poland, or so it seemed.

It should be noted here that the election of Stanislas-Augustus was the starting point of Catherine's "Northern system", a plan put forward by Nikita Panin, senior member of Russia's College of Foreign Affairs. The "Northern system" presumably was a system against the alliance between the Catholic French and the Austrians, to ensure the peace in the North by establishing Russian predominance. (de Madariaga, pp. 192) Furthermore, it should be noted that along with the negotiations for Poniatowski's ascendance to the throne other plans leading to the partition of Poland were made as well: plans that discussed the Russo-Polish frontiers and how they should be modified according to the strategic interests of Russia. The new boundaries suggested by the Vice-President of the College of War strongly resembled the partition boundaries. (de Madariaga, pp. 189)

After his election, King Stanislas Augustus did not follow closely Catherine's interests, to her dismay. He proved to be a reformist King, who supported radical thinkers of his time, such as Franciszek Bohomolec, editor to a weekly journal, the Monitor, which supported French ideas, Bishop Adam Naruszewicz, who undertook the task of writing the history of Poland, and Hugo Kollataj, Rector of the Jagiellonian University, who was an ardent supporter of constitutional reforms. Displeased, Catherine chose another way to promote her interests: all of the high officers of the Polish Republic were on Russian payroll, including the Hetmans, the Marshal of the Diet and the Primate. (Davies, pp. 308-09) Unfortunately Poland has always suffered from political corruption, and particularly from careerism. Since the state was not organized properly, since there was "no professional army worth the name, no professional local government, and until 1775 no permanent ministries", (Davies, pp. 348), anyone seeking advancement would find it in the form of favors by a great power which interfered in the country. Therefore by controlling the head officials, Catherine II was able to control the entire Polish state. (Davies, pp. 348-49)

Another step made by Catherine which illustrates her intention to control Poland and which brought the partition closer was her manipulation of the question of the Dissidents. On July 27, 1765, Jerzy Koniski, the Orthodox Bishop of Belorussia, submitted to Stanislas Augustus a petition listing the grievances of the Dissidents. Russia was asking that all ancient privileges and freedoms be granted again to the Greek Orthodox in Poland, that extended rights be given to children of mixed marriages and that public offices be opened to the Greek Orthodox. (Kaplan, pp. 50) It should be noted that Catherine II did not suddenly become interested in the Dissidents out of fairness and kindness, since she denied her own subjects the civic rights she was fighting for the Dissidents to get. Actually what she aimed for was "simply to foster a pro-Russian faction whose grievances she could exploit with a view to further interference ". (Lentin, pp. 94) However, Catherine's fractions found their opposition in the Diet of 1766, in the face of Bishop Soltyk who ardently supported the Catholic Church and made passionate speeches in the Diet which deeply influenced the rest of the Deputies. After heated debates in the Diet and the submission of the Declarations of Russia and Prussia which were pro-Dissident, and with the intervention of the King himself, the 1a " The Holy Roman Catholic Faith "was passed by unanimous vote. (Kaplan, pp. 53-63) The law read:

Desiring to secure as most fundamental our Holy Roman Catholic faith against the Greek Orthodox and the Protestants, we reaffirm all the former laws of our native land, particularly of the years 1717, 1733, and 1736, and of the last Convocation Diet of 1764, together with punishments for violations (by people) of any status and condition, in toto, and for all. (Kaplan, pp. 63-64)

At this point not only the Russians were upset with the policies Stanislas Augustus was adopting, but the Prussians as well. Prussia had also presented the Diet with a Declaration in favor of the Dissidents. In addition, in June 1964 the Convocation Diet had voted for the establishment of general customs tolls, even in the province of Prussia which had enjoyed special privileges in commerce for centuries. Although King Stanislas Augustus had promised to remove the tolls, he didn't manage to persuade the Diet to do so. As a result hostility developed between Prussia and Poland, since Prussian trade was gravely affected by this measure. (Kaplan, pp. 39)

As a result of the decisions taken concerning the Dissidents in the Diet of 1776, civil war almost broke out. Two Confederations were created in Poland and they were both heavily armed: the Confederation of the Protestants at Thorn and the Confederation of the Orthodox at Slupsk. Both Confederations were deeply influenced by Russian intervention. Catherine wanted to use the dissatisfaction of the Dissidents to advance her interests, however she wasn't willing to allow neither the wide spread of Protestantism nor the security and independence of the Greek Orthodox in Poland. As a result both Confederations heavily depended on Russian support, and didn't achieve in gaining power. They were only the obvious evidence of Polish Anarchy, which would justify the partition in the future. To add to the unrest, another General Confederation was formed, which had 80.000 members of all beliefs. Catherine II had succeeded in the spread of turmoil in Poland. (Stiles, pp. 74) Finally the Diet which met on 13/24 February 1768 approved of a Perpetual Treaty between Russia and Poland. According to this treaty the civil and political rights of the Dissidents were guaranteed. More importantly: "in response to the request of the Polish Commonwealth, the Empress of Russia extended her solemn guarantee for all time to the Constitution, form of Government, freedom, and laws of Poland." (de Madariaga, pp. 202) Catherine II thus officially became Poland's protector.

All was going as planned by Russia, when a major problem appeared: several Polish nobles set up a new Confederation at Bar in Podolia. They wanted to shake off Poland the Russian influence, denounced the Perpetual Treaty and even attempted to kidnap King Stanislas Augustus, whom they had to let go however, because they lost their way! The Confederation of the Bar enjoyed the Financial Assistance and the military advise from France, which wanted to limit Russia's influence and expansion in Eastern Europe. The Confederation declared war on the King and on the Russians. The war lasted for four years. As an answer, Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants killed about 200.000 people in a lash-out against nobles, Jews and Catholics. What infuriated Catherine was that at this point, in October 1768 the Ottoman Turks found the opportunity to declare war on Russia. The Ottoman Empire's aims at this war included the withdrawal of Russian protection to Poland and the Dissidents. As Russian troops were diverted to another front, fighting continued in Poland until August 1772, when the Russians put down resistance even in Cracow. The partition was imminent. (Stiles, pp. 75-76)

At this point Catherine II was faced with a dilemma: she would either have to leave Poland, given the war with the Ottoman Turks, and thus lose all influence there, or she would punish Poland and risk going to war with Austria and Prussia. However, she was relieved from having to make the choice by a proposal made by Frederick II of Prussia. (Davies, pp. 319) Frederick seized the opportunity to advance his plan of acquiring West Prussia. Furthermore he wanted to avert an expansion of Russia in the Balkans. Thirdly the Russo-Turkish war had to be prevented from becoming a European war, for in case France or Austria intervened on the side of the Ottoman Turks, the alliance systems between France-Austria and. Russia-Prussia would go into effect with disastrous results for everybody. Lastly, Frederick II wanted to avoid the annexation of Ottoman land by the Russians, and the consequent upset of the balance of power in the area. It seemed more reasonable to offer to Russia the peaceful annexation of part of Poland, so that everyone's interests would be served. The plan which was submitted by Frederick II to Catherine II included the following terms: Prussia would receive West Prussia and control of Danzig in return for war subsidies it had provided to Russia according to the Russo-Prussian treaty of 1764; Russia would receive Polish territory as she saw fit, to compensate for her war expenses and for territorial gains she didn't get from the Ottoman Empire. Finally, in order to appease Austria which surely would have great opposition to the plan, a part would be offered to Austria, as compensation for her military support in the war against the Ottoman Empire. After several negotiations the Treaty of the Partition were signed in St. Petersburg, in August 1772, by Catherine II of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria. (Stiles, pp. 16-81)

With the rebellion of the Confederates crushed, the Polish people could do nothing more than to accept the decisions made by the Great Powers. The Poles enjoyed no foreign support whatsoever. The French were not prepared to assist them anymore, since their allies the Austrians were involved. The British weren't interested from the beginning, more so now when they counted on an alliance with Russia. All they could do was to accept the partition. Under the direction of Catherine, Stanislas Augustus summoned the Diet on 8-19 April 1773. Naturally the Diet was confederated, subject to majority rule, and Deputies were 5ribed to secure a favoring vote. Moreover, it was decided that Poland would remain a Republic, that the power of the Crown would be further reduced, that the Crown would be elective and the candidates Poles only, that the liberum veto would be preserved, and that the rights of the Dissidents would be respected. (de Madariaga, pp. 229-231) Thus the First Partition of Poland became a reality.

The three powers gained far more than territory and inhabitants in the First Partition of Poland. Austria secured in her share "the richest salt mines in eastern Europe" and very fertile agricultural land. Prussia, through the acquisition of West Prussia now appeared as a consolidated state and could control trade in the area. Finally Russia secured the boundaries between herself and Austria and Prussia, however it lost her exclusive dominance in Poland. Naturally the Poles lost the most, seeing their Country reduced by 29.5/ in territory and by 35.2% in population. Moreover nothing guaranteed to the Poles that further partitions would not follow. (Kaplan, pp. 188-189)

As stems from the examination of the events we may argue that the First Partition was not fully planned from the beginning on the part of Russia. The police of Catherine the Great, through the establishment of a puppet-King, the use of the Dissidents' dissatisfaction, the corruption of Polish politics and finally the manufacturing of Dissident Confederations indicates her intention to monopolize her influence over the Polish Commonwealth. However, the sudden turn of events, the establishment of the Confederation of the Bar and more importantly the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War did not allow her to establish sole control of Poland. Frederick II seized the opportunity to limit Russian expansion, to maintain the balance of power, and to annex a territory he long desired to. Since Maria Theresa of Austria had to be appeased, she was also included in the plan. Poland found herself as the perfect offer for sacrifice, victim of her geography and of her weak political structure. Unfortunately, for Poland more was to follow, as Edmund Burke rightly predicted, when he reportedly said that the Empress of Russia had breakfasted, but where would she dine? (Davies, pp. 310)


Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Kaplan, Herbert H. The First Partition of Poland. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Lentin, A. Russia in the Eighteenth Century. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973.

De Madariaga, Isabel. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Stiles, Andrina. Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.

Von Thadden, Rudolf. Prussia: the History of a Lost State. Trans. by Angi Rutter. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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