The Great Men of Early Modern Poland
Igor II, Hard Ruler 1440-1505
In a sense, Igor II was the man who brought an end to the Middle Ages in Poland. When he was a boy, he lived through the Great Famine, when even the nobility had to tighten their belts as millions starved and saw his homeland gripped by disorder throughout his youth – with bandits littering the countryside, landlords and peasants set against eachother and series of bloody revolts leaving the Kingdom perpetually on the brink of collapse. As a Prince during his 20s and 30s he played a minor role in many of these wars himself – occasionally joining the generals on their campaigns, although always under the suspicious eye of the Boyars who feared monarchical power above all else. When he inherited the throne from his uncle Sviatopolk I in 1478, the realm was at its lowest point. Political authority had collapsed across the realm, while Iakov Bogdanov and his army of Cossacks and Tatars were laying siege to Kiev – with Igor himself trapped inside its walls.
Remarkably, the new King was able not only to survive, but produce a profound transformation of the Polish state. The Cossacks and their allies were thrown back from Kiev, Bogdanov was killed and the uprising quashed. Igor then turned against the Boyars, whom he blamed for Poland’s descent into the Anarchy, by dissolving the Duma, revoking noble privileges, raising heavy taxes and seizing vast tracts of territory for the crown. Those who opposed him, forming the Confederation of Pinsk, were summarily crushed, with their Danish allies failing to save them from the resurgent Polish crown.
With order largely restored to the realm by the end of the 1480s, Igor set about forging a lasting peace. The nobility was to remain in its humbled status, subject to power of the crown and responsible for providing a level of taxation that would support a large royal army capable of maintaining internal peace and projecting power abroad. The King was perhaps most famous for his attitude towards Poland’s religious and ethnic minorities – whom he granted the freedom to practise their own faiths, the right to manage their communities according to their own religious customs and took the step of recognising the titles and position of the nobility of the Steppe.
For all these achievements, Igor’s life ended in dramatically tragic fashion. Following a heated argument he flew into a rage and beat his son and heir, Crown Prince Yelisey, to death in the halls of his palace, before throwing himself into the cold waters of the Dnieper in despair – never to be seen again.
Oronartai Belugunutei 1483-1559
The greatest symbol of Poland’s era of toleration that began with the end of the Anarchy in the late 15th centuries and stretched through the end of the 16th century was the career of Oronartai Belugunutei. Oronartai into the Orsha Pecheneg tribe, a Tatar community in north-eastern Ruthenia, surrounded by Russian-populated lands. When he was a small child his family was formally incorporated into the Polish aristocracy after Igor II granted formal feudal recognition to the Tatar nobility. After inheriting the title of Beylik in 1501, he headed to the centre of power in Kiev, where he grew close to Igor II’s successor Igor III. With this personal connection to the monarchy, Belugunutei was the central figure in Poland’s government for nearly half a century, as Igor III’s chancellor from 1519 to 1547 and as the regent of his grandson Lev III between 1548 and 1559.
The great chancellor’s career was littered with great projects and accomplishments, but they were held together by a singular conception of Poland’s civilisational destiny. While more recent history had seen clashes between those who hoped to bring Poland in line with European society and those who wished to preserve it as an independent civilisation in its own right, Belugunutei was guided by a Eurasian vision in which Poland embraced an Asian identity in opposition to the West. This urged on the conquest of the Tatars in the east, pushing the frontier all the way to the Urals, and an effort to fully incorporate the Tatar elites, with their Muslim religion, into the Polish state. It motivated the first efforts to seriously curtail trade with the West, beginning a process that was to greatly accelerate in the 17th century. Most richly symbolic, Belugunutei was the architect of the creation of the Tsardom – as he sought to raise Poland from the ranks of the European Kingdoms to become an Asiatic Empire.
His career was not without difficulties. An intense was against the Arab Caliphate in the 1540s openly revealed the failure of efforts to build loyalty among the Tatars as many Muslims rebelled against their Tsar in support of their religious brethren. This undermined Igor III’s faith in him, leaving him fearful of Muslim sedition, and led to his dismissal in 1547. Only the Tsar’s death the following year brought him back into the limelight – as he formed a regency council for the new child-emperor to defend the humanist state from a Jewish backlash. When his death finally brought an end to his domination of the empire, Polish armies were fighting a war of conquest in the depths of Siberia against the Mongol and Chinese empires.
Oleg and the religious movement he forged were another product of the tolerant century. Oleg came of age at a time when Polish rule in Muscovy was very fresh. Indeed, he was born in an independent state in Pskov that did not come under Polish control until 1499. At this time Judaism was beginning to re-exert itself among the Muscovites, the bulk of whom had drifted towards Catholicism in past centuries. A keen cosmopolitan with an interest in the cultural melting pot of 16th century Muscovy – he took on ideas from Hinduism, most notably the concept of karma, Islam, including annual ritual fasting modelled on Ramadan and conducting prayer in the direction of Jerusalem, and Christianity, including the worship of saints and the creation of a vernacular Bible in the style of the Baltic Protestants. These were melded into the doctrines of Orthodox Judaism to create a new branch of the Jewish faith that spread rapidly among the Muscovites through the first half of the 16th century. Oleg himself spent his entire life in Muscovy, travelling regularly to the great Tatar-Mongol cities of Novgorod, Tver and Moscow from his home in Pskov and conducting a war of letters with the Orthodox authorities to the south. By the time of his death in 1541, Olegism was established as the leading religion among the northern Russians. Overtime, it would become the key cornerstone of a Muscovite identity that was distinct from the Greater Russian mainstream in Ruthenia, Galicia and Old Poland.
Kipras Cesnauskis 1506-1582
Unlike the other figures on this list, Kipras was not born a subject of the Polish Tsar and did not live us one until the years months of his life. However, his interaction with and impact upon Polish society was profound. Born in Burgundian Lithuania, as a young man he was enraptured by the German Reformation of the Lutzites that began in the 1520s. Inspired by the idea of a break with the corrupted Catholic Church, through the 1520s and 30s he developed his own religious philosophy which built upon the works of the German reforms, blending in ideas inspired by the Qahalist Jewish reformers and his own streak of radicalism. He would preach in favour of a new Reformed Church, with powerful congregations, stripped down ceremonies, Bibles written in the vernacular and a direct relationship between the individual and God.
His ideas quickly caught fire in his native Lithuania, leading to a rebellion against Burgundian rule and the establishment of the world’s first Protestant state in 1551. Cesnauskis’ wisdom was drawn upon heavily by the young Kingdom’s new government as they sought to construct a Godly Church and society. He also took time to travel around the Baltic region on proselytising missions to Riga, still under Burgundian rule until 1562, Estonia, which converted to his Church in 1556, and the Polish Baltic, where his movement caught fire. His influence only waned in the 1570s when he came to loggerheads with the Lithuanian regime over the ongoing civil war in the Polish Baltic. Cesnaukis favoured a militant intervention on the side of the Protestants, while the monarchy feared the Tsar’s retribution. Regardless, Poland invaded Lithuania in 1580 and established a client Kingdom in which the greatest Protestant reformer lived out the last of his days.
Born into deep poverty in rural Belarus in the mid-16th century, Misha Dubnow taught himself to read and began a lifetime of Torah study. Travelling to Warsaw in the 1570s to further his studies as he pursued a future in the Rabbinate, he was alarmed by the penetration of Western ideas and the Christian violence raging in the Baltic at the times. After returning to Northern Ruthenia, he began to articulate a new reform movement within Jewish Orthodoxy – advocating an ecstatic form of worship, a reaffirmation of Biblical values, the democratisation of the church and, crucially, a forceful rejection of the non-Jewish world. This was the birth of Hasidism. Capturing a wave of popular religious energy, Dubnow would see his movement spread widely and rapidly across the empire. Dubnow himself spent much of his later life articulating his beliefs in broadly reproduced texts and educating a growing number of Rabbinical disciples to carry Hasidism forward. In the final years of his life the Hasidim began to win elite backing, and with it real power. Having spent most of his adult life as a village and later small-town Rabbi, for the last three years of his life he served as the Chief Rabbi of Minsk – the most senior cleric in Northern Ruthenia. In the century after Dubnow’s death his followers grew to dominate the Polish state – implementing an isolated, pious, society. Even after the regime turned against the Hasids in the 18th century, millions throughout world Jewry held firm to the ideals of Misha Dubnow – as they still do to this day.
Tsarina Anna Drutsk-Vyshenky 1579-1645
In such a male dominated society, there were precious few opportunities for women to shape history in Early Modern Poland. The greatest exception to this rule was the Tsarina Anna. After marrying the Crowned Prince, a man twenty years her senior, at the age of 15, Anna became the Tsarina after her husband rose to the throne as Igor IV in 1601. The empress was a deeply devout follower of the teachings of Misha Dubnow and used her influence at court to shield and sponsor the Hasidic movement through the reigns of her husband and son. The protection gave the Hasidim the room to flourish and set a fashion among members of the aristocratic elite that won the movement high society support to accompany their mass following. In essence, the modest Tsarina was the lynchpin of the 17th century Hasidic ascendancy, without whom it might well have met the fate of the Qahalists.
Vasiliy III and Radoslav the Great 1683-1730 & 1689-1778
The two great reforming Tsars of the 18th century lived parallel lives. Both were born into the Polish aristocracy in the final years of the Drutsk-Vyshenky and saw their youths permanently coloured by the horror of Poland’s catastrophic defeat in the Second Polish Crusade of 1700-1702, when they were forced to flee from Kiev in the face of the all-conquering German army. During the war, Vasiliy’s father, Sviatopolk II, had seized power from the ailing Yefimiy II in the name of strong military leadership – justifying his claim through the maternal line, which had previously been disregarded under Polish succession laws. As the new Crown Prince, Vasiliy was a great enthusiast for his father’s programme of modernisation and sought to accelerate it after rising to the throne himself in 1712.
Radoslav had to wait much longer into his life to achieve such a lofty position. Born into the minor Russian-speaking nobility of southern Prussia – he stood out for his Protestant religion, that had largely kept his family from any position of importance during the Hasidic ascendency. Even under the Sviatopolk’s reforms, Christianity acted as a bar on Radoslav’s opportunities for advancement. This changed after Vasiliy rose to the throne in 1712. Benefiting from a close personal relationship with the new Tsar, who he had known since his childhood, and his desire to promote non-Jewish talents – Radoslav soon secured an important role in the army, working closely with his liege and other reformers to ready Poland for modern warfare.
Both men found the chance to win eternal glory in the Eight Years War of 1722-1730. Radoslav and Vasiliy both worked in tandem to oversea the defence of Kiev from German-Serbian attack in the early stages of the war, before Radoslav led a number of successful campaigns in the Black Sea region and later Slovakia while Vasiliy had less success as a battlefield commander in Silesia before leading the final charge on Vienna itself. After conquering the imperial capital and securing a peace that dissolved the German-Serbian union, Vasiliy III died before ever returning to his homeland.
Radoslav was the man who picked up the pieces following his comrade’s death – leading a coalition of militarists, secularists and Christians to victory against a conservative Jewish faction between 1730 and 1733. Although a popular Jewish backlash forced him to convert to Judaism before his coronation, he was able to secure the imperial diadem for himself.
For the next four and a half decades Radoslav the Great ruled with an iron fist, become one of the most powerful absolutist monarchs on the continent, while instituting dramatic reforms of the Polish state – creating a strong bureaucracy and a new, secular, code of law. Geopolitically, he established Poland as, arguably, the world’s premier power – winning a great victory in the Italian Wars of Succession between 1744 and 1741 that saw Poland regain her lost lands in Slovakia, create a vassal state in Pannonia and build a network of allies in western Europe. Poland also acquired a colonial empire in North America and integrated Lithuania and Estonia as imperial provinces. At his death, and despite his grand achievements, Radoslav was increasingly viewed as a tyrant – responsible for a burgeoning police state and personally paranoid of threats to his power. Nonetheless, his impact on Polish and world history had been immense.