A change in perception of Lithuanian-Polish relations at the May 3 Constitution commemoration

Polish and Lithuanian flags
Polish and Lithuanian flags DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

While watching the 230 anniversary of the May 3 Constitution at the Lithuanian and Polish parliaments, it was indeed uncomfortable to be seated in front of the television while throughout almost half of the ceremonious sitting, the participants remained standing, Mečys Laurinkus wrote in lrytas.lt

Previous commemorations of this outstanding and important document in Lithuania, starting with 2007, were more modest.

Even earlier, even before independence was restored in Lithuania, only those with an interest in that era were familiar with this momentous historical event for the Republic of Both Nations [Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth].

It is peculiar even to me that upon the establishment of the Lithuanian-Polish parliamentary assembly, which I co-chaired on behalf of the Lithuanian Seimas, neither official sittings nor more informal formats made any mention of the May 3 Constitution.

My guess is that the representatives of the Polish parliament were unwilling to hear the sceptical opinions of certain members of the Lithuanian delegation. And scepticism there was.

“Wary souls” reacted sensitively even to the creation of the parliamentary assembly itself.

I recall how after one joint meeting, I faced reprimand from a prominent Lithuanian politician for missing the “and” between Lithuania and Poland. They asked me that perhaps we’re about to return to the Union of Lublin.

As chairperson, I decided that the assembly should only discuss future joint projects: NATO, the EU, energy, culture.

As for history – leave it to later, when emotions settle. I see changes in the perception of Lithuanian and Polish relations in namely the current May 3 Constitution commemoration.

That said, comments also include cautious remarks, but the positive prevails.

A qualified explanation of the circumstances behind the Constitution’s emergence can easily be found online.

Precise, meaningful and unexaggerated perspectives from Lithuanian and Polish leaders. With an increase in information on historical topics – especially when it is presented in an understandable manner – many stereotypes are overcome.

For a long time in my youth, I was among the sceptics of the Union of Lublin. My opinion was formed back then by famous historian A. Šapoka.

There were no other alternatives to Soviet historiography back then. It must be emphasised that during the seventh and eighth decades of the previous century, interest in normal Lithuanian history was undergoing something of a renaissance – particularly among those studying or graduates of technical sciences.

Everything that presented history as something other than just the compliance of manufacturing capacities with manufacturing relations was eagerly read and listened to.

The following was a description of the May 3 Constitution: King Stanislaus II Augustus, the lover of Catherine the Great, finally placed the Republic of Both Nations under Russia’s knife, allowing it, accompanied by Prussia and Austria, to thrice carve up Poland and Lithuania.

A weak and depraved court, greedy and selfish nobility supposedly brought down the state’s economy. Lithuania had started to rapidly polonise and if this Constitution had lingered longer (it lasted only fourteen months and three weeks), Lithuania would have been completely consumed by Poland.

Such were the opinions that lingered back then. Now, the Constitution is viewed as a modern document of the newest European history, even an inspiration for the contemporary.

However, a broader outlook doesn’t mean that we should forget what this document was aimed at. The Republic of Both Nations had arrived on the brink of the abyss.

Due to various reasons, the ineffective state economy had already reached the bottom already in the early XVII century after wars with the Cossacks, Swedes and Russians, finally after the Great Northern War.

Industry wasn’t developed at all; population counts fell rapidly. One statistical study states that if we are to take France’s income as a reference point (100%), in the year 1770, Austria’s income was at 26%, while Poland’s – 3%. In 1788, Austria had risen to 43%, while Poland fell to 2.7%.

The army was in deplorable condition. No modernisation. All sorts of armies roamed the country’s territory. Russian garrisons had been placed in the country factually since the time of Peter the Great. State governance was a complete misunderstanding.

The state needed saving. A younger generation opened its eyes and took to doing this in the Four-Year Sejm and the result was namely the Constitution of May 3. It didn’t salvage things, the Targowica Confederation retracted the Constitution. The third division finished off the Republic of Both Nations entirely.

While in Warsaw, Lithuanian President G. Nausėda was predictably speaking strictly about Russia. I would have been greatly surprised had this not been the case.

However, the division of the Republic of Both Nations was more in the interest of Prussia and Frederick II rather than Russia. It was namely he that presented through an envoy the division project to Catherine II back in 1769, which she was uninclined to consider due to a war with Turkey. Austria was initially also uncertain.

Eventually, all three agreed with the division documents, which start with the word “In the name of the Holy Trinity.”

Poland didn’t vanish from the world map, it resisted, revolts were organised, we know of many prominent resistance participants. For many of them, the May 3 Constitution likely inspired many of them.

Poland is now a major player in European politics. In the second half of the 19th century, Lithuania miraculously also recovered despite it seeming that it was the most at risk among the Republic of Both Nations to be consigned to the history archives. It is hard to tell what leads to the rebirth of states.

However, examples are within a hand’s reach. It once appeared that crammed into apartment buildings and cardboard houses, Lithuania would come to terms with the occupation. It did not.

A new generation took to singing songs that made no mention of the kolkhoz chairman. We now see a new generation growing right before us in Belarus.

230 years ago, a new generation also took to putting together the May 3 Constitution.

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