P o l s k i e W i e ś c i

Friday, January 25, 2019

Last King of Poland - Book by Adam Zamoyski

Last King of Poland
Originally published: 1992
Author: Adam Zamoyski
  • One night in December 1755, Stanislaw Antoni Poniatowski, the 23 year old secretary to the British Ambassador in St Petersburg, was introduced into the bedroom of the Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna. This marked the beginning of a torrid and clandestine affair which led to Stanislaw being crowned King of Poland in 1764.
On the night of December 28, 1755, Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski, the 23-year-old secretary to the English ambassador in Saint Petersburg, set off on a clandestine escapade that was to alter the course of history. He left his lodgings secretly, climbed into a sleigh with Lev Alexandrovich Naryshkin and drove towards the Winter Palace. The sleigh stopped a little way from the palace and Poniatowski followed his companion on foot through the snow to a side entrance. They passed the sentry, climbed the servants' staircase, and went in to the private apartments of the Grand Duchess Catherine (the Great). Naryshkin, who bore the rank, appropriately it seems, Gentleman of the Bed Chamber to the Grand Duchess, showed him in and then vanished.

Poniatowski was nervous meeting her alone for the first time. He was also terrified. He had heard stories of savage punishments meted out to those who had incurred imperial displeasure and visions of Siberian mines haunted him. In the bedroom he found a young woman of 25 dressed in a simple, white satin gown trimmed with lace and pink ribbons. She had reached that moment when beauty's at its height in any woman to whom it has been granted. With black hair, she had a complexion of the radiant whiteness and a high color. She had large, prominent, and very expressive blue eyes, long black eyelashes, a Greek nose, a mouth that seemed to beg for a kiss, perfect hands and arms, a slender figure, tall rather than small, vivacious yet deeply noble deportment, a pleasant voice, and a laugh that was as gay as her humor, he wrote. She was the mistress who became the arbiter of my destiny.

That night they became lovers. Seven years later she became empress of all of Russia. And two years after that she used her influence and her troops to place Stanislav Poniatowski on the throne of Poland. "These two philosophical beings seemed made to be united", wrote Voltaire, dreaming up a match that would give birth to a great northern utopia. Yet the story that began in love and mutual esteem ended 40 years later in misunderstanding and recrimination. Catherine crossed Stanislav, carved up his kingdom, and erased the name of Poland from the map of Europe.

This did not come about as a result of some lovers' tiff. It stemmed from a collision of reasons of state, from the conflict of some of the strongest personalities ever to sit on European thrones, and from the political upheavals that shook the continent in the second half of the century and culminated in the French Revolution. Poniatowski's reign was to see, not only the demise of Poland, but the transformation of the whole of central Europe and the rise of a system of power relations that governed political life for the next two centuries.

The 18th century was punctuated by wars: the Northern War, the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Polish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the Turkish wars, each involving the whole of Europe.

These wars were the levers of diplomacy and their objectives and surprises were negotiable ... so were the alliances. Prussia's favorite tactic under Frederick the Great was to goad an ally into starting a war and then change courses and collect the prize from the injured side for having come to its rescue.

 In 1764 Russian czarina Catherine the Great managed to enthrone Stanislaw August Poniatowski (her former lover), who became the last Polish king – very controversial one. On the one hand, he was a man of Enlightenment and initiated many reforms to heal and modernize state institutions (during his reign first Polish constitution was adopted on May 3, 1791). On the other, he never tried to liberate the country from dependence of Russia, which took more and more control over Poland.

Too weak politically and plagued by civil wars caused by anti-reformist aristocrats factions, Poland was unable to prevent partitions, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland for 122 years. The partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) were perpetrated by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, which divided up the Commonwealth lands among themselves progressively in the process of territorial seizures. On November 27, 1795 Stanislaw August was forced to resign and a Polish state no longer existed on the map. It happened not without any resistance. In 1794 Polish patriots under the command of general Tadeusz Kosciuszko uprised against Russia and Prussia, but despite of the successful battle of Raclawice against Russia (April 4, 1794) it was a failed attempt to save Polish independence.

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