The first partition of Poland shaped Russia’s foreign policy

In August 1772 the “Petersburg Treaty” was signed – Poland lost a third of its territory to Russia, Austria and Prussia. From then on, the conquest at the cabinet desk shaped the Russian striving for power in a decisive way.

Sarcastic allegory of the first division of Poland: Tsarina Catherine II, Joseph II and Frederick II (from left to right) work on the map, while Stanisław II August desperately grabs the crown. (The originally non-colored original of the drawing was made in 1773).


250 years ago, Prussia, Russia and Austria split the Polish-Lithuanian state for the first time. Although the territorial shifts at the expense of Poland still determine the European state order today, they hardly count among the particularly noted events in European history. The first division enabled Russia’s unstoppable advance into Central Europe. At least that was the opinion of the contemporary Irish-British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

This advance marked the end of a long journey that had already begun with the First Northern War in the 16th century. The neighboring Polish-Lithuanian country was hardly able to resist the constant encroachments of Russia in its quest for supremacy in Eastern Europe, which gave Peter the Great the opportunity to take complete control of the area at the beginning of the 18th century.

However, Poland’s weakness was not the only reason for the subsequent sustained Russian hegemony. Rather, it was the interaction of the European powers in the 18th century that led to Russia’s success and thus also to the downfall of Polish statehood. Since they wanted to assert their particular claims, neither Berlin nor Vienna nor London or Paris were interested in a direct confrontation with St. Petersburg.

Due to the constantly growing importance of Russia, France lost its traditional supremacy in Poland to the Tsarist Empire. Arch-rival England observed France’s loss of power benevolently, although London reacted cautiously to Russia’s unstoppable rise. Efforts by French diplomacy to persuade Prussia and Austria to form an anti-Russian coalition failed miserably. Neither Maria Theresa nor Frederick II were willing to risk an open conflict with their up-and-coming neighbor.

The loss of Silesia in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) had taught the Viennese government not to jeopardize the fragile Russo-Austrian connection against Prussia again. The experience of the Seven Years’ War was also decisive for the Prussian king: Frederick II decided to completely change his anti-Austrian alliance policy, which had previously been oriented towards the West, and to shift his political interests to the East. From now on the Prussian-Russian alliance became the dominant element in his political calculations.

resistance of the Catholics

In the mid-18th century, the Russian Empress Catherine II took over the role of arbiter in Europe. The “Polish question” became the guarantor of the European balance. Unconditional acceptance of Russian hegemony in Poland was the price Frederick II and Maria Theresa had to pay for Russian assistance.

The beginning of the unstable coalition was marked by the election of the Polish king in 1764. In that year, Catherine’s former lover Stanisław August Poniatowski came to the Polish throne. However, immediately after his election, the 32-year-old king launched an ambitious reform program for the severely weakened and internally torn country without consulting Russia.

Knowing full well that this would undermine the king’s position, Katharina punished his attempt at political emancipation by demanding that those of other faiths be granted the controversial equality. Because of the dominant position of the Catholic Church, this request met with vehement resistance. Even Russia was surprised when parts of the Polish nobility proclaimed a confederation in 1768 to restore the sole rule of the Catholic religion, dethrone the king and eliminate Russian supremacy.

The Confederates’ initial crusade mood soon disintegrated under the military pressure of the Russian troops and due to insufficient help from France. But despite several defeats, the Confederate resistance spread as guerrilla warfare throughout Poland-Lithuania and plunged the country into a civil war-like conflict for four years.

The Imperial Russian Army pursued the fleeing Confederates into Ottoman territory, prompting Sultan Mustafa III. used as a pretext to declare war on Russia in September 1768. When surprising military defeats by the Ottomans opened up the possibility of Russian territorial gains in Southeastern Europe, Austria and Prussia came forward with their own claims.

They initially raised an ultimatum to the feared unilateral gain in power for Russia and then worked towards all-round territorial compensation. Territory cessions were intended to satisfy Prussia’s interests in annexing Poland and offer Austria compensation for the loss of Silesia.

Like an artichoke

It was also the Habsburg monarchy that first seized the opportunity and in 1769 occupied the county of Spiš, which had been pledged by Hungary to Poland several centuries earlier. The fact that Austria went it alone prompted Frederick II to admonish the Russian empress to follow Vienna’s example and take action as well. In his political testament of 1752 he had already laid down the plan to eat Poland like an artichoke “leaf by leaf”. In order to secure a lucrative piece of Polish territory for Prussia in good time, Frederick II sent his brother Heinrich to Saint Petersburg for negotiations in 1771.

Catherine II didn’t have to be persuaded for long, “after all, everyone should have something,” she stated pragmatically. Partial Confederate successes showed too clearly that Russia was in danger of losing control of Poland. The king’s position was too weak to assert Catherine’s interests. Furthermore, things were not at their best in Russia itself. Apart from the Moscow plague riots, a bloody Cossack uprising spread throughout the Volga region. The necessary concentrated action against this internal unrest presupposed clear conditions in Poland.

In February 1772, Russia and Prussia therefore agreed on a partition treaty. Maria Theresa’s initial moral concerns were soon allayed by her son and co-regent Joseph II in view of the promise of territorial gains, so that on August 5, 1772 the “Petersburg Treaty” was signed between the three great powers. What was disguised as a “measure” to “pacify” Confederate Poland cost the country a quarter of its territory and a third of its population.

A conquest at the cabinet desk – until then a unique act in European history. Three European monarchies – Russia, Austria and Prussia – satisfied their mutual demands for territorial and power balancing by dividing a third of a sovereign neighboring state among themselves.

Poland, which was unable to defend itself and found no international support, was forced to agree to the three superpowers’ partition treaty. The MPs initially stayed away from Parliament. But the three allies put the pressure on, paid a lot of bribes and also had their troops march in. On September 30, 1773, the division was then sanctioned by a parliamentary majority.

Prussia as the big winner

Nevertheless, Russia, Austria and Prussia annexed areas that went far beyond those designated in the Petersburg Partition Convention. Russia incorporated Livonia and parts of Belarus (84,000 square kilometers with 1,256,000 inhabitants). Austria secured Lesser Poland and large parts of Galicia (93,900 square kilometers, 2,669,000 inhabitants). Although Prussia gained “only” 35,000 square kilometers with 365,000 inhabitants with Warmia and parts of Greater Poland, the Prussian king could feel like the real winner of the division.

The land connection between East Prussia and Brandenburg, which the Hohenzollerns had striven for for generations, was established, and with the introduction of the Vistula tariffs, Prussia took control of the lucrative Polish foreign trade. In addition, Frederick II won the right to finally be able to call himself King “of Prussia” (previously the title had only applied “in Prussia”). And as such, he was able to maintain his position as a key negotiating partner in the continental power structure, which had been weakened after the Seven Years’ War. The further partitions of Poland that followed (1793 and 1795) finally promoted the rise of Prussia and Russia to become major European powers.

The first division of Poland immediately paid off for Russia, because Petersburg was now more open to the conflict with the Ottoman Empire. The peace treaty concluded in 1774 guaranteed Russia access to the Black Sea in the conquered area around Azov and control of the Caucasus and eastern Georgia.

In the long term, however, the first partition laid the foundation for a conflict-ridden development, as it largely weakened Russia’s foreign policy position. After all, the hegemony achieved by Peter the Great in Poland-Lithuania was lost in 1772. The “Polish question” was internationalized and became the vehicle for conflicts over territorial distribution in Europe.

With the subsequent complete dissolution of the Polish state, the Russian borders expanded far to the west (to the Bug), which was connected with the incorporation of Lithuanian, Belarusian and partly Ukrainian areas. The imperial claim to power burdened Russian foreign policy with a potential for conflict that still burdens and blocks coexistence on the territories annexed at the time, including through military conflicts.

Agnieszka Pufelska is a cultural historian and private lecturer at the Northeast Institute at the University of Hamburg in Lüneburg.

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