Religious Toleration at the Polish-Belarusian Borderland

 

 

The issue of the local communities of the denominations other than the predominant one emerged in Poland in the 14th century when the state absorbed the land inhabited by originally non-Polish minorities. In the 14th century, the Polish Kingdom lost considerable, ethnically Polish area in the west. Further, as a result of King Casimir the Great’s incorporation of Halich Rus, the national and denominational composition of the country was largely changed. Poland lost its national and religious homogeneity. This change further necessitated the alteration of the political focus. The Polish state was made to develop a new policy in order to begin to represent the interests of a large part of the newly acquired society. The choice between the catholicisation of the minorities or granting them an official status in the country was in the spotlight of the internal policy. Unlike the western European states, which were just much later torn apart by the reformation, the Polish Kingdom, especially in its Grand Duchy of Lithuania, were already settled by different fractions of the followers of the Christian or non-Christian religions. While Catholicism in the Iberian Peninsula was an integrative factor in the struggle with Islam, in East-Central Europe the Teutonic Order, under the auspices of the Holy See, acted against the Catholic dynasties of Piasts and Jagiellons. Opposing the Teutonic incursions, Poland sought assistance of the Orthodox Ruthenian troops, Lithuanian pagan companies and Tatar reinforcements. The joint history of the Polish and Lithuanian peoples of different denominations contributed to the rise of a specific religious toleration in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its most conspicuous features were manifested by the multicultural and multireligious co-existence of the inhabitants of the Polish-Belarusian borderland.

Casimir the Great, the last of the Piast Dynasty, realized the significance of the Orthodox peoples’ presence. Casimir preserved the rights and the rite of the Orthodox Church.[1] Under his reign, there was a large-scale approximation of the Latin and Byzantine and Ruthenian tradition in the area of the Kingdom and Lithuania. Old Belarusian was the official language in Lithuania and the Ruthenian culture was widely acknowledged by Lithuanian dukes and boyars. The Ruthenian influences in Lithuania caused its inhabitants to accept Orthodox Christianity with its entire outcome. Lithuania having incorporated some of the Ruthenian land was only officially a pagan state. It was owing to the Orthodox Church that the Byzantine culture spread over Poland and Ruthenia. The Orthodox culture raised interest of the last representatives of the Piast Dynasty. Casimir the Great would often hire Ruthenian painters and constructors. Ruthenian artists worked on the internal ornamentation of the collegiate church in Wiślica and the Wawel Royal Castle Chapel funded by the king. Ruthenians also erected the hetman chapel in Market Square. Moreover, one of the grandest Orthodox churches was built during Casimir's reign – church of St Jur in Lviv.

The cultural toleration gained momentum in the Polish and Lithuanian life after the Union of Krewo. The turn of the 14th century saw the greatest influence of the Byzantine and Ruthenian Orthodox art and was attributable to the patronage of King Władysław Jagiełło.[2] Jagiełło favoured the Ruthenian art than Casimir the Great. The king grew up in Lithuania surrounded by the Orthodox art. Jagiełło’s special attachment to the Orthodox Church was owed to his mother Julianna, Duchess of Twer, who brought up her son in the Byzantine and Ruthenian cultural background. Jagiełło fascinated by the Orthodox culture invited Ruthenian painters to decorate churches, mansions and castle interiors that he sponsored. These painters, among other works, produced the Byzantine polychrome in the cathedrals in Gniezno and Sandomierz, decorated the interior of the collegiate church in Wiślica, St Benedict Church of the Holy Cross in Łysa Góra, Holy Trinity Chapel in the Wawel Castle, Holy Trinity Church in Lublin and the royal bedroom in the Wawel Castle.[3] Władysław Jagiełło’s wife, Zofia Holszańska, rendered considerable services to the development of the Ruthenian culture. Although converted to Christianity when marrying the king (1422), the duchess did not conceal her fondness of that Eastern culture. The Holy trinity chapel in the Wawel Castle became hew eternal resting place. Although a little number of the sacred buildings decorated by the Ruthenian artists has been preserved to date, one can speak of a temporary expansion of the Orthodox culture in Latin churches. Never before had the Eastern art been transferred to such an extent into the Western world of gothic. The Byzantine and Ruthenian polychromes preserved in Lublin, Wiślica, Sandomierz and the Holy Cross Chapel in Kraków corroborate the strong influence of the Orthodox culture over the 15th century Polish sacred architecture. From among the enumerated historical monuments, the best preserved polychrome can be viewed in the Holy Trinity Church in Lublin. The gothic vault and pillars reveal the Byzantine and Ruthenian frescoes which seem not to match the overall architectural character of the church. The authors of this work completed in 1418 were a group of painters led by Master Andrzej. The Holy Trinity Church in Lublin is an example of a merge between the Byzantine and Ruthenian culture and the Latin culture.[4]

The Ruthenian artistic tradition dominated not only in the Jagiellonian court. At the turn of the 14th century, every third inhabitant of the Polish Kingdom was a Ruthenian. This fact imprinted upon the then Polish music, art and writing.[5] In the Jagiellonian times, the Orthodox denomination became a national and folk religion through the ubiquity of diverse rites and firms of worship. The widespread character of the worship of miracle icons and sacred places elevated the believers’ religious awareness. The phenomenon of miracle paintings permeated into literature and art. The worship of the Holy Mary’s pictures – developing owing to the Orthodox influences – spread over Poland to an extent unknown in other Roman Catholic countries.[6] In the 14th century, one can notice a mounting symbiosis of the Polish and Belarusian culture, especially manifesting itself in religious architecture and literature. Wealthy monastery libraries offer a number of chronicles, annals and illustrated Gospels dated to the 14th and 15th century. The most recognized Gospels are those of Orszanka, Mstiw and Ławryszew.[7]

The Jagiellonians realized that the Orthodox community lived in their own territory. Unlike the Angevins or the Valois, Jagiełło and his successors built their power on the multireligious composition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They did not copy the somewhat alien model of a Western Catholic state with dominating Latin influences. It was the ethnic structure of the Lithuanian state that determined their policy. The Duchy was dominated by the Orthodox Ruthenians and was a melting pot of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Tatars and Armenians. It was not the case in the Polish Kingdom. The political elite – submitted to the Roman Catholic Church – perceived the Orthodox tradition as an alien element.[8] In the 15th century, the Christian universalism was not a priority and the Orthodox faith was even referred to as „schismatic”. It was long before the Council of Trent when the Orthodox Christianity was not considered as the part of the Universal Church but as a competitive denomination. Such a stance is noticeable in the chronicles of Jan Długosz who saw Poland as „the bulwark of Christendom.”[9] It is worth noting the Teutonic Order’s accusations related to the Polish alliance with the pagans and schismatics in an anti-Christian war. The Teutonic propaganda at the Council of Constance was aimed to exclude the Orthodox faith from the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, the Eastern and Western Churches were of the same origin and history. This idea was raised in the originally Polish territory when debating the issue of unification. At that time, it became conspicuous that it was not Poland but rather Ruthenia that deserved to be called the „bulwark of Christendom” as since the 13th century it had been halting the Mongolian expansion. In the centuries to follow the Polish influences clashed with those of Turks in the Podolya, Wallachia and Transylvania. In each of these regions, the Orthodox peoples were defending Christianity.

The power of the Polish state relied upon the acknowledgement of the Kingdom and the Duchy by the Ruthenian Orthodox people as their own state. The latest research testifies to the opinion that the loyalty of the Orthodox community to the Catholic superior resulted from the deepened bonds with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Ruthenian attachment to the Jagiellonian tradition.[10] One should not overlook the fact that the founder of the dynasty, Gediminas married an Orthodox Duchess of Twer, Julianna. The Orthodox hierarchy discountenanced the Moscow’s idea of reviving the state incorporating the former territory of the Duchy of Kiev. The subdual of the Ruthenian part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland to Moscow would have entailed the liquidation of an independent Orthodox province, the Kiev metropolis. The Orthodox authorities believed that the religious tradition of Kievan Ruthenia owes more to the Lithuanian than to Moscow rulers. There are other facts that corroborate the loyalty of the Orthodox elite. None of the three Orthodox senators from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the Vilnius Castellan, Hrehory Chodkiewicz, Nowogród Castellan Hrehory Wołłowicz and the Brest Voivode Jerzy Tyszkiewicz) endorsed the candidacy of Ivan IV at the regional diet in Rudnik in September 1572. The Lithuanian magnates who supported the tsar were accused by an Orthodox duke, Jerzy Olelkowicz Słucki, with treason.[11] Such an attitude was typical not only of the higher classes of the Orthodox society. In order to corroborate this claim, let me recall the exodus of the Orthodox boyars from the Smoleńsk region to Lithuania after the seizure of Brańsk and Smoleńsk by Moscow.[12] It is worth stressing the deeds of Duke Konstanty Ostrogski in the battle of Orsza in 1514, or the resistance of the Belarusian Orthodox noblemen and peasants during the Swedish and Moscow raids – much more severe than those in the Polish Kingdom. It was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which contested the Moscow rulers. Even the internal Ruthenian conflicts did not overshadow the main goals of preserving the integration of the state. The state under the rule of the last two Jagiellonians offered the Orthodox Church independence and a considerable degree of self-governance.[13]

The 16th century was marked by major changes inside the Orthodox community. The progress of the Reformation did not cast aside the Eastern Christianity. The new movement affected wide circles of the Ruthenian magnates and boyars. In 1572 out of 69 senators of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania merely 24 were Ruthenians, including 8 members of the Orthodox Church, 15 Protestants and 1 Roman Catholic.[14] Yet, the role of the Ruthenian senators was much more significant that their actual number. The Orthodox Lithuanian and Ruthenian officials were entitled to create and implement the Eastern policy of the Commonwealth.

The principles of amicable religious co-existence in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania through several centuries were conducive to the development of a new model of toleration in the times of greatest religious conflicts that tore Europe apart. The acceptance for infidels and members of other churches in the Commonwealth was not resultant from their power or influence but rather from the political doctrine of religious peace. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers often referred to the tradition of harmonious co-existence of religions in Lithuania and Ruthenia. Roman Catholics, Orthodox believers, Muslims and Jews living together was commonplace in the Jagiellonians’ state. The influx of Lutherans, Calvinists, Antitrinitarians, Anabaptists, Arians, Mennonites or Quakers did not much later this mosaic and the Duchy inhabitants’ attitude to religious issues. Thus, what lied at the source of toleration in the Commonwealth was the agreeable religious co-existence at the Polish-Belarusian borderland and the denominational policy of Lithuanian dukes in the 14th and 15th centuries. Frequent conjugal bonds and permanent presence of the Ruthenian culture in Poland made the Orthodox faith to some extent domestic. The Commonwealth developed a broad-scale model of Christian civilisation that materially differed from that of Western or Eastern Europe. At the core of the model was the principle of toleration as an alternative to religious compulsion.

The toleration experience of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th century acted upon the theoretical and practical status of religious toleration in the whole Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the Counter Reformation, if the Reformation followers refused to convert to Catholicism, they were offered a compromise and limited toleration. The authorities did not have recourse to French or German methods of the Thirty Years’ War or St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. A great achievement of the Polish toleration was the passing of the Warsaw Confederation Act of 1573. Unlike the Western Europe where toleration edicts were the acts of clemency towards religious minorities (the edict of Charles IX of 1562, the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, or the Edict of Nantes of 1598), the Warsaw Confederation was a concession made between the noblemen of two religions that allowed the members of other denominations to run for offices, benefices and honours. The state was said to no longer interfere with its citizens’ conscience.[15] This collective work confirming the maturity of the nobility referred to the already existing principles of co-existence in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Because the Warsaw Confederation did not name any denomination, everybody was able to invoke it, even sectaries. This outstanding work of toleration was unique in the European continent. The Edict of Nantes in France served only Huguenots and in Transylvania only four denominations were permitted officially. No wonder, the Commonwealth, in particular the Polish-Belarusian borderland, was treated as a refuge for all the religious asylum-seekers of the time. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania became the home for French Huguenots, English Quakers and Jesuits, Dutch Mennonites, German Lutherans, Italian Antitrinitarians, Russian sectaries or Spanish Jews. An Antitrinitarian, Martin Ruar from Holland, wrote that he had arrived in the Commonwealth due to the golden freedom of conscience established by the confederations and solemn kings’ oaths.[16] Another feature of religious toleration was that the rulers and noblemen protected and supported the members of other religions. For instance, the Dutch Mennonites were employed by the local bishops to drain the land. Arians (Zbigniew Morsztyn, Samuel Przypkowski) held high positions in the Radziwiłłs’ demesnes (Zabłudów, Nieśwież, Słuck). Likewise, prominent functions were offered to the Polish Brethren in the houses of the Catholic and Orthodox magnates.[17] The king’s edicts on the removal of the Polish Brethren in 1658 were not observed by most of the high-ranking noblemen. In some other parts of Poland such protection of the officially exiled infidels was not regularly attainable.

At the Polish-Belarusian borderland, the co-existence of different religions was of particular consequence. Frequently, the regional diets in the eastern provinces demanded the observance of the rights and religious freedoms. The nobility gathered at the diet in Słonim in May 1632 conditioned their participation in the king’s election upon the regulation of denominational issues. The noblemen obligated the envoys to the Sejm to do their utmost so that „all religions and church services to be done in peace.”[18] Vilnius Academy accepted the Orthodox and Calvinist students and the Orthodox Ostróg Academy opened the doors to Catholics. Common participation in religious rites and celebrations (pilgrimages, weddings) or mixed marriages caused Piotr Skarga – a staunch Counter Reformer – to stigmatize those who „marry heretics, discuss faith issues with infidels, go to non-Catholic funerals to bury heretical individuals, send children to heretical schools.”[19] The judgment of this ardent Jesuit shows that the Commonwealth saw the manifestations of the social religious indifference. Some suprareligious forms of life organisation were established in which mixed marriages were an everyday phenomenon.

The religious toleration in the Commonwealth entails many more issues than just the harmonious co-existence of different denominations. The liberty of public expression of religion and propagation of individual faith affected other spheres of public and private life. The religious toleration provided the environment for the openness of the Ruthenian and Polish society to foreign novelties. In the case of the eastern borderland, the novelties were absorbed from the west, east and south. One cannot overlook the relevant role of the Byzantine and Oriental culture deeply rooted in the noble culture. The religious receptiveness alters the customs and traditions of the cultural borderland. One can observe such phenomena in literature, art, political attitudes and the mentality of successive generations.

The Orthodox community and partly the Uniates (Eastern Catholics) became the heirs of Byzantine civilization enriching the cultural and spiritual heritage of the entire Commonwealth. The credit for the shaping of the religious toleration in Poland goes to the Orthodox families: the Buczackis, Chodkiewiczs, Czartoryskis, Sanguszkos, Sapiehas, Siemaszkos, Słuckis, Sołomerskis, Tyszkiewiczs, Massalskis, Olelkowiczs, Pacs, Puzyns, Wiśniowieckis, Zasławskis, Zbaraskis and many others. It was their idea for Schwaipolt Fiol to organise a Cyrillic print shop in Krakow in 1491 to serve the needs of the Orthodox community. His works were to be found in the houses of the Belarusian magnates, the Sapiehas, in their mansions in Boćki and Kodyń. Fiol’s work was continued by Franciszek Skoryna from Połock, a Belarusian humanist who published the first bible in Old Belarusian in the years 1517–1519 in Prague. The generosity of an Orthodox magnate, Grzegorz Chodkiewicz, led to the establishment of a Ruthenian print shop in his family seat in Zabłudów. In 1569, two printers, Piotr Tymofiejewicz Mścisławiec and Iwan Fedorow, published Ewangelie Uczitielnoje, a collection of religious teachings explaining Biblical texts. The Gospel of Zabłudów, the equivalent of Catholic and Protestant Postilla (a preaching collection explaining the Bible in a plain language), came out twelve years after Mikołaj Rej’s (1505–1569) Postilla and four years before publishing the one of Jakub Wójek (1541–1597).[20]

A tangible indicator of the momentous role of the Orthodox Church in the life of the Commonwealth was the promotion of writing among the „Greek denomination”. The ability of writing was common among the Ruthenian nobility, boyars and burgers.[21] The most outstanding achievement of the legal thought of the time was the Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1529, 1566, 1588). This collection of customary law contained numerous elements of the Orthodox legislation. The statutes were the aftermath of the Renaissance ideas spread among the Ruthenians. This cultural progress was possible only through the assistance of the Orthodox Church. It stimulated the development of sacred architecture, icon painting, singing and writing. The role of Ruthenian chronicles and annuals was appreciated by Maciej Stryjkowski when he says in the Polish Chronicle: „So, my brother Lithuanian, Ruthenia is no less famous, as everybody can see; without it, you would not know the order of things, for Ruthenians have long been established in their land and boast an older tradition: Lithuania was born from that.”[22]

The phenomenon of amicable multicultural and religious co-existence was compromised by the Union of Brest (1596). This act undermined the foundation of the Ruthenian culture relying upon the spiritual unity with Byzantium. The existing Catholic and Orthodox agreement was expanded by one indirect element suspended between the two traditions. The union initiators mistakenly believed that it would lead Ruthenians away from the Orthodox faith. Despite this tendency, there was no decline of the Orthodox culture; quite the contrary, it began to burgeon in new forms better adapted to the 17th century reality. Consequently, the Union of Brest did not turn against the Orthodox Church as such but against the Orthodox tradition in the Commonwealth. It yielded limited benefits to the Roman Catholic Church and failed to resolve any of the country’s internal problems. The Polish Catholic elite’s reserve towards the Ruthenian culture and the Orthodox tradition was deepened. A Catholic still favoured a Protestant raised in the Western culture than a Ruthenian adhering to Byzantine tradition but more and more attached to the Polish culture.[23] This fact was to some extent positive from the viewpoint for the Orthodox community. The Orthodox elite evolved in their cultural attitude. The Uniates’ and Catholics’ pressure enlivened the Orthodox community. The writings of Stanisław Hozjusz, Benedykt Herbst, Piotr Skarga or Hipacy Pociej sparked a discussion on legal and ritual dogmas. The discussion with the Uniates allowed the Orthodox to work out a transparent input of their own religious doctrine and define the cultural identity. The Uniate version of the Ruthenian culture influenced the development of defence mechanisms in the Orthodox culture in the Commonwealth. On the one hand, the Orthodox culture and education became more engrossed in religious disputes, on the other, they more and more often referred to Latin patterns.

The growth of the Orthodox culture and education came when Piotr Mohyła held the office of the metropolitan. Thus, the Orthodox culture flourished when a Polonized nobleman from Moldova was the central figure of the Kiev metropolis. On the initiative of Mohyła, the famous Kiev-Mohylan Academy was founded – a modern school based on the Jesuit Colleges. Mohyła’s initiatives caused considerable indignation of the Orthodox clergy unwilling to copy Latin patterns. Besides the educational activity, Piotr Mohyła established the so called „Mohyla Athenaeum” gathering outstanding humanists.[24] It is a noteworthy fact that the Orthodox hierarchy was strictly connected with the Polish culture on account of their education. The activities of Piotr Mohyła and his successors corroborate the existence of a separate Orthodox Polish culture which developed when the Ruthenian Orthodox Church’s being came under threat. The conscious belonging to the Orthodox Church in the new conditions led to the severance with post-Byzantine and Moscow-oriented isolationism and opened the Ruthenian community to Western civilisation. Consequently, the protection of the Orthodox heritage was achieved by borrowing some of the Latin elements and preserving its own religious tradition. The adoption of the Latin language and customs was the means of defence of the Orthodox culture against its marginalisation in the cultural and political life. Piotr Mohyła’s reforms breathed new life into the Orthodox spiritual life and culture in the second half of the 17th century.

The Commonwealth was a stable state having a relative denominational toleration and Ruthenians, Poles and Lithuanians having equal rights. It was a European power. Thus, the departure from this tradition, especially from the principle of equality of the nobility regardless of the denomination, developed in the system of gentry democracy must have led to internal divisions and the decline of the state. It is worth mentioning the lot of the Zaporozhian Cossacks faithful to the Commonwealth until they realized that the Orthodox faith and Polish eastern policy had gone separate ways. Ultimately, they became the subjects of the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. They guarded the south-east state borders. Most of the Chocim stronghold defenders in the 1621 siege were Cossacks headed by Hetman Piotr Konaszewicz Sahajdaczny. The Commonwealth, in return, instead of restoring the Orthodox privileges began to muzzle the Cossacks’ emancipation. The policy of King Sigismund III Vasa eventually led Cossacks to turn defenders of the Orthodox Church. The king was increasingly surrendered to the influence of Apostolic Nuncios and lost the conviction that the maintenance of the Orthodox rights was the state’s raison d’état and a historic interest. It was Władysław IV who later realized this fact and recovered the official structures of the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, the recovery finished with the king’s death and Bohdan Chmielnicki’s Uprising that followed highlighted the problem of the equality of the Orthodox Church. This problem was no longer an internal issue of the Commonwealth. The infidels’ rights were also defended by Russia, Sweden, Transylvania and even England. No wonder, Cossacks deceived by the unfulfilled Polish promises turned to Moscow for protection in 1654. For Poland this meant war with the neighbour in the first place and, additionally, the widening of the gap between the state and the Orthodox community.

The last resort in halting the separatist tendencies among the Orthodox believers was the Treaty of Hadiach. The agreement concluded in 1658 between a Cossack leader, Iwan Wyhowski and a Ruthenian magnate, Jerzy Niemirycz with the Commonwealth provided for the establishment of the third part of the Ruthenian state, the Orthodox privileges in holding provincial offices in Kiev, Braclaw and Podolya as well as the entry to the Senate. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Hadiach was not fully ratified as a result of Uniates’ and Apostolic Nuncio’s pressure. The provisions that were left out concerned the abolition of the ecclesiastical union – the source of contention between the Greek Orthodox and Latin Church. This was how the prospect of integrating the Orthodox community with the Commonwealth was ultimately wasted.[25]

The principles of toleration developed and fostered for centuries in the eastern borderland were threatened in the time of Counter Reformation, the wars waged by the Commonwealth with Moscow, Muslim Turkey, Protestant Sweden or multidenominational Transylvania. It was the time when the stereotype of „a Pole-Catholic”, the bulwark of Christendom was established.[26] Fortunately, these negative tendencies vanished in the time of the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, the Commonwealth was, as before, a multidenominational state. This ethnic and religious mosaic was typical of the eastern provinces. In 1789 the denominational composition of the partly partitioned Commonwealth was as follows: 53% Roman Catholics, 30% Greek Catholics, 10,5% Jews, 3,5% Orthodox, 1,5% Protestants with the eastern provinces dominated by the Uniates and Orthodox believers. This area was also home to other less numerous denominations: Karaites, Muslims and Armenian Church followers.[27]

The Great Sejm attempted to regulate the legal situation of the Uniates, Orthodox, Protestants and Jews. The Uniate metropolitan was awarded a seat in the Senate and Jews were granted legal protection. On 21 May 1792, the Sejm enacted the Constitution which confirmed the provisions of the Pińsk Congregation of 1791. The Orthodox Church gained due legal status and independent organisational structure. Its members’ rights were equalled with those of other Commonwealth citizens. The law-makers finally acquiesced that the privileges of the Roman Catholic denomination triggered intolerance towards Protestant, Orthodox and non-Christian denominations.

 At this point, it is worth referring to the evaluation of the Pińsk Congregation regulating the status of the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth in 1791. The adherents of the reform under the 3rd May Constitution saw it as: highly national and not contradicting the ruling religion and domestic laws. Gazeta Narodowa i Obca (National and Foreign Magazine) wrote: If the Commonwealth had different attitude towards this community, if, instead of oppression and persecution, this community had been offered their share in the offices and respect for property and rites, the life of Ukraine and Podolya would not have soaked with blood neither would foreign intrigue have found the way into the heart attached to their homeland and happy.[28] With the adoption of the Pinsk resolutions, many reminded that the history showed numerous examples of national disasters which had been caused by the lack of religious toleration and had been the penalty for the oppression of non-Uniates and dissidents. The shift in the Commonwealth policy towards the infidels resulted from the international situation and the endeavour to mend the country's political system. It was then when the multidenominational and multinational character of the Commonwealth became evident and the promotion of one dominant religion appeared to yield disastrous consequences. Regrettably, the conclusions were too late to bring measurable results.[29]

The many centuries’ religious toleration of the eastern provinces of the Commonwealth had major impact on the stance of their inhabitants in the 19th and 20th century. The adopted model of religious co-existence often interfered with by Warsaw or Petersburg gave that community the power to endure the harshest historical events. The existing symbiosis of cultures and religions shaped the image of the borderland society. This society was often more patriotic than elsewhere although, simultaneously, combined the cultural elements of many nations.

A German historian, Johan Rhode, drew attention to the influence of toleration on the stance of the Eastern communities during the January Uprising: „There were no such countries in Europe of the 16th and 17th century that offered religious and national toleration as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It recognized six official languages and four its denominations perfectly co-existed with Judaism and Islam until the Counter Reformation embarked on the struggle with Protestantism and Orthodox faith. The memory of that peaceful time was still vivid during the 19th century insurrections against Russia.”[30] Certainly, this was the reason why the Polish fight for independence enjoyed strong support of the locals in Lithuania and Belarus.

According to numerous researchers preoccupied with the borderland cultures, the grandness of Adam Mickiewicz, Mark Chagall, Stanisław Moniuszko or Tadeusz Kościuszko rose from the specific religious and national toleration in the Eastern borderland. For these outstanding figures, the eastern part of the Commonwealth was their little homeland, creative inspiration and a sense of political endeavours. Let me quote the opinion of Symon Braga, an expert in Adam Mickiewicz’s artistic work, who wrote in 1955: „The Belarusian elements in Mickiewicz’s works provide not only a superficial colour. This is something strictly integrated and inseparable and totally underlies this creation. This is an obvious fact if somebody, like Mickiewicz, was born and brought up in Belarus and absorbed the culture of that rusticity and minor gentry. […] this is not the country of the Vistula and Warta, but of the Neman and Vilnius which appeared to be a bottomless source of Mickiewicz’s talent and inspiration.”[31]

His attachment to toleration and the eastern borderland Mickiewicz manifested not only as a poet. In one of his lectures in College de France, he examined a dramatic process of supplanting Belarusian by Polish. He said: „The lot of the Polish language before the 16th century was sad and this language fell behind Russian which was the tongue of the court and the military as well as the tongue of law and statutes! Russian was developing while the Polish vernacular, although spread as far as the Silesia, was denied from offices and schools, the Church and legislation. Indeed, Polish was used for provincial statutes and privileges, the canon and state laws were drawn up in Latin. Soon, there was a change. How come Poles managed to push towards Ruthenia so much that the Ruthenian nationality and language faded away over the Dnieper? This strength did not emerge from Poland herself but came from far away and was in fact a coincidence seemingly having nothing to do with the Polish history. It was the Church which embarked upon the work of disseminating the Polish language that it had restrained for so long.”[32]

The borderland toleration formed some politicians. Józef Piłsudski when speaking to Belarusians in Mińsk in September 1919 stressed: „I am the son of this land as you are. I am aware of the misery and poverty that this land suffers.”[33] On the other hand, a contemporary writer, Tadeusz Konwicki, wrote about Belarus with affection: „You should be named Goodrus, you should be named the Good Land of Good People. You never took anybody’s freedom or property, you never stole others’ land and you did not murder you neighbours from behind the fence. You offered respect and a piece of cake, for robbers you always had the last cow and piece of bread with the sign of the cross, you had bleeding heart for the sad and a poor life to give away. […] When I recollect a Belarusian word, when the north-east wind blows, when I see a linen shirt with a sad embroidery, when I hear a yell of pain without complaint, then my hear beats stronger, a longing appears together with a chill of indefinite pricks of conscience and the sense of shame and guilt.”[34]

The specific character of toleration in the Polish-Belarusian borderland was not determined by the Polish cultural elite, but by the folk Belarusian culture – more open than the culture of Western Slavs. Besides openness, this culture featured the propensity to absorb alien influences: Byzantine, Occidental and Latin. The borderland culture having emerged from the old Commonwealth tradition had a wealthy aesthetic life and was more tolerant by nature. The religious toleration in that area consisted in the acceptance of infidels and respect for other traditions. The Belarusian elite by getting Polonized provided the stimulus to other social groups to display toleration towards different denominations and cultures. The hatred of Jews or Poles manifested during the insurrections was more political than religious one. Thus, the destabilisation of religious toleration was always the result of some external factors.

The Belarusian political elite were too reluctant to aspire to an independent state. The borderland community in the 19th century was more attached to the archaic tradition than to the idea of the free state. They subscribed to the conviction that national ideologies violated the historical tradition and were the alien elements destructing the existing social agreement. Such a multinational region was resistant to national slogans associated with the dominating Church. Even among one ethnical group, the choice of religion and nation was often divergent. The Szeptycki family, of great merit to the Polish and Ukrainian national idea, is the best example. Similarly, the Iwanowski family from Vilnius played an important role in the Polish, Belarusian and Lithuanian national movement. The representatives of the borderland elite of the time often faced dramatic political choices. One of them, Bronisław Taraszkiewicz, brought up in a multicultural environment. He authored the first grammar of Belarusian and translated Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz into Belarusian. He was a member of Belarusian and Polish national organisations, Member of Polish Parliament. Imprisoned in Poland for Belarusian nationalism, was executed in the Soviet Union for the same reason in 1937.[35] That internal dilemma in the interwar period caused some of the borderland intelligentsia to claim the citizenship of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than to be associated with any national idea.[36]

The co-existence of many nations and denominations in the Polish-Belarusian borderland had led to the rise of specific cultural tradition shaped under the influence of two great civilisations: Eastern (Byzantine-Ruthenian) and Western (Latin). The Polish-Belarusian borderland was for many nations the area of the development of their cultural identity with religious and national toleration given prominence. The culture so shaped was rooted in all the forms of life and influenced the cultural picture of today’s regions of Bialystok, Grodno, Polesie or of Vilnius. A similar stance on religion marked with openness and toleration acted upon the attitude of present-day Belarusians and Poles on both sides of the border. The non-occurrence of radical religious conflicts that shattered East-Central Europe was not only the outstanding feature of the borderland in question but testifies to the positive effect of the historical tradition of the former Commonwealth – the home of many nations and religions.[37]



[1] W. Abraham, Powstanie organizacji Kościoła łacińskiego na Rusi, Lwów 1904, pp. 218219; A. Mironowicz, Kościół prawosławny w dziejach Rzeczypospolitej, „EΛΠΙΣ” R. I (XII), issue 1(14), Białystok 1999, pp. 89–90.

[2] More about the Orthodox culture during the reign of the Pist Dynasty and Jagiellonian Dynasty, cf.: F. Sielicki, Polsko-ruskie stosunki kulturalne do końca XV wieku, Wrocław 1997; A. Mironowicz, Prawosławni w wielowyznaniowej i wielokulturowej Rzeczypospolitej, [In:] Chrześcijaństwo w dialogu kultur na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej. Materiały Międzynarodowego Kongresu, St. Wilk, eds., Lublin 2003, pp. 202220; ibidem, Kultura prawosławna w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, [In:] Rzeczpospolita wielu wyznań, A. Kaźmierczyk, eds., A. Link-Lenczowski, M. Markiewicz i K. Matwijowski, Kraków 2004, pp. 409436.

[3] A. Różycka-Bryzek, Zarys historyczny badań nad bizantyńsko-ruskimi malowidłami w Polsce, „Biuletyn Historii Sztuki”, vol. XXVII, Warszawa 1965; see also, Bizantyjsko-ruskie malowidła ścienne w Kaplicy Świętokrzyskiej na Wawelu, „Studia do dziejów Wawelu”, vol. III, Kraków 1967; E. Chojecka, Sztuka średniowiecznej Rusi Kijowskiej i jej związki z Polską w XI–XV w., [In:] Ukraina. Teraźniejszość i przeszłość, M. Karaś, A. Podraza, eds., „Zeszyty Naukowe Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego. Prace Historyczne”, R. CCXLVII, issue 32, Kraków 1970, p. 413; J. Kłoczowski, Młodsza Europa, pp. 333, 334; A. Mironowicz, Kościół prawosławny w państwie Piastów i Jagiellonów, Białystok 2003, pp. 184187.

[4] A. Różycka-Bryzek, Sztuka w Polsce piastowskiej a Bizancjum i Ruś, [In:] Polska – Ukraina. 1000 lat sąsiedztwa, vol. II, St. Stępień, eds., Przemyśl 1994, pp. 295306; see also, Bizantyjsko-ruskie malowidła w Polsce wczesnojagiellońskiej: problem przystosowań na gruncie kultury łacińskiej, ibidem, pp. 307326.

[5] F. Sielicki, Polsko-ruskie stosunki kulturalne do końca XV wieku, Wrocław 1997, p. 106.

[6] T. Mroczko, B. Dab, Gotyckie Hodegetrie polskie, [In:] Średniowiecze. Studia o kulturze, vol. III, Wrocław 1966, pp. 2032; A. Rogow, Czenstochowskaja ikona Bogomatieri kak pamiatnik wizantijsko-russko-polskich swiaziej, [In:] Driewnierusskoje iskusstwo. Chudożestwiennaja kultura domongolskoj Rusi, Moskwa 1972, pp. 316321; idem, Ikona M. B. Częstochowskiej jako świadectwo związków bizantyjsko-rusko-polskich, Znak, 1976, issue 262, pp. 509516; F. Sielicki, Polsko-ruskie stosunki kulturalne…, pp. 101, 102.

[7] T. Friedlówna, Ewangeliarz ławryszewski. Monografia zabytku, Wrocław 1974; M. Nikałajeū, Pałata knihapisnaja, Minsk 1993.

[8] K. Chodynicki, Kościół prawosławny a Rzeczpospolita Polska 13851632, Warszawa 1934, pp. 4145, 7679.

[9] J. Długosz, Historiae Polonicae, ed. A. Przezdziecki, vol. II, Warszawa 1878, p. 405.

[10] H. Grala, Kołpak Witołdowy czy czapka Monomacha. Dylematy wyznawców prawosławia w monarchii ostatnich Jagiellonów, [In:] Katolicyzm w Rosji i prawosławie w Polsce (XI–XX w.), J. Bardacha, T. Chynczewskiej-Hennel, eds., Warszawa 1997, p. 59; T. Wasilewski, Prawosławne imiona Jagiełły i Witolda,[w:] Analecta Cracoviensia, vol. XIX, 1987, pp. 107115.

[11] M. Krom, Miż Ruśju i Litwoj. Zapadnorusskije ziemli w sistiemie russko-litowskich otnoszenij konca XV–pierwoj treti XVI w., Moskwa 1995, pp. 204209.

[12] H. Kowalska, J. Wiśniewski, Olelkowicz Jerzy, [In:] Polski Słownik Biograficzny, vol. XXIII, 1978, p. 743; H. Grala, op.cit., p. 58.

[13] L. Bieńkowski, Organizacja Kościoła wschodniego w Polsce XVI–XVIII w., [In:] Kościół w Polsce, J. Kłoczowski, ed., vol. II, Kraków 1969, pp. 779837; K. Chodynicki, Kościół prawosławny…, pp. 107192; M. Papierzyńska-Turek, Kościół prawosławny na ziemiach ruskich Litwy i Korony, „Przemyskie Zapiski Historyczne”, R. VI–VII, 1990, pp. 139162; A. Mironowicz, Kościół prawosławny w dziejach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, Białystok 2001, pp. 2854.

[14] A. Jobert, De Luther á Mohila. La Pologne dans la crise de la Chrétienté 15171648, Paris 1979, p. 322.

[15] J. Tazbir, Specyfika polskiej tolerancji, [In:] Naród – Kościół – Kultura. Szkice z historii Polski, Lublin 1986, pp. 6364; J. Kłoczowski, Tolerancja w Rzeczypospolitej polsko-litewskiej z 1573 roku o zachowaniu pokoju religijnego, [In:] Historia Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej, vol. II, J. Kłoczowski, ed., Lublin 2000, pp. 88112.

[16] J. Tazbir, Specyfika polskiej tolerancji, p. 64.

[17] J. Tazbir, Bracia polscy w służbie Radziwiłłów w XVII w., „Miscellanea Historico-Archivistica”, vol. III, Warszawa 1989, pp. 141158.

[18] A. Mironowicz, Prawosławie i unia za panowania Jana Kazimierza, Białystok 1997, p. 52.

[19] J. Tazbir, Specyfika polskiej tolerancji, p. 65.

[20] A. Mironowicz, Powstanie zabłudowskiej oficyny wydawniczej na tle sytuacji wyznaniowej w Wielkim Księstwie Litewskim, Acta Baltico-Slavica, vol. XIX, Warszawa 1990, pp. 245264; Z. Jaroszewicz-Pieresławcew, Druki cyrylickie z oficyn Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego w XVI–XVIII wieku, Olsztyn 2003, pp. 1746.

[21] J. Kłoczowski, Cywilizacja bizantyjsko-słowiańska, [In:] Chrześcijaństwo na Rusi Kijowskiej, Białorusi, Ukrainy i Rosji (X–XVII w), J. Kłoczowski, ed., Kraków 1997, p. 95.

[22] M. Stryjkowski, Kronika polska, litewska, żmudzka i wszystkiej Rusi Kijowskiej, Moskiewskiej, Siewierskiej, Wołyńskiej i Podolskiej…, G. L. Glücksberg, vol. I, Warszawa 1846, p. 219.

[23] A. Naumow, Wiara i historia, Kraków 1996, p. 30.

[24] T. Chynczewska-Hennel, Akademia Kijowsko-Mohylańska, [In:] Szkolnictwo prawosławne w Rzeczypospolitej, A. Mironowicz, U. Pawluczuk, P. Chomik, eds., Białystok 2002, pp. 4054; A. Jabłonowski, Akademia Kijowsko-Mohylańska. Zarys historyczny na tle rozwoju ogólnego cywilizacji zachodniej na Rusi, Kraków 18991900; R. Łużny, Pisarze kręgu Akademii Kijowsko-Mohylańskiej a literatura polska. Z dziejów kulturalnych polsko-wschodniosłowiańskich w XVII–XVIII wieku, Kraków 1966; J. Kłoczowski, Młodsza Europa, Warszawa 1998, pp. 337338.

[25] A. Mironowicz, Prawosławie i unia za panowania Jana Kazimierza, pp. 149189; ibidem, Projekty unijne wobec Cerkwi prawosławnej w dobie ugody hadziackiej, [In:] Unia brzeska z perspektywy czterech stuleci, J. S. Gajek, St. Nabywaniec, eds., Lublin 1998, pp. 95122; ibidem, Piotr Mohyła a idea unii kościelnej, „Studia Podlaskie”, vol. XI, Białystok 2001, pp. 2533.

[26] J. Tazbir, Polskie przedmurze chrześcijańskiej Europy. Mity a rzeczywistość historyczna, Warszawa 1987.

[27] S. Litak, Od Reformacji do Oświecenia. Kościół katolicki w Polsce nowożytnej, Lublin 1994, pp. 133134.

[28] „Gazeta Narodowa i Obca”, 16 July 1791.

[29] E. Sakowicz, Kościół prawosławny w Polsce w epoce Sejmu Wielkiego 17881792, Warszawa 1935; A. Deruga, Walka z rusyfikacją Kościoła prawosławnego w Polsce w epoce Sejmu Wielkiego (17881792),Ateneum Wileńskie”, vol. XI, 1936, pp. 232; A. Mironowicz, Cerkiew prawosławna na terenie Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego w latach 17721795, [In:] Ziemie Północne Rzeczypospolitej Polsko- Litewskiej w dobie rozbiorowej 17721815, M. Biskup, ed., Warszawa–Toruń 1996, pp. 8194; ibidem, Kościół prawosławny w dziejach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, pp. 255267.

[30] Quoted after K. Okulicz, Białorusini, Litwini i Polacy w powstaniu styczniowym na Litwie Historycznej, „Zeszyty Historyczne”, vol. VII, Paryż 1964, p. 19.

[31] A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła, vol. IX, Warszawa 1955; S. Braga, Mickiewicz i biełaruskaja płyń polskaje literatury, [In:] Z historyjaj na „wy”. Artykuły, dakumenty, uspaminy, Mińsk 1994, pp. 293294; A. Mironowicz, Andrzej Kempfi w kręgu Mickiewiczowskich alborutheników, [In:] Wilno i Ziemia Mickiewiczowskiej Pamięci. Materiały III Międzynarodowej Konferencji w Białymstoku, vol. I., W kręgu spraw historycznych, E. Feliksiak, E. Konończuk, eds., Białystok 2000, pp. 377385.

[32] A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła, vol. IX, Warszawa 1955.

[33] M. Brandys, Strażnik Królewskiego Grobu, Warszawa 1984, p. 5.

[34] T. Konwicki, Kalendarz i klepsydra, Warszawa 1977, p. 115.

[35] A. Bergman, Sprawy białoruskie w II Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa 1984, pp. 142165.

[36] A. Mironowicz, Specyfika tolerancji wyznaniowej na kresach wschodnich Rzeczypospolitej, [In:] Pogranicza etniczne w Europie. Harmonia i konflikty, K. Krzysztofek, A. Sadowski, eds., Białystok 2001, pp. 163173.

[37] The picture of multireligious Poland has been recently portrayed by Andrzej Sulima Kamiński in his work, Historia Rzeczypospolitej Wielu Narodów 15051795, Lublin 2000.