30 July 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 3: nobles, burghers, peasants and Brest-Litovsk

Carpathian Ruthenian oprishki, ca. 1500

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

Now, before I go and fire this blog-post off into the rushes, let me set some goals for myself here first. A lot of the historical analysis I’m going to lay out here, is going to share considerable overlap with my piece from 2017, Mountain bandits, hedge-priests and the Unia, for understandable reasons. The first goal I’m going to set is to not offer a warmed-over rewrite of that article, exploring the different class positions of Eastern Catholics versus Orthodox in the Ruthenian [or Rusin] territories. I’m hoping to focus a bit more here on the class alignments and shifts among both the Catholic clergy in Poland and the Orthodox clergy in Russia in order to broaden the scope of this discourse. That ties into my second goal: to attempt to contextualise these ecclesiological and religious-ideological disputes within the structure of world-systems theory. Again, this is in keeping with my attempt to introduce a grain of Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s quasi-materialist scepticism of ‘pious’ forms of hegemony and dominance, both contemporary and historical, into my historical thinking.

So the first necessary task, when examining this next phase of Uniatism, is to examine the relative positions, historical relations and class structures of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the Jagellonians, and their eastward neighbour, the Russian Tsardom, around the turn of the seventeenth century. To do this, we need to examine the relations of both to the evolving structure of the world-system of trade. That means taking into account the œconomic and political developments of their neighbours as well, and the shifting centre of the world-systemic core and peripheries.

When we left off in Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century, the first ‘seeds’ of proto-capitalist innovation were being sown in the northern Italian city-states, with bankers like the de’ Medici family taking a prominent rôle, in their political presence outwardly as ‘enlightened’ republicans but in practice more as oligarchs. It would be a mistake to assume, as many idealistic Whig historians do, that the ‘new sciences’ and ‘new arts’ which were assiduously promulgated in Renaissance grew out of any philosophically-driven ‘humane’ interest in the subject of man. They grew just as much out of a material need to justify the predatory practices and power-plays of these bankers, who succeeded largely by flying in the face of centuries of the Church’s moral teachings against usury. The two are, however, intimately connected. It can often be difficult to untangle, in history, where the idea precedes the material drive, and the material drive the idea, because the two reinforce each other – whether Hegel is right in a given instance, or Marx.

However, what becomes clear is that the most enthusiastic disciples of these Italian-developed ‘new sciences’ in the fields of œconomics and governance, by the middle of the sixteenth century, were the governments of England under Elizabeth I, Spain under Philip II and Charles IX and Henry III in France (themselves de’ Medicis on their mother’s side). The œconomic doctrines of mercantilism, as practised by these three powers, were the next stage in the Commercial Revolution that had begun with the Italian merchant-princes and bankers in the Big Four over four centuries previously. This new doctrine of the Commercial Revolution, the art of enriching the state, meant a scramble for new forms of œconomic exploitation and political consolidation.

But by the end of the century, England, Spain and France had to contend with the disputes of an older established thalassocratic colonial empire – that of Portugal – against a newer, leaner, meaner and more vicious one in the newly-established Dutch Republic. By the time that the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1596, the Republic was already in its twenty-eighth year of open revolt, during all of which time it was financing its revolt against the Habsburgs with income derived from a rapidly-expanding network of colonies and mercantile ventures, which of course included chattel slavery in kidnapped Africans (a market which had been dominated by the Portuguese for the past century). These five powers, between them, had not only begun emulating the city-states of Italy in their policy doctrines – they had also begun to not so much gently pull as yark the core of the world-system from the Eastern Mediterranean, past Italy, to the Western part. The Catholic Church, even as it began to deal with the fallout from the Reformation, had to shift its attention from the East to the West as these centres of political and œconomic power began to shift – away from fallen Constantinople (now Istanbul), and towards Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Eastern Europe began to notice this as well. The creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had a small but notable bourgeois class centred on Lublin and Krakow, deliberately modelled itself on both the Roman Republic and the Venetian one. The unique political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an experiment in aristocratic liberty and ‘noble republicanism’ – albeit one which came at a hefty price for those below the landed gentry. The Polish state, along with the parts of the Holy Roman Empire which would come to constitute Germany, represented what one might consider a semi-periphery of the new world system. Poland-Lithuania did have an œconomy based on agricultural extraction and export – predicated on brutal exploitation of the peasantry – and a market structure which was thus partially integrated into the Western core. In this – and in its reliance on a democracy of planter-aristocrats – it somewhat resembled the export-oriented agricultural and extraction-based œconomies of the rural colonies of the American South.

The differences between the semi-peripheral Polish and Russian œconomies at this stage in capitalism’s development are subtle, but for our purposes important. The Russian class structure was always such that the military ruling class – the knyaz or the tsar plus his boyary – was never truly autochthonous; as a result, the laws governing the native Slavic peasantry suffered from a good deal of vagueness, and the ability of the nobility to exploit them was thereby limited. One can see this from the often ill-defined distinctions in early Russian law between holopy, zakupy, izhoi and so on; there was always, however, a free peasantry which could fend for itself, and had limited tax obligations to the lords. At first, the Polish class system was similar to this. However, the rise of a new bourgeois legal class in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries meant rapid erosion of the rights of the Polish peasantry. Polish historian Edward Corwin points to the Piotrków Statutes as the beginning of the entrenchment of serfdom in Poland, stripping peasants of their rights to ownership of land and their right to move, and levying punishing corvée and tax requirements on them. Notably, these statutes also removed tariffs and guaranteed free trade between Poland and merchants from the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League. These things are not unrelated.

Intriguingly, despite the Game of Thrones-style violence and cruelty of tenuously-independent Moldavia at this time, the obligations on the Moldavian peasantry were remarkably lighter and less exploitative by comparison to Poland-Lithuania: a tenth of the crop, corvée of twelve days a year, and most importantly legal freedom of movement. This relatively light and unoppressive legal environment for the rural working class would continue in Moldavia for the rest of its independent period. As a result, a significant number of Ruthenian peasants under Polish-Lithuanian rule voted with their feet and ran away into Moldavia. A similar pattern held on the border between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, with many Polish peasants fleeing into Russia, not because Russian masters were necessarily any kinder, but because they had less legal ability to extract labour and produce from them. (This would change for the worse under Peter and Catherine.) Another tactic of the Ruthenian peasants was to band together and rise up extralegally against this tightening legal régime, forming bands of oprishki, or mountain bandits.

Hora de la Aninoasa, by Theodor Aman. Oil on canvas, 19th c.

It is directly against this backdrop – colonial expansion among the Western European powers; growth of mercantilism; inroads of trade in the semi-periphery; the rise of a local bourgeoisie; the tightening of the screws on the peasants; the rise of social banditry – that the Union of Brest-Litovsk needs to be understood. Historian Andrei Nikolaevich Mouravieff, in his History of the Russian Church, writes of ‘the oppressions of the [Polish] nobles’ under Sigismund, who ‘violently appropriated to themselves the property’ of the Orthodox peasantry and black-robed clerics in the Carpathians – causing Metropolitan Onisifor to bring a complaint against the king himself. Considering this Metropolitan’s general timidity and… um, highly questionable sex life – this event is all the more striking, and it hints at the dire œconomic straits and general powerlessness of Orthodox parishes under the ‘tolerant’ Commonwealth government.

The growth of overtures toward Unia in Ruthenia during the latter half of the sixteenth century was largely the pet project of the Jesuit diplomat and polemicist (of northern Italian mercantile extraction) Antonio Possevino, who at first attempted to bring Ivan Groznyi and his realm into the Catholic Church on the terms of the Florentine Union (and to secure special privileges for Venetian merchants in Russia in the process), but was thwarted in both by the efforts of Tsar Ivan himself. Mouravieff, though his style is itself fairly polemical when he speaks of Possevino’s ‘zealous exhortations and wily policy’, is nonetheless convincing It is directly tied to a cohort of highly-educated, merchant-class seminarians in Lublin and Krakow: Piotr Skarga and Benedykt Herbest most notably. These missions took as their outward motivation the notable laxity of church discipline and personal morals among the Orthodox bishops: the Catholic Encyclopædia states that ‘the Ruthenian clergy were steeped in immorality and ignorance; the bishops made no scruple of setting their flocks an evil example, living in open concubinage, and practising the most brazen simony’. If this is overstating the case, then it is not by much. However, the Jesuit missions were more directly tied to the desire on the part of the nobility to more effectively expropriate and exploit the Ruthenian peasantry, as well as to secure the semi-periphery for a world-system that was shifting its centre to the commercial and financial cities of Western Europe. If the Jesuits could not secure Russia for Western Europe’s commercial interests, then they would do the next best thing and use their influence to freeze Russia (and the northern Tea Road) out of Europe.

Possevino, Skarga and Herbest did indeed contact the bishops Cyryl Terlecki and Hipacy Pociej in their effort to secure a Church union. Both of these bishops were from noble backgrounds and had firmer connexions with the Commonwealth state than the other bishops. They managed to procure the signatures for a union with Rome from the other bishops largely by suasion, though they were not above subterfuge, fraud and even force as it suited them when it came to procuring agreement: Mouravieff makes mention of Cyryl Terlecki ordering a monk to be beaten and robbed on the road in order to intercept a letter from Michal Rahoza to Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. In any event, Terlecki and Pociej managed to convoke a local council in Brest where a union with Rome was signed. The pro-Union church and the Œcumenical Patriarchate promptly excommunicated each other. In the twenty years of the ascendancy of the Union of Brest, Pociej in particular sought to subject the churches under the Unia to the teaching authority of upper middle-class seminarians coming out of Lublin and Krakow.

Mouravieff is not the best source when it comes to class analysis. His is a ‘Great Men’ history; his narrative is largely oriented – as one can probably tell from what I have excerpted and paraphrased above – to the clash of personalities, of stratagems in high courts, generals’ tents and bishops’ chambers. But even so, hints of what this history looked like from the ‘bottom up’ peek through. He speaks of the ‘persecutions’ of Orthodox in the Commonwealth and how they were ‘deprived of their civil rights’ in general terms. He describes how the Orthodox clerics and laity in the Commonwealth ‘solemnly assembled in a private house, because they could not obtain the use of a Church’. As seen above, he occasionally speaks of expropriation and subjugation of the peasantry. He speaks of how Orthodox schoolmasters – generally of peasant, not merchant, backgrounds – had to depend on the selective and altogether inadequate patronage and protection of Orthodox nobles. More directly, though, he speaks of the expropriation and privatisation of Orthodox monastery lands at Hipacy Pociej’s orders, something one normally associates with the abuses of the Protestantising Henry VIII. He also makes passing reference to the more violent resistance of the oprishki and the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Unia. Though this is not his focus, what emerges from Mouravieff’s narrative is a clear distinction of class interest between the Unia and the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth’s Ruthenian territories.

Asymmetrical warfare in the Carpathian Mountains

Jesuit historians like the late Robert Taft ludicrously insist, in a theatrical form of handwashing worthy of Pilate, that the impetus for ‘uniatism’ came largely from the Ruthenian bishops themselves, when the sources that he himself cites in fact claim otherwise (including Possevino’s own writings). Taft then follows this up with what should be recognised as a breathtakingly-fallacious tu quoque: apparently the uses of force against Catholics by Tsars and Soviet premiers, and the existence of the twee boutique phenomenon of ‘Western Rite Orthodoxy’, are somehow enough to balance the scales of historical wrong. So far from offering a ‘healing of memory’, it seems that Taft’s contribution to this dialogue was merely to offer another list of recriminations without any meaningful overarching analysis.

In recognition of this: no, the Russian state’s hands are not clean; nor are those of the Orthodox hierarchs. We see indictments of Orthodox wrongdoing clearly enough within Orthodox historical accounts, which Taft ridiculously accuses tout court of ‘victimhood pretense’! As mentioned above, the differences in class structure between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth state and the Tsarist Russian state were largely differences of nuance. One was a ‘noble republic’ of planters; the other a burgeoning autocracy – both had large social gaps which were enforced with sanguine brutality. But the nuances in these gaps were not meaningless to the people at the bottom of the social ladder, just as they were not meaningless to the people designing œconomic and religious policy in these states.

Any real ‘healing of memory’ must begin and end with truth, not with diplomatic approximations of truth. As such, in this case it needs to begin with a frank, unapologetic analysis of how capitalism emerged within the world-system, how it dragged the core of the world-system away from Asia and into the Atlantic, and how it made use of existing ideological supports – including the ones within the Western European Christian world – to siphon wealth away from the periphery and direct it to the core. This may seem a Hegelian tack to take, rather than Marxist. But even those on the liberation-theology end of the scale should be able to agree that we cannot view all instances of civil force in religious questions in the strictly value-neutral and blandly panglossian terms that Taft, Guzniak and other would-be gatekeepers of this memory demand. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Tsardom may have been neighbours and may even have been similar in social structure, but their internal dynamics and their relations to the rest of the world show some important differences. The actions of a semi-peripheral state like the Commonwealth, seeking to integrate itself and its territories into the emerging dynamo of capitalism, cannot be equated to the actions of a semi-peripheral state seeking to countervail against that dynamo, as the last Rurikoviches and the first Romanovs before Peter tried imperfectly to do. Even more so: the retaliatory violence of the people at the bottom, including the Ruthenian Orthodox oprishki of this era, must not be equated to the force of the state and the bourgeois class exploiting them.

1 comment:

  1. A few thoughts:

    When you draw the comparison to Henry VIII, most usually misunderstand Henry's move. It had two purposes: to remove wealth from a foreign power (Rome owned the land technically, and so Henry used the old law of praemunire), and to pay off supporters for his ecclesiastical-state changes. Henry seizing the monasteries didn't really aid the Tudor state as much as empower a wider set of aristocrats, barons, and gentry (the same that Henry VII had thought to have mastered at the conclusion of the War of the Roses). The state got stronger, but the nobles got richer (this is what set the institutional contradiction that formed the basis of the English Revolution later). It's in this vein I wonder about the seizure of monastic lands: was it trying to remove "foreign" (or disloyal) competitors, a bid to make some quick cash (the equivalent of privatizing today), or something else?

    Also, the monetary policies of Northern Italy had roots back in w.Europeans trying to get in on the lucrative East Roman trade. The beginning of financial capitalism is in the currency-exchange business that the Knights Templar (and other warrior-religious orders crusading in the East). It's wild how deep the roots go, but it's something rooted in the Roman world (east and west). But the issue is always who has the upper-hand: the public authority (state, court, etc.) or private powers. And, as we see in the end of Byzantium, often private powers will liquidate states in revenge for smash-and-grab operations.