A New Light for an Old Flame

By Natasha Netzorg

Richard Butterwick, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

The 18th Century for Eastern Europe was full of turmoil, successes, and failures. The continent witnessed new mobility that spanned across political, religious, and economic barriers. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was no exception. Richard Butterwick’s The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1733-1795: Light and Flame shed light on the complex, large state in the heart of Europe. While the date of 1795 indicates Butterwick ends his story with the Third Partition of Polish-Lithuania, Butterwick does not take the commonly adopted idea of a “failed state” when looking at the former kingdom.

            Butterwick artfully depicts the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through painstaking detail, encapsulating not only the past but also emotions, motives, and contexts. Butterwick includes numerous episodes and actors throughout his book as he depicts the Commonwealth’s last decades. He hones in on King Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last monarch of Poland-Lithuania, with emphasis on the Four Years’ Sejm and its Constitution of May 3, 1791. It was through these years that Butterwick argues the Commonwealth created a stronger state, thus triggering the Partitions. Butterwick gives important attention to the szlachta (the nobility), which comprised 6-8 percent of the Commonwealth’s population and which defined a new and enlightened elite group (390). Through this focus, Butterwick reveals how much the late history of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had commonalities with the rest of Europe.

            European currents came into play throughout the book through different narratives, namely through the way in which Europe interacted with the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. Butterwick spends a significant amount of time on Stanisław August and the various roles he played, particularly his relationship with Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Although he has divided historians, Butterwick presents Stanisław August as a champion of the Commonwealth.

            Butterwick takes this history, one with complex economic and social changes, and weaves together a comprehensive study without sacrificing storytelling. Butterwick takes an often-overlooked kingdom and analyzes it in detail, highlighting that the Commonwealth tried to maintain its strength and further its role in the Enlightenment amidst intense oppression and external pressure. It takes patience and attention to absorb the colossal amount of information Butterwick packed into this 385-page book (not including Glossary, Further Readings, Notes, and a Gazetteer which totals 482 pages), but the effort is worth it. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth will inform and spark interest in a nation that did not deserve its fate.

Natasha Netzorg is a senior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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