The Political Involvement of the Polish Nobility of Latgalia (former Polish Livonia)

in the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century



In the 17th century, the territory of today’s Latvia was divided between Poland and Sweden. Present Latgalia (former Polish Livonia) was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The conditions for social development in Latgalia were by far different than in other parts of Latvia. It was here where the new, though diversified, nobility was created. In 1677 Latgalia had 55 noble families deriving from the times of the Teutonic Order joined by 19 Polish and Lithuanian families.[1] The proportion remained unchanged for the following centuries, yet the descendants of the German gentry – the Platers, the Borchs, the Manteuffels – were completely Polonized. In the 19th and 20th century they were standing out as great Poles and even national heroes as the November Insurrection (1830–1831) heroine Emilia Plater, or Leon Plater executed by Russians in Dyneburg in 1863.

After 1863 the Polish gentry from three Latgalia poviats located in the Vitebsk Province were forced to endure the Russian pressure which aimed at the Russification of the so called Polish and Lithuanian poviats. This process failed partly as a result of the oppression that followed the strengthening of the Polish patriotism among the landowners accompanied by the surge in their popularity with uneducated Latvian Catholics of Latgalia. This, in turn, led to continuing Polonization of some Latvian peasants in those very unfavourable conditions. The general attitude to peasants displayed by the Polish landowners of Latgalia, who largely maintained their economic position in the region, did not vary much from that of German gentry in other parts of Latvia as some Polish historians tend to claim. Most of them saw peasants merely as an uneducated mob and omitted to recognize the actual causes of such a state of affairs. The exceptions confirmed the rule – in particular in Latgalia where the level of education of the folk was incomparably higher then in other parts of Latvia.

After the lifting of the Latin publication ban in 1904, the situation of Poles in Latgalia slightly improved. At that time, the social centre of Polish landowners had long time been located in Riga. It was as late as after the October Revolution in 1917 and during German occupation in 1918 when the pronational activity in Latgalia became actually possible. It was also the only time when the interest of the budding Latvian intelligentsia of Latgalia and the local Polish aristocracy almost entirely coincided. In February 1918, the representatives of the Council of Livonia Poles established in 1917 – A. Zalewski, Dymsza and others – visited the Provisional National Latvian Council offering collaboration. In the talks held with the activists of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the council, Poles committed themselves to moral endorsement of the idea of free Latvian state as a manifestation of support to the Latgalia Poles.[2] While under German occupation of Latgalia, Latvians and Poles cooperated very effectively in the administrative and civil institutions promising the Polish gentry the prospective incorporation of Latgalia to Latvia. This can be justified by the fact that the Polish state, whose chance of rebirth was later raised by the local chauvinists, was not existent. Besides, of utmost concern was the threat from Russia and its traditional hatred by Poles, which was particularly relevant in the face of the Soviet menace to large landowners.[3]

The fears were well–grounded as in 1919 Russian repression in Latgalia was directed against Polish landowners, the clergy and intelligentsia. However, after a thorough analysis of the problem it transpires that the repression was rather class than property–driven. In this period, the ideas of Latvian politicians of Latgalia and the Council of Livonia Poles were at variance. The former hoped to see this part of the country incorporated into the newly promulgated Latvian Republic (1918).

In October 1917, the council proposed the Regents’ Council in Warsaw to demand the incorporation of the province into Lithuania, which, in turn, will unify with Poland.[4] Regrettably, from the Latvian viewpoint, the activity of this organization favoured Latvian interest only – as mentioned elsewhere – in 1918. The council members – Bolesław Szachno, Władysław Sołtan (he was one of the few Latgalia landowners who remained friends of Latvia and acted for the Latvian benefit in Poland) and others were the activists of the Provisional Council for Latgalia and held the positions of poviat heads. On the other hand, in October the landowner Antoni Zalewski was elected head of the civil authorities in the Latgalia district. When deprived and undermined German troops was fleeing the area giving way to the Red Army, on 25 November he notified German authorities that Latgalia is a part of the Latvian state established on 18 November in Riga (before that, the soon-to-be prime minister of the provisional government in Riga, K. Ulmanis, received the representative of Latgalia Poles – Count Plater-Zyberg who complained about the attitude of the German occupation authorities which prohibited the locals, who wanted to challenge the approaching Red Army, from keeping weapons)[5].

The rationale for such an attitude of the Polish landowners largely differed from that of the Latvian intelligentsia which, for patriotic reasons, saw Latgalia annexed to other Latvian lands. First and foremost, the the majority of the landowners feared Bolsheviks and consented to the united Latvian state subject to a condition that they would preserve some of their privileges. The activity of the Council of Livonia Poles corroborates this opinion. The council moved to Poland in 1918 and in June 1919 issued a note to Polish government calling for the “unification” with Latgalia where Poles are “dominant” both in economy and culture. The document read that it was the will of the local Poles and also Latvian Catholics who were not associated with the “Lutheran culture”, so widespread in other parts of Latvia. If Latgalia belonged to Poland, the door would open to Latvian ports and it would be possible to “force Latvian friendship”.[6] This document is a meaningful evidence of the stance of some Polish landowners on Latvia. It appears as abstemious, to say the least. In 1919 Polish press in Vilnius was astonished that during a lecture on Latvia given to the full house there were no Latgalia representatives present although, reportedly, they were so “numerous” in Vilnius.[7]

A deep personal interest of the council members justifies another declaration of 1919 in which they demanded an armed assault of the Polish Army against Gen. Bermondt army in Latvia as it was supposed to smooth the progress of the delimitation of the eastern Polish border without the interference of other states.[8] On 1 November, when Polish government discussed the military assistance to Latvia, the Polish Latgalia landowners gathered in Vilnius proposed to “expedite the recovery of Polish Livonia”.[9] The government’s outlook largely departed from that of the Council of Livonia Poles. Consequently, the Latgalia landowners were also divided on the future of the province. This was visible during the visit of the Latgalia landowners’ delegation, headed by Plater-Zyberg, to the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Z. Meierovics in October 1919 during his stay in Poland. The participants agreed that Latgalia, not only historically, belongs to Latvia.[10]

At the beginning of 1920, the Polish and Latvian troops undertook a joint action in Latgalia. Later, the relations gradually exacerbated and some attempts were made to establish the Union of Baltic States – the idea failed because of the misunderstanding about the border delimitation. Of particular importance to Polish-Latvian relations was the contribution of the active part of Latgalia gentry. Its ambitions saw the light of the day in the consecutive proposals of the Council of Livonia Poles in March 1920 – a number of objectives to be presented to Latvian government. They provided for the following scenario: Latgalia establishes the parliament and receives autonomy; Poles are allowed to administrative positions; Polish is the official language next to Latvian; Polish ownership remains inviolable; Latvian government has a Polish minister from Latgalia representing Polish affairs; Poles may elect to accept both citizenships, etc.[11] Polish government attempted to downplay and simmer down these “proposals”, however, the Latvians had the knowledge of them and viewed them with concern and distrust of Poland. What is more, many Polish landowners of Latgalia held high positions in Poland – both in civil departments and in the military. In 1920 the Latvian military representative in Poland, M. Hartmanis, reported that constant objections were raised to the Latvian government’s attitude to the Latgalia gentry who were apparently unjustly regarded as German aristocracy. Nevertheless, this similarity – as worded by M. Hartmanis – was actually evident: “Everybody likes their little homeland Latgalia – in fact the source of their immense wealth. They want to keep their possessions and none of them considers the acceptance of Latvian citizenship. However, they are very willing to go and work as social activists in the Polish service. They hope that there are some privileges awaiting them and it is their government that will take care of granting them.”[12] This was certainly true since in 1919 and 1920 considerable disparities were revealed between the Polish minority in Latvia, small group of aristocracy and the Polish gentry of Latgalia. Many Poles served in the Latvian Army. Nine were decorated with Lāčplēsis Orders (high military decoration in Latvia) for heroic conduct in the struggle against Gen. Bermondt and the Red Army. There was only one Polish nobleman among them – Col. Fabian Michałowski, who was not Latgalian by birth but came from Liepaj, from a family of the Vilomirsk Poviat in Kovno Province.[13] On the other hand, some of the Latgalia aristocrats joined the Polish Army. Only few of them rejected Latvian citizenship and returned and in 1920 returned to their possessions in Latgalia. In the opinion of the Polish diplomatic mission – they often failed to act for the Polish cause. For example, one of the reasons of the Polish failure in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 1920 was, in one of the member of the parliament’s opinion, the activity of Antoni Romer from Janopol and Plater-Zyberg from Kraslav. They endeavoured to repair their war and revolution losses by imposing a tenfold rent for the land use.[14]

It was the agricultural reform which in the end added to the turnaround in the relations between the Polish landowners in Latgalia and the Latvian state. In 1914 in three Latgalian poviats Poles owned 272,323 hectares of land in 326 estates. 58 of them exceeded the area of 1,000 hectares (let alone vast areas in the Illukstan Poviat and the Courland Province).[15] In 1920 a Polish MP B. Bouffal assessed that in the Illukstan Poviat in Latgalia Poles owned 50% of land – half of it being in possession of magnate families.[16] A Polish historian P. Łossowski reports on 350,000 hectares[17] – this apparently being an accurate calculation.

Before the agricultural reform Poland stressed that the reform is the internal Latvian matter. In autumn 1920 when it became evident that the reorganization would affect all the landowners, regardless of their nationality, the landowners’ organizations in Poland intensified their activities and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed its approach.

On 7 October 1920, the Association of the Poles of Livonia lodged a protest with the Latvian and Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs against “depriving the Polish soldiers of their land while they are shedding blood for Poland’s liberty”. Two days later, the same council suggested that Polish government immediately appropriates all the property of Poles in Latgalia, and on 12 and 15 October Polish diplomatic mission in Riga received an application signed by the aforementioned Antoni Romer from Janopol on behalf of the association. He requested that his name was not revealed as it was not desirable that Latvians “learnt” about the existence of this organisation. The application reproached Polish government for having “abandoned” the Latgalia landowners and having left them “without directives”. The document further read that they did not oppose Latvian independence but in the face of the problematic character of the existence of Latvia in the future it would be unreasonable to take no care of “this easternmost outpost of Polishness”. Romer requested Polish government to refrain from exerting pressure on Latvian authorities.[18]

Similarly, the Council of Livonia Poles in Warsaw complained before the national government for Latvian injustices. The degree of commitment of some Polish landowners of Latgalia is Best manifested by a declaration of twelve landlords (A. Romer, B. Szachno, J. Salcewicz and others) issued in spring 1921 in which they promised to make “sacrifices” by making over part of their land to smallholders in Latgalia or landless peasants of Polish nationality in order to defend “the many centuries’ tradition of Polish ownership”.[19]

The groundlessness of the landowners’ arguments, in particular pertaining to the detrimental character of the agricultural reform, is corroborated by the figures: the reform created 1,516 new farms owned by Polish farmers; from the former property of the Polish gentry, 16,669 hectares were handed over to Polish farmers;[20] in 1929 Poles owned 4,572 farms and 2.11% of land in the hands of natural persons in the country.[21]

The beginning of the agricultural reform coincided with another frosty period in Polish-Latvian relations caused by the so called Central Lithuania problem. A military campaign of Gen. Żeligowski in the Vilnius region fuelled Polish chauvinists’ activities. In this period and particularities the Polish landowners of Latgalia came to the fore and their opinions were in part endorsed by the Polish diplomacy and authorities.[22] The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to endure the pressure related to insufficient defence of Polish landowners’ interests in Latgalia. In 1922 A. Romer, B. Szachno and others proposed the solution to the problem of land in Latvia to the League of Nations; however, since the Polish-Latvian relations improved, Poland claimed that the landowners’ initiative was merely of informative character. Some property in Latgalia remained in Polish hands for the time being[23] and in 1929 Latvia and Poland concluded a trade agreement including a confidential appendix providing for Latvia’s payment of a compensation to the former Polish owners – Polish citizens – in this country. The compensation totalled 5 million Lats and the full payment was executed before 1937. In return, Poland was obliged to support no claims of the former landowners in the future.[24] Of distinctive and meaningful character is the report of the Polish diplomat stationed in Riga J. Łukasiewicz, in which he underlines that the exaggerated demands” of the landowners considerably impeded the conclusion of the agreement. When they were explained what loss they might suffer if insisting on their claims, it was possible to determine the volume of compensation – 20 Lats per hectare. The diplomat stressed that the agreement purposefully omitted to mention the sum payable to Polish government in order not to provide grounds for the landowners’ claim to vary their share.[25]

In 1935 the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified the Chairman of Livonia Landowners’ Union in Vilnius, B. Szachno, that there was no possibility to extend the time frame of the liquidation of Latgalia estates, although Latvian government might look into individual cases and request. The last final date for six estates owned by W. Soltan, A. Romer, M. Romerowa, B. Szachno, H. Mohl and J. Plater-Zyberg (the latter was the only representative of the nobility remaining in Latvia even after the 1940 occupation; she was exiled in Siberia in June 1941 during mass arrests by the NKVD) was postponed until 1941.[26] It is common property that at that time Poland and Latvia were no longer independent.

All in all, the small Polish landowners of Latgalia in the 1920s played an important role in the foreign policy of Poland and Latvia. Until the end of the 1920s, they enjoyed similar position in Latgalia as German aristocracy in other parts of Latvia. There are available records by Polish authors regarding the significance and historical role of the Polish gentry in Latgalia. In 1920 a social advocate and war refugee form Poland, K. Keller, imputed to the Latgalia gentry “the attachment to feudal egotism” and lack of understanding of the vital moment in the history.[27] On the other hand, the director of the Polish Press Office in Riga in the 1920s, J. Cynarski, recognized the historic achievements of the Polish gentry in the preservation of Polishness in Latgalia but reproached them with frail bonds with “ordinary Poles”. He reckoned that the landowners were to blame for many Polish peasants in Latgalia not distinguishing the notions of “nationality” and “national affiliation”.[28] J. Cynarski was in the right about the isolation of the Polish nobility since the majority of the Polish peasants in south Latgalia were of Latvian origin (this does not call in question the belonging to the unique type within the Polish nation – Latvian Poles of those who throughout the history managed to escape the category of “the locals” and became Poles).

A former Polish consul in Daugavpils, M. Świerzbiński, did not fathom that together with curbing the landowners’ influences Polishness in Latvia would suffer alike. A historian, J. Albin, quotes M. Świerzbiński, “The Polish nobility leaders in Latgalia often say, ‘If we leave this country, Polishness will perish.’ I cannot condone this fear. If, however, this came true, it would testify to the fact that the Polish nobility in Latgalia had lost their historical role and is unable to leave descendants.”[29] These are the words of M. Świerzbiński who can be trusted on this matter because as a former landowner he belonged to the fiercest enemies of autonomous Latvia. He commented on the lost landowners influence: “There was something horrible, unseemly and disrespectful to the national dignity that the descendants of ancient Polish families were treated by uncultivated, lower Latvian officials with contempt. They had to suffer a lot and were at their mercy. No doubt, all this disturbed Polish-Latvian relations and undermined the position of our state.”[30] It was an explicit exaggeration because for Świerzbiński and his companions it was humiliating to think of being dependent upon a former peasant-Latvian (for many these two categories were the same). At the same time, there were instances of unfair treatment of the former aristocrats by the bureaucrats of the new Latvian state caused by, for example, a desire of revenge or other reasons. This can be explained by the particularly complex process of the development of land ownership in Latvia – Latvians gained the full right to land in which they had been working for centuries no earlier than in 1920.

The thesis of a Polish writer J. Różycki that Polish landowners in Latgalia were of amicable attitude to Latvian state – like the entire Polish nation – but Latvians wrecked this by introducing the agricultural reform is groundless.[31] This was substantiated by the Polish gentry’s activities commencing with the promulgation of the new Latvian state. When compared to the reactionary stance of some Baltic Germans, their general approach to Latvia and Latvians was fairly liberal, yet it was far from amicable. Polish gentry would have liked to see Latvia in tight political and economic relation (preferable dependence) with Poland and enjoying some privileges. When this idea failed, some landowners in Latgalia eagerly joined the small anti-Latvian movement in Poland.

The great Polish nobility in Latgalia gathered over 120–130 families. Almost all of them live in Poland in the interwar period. They were people of impressive intelligence and education and always in the forefront of deep patriotism. Many of them were outstanding scientists, political and social activists in Poland as, for example, the members of the Manteuffel family, Senator B. Limanowski, poetess K. Iłłakowiczówna, W. Sołtan and others. Their attitude to Latvia was neutral and frequently cordial and understanding. Nonetheless, there was another group of people who could not forgive the new Latvian state for taking away their land. This group was not uniform and depending on the level of their intelligence formulated its accusations against the Latvian state – either substantiated and clear, or completely groundless and directed by blind hatred of “ex-peasants”, the desire to avenge the alleged harm or by extreme chauvinism. Of this opinion were: Władysław Studnicki, well-known also in Lithuania, who believed that the existence of Latvians and Lithuanians was a “historical error”, and the above-mentioned Michał Świerzbiński regarded as controversial and imbalanced even by the then Polish ambassador in Riga, W. Jodko. In February 1922, W. Jodko did not spare Świerzbiński his comments that Polish-Latvian relations should not be perceived only from the angle of the agricultural reform in Latgalia.[32]

The attitude of this part of landowners of Latgalia had decisive impact over the dissemination of the idea that the entire branch of the Polish gentry is extremely reactionary. As commonly known, the National Democratic Party in Poland anticipated partial recovery of the state border from before 1772 – with Lithuania enjoying limited autonomy and part of the Courland Province. Neither this view nor the idea of the ruling camp which supported the autonomy of the neighbouring states and the union of Poland with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine satisfied the conservatives who, as noted by the historian J. Albin, insisted on full restitution of the state border from before 1772, including Latgalia.[33]

As far as the attitude of the Polish gentry is concerned, some Polish historians discern the attachment to material benefits which determined the choices of the Latgalia nobility. This was largely true. However, this was not the only cause of this state of affairs. The Latgalia nobility, like the German aristocracy in other part of Latvia, had been living in a peculiar isolation. The nobility in Lithuania internally felt association with the Lithuanian nation, after all they were part of it; in contrast, the nobility of Latgalia perceived the peasantry not only as other social category but as a distinct nation. This inevitably caused the total isolation which had first surfaced during the January Insurrection in 1863 when the patriotic local gentry did not manage to win the peasantry over to their idea and fought alone suffering a total defeat. The isolation also transpired in the 20th century with the upsurge of hostility of Latvian intelligentsia to the Polish gentry and the haunting of the Latvians with Poles’ likely intentions (for example, during Gen. Żeligowski’s campaign in 1920). This often determined the general attitude of many Latvians to Poland. The isolation in question is best described in the 1995 book by Eugeniusz Romer, Dziennik (The Diary).[34] This unprecedented and unique work of Latvian history was written by a man of great intelligence and wits representing the ideas of the abovementioned part of Latvian and Lithuanian landowners. The book is an outstanding record of restrained and unapproachable environment of northern landowners. Of similar value is another source: Ryszard Manteuffel’s family reminiscence.[35] These records provide a matchless testimony of the time.

Nevertheless, the events of the years 1917–1920 exerted enormous influence on the lives of the great Polish nobility of Latgalia by wrecking havoc on their prior patriarchal life and ideals.

As a consequence, a considerable number of smaller, impoverished Polish gentry remained in Latgalia joining the Polish minority of sixty thousand people. They accepted new citizenship and took up farming in the land left after parcelling the large estates. However, as early as in the years 1919–1920 Poles resume their political and social activity gradually settling into the life of Latvian state and adapting to the new requirements. As the requirements grew (the Latvian language entered all the spheres of country’s life), there was no room for the discontented among the minorities, including Poles – in particular in Latgalia and the Illukstan Poviat, where their number and influence had hampered the adaptation. However, at the end of the 1930s, the majority of Poles in Latvia felt attached to both Polish and Latvian state.

Today we can speak of the Polish gentry in Latgalia only in past terms but they certainly imprinted themselves on the history of Latvia (to a degree even on the present time) being at the same time the evidence of the rough historic events not only in Latvia but in the whole Baltic area and Europe. That is why, we need to remember their role and, when reflecting upon it, provide fair evaluation.

[1] Latviešu Konversācijas vārdnīca, 10 sēj., Rīga 19331934, 20173 sl.

[2] Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs (State Historical Archives, hereafter: LVVA), coll. 1313, descr. 1, file 29, p. 28.

[3] For more see: Jēkabsons, E. Latgale vācu okupācijas laikā un pulkveža M. Afanasjeva partizāņu nodaļas darbîba Latvijā 1918 gadā”, Latvijas Vēstures Institūta Žurnāls, 1996, issue 1, pp. 4259.

[4] Albin, J. Polski ruch narodowy na Łotwie w latach 19191940, Wrocław 1994, p. 48.

[5] LVVA, coll. 1313, descr. 2, file 30, p. 40; Dokumenti stāsta, Rîga 1988, p. 68.

[6] New Records Archives (hereafter: AAN), Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 2, pp. 109110.

[7] “Nasz Kraj”, 10 December 1919.

[8] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 2, p. 118; “Gazeta Warszawska”, 30 October 1919.

[9] “Dziennik Wileński”, 4 November 1919.

[10] “Jaunākās Ziņas”, 28 October 1919.

[11] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 2, pp. 211212.

[12] LVVA, coll. 3601, descr. 1, file 248, p. 477.

[13] LVVA, coll. 5601, descr. 1, file 4258.

[14] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 4, pp. 199200.

[15] Maliszewski, E. Polacy na Łotwie, Warszawa 1922, pp. 1819, 2834.

[16] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 4, p. 7.

[17] Łossowski, P. Łotwa nasz sąsiad, Warszawa 1990, p. 20.

[18] AAN, Attachaty, A-II, 65/1, pp. 755768.

[19] AAN, Towarzystwo Straży Kresowej, vol. 105, p. 11.

[20] Albin, J. Polski ruch narodowy…, p. 40.

[21] “Latvijas Kareivis”, 15 May 1932.

[22] See: Jēkabsons, E. “Latvijas poļi un Latgales poļu muižniecība valsts neatkarības sākuma posmā 19181920 gadā”, Latvijas Vēstures Institūta Žurnāls, 1995, issue 3, pp. 79108.

[23] Albin, J. Polski ruch narodowy…, pp. 5859.

[24] LVVA, coll. 2570, descry. 1, file 354, pp. 3036.

[25] AAN, Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych, vol. 6211, p. 33.

[26] LVVA, coll. 2570, descr. 1, file 354, p. 99.

[27] Keller, K. Stosunki narodowościowe, społeczne, ekonomiczne na Inflantach Polskich i polityczne w Łatgalii, Rypin 1920, p. 18.

[28] Cynarski, J. Łotwa współczesna, Warszawa 1925, p. 148.

[29] Albin, J. Polski ruch narodowy…, p. 41.

[30] Archives of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Świerzbiński, M. Martyrologia Inflant Polskich, p. 73.

[31] Różycki, J. Polacy na Łotwie, Warszawa 1930, p. 8.

[32] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 4, p. 291; Attachaty, A-II/76, p. 91.

[33] Albin, J. Polski ruch narodowy…, p. 47.

[34] Romer, E. Dziennik 19141923, vol. I, II, Warszawa 1995.

[35] Inflanty, Inflanty Wspomnienia rodzinne, collected by Manteuffel-Szoege, R., Szopiński, Z., ed., Warszawa 1991.