Ideology of Prometheism

Prometheism was a geopolitical project of the Polish leaderJózef Piłsudski[1]  whose first aim was to weaken Russian empire – later USSR – by supporting efforts of national self-determination of the subjugated peoples, but second – to unite the freed nations in Intermarium or Baltic-Black sea federation. Prometheism could also be considered ideology whose basis was the ruling ideas in Poland of Polish national messianism. Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth that existed between 16th and 18th century served as the geopolitical ideal of Prometheism. During the 18th century Polish-Lithuanian state was divided between Austria, Prussia and Russian empire. In the context of downfall of the former superpower Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote about Polish nation as a Christ of nations – he like many other Poles believed, that Poland was suffering for nations the same as Christ suffered for mankind. These kinds of ideas had their historical basis – in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna Polish army secured the existence of Western Civilization by defeating the Ottoman forces and freeing Vienna from the Muslim siege. But gratitude doesn’t play a role in history and these merits did not save Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth from destruction. Proud Polish nation lost its independence and homeland but found a meaning for these sufferings in the awareness of a higher mission.

Józef Piłsudski had grown in the atmosphere of 19th century Polish literary romanticism and his whole life was dedicated for the struggle against Russian imperialism. Piłsudski chose Greek titan Prometheus as a symbol for this struggle – just like Prometheus rebelled against the tyrannical Zeus to defend mankind and create civilization, so Poland had to lead the rebellion against the tyrannical Russian Tzar, freeing Polish nation and other subjugated peoples and also restoring Polish-Lithuanian state in a new form – as Intermarium confederation. The historical peculiarity of Intermarium region is that it consists mostly of small nations whi have to deal with foreign aggression from almost all sides. History shows that every Intermarium state on its own cannot confront these threats, but, if they are united, they can secure space for their existence. Intermarium is a conception based in geopolitical realism, that recognizes that every state in the region needs the independence of all the other states to secure their own – basic feature of the region is the inter-dependence of the fates of peoples. Piłsudski rejected Russian Panslavism, emphasizing civilizing mission of Polish nation in the space of Eastern Europe, at the same time practising caution against the intentions and “good will” from other Western Countries – he united in his personality idealism in his goals with realism in the assessment of situation. Already in 1904 Piłsudski formulated ideas of Prometheism in his memorandum to the Japanese ministry of Foreign affairs and  called for support of Japan for the national revolutionaries of the peoples living in Russian Empire. He declared that subjugated peoples should cooperate to commonly separate from Empire and this would be helpful for Japan, that had its own conflict with Russia in the east.[2] Japan didn’t support this idea – its time was not jet come.

After the restoration of Polish state in the leadership of Piłsudski Poland for the second time realized its mission as a guard of Western civilization by defeating forces of Soviet Russia at Warsaw in 2020. Destruction of red army prevented the spread of Communism further in Europe, especially in Germany, whose communist rebels waited for involvement of Soviet Russia in the spreading of “World revolution”. But in 1920 Polish view was not limited to its own borders. Piłsudski’s vision of Prometheism intended to fight against Russian imperialism wherever there might be allies for this goal. Poland was one of the first countries that recognized independence of the Baltic states and Finland, also helping Latvia to drive out the red army from Latgale. General Pēteris Radziņš[3] wrote: “In this critical and hard time our great southern neighbour Poland sent us help and not only moral and material, but also help with its troops. Poland by promising help in the form of a strong army didn’t ask for the smallest compensation for this, except that Latvia would be friendly to Poland. (..) Piłsudski (..) showed such a friendly attitude to our army that more was not possible to imagine.” [4] This attitude of  Piłsudski was not a coincidence nor sentimentalism, but a conscious policy of unification of the region, to create a basis for a broad union of countries against the Russian imperialism.

In 1920 the main project of Prometheism was alliance of Poland and Ukraine. Poland supported Ukrainian Peoples Republic of Symon Petliura because Piłsudski understood that without the independence of Ukraine the Polish independence and project of Intermarium are not possible also.[5] Ukraine was necessary for a real equilibrium of power in Eastern Europe that would secure the liberated peoples of Russian empire against the revanchism of USSR.[6] General Radziņš also wrote: “[without Ukraine] Russia would not be a great power,  but, by calculation of the power and economics, second grade state. (..) Russia, by losing Ukraine, loses half of its power and remains in the full meaning of the name – an Asian country. Ukraine doesn’t need anything from Russia and, by remaining independent, it would start to play a significant role in the European politics. Russia, without Ukraine, however, loses any role in Europe. (..) Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even in some part Finland, can live for a year or ten years independently, but, if they will not be protected by a larger state, they will not be able to secure their destiny. (..) In the context of the power of Baltic states the largest role will be played by Ukraine: if it will be separated from Russia and will join the union of Baltic states, then the united power will be enough for a independent defence, this power will not be attacked. So, it could be said, that the fate of Ukraine will decide the fate of Baltic countries as well.” [7]

It should be mentioned, that in the interwar period there existed several proposals of Intermarium project. In the view or general Radziņš this union would also include Finland.[8] In the summer of 1920 Latvian government convened a conference in Bulduri, where representatives of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland discussed creation of Baltic Union. Representatives of Ukraine and Belarus participated as an observers. On august 31 a draft treaty of the Baltic political union was signed. But the conference didn’t result in creation of military alliance and conflict of Poland and Lithuania meant complete defeat of any hopes for a Baltic Union of this magnitude.

Ideologue of Ukrainian nationalism Yurii Lypa[9] developed “Doctrine of the Black sea” that stressed the strategic importance of the North-South axis of cooperation for Ukraine, starting with Scandinavian countries and ending with Asia Minor.[10] Fate of Ukraine itself was decided in 1920 when in Soviet counterattack Polish forces had to retreat from Ukrainian territory and struggle for the existence of Poland itself. After the defeat of red army at Warsaw Poland was tired of war and Piłsudski decided not to continue new offensives. This was followed by the Riga Peace Treaty between Poland and Soviet Russia, which sealed the fate of the Intermarium idea. Some lands of Belarusians and Ukrainians where now part of the Polish territory – they were too small to form the basis of a future union between nations, but too large to be assimilated in the new Polish state.[11] However, the biggest problem that made the Intermarium project impossible at this time was the Polish-Lithuanian conflict. As a result of a “gamble” by Piłsudski, the Vilnius region was occupied by Polish forces. His goal was to use Vilnius as a “captive” to force Lithuania to form a close alliance with Poland, renewing the Polish-Lithuanian federation as the core of Intermarium. But Piłsudski’s mistake was underestimation of ethnic nationalism – Lithuanians, after centuries of national oppression, did not want their independence to be limited and had fears of new polonization. Pilsudski also came into conflict with Polish nationalists, who in turn did not want to hear anything about the federation, instead achieving a parliamentary decision on the annexation of Vilnius and its inclusion in Poland.[12]

General Radziņš offered an original solution to reduce the conflict between Poland and Lithuania. He called for the unification of Lithuania and Latvia as countries with common roots and common geopolitical interests. He wrote: “(..) with our rapprochement with Lithuania, and by remaining in good relations with Poland, we can take on the role of mediator and achieve the establishment of peaceful relations between Lithuania and Poland. (..) The Latvian-Lithuanian union would constitute a rather significant political force – a total of about 5 million inhabitants and a large area. In the case of any international complication, this power would be felt and other countries would count on it much more than they do now.”[13] The solution proposed by Radziņš was based on a better understanding of Lithuanian national efforts and on respect for these efforts in creating wider cooperation between countries. Unfortunately, in practice no solution was found between the countries of Eastern Europe, and the contradictions between Poland and Lithuania were skilfully used by the USSR to prevent creation of wider Intermarium alliance in the interwar period, but in 1939 and 1940 this led to complete destruction of independence for these countries.

After the signing of the Riga Treaty between Poland and Soviet Russia, the next period of Prometheism began. The borders between the newly created European countries and Soviet Russia were formally approved. For almost 70 years, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia disappeared from the map of Europe as their governments went into exile to Europe. Representatives of the North Caucasus and Tatar national elites also went into exile.

But Piłsudski did not forget the idea of ​​Prometheism. The Polish government undertook the task of coordinating a network of emigrants of national minorities from Russia. At the heart of this structure was the Eastern Institute in Warsaw, which simultaneously with academic research on the peoples of the East, worked to strengthen the Prometheist project. The Orientalist Youth Organization, the newspaper Wschód (The East), a scholarship program for students outside Poland, the expansion of the Prometheist movement in other countries, and other activities were started. The Polish army continued to train Ukrainian and Georgian officers. Undoubtedly, Piłsudski’s most ambitious goal was the complete collapse of the USSR, divided by the ethnic elements. Meanwhile, the USSR took active steps to sabotage the Prometheist project. Agents of Cheka killed Symon Petliura and Georgian statesman Noe Ramishvili[14], and used Poland’s controversial policies for ethnic minorities to intensify conflicts between the peoples of Eastern Europe. The idea of ​​Intermarium also lacked much-needed support from the general public and political elites, as well as from the great powers of Western Europe.[15]

The idea of Prometheism was a symbol of its time. It was an era when the centre of gravity of Europe moved to the Eastern Europe – the ambitions of pan-German and pan-Slavic nationalists in the 20th century, albeit superficially exclusive, marked a common trend towards a fundamental transformation of Europe.[16] Among these two threatening powers, there was a third option – Piłsudski’s idea of Intermarium as an alliance of the peoples of Eastern Europe belonging to Western culture. The moment of weakness of Germany and Soviet Russia around 1920 was a window of opportunity that Piłsudski sought to use to form an alliance in cooperation with other emerging European countries that would ensure the independence of all the peoples involved in the long-term. For the reasons discussed above, this was not possible – instead, the countries of the Intermarium region became a battleground between Pan-German and Pan-Slavic imperialism. In the view of the German National Socialists, the national aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Europe were an obstacle to Germany’s “expansion of living space” or a means to be used opportunistically according to the situation. It is perhaps this imperialist hubris that was the main reason why Germany lost in the fight for Eastern Europe, paving the way for the tyranny of the USSR that lasted for almost half a century. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 marked a new “window of opportunity” that was mostly wasted when the political elites of the region’s countries along with the liberals of the of old Western European countries liberal members participated in collective psychosis called “the end of history”. This “end of history” ended in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine, once again putting asking us the existential question of “to be or not to be”. And, like a hundred years ago, today we can also say that the fate of Ukraine will decide ours.

The ideology of Prometheism is as relevant as it was then, so it is necessary to evaluate the mistakes of the previous period of Prometheism, distinguishing its ideological core from the form of the times, and to adapt Prometheism to the conditions of struggle that characterizes the era of globalism, clash of civilizations and hybrid warfare.

[1] Józef Klemens Piłsudski (1867 – 1935) was the leader of Second Polish republic and “The First Marshall”. One of the most important persons in the Polish and European politics during interwar period – a revolutionary, leader in war, founder of Polish army whose decisive action allowed to restore independence of Poland 123 years after the destruction of its independence. It is possible that he was descended from Polonized Lithuanian kin.

[2] Dziewanowski, M.K.. Joseph Piłsudski. A European Federalist, 1918-1922. Hoower Institution Press, Stanford, 1969. pp. 36-37

[3] Pēteris Valdemārs Radziņš (1880 – 1930) – general of Latvian army and commander from 1924 t0 1928. Recipient of the order of Lāčplēsis. Author of several books on history and military subjects, lecturer of military science. One of the most legendary leaders of freedom struggles, before that also Assistant to the Chief of General Staff of the Army of Ukrainian Peoples Republic of Symon Petliura. 

[4] Radziņš, Pēteris Voldemārs. Daugavpils ieņemšana. From: Pētera Voldemāra Radziņa rakstu krājums. Comp. Purviņš, Agris. Ģenerāļa Radziņa biedrība, 2016, P. 283

[5] Dziewanowski… P. 269

[6] Ibid…., P. 275

[7] Radziņš, Pēteris Voldemārs. Baltijas valstis un Ukraina. From: Pētera Voldemāra Radziņa rakstu krājums…, P. 544

[8] Ibid…, P. 545

[9] Yurii Lypa (1900 – 1944) – Ukrainanian writer, poet, political leader and also a doctor. Killed by agents of Cheka.

[10] Koncepcja Międzymorza: historia i perspektywa rozwoju,, Viewed:

[11] Dziewanowski… P. 326

[12] Turpat…, P. 343

[13] Radziņš, Pēteris Voldemārs. Latvija un Lietuva. From: Pētera Voldemāra Radziņa rakstu krājums…, pp. 578-579

[14] Noe Besarionis dze Ramishvili (1881 – 1930) – President of the First Government of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, one of the leaders of the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

[15] Dziewanowski… P. 352

[16] Heffernan, Michael. The Meaning of Europe. Geography and Geopolitics. University of Loughborough, 1998, P. 81

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