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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 214-228

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Contrasting Similarities: Bishops Troy and Lisovskii in Ireland and Belorussia in the Age of the French Revolution

James T. Flynn

In September, 1809, the Imperial Russian Council of Ministers discussed a threatening new situation in the empire's western borderlands, territories that Russia had taken from the Polish Commonwealth in the late eighteenth-century partitions. Napoleon had recently conquered the German powers' shares of those partitions and was sponsoring there a new Polish state, titled the Duchy of Warsaw. This new state had a parliament, civil rights for all, serfdom abolished, and church and state separated. This French-sponsored Poland seemed threatening to the governing elite of autocratic Russia, who feared the prospect of an aroused and independent Polish state, especially one with a parliament, civil equality, serfdom abolished, or church and state separated. This new polity in Poland so sharply contrasted with the Russian that many thought it likely to prove a dangerous neighbor, for its example powerfully stirred the hopes of those who found the traditional Russian polity oppressive.

A member of the council, and one of Russia's most prominent aristocrats, Sergei Golitsyn, recommended that Russia respond to this French-sponsored threat by annexing the western provinces, that is Belorussia and western Ukraine, and adding to the Tsar's titles that of "King of Poland." But Tsar Alexander I spoke against the recommendation. "Consider the example of Ireland," he said, "an area founded on principles quite different from those of the core population of England . . . and the consequent fragility of the union between them." 1 He concluded [End Page 214] that England's troubles with Ireland suggested that a union of Belorussia and Russia would not prove "useful" for Russia.

The great struggle that culminated in 1812 changed Tsar Alexander's mind. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 he took the title "King of Poland" and completed the annexation of Belorussia. Still, his assumption that comparison of Ireland and Belorussia could provide useful insights into the nature of developments in the early nineteenth century was not without merit. In particular, the comparison shows that although the two nations were on opposite sides of Europe and had quite different histories, the churches in Ireland and Belorussia whose faithful included the peasant majorities in the two countries were similarly situated and made similar choices. They co-operated with the imperial governments and opposed the nationalists who were inspired by the revolution in France. The reasons for those choices, and their outcomes, well illustrate the dynamics that retarded, as well as those that favored, the development of nationalism in the early nineteenth century. Neither church was led by men interested in nationalism. The leaders of both tried hard to defend the self-governing autonomy of their churches. In time, to be sure, self-governing autonomy did foster the development of an institution capable of supporting nationalism. But in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon, those who sought autonomy for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Uniate ("Greek Catholic") Church in the Russian Empire were acting on their conviction that it was their religion that gave meaning to life, no matter whose government ruled their secular worlds.

In the 1790's both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Uniate ("Greek Catholic") Church in Belorussia faced rapidly changing situations. In 1782 the Grattan Parliament gained for Protestant Ireland a significant degree of independence. The Relief Bill of 1793 was an effort to extend the gains of the Grattan Parliament to Catholics, and to complete the repeal of the Penal Code that had excluded Catholics from public life since the seventeenth-century conquest. The bill failed to emancipate Catholics to the degree many had expected, yet raised the fears of many others. Rising hopes and fears were also stimulated by increasing peasant violence, Defenderism, and by increasingly forceful agitation of the lay middle-class Catholic Committee. The rise of the radical United Irish movement and, finally, the...


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