On 100th anniversary of Treaty of Riga peace deal, new exhibition highlights its ‘bitter-sweet’ outcome
To mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Riga, which sealed Poland’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1920, the Royal Castle in Warsaw is hosting two exhibitions that show the contrasting sides of the bitter-sweet peace deal between the two states.
The Institute of National Remembrance, highlighting the tragic consequences of the deal, has prepared a special open-air exhibition entitled ‘The Bitter Peace. The Treaty of Riga 1921’ in the castle’s courtyard.
Dr. Jarosław Szarek, the president of the Institute, said: “The exhibition shows the fate of about 1.5 million of our compatriots who remained in Soviet Russia, who stayed on that side of the border agreed in Riga.”
Meanwhile, the castle itself has organised its own exhibition that shines a light on the return of Poland of swathes of cultural goods pilfered by Russia since the first partition of 1772.
No Polish institution suffered as much loss initially and gained back more than Warsaw's Royal Castle.
It lost the famous Caneletto views of 18th century Warsaw, the Bacciarelli portraits and thousands of works from the collection of the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski.
The return of over 2,000 of these treasures thanks to the treaty was unprecedented in European history, both in terms of the scale and its duration, over 15 years.
“Regaining this culture was the regaining of the nation’s identity and that of its people,” said castle director Professor Fałkowski, flanked by the very twenty-three Canalettos that were repatriated to Poland from Russia.
The treaty, consisting of 26 articles, was signed on 18 March 1921 by representatives of Poland, Russia and Ukraine. This document ended the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920 and determined the borders between the two states.
As a result of several months of debates in Riga, it was decided that the Republic of Poland would obtain the land lost in the third and partly the second partition: western Volhynia, Polesie, the Grodno and Vilnius Governorates with Minsk.
Poland gave up the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth situated to the east of the new border, and Russia and Ukraine gave up their claims to the lands west of the demarcated border line
In addition to the treaty on borders, it was also agreed in Riga that Poland would be compensated for the contribution of Polish lands to the Russian economy during the partition period, in the amount of 30 million roubles in gold.
It would also get back plundered cultural property, including the Wawel tapestries, the statue of Prince Joseph Poniatowski by Bertel Thorvaldsen, as well as the Warsaw castle’s treasures.
At the negotiations, the Poles were divided into two parties: on the one hand, the National Democrats aimed to incorporate ethnically the largely foreign but polonisable borderland, and on the other, the Piłsudski camp sought to create a federation. The National Democrats prevailed during the negotiations.
The Polish negotiators did not believe in the long-term existence of the Soviets. They were convinced that a non-communist Russia would soon emerge.
It saw Russia as an ally in the political struggle against Germany. The National Democrats were ready to partition Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. It believed that the young independent states would be a threat to Poland.
A result of this thinking was the handing over of Minsk to the Soviets.
The loser was Marshal Józef Piłsudski who failed to create an independent region, federated with Poland.
According to historian Prof. Józef Szaniawski: “The Treaty of Riga was concluded in defiance of Piłsudski. Contrary to what is believed, he did not have full power at all”.
The Soviets failed to honour many of the treaty’s provisions. The 30 million roubles in compensation was never repaid.
Tragically the assurances of safety of the more than 1.5 million Poles trapped on the wrong side of the new border were ignored. This resulted in widespread deportations, persecution, exile, starvation and death.
Particular repression befell Poles in the USSR in the late 1930s, when over 100,000 Poles were killed by the NKVD as part of the so-called Polish Operation.
A series of panels in the castle’s courtyard, which will be open to the public from tomorrow, describes the process that led to this.
Meanwhile, inside the castle’s Council Chamber, the treaty itself is on display. It is laid open to show Article XI, with its provisions for the return to Poland of cultural property looted by Russia during the whole 123 partition period.
The fate of the art collections of the castle and its furnishings from the Stanislaus period, was extremely turbulent.
From the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century the objects changed owners and were moved many times.
In 1815, the ownership of the Royal Castle and its furnishings was taken over by Tsar Alexander I, as King of Poland.
In 1832, as part of the repressions following the November Uprising, some of the castle's rooms were destroyed, others were significantly redecorated, and the most valuable works of art, including the vedutas of Canaletto's Warsaw, the paintings by Marcello Bacciarelli, and sculptures by Andre Le Bruno, were taken to Russia and replaced with symbols of tsarist power.
The interiors of the castle were completely emptied in 1915, when the Russian administration evacuating Warsaw took away 800 chests with works of art from the Royal Castle itself.
Dr Magdalena Białonowska, curator of the castle’s exhibition, told TFN: “The fate of the castle’s collections symbolises the fate of all of Poland’s cultural collections during the partition period.
“These collections were dispersed and subsequently regained many times.”
She added, “1921 was one point of return, by Polish collections were once again broken up in World War Two.”
Though it opened today, the exhibition cannot be visited due to the new pandemic restrictions that see all museums in the Mazowsze province closed from today.
Questioned on whether the exhibition will go online, a castle employee commented, “the situation is dynamic.”