1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 12
Still, a revolution could turn very ugly, if the people leading it started crossing certain lines.
She shook her head, slightly. Such worries were very premature, after all. So far, from what she could see, the “Polish revolution” amounted to a small number of young szlachta radicals organized by an up-time labor agitator and allied only with a small sect of radical Christians and–maybe, down the road–with eastern Europe’s Jewry, or at least a part of it. They were hardly on the verge of having to deal with the problems and temptations of triumph.
Red cleared his throat. “To get back to the point. Leaving all that aside–yeah, sure, I agree nobody should try to force the Ruthenians to do anything–what do you think about the rest of it? What I means is, do you think Ruthenians would be better off if they were part of Wallenstein’s empire in the making?”
Melissa hesitated. Partly, just to ponder the question. Mostly, though, because she was feeling a little guilty. Morris Roth had asked her to come here in order to help him figure out how to do precisely that–absorb the Ruthenian lands and peoples into Bohemia’s realm.
Which, she would do, and do faithfully, because anything was better than the situation that existed. But…
“Well, no, actually,” she said. “Or, it’d be better to say, it depends. If the Poles straightened out their act, then I think the Ruthenians would probably be better off as part of the Commonwealth than as subjects of Wallenstein.”
Zaborowsky was peering at her intently. “Why?”
She tried to figure out how to explain it, in a way that would make sense to a young man who came from this era and didn’t have the benefit of being able to look back on it from her vantage point centuries later.
“Because the worst thing about Polish history is that it was such a tragedy, what happened. It could have turned out completely differently. The potential that was destroyed was incredible. In the middle ages, Poland was as advanced as any European country, at least in most respects. And much farther advanced, in some. No other European country developed Poland’s traditions of religious toleration and multi-nationalism, for instance.”
Jakub grunted. “That was under the Jagiellonian dynasty. During the reign of Stefan Batory also. Those kings always favored the lower classes and the burghers, against the great lords. Just like the Vasas do in Sweden. But our branch of the Vasas, when they became Poland’s ruling dynasty, did the exact opposite. Since they really only care about regaining the Swedish crown which they think belongs to them, they allied with the great magnates. It is ruining our country. Everything is now subordinated to the grain trade. The conditions for the peasants get worse every year, and the towns are shrinking. Even the richest burghers have no favor at all, any more, and while most of the szlachta–stupid bastards–bask in their official status as the equals of the magnates, the fact is they are becoming nothing more than lowly vassals.”
That… was a pretty damn good summation of what had happened to the Commonwealth in the half century since the Poles and Lithuanians made the mistake of electing Zygmunt III Vasa to the crown.
The question was, could the situation still be turned around?
She returned Zaborowsky’s gaze with one that was every bit as intense. And reminded herself, not for the first time since the Ring of Fire, what a terrible mistake it could be to underestimate the people of the seventeenth century.
“Yes,” she murmured. “Hell, yes.”
The next morning, when Melissa and James came down to the dining hall for breakfast, they found Morris Roth standing at the window with a letter in his hand. He has a very peculiar expression on his face.
“What’s up, Morris?” asked James.
“Huh?” Roth looked at them, a bit startled. Then, looked down at the letter.
“I just got some news from Uriel. And I’m trying to sort out how I feel about it.”
His eyes went back to the window and his gaze seemed out of focus. “He’s one of the great arch-villains of Jewish history, you know. Not up there with Hitler and Himmler, of course. No one is. But he’s solidly in the second rank. So I’m wondering why I’m not dancing with glee.”
“What are you talking about?” Melissa asked, a bit exasperated.
Morris lifted the letter. “Bohdan Chmielnicki. Today, of course, still a relatively young man and just a minor officer among the registered Cossacks.”
“He’s dead. He was assassinated two weeks ago, at his estate in Subotiv. Three men appear to have done it. None of them were apprehended, because he was just a minor officer and wasn’t surrounded by guards. The suspicion is that they were Polish, but no one really knows.”
He gave James a wry little smile. “What was it you said last night? ‘No virus or bacillus which ever lived is as contagious a vector as those fricking books in Grantville.’ You sure had the right of it. Someone must have read the future history and figured they’d take out the leader of the 1648 rebellion before he got any further.” He shook his head. “As if that’ll really change anything.”
Melissa took in a long, slow breath. “So. That means there’s already at least one conspiracy afoot.” She smiled wryly herself. “One other, I guess I should say.”
Morris nodded. “Yes. It’s starting.”
Red Sybolt, the two Poles and the Cossack Fedorovych left a few days later. Their destination: the Zaporozhian Sich, the great Cossack fortress on an island in the Dnieper. It would take them weeks to get there, in mid-winter, but Red didn’t want to lose any time–and Dmytro Fedorovych was practically champing at the bit.
“You’re sure about this, Red?” Judith Roth asked dubiously.
“Oh, hell, yes. In politics just like in war, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s maxim applies, even if he was a stinking murderous racist bastard they shoulda hung after the civil war. ‘Get there firstest with the mostest.'”
Judith looked at him, then at his companions. “I count four of you. As in, ‘fewer than the fingers of one hand.'”
Red grinned. “So we’ll make do. Get there firstest.'” He shrugged. “Look, the Cossacks will be boiling mad. By now, even the Cossacks–well, some of them, anyway, even if Chmielnicki himself seems to have been in the dark–will know the gist of that future history too. They’ll figure it just like we do. This was ordered by one of the Polish magnates. Or, most likely, a cabal of Polish magnates. And if they don’t know, by some odd chance–”
He bestowed the grin on Melissa, now. “I just so happen to have some copies of the relevant passages, from those books of yours I borrowed for a time.”
“Swiped for a time,” she growled.
Melissa was just as dubious about Red’s project as Judith was. “Fine, fine. But…”
She looked at Jakub and Krzysztof. “They’re Polish. And while nobody is ever going to confuse you with a nobleman, Red, you’re not exactly going to blend right in with Cossacks. Has it occurred to you they’re likely to chop first and ask questions later?”
“I figure Dmytro can run interference for us. If we even need it at all. Cossacks aren’t actually mindless, you know. They’re also not going to confuse any of us with great magnates, either. And there really isn’t that big an ethnic issue, in the first place. A hell of a lot of Cossacks are former Poles, and a good chunk of their officers are former szlachta.”
James’ eyebrows lifted. “Really?”
“Oh, yeah.” His grin seemed insuppressible this morning. Red always did love a fight. “It’s a complicated world, you know. Or hadn’t you noticed already?”
“Be off, then, Red,” Melissa said softly. “I’d add ‘Godspeed,’ but I’m an atheist. Still, the sentiment’s the same.”
After they left, Morris shook his head. “Do you think we’ll ever see the rascal again?”
Melissa had been wondering the same thing. After a pause, she said: “Yes, actually. Up-time American coal companies have–had, will have, whatever–the same mindset as great Polish magnates.”
“And… your point is?”
She nodded in the direction Red and his companions had gone. “They really hated that man, Morris. But he’s still here, isn’t he?” She burst into laughter. “Three and a half centuries earlier!”