The Slavic people are thought to have originated in what is now Ukraine, and dispersed from there in various directions, eventually dividing into three linguistic-cultural groups: the East Slavs (Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians), the South Slavs (Serbians, Croats, Montenegrans, Macedonians, Bosnians, Slovenes, Bulgarians), and the West Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovakians).
Pan-Slavism was a movement to unite the Slavic peoples into a political and cultural union. Its earliest proponent was a Croatian priest, Juraj Krizanic, who in the 1600s put forth the idea that the Slavs should unite in a grand empire under the Muscovite czar as a counterweight against the Germans and Turks.
This concept of union was not given much serious thought until the early nineteenth century. The term Pan-Slavism was coined in 1826 by the Slovak Jan Herkel, and it became prevalent due to the influence of the French Revolution, German romanticism and the fact that most of the Slavic peoples except Russians were subjugated by other, non-Slavic, ethnic groups.
A Pan-Slav Congress was held in Prague in June 1848, presided over by the Czech Frantisek Palacky. It was attended by mostly Czech delegates. Though Palacky favored a union of Slavs under the Austrian crown, the Congress as a whole had a decided anti-Austrian and anti-Russian flavor to it.
Concepts of Pan-Slavism were as varied and numerous as the Slavic nationalities themselves. Some favored a union within Austria, others thought Russia needed to be included in any such federation, others were suspicious of Russia. Still others rejected the idea entirely.
By the late nineteenth century, Russia had come to dominate the debate over Pan-Slavism. With the largest Slavic population and a huge land mass, as well as being a powerful empire, Russia was always the "eight hundred pound gorilla in the room." Pan-Slavism was seen by many Slavs to be a capitulation to the tsar, for surely Russia would control any union in which it was included. Russia, and later the USSR, did indeed attempt to use Pan-Slavism as a propaganda tool for extending its control over East Central Europe, though the czars often looked at the movement with suspicion.
The Poles generally did not support Pan-Slavism, and many considered the movement's Polish adherents to be traitors to the cause of Polish reunification and independence, Poland then being partitioned and occupied by Prussia, Austria and Russia. Some Poles supported Pan-Slavism only if Poland were given the leading role in any union, without the participation of Russia. But leading Polish intellectuals and romantics were far more concerned with regaining Poland's independence than in any such federation.
The movement gained traction in the Balkans. After Serbia became independent of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s, it pushed for unity of all Southern Slavs under its rule. These people at the time were subjects of either the Austrians or Turks. Following World War I, the Serbian dream came true. Under the Serbian crown, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed and encompassed all South Slavic lands except Bulgaria. This union remained largely intact after the Second World War and was renamed Yugoslavia, which means Land of the South Slavs.
Pan-Slavism lost most of its appeal elsewhere after World War I due to the fact that self-determination for Slavic lands was a result of its aftermath. The Treaty of Versailles supported a newly independent Poland, the Serbian kingdom and a joint state for Czechs and Slovaks.
Amidst the ruins of World War II, the USSR extended its control over all of East Central Europe, including all Slavic homelands. This was the only time in history, from 1945-48, that all the European Slavic peoples were united, though forcibly, under a single authority. Yugoslavia's break with Moscow to follow its own brand of communism quickly put an end to such unity.
Though the USSR used a Pan-Slavic argument as a justification for its domination over Eastern Europe, it was a weak point and not fervently pursued, for even the Soviets could see the Poles and others would never accept such an excuse for Russian control of their countries.
Following the demise of communism, the idea of Pan-Slavism died almost completely. The USSR collapsed and new Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus were formed. The Czechs separated form the Slovaks. And Yugoslavia fell apart into six different independent Slavic countries. In Belarus in 2000, a committee was formed to promote Pan-Slavism, but it was just a move by the dictatorial Belarussian government to justify its close ties to Russia.
What should we make of the idea of Pan-Slavism? Should those of us of Polish descent emphasize our Slavic roots? Should we be proud that Slavs put the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit, and that the first words spoken from outer space were Slavic, albeit Russian? Should we not revere the writings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and the music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky? Admire the architectural beauty of Prague and the natural wonder of the Slovene mountains and Dalmatian coast? Enjoy Bulgarian folk dances or the Bolshoi Ballet? Is this not a heritage that is also ours as Slavic Americans?
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers