Veche (vijeće, wiec) was a public council and one of the most ancient Slavic traditions which ruined the mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. How come? Slavs always had the military democracy. Early medieval Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea wrote in the 6 AD about our far ancestors: (VII. 14. 22-30) “For these nations, the Sclaveni and the Antae, are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy…”. The reason why Slavs liked the democracy and anarchy so much is a mystery like an origin of Slavs itself. Unfortunately we just know some facts, which can be linked in any way. However we will try to find answers for at least to a few questions.
So all important decisions in a tribal, later town’s public life were made at a so called veche (public council). The term “veche” itself originates from the ancient Slavic “vet” (council) word. Only men, free members of a community could take part in veche. Decisions taken there were obligatory for all the community (tribe, town, etc.). Presumably ancient Slavs had the social system similar to the ancient Romans’ one.
Maybe these systems have one common Indo-European root. Later on this system has been eventually changed and maybe degraded to some extent. In the traditional world any community could live by its own rules, so there were no one and the same system for everyone. Still basic veche was kept in any part of the Slavic world – from the Baltic Slavs to Novgorod (Russia).
Both had three sources of power:
- Slavs —————————– Romans
- knyaz —————————- consuls and a dictator
- elders —————————- senators
- veche —————————- public represented by tribunes
We have only separate lines in manuscripts about the structure of a veche. As I said earlier, rules could differ according to a location and time. For example originally in Novgorod veche could annul a knyaz’ decision or even expel him from a town. No surprise, because in the most ancient times a knyaz’ (voevoda) was just a head of warriors (“a chief of a gang”) which could be hired by some community like they hire a security company today. With the course of time warriors would get more and more power, but in Novgorod veche sustained until the 15th century, although it was a degraded form then, where decisions were taken by nobles only, without regular members of the community.
How did it work? In most cases the simple majority was enough. Sometimes there were even fights and veche could last for 5 days. But there were two known variants of a veche where only a unanimous decision mattered. Both are Western Slavs: Lutichi, one of the Baltic Slavs tribal unions, and… Polish people. Is it just a coincidence, or some old Slavic tradition that is now lost? Nobody knows. Famous German chronicler Thietmar von Merseburg wrote that in the Lutichi tribal union a person who dared to question a common decision could be beaten by sticks and his house could be burned. So technically they would get a unanimous decision in such a way. We can see here a degradation of an ancient tradition. Unlike that in the civilized Poland any member of the famous Seim (national council) could decline any suggestion even if it was supported by everyone else. This right was called “liberum veto” in Latin.
Thus approximately 40 annual Seims were ruined before they abolished the rule. This rule seems to make no sense because it is impossible that approximately 300 members could unanimously agree on any issue taking into account all of them were rival nobles (like in late Novgorod), backed up by few powerful oligarchs. But it was a tradition and nobles wanted to keep it because they wanted to prove their rights and freedom. It’s obvious that such tradition can work only for small clan-like communities, and fail when used by big societies. But such traditions appeared a long time ago when there were few people on the planet.
Of course this tradition was not a single reason of the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth decline, but that Slavic anarchy mentality at whole led to it. No Polish king could seize all power in his hands – never. And some of the Seim decisions were never taken seriously in some regions of the country. Polish people were among the most loyal keepers of Slavic customs, but eventually it destroyed their great state which once spread “from the sea to the sea”.
- Procopius of Caesarea, History of Wars
- I. Froyanov, Kievan Rus
- Thietmar von Merseburg, the Chronicle
- G. Pashkov, Encyclopedia. Grand Duchy of Lithuania