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Józef Potocki (1862 -1922) was one of the most remarkable last Polish great landowners in Ukraine. Raised between Vienna and Łańcut, Józef took up Russian citizenship to inherit his mother’s estate in Volhynia. With his wife Helena Radziwiłł, they transformed Antoniny, encompassing circa 55,000 ha of arable land and forest, into a thriving enterprise concentrated on the production of refined sugar.
His growing income allowed him to indulge in two passions, Arabian horse breeding and big game hunting, which provided occasions to travel to the Middle East, Africa and India. Shooting soon evolved into conservation, leading Józef to fence off 6,000 ha of first growth forest to acclimatize rare species of deer, elk, bison and wolf.
A creative and open mind, Józef Potocki embraced technical progress. He masterminded the construction of a railway line connecting his sugar refineries in the West to the main artery running from Kiev to Odessa, thus greatly facilitating export. He also endowed in 1912 the newly revived Warsaw Scientific Society with a sum sufficient to acquire a new building and invite Marie Skłodowska-Curie to continue her research in Poland. The 1905 Revolution in Russia forced Tsar Nicholas II to grant consultative political representation to the Polish minority. Józef was elected to the State Duma in 1906 where he played an active political role until the Revolution of 1917.
The Russian civil war forced Józef and Helena to abandon Antoniny. He moved to Paris at the time of the Peace conference in 1919, where he tried in vain to lobby in favour of a border which would keep his estate within the reborn Polish state. Alas, the 1921 Riga treaty with Bolshevik Russia left Antoniny a few miles short. Despite retaining a magnificent palace in Warsaw, defeated by history and an unexpected divorce, Józef Potocki was a broken man. He died prematurely at his cousin’s castle in Montrésor, France.
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Józef Potocki, was brought up between Łańcut and Vienna, where his father Alfred held important Government positions from 1867 until 1871. The youngest of four siblings, Józef was the most talented, displaying leadership qualities from an early age, earning the nickname “Hetman” among his father’s staff.
Following the death of his grand-father Roman Sanguszko in 1881, Józef was destined to take over his parents’ estates in Volhynia and applied for Russian nationality to claim two adjoining properties, of 30,000 and 25,000 ha each. The first represented the combined dowry of his two Czartoryski grand-mothers who had been sisters, while the second belonged to his mother Maria, with the Antoniny manor at its heart.
The latter, set on the banks of the Ikopot river, had been built up over the course of first 19th c. as an expansive but unremarkable home. Józef, with his wife Helena Radziwiłł (1874-1958), whom he married in 1892, would transform Antoniny in a place of legend until its utter devastation during the Russian civil war.
Building upon an earlier industrialisation drive, Józef embraced technical progress and rational management to turn his estate into an integrated concern, focused on the production of refined sugar. He modernised the three factories built by his grand-father in Kłębówka (Klembivka today), Kremenczugi (Kremenchuky), Szepetówka (Shepetivka) and added a fourth one in Korzec (Korets). The largest in Szepetówka was upgraded to a refinery which supplied the whole Russian empire and Iran. Investment capital was derived from the exploitation of vast oak forests, with long term contracts signed with German wholesalers.
A major concern was providing sufficient stock of animals to power such an enterprise. Although a gradual shift to mechanical power reduced the need for oxen, horse breeding remained important for transport, leisure and family prestige. It was also of great importance to the military. Antoniny bred several hundred horses a year and its best stock was sold to the Imperial studs as well as exported to Austro-Hungary, Germany and Great Britain.
The 1905 revolution which followed Russia’s disastrous war against Japan, paved the way for national political representation. Józef was elected to the first State Duma in 1906 where he led a group of Polish landowners. He had a talent for politics and was an excellent speaker. He had, after all, been frequenting the highest circles of power in Vienna in his youth and the road to a prominent position in St-Petersburg was facilitated by his growing income.
Until the outbreak of WWI, Józef and Helena spent their winters in St-Petersburg, keeping an active political salon. They rented Helena Kleinmichel’s elegant townhouse on Siergievskaya 33 and entertained the Russian aristocracy, members of the cabinet and foreign diplomats. The Tsar’s reformist Prime Minister, Piotr Stolypin, was Józef’s guest at the Kiev opera when he was fatally shot in 1911.
High-level political contacts were necessary to advance national and family interests. Józef Potocki had been financing a local Polish newspaper “Kraj” and after 1906 extended his support to “Słowo”, published in Congress Poland. He was also determined to obtain a rail concession to link his estates to the national network. Volhynia, bordering Austrian Galicia to the south and the Pripiet marshes to the north, remained isolated from Kiev and the industrial Donbass heartland which were connected to the Black Sea ports. Overcoming a recalcitrant local administration, Józef Potocki successfully lobbied the Tsar’s government for a licence to build what would become the South-Western Podolian railway.
Financed by a joint-stock company, extending over 600 km, it was completed in 1913. Connecting Zhlobin, Bielorussia to Kamienets Podolski, Podolia, the line intersected four tracks running East-West and provided a train station for each of the four sugar factories. Józef even sold shares he held in a South-African gold mine to increase his stake after the venture’s completion. His belief in the solidity of the Russian empire was unshakeable.
While socially active in St-Petersburg, Józef and Helena rarely entertained Russian guests at Antoniny, with exception of members of the Imperial family, such as Grand Duke Boris Romanov, whose presence greatly impressed stationed officers and the local bureaucracy. Józef remodelled the old country manor with the help of foreign architects. François Arveuf, who had moved from Warsaw to Paris in the 1890s, was hired to remodel some of the interiors and add a riding hall.
He also designed a main gate of wrought iron fences connected to elegant stone pillars. A decade later Józef commissioned Fellner & Helmer a Viennese studio known for the palaces, hotels and theatres it built across central Europe – to add a pre-Art Nouveau wing.
Helena expanded the botanical gardens. Modern amenities such as electricity and telephone were added. By 1910, Antoniny had become a western, self-sufficient enclave in the middle of Volhynia. It boasted a Polish school, a 20-bed hospital, a fire brigade, a rail connection and a fleet of automobiles. Unit managers were Polish or Czech specialists (in forestry especially) who settled with their families, while the local community worked the land or in the factories.
Upon moving to Antoniny in the early 1880s, Józef had imported Łańcut’s hunting traditions which in turn had been influenced by England and France half a century earlier. As a result, he was the first to introduce French style “chasse à courre” in the Russian Empire. The hunt was held over a brief but intense two-months period in September-October, accounting for the early winters, and was a sought-after invitation extended to friends and family, but also diplomats such as ambassadors George Buchanan, Maurice Paléologue, Friedrich de Pourtalès as well as the more quickly rotating American envoys. Another notable guest was Gustav Mannerheim, future Marshal of Finland, who had run the Imperial stables before commanding the Tsar’s cavalry regiment stationed in Warsaw.
Józef was a keen hunter and his passion drove him to warmer climes. Accompanied by his wife, he sailed to India (1890) and Ceylon (1891), recounting his adventures chasing elusive tigers in two albums, beautifully illustrated by Piotr Stachiewicz. In the winter of 1895-96 Józef travelled to the arid Haud and Ogaden regions of British Somaliland with Tomasz Zamoyski, Jan Grudziński and an escort of 30 Somali warriors and 50 camels. The expedition was a great success in great part thanks to the organisational skills and leadership of Alikhar. The Somali chief saved Józef from a surprise lion attack, repelling the wounded animal with his leather shield and spear. Grateful and admiring, Józef later invited Alikhar to visit Antoniny.
Their adventures where recounted in a beautiful album published in Warsaw and later in London (Rowland Ward, 1900). Richly illustrated with Stachiewicz’s sketches and photos taken by Józef, the book is a rare memento.
In late 1900, he set off for the Sennar province by the Blue Nile in south-eastern Sudan. He invited Jan Sztolcman, an ornithologist and experienced hunter, who published an account of the expedition. Badly shot in the leg during a bear hunt in Lithuania, Józef reoriented his passion to conservation. Inspired by the Duke of Bedford’s animal park at Woburn Abbey, he fenced off 6,000 ha of primeval forest on his estate to create Pilawin in 1907. Several species of bison, deer, elk and wapiti were gradually acclimatised. The endeavour was described by visiting specialists from the British Natural History Museum and the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris.
Having achieved enough in business and private life, Józef oriented his energy and capital to supporting the Warsaw Scientific Society which was resurrected as the private embryo of the city’s former University which had been closed by the Tsar in 1864. He acquired a large building on Śniadecki street 22 (which stands to this day) and donated it to the Society, which allowed Marie Skłodowska-Curie to open a radiology lab in Warsaw.
A year into WWI, Russia was forced to cede Warsaw and its province to Germany. The governor, Hans von Beseler, requisitioned Józef’s palace and occupied it until 1918. Meanwhile Józef became active in the Polish National Committee formed in St-Petersburg and supported the Relief Committee for the Support of Victims of the War in Poland created in Vevey by the pianist Ignacy Paderewski and the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Helena and Józef’s two sons, Roman (born 1893) and Józef jr. (born 1895), were called up in 1915 to join the cadet school in St-Petersburg, the latter from Oxford. The following year, the boys joined the Tsar’s Uhlans regiment that Mannerheim had once drilled back into shape. The Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917 forced Józef to leave his property. Luckily, Polish troops from the disbanded Tsarist army started concentrating in Antoniny which provided shelter and a large supply of horses. Thus the 2nd Uhlan Grochów regiment was formed and mounted with 600 Potocki steeds.
The Poles protected the estate from marauders until March 1918, when they set-off to join the 1st Polish Army Corps being assembled 500 km to the north. Protection was taken-up by the Austrian Army, which occupied the southern half of Ukraine, by virtue of the agreement signed with the Ukrainian National Republic.
Only when the German and Austrian occupying forces started retreating in early 1919, could the local Bolshevik bands finally plunder the object of their long-repressed desire, leaving nothing alive nor standing. The episode is described by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka in “Pożoga” (published in English in 1927: “The Blaze: Reminiscences of Volhynia 1917-1919”). Roman managed in the meantime to transport Antoniny’s library containing circa 20,000 volumes and a few objects to the palace in Warsaw. The latter alas completely burnt down during the uprising of August 1944.
Józef moved to Paris in early 1919, advising the Polish National Committee on eastern affairs, and witnessing the signature of the Peace Treaty in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. Prime Minister Paderewski offered Józef the post of ambassador to Great Britain, which he turned down as only Paris interested him. Piłsudski’s successful march on Kiev in April 1920 liberated Volhynia, temporarily lifting Józef’s hopes of recovering Antoniny. The Bolshevik counter-attack was so swift, that it reached the eastern suburbs of Warsaw in August. Józef, dejected, joined the volunteer defenders.
The Poles, with the help of the French military mission, beat back the aggressors and by September the Red Army was permanently defeated. Poland’s eastern border was finally set by the treaty of Riga in March 1921. Alas, the line was drawn to Potocki’s disadvantage, with a “meager” 3,500 ha and the Korzec refinery remaining on the Polish side. In the winter of 1921-22, Józef organised a last safari with his two sons, Roman and Józef jr. They hunted by the river Setit, which flows through the highlands bordering Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Abandoned by his wife, dispirited, Józef Potocki took his life the following summer at Xavier Branicki’s castle in Montrésor, where he is buried.
Requiescat in pace.
A small museum retracing Antoniny’s history was opened by the municipality in 2018, in collaboration with the Polish Consulate in Vinnytsia, volunteer curators from Łańcut and the Potocki family.
Skowronek (meaning skylark in Polish) was a gray Arab stallion foaled in 1908 at Antoniny. Józef had long been looking for a top reproductor for his stud and had repeatedly travelled to Egypt, buying several from Ali Pasha Sherif’s stud outside Cairo, but was not satisfied with the results. He eventually bought Ibrahim, a “desert bred” stallion from local Bedouins. It was delivered overland all the way to the Ukraine to avoid a dangerous sea journey. Ibrahim sired Skowronek with Jaskółka ( swallow in Polish), which was descended from the Arabians imported to Poland by the famous Emir Rzewuski (aka “Emir Tadj Al Fahr”) at the beginning of the 19th century.
Józef eventually sold Skowronek to Walter Winans in 1910, an American marksman and breeder who settled in Russia, and had visited the Potockis to shoot an old bison bull in Józef’s private animal park of Pilawin. The horse changed hands again until it was purchased by Lady Wentworth, who continued her parents’ tradition, founders of the Crabbet Arabian Stud.
Józef had befriended Wilfried and Lady Anne Blunt on one of his trips to Egypt, and Anne had visited Antoniny, but never purchased anything. It was thus an ironical twist of fate, that Skowronek would be acquired by their daughter in 1919. Skowronek became a foundation stallion for Crabbet and was most often crossed on mares which were daughters or granddaughters of the stallion Mesaoud, an earlier foundation stallion, which had also been bred in Egypt.
The combination of these two bloodlines was extremely successful, and Skowronek’s offspring was sold throughout England but also exported as far as Australia, South America, Egypt, the United States (W.K. Kellogg, CA), and even the famous Tersk stud in the Caucasus originally founded by Count Stroganov. It had been taken over in 1921 by no less than Semion Budyonny, the leader of the famous Bolshevik Red Cavalry, following his defeat against the Poles in the 1920 war.
Skowronek died in February 1930. Lady Wentworth donated its skull and hide to the British Museum in London. At least 90% of all Arabian horses alive today trace their pedigrees in one or more lines to Crabbet horses such as Mesaoud and Skowronek.
The Antoniny stud met a tragic end at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1919. Ibrahim was slaughtered in his stall. Some of the staff managed to save two stallions, Poseidon and Madras, (both after Ibrahim) and about twenty young Arabian and Anglo-Arabian fillies. They formed the basis of the Beheń stud owned by Józef Potocki’s sons, Roman and Józef jr., in the interwar period. Some of their horses survived WWII and passed on their precious bloodline to the now famous Polish state stud farms in Janów Podlaski and Michałów.
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