Nowadays, the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s is often considered to be the first step in the downfall of the Soviet empire. Solidarity was not only a trade union, but above all, an opposition movement against communist totalitarianism. The bipolar world had a great impact on the whole system of international relations as well as on the domestic life of the people, who lived in the socialist countries. Now we have an opportunity to compare different approaches to those times. The main aim of this paper is to provide some generalizations about the Soviet official and unofficial points of view, as well as the current Ukrainian perspectives, on the events of the 1980s in Poland.
According to the official Soviet picture of the world since 1945, the main result of World War II was not just the victory over fascism, but the formation of a new system of international relations between socialist countries. It was further proclaimed that the system was one based on the principles of democracy, freedom, and partnership. Consequently, relations among socialist countries aimed at strengthening the peace of the whole world and deepening the economic, cultural, and political assistance and cooperation with each other. From 1945 to 1989, the history of Soviet foreign policy within the communist camp was portrayed as a partnership with brother-nations.
The following stages of the development of the relations within the socialist camp since 1945 can be marked out as such: (1) victory of the people’s democracy in liberated countries and the foundation of socialist states in Eastern Europe; (2) the conversion of socialism into the world system; and (3) the emergence of a new type of international relations. The recovery of the economy and the formation of the infrastructure after the war closely tied socialist countries of Eastern Europe to the USSR. As a result, the Soviet planned economy became the basis not only for domestic development within the USSR, but for the mutual cooperation with the brother-nations as well. A number of international organizations were established and different agreements were signed in this sphere. The decades of the Soviet bloc’s existence were described by the Soviet Union as the years of progressive achievements. The attempts of East European countries to get rid of their Soviet “friendship” were interpreted as “revanchist revolts” and “plots” by imperialist forces. The attitudes towards the events in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Poland in the 1980s were great examples of such an approach.
According to Soviet statistics from the 1980s, the country-members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) had achieved many positive results in their economic development. This argument was widely spread throughout the socialist camp as an illustration of the progressive character of the socialist way of life.
Crisis in Poland: The Official Soviet Approach
Given the historic background, the Polish crisis at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s seemed to be an extraordinary situation. In the summer of 1980, many strikes had taken place in Polish industrial enterprises. In some places, they even transformed into incidents of civil disorder and disturbance. Walkouts increased and spread all over the state, and even the possible “strike terror” unfolded in Poland. The authorities had to use force to stop it all. During these walkouts a number of strike committees were organized and formed by representatives of “illegal counterrevolutionary organizations,” such as the Committee of Civil Solidarity and the Confederation of Independent Poland, encouraging Polish workers to demand the formation of “free” trade-unions, while the already existing trade and professional unions were paralyzed. The trade union Solidarity, according to communist officials, was formed by anti-socialist circles, whose aim it was to deepen the crisis in Poland and to undermine the basis of socialism in the country. This anti-socialist activity, they further avowed, was fully supported by the Catholic Church.
The crisis which emerged in the country, overtook the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP). The Soviets saw this as the “weakening of the leadership of the Party” and “the violation of its ties with the masses.” On December 13, 1981, in the face of a looming threat of a counter-revolutionary coup, Poland’s highest authorities imposed martial law in the country in accordance with the stipulations provided by the state’s constitution. The events of 1980-1981 were considered dangerous and dramatic because the country was attacked by a sequence of “destructive waves of chaos and anarchy.”
For more than two years during the period of martial law, Poland faced a desperate, persistent, and daily struggle with the anti-socialist underground before gradually overcoming the state crisis of the economy and public life and entering onto a path of political and economic stabilization. On July 22, 1983, with National Revival Day, martial law was completely abolished. Thus, an additional impetus was given to the process of normalization in the further development of the institutions of socialist democracy. During these hard times for socialism in Poland, the Soviet government and the Soviet people, according to the official Soviet view, supported the Poles in their struggle for defending the socialist way of life.
The Soviet Interpretation of the Polish Events and their Impact on the Soviet Union
According to the official Soviet point of view, the difficulties in Poland were caused by two main groups of reasons: subversive activities of imperialism and mistakes in domestic policy. The Polish events had a strong influence on the entire socialist community, but for the Soviet Union, the leader of the communist world, they were considered “a violation of the laws of socialist construction” and a “distortion of the principles of socialist democracy.”
At the time of the crisis, the situation in Poland was under the total control of Moscow. The Polish question was the main point of discussion at a number of meetings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee’s Politburo. Most of the documents connected with the Polish events have now been declassified and opened for researchers, but a number of questions have been raised about their validity. This paper will not attempt to prove whether the documents we have are either true or false. Rather, we can only try to pay attention to the most important moments in order to follow the path of how events developed during the crisis.
As the crisis in Poland deepened in 1980, Soviet attention to that part of the socialist camp became more active. On August 25, 1980, a special commission was formed at the meeting of the Politburo to investigate the situation in Poland. It was headed by the senior Communist Party ideologist, Mikhail Suslov, and included KGB chairman Yurii Andropov, Minister of International Affairs Andrei Gromyko, and Defense Minister Dmitrii Ustinov. This commission was authorized to monitor events in Poland, keep Politburo members informed, and take possible action from the Soviet side. The first recommendations of the commission were made in, “About the theses for discussion with representatives of the Polish leaders.” In that document, the agreement made previously with the united strike committees in Gdansk was evaluated as a defeat and as a legalization of the anti-socialist opposition.
The commission advised the following: purge the ranks of the ruling PUWP; proclaim a new positive party program, which would weaken the demands of the strike committees in the eyes of the workers; implement a radical renewal of trade union activity and staff membership; take necessary measures to expose the plans of the opposition; pay special attention to the army; and strengthen censorship. For the mass media, it recommended: show that the events in Poland had not been caused by shortcomings of the socialist system, but by the mistakes and miscalculations of the Polish government as well as by such objective reasons like disasters; oppose the anti-Polish and anti-socialistic attacks of hostile propaganda; and cover objectively the economic benefits of broader cooperation with the USSR and other brother nations.
The Polish ruling party and opposition trade-union were not the only ones under Soviet watch. At the Politburo meeting on October 4, 1980, the Polish media were criticized for their publication of “discussions and doubtful materials, which did not lead to the stabilization of the situation.” Another criticism was its incomplete coverage of the efforts made by the USSR and other socialist countries in rendering assistance to overcome the difficulties in Poland.
Brezhnev characterized the situation in Poland as “the full revelry of the counter-revolution.” However, he did not seem to insist on armed intervention at the moment. An invasion was thus postponed indefinitely to allow the Polish leadership time to suppress the opposition on its own. Possible Soviet intervention and a proclamation of martial law were discussed at several meetings of the Politburo. Among the points which were discussed, was the fact that the “Polish comrades said that they had a situation, which couldn’t be evaluated as the same one in Hungary and Czechoslovakia,” referring to the previous events of 1956 and 1968.
The most decisive Politburo meeting relating to the Polish issue occurred on December 10, 1981, when it was decided that the Soviet Union would not intervene in Poland. After the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and international reaction to it, everybody who took part in this meeting agreed that the situation in Poland must be treated as an internal Polish affair. For example, Andropov said: “We can’t risk such a step. We do not intend to send troops into Poland. That is the principle position, and we must keep to it until the end. I don’t know how things will go on in Poland, but even if Poland falls under the control of Solidarity, that’s the way it will be. And if the capitalist countries pounce on the Soviet Union, and you know they have already reached an agreement on a variety of economic and political sanctions, which will be very burdensome for us. We must be concerned above all with our own country and with the strengthening of the Soviet Union. That is our main line.”
After martial law was proclaimed in Poland, the Politburo of the CPSU’s Central Committee sent telegrams to the Soviet ambassadors in Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Mongolia, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos with instructions to meet the leaders of those countries and to inform them about the Soviet position, which assumed that “Polish friends should deal with their problems, using their inner measures” and that socialist countries with the Soviet Union would offer “political and moral support” as well as “additional economic help.”
Not only within the socialist camp was the Polish question an issue for Soviet diplomatic activity. Negotiations and meetings were held with brother nations as well as with representatives of leftist parties in capitalist states. For example, though Solidarity was a legal organization before martial law was introduced, its leaders’ visits abroad were under strong control of the CPSU. As a matter of fact, the Soviet ambassador in Italy was fully instructed what to do when Lech Wałęsa visited Rome on December 14-18, 1980. He was told “to neutralize Wałęsa’s attempts to use his presence in Italy with the anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-Soviet goals” and “to pass this attitude to the leaders of the Italian Communist party.”
In general, the Polish economic and political crisis was used as a negative experience to show how it was important to strengthen the unity of the brother parties, to give a decisive rebuff to the anti-socialist forces, and to overcome imperialistic attacks. Such an attitude was emphasized in a number of newspaper articles, scientific studies, and books. The Polish crisis influenced not only the political life of the Soviet Union, but different sides of state life and domestic affairs as well. We can give here a few examples. The editorial bodies of the Soviet newspapers Pravda, Novosti, Trud, Komsomolskaya Pravda, as well as the USSR State Committee on TV and radio, the Novosti news agency, and others were instructed on how to inform the Soviet people about events in Poland. They had to emphasize the role of the working class, the Marxist-Leninist party, and the trade-unions in the socialist building process. They were also instructed to elucidate Poland’s participation in the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. And finally, they were to expose the enemy’s propaganda intrigues by using materials from Polish periodicals. The Soviet trade-union organizations, the Young Communist League (Komsomol), the State Committee on publications, the Union of journalists, and other organizations were requested to prepare ideas on how to assist their “Polish friends in counter-propaganda.”
At the end of November 1980, it was decided to cut back tourist exchanges between Poland and the USSR. Most of the reductions were connected with long-term visits of Soviet tourists to Poland and was caused by the political situation in that country. In the first part of 1981, the plan was to cut Soviet tourism to Poland and Polish tourism to the USSR to 44 %. The Main Office of Foreign Tourism within the Council of Ministers of the USSR proposed the following: “For the purpose of strengthening of ideological influence on the citizens of People’s Republic of Poland in terms of international tourism, let’s leave only those types of trips in the structure of tourism that are the most effective in the political sense like “trains of friendship,” “planes of friendship,” trips of the activists of the Polish-Soviet friendship Society, veterans of the PUWP and World War II, trips to the sister-cities.” In addition to these measures, visits by Soviet citizens to Poland were cancelled and then forbidden, even if they had relatives in Poland.
Special additional steps were made to control the Polish press which circulated in the USSR. The great majority of Polish journals and newspapers were divided into two lists. The editions from the first list were forbidden for sale and had to be kept only in the organizations and institutions which had “special conditions of preservation of such editions.” The periodicals from the second list were permitted for sale only if they “didn’t have undesirable materials.” It was decided to create four additional special staff-positions – two editors and two inspectors – for censoring the content of the Polish press and checking printed materials and parcels.
We can find a lot of other examples which show that events in Poland had a direct and indirect impact on Soviet life. For instance, on the initiative of the USA, some economic sanctions against the USSR were enforced. Flights to the US by the Soviet airline “Aeroflot” were cancelled and access by Soviet ships to American seaports were limited. Furthermore, the Soviet trade agency in New York was closed and the export of high technologies to the USSR was blocked. American companies were also prohibited from selling oil and gas equipment to the USSR. Finally, a number of visas for Soviet citizens and official Soviet delegations for trips to the USA were denied.
Also, an infinite number of articles and books published in the USSR, stated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, the “Prague Spring” of 1968, and the mass movement in Poland in 1980-1981 were the result of the machinations of American imperialism in general, and the CIA in particular. The Soviet press gave a wide, but completely censored, coverage of the situation in Poland and of the reaction of the world community to events in Poland. In the Soviet media there were two main types of information about the Polish situation. The first group included “official” publications of the Polish government and party leaders that were reprinted from the Polish press, as well as the official Soviet notes about the situation in Poland. The second group comprised “news” in the form of different articles about Poland, the socialist community’s response to the situation in the brother nations, information about Soviet assistance to the Polish people, and attitudes of the Soviet people regarding the Polish events. The total character of such publications shows us three main features: the official Soviet approach to the Solidarity movement and the whole situation in Poland, the atmosphere of the 1980s in the Soviet Union, and the main tools of the Soviet domestic propaganda machine.
The Ukrainian mass-media of the time discussed the Polish events in the same way as the central Soviet press did. All news had an official ideological character and consisted of hackneyed phrases like “anti-socialist elements,” “extremists,” “undermining forces,” “revanchists,” “enemies” etc. For the most part, the information was repeated and copied from the central Soviet press, and sometimes it was simply translated into the Ukrainian language. The key feature was to place emphasis on the Polish and Soviet authorities’ opinion of the Solidarity movement, but not to provide real information about the actual events.
According to the Soviet press, the Soviet people fully supported the necessity of martial law and understood that imperialistic attacks on socialist Poland were one of the main reasons for the Polish crisis. For example, President Ronald Reagan’s proposal to devote January 30, 1982, as “The Day of Solidarity with the Polish people” was widely discussed in the Soviet press, at protest meetings, and in the declarations of different working collectives, but was regarded as an imperialistic, anti-soviet, anti-Polish, and anti-socialistic action.
In Soviet Ukraine, as well as in other Soviet republics, an unofficial view of Solidarity existed at that time. It was an approach opposite from the official stance, and one which was widely spread among the representatives of the dissident movement. For this group of Soviet people, the Polish experience was an example of the effective struggle for freedom against communist power. The Solidarity movement was a good illustration for Soviet dissidents because it inspired the traditional opposition movement to move away from its cultural and literary methods toward a more popular and active trend – creating independent trade-unions (although, the first attempt in the USSR was even earlier than in Poland, in 1978). Some new radical opposition groups in the Soviet Union (mostly Russian) interpreted the Polish experience as proof of the possibility of mass revolution that could overthrow the communist regime.
It is difficult to draw a complete picture of unofficial attitudes towards Solidarity and the events in Poland during the 1980s because at the time it was illegal to express dissenting views. Also, many materials from the period were later eliminated by the KGB. The facts which can help us reconstruct the opposition’s approach to the events of the 1980s in Poland are available due to the remaining records of dissidents’ activities such as their samizdat publications, memoirs, letters, notes and diaries. In fact, the Polish events of the early 1980s were one of the vital topics in several well-known Samizdat collections. We can observe numerous instances of the above in remaining Samizdat issues of Herald of Repressions in Ukraine, Contemporary, Chronicle of Current Events, Continent, and Memory, among others.
Ukrainian opposition existed within the movement of the Shestydesyatnyky (the Sixties activists), Ukrainian Samizdat, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), and others. From a political point of view, UHG was the most active. Nevertheless, in 1981, this group was completely paralyzed by arrests. Almost all its members (39 of 41) were imprisoned. Among the charges brought before the representatives of the Ukrainian opposition in a preliminary investigation during 1980-1981, were many that were connected to their activity during the Polish events. It was charged that they had “glorified the Polish Solidarity,” “supported Solidarity,” and “defended Solidarity.” Furthermore, those charged had tried to “organize an independent trade-union,” “kept anti-Soviet literature about the Polish trade-union with slanderous content,” and “kept/reproduced/spread/copied ‘The Message from the delegates of the First Congress “Solidarity” to the workers of Eastern Europe.’”
Soviet Russian and Ukrainian samizdat collections described many situations concerning arrested dissidents who had been accused of sympathy towards the Polish opposition movement. For example, one of the leaders of the national liberation movement of the 1960s–90s, Mykhailo Horyn’, was arrested on December 3, 1981. On June 25, 1982, he was sentenced by the Lviv Regional Court under Article 62 § 2 and Article 179 (“refusal to give an evidence”) of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to ten years of special regime camps and five years exile. He was declared a “particularly dangerous repeat offender.” One of the points in the accusation made against him was the following: “he approvingly spoke of and justified the hostile activity of Solidarity in Poland, naming these events as a powerful motion and a large force.” In January 1981, a few dissidents in Kiev were arrested for spreading opposition leaflets, among them was Larysa Lohvytska, who in June 1981 was given a sentence of three years in the general camps for “the support of Solidarity” and other actions. Joseph Zisels was sentenced to three years of strict regime camps for his “slanderous remarks” and for “praising the Polish Solidarity.” As dissidents recollected later, the KGB was monitoring the links between the Ukrainian opposition, Solidarity and other opposition movements. For Ukrainian rebels, it was more difficult than for Russian dissidents to contact other opposition groups and to send their texts, open letters, messages, and notes for publishing abroad because there were hardly any foreign offices of Western mass media in Ukraine. However, there were a number of supporting publications for the Polish opposition movement and Solidarity leaders (For example: Joseph Terelya’s “To Lech Wałęsa. A letter from a believer,” April 1984; and Sergyi Kindzeryavyy-Pastuhiv’s “Polish miracle,” March 1981).
The point of view on the events in Poland, or any hint of it, opposite to the official one was a reason for controlling the scientific, literary, and cultural spheres of life of Ukrainians, as well as all Soviet people from the other republics of the USSR. For example, the book of the Ukrainian linguist Ivan Denisyuk, The Development of Small Ukrainian Literature in XIX – early XX centuries (1981) was criticized for his “promotion of the Polish Solidarity” because he quoted a Polish author who died in 1912. The work was also cut down in some chapters. Only in 1999 was a complete edition of this book permitted. These are only a few examples of how the Soviet machine of repression used the Solidarity movement and events in Poland as an additional reason for its persecution of the opposition.
We can find a few peculiarities among different groups of dissidents in the USSR. For example, for the dissidents from Russia, Poland of the 1980s was an example of the struggle for human rights against totalitarian power, though for the dissidents from the national republics (like Ukraine or the Baltic states) it was not only the model of the fight for freedom and democracy but for national liberation as well. A famous Ukrainian dissident, Vasyl Stus, wrote in his “Camp notes” (1982) that there was no other nation in the totalitarian world as the Polish people who were so faithfully defending their human and national rights. As he said, “Poland gives an example for Ukraine. It’s a pity that Ukraine is not ready to take lessons from the Polish teacher.” Stus was trying to evaluate the Polish Solidarity movement by comparing it with the Ukrainian opposition groups. In his opinion, the main strength of the Polish trade-union was the fact that it was based on the interests of all groups of the Polish population. As he said, the“Helsinki movement [an opposition group in Ukraine] is a Higher Math for this country, probably as well as the national-liberation movement. Though the movement for the accommodation and piece of bread, movement for the good wages is understandable and clear for everybody.”
Current Approaches to the Polish Solidarity Movement in Ukraine
After the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, attitudes towards the events of the communist epoch have changed. Now we have a lot of information about the world’s solidarity with Solidarity. The Polish trade union had great support all over Europe and the world. It was not only of interest to foreign journalists, trade unions, and European communist parties but it also garnered a great number of forms of support from many others, including strikes of solidarity with Polish workers in many countries around the world as well as technical assistance (in publishing and information activity).
Now we have an opportunity not only to learn more about the democratic movements and their role in the fall of communism. For those behind what was once the Iron Curtain, we have a chance to reread and rewrite our own history. By studying Ukrainian history from the Soviet period, we can compare it with the history of other countries that were inside the socialist system. Today, some of the most popular issues examined and analyzed are the opposition movements and organizations. For example, the Ukrainian dissident Bogdan Goryn has compared events in Poland from the 1980s with the Ukrainian situation at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. He sees that the main difference as one located in the “state status” of Ukraine and Poland. While Poland was formally an independent state with its own national military force, Ukraine was in a different situation. It was a de facto semi-colony, a country under occupation. In Goryn’s opinion, this difference has played a negative role for the further democratic development of Ukraine.
Finally, to generalize about former dissidents’ opinions about the events in Poland and Solidarity, we find mostly positive reactions. Many of the reactions run along the following lines: “it was a magic influence of the Solidarity,” “it gave us a Hope,” and “I had a belief that Solidarity would weaken the main links that connected the countries of the socialist camp.” When the Solidarity movement was founded, no one believed that communism would fall in Eastern Europe. In other words, no one believed that the Soviet Union and the government of Poland would give up in front of the people’s peaceful movement that was against the violence. Given that, the Solidarity movement and the events in Poland during the 1980s will be a subject of deep scientific research for many years to come. Nowadays, we have access to different points of view, positions, and information from multiple sides and it is possible to consider Solidarity as one of the steps towards bringing an end to communism in Eastern Europe.
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Also available are “Enemy Images, Evidence, and Cognitive Dissonance: The Cold War As Recalled by Michiganders”; “The American Perspective of the Cold War: The Southern Approach (North Carolina)”; “Soviet Perspective on the Cold War and American Foreign Policy“; “The Polish Perspective of American Foreign Policy: Selected Moments from The Cold War Era“; “The Netherlands During the Cold War: An Ambivalent Friendship and a Firm Enmity”; “The Special Relationship: United States-Russia“; The U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment’s Perception of Poland (1980-1981)“; “After the Cold War: U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (1991-2000)“; and “The Paradox of Solidarity from a Thirty Years Perspective.”
This article was originally published with the same title in The Solidarity Movement and Perspectives on the Last Decade of the Cold War, Lee Trepanier, Spasimir Domaradzki, and Jaclyn Stanke, ed. (Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Krakow University Press, 2010).