ill molin

Part of illustration by Ragni Svensson

Peer-reviewed articles THE ADMONITORY AUTHORITIES AND THE FOOLISH SUBALTERNS The CPSU Politburo and the Polish Crisis 1980—1981

The new organization “NSZZ Solidarity” had to be registered by a court in order to act. This registration process was the subject of lively debate at the CPSU Politburo meeting on October 29. The minutes of this Politburo meeting are included in one of the most extraordinary collections of documents from the Soviet era that have yet been made public by the Russian State Archives. It covers the period between the outbreak of strikes in 1980 and the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981, a period known as the “Polish Crisis”. As a whole, the material shows that it was a rather clear message that the Soviet leadership conveyed to their Polish Party comrades.

Published on on juni 30, 2011

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The Polish leadership verbally bowed to Soviet pressure, but was passively obstructive.


“We cannot lose Poland.” Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Union Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1957, was utterly resolute when he took the floor at a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) Politburo on October 29, 1980. “In the battle with the Hitlerites, while liberating Poland”, he continued, “the Soviet Union sacrificed 600,000 of its soldiers and officers, and we cannot permit a counterrevolution.”1

This was not the first time Gromyko and his colleagues in the Politburo had experienced convulsions in the Eastern European countries that had been forced into the Soviet empire in the years following World War II. As far back as 1953, after the death of Stalin, a half million East German workers had participated in strikes and demonstrations. In 1956, Hungarian reform communists had taken power and declared their withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and in 1968, Czechoslovakian Communists under the leadership of Alexander Dubček had once again tried to revitalize and put a human face on communism. In all cases, the situation had been “normalized” after Soviet military intervention.

The People’s Republic of Poland had also had its share of protests and unrest. Demonstrations in Poznań in June 1956 had led to bloody conflicts in which seventy-four people lost their lives and hundreds were injured. Price hikes on food triggered nationwide unrest in 1970. The Communist Party headquarters and the railway station were set ablaze in Gdańsk. Party leader Gomułka ordered the police to open fire on the demonstrators and several hundred were killed. Peace was restored, but Gomułka was swiftly replaced by Edward Gierek, who, it was believed, propounded a Polish path to socialism. In June 1976, Gierek also tried to implement drastic price hikes and the result was once again demonstrations and riots. The price hikes were rolled back, but that did not stop the demonstrators from being assaulted by the militia or given long prison sentences.

What had now happened was that a renewed attempt to raise food prices had once again led to nationwide strikes and demonstrations. The Interfactory Strike Committee (MKS) was formed behind the spearhead of Lech Wałęsa, an electrician from Gdańsk. MKS drafted a list of 21 demands to the authorities, the right to free trade unions first among them. The government engaged in talks with MKS and the parties signed an agreement on August 31.

Under the Gdańsk Agreement, the demand for free and independent trade unions would be acceded to. Workers’ right to strike would be acknowledged. Political prisoners would be released. The public would be fully informed about political and social issues and given the opportunity to influence economic policy.2 The agreement noted that the central principle under Soviet ideology of the Party’s leading role still applied, but in practice the very existence of an independent trade union was a challenge to the Party. From the Soviet point of view, the agreement was gross blasphemy.3

Representatives of more than three million workers gathered in Gdańsk on September 17 for a first national congress.4 They resolved to create a national organization under the name “NSZZ Solidarity”, but the new organization had to be registered by a court in order to act. The registration process was the subject of lively debate at the CPSU Politburo meeting on October 29. The next day, the Polish head of state, Józef Pińkowski, and the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, Stanisław Kania, were to arrive in Moscow for consultations.

The minutes of this Politburo meeting are included in one of the most extraordinary collections of documents from the Soviet era that have yet been made public by the Russian State Archives. It covers the period between the outbreak of strikes in 1980 and the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981, a period known as the “Polish Crisis”.5 As a whole, the material shows that it was the following rather clear message that the Soviet leadership conveyed to their Polish Party comrades: We (that is, the leadership in Moscow) are highly disturbed by the events in Poland and it is our firm conviction that a counterrevolution is happening in the country. We believe the Polish leadership should take all necessary measures to restore order. We also believe the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact have the right and the duty, as a last resort, to protect socialist gains in Poland using military force.


The Politburo minutes demonstrate the fundamental inequality that existed between Moscow and Warsaw. When the Politburo discussed the upcoming meeting with the Polish leadership, it was made abundantly clear that this was not a meeting between two independent and equal states. Gromyko’s quoted statement implied that the Soviet Union, by virtue of its efforts during the war, had the right to regard Poland as part of its empire.6 But it was also obvious that the Politburo believed it possessed a higher degree of political and ideological wisdom than its Polish comrades. In reference to Kania and Pińkowski’s visit, Comrade Rusakov indicated how the division of roles at the meeting would play out: “Let them listen closely to Leonid Il’ich [Brezhnev] and take notes”, he said.7 After the meeting, Brezhnev related that Kania had indeed taken “meticulous notes” and that he would now inform the Politburo of what he had heard.8

With great confidence, the Soviet leadership played the role of experienced and benevolent teacher. They saw the Poles as the foolish and recalcitrant pupils. Advice and instructions from Moscow, which had thus to be carefully noted, rained down constantly on the Poles during the entire period from August 1980 to December 1981.

This was a period that was long distinguished by the government’s concessions in face of the new independent trade union Solidarity, which was soon able to boast ten million members, and the winds of reform that followed in its wake. The principle regarding the Party’s leading role was tottering. Following bitter negotiations, the Polish Supreme Court agreed on November 10 to register — and thus legitimize — Solidarity, even though this principle was not expressly written into the trade union’s bylaws. New concessions followed in the spring and summer of 1981: in March, facing the threat of a general strike, the government admitted that it had abused Solidarity activists in the Bydgoszcz City Hall; on May 12, the Supreme Court registered Rural Solidarity as an independent trade union for Polish farmers; in mid-July, the Polish Communist Party (PUWP) held a congress that was preceded by free election of delegates and which appointed a largely new Politburo; in September, Solidarity gathered for a congress and adopted a call to support independent trade unions throughout the Eastern Bloc. Throughout the period, free debate on current issues was conducted in the Polish mass media. It was a period described in historiography as a carnival, as an era of euphoria when the oppressed dared speak the truth to their oppressors.9

Soviet views on the events in the People’s Republic of Poland were communicated in various ways. The sharpest and from the Polish standpoint most worrying form of contact was the written correspondence. In early June, after the Polish Party Congress, the CPSU Politburo sent a strongly admonitory letter to the central committee of the Polish Party.10 On other occasions, Brezhnev sent telegrams to Polish leaders or ordered Ambassador Aristov in Warsaw to read aloud to them detailed written communications.11 The communications were supported by the ambassador in personal conversations with Kania and later with Wojciech Ja- ruzelski, who succeeded Pińkowski as head of state in February 1981.

However, most contact took place as direct conversations between the leaders of the two countries.12 Some of these talks took place at meetings arranged by the Commission under the leadership of Mikhail Suslov, who was tasked by the Soviet Politburo with monitoring developments in Poland. On a couple of occasions, members of the Commission held personal talks with the Polish leadership. The most dramatic of these meetings took place in early April 1981 at the Brest border station.13

But the one who engaged in talks with the Poles the most was Leonid Brezhnev himself. Two talks took place during the Soviet leader’s traditional summer sojourn in the Crimea, where the Polish and other Eastern state leaders went every summer to visit and hold talks.14 Most often, however, Brezhnev talked to the Poles by phone.15 These telephone calls were mentioned and remarked upon countless times in the minutes. At a Politburo meeting in March 1981, Rusakov praised Comrade Brezhnev’s telephone diplomacy. Rusakov related that Brezhnev talked to Kania by phone almost every week and gave him advice. He tactfully brought up the central issues and gave him instructions on how he should act.16 Brezhnev himself described the conversations as a difficult balancing act. He had to avoid making Poles so nervous that they threw up their hands in despair while tactfully drawing their attention to the errors and weaknesses in their policy and offering comradely advice.17


The Soviet Politburo’s message to the Polish comrades was thus that they should mount a decisive strike against the counterrevolution using both political and administrative means. “Political means” referred to things like presenting clear political programs of action to solve the political and economic crisis and launching propaganda campaigns. The advice on the program of action found in the Politburo material is, however, vague. In general terms, the Politburo spoke of a detailed, positive program and of a program everyone would be able to understand.18 The advice about propaganda was somewhat clearer. The main thrust here was to show that the events in Poland were not caused by shortcomings of the socialist system, but by individual mistakes and oversights and certain objective factors, such as natural disasters. Obviously, it was also important to show clearly how the acts of the counterrevolutionaries — Solidarity — were exacerbating the already dire problems of the Polish economy.19

Another key objective of propaganda was to remind people of all the advantages Poland derived from cooperation with its socialist fraternal countries and particularly the USSR. The slander that the shortages of food and other consumer goods were due to massive exports to the USSR must be sharply refuted. The Poles should be enlightened that their country was dependent on Soviet aid and support. Likewise, the misrepresentation of Soviet-Polish relations should be rebuffed.20 A third goal of the propaganda should be to stop the wave of Polish nationalism. Patriotic slogans such as “All Poles in the world are brothers” must be dealt with, as well as efforts to idealize the prerevolutionary past of Poland.21

But political means were not enough. The Politburo constantly reminded the Poles that they must also use administrative measures. The simple idea behind the advice was that an authoritarian regime cannot survive without authoritarian methods. “Administrative measures” was a euphemism for various repressive interventions such as control of the media and imprisonment of dissenting elements. The latter measure was also referred to as a strengthening of the “socialist legal order”.22 But the most important administrative measures had to do with something else — the declaration of a state of emergency or, in other words, the  imposition of martial law.23 This would stop the counterrevolutionary forces; strikes and anarchy in the economy would cease, production would be resumed, the economic crisis would be turned around, and the position of the Party would be reestablished. In short: Polish socialism would be saved.24

The demand for a state of emergency had already been made before Kania and Pińkowski’s visit to Moscow. The only reservation then heard was that it not be imposed too soon after the trip to Moscow, which would make the driving role of the Politburo apparent.25 On December 5, Party leader Stanisław Kania declared in Moscow, in front of the leaders of all Warsaw Pact nations, that preparations were being made for introducing martial law in Poland. They were studying how mass media and communications should be or-
ganized and creating special forces made up of particularly trustworthy Party members, which, if necessary, could be armed. The initiative gained the guarded approval of Brezhnev.26

The imposition of martial law was the Soviet leadership’s key demand and it was to be repeated countless times in the following months.


The Soviet leadership’s deep concern about events in Poland was linked to the understanding that Moscow-faithful communism enjoyed little support, if not total repudiation, among the masses not only in Poland, but in all Eastern European states. For this reason, radical reforms could easily have repercussions throughout the Soviet empire. This was, of course, something the Russians thought the Poles should understand and take into account.27 They became that much more outraged when the Poles took their duties so lightly.

The problem was that the Poles were refusing to play the role of obedient subaltern that the Russians had assigned them. They talked about political solutions and stressed that bloodshed must be avoided. In the reports to the CPSU Politburo, irritation and disappointment over the Poles’ reluctance to take the “necessary measures” grew. As early as January 1981, Gromyko complained that the Poles, despite the recommendations that had been given them, did not want to adopt emergency measures. They had essentially abandoned the idea altogether, he complained.28 In early March 1981, Rusakov stated in the Politburo that the massive “advice” given in the autumn had not been enough to activate the Polish leaders. They had yet to grasp “the need to implement a number of cardinal measures for bringing order to the country”.29 On April  2, it was
Brezhnev’s turn to give vent to his frustration. “Worst of all is the fact that our friends listen to and agree with our recommendations but do practically nothing at all. And the counterrevolution is advancing on all fronts.”30

It now became ever clearer that a brutal war of nerves was playing out behind the “comradely” exchange of views. The Polish leaders were subjected to heavy pressure, which left its marks. On April 2, Gromyko reported that Jaruzelski was “completely crestfallen” and did not know what to do. Andropov added his bit: Jaruzelski had “gone limp” and Kania had recently “begun to drink more and more”. “[A] very sad phenomenon”, said Andropov.31 Therefore, it looks like more than just a coincidence that, a few days later, the two hard-pressed Poles were taken under ominous circumstances to a secret meeting with envoys of the Soviet Politburo. They were not told in advance where the meeting would be held. In Warsaw, they were made to board a Soviet flight that, after diversionary movements, landed at an isolated airfield. From there, the journey continued in covered KGB vehicles. They finally reached the Polish-Soviet border station at Brest. A blacked-out railway carriage was parked on a siding with Politburo members Andropov and Ustinov waiting inside. The meeting began at nine in the evening and ended six hours later, at three o’clock in the morning of April 5. As reported to the Politburo, the Poles — hardly surprisingly — had seemed visibly nervous and disheartened.

The main purpose of the meeting in Brest was to induce the Poles to adopt more stringent methods. Andropov and Ustinov had brought a document with them to the railway carriage concerning the declaration of a state of emergency in Poland, which they wanted Kania and Jaruszelski to sign. In doing so, they would demonstrate that they agreed with the Politburo’s assessments and knew what should be done when martial law was imposed. But the Poles refused on the grounds that the document must first be approved by the Sejm. Finally, they said they would look over the document and sign it later.32

In late April 1981, Suslov and Andropov were in Warsaw for talks with Party comrades. In his report to the Politburo, Suslov emphasized that they had criticized the Polish leaders for their indecisiveness and efforts to gloss over the situation. Brezhnev remarked once again that there could be little trust in them. “Even though they listen to us, they don’t do what we recommend”, he said.33 A couple of weeks later when Erich Honecker, Party leader in the GDR and Gustáv Husák, Party leader in Czechoslovakia, were visiting the Crimea, Brezhnev vented his disappointment again. He complained that Kania and Jaruzelski had not followed the advice of the fraternal parties, but had on the contrary encouraged the degeneration of the Party and the state apparatus. Husák agreed and said that Kania could not be trusted. Andropov summed up his own and his colleagues’ opinions of the Poles: “They speak, promise, but do nothing.”34

As trust in Kania degenerated, so did the tone of Brezhnev’s telephone diplomacy. The tact Rusakov had praised faded into the past. On April 2, 1981, Brezhnev recounted for the Politburo a telephone call that had taken place a couple of days before. Kania had complained about being subjected to strong criticism at a meeting of the Polish Party’s CC. Brezhnev related:

I immediately said to him, “They acted correctly. They should not just have criticized you but taken a cudgel to you. Then perhaps you would understand.” These were literally my words.35

At a meeting of the Politburo on June 18, 1981, Brezhnev announced that he had been reluctant to speak with Kania for a long time. But the Polish Party leader had tried to reach him every day from Friday through Monday, and on Tuesday, Brezhnev finally let him through. Judging by his report of the conversation, he was angry and impatient.36

In continued frustration over the Poles’ disobedience, Brezhnev declared again to the Politburo on September 10, 1981, that he had no great desire to speak to Kania, since nothing would come of it. Chernenko agreed. Sound instructions were issued, he said, “[b]ut to what use? Comrades Kania and Jaruzelski are doing things their own way”.37


But if the Polish comrades were so impossible, could not the powerful leadership in Moscow see to their replacement? The Politburo was not averse to the idea. Jaruzelski was the first to be suggested for replacement. At a meeting on May 16, 1981, Erich Honecker suggested that the Polish head of state should be replaced with a more effective leader. The problem was finding a suitable successor. Brezhnev, who presided over the meeting, was pessimistic on that point.38

Jaruzelski was not replaced and sights were instead set on at Kania. Mistrust in him had, as shown, grown during the spring of 1981. Minutes of a meeting on September 17 show that Brezhnev and his Party colleagues Husák, Kadar, Zhivkov, and Honecker were agreed that Kania had displayed “unacceptable liberalism”. The same minutes show that Honecker had spoken with the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, Pyotr Abrasimov, about the Kania case. Honecker had his solution ready: “to gather in Moscow with the leaders of the fraternal parties, to invite Comrade Kania and tell him to submit his resignation, and in his place as first secretary of the PUWP CC to recommend Comrade [Stefan] Olszowski”. But Brezhnev was doubtful about the proposal. Other Party leaders and various Soviet organizations should be consulted first.39

Despite Brezhnev’s hesitation, Honecker got his way. Kania was forced to resign at the plenary meeting of the Polish Central Committee of October 16—18. But his successor was not Olszowski, but General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who could now add first secretary of the PUWP to the list of his previous posts as minister of defense and prime minister.

On October 19, the day after the transfer of power, Jaruzelski had Brezhnev on the line. After due congratulations, the advice continued. The message was unchanged: take action to stop the counterrevolution. “And, of course, it is important, without wasting time, to take the decisive measures you intend to use”,
Brezhnev exhorted. But first of all, Jaruzelski should gather around himself reliable assistants from the ranks of committed and worthy Communists who could spur the Party into action and imbue it with the spirit of struggle.40

But the hopes for a swift change of scene came to naught. Ten days after the transfer of power, the usual impatience was back. Brezhnev complained that Jaruzelski had done nothing constructive and lacked courage. Andropov added that Jaruzelski had been advised to remove the reform Communists Barcikovski and Kubiak, who were both “obstacles” within the Politburo. But he had refused, claiming that he had no one to replace them with.41 A few weeks later, the Soviet ambassador in Warsaw was instructed to pass on an oral message from Brezhnev to Jaruzelski. Brezhnev reminded Jaruzelski of the hopes that had been pinned on him when he took over the post of Party leader and the previous indecisive leadership had been removed. He mentioned the advice regarding personnel replacements and decisive measures that he had previously given and to which Jaruzelski had agreed. He also shared a number of other opinions about how Jaruzelski should solve Poland’s problems, advice that consistently entailed more or less explicit criticism of what Jaruzelski had done thus far.42 The pattern thus remained the same. Brezhnev admonished while giving vent to his annoyance that previous advice had not been followed and promises had not been kept. The strains of
impotence in the mighty one’s anger became ever clearer.


Neither the psychological warfare nor the replacement of the Party leader yielded the results Moscow was after. Why not, then, solve the problem the same way as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? This was, of course, a perspective that deeply worried the Polish leaders. Without the threat of a new military intervention hanging over them, they would have had greater opportunity to reach an agreement with Solidarity and the Party’s reformist comrades. But now the threat was there and it had a name: the Brezhnev Doctrine.43

In November 1968, a few months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, Brezhnev had declared in a speech that when anti-socialist forces arose in one country, it was not only a problem of the country concerned but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries. Hence: if political currents such as those that had come into power in Czechoslovakia asserted themselves in another Eastern state, one could expect the tanks once again to roll.

But it was not clear that the Brezhnev Doctrine was still relevant. A lot had changed since 1968 to indicate that it was not. The USSR’s international position was circumscribed. Militarily, the conflict with China had transformed the Soviet-Chinese border into a heavily guarded zone of tension that tied up almost a half million of the country’s armed forces. In addition, an estimated 85,000 men had been engaged since 1979 in a prolonged and seemingly futile war in Afghanistan. That same year, NATO had decided to deploy 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe if the Soviet Union did not withdraw its SS-20 missiles.

On the political plane, the Soviet leadership, or at least part of it, thought it had made tremendous gains through the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, by which the borders drawn after the Second World War would be regarded as inviolable. But the Final Act also meant that the USSR had agreed to respect civil rights and facilitate international communications. This entailed an inherent threat to Soviet orthodoxy, further underlined by the fact that the communist parties in Italy and Spain had emerged as defenders of democratic rights and of the Czechoslovakian reform communism that Moscow had drowned in blood.

Last but not least: compared to Czechoslovakia, Poland was a populous country with strong anti-Russian and anti-communist traditions, with an army whose loyalty to the regime was uncertain, and with an opposition movement, in the form of Solidarity, that was ten million strong. If Moscow were to attempt a reprise of the 1968 invasion, the result might be a prolonged civil war instead of a swift takeover of power. The effects on the Soviet Union’s military policy situation would, all things considered, be extremely burdensome and the consequences for the country’s political position devastating.

But no one could know how the leadership in Moscow reasoned and it did its best to make everyone believe the Brezhnev doctrine still applied. Military exercises were held near the borders of Poland in the winter of 1980 and spring of 1981 as a reminder that what happened in 1968 could happen again. Speaking at the XXVI Congress of the CPSU on February 23, Brezhnev declared that anarchistic, antisocialist elements, aided by foreign powers, were driving Poland to disaster. But the Soviet Union was firmly resolved to stand up for Poland and would not leave its socialist brother country in the lurch.44 This was a promise entirely consistent with the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Naturally, Brezhnev’s renewed promise spread fear in Poland and the West, as intended. At a meeting in April, the Poland experts in the Soviet Politburo stressed that reminders of Brezhnev’s statements should be made on appropriate occasions. It was imperative, they believed, to maximally exploit the fears of internal reactionaries and international imperialism that the Soviet Union might send its troops into Poland.45 Brezhnev himself declared on May 16 that only fear of intervention was restraining Solidarity’s attacks and holding back the disintegration of the Party.46 The reminders of the Brezhnev Doctrine were intended for consumption both inside and outside Poland.

Armed intervention in Poland may for a while have been considered an option in the Politburo. Gromyko’s flat statement that Poland must not be lost, as well as a decision as early as August 1980 to prepare selected military units for intervention in Poland can be interpreted thus.47 But if intervention was seriously considered at first, the idea, as far as can be judged by the available material, seems to have been later abandoned. At a meeting in mid-May 1981, Tikhonov said that intervention in the present international situation was out of the question. In late October, Andropov and Ustinov unequivocally declared that the Politburo must adhere firmly to its line that troops would not be sent to Poland. Andropov, Ustinov, Grishin, Gromyko, and Suslov said the same thing on December 10, 1981 when it was also claimed that the Politburo had precluded military intervention from the outset.48

The Politburo’s main line was the threatened military intervention. The threat was the USSR’s strongest argument against the intractable Poles. But judging by appearances, the threat was a bluff and the more time passed, the greater became the risk the bluff would be exposed. By December 1981, the Polish Crisis had gone on for a year and a half.


The PZPR CC Politburo met on December 5, 1981. After long debates, it was agreed to give General Jaruzelski, then Party leader, prime minister, and minister of defense, the authority to impose martial law. When Jaruzelski concluded the debate, he did not wrap the decision in the rhetoric of socialist struggle. Instead, he declared that it was “a horrible, monstrous shame for the Party that after 36 years in power it has to be defended by the police. But there is nothing else left ahead of us.”49 With those words, he denoted that the Polish leadership had finally decided to follow the advice imprinted by the comrades in Moscow for eighteen months under threatening forms.

The last meeting of the CPSU CC Politburo before martial law was imposed took place on December 10. It was confirmed at the meeting that the PCPR Politburo had given Jaruzelski the authority to introduce martial law, but the final decision lay with Jaruzelski and nobody knew whether he would really take action. First the Poles had said martial law would be imposed after midnight on December 11, then on the next night of the 12th and then, again, somewhere around the 20th. At the same time, Jaruzelski had said that the operation must be approved by the Sejm, but the next session was not scheduled until the 15th and there was no mention of the introduction of martial law on the agenda. Jaruzelski had also declared that they would resort to martial law only when Solidarity forced them to do so. Andropov said that either Jaruzelski was concealing his intentions or was simply abandoning the idea of martial law. Jaruzelski had fallen back into a vacillating position, Gromkyo said. At first he had somewhat stiffened his spine, but now he had begun to soften again.

But the discussion was also evidence that the Politburo in Moscow suspected the Poles of having switched tactics: no longer content to promise tougher action with their fingers crossed behind their backs, they had started to make counter demands. Jaruzelski had said that the imposition of martial law was predicated on Russian economic assistance. He had talked about goods worth about 1.5 billion dollars in the first quarter of 1982 — iron ore and other metals, fertilizer, oil, and many other goods. Andropov had a hard time understanding what martial law had to do with fertilizer and expressed his view that Jaruzelski was trying to find some way to extricate himself. If the Poles did not get what they asked for, they would be able to blame the Russians for the failure to take tougher measures. Andropov found the behavior insolent. Suslov also believed Jaruzelski wanted to blame the Soviet Union for the operation having come to a standstill. By making requests the Soviet Union could not fulfill, he could cancel the state of emergency and say: “Well, look here, I turned to the Soviet Union and requested help but didn’t receive it.”50

Underlying these accusations of extortion, there was probably suspicion that the Poles had realized the Russians would never take up arms against them and that the regime in Poland would never be restored. Nevertheless, there was never any suggestion that the threat of intervention would be carried out. As mentioned, several speakers repeated earlier positions against Soviet intervention. If the threat were to be exposed as a bluff, so be it. Andropov also said that even if Poland fell under the control of Solidarity that was the way it would be. Military intervention would be followed by heavy economic and political sanctions from “the capitalist countries” and they would be very burdensome for the Soviet Union. “We must show concern for our country, for the strengthening of the Soviet Union.”51

The situation on December 10 was thus that both parties in the prolonged Polish-Soviet war of nerves were ready to give up. As the Soviet leadership was preparing for its threatening bluff to be exposed, the Poles decided to give into the pressure. They never saw the Russians’ cards. Arrests of Solidarity activists began on the night of December 12 and in the morning, Jaruzelski announced on television that martial law had been imposed.


Today, knowing how it turned out, it is easy to think of the events in Poland of 1980—1981 as the beginning of the end of communism and the Soviet empire. Martial law could only temporarily stymie the people’s demands for change. And Polish historiography is inclined to present the matter thus. If one tries instead to see the events from a contemporary angle, the picture changes. Then, the interpretation is determined not by what would happen in 1989, but by what happened in 1956 and 1968. For many at the time, the Polish euphoria seemed to be a new reform communism project related to those crushed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Polish Politburo member Kubiak said in October 1981 that the Communist Party now had both the opportunity and the duty to create something that had never before existed — a socialist and democratic industrial society at the heart of Europe. He believed that an opportunity had opened up for socialism, not only in Poland but in the entire world.52

What Kubiak’s speech reminds us is that through the 1989 revolution, Poland and the other Eastern European countries adopted an already existing democratic, capitalist model. They were not launching anything new; the democratic socialist model that had never existed was never realized either. One who looked back with regret at lost opportunities was General Jaruzelski. In his 1993 memoirs, he wrote that part of the Party’s base wanted to blow up the centralist, Warsaw-controlled Party machine. In its place, they suggested a model featuring decentralized intermediate levels that were not subordinate to the power of the central committee apparatus. This was the idea of democratization using “horizontal structures” applied to the Party organization. Jaruzelski’s judgment in hindsight was that such a reworking of the Party’s structure and functional approach would have entailed a real chance for the communist movement. But far too few could bring themselves to question “democratic centralism” and the “Leninist” Party model.53

But if it was true that the ideas of 1980—1981 encompassed the saving of socialism, it was actually the Soviet Politburo — the center of power in the leading socialist state — that had main responsibility for ensuring that the ideas were implemented. The only problem was that the Politburo, as shown, was not inclined to change its mind. The cadre of Soviet politicians who survived Stalin’s purges was, according to Robert V. Daniels, “by virtue of its origin, experience, and ossification in office, conservative and self-protective in its reflexes”. On its capacity for innovation, he writes: “It resisted or sabotaged innovation and clung to sterile bureaucratic methods and ideological formulas in the face of the new problems and potential of modern society.”54 The characterization is consistent with the picture provided by the Soviet material from the Polish Crisis of 1980—1981.

And yet this is not the whole picture. In this ossified Soviet Politburo, where the average age was about 70, there was actually a callow youth of 50, who had with his own eyes seen the inefficiency of the Soviet command economy, who had anguished over its inability to convert enormous resources into a good living standard for the masses, and who had long been discussing the need for reforms with friends and confidantes. But the future reformer Mikhail Gorbachev seldom spoke out in Politburo debates about Poland and when he did, it was only to agree with criticism of the wishy-washy Poles. Many circumstances may have lain behind his conformism. But one thing he knew for sure was that anyone who openly showed sympathy for Polish ideas about socialist renewal was putting his political life in jeopardy. When the Politburo chose Gorbachev as its leader in March 1985, after having buried three Party leaders in less than two and a half years, it was perhaps ready to accept certain ambitions for change as long as it did not have to deal with another funeral any time soon. But if it had known that the Polish ideas would rise again, the choice might have been different. ≈


CPSU                  Communist Party of the Soviet Union

CC                        Central Committee

CPCz                   Communist Party of Czechoslovakia

CWIHP               Cold War International History Project

NSZZ                   Independent Self-Governing Trade Union (Niezaleźny Samorsządny Związek Zawodowy)

PUWP                Polish United Workers Party (Polish Communist Party)

SED                     [East German] Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands)

FMA                   [Swedish] Foreign Ministry’s Archive

HSWP                 Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party

Main people involved

Abrasimov, Pyotr Soviet ambassador to Poland 1957–1961, to the GDR 1962–1971 and 1975–1984

Andropov, Yuri Chairman of the KGB 1967–1982; member of CPSU Politburo 1973–1984; member of the Politburo Commission on Poland; general secretary of the CPSU Nov 1982–Feb 1984

Aristov, Boris Soviet ambassador to Poland 1978–1983

Barcikovski, Kazimierz Member of PUWP CC 1968–1990; member of PUWP Politburo 1980–1989

Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich General secretary of the CPSU Oct 1964–Nov 1982

Dubček, Alexander Reform communist; first secretary of the CPCz 1968–1969

Gierek, Edward First secretary of the PUWP Dec 1970–Sept 1980

Grishin, Victor Member of CPSU Politburo 1971–1986; first secretary of Moscow party committee 1967–1985

Gromyko, Andrei Soviet minister of foreign affairs 1957–1985; member of CPSU Politburo 1973–1988; member of Politburo Commission on Poland

Honecker, Erich First secretary of the SED 1971–1989

Husák, Gustáv President of Czechoslovakia 1975 –1989; first secretary of the CPCz 1969–1987

Jaruzelski, Wojciech Army general; PUWP first secretary Oct 1981–July 1989; prime minister of Poland Feb 1981–Nov 1985; minister of national defense 1968–1983;

Kádár, Janos HSWP first secretary 1956–1988

Kania, Stanisław PUWP first secretary Sept 1980–Oct 1981

Kubiak, Hieronym Member of PUWP Politburo and PUWP secretary from July 1981

Olszowski, Stefan Member of the PUWP politburo; PUWP CC secretary for media information Aug 1980–July 1982

Pińkovski, Józef Polish prime minister Sept 1980–Feb 1981

Rusakov, Konstantin Head of CPSU CC Department for liaison with communist and workers’ parties of socialist countries 1968–1973 and 1977–1986

Suslov, Mikhail Member of CPSU Politburo 1955–1982; chairman of the Politburo Commission on Poland

Tikhonov, Nikolai Member of the CPSU Politburo 1979–1985; prime minister Oct 1980–Sept 1985

Ustinov, Dmitri Soviet marshal; member of CPSU Politburo 1976–1984; minister of defense 1976–1984; member of the Politburo Commission on Poland

Wałęsa, Lech Electrician; chairman of Solidarity 1980–1990

Zhivkov, Todor President of Bulgaria 1971–1989; first secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party 1954–1989


  1. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, October 29, 1980, p. 125. The minutes of Politburo discussions about Poland were published in English translation in 1998 by the Cold War International History Project. They can be accessed at (go to Virtual Archive 2.0 and then 1980—81 Polish Crisis). With a few exceptions, the material has also been published in Andrzej Paczkowski & Malcolm Byrne, From Solidarity to Martial Law: The Polish Crisis of 1980—1981; A Documentary History, Budapest 2007. Paczkowski and Byrne’s English usage differs somewhat from that of the translators of the material of the Cold War International History Project, and they have augmented the Soviet documents with material from Poland, other WP states, and the US. It should be noted here that the Soviet archives have still not been made public in their entirety and the material published to date may appear in a different light when minutes and memoranda from other bodies become available. In this essay, I have presumed that the speakers’ contributions are accurately reproduced, but understand that the same speaker may have said something else in another context and thought something else again privately. The page numbers provided in the notes after document titles refer to Paczkowski & Byrne, From Solidarity.
  2. Anthony Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism: A Cold War History, Cambridge 2008, p. 268. See also Anthony Kemp-Welch (ed.), The Birth of Solidarity, London 1983 (1991), pp. 180—187.
  3. Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism, p. 62.
  4. Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism, p. 278 f.
  5. See note 1. The collection has been used by CWIHP historians Mark Kramer and Vojtech Mastny primarily in their discussion of the likelihood of a Soviet military intervention in Poland. The same documents play an important part in Matthew J. Ouimet, The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy, Chapel Hill 2003. For a view of the Polish crisis from a Polish insider’s point of view, see Mieczysław F. Rakowski’s diary notes published in his Es begann in Polen: Der Anfang vom Ende des Ostblocks, Hamburg 1995. For a bibliographical overview see Paczkowski & Byrne, From Solidarity.
  6. The same claim was expressed, for example, in the note of protest to PUWP in mid-September 1981. See CPSU CC Communication to the PUWP CC, "Intensifying Anti-Soviet Feelings in Poland", September 14, 1981, pp. 358—359.
  7. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, October 29, 1980, p. 125.
  8. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, October 31, 1980, p. 130.
  9. See, for example, Solidarność 1980—81: A Carnival Under Sentence, Warsaw 2006, p. 5.
  10. CPSU CC Letter to the PUWP CC, June 5, 1981, pp. 294—298.
  11. Regarding Aristov, see Wojciech Jaruzelski, Hinter den Türen der Macht: Der Anfang vom Ende einer Herrschaft, Leipzig 1996, p. 426.
  12. An overview of contacts is found in "Information on the Position of the CPSU Regarding the Polish Situation", October 1, 1981 (,Virtual Archive 2.0, 1980—81 Polish Crisis).
  13. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 9, 1981, pp. 259—264.
  14. The conversation with Gierek in 1980 was mentioned by Brezhnev on December 5, 1980; see Minutes of Warsaw Pact Leadership Meeting in Moscow, December 5, 1980, p. 158. Brezhnev mentioned the conversation with Kania and Pińkowski on August 3, 1981, in conversation with Honecker; see Record of Brezhnev-Honecker Meeting in the Crimea. August 3, 1981, pp. 330—333. Brezhnev said there that the Polish leaders were expected in the Crimea on 14 August 1981. See also Rakowski, Es begann in Polen, p. 42, where Jaruzelski is reported as saying that he expects Brezhnev to give him a dressing-down (Strafpredigt) when they meet.
  15. The significance of telephone calls is also confirmed by Michael Voslensky in Voslensky, Michael, Nomenklatura: Die herrschende Klasse der Sowjetunion: Studienausgabe, 3. ed., Vienna 1980, pp. 162—163; see also the chapter "Die Ballade von den Telefonen", pp. 318—325.
  16. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, January 22, 1981, p. 186. See also Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 30, p. 276.
  17. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 16, 1981, p. 265.
  18. CPSU CC Politburo Report on Topics for Discussion with the Polish Leadership, September 3, 1980, pp. 83—86; Minutes of Warsaw Pact Leadership Meeting in Moscow, December 5, 1980 (speeches by Kadar and Ceaucescu).
  19. CPSU CC Politburo Report on Topics for Discussion with the Polish Leadership, September 3, 1980 p. 86; Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 9, 1981, pp. 83—86; Extract from Protocol No. 37 of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, November 21, 1981, pp. 401—403.
  20. CPSU CC Politburo Report on Topics for Discussion with the Polish Leadership, September 3, 1980, p. 86; Extract from Protocol No.7 of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 23, 1981, pp. 267—271.
  21. CPSU CC Politburo Report on Topics for Discussion with the Polish Leadership, September 3, 1980, p. 86.
  22. Ibid, p. 85.
  23. The Polish Constitution did not anticipate a situation of internal unrest where a proclamation of a state of emergency could be needed. But it did prepare for war and the imposition of martial law.
  24. For a typical argument in favor of martial law, see Brezhnev’s Speech to CPCz CC Politburo, April 7, 1981, p. 256 f.
  25. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, October 29, 1980, p. 124 f.
  26. Minutes of Warsaw Pact Leadership Meeting in Moscow, December 5, 1980, p. 161.
  27. The risk that the "Polish disease" would spread was addressed by, among others, Brezhnev in conversation with Kania on September 15, 1981. See Information on the Brezhnev-Kania Telephone Conversation, September 15, 1981, p. 362.
  28. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, January 22, 1981, p. 186.
  29. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, March 12, 1981, p. 222. See also Information regarding meeting between Karel Hoffman …and Stanislaw Kania …March 17, 1981 (Cold War International History Project, Virtual Archive, 1980—81 Polish Crisis).
  30. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 2, 1981, p. 239.
  31. Ibid, pp. 241, 243.
  32. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 9, 1981, p. 260.
  33. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 30, 1981, p. 276.
  34. Memorandum of meeting between Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker, Gustáv Husák et al., in Moscow, May 16, 1981, p. 291.
  35. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 2, 1981, p. 239.
  36. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting on Brezhnev-Kania Conversation, June 18, 1981, pp. 307—309. This conversation is also related in Rakowski, Es begann in Polen, p. 38. Brezhnev’s conduct is described as "icy".
  37. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, September 10, 1981, p. 348 f.
  38. Memorandum of Meeting between Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker, Gustáv Husák et al., in Moscow, May 16, 1981, pp. 280—293. For earlier expressions of discontent with Kania, see for example Record of Brezhnev-Honecker Meeting in the Crimea, August 3, 1981, pp. 330—333.
  39. Excerpt from CPSU CC Politburo Meeting Regarding Brezhnev-Kania Conversation, September 17, 1981, pp. 368—369.
  40. Notes of Brezhnev-Jaruzelski Telephone Conversation, October 19, 1981, pp. 392—394. Jaruzelski describes the conversation in Hinter den Türen, p. 269. According to Jaruzelski, Brezhnev repeated the fateful promise "We will not leave Poland in the lurch" during the conversation.
  41. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting on Rusakov’s trip to Eastern Europe, October 29, 1981, pp. 395—399.
  42. Extract from Protocol No. 37 of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, November 21, 1981, pp. 401—404.
  43. For a general account of the history of the Brezhnev Doctrine, see Ouimet, The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine.
  44. Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism, p. 306 f. For allusions to Brezhnev’s statement, see Extract from Protocol No. 7 of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 23, 1981, pp. 286—287.
  45. Extract from Protocol No. 7 of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, April 23, 1981, p. 271. On January 22, 1981, Ustinov emphasized that it was important to hold military exercises in Poland to "let them know that our forces are ready" (Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, January 22, 1981, p.187). See also Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism, pp. 306—307.
  46. Memorandum of Meeting between Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker, Gustáv Husák et al., in Moscow, May 16, 1981, p. 280.
  47. CPSU CC Politburo Commission Order to Enhance Readiness of Military Units for Possible War in Poland, August 28, 1980, pp. 64—65.
  48. For May 1981, see Memorandum of Meeting between Leonid Brezhnev, Erich Honecker, Gustáv Husák et al., in Moscow, May 16, 1981, p. 291; for October 1981, see Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting on Rusakov’s trip to Eastern Europe, October 29, 1981, p. 397 (see also Record of a Meeting between Representatives of the CPCz CC and SED CC International Relations Department in East Germany, 8 October 1981, CWIHP, Virtual Archive, 1980—81 Polish Crisis); for December 1981 see Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting December 10, 1981, p. 450 (Andropov), 451 (Gromyko), 453 (Grishin), 452 (Ustinov and Suslov).
  49. Protocol No. 18 of PUWP CC Politburo Meeting. December 5, 1981, p. 443.
  50. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting December 10, 1981, pp. 446—453.
  51. Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, December 10, 1981, p. 450.
  52. The speech is cited in the Swedish Embassy’s report; see Cryptogram Warsaw to Stockholm, October 15, 1981 (342), signed Thyberg, file 151, Hp1Ep, FMA.
  53. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Mein Leben für Polen: Erinnerungen. Munich & Zurich 1993, p. 252.
  54. Robert V. Daniels, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Russia, New Haven & London 2007, p. 322 f.
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