The Fall of the Soviet Empire


Immediately upon Carter's ascension to power, Zbigniew Brzeziński, his National Security Advisor, began to convince him to use human rights principles written into Helsinki Accord to legitimise American support for the dissident movements across the communist states.424 Brzeziński considered three countries, Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland, which were relatively independent from Moscow, as potential tools in stirring up revolution within the Soviet Block. Out of the three, Poland came out as a favourite candidate. Zbigniew Brzeziński was born in Poland and he had travelled their frequently meeting Jewish and non-Jewish members of government and opposition. There were also also multiple active Polish émigré associations in the United States which had contacts with American labour unions, notably American Federation of Labour – Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), which in turn had its own network in Europe, including Poland.425 Polish revolutionary spirit was legendary due to such figures as Tadeusz Kościuszko or Casimir Pułaski, who fought in the American War for Independence, and CIA confirmed as early as in 1971, that “Poles are the most unbreakable, stubborn and in some circumstances, explosive people in Europe.”426

The dissident movement was growing in Poland since early 1970s due to worsening economic conditions. Poland, which still suffered from the post-war economic recession, experienced notorious economic crisis which resulted in rise in food prices. This prompted mass protests in December 1970 in the coastal cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin. First Secretary of the Communist Party in Poland, Władysław Gomułka, who with time grew more rigid and despotic, ordered, in consultation with his comrades, including Defense Minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, to use arms against the striking workers in Gdańsk and Gdynia.427 Over 41 shipyard workers were fatally shot, while well over a thousand people were wounded. In view of these tragic events, Gomułka resigned. The Politburo chose as his successor Edward Gierek, a hard working man from a coal mining family in Silesia. He had spent many years in France where he joined the French Communist Party and on return to Poland in 1948, he became a leader of the Communist Party in Katowice, coal-rich region of Silesia. As a former miner he had successfully managed on a number of occasions to calm protesting mine workers so the Politburo believed he was the right man with right credential to regain citizens' trust in the leadership of the Communist Party. In order to improve the economic situation, Gierek decided to accept credits from the western banks. This move was approved by the Soviet leadership, which after Nixon-Brezniev talks, had opened up to the trade with the United States. Subsequently, Edward Gierek, alongside a likeminded Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz, launched a number of economic projects in the 1970s that aimed to accelerate industrialisation of Poland. This included building of Katowice Steelworks and hundreds of other industrial sites, as well as Gdansk North Port and Naftoport. The latter investment was followed by conclusion of long-term contracts for purchases of crude oil in Iraq and Libya, that meant to make Poland less dependent on the Russian gas. Poland's relations with West Germany had also improved due to change in leadership. In 1969, German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, leader of Social Democratic Party (SPD), replaced Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger, former member of the Nazi Party, who run more conservative, America-orientated foreign policy. Willy Brandt surrendered himself with advisers who had links with KGB and Stasi. Among them was his close aide, Günter Guillaume, who reported back to the Jewish chief of Stasi, Marcus Wolf, and Minister of Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was suspected of having links with the Stasi because of his frequent visist to East Germany.428 These men helped Chancellor Willy Brandt to develop a New Eastern Policy - Ospolitik - opening up to the Eastern Block. Guillaume later admitted: “I saw my work as a contribution towards ensuring that the Cold War did not become a hot one”.429 As part of this policy, Chancellor Brandt accepted in 1970, on behalf of West Germany, the border on the Oder-Neisse line imposed by Soviet Russia which previous West German Chancellors were not willing to approve. When in 1974, he resigned from his post after Günter Guillaume was exposed as an agent of Stasi, Edward Gierek developed good relations with his SPD successor, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. During subsequent conference in Helsinki in 1975, where the representatives of thirty-five sovereign states accepted the post-war borders in Europe, Edward Gierek negotiated with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt further concessions, including cheap credits from West Germany. Schmidt said of Mr. Gierek and the Hungarian leader Janos Kadar that: "Both were long-time Communists, but reasonable human beings -- and in private very open and almost cordial. They made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred to see their people with the West rather than in the shadow of the Soviet Union."430

The Soviet leadership looked with concern over Gierek's liberal reforms and orientation towards the West and thus launched an economic counteroffensive, reducing gas supplies and trade with Poland. In June 1976, whilst Jimmy Carter was being elected new president of the United States, a series of workers' strikes took place in Płock, Radom and Warsaw suburb of Ursus, in response to another rise in food prices. Gierek withdrew from the planned policy to avoid the spread of the protests across the country and potential bloodshed, but the workers who engaged in the strike did not escape subsequent repressions. Thousands of people were arrested and dismissed from their jobs. To assist the pursecued workers and their families, a group of intellectual dissidents led by a historian Antoni Macierewicz formed a Committee for Defense of the Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR). This group was joined later by other dissidends, many of Jewish and communist background, who participated in the 'March 1968' events. The most prominent of these new Jewish members of KOR were Jacek Kuroń, Jan Lityński and Adam Michnik. The latter was a son of an old communist Ozjasz Szejchert and a brother of a Stalinist judge Stefan Michnik. KOR sustained itself mainly from foreign aid from the United States, especially the American labour unions, such as AFL-CIO, and plenty of charitable associations organised by Polish émigré community.431 It had promptly established contacts with Czechoslovak civic initiative, Charter 77, which was signed by group of intellectuals including playwright Václav Havel, as protest against violation of human rights in Czechoslovakia. Soon, other organisations emerged in Poland, among them the trade unions which grouped ordinary workers. Kazimierz Świton formed the first trade union in Katowice in 1978 and he was followed by Andrzej Gwiazda, Krzysztof Wyszkowski and Antoni Sokołowski who founded Free Trade Unions of the Coast in Gdańsk (Wolny Związek Zawodowy Wybrzeża, WZZW). A number of women were involved in its activities, including Alina Pieńkowska, Henryka Krzywonos and Anna Walentynowicz. This group of activists was soon joined by Lech Wałęsa, an electrician by trade, who worked at the Gdańsk shipyard since 1967. Known to be a troublemaker in his youth, Lech Wałęsa spoke of himself in negative terms: “I am a common mortal, a weakling, unattractive man.”432 After 1970 riots in the Baltic Coast in which he participated, Lech Wałęsa was arrested by the communist security apparatus (SB), which managed to recruit him and put him on their payroll. In exchange for cash, he agreed to denounce his colleagues and provide information on other activists and ongoing protests at the Gdańsk shipyard.433 Edward Gierek claimed that his Interior Minister, Stanisław Kowalczyk, boasted that Wałęsa was “his man”.434 When Wałęsa first joined the WZZW in 1978, he did not make a very good impression. Krzysztof Wyszkowski commemorates that he acted like a provocateur and that stunned everyone when proposing to launch terrorist attacks on police stations which held political prisoners.435

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424 See Charles Gati (ed.), Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) »

425 On the American aid to the Polish worker's movement see Paweł Zyzak, Effect Domina. Czy America obaliła komunism w Polsce (Warszawa: Fronda, 2016) »

426 CIA Office of National Estimates Memorandum on Poland Under Gierek, 5 November 1971 (Secret), NARA quoted in Paweł Zyzak, Effect Domina. Czy America obaliła komunism w Polsce (Warszawa: Fronda, 2016), p. 158 »

427 See Janusz Rolicki, Edward Gierek: Przerwana Dekada [An Interrupted Decade] (Warszawa: Polska Oficyna Wydawnicza “PGW”, 1990) »

428 See Markus Wolf, Memoirs of a Spymaster: The Man Who Waged a Secret War Against the West (1998); and Leslie Colitt, Spy Master – The Exiting True Story of Marcus Wolf (Robson Books, 1996); »

429 Adrian Bridge, “Court reunion for German spy and his master: Former East Berlin agent meets his old boss Marcus Wolf after 20 years”, Independent, 30 June 1993 »

430 Robert D. McFadden, “Edward Gierek dies at 88; Polish communist reformer”, 30 July 2001 »

431 On the American aid to the Polish worker's movement see (in Polish): Paweł Zyzak, Effect Domina. Czy America obaliła komunism w Polsce (Warszawa: Fronda, 2016) »

432 Slawomir Cenckiewicz, Wałęsa Czlowiek z Teczki, (Poznań, 2013), p. 20 »

433 Cenckiewicz, ibid., pp. 98-120 »

424 Ibid., p. 198 »

435 Ibid., pp. 147-148 »