Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
NOT long before the World War, Joseph Pilsudski spoke at the Congress of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. "We are bound to you by all the knots and cords of the struggle for freedom. With your help we expect to conquer a new realm for freedom's rule, and within the walls of liberated Warsaw we hope to welcome the dear guests of the International Socialist Congress." Pilsudski terminated his hectic existence as the uncrowned King of Poland. But the reception which he prepared for his former fellow-members of the party who remained true to the Socialist International was in the dungeons of Brest-Litovsk.
In the Krakow Naprzod a former comrade of Pilsudski has published his memoirs in connection with a trip to Berlin to see Bebel. He was armed with documents signed by Pilsudski containing an appeal for financial support from the brotherly German Labor Party. Later on, merely the moral support which the Socialist International gave the Polish Socialist Party was sufficient for Pilsudski to declare the latter "a foreign agent on Polish land."
In 1925, Ignaz Dashinski published an ecstatic brochure on Pilsudski, "The Great Man of Poland." Pilsudski, on his side, called Dashinski his friend, his elder brother, his teacher. But a "Great Man" stops at nothing. He rounded off his conflict with Parliament by arresting eighty of the people's representatives, and cancelled the passport used by his "elder brother and teacher," by that time the Speaker of the Polish Parliament, who had been accustomed to use this passport in going for a yearly cure at Karlsbad. At one time Pilsudski was an émigré, a revolutionary, "chased by every policeman in Europe." Afterwards he pursued Lieberman, Prager, and other former revolutionary and party comrades whom he in turn had forced to become émigrés.
A grandiose metamorphosis, at first glance.
This was Pilsudski:
A terse, unyielding figure, with a massive, deep-ridged forehead, coarse straight hair, and bushy eyebrows meeting in a heavy line over piercing eyes. Tight, thin lips under thick, militant mustaches. A jutting chin. A brain only average in many ways. An excellent "sense of smell." Most outstanding, most important, was his will: dominating, one-sided, single-purposed. He had a deep conviction that "Poland is I." At the same time he admitted to Merejkowski, "I have the constant feeling that I am struggling with Poland." Hardly surprising, since Poland strove, at times, to be larger and wider than Pilsudski.
Those who interviewed him say that Pilsudski was the most secretive, the most impenetrable, of Europe's statesmen. In point of fact there was nothing for him to hide. He simply took upon himself the resurrection of Poland, using every situation to its advantage, bickering and haggling for alliance with every Power. In Poland, his rule was an absolute thing that forbade contradiction. And at last he stood on the highest stilts of imperialism. The bromide, "The higher one climbs, the further the fall," did not apply. For Pilsudski there was only a slight unsteadiness, and he died the "great man of Poland," a national hero -- the hero of our contemporary zoölogical times.
Pilsudski once confided to an admirer that there were two methods of teaching a man to swim: either by constantly supporting him, thus preventing him from swallowing water, or by leading him to the depths and throwing him in. The second method he thought the only correct one. It was necessary for Poland to learn to swim again. And Pilsudski pulled her into the depths. There are also various methods of rescue from drowning. The drowning person quite often drags down his savior by curtailing his freedom of action; consequently both drown. In that case, it is advisable to stun the drowning person with a resounding blow on the head, and then -- and only then -- begin the saving. Pilsudski did not hesitate to use this method.
Not a full-blooded Pole, but a flamboyant Polish patriot from a family of Lithuanian princes, Pilsudski was born in 1867 on a rich Polish estate. He grew up in an atmosphere of national mourning -- abstention from all entertainments and dances, and empty dinner plates at the table for those killed in uprisings and for members of the family banished to Siberia. He studied at a Russified gymnasium. "There," he tells in an autobiographical pamphlet, "I became a Socialist. Hatred for the Russian régime grew within me from year to year. I despised the enemy. Bitterly ashamed of our impotence, I wanted to damage Russia, but instead had mutely to withstand the brutal behavior of Russian teachers who never ceased insulting my national feeling."
In a different environment, he might have developed into a narrow Polish nationalist and chauvinist. But he grew up in an epoch when, in Russia, socialism governed and influenced all mental attitudes, especially youthful ones, when it enjoyed the hegemony of ideas and of literature, when to be a revolutionary and not to embrace socialism was unnatural. Socialism, however, did not prevent him from preferring the biographies of Plutarch and Napoleon to those of Buckle and Marx. Strangely, he arrived at socialism not for the sake of it itself, but, on the contrary, by repulsion from the upper classes which had manifested "treason to patriotism." The Polish landowners, taught by their bitter experiences with uprisings, had become definitely obsequious during this period; and the "new bourgeoisie," satisfied with the fact that Polish industry was able to expand in an almost boundless Russian market, preferred the real profits of today to the dreams of a future independent Polish state. The young patriot was disgusted with the Poland of Property and became affiliated with the Poland of Labor. But in this labor movement he was always a "lone wolf."
In the eighties of the last century, the Russian Populists (Naradovoltsi) entered into a formal union with the Polish Socialists. Pilsudski, the eternal individualist and a "spiritual hermit," remained untouched by this cohesion of the vanguard of the two nations. The struggle of the Russian Populists he considered a definitely alien affair in which Poles should not entangle themselves.
Ironically, fate, in the guise of Russian gendarmes, bore down upon him, accusing him of connection with one of the Russian Populist causes. Even in Siberia he preferred intimacy with conationalists, victims of old Polish bourgeois uprisings, rather than the society of Russian exiled socialists. Something in him rebounded from the Russians. Contemptuously he stated that he had met "everybody among the Russians down to the extreme anarchists, but was never able to meet a good, plain republican." According to him, all Russians, not excluding the most revolutionary of them, are in greater or lesser degree masked imperialists. He was inclined to judge others by himself; a seed of aggressive nationalism budded in his "defensive democratic nationalism," awaiting only the favorable moment to flower.
At the end of his Siberian exile Pilsudski commenced the life of a conspirator, an underground man with constant changes of locale and of passport -- the hunted life of a professional revolutionary and plotter. Arrested again, he began a ghastly game with the gendarmes, the pretense of insanity. He finally went to the lengths of being committed to an asylum for the insane, whence a Polish doctor engineered his escape. Psychiatrists claim that such an ordeal leaves indelible marks. Once again at large in the revolutionary vortex, Pilsudski developed the "will" side of his being. He was impatient of collective decisions, preferring to act on his personal responsibility, to confront his comrades with accomplished facts from which there was no room for retreat.
During the unsuccessful uprisings of the Polish landowners, Moscow had very skillfully employed the hatred of the peasants to its own advantage. Little land bribes given at the expense of the large proprietors had transformed the peasants into enemies of an independent Poland of the landowners. The task Pilsudski attempted was to draw the proletarian and peasant strata into a guerilla and terrorist struggle with the Russian régime. Socialism to him was only a means of advancing the cause of independent Poland. Agitation among workers prepared fertile ground for the organization of "combat groups." The workers and peasants would be sucked into a struggle which would result in war -- which in the end would mean the separation of Poland from Russia.
As soon as the Russo-Japanese War broke out, Pilsudski, seeking always for some way to damage Russia, concocted a plan to upset the progress of Russian mobilization in Poland. He traveled to Tokyo for money, for arms, for an ally. But to many Polish patriots Pilsudski's plan seemed only a mad adventure. Literally and spiritually, Japan was very distant. The knifing of Russia in the back by Poland while the former was at war with Japan would be advantageous to the Japanese -- but what assistance could Japan give Poland should Russia decide to avenge its Far Eastern defeat? With this in mind, the leader of the Polish National Democrats, Roman Dmowski, went to Japan to counteract Pilsudski's moves. The Japanese general staff, after deliberation, rejected Pilsudski's plan as chimerical.
Within the Polish Socialist Party opposition was growing to Pilsudski's unlimited "National Activism." Spurred by the Activists, he was not daunted when a split in the party loomed up. The left wing, the working class element, departed. Pilsudski and his "revolutionary faction" were left the sharper in their tactics, more to the right, more nationalistic in spirit. Pilsudski foresaw the coming war between Russia on one side and Germany and Austria on the other, and from it he expected to draw the results not obtained in the Russo-Japanese war. He did not shrink from negotiations with the Austrian general staff, and with their quiet assistance organized a large rifle corps and a school of military-revolutionary technique. A "Federation of the Party of Independence" was created in which the military revolutionary romanticism of olden times was vividly present. Pilsudski himself stated that he was a romanticist in thought and a positivist in action. He knew only one god, independent Poland, and only one prayer, "The Litany of the Traveler," by Mitzkevich:
Give us, Lord, a War to set us free, Arms, our Nation's symbol, Liberty, Death in battle, if the grave will be In our Fatherland . . . But let us see Freedom for our country -- UNITY Give us, Lord.
In 1914, Pilsudski delivered a significant lecture before the Geographical Society of Paris. He stated that all hopes for Poland's independence rested upon the result of a war in which the Russians would be defeated by the Austrians and Germans, who in their turn would be vanquished by the English and the French.
Here Pilsudski chanced to hit the bull's eye. The World War victory, thanks to an event which neither Pilsudski nor anyone else could have foreseen, the advent of the United States, traveled from west to east. At the start Pilsudski fought with the Germans against Russia. Then came a time when Hindenburg made his hopeless but accurate observation, "We win all the separate battles, but we lose the war." Pilsudski, his ear to the ground, turned the helm sharply, and refused to support the plan for the mobilization of a million Poles under Austro-German command. His legionnaires ("Eine grausame Bande, aber sehr gut Soldaten," in the opinion of the Austro-German command) refused to take an oath. Pilsudski was committed to the Magdeburg Prison in Germany. One must know the proper time to land in jail. The Polish Military Congress in Petrograd elected him its honorary chairman; the author, Strug, the historian, Sokolnitski, and General Rydz-Smigly, were on a trip to negotiate with the French general, Laverne. Amnesty was assured the wily "Konjunktur politician" by the Entente.
The Germanophilia of the latter period of Pilsudski's life should not perplex those who remember his conduct at the time of the Russo-Japanese War and at the beginning of the World War. He studied thoroughly the figures which would be possible in the political quadrille at the moment when the conductor, History, should again invite: "Changez vos dames, s'il vous plaît." The Japanese might again complicate Russia's affairs in the East; Germany might strike Russia again. For Poland's "sacred national egotism" everything possible must be squeezed from the situation. A secret understanding must necessarily seal the Polish-German pact of non-aggression. Hitler desires freedom of action for the occupation of the Baltic States and for the separation from Russia of part of the Ukraine, from the River Dniepr up to the River Kuban. All this would be made into a German protectorate. Poland, for her part, would receive part of the Ukraine, including ports on the Black Sea, Odessa and Nikolaev. . . .
What next? Bismarck once remarked: "War with Russia means disaster for Germany. It will force us to reëstablish Poland up to the Dvina and Dniepr: this would be worse than the war itself." As for Poland, for her to find herself next to a Germany which had been strengthened by acquiring the Ukraine as a vassal, and spreading from Riga and the Bay of Finland to the Azov Sea, might be even more disquieting and perilous than being a neighbor either to Tsarist or Bolshevist Russia.
But such thoughts did not worry Pilsudski. It is superfluous to ask the views about the future held by a "Konjunktur politician." It was possible that a new World War might occur. At the commencement of such a war, the wise thing would be to hold out in the beginning, bargain shrewdly with both sides, and, finally, for the proper compensation, line up with the future victor.
When Pilsudski was liberated by the German Revolution from the Magdeburg Prison his arrival at Warsaw was triumphantly heralded. He had had his chance to use Germany. The Entente had not only forgiven him, but placed their hopes in him as their only defense against the Red Menace charging darkly from the East. He was referred to as a second but successful Kosciuszko, the Polish Garibaldi, the Napoleon of the East. The newspapers showered him with effusive and extravagant phrases.
The Council of Regency installed by the German High Command had had the intention of proclaiming one of the German princes as King of Poland on Russian-Polish territory benevolently handed over by the Germans. But now the Council had no alternative but to proclaim Pilsudski "Provisional Ruler." His mission was a stupendous one: first, to war with the Russians for the eastern borders of Poland; second, to war with the Germans for Poznán, Silesia, and the mouth of the River Vistula; third, to war with the Ukrainians for southern Galicia; fourth, to war with the Czechs for Teschen.
The Napoleon of the East commenced with a blunder. He ignored the Soviet military fist gathered up in the northeast. Infatuated with the idea of annexing Kiev, he suffered an almost complete crash. He was saved, actually, by two men; the French general, Weygand, with his corps of 1,500 chosen French officers, military instructors, who worked out a plan for Pilsudski's retreat to Warsaw, followed by a strong southern counter-attack; second, by his rival for the candidacy to the title "Napoleon of the East" -- the Red commander, Tukhachevsky, who pursued the Polish Army relentlessly, attempting by forced marches on Warsaw to encircle the town near the border of Germany where he expected to receive support from the German Soviet Revolution and an addition to his army of thousands of German communists (Spartacists). Tukhachevsky's hopes never materialized. The tables were turned, and the Soviet Army retreated from Warsaw as fast as Pilsudski had retreated earlier from Kiev. On the streets of Warsaw, two dozen Polish aristocrats publicly went down on their knees before Weygand, the Savior of Poland, and kissed his hands. But France gave Pilsudski all official recognition for the successful dénouement.
At this stage Pilsudski began to suffer the acute effects of "dizziness from success." Previous to the victory over the Soviets he had extended his hand to his old enemy, Roman Dmowski, the National Democrat, for the creation of a united national front. On the other side, he had entrusted his personal friend, Morachewski, a mild socialist, with the creation of the first ministry. He explained the appointment with the statement, "The success of this great movement in the West and East of Europe must be considered." After the victory he found both camps unnecessary. He claimed to be above all parties, requiring unquestioning submission from them without in return giving them any share in his plans. In the bourgeois camp he was still considered for some reason a dangerous socialist. But the socialist camp, regardless of the fact that he had resigned from the party, had continued to admire and court him. Even there, however, disillusionment now began to grow up, the first animosity coming from the left wing. This formed the beginning of the Gordian knot which later was cut by Pilsudski with the sharp blade of repeated anti-governmental insurrections.
Without emphasizing directly that their action involved the uncrowning of "the National Hero," his opponents on the Right began making an attempt to abbreviate the powers belonging to the presidency of the republic, for which post Pilsudski was slated. The Left would not allow the Right to surpass it in a democratic gesture. The result was the birth of a Constitution in which the government would have gotten along quite well without any president, the position as at last created carrying only a futile and unnecessary honor. In anger Pilsudski declined to be a candidate, and retreated into political hermitage. His village residence in Suleyowka became the center for all sorts of intrigue against the Parliament, against political parties in general, and against democracy.
Polish democracy needed time to adjust itself. The three composite parts of Poland -- Russian, Austrian and German -- were assimilated under great difficulties. And a complexity of national iridescence was added: German, Jewish, White Russian, Ukrainian, and Russian minorities. The confusion of parties increased; parties split up, and very often the resulting groups coalesced around persons rather than ideas. To create a stable and workable majority in the Sejm (Parliament) was a herculean problem. Pilsudski, watching these events with malicious gratification, coined a winged phrase, "Parliament is a locomotive pulling a needle." He loved to issue philippics against the party spirit and against parties who make statesmen into party prisoners by their bargainings and re-bargainings. The hastily constructed administrative apparatus of the young republic was still imperfect. Postwar graft and corruption still continued. Even this Pilsudski charged against democracy. He imitated the phraseology of the virtuous, incorruptible, unselfish Robespierre, and posed as an ascetic Spartan destined to kill the parliamentary hydra of Selfishness, Intrigue and Vice.
In his retreat Pilsudski was waiting for general dissatisfaction to become rife. The moment arrived under the "pale pink" presidency of Wojciechowski, Pilsudski's former colleague, when Parliament, instead of a coalition of the Center with the Left, witnessed a coalition of the Center with the Right, headed by Witos (May 1926). Exploiting the indignation in the workers' quarters, Pilsudski took revolutionary action. The laboring masses, almost the entire Socialist Party, and even many communists, massed themselves about him. With one gesture he forced Wojciechowski to renounce the presidency and committed Witos to jail. It was of course expected that he would disperse the Sejm and direct new elections to be held in an atmosphere of revolutionary enthusiasm so as to produce a new Sejm with a colorful Left membership.
But Pilsudski preferred the humiliated, the fawning, the repenting, divided, spineless Sejm. Deserting their own leaders, the cowardly majority of the Sejm voiced their "readiness to be of service" and placed themselves in Pilsudski's hands. His idea of a Parliament was, "the worse, the better." From then on the guardian of resurrected Poland was an "anti-liberal democrat." He hated all parties, most of all the one which was more independent than the rest -- formerly his own -- the Polish Socialist Party. The only party he recognized consisted of individuals recruited from all parts of the political horizon and called the "Union for Coöperation with the Government." He decided to limit and terrorize Parliament and the country until this many-hued union of Pilsudski-ites from socialist, landowning, and monarchist groups had driven the other parties entirely out of the picture.
But the first election returns after the coup d'état proved a disappointment. Pilsudski's political servants were in the minority. He suffered a paralytic stroke. He had never learned to stand up under failure. Recuperating, he began a new war with the new Sejm. For that purpose he had formed his own general staff, the so-called "Colonels," a militant, challenging group. Thrice Pilsudski and the Colonels tampered with the state laws of Poland, changing the Parliament and Constitution to meet their own requirements.
To his political enemies, especially those from his own former Socialist Party, Pilsudski became a ruthless figure. The ill-famed penitentiary at Brest-Litovsk ranked with those in vogue under the Tsar. Also sorely disappointed were those who thought a sufferer from the Russian de-nationalizing process would try to meet the wishes of the national minorities. Instead, seeking revenge for the former de-nationalization of the Poles, Pilsudski undertook the Polonization of the non-Poles. Himself a Polish patriot of Lithuanian stock, Pilsudski demanded from all citizens of all nationalities that same blazing Polish patriotism in which he had been bred. Any other reaction he considered an affront, a reproach directed at him personally for his own apostation from his own people.
The biographers of Pilsudski say that in his later phase he had no friends, only admirers -- and a mass of enemies acquired from the ranks of his former friends. His friendships had been formed at a period when he himself had been capable of friendship. That period past, it is doubtful whether he missed them very much. He felt compensated for the loss of his friends by an enormous tail of obedient political henchmen. There is a proverb which goes, "When a dog wags his tail enough, the tail begins to wag the dog." Was the dictator of Poland on the verge of making that discovery? And how would he have reacted? His death has deprived us of watching an interesting experiment in a political test-tube.