The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
On Novy Swiat, a main downtown street in Warsaw, there is a women's lingerie store called Bardotka, a diminutive for the surname of the celebrated French actress. To a Western resident of Moscow (or most other East European capitals) where such establishments tend to have names like Wearing Apparel Store Number Six, the Polish whimsy is remarkable. The observation, however, is not nearly so lighthearted as it may seem at first. There is a growing divergence between the Soviet Union and its largest ally that is understandably a matter of the utmost sensitivity for both countries. Profound differences in the way Poles and Soviets order their worlds in the 1970s start with superficial points of style, but they extend increasingly to fundamental issues of politics, economics and ideology.
Official Poles prefer not to discuss the subject openly with outsiders, but they do acknowledge that for all their supposed commitment to Soviet ideals, Poland today is in certain key respects much as it might have been had the communists failed in their takeover bid three decades ago. The Catholic Church has as strong a hold on the national spirit as ever, despite the regime's concerted antagonism. The Polish Church, with about 30 million adherents in a country of some 35 million people according to accepted estimates, represents the most formidable organized opposition force anywhere in Eastern Europe. Nearly 75 percent of the country's agriculture remains in private hands with no prospect of widespread collectivization. There are, by recent count, 188,000 privately owned businesses and small manufacturers employing about 400,000 people. And the numbers are rising.
Not that Poland is about to break away from the Soviet orbit. No one encountered there, including the most disenchanted intellectuals, seriously thinks such a thing is possible or even worth considering, given that the consequences would almost surely be catastrophic: memories of Czechoslovakia 1968; Hungary 1956; indeed, Poland 1830 when Nicholas I crushed a popular rebellion and then told assembled Polish noblemen, "I am, praise God, Emperor of Russia and by virtue of this title you belong to me."
Rather, the developments in Poland are taking place within parameters set by the Kremlin for the classically imperial purpose of assuring Moscow's leaders the security and allegiance they demand as the price of Warsaw's independence. The result is a system formally patterned after the Soviet model, guaranteed to support the Soviet Union in the international arena, a staunch and unquestioning ally in the Warsaw Pact and COMECON.
The official structure remains today as derivative of Russian authoritarianism and doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism as, say, Bulgaria's. Party leader Edward Gierek presides over a self-perpetuating Politburo and Central Committee backed by a powerful police and internal security apparat. To understand the strength of Moscow's grip, one has only to witness an event like the recent dedication by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin of a massive new steelworks at Katowice. The new plant features a special rail line to the Soviet frontier which eliminates the time-consuming job of switching wagon-gauges there - an important aid, as any Pole will tell you, to invading Red Army troops in a crisis. Gierek's fawning manner on such occasions is indistinguishable from that of Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov or East Germany's Erich Honecker.
Yet the realities of Polish life today are a great deal more complicated than genuflection to the Kremlin would indicate. Behind the totalitarian front, government actions and policies reflect a wide array of competing influences, many overtly hostile to the Communist Party, that can neither be suppressed nor ignored. The phenomenon is not a new one in Poland, but it is becoming more evident as time passes.
A Soviet satellite with politics that are so much its own is plainly difficult for most Americans to fathom. When Gerald Ford, for example, made his famous gaffe in the second television debate with Jimmy Carter last fall, asserting that Poland was not under Soviet domination, he was certainly confused. In an important sense, though, he was not altogether wrong. Speaking only a short period after the Polish worker riots of June 25, 1976 forced the regime to rescind steep food price increases overnight, Mr. Ford doubtless had in mind to indicate that the Polish people can affect what their government does. He was correct in suggesting, however obliquely, that Poles in that regard are better off than their Russian "big brothers."
From as far back as the turmoil in October 1956 that brought Wladislaw Gomulka to power, down to the Gdansk docker riots in December 1970 that toppled him, and most recently the continuing tensions in the wake of the June 1976 disturbances, events in Poland demonstrate why the Party leadership has to accede to public sentiment: the alternative is upheaval. The Kremlin has clearly been persuaded that it is not worth the ignominy of a direct intervention to suppress these outbursts. Thus, the Soviets have to tolerate in Poland a degree of open defiance that would be intolerable in the Soviet Union itself. Even Western hard-liners would concede that a population that has the initiative and courage to act on its grievances cannot be considered wholly subjugated. As one senior diplomat in Warsaw explained it in an interview, Poland has developed a kind of "negative democracy" - a people's veto.
In sorting out the intricate and delicate relationship between the regime and the people in Poland and how both relate to the Soviets, two points need to be stressed:
- The forms of protest in Poland that are probably best known to foreigners, such as the worker strikes, are actually part of a broader climate of ferment in the country, encompassing the great bulk of the people in one way or another.
- The response of the leadership to these challenges has been flexible, even conciliatory, definitely far more responsive than the Kremlin would be, based on its record.
The Bardotka shop is symbolic in a way of Poland's deceptive bolshevism. Poles are still as different in manner and custom from Russians - witness the quaintly polite use, for instance, of Pan and Pani, roughly Sir and Madam - as Americans are from the French. Western visitors, especially those who have been elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, are invariably struck by how chic many younger Poles are, how many have traveled extensively in the West, how stunning much of their modern art and design is, how adventurous their theater and films can be, including material imported from abroad in strikingly large amounts. In Warsaw one week not long ago, there were 17 movie houses showing Polish films, 15 featuring American films, nine showing French films, nine with other Western films, and only two with Soviet attractions.
Long after most other East European avant-garde directors who emerged in the thaw of the Khrushchev era have given up in frustration and emigrated to the West, outstanding Polish talents like Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi are as exciting as ever, perhaps even more so.
These are not merely trivial nuances of style. There can hardly have been a more provocative film made anywhere in the past year than Wajda's Man of Marble. The movie is about the cynical exploitation of a Stakhanovite hero laborer in the early 1950s as uncovered by a young woman preparing a documentary about him in a Polish film school. The laborer is eventually jailed because his integrity has made him a political nuisance, and dies, we are led to believe, in the 1970 Gdansk riots. Cool portrayals of Stalinist types such as a secret police agent transformed 20 years later into the manager of a Warsaw striptease club are gripping. But most important is the strong suggestion that, while contemporary behavior is more sophisticated than its crude antecedents, it is little better.
As the movie ends, the director of the film school is telling the student that her documentary is too sensitive and will not be accepted. For all his well-tailored suits, his ascots, his French sunglasses, his well-traveled urbanity, the director is still a frightened person. The really remarkable fact, of course, is that with so sharp a message, Man of Marble was ever released.
When the film opened in Warsaw in March, huge crowds gathered out of curiosity and because there were rumors that it would be quickly withdrawn. Officials insisted that no such plans existed. Western correspondents were told that censors had wanted to delete only one scene in which the laborer is being prepared for his heroic feats with enormous platters of ham and pork. Meat shortages being one of the most contentious issues in the country, it was thought better to remove that moment. Wajda protested and the scene was left in. There was probably a good deal more to the story than that, a round of high-level deliberations at least. Reliable reports circulated that Gierek himself had finally authorized release and approved distribution of the film throughout the country. Months later it was still playing.
Reviews in the official press were generally circumlocuitous, but Wajda spoke pointedly enough in an interview with a literary weekly when he observed that films in Poland lately "say something other than just what a fine artist one is." He said his next film, "though I don't know what it will be about, will certainly be a continuation of the way of showing things . . . applied in my last film." A man like Andrzej Wajda could survive within the system in the Soviet Union. But he could not flourish.
In a sense, a film like Man of Marble can be viewed as strictly a cultural event. Poles manage, however, to extend searching examination of their situation into purely political debates also. One of the most important in recent years concerned the country's constitution. Little attention was paid abroad to the debate because it took place in the winter and early spring of 1976, before the worker riots of June reminded foreigners of the potential significance of Polish public opinion.
At issue were several amendments evidently intended to bring Poland's 1952 constitution into line with others in the Soviet bloc. These would have sanctioned the Communist Party as "the leading political force in the country," stressed Poland's "inseparable and unbreakable" ties with the Soviet Union, and declared that "citizens' rights are inseparably linked with honest fulfillment of their duties to the socialist motherland" - which the Church saw as an infringement on religious liberty.
Open opposition came initially from scores of prominent intellectuals, figures like the much loved (now deceased) poet Antoni Slonimski and the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, author of Ashes and Diamonds. These were not "internal emigrants" or outcasts in the way so many Soviet dissidents tend to be, people whose outspokenness has already cost them their place in society. Indeed, one signatory on an early petition was the wife of a leading Central Committee member. Their argument was broad, implicitly an attack on communist autocracy, but its essence was that making permanent bonds to the Soviet Union a constitutional principle threatened Poland's national sovereignty.
Next came a formidable attack from Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. The aged primate of Poland's Catholics declared that these "seemingly insignificant alterations" would create "further divisions between the Party and non-Party Catholics." He particularly condemned a provision that prescribed criminal penalties for using "religion for political ends" - the sort of generality that Wyszynski well knew could mean greater suppression.
Publicly, official spokesmen played down the objections, although any acknowledgment of dissatisfaction is a concession in itself. The Warsaw newspaper Zycie Warszawy reported that the "overwhelming majority" of letters it was receiving "generally accept the proposed amendments. Some . . . proposed certain changes and suggestions. There is also a very thin margin - one in every thousand - of people critical of the draft constitution, people who are never satisfied with anything."
But privately negotiations were underway both within the Party itself and between the Party and the Church. The principal mediator for the process was Konstanty Lubienski, a scholarly, elderly member of the Znak Circle, a small Catholic group in the National Assembly that is a representative of Church interests in state affairs, to the limited degree possible. Gradually, the Cardinal eased his opposition. The intellectuals did not have direct discourse with the leadership but their complaints (eventually hundreds of people had signed various petitions) clearly had some impact.
As presented to the National Assembly in February 1976, the constitution described the Party as "a guiding political force in the construction of socialism," substantially less than the leading role originally envisioned. The reference to "inseparable and unbreakable" ties to the Soviet Union was omitted. The section on citizens' rights merely asserted that people should "honestly fulfill their duties toward the motherland." Criminal provisions that offended Wyszynski were also gone.
Obviously the leadership had the power to push through the amendments without regard to objections. ("Why did we need a new constitution?" Poles joked at the time. "The old one had never been used.") But Gierek and his colleagues plainly recognized that to do so risked exacerbating relations with the Church and the intelligentsia on a basically rhetorical issue. Because, however it may be phrased, the Party runs the state. Nonetheless, the ability of the Church and establishment intellectuals to deter the doctrinal Sovietization of Poland does preserve for Poles some sense of determining their own destiny.
The point is particularly striking when the constitution affair in Poland is contrasted with the "debate" just ending over a new constitution in the Soviet Union. While a great deal of verbiage has been generated in praise of that document, put forth last spring to replace the charter compromised by Stalinist abuses, not a single substantive item is likely to be modified. Certainly there will be no changes in sections pertaining to the supremacy of the Party or the definition of citizens' rights.
What happened in Poland - in effect a bargaining process between the state and opposition elements - would be inconceivable under current circumstances in the Soviet Union. Criticism there is considered ipso facto evidence of disloyalty and disqualifies the dissenter from any meaningful role in internal affairs. Whereas Poles frequently employ overt forms of pressure on the leadership, Russians, except for the scattered few prepared to risk severe punishments, dare not.
Yet another recent instance of Poland's "dialogue" (a pessimist would probably describe it more as a test of wills) concerns the country's private farmers. With the strongest peasant class in Eastern Europe, a bastion of traditionalism and religion, Gierek faces a problem that puts him virtually outside socialist norms: feeding a population with the fruits of private enterprise. (It is fascinating for an outsider to watch the richest of Poland's kulaks drive up to luxury hotels in their Mercedes-Benzes and flash thick wads of zlotys in the most expensive restaurants.)
A sharp drop in meat output in the mid-1970s, an economic calamity of the first order, was caused as much by a belief among farmers that their holdings were threatened by the government as by bad weather. Despite official assurances that no major changes would be made, several purportedly technical adjustments in the agricultural laws alarmed the farmers, whose suspicion of Party moves is considerable in any event. In 1974 it was decided to stop selling land to farmers through state-run land banks although conventional hand-to-hand sales were permitted. Farmers reacted accordingly. In 1973 they bought 225,000 acres, in 1975 only 40,000 - a sign of how their confidence had been jolted.
Then a law was announced in the spring of 1976 that would have enabled the state to take over farms that were demonstrably unproductive. Landowners were alarmed and investments continued to drop sharply. Some smaller farmers (almost 60 percent of the country's farms are smaller than 12 acres) held back their produce altogether. Local officials were ordered into the fields to find out what needed to be done to turn matters around.
In January 1977, a special Central Committee plenum was convened and Gierek pledged again that the Party's attitude toward private farming was positive, "long-term and stable." The takeover law was abandoned. Land banks resumed regular transactions. For the first time, farmers bequeathing land to their heirs were eligible for state pensions. Previously the only way to get a pension was to give up the land to authorities. Farmers, the plenum declared, would be encouraged to purchase capital equipment and reach an optimum size of 30-40 acres per farm. A disparity between urban and rural incomes still exists at just under 20 percent. But on that score the regime is pretty well stuck, as it was an effort to boost retail prices, which would have provided higher payments to farmers, that set off the June 1976 disorders.
To an extent the leadership's reactions in all these disparate cases - a politically probing film, a controversy over constitutional semantics and conditions for private farmers - are determined by purely practical considerations. Gierek, after all, came to power in 1971 precisely because Gomulka had proven so remote, insensitive, clumsy and repressive toward the end. For several years the new administration made the right moves: staple food prices remained frozen; incomes rose at over ten percent a year; investment capital was poured into a modernized industrial plant largely purchased in the West; consumer output was increased; cadres led by the Party chief himself were directed to stay in touch with popular sentiment.
Gierek's gamble was that the payoff would come in good will, a public understanding of why food prices needed to be raised, and an increase in productivity that would enable Poland to amortize its billions of dollars in debts to the West. In effect, he hoped that prosperity would follow once the economy had been suitably stimulated and that Poles would be satisfied with prosperity.
Gierek was wrong. Occasional meetings with selected miners in Katowice, his old comrades, tended to substitute for genuine consultations with the people. Despite a beneficial overhaul in the country's administrative structure, bureaucratic rigidity and the ingrained dogmatism of corporate communists could not be overcome. There were poor harvests to complicate the agricultural shortages (Poles are convinced their best produce is shipped to the Soviets). Instead of gradually introducing higher prices, the whole package was announced at once, for an average boost of about 60 percent. Incredibly, the high-handed approach was the same one used by Gomulka in announcing price increases six years earlier, which led to his downfall. Gierek's goodwill, such as it was, was spent in repeating his predecessor's mistakes.
Yet Gierek and his advisers have also shown a capacity to assume the blame for their errors and take steps to rectify them. "Our work," said the Party paper Trybuna Ludu, summing up the events of 1976, "is not easy and nobody says that it is free . . . of subjective errors and mistakes. Poland has been created not by robots, but by human beings [who] . . . sometimes want to achieve their beautiful social and personal life goals more quickly than calculated caution indicates . . . ."
Just as the leadership had understood the need to modify its initial stand on the constitution, it was prepared to backtrack in the prices showdown. Commissions were formed to study the issue while the old prices stayed. Economic plans were hastily revised to reduce expensive new investments without any sacrifice to consumers. There were also the benefits to farmers discussed earlier. The country's private sector was given additional room to expand. Moscow was persuaded to provide substantial extra aid in goods, raw materials and credits. Meat exports, according to government figures, were drastically curtailed (although the supply in shops continues to be mystifyingly small). "We are trying to find untapped resources and propose new solutions," asserted Trybuna Ludu.
In short, the purely tactical choice was to mollify the population rather than face the certain bloodshed and bitterness of a tougher stance, although in economic terms that might have proved more practical.
But the actions of the Polish leadership could well have a deeper motivation, so subtle that it may not be explicitly recognized by ordinary Poles themselves. This is the possibility that the sheer tenacity of Poland's adherence to certain institutions and mores - the Church, private agriculture, Western habits and styles - is producing a society more inherently liberal (in our terms) than had seemed likely before. Quite simply, the regime views its internal order differently than the Russians do theirs. And after the upheavals of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the Soviets have finally accepted that a Poland wholly in Russia's image is impossible. "We understand how complicated" is the molding of Poland as a "socialist society," Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev told Gierek in Moscow in November 1976, "and we know of the difficult problems you must decide." Poland may now be licensed, therefore, to fashion an image of its own, less doctrinaire than the Soviets yet nominally just as socialist.
There was a fascinating hint of that in an article last winter by Mieczyslaw Rakowski, editor-in-chief of the leading Polish weekly Polityka and an influential member of the Central Committee. He wrote:
The creators of Poland's socialist system were the generation of interwar communists, who at the turn of 1945 had only one experience to fall back on: the Soviet one. At present, in the more than 30 years that have elapsed since the end of the Second World War, there exists a world socialist system; there exist powerful communist parties with diverse views as to what socialism should be. The wealth of forms and ways of resolving various economic and social problems used by the individual socialist and communist countries cannot help but encourage a successor generation of Polish Communists to conduct a creative search. That is in line with human nature as well as the ambitions of Poles. Perhaps not everyone is aware of the fact so it bears repeating that creative searching and a restless spirit have occupied an important place in the tradition of the Polish Communist movement. It wouldn't hurt for those who criticize our system from the Right and from outside our Party to bear this fact in mind.
One should not exaggerate. The Poland of Edward Gierek is still a very long way from Eurocommunist pledges of pluralist democracy or even Alexander Dubcek's espousal of "socialism with a human face." Developments in Poland (to repeat) must always take place within the context of ultimate Kremlin hegemony. There cannot be, as there were in Czechoslovakia in 1968, indications that relations with Moscow should be changed somehow to lessen Soviet primacy. There is always what Jacek Kuron, spokesman for the dissident Workers Defense Committee (established to support workers jailed during the June 1976 disorders) calls "the Soviet tank factor." And it is accepted by everyone in Poland. In an interview with the National Broadcasting Company in Warsaw in May, Kuron put the issue this way:
There are two models of Soviet intervention. One was used in Hungary, the other in Czechoslovakia. The Hungarian model involves intervention in the face of an explosive situation . . . in reality an uprising which reaches the pinnacle of power. . . . The prime tenet of Polish policy ought, in my opinion, to aim at checking such an explosion, acting to stem its progress and stop it from happening. The other model of Soviet intervention is the Czechoslovakian one. Here intervention takes place as a result of reforms made at the top. And here the Moscow leadership has considerable leeway in that it can choose the moment when these reforms reach such a stage as to endanger the [Soviet] empire. In Czechoslovakia only very little was required to bring in the tanks. However, that should not suggest that the line is a rigid one or that one might go only as far as the Czechoslovaks.
Such factors as Soviet interest in East-West détente and the prospect of armed resistance from Poles, Kuron argues, "would not be taken lightly at the Kremlin" in deciding whether to intervene:
Therefore I think the possibilities for reform in Poland are very promising . . . at the same time I think that for the present [it is necessary] to maintain a totalitarian facade. Our [the dissenters'] program must be to create a pluralist society beneath this totalitarian facade without disturbing it, to create unofficial social institutions representative of the people's aspirations.
From what are very clearly dissimilar perspectives, Rakowski, the official, and Kuron, the radical, are approaching a similar conclusion: Poland can continue to differentiate itself from the Soviet Union to serve the special needs and demands of the Polish people without posing any anti-socialist challenge to Moscow. Obviously that sort of distinction will never be in the Party platform. It also seems highly doubtful that Gierek will ever tell the Russians, even in the greatest secrecy, that his popular standing, indeed his own survival as the events of June 1976 show, requires that he follow domestic policies specifically less autocratic than the Kremlin's. But that is the situation.
Given the prospect sooner or later of a Eurocommunist government somewhere in Western Europe, it would seem to Soviet advantage to allow Poland the leeway it seeks. The Kremlin would almost certainly find it easier to cope with the impact of communist parties participating in the governments of France or Italy, committed to free elections and human rights, if it devises a way now to accommodate to "liberal" tendencies among the satellites.
To a degree, of course, that is already the case with Poland and Hungary as well. Romania has successfully maintained its maverick status in international affairs for more than a decade by knowing exactly the moment to reassure Moscow of its loyalty. In handling last winter's flare-up of dissent throughout the bloc - Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Romania's Paul Goma, the Kuron group in Poland, writers in East Germany protesting the exile of singer-poet Wolf Biermann - the Soviets plainly gave each of the regimes wide latitude to be firm or lenient, so long as the strategy was effective in quieting things down.
The question remains, however, how far the Soviets are prepared to go along in allowing challenges to State supremacy that are far more basic than the complaints of intellectuals. At what point does the Kremlin start to regard the tremendous vitality of the Polish Church as a threat? Can a private sector permanently be allowed to thrive? Will capitulation to worker demands simply produce a chain reaction of new ones? Does Moscow fear that liberalism abroad inevitably means trouble at home?
Kuron and others optimistically suggest that the Soviets would swallow a great deal more than they did in Czechoslovakia because the only way to stop reforms would be brutally, and that the Gierek regime cannot afford. These Poles contend that so long as what happens in Poland is not presented as a direct affront to Moscow, a deliberate break from Soviet ways declared as such by the leadership, the Kremlin will do no more than grumble.
Polish officials are not so certain. It makes them extremely nervous to have Westerners take note of how much less repressive the country is than the Soviet Union. Comparisons to the Soviet Union are only useful to Poland, they say, if they favor the Soviets.
In other words, Gierek must try to keep some sort of balance between increasing Polish public assertiveness and the evolving limits of Soviet tolerance. The crisis would come if the former starts to far outstrip the latter.
A scenario for such a crisis was played out in May when a young student in Krakow, a supporter of the Workers Defense Committee, was found dead in the stairwell of the tenement where he lived. Fellow students and dissidents claimed he had been beaten to death by security police. A requiem mass and nighttime march through the Krakow streets attracted thousands of people. Masses were held in Warsaw and other cities. Official spokesmen countered that the student had been drinking and had fallen. Kuron and a number of other WDC activists were jailed to prevent them from taking part in the demonstrations and to punish them. But police made no further effort to break up the gatherings in Krakow or elsewhere. Church officials then permitted a week-long hunger strike in a Warsaw cathedral. The moment was extremely tense. Yet all sides remained reasonably cool, fearing that an outbreak of violence might prove uncontrollable. In July the arrested dissidents were released and charges against them dropped.
No one expects Gierek to announce any code of civil rights relaxing political and ideological restrictiveness or to dismantle the state's security system. But it is possible that the tendencies toward official responsiveness, tolerance of public voices, private economic initiative and cultural innovation will be accepted as immutable. It is possible that Poland will go further toward respect of personal liberties - as far, in fact, as the Soviets will allow. In that case, there has to be a continuous process of testing and tension to find those Soviet limits. In the process, if Gierek cannot maintain the equilibrium between his constituencies in Poland and Moscow, he will fall.
So long as the Poles have to contend with what they wryly call their "Wild East," American influence in Poland will be limited and subject to the vagaries of U.S.-Soviet ties. Poland nonetheless maintains a special relationship with the United States. It was the first of the Warsaw Pact countries to get most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status. It sends more than five times as many students to U.S. universities as the Soviets do. Polish-Americans, whose sentimental attachment to the Old County is very strong, visit each year in large numbers and several thousand have settled there in retirement. (By contrast, Czechoslovakia and Hungary have no MFN status, few students in the United States and relatively little American tourism.) The Carter Administration's best hope for encouraging the liberalizing instincts in the Polish leadership is to broaden the existing relationship - which may prove easier than in the recent past. Good ties with the United States are extremely popular among Poles, and more than any other regime in Eastern Europe, the one in Poland feels a need to muster all the popularity it can.