Stalin's Polish Puppets

By Teresa Toranska

Translated from the Polish by

Agnieszka Kolakowska

Harper & Row. 384 pp. $22.95

AS A REPORTER covering the rise and fall of Solidarity in Poland, I learnt two lessons about the nature of political repression. An organized minority can almost always succeed in imposing its will on the majority -- provided it is sufficiently ruthless, controls the security forces and means of communication and is supported by a big-power neighbor. There are, however, some things that cannot be blotted out by tanks and tear gas. This book, a shattering indictment of the methods used to build the Soviet Union's East European empire, is part of the Solidarity legacy.

What makes the expose' even more remarkable is that its principal authors are the very people who helped Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin consolidate his grip on Poland after World War II. Their intermediary is an enterprising pro-Solidarity journalist, Teresa Toranska, who took advantage of the political climate in Poland during the years 1980-82 to persuade five old-time Stalinists to justify themselves to history and a skeptical Polish nation. She makes no secret of the fact that she holds "Them" in utter contempt, revealing in passing that her own father was deported to the Soviet Union after the war.

Curiously enough, these early revolutionaries (normally so closed in revealing details of their own lives) open up under Toranska's hostile questioning. They describe how they "corrected" the results of a 1946 referendum to ensure a communist victory, reminisce about waiting in their offices for the late-night telephone call from Moscow, and explain why they were powerless to prevent the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands of their fellow-countrymen. One of the most evocative anecdotes in the book comes from the former party ideologist, Jakub Berman, who remembers dancing with Soviet foreign minister V.M. Molotov (Molotov, of course, leading) while Stalin wound up the gramophone. Such soire'es would frequently last to dawn, providing the suspicious dictator an opportunity to size up his "Polish puppets."

This was an era when the East European countries newly incorporated into the Soviet orbit were obliged to copy the motherland of socialism down to the smallest detail. Stalin liked the monumental "wedding cake" style of architecture -- so Poland was also obliged to adopt it, along with the Stakhonovite system of hero workers, socialist realism in the arts and collectivization of agriculture. Even football games had to be "corrected" to allow the Soviet Union to beat Poland year after year: Berman explains that a Polish victory could have triggered uncontrollable "anti-Soviet sentiments" among the population.

The excuses proferred by Poland's Stalinist leaders for their policies sound curiously like Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's justification for imposing martial law in December 1981. If they hadn't imposed order on Poland, the Soviets would have certainly done the job themselves with a great deal more brutality. "The Soviet army would have come in and crushed everything. EVERYTHING," insists Berman. Remarks Edward Ochab, the party leader at the time of the 1956 Poznan riots: "Politics is choosing the lesser evil, holding your tongue, and sometimes playing with marked cards."

"Them," first published in samizdat in Poland, is more than just a valuable historical source about an era that remains wrapped in secrecy. It provides a unique, first-hand insight into the Stalinist mindset, the Darkness at Noon mentality that is ready to justify any crime, any monstrosity provided it serves the "higher interests" of the revolution. Stefan Staszewski, the former party boss in Warsaw and the only one of the five interviewees who admits to having lost his Marxist faith, defines a communist as someone whose faith in the party is "uncritical at every stage, no matter what the party is saying."

To take this reasoning to its logical extreme, a real communist will cooperate in his own destruction if persuaded that it will benefit the party. This explains the grotesque spectacle of old-time Bolsheviks -- some of them men of great personal courage -- accusing themselves of the most absurd crimes at show trials organized by Stalin. "Faced with his own party, every party member is an absolute coward. He's scared of the party, really scared of it," says Staszewski. Remarks Berman: "For the old Communists serving the party was not merely a goal, but an inner need in life."

Toranska's interviewees display a crude realism that is both refreshing for anyone regularly exposed to Marxist-Leninist platitudes and shocking. These are people with few illusions about the Soviet Union or the extent of their own domestic support. Berman, for example, cheerfully acknowledges that free elections are impossible in Poland. "We can no more have free elections now than we could 10 or 20 years ago, even less so, because we'd lose. There's no doubt about that. So what's the point of such an election?"

THERE IS a kind of ghastly inevitability about the story of how Communism triumphed in Poland. "Puppets" is a good term for the people interviewed in this book. They were bound to Moscow both by ideology and politics. Stalin made sure they would not doublecross him by shunting their country several hundred miles to the west. In exchange for such cities as Lvov and Vilnius, which went to the Soviet Union, Poland acquired land inhabited for centuries by Germans. Without a Soviet guarantee of its western borders, "People's Poland" risked becoming a rump state.

This is a world in which right and wrong do not matter very much. What matters is the balance of power and the "forces of history" -- a euphemism for the Red army and the secret police. The same was true of the Solidarity period. Staszewski points out that many Solidarity activists assumed they would win because they were convinced that their cause was just. "They believed that if they went out on the streets, society would support them because they were right. They didn't realize that you can be right and lose; that being right doesn't guarantee victory," he adds, in a remark that sums up the tragedy of post-war Poland. :: Michael Dobbs, a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post, was a correspondent in Poland from 1980-1982.