Mihajlo Jagielo decided that the life of a senior communist apparatchik was not for him on the day the Polish "workers' state" sent tanks and riot police to crush a workers' trade union. So he switched to painting chimneys and contributing articles to a Jesuit newspaper.

The tragicomic twist of fortune experienced by Jagielo, the highest communist party official to resign in protest against the imposition of martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, is symbolic of the social and ideological upheavals in Poland's recent history.

This is the story of an honest man who discovered that the phrase "liberal communist" is a contradiction in terms. It is the story of how, during one revolution, the moderates were crushed between opposing political extremes. And finally, it is the story of what has happened to Poland in the five years since Solidarity was at its peak.

Jagielo found himself catapulted into a key post in the communist party's Central Committee -- in charge of overseeing Polish culture -- at a time when the regime was trying desperately to win society's confidence. He handed in his party card after coming to the conclusion that the only way communists could remain in power in Poland was through force.

In Warsaw, the Central Committee building is known as the White House -- the original color of the huge, neoclassical palace that serves as a monument to the centralized system of decision making in this communist country. During the 16-month Solidarity period, it provided an ideal vantage point for watching the behind-the-scenes intrigue that resulted in Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's military crackdown.

Like many Poles of his generation -- he was born in 1944 as his war-weary nation fell under Soviet domination -- Mihajlo Jagielo joined the communist party for entirely pragmatic reasons. The party seemed to be the only possible avenue for useful political activity in the mid-1960s. The choice was simple: either cooperate with the regime or give up all hope of changing things for the better.

He quickly discovered that there were other advantages to party membership. As head of the rescue service in Poland's southern Tatra mountains, he needed to buy specialized mountaineering equipment from Switzerland. To acquire the western currency to buy the equipment meant tapping his communist party contacts in nearby Krakow.

"It's ridiculous, but that's the way the system works. In order to buy ropes in order to save people's lives, I had to become a politician myself. Everything is political in Poland," he said in an interview in his modest three-room apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Jagielo's first crisis of conscience came in December 1970 when the communist party leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, ordered troops to fire on striking shipyard workers in Gdansk. Jagielo thought about quitting the party then -- but was persuaded to stay on after Gomulka was replaced as first secretary by Edward Gierek, a bluff former coal miner. Talk of political "renewal" filled the air.

Ten years later, Gierek went the same way as Gomulka, toppled from power by a tidal wave of industrial unrest along the Baltic coast. Yet another communist leader -- a thick-jowled peasant's son named Stanislaw Kania -- promised to try to regain the trust of the nation. As a symbol of his good intentions, a group of reform-minded communists from Krakow was drafted into the White House. Among them was Mihajlo Jagielo.

Disputes broke out almost immediately between the new apparatchiks and the remnants of the old guard. The reformers wanted the party to seize the political initiative by making sweeping concessions to the newly-formed independent trade unions. Their premise was that it was necessary to sacrifice a good deal of power in order to retain any at all. This was anathema to the hard-liners, who insisted that the party could not allow any challenge to its monopoly on decision-making.

"The party liberals wanted to work with society. We weren't willing to use ruthless measures to hang on to power -- and this was the cause of our undoing. The Bolshevik political model is geared toward grabbing and retaining power," said Jagielo, speaking softly as he recalled the internal party disputes triggered by the emergence of the Solidarity movement in August 1980.

The reformers within the Polish communist party were caught in a hopeless position. They were mistrusted by Moscow and opposed by hard-liners within the Polish leadership. Their well-intentioned efforts were also viewed with skepticism by ordinary Poles who remembered the failure of previous attempts at "socialist renewal."

Solidarity strategists were haunted by memories of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Kremlin, they recalled, had intervened to crush a reform movement launched by the communist party itself. Their conclusion was that it was better to leave the party unreformed, as a kind of ideological figleaf behind which society could organize itself as it wished.

The Solidarity analysis was correct as far as it went. The Soviets did refrain from invading. Power drained away from the party. But the apparatus of state repression -- Army, riot police and secret services -- remained intact. This was the power base that allowed Jaruzelski to move against Solidarity in December 1981.

"In mid-September, I remember telling Solidarity activists in Gdansk that there were some 3 million Poles ready to defend the existing system because change would be suicidal for them. They replied that I was terrified by Moscow," said Jagielo, recalling the recklessly optimistic spirit that prevailed in Solidarity in the final weeks of its existence.

"At that moment, I felt like a very old man who knows a lot, but to whom nobody is willing to pay the slightest attention," he added.

As an acting department head in the Central Committee, Jagielo was not informed about the preparations for martial law. His sense of impending doom was based on an awareness of the ability of hard-liners within the party to provoke a showdown with Solidarity. He first expected a military crackdown in March 1981, during the so-called "Bydgoszcz crisis" when several Solidarity officials were beaten up by police in Bydgoszcz, a city north of Warsaw.

Jagielo depicted party leader Kania as a sincere man hopelessly out of his depth in the ruthless world of communist power politics. Sympathetic to the reformers yet afraid of the hard-liners, eager to win popular support but anxious not to upset Moscow, Kania was politically paralyzed. In October 1981, he was moved aside to make way for the more decisive Jaruzelski.

Inside the White House, the party's bureaucratic machinery ceased to function. Rather than take responsibility for controversial decisions, many apparatchiks simply did not show up for work. Once-powerful committees dissolved themselves, leaving single individuals in charge.

In the cultural field, Jagielo was able to make decisions that would have been stalled by an army of bureaucrats under normal circumstances. He approved the screening of "Man of Iron," Andrzej Wajda's fictional reconstruction of the August 1980 strikes from an openly pro-Solidarity viewpoint. His only instructions were to keep the cultural scene as quiet as possible.

In retrospect, it was a Pyrhhic victory.

"Jaruzelski played a clever game with us when he became party leader," recalls Jagielo. "He called us his 'experts' and let us run the cultural policies as we wanted. Behind the scenes, he was busy preparing for martial law. We were used by him as a kind of masque."

The Solidarity stratagem of wearing an ideological figleaf to divert an opponent's attention proved extremely effective -- for the regime.

Looking back at the 16-month Solidarity period, Jagielo believes its major achievement was what he calls the "desovietization" of Poland. After 40 years of communism, people discovered that they were still able to think and act for themselves. The choice between cooperating with the authorities and retreating into political apathy was a false one.

"I finally realized that I was not owned by the state," remarked Jagielo.

Independent trade unions may have been crushed -- but the intellectual activity that flourished under Solidarity still exists. The underground press boasts about 700 titles, by the latest count, providing Poles with a variety of uncensored reading unmatched in the rest of Eastern Europe.

The major difference is that all this activity is less visible than before. Debates that used to rage in factories now take place more discreetly in church halls. Opposition newspapers that used to be read openly in the streets are now read -- almost as widely -- in the privacy of people's homes.

In Jagielo's view, street demonstrations against the communist government are pointless. They are easily put down by riot police and have little long-lasting effect. What is important is independent intellectual activity. This is the reason why, having left the party, he now writes for a Jesuit newspaper. Working for the church allows him to feel that he is serving the Polish nation constructively without serving the Soviets.

The day after he handed in his party card, Jagielo was summoned to the White House for a talk with the Politburo member in charge of culture, Hieronym Kubiak. A university professor known as a reformer, Kubiak tried to get him to change his mind, arguing that it was a "moral luxury" that the country could not afford.

Almost five years later, Jagielo is painting chimneys and Kubiak is still in the Politburo. But the former mountaineer has no regrets. Kubiak, he argues, has been deprived of real power. Stripped of his responsibility for culture, he is simply an ornament for the regime.

"I had a choice between committing political suicide and being submerged by the party machine. I left the party when I realized that I was as powerless as a puppet. A communist, even an honest one, is tied to the system," Jagielo said.