Eyewitness in Warsaw
An English authority on Soviet affairs, EDWARD CRANKSHAWwas in Warsaw when the Satellite Revolution boiled over; he had seen it coming and wished to be on the spot when the break occurred. The article which follows was written in the Polish capital and, coming to us airmail, was the last piece of copy in this issue to go to press. Mr. Crankshaw is the author of three books widely read on both sides of the Atlantic: Russia and the Russians, Cracks in the Kremlin Wall, and his recent Russia Without Stalin.
by EDWARD CRANKSHAW
I WRITE these words in Warsaw. Only a few weeks ago the Communist leaders of Poland, swept forward and upheld by a tidal wave of popular emotion, defied the somber phalanx of Soviet bosses, flown posthaste from Moscow to put the Poles in their place, and told them to go home. The Russians went. They took one look at the situation, understood for the first time the deadly seriousness of Wladislaw Gomulka and his colleagues, revised their preconceived ideas with commendable promptitude, threw questions of face to the winds — and went away.
While they flew off in the cold October dawn (they had only arrived the previous afternoon), the Polish Communists resumed the interrupted session of their Central Committee plenum and proceeded to vote into the office of First Secretary that Mr. Gomulka whom Stalin had always distrusted and then tried to kill. At the same time they dropped Marshal Rokossowski, their Minister of Defense appointed by Stalin. Then, through Mr. Gomulka, speaking in public for the first time since his release from prison, they proclaimed a far-reaching series of reforms, exposed the disastrous economic situation to which Soviet overlordship had brought them, and announced that henceforth they proposed to treat with the Soviet Union on an equal, but amicable, footing. They did all this while Soviet troops and tanks, brought out of their lairs by Marshal Koniev to support the demands put forward by his masters in the Kremlin, were still loose in the Polish countryside, and while Soviet warships were demonstrating off the Polish ports.
It was a stupendous victory, the greatest achievement of any nation since 1945; but at the time the Polish government played it down, not wanting, for obvious reasons, to heap public humiliation on their Soviet allies. It changed, in a night, the course of history and transformed the face of international Communism. But the fact of this great victory, this positive climacteric, was soon to be obscured (though not obliterated; far from it) by the smoke and flames of Budapest — and by the autumn madness which afflicted catastrophically the Prime Minister of Great Britain, plunging the Western world into confusion at the moment when clarity, imagination, and vision were demanded as never since the worst days of the war.
So it is that in Warsaw now nobody can guess the magnitude of the events of these past weeks, and nobody can see the wood for the trees — or Russia for the tanks.
Heaven knows what will have happened — in Poland, in Hungary, in the Middle East — before these words can be printed. And so the most sensible way to write about Poland today, and Hungary, is to sort out and emphasize what has already been done. This is not raking over past history. It is not falling behind the times in a period of swift and incalculable movement. The ones who fall behind the times are those who think that the latest news, the latest surface changes, are what matter. For the point to be grasped above all others is that what has happened during this past month in Warsaw and in Budapest has happened. Poland and Hungary may be submerged tomorrow, may already be submerged by the time these words appear, by the irresistible flood of the Soviet army. But what has happened cannot be taken away. And as the shouting dies down we shall see that, without most of us knowing it, we have crossed, on the backs of the Hungarians and the Poles, one of the great watersheds of history.
LET us look back to February, 1956, when Khrushchev demolished the Stalin legend in secret session at the Soviet Party Congress and the Poles started quickly to respond. Already, for some time past, the Polish intelligentsia, or part of it, had been showing signs of almost reckless boldness. Poets were printing verses which in Russia would have been taken for high treason; but nothing happened to these poets, or to the editors who printed their verses. There was a tentative stirring through the land. Outwardly nothing had changed. The Party had the country firmly in its grip. Edward Ochab, the First Secretary, was to all appearances a convinced Muscovite, bleakly bleeding his own country white for the benefit of the Soviet Union, supported and upheld by the allpowerful UB. the security police modeled directly on the Soviet MVD and brothers to the AVO of Hungary.
How was it possible for independent and critical voices to make themselves heard, however faintly, in this dead and blighted replica of the Soviet land? They did indeed make themselves heard, however; and they were not silenced. And this could mean only one thing: that appearances were not all, that the Party in its highest reaches had become infected with the new virus, that at least some powerful figures apparently absolutely loyal to Moscow were having doubts, or at the very least that they were misinterpreting the mood of Moscow. Thus when the Khrushchev speech was made known it fitted easily into an already existing mood, and the response was immediate and dramatic.
We do not know to what extent the “nationalists” of the Polish Communist Party believed that by permitting some freedom of thought and expression, some governmental experiment, they were obeying Khrushchev’s directive, or to what extent they used his words as a pretext for putting into practice their own new ideas. This hardly matters now, because events have in any case overtaken the Polish Communists. Certainly for a long time they made no official move to disassociate themselves in any way from their Moscow-dominated past. Government went on as before; the UB continued to flourish; the crippling Five-Year Plan continued, condemning the Polish people to dire poverty anti sometimes hunger; the foreign policy of Poland was geared precisely to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union; the Polish foreign office, indeed, was nothing but a branch of the Soviet foreign office.
Mr. Gomulka, lucky to be still alive, was released from prison, but the Party, including Ochab, continued to condemn explicitly the policies for which he stood and for which he had been cast out. The monolith, in a word, was still to all appearances intact; Poland was still a little Soviet Union, enjoying a milder regime, it is true, with the development of the Khrushchev new look, but still in chains.
Appearances were deceptive. They deceived not only the West; they also deceived the Russians. Because Poland is not Russia.
The Soviet Union has indeed undergone radical changes since the death of Stalin, and particularly since the crucial 20th Party Congress last February. But these changes have been Russian changes. I am going to indulge in a gross oversimplification because, in the space available, it is the only way to make clear the sort of thing that has been going on in Poland — the nature of the Polish changes (and the Hungarian) as opposed to the nature of the Soviet changes. The difference is the difference between Poland and Russia.
The Russian changes have been, like all change in Russia apart from periodical popular explosions, organized and directed from above. It would be inaccurate to say that in the Soviet Union there has been no pressure from below toward liberalization. Of course there has been; but this has taken the form of passive resistance to Kremlin policies rather than a positive impetus toward a better life. Throughout the length and breadth of Russia (as distinct from certain of the national republics) there has not been a flicker of the spirit which pushes men to the barricades, there has been no burning call for freedom — only an insistent, dull, sulky demand for amelioration.
There is no nobility in this demand, no pride. The Kremlin was forced to take it into account. And the Kremlin was also forced to take into account the paralysis of will and initiative, of mind and spirit, induced by the dead hand of Stalinism. The Kremlin, in a word, had to make calculations: how much liberalization, how much relaxation of detailed control from above, how much in the way of material incentives, were necessary to wake the country up and give the people, from the intelligentsia to the peasants, from government officials to factory hands, a more active interest in life.
The Kremlin made its calculations. Different leaders clearly had differing ideas, and conflict ensued. There was a good deal of experimentation on a trial-and-error basis and this continues. In some spheres of activity, notably in the arts and particularly the theater, the government had to restrain individuals from pushing ahead too fast; in others, notably in industry and the civil service, it is still having to push, to coax, to cajole, even to threaten individuals who are loo slow in exploiting the new opportunities. But the broad generalization remains: the changes have been initiated from above and the people take what they are given.
How different the picture in the satellites!
I have no doubt at all that Khrushchev and his friends had it in mind simply to extend the immemorial Russian process to the countries of Eastern Europe. In each of those countries there was a Communist government, loyal to Moscow, firmly in control. Each of those countries suffered acutely from the Stalinist paralysis. They were not pulling their weight in the economy of the Soviet bloc. They were suffering from overcentralized control. They, too, were to share in the new mood of relaxation. And I have no doubt at all that, as Khrushchev saw the picture, the requisite changes would be ordered and organized by the governments in power — as they had been by the Kremlin government — and the people would take what they were given and like it. The people, however, were not Russians: they were Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, and Albanians, and so were their leaders, who knew their own people better than Khrushchev knew them. They knew, that is to say, that outside Russia change and revolution come from below; that people, driven to extremity, are prepared to die for a word called Freedom; that bread and circuses are not enough.
This, as I have said, is an oversimplification; but it has a good deal of the truth. The love of freedom burns with varying degrees of intensity in different countries, but in all more than in Russia.
AT ANY rate, the new look in the satellites did not go according to plan, Moscow plan. Some governments resisted the new mood — the Czechoslovak government above all, and the Bulgarian, and, for a time, the Hungarian. Why? Partly no doubt because the Party bosses in these lands were by no means sure that the new look would last in the Soviet Union; but still more, I think, because they knew very well that the slightest relaxation spelled danger, and that if they were to retain their own positions they had to be circumspect indeed. The Hungarian situation was complicated by the importunities of Marshal Tito, who was determined for reasons of his own to bring Rakosi down. But the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the Rumanians, and the Albanians managed to a very considerable extent to ignore the Khrushchev directive and to play down the new mood. The same applied to the East Germans (the Communists of both East Germany and Czechoslovakia were helped by increasing prosperity, due to the advanced condition of their industries). Only in Poland and in Hungary — in Hungary largely because of Marshal Tito — was the new mood allowed to penetrate effectively.
Why in Poland? Obviously because parts of the Communist leadership became infected with the virus of freedom, no doubt appalled at the fearful mess they had made of their country’s economy under direct orders from Moscow, no doubt also influenced by the traditional hatred of Russia. At any rate, in Poland all this year there has been a ferment. And this ferment first found expression in the press—in the controlled press of a Communist satellite. For months while the official Party daily, Tribunu Ludy, was dishing out the official Moscow line, other papers — above all the revolutionary weekly, Po Prostu, and to a lesser degree the Warsaw daily, Zycie Warszawy—were discussing and criticizing with increasing boldness the facts of life as lived in Poland. The revolution in Poland — already called by the Poles, half triumphantly, half ironically, “the new October Revolution"—was begun and largely carried through by the press: by journalists, vulnerable and exposed, in a totalitarian land.
And then came Poznan and the parting of the ways. The riots were, above all, against exploitation, against the wretched living conditions imposed by the Soviet overlordship. But they were also against Russia, as such; against the detested UB; against those elements in the Communist Party which lived hand in glove with Russia. The riots were an explosion, and they were all the more formidable because the explosion had been pent up for so long. They gave the red light to those Polish leaders who were not color-blind. The parting of the ways was between those Communists who recognized the irresislible force behind the explosion — a force building up not only in Poznan, but everywhere throughout the land — and those who believed it had blown itself out and all that was needed to put the lid back again was a show of resolution and force.
Somewhere in the background at this time was Gomulka, readmitted to the Party after his long disgrace and imprisonment but still possessing no executive power. It was the presence of Gomulka, who, as a martyr and in spite of his rigorous Communist past, was fast becoming a national hero and symbol, which acted as a sort of catalyst. While the old gang of pro-Soviet Polish Communists, nicknamed the Natolin group after their meeting place, were determined to stop the riots at Poznan by the harshest measures of repression, others, working with Gomulka, and including the Party’s First Secretary, Ochab, as well as Jozef Cyrankiewicz, the Prime Minister, realized that the Party was caught between the irresistible force of popular revolution and the immovable object of Soviet power. They pushed against the immovable object. They had no choice, unless they were to be crushed in an uprising of popular wrath — and, lo — it moved.
They had the advantage over the Russians, because they knew what was going on. The first open division was revealed in that strange duologue between Khrushchev in the Soviet Union and Ochab in Poland. The riots, said Khrushchev, were due to Western subversion and provocationand he was echoed by the pro-Soviet Poles. Not at all, said Ochab, taking nearly everyone by surprise: the riots were due to shocking living conditions and bureaucratic callousness and inefficiency. He, the man who until very recently had been boasting of rising living standards, now said he sympathized with the workers of Poznan and elsewhere, and he would do his best to help.
Ochab, as I have said, knew what was going on. He knew that he was faced with a popular revolt, led and made articulate by intellectuals, against a totalitarian state — and that this revolt must succeed, unless put down by the military in the Hitler manner. He knew that the Polish army could not be relied on for this purpose. This meant that the only force available was the Soviet army.
He also knew that if the Soviet army intervened there would be civil war. He had in Gomulka a man who had comparatively clean hands, who was a profound patriot, who had suffered from the Russians. It was simply a question of coming to terms with him. Gomulka’s terms were high. They included the sacking of the pro-Soviet elements of the Party leadership, far-reaching reforms, and the abolition of the UB; some return to private enterprise, a great deal of freedom of expression, and the installation of Gomulka himself as First Secretary in Ochab’s place — from which eminence he would negotiate as an equal with the Russians, offering a loyal alliance in exchange for Polish sovereignly and demanding the withdrawal of Marshal Rokossowski and a host of Soviet generals from their positions of political and military supremacy. Gomulka carried the day. The 8th Party plenum of the Polish Workers’ Party, which was to welcome him back to the fold, purge the Party, commit Poland to a new course, and expose and denounce the evils of the past, was convened — and it was the sudden realization in Moscow that things had gone much farther than anyone thought which brought the Kremlin leaders hurrying to Warsaw and set the Soviet troops in action.
To no avail. The Russians had made the very great mistake, shared by many Western observers, of confusing the Polish revolt with Titoism. Tito, the dictatorial leader of Yugoslavia who had achieved his own revolution by his own efforts, revolted against Moscow interference, quarreled with Stalin, and took his country with him into the wilderness. The Russians thought that this was what was going on in Poland. They thought, in a word, that they were dealing with an internal Party revolt. They thought that all they had to do was to intimidate Gomulka and his supporters (how vulnerable, compared with Yugoslavia, was Poland — a flat land entirely surrounded by Russian troops, and with obedient Russian stooges in Czechoslovakia and East Germany!) by an overwhelming display of displeasure backed by an open show of force and they would nip the revolt in the bud. They realized, just in time, that they were not dealing with Titoism, but with something far more elemental and outside their experience: with a true revolution from below, which was driving the Polish Communists into the unknown, which could only be quelled, and at what a cost, by full-scale military intervention.
And so they gave in. Gomulka had won his victory. It was the most stirring victory for many dusty years. But to win a victory is not to win a war. And now, as I write, the final issue is still hanging in the balance. Gomulka, exhibiting extreme skill and tact, has inherited an economy in ruins and a people temporarily united but in an ugly mood. The events of Budapest nearly sent the Polish people up in flames. A standing nightmare for the new government is that angry workers and hotheaded students may provoke the Soviet army into savage reprisals, undoing at a blow all that has been done.
The balance between the Stalinists and the anliStalinists in the Kremlin sw ings to and fro, revealing nothing but uncertainty, dissension, and bewilderment in face of forces the Russian leaders simply cannot comprehend. They are now faced with the lesson of Budapest. Their restraint toward Gomulka has lost them Poland; their panic savagery toward the Hungarians is losing them Hungary. What conclusions will they draw from this painful and complicated lesson? We cannot tell. But whatever happens, the stand of the Poles and the Hungarians will not have been in vain. The international front of Communism, hollow behind the facade, has been broken.
Either the satellites will end up with a new freedom, or the Soviet army will have to intervene in strength, submitting the satellites to naked imperialism, costly in the extreme and devoid of the least pretense of moral authority.