Yet another realistic alternative was to simply let Poland go, and the minutes of the Politburo show that the Kremlin was, in fact, not entirely averse to considering that option,[54] in spite of concerns about the Polish unrest spilling over into other hitherto well-controlled countries of the Eastern Bloc[55] and even into the non-Russian socialist republics of the USSR itself, threatening domestic stability there.[56]  In any case, the Soviet leadership would clearly rather see Poland Finlandized than embark on high-risk adventures by suppressing social unrest with Soviet tanks the way this had still been possible in 1956[57] and 1968,[58] but was no longer possible in 1980.[59] Had Jaruzelski been aware of the viability of this option, the developments of 1989 could have materialized some years earlier—but in 1981, the Politburo did anything but publicly disavow the Brezhnev Doctrine, even if its actions were a lot more consistent with the Mikoyan Doctrine. Consequently, the Eastern European governments’ appetite for risk taking was naturally thwarted by their memories of global reactions to earlier repressions of the Hungarian and Czechoslovak uprisings. Yet the situation there had been entirely different: the Brezhnev Doctrine reserved the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a socialist country in the event that socialist order and principles were endangered. The reaction in Hungary and Czechoslovakia had been triggered by a departure from Marxist-Leninist doctrine by the communist party leadership itself. In the case of Poland, however, the PZPR did not stray from the line set out by Kremlin—it had only lost practical relevance to the country’s political scene. Weakened and impotent, the Polish United Workers Party threatened to become just a shadow of a government, vaguely reminiscent of prior Polish governments-in-exile, unable to either lift the country out of its chronic economic crisis or to at least placate its clamoring population with some temporary fixes.  Once the heavily politicized free trade union Solidarity was legalized, it became clear that the democratic process would eventually push the communists aside and install an independent government, replacing the empty communist rhetoric of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” with a genuine rule of representatives of the working masses. It begs the question whether the extent of special treatment extended to Solidarity’s leader Lech Walesa was not Jaruzelski’s and Kania’s insurance policy to secure lenient treatment of communist leaders in the event the Solidarity movement would succeed in taking power (which, in fact, happened in 1989, and communists promptly did not suffer all too many repercussions and indignities in the subsequent review process called lustracja). Not only did the Jaruzelski regime allow Lech Walesa to travel to the West with his entire entourage in January 1981, causing great upset on the part of the Soviets at a time when strict travel restrictions remained the general rule throughout the Eastern Bloc.[60] Walesa’s highly publicized four-hour meeting with the decidedly political Polish Pope John Paul II was also supplemented by meetings with Italian labor organizations, increasing the Solidarity leader’s visibility and prestige both internationally and domestically. That trip took place at a time when operational plans for the imposition of martial law and arrest lists of opposition leaders had long been readily prepared and finalized. But even after the imposition of martial law in Poland, when not only Solidarity activists but also previous communist elites, including the past First Secretary of PZPR, Edward Gierek, and his ex-prime minister Piotr Jaroszewicz were arrested, the treatment afforded to Walesa was far different than the treatment of others: while Gierek and Jaroszewicz were held in strict detention together with other party functionaries accused of common felony offences such as corruption, and complained about unjustifiably harsh conditions,[61] Walesa was kept in comfortable seclusion at a government facility under comparatively luxurious circumstances[62] at a time when the rest of the population continued to suffer serious shortages of food and basic necessities.[63] By comparison, other opposition activists were treated far less generously,[64] and some of them were not released from detention until a general amnesty postulated by many accomplished that at long last in 1986.[65] Thus, Jaruzelski’s ambivalent position vis-à-vis the Kremlin’s demands could be interpreted as his attempt to save face in the eyes of Polish public opinion and secure some support from Solidarity in case their “anti-socialist counterrevolution” did, in fact, succeed.

The imposition of martial law in Poland represented the optimal solution for the Soviet Union: although it did nothing to resolve the underlying causes of social unrest provoked by the country’s economic difficulties and lack of civil liberties, it did preserve the dictatorial rule of the communist party for several more years, until the final dissolution of the Eastern Bloc itself started again in Poland in 1989. Military intervention would have been an option far too costly for the Soviet Union both in terms of its political and economic consequences at a time when the focus of Soviet foreign relations was necessarily on detente, when the U.S. had turned increasingly uncooperative with respect to arms control, when Western Europe persisted with rubbing in the face of the Soviet leadership a wide range of human rights issues they had agreed to resolve under the Helsinki Final Act, and, most importantly, when the Soviet economy itself was at the brink of disaster and default as a result of chronic shortages due to the failures of its central planning and due to the mounting and alarming cost of its seemingly interminable Afghan war.  More importantly, however, there is very little evidence of any significance that a military option was ever seriously considered by Kremlin, the same Kremlin that endowed Wojciech Jaruzelski with unusual decisional autonomy once it became clear that the Polish crisis was rapidly spinning out of control.[66] Jaruzelski could have gambled and flat-out refused to impose martial law, knowing that, by every bit of political logic and information then available to him, the Soviets would not opt to use actual force,[67] and instead would let history run its course—or, in the alternative, he could have vacillated long enough for the same result to occur without antagonizing his Kremlin masters. But cracking down on Solidarity, even if late, kept Jaruzelski in power until the collapse of the communist regime, and his approach, even if deemed entirely too soft by Brezhnev, secured him the sympathy of the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev after the brief and stagnant interlude of Yuri Andropov, without antagonizing Solidarity leaders enough to exert vengeance against him in due time. Jaruzelski is still at liberty today, and in the eyes of the Polish public he retains the reputation of a deeply unpopular and ambiguous, albeit not quite criminal, historic personality. Jaruzelski’s scare of a Soviet invasion can be characterized as yet another propaganda move of many that were so popular throughout the Cold War period: its exaggerated threat ended in an anticlimactic domestic disciplinarian move that convinced both the American and the Polish public with a sentiment of shivers that, luckily, the worst had been averted yet again. In reality, and by the standards of historic consequences, the imposition of martial law in Poland had turned out to be little more than a self-serving public relations gambit[68] of this only lifelong professional soldier that ever became the leader of a ruling European Communist Party and subsequently rose to head of state.[69]


[1] Therein lay, in significant part, the historical significance of Deng Xiao Ping who, by dismantling after 1978 in all but name the ideological and dogmatic fundamentalism of Mao Zedong and his inner circle, and by reforms essentially introducing capitalism to China under a level of authoritarian central control, succeeded in perpetuating the power of the communist party elite if not of communism itself, for which at that point and after the experiences of forty years of Maoism few in China cared aside from ritualistic lip service and the production of libraries full of apologetic literature and reporting. It is virtually certain that Deng and his advisers had closely examined the reasons for the decline and collapse of the Soviet empire.

[2] There were widespread rumors that the Vatican bank IOR (Istitute per le opere di religione) had served as a conduit for the covert financing of Solidarity. Lewis, Paul. “Italy’s Mysterious Deepening Bank Scandal.” The New York Times (July 28, 1982) Accessed July 26, 2012. See also Salinger, Lawrence M. Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime.  Thousand Oaks, California and London: Sage Publications (2005).

[3] The term “Mikoyan Doctrine” was introduced by Csaba Békés to describe a policy first promoted by Anastas Mikoyan, First Deputy Premier 1955-1964 under Nikita Khrushchev, around the events of the Hungarian Revolution that would allow future domestic crises of Eastern Bloc countries to be resolved by internal, political means, rather than through direct Soviet military intervention. Békés, Csaba. Cold War, Détente, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Working Paper No. 7. The Cold War as Global Conflict. International Center for Advanced Studies, New York University. New York (2002). . Accessed July 26, 2012. This “hands-off” policy stood in stark contrast with what was later known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which asserted the explicit right of the Soviet Union to interfere in the internal affairs of socialist countries when their socialist regime was at risk. It is still being inconclusively debated whether the Brezhnev Doctrine was suspended already around the Polish Crisis, or only later, during Gorbachev’s perestroika.

[4] “S” was used as a cryptonym for Solidarity by both communist regime and Solidarity supporters.

[5] According to Janos Kadar, Polish communist party membership shrunk to about 3.5 million by the end of 1980. See “Minutes of Warsaw Pact Leadership Meeting in Moscow, December 5, 1980.” In: Paczkowski, Andrzej and Malcolm Byrne (eds.).  From Solidarity to Martial Law: The Polish Crisis of 1980-1981, A Documentary History. Budapest, New York: Central European University Press (2007) 149.

[6] Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza – Polish United Workers Party – the official communist organization ruling Poland in the Marxist-Leninist one-party political system prevalent among the members of the Eastern Bloc.

[7] Komitet Samoobrony Społecznej KOR (Committee for Social Self-Defense KOR) was an organization of opposition intellectuals established in 1977. At the First Plenary Meeting of the Delegates of Solidarity on September 23, 1981, KSS KOR self-dissolved and its members joined the ranks of Solidarity.

[8] See “Report on the domestic situation and proposals of actions by the Ministry of Interior, December 22, 1980.” In: Kropka, Boguslaw and Grzegorz Majchrzak (eds.). Stan wojenny w dokumentach wladz PRL (1980-1983). Instytut Pamieci Narodowej, Komisja Scigania Zbrodni Przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu. Warsaw (2001) 35-40.

[9]“Arkhipov: […] Right now the Poles need to pay off 1.5 billion dollars. This applies mainly to interest on previous debts. They are requesting 700 million dollars from us. Of course we can’t possibly come up with such a sum.” “Session of the CPSU CC Politburo, 26 March 1981.” In: Kramer, Mark (ed.). Soviet Deliberations during the Polish Crisis, 1980-1981. Special Working Paper No.1. Cold War International History Project. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (April 1999) 90. Total economic aid in hard currency supplied by the Soviet Union, including payments for servicing the foreign debt, deferrals of payments to USSR banks, and food purchasing facilities amounted to nearly $3 billion during 1980-1981. See Krawczyk, Andrzej (ed.).  Information on Soviet aid for PPR in foreign currency in years 1980-1981. Documents: The Suslov File. Warsaw: Polska Agencja Informacyjna, Wydawnictwo Interpress (1993) 101.