Commentary Magazine


“Them”: Stalin'S Polish Puppets, by Teresa Toranska

Waltzing With Molotov

“Them”: Stalin’S Polish Puppets.
by Teresa Toranska.
Harper & Row. 384 pp. $22.95.

Some of the fascination exercised by Communism derives from the atmosphere of intense secrecy which has historically enveloped its leading personalities. Men of average ability—albeit of inordinate determination and single-mindedness—have often been able to reach legendary stature because crucial details of their biographies have been obscured or rewritten, and their thoughts concealed within an impenetrable fog of Leninist vocabulary and rhetoric. Even those who have fallen from the party’s grace, suffered the anguish of ideological disillusionment, or simply grown too old to fear official reprisal seem bound by a code of silence which prevents their speaking candidly about the historic events they have participated in.

This has been especially true of the generation responsible for the establishment of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Many of these figures spent their politically formative years in Moscow, where they were carefully schooled in the methods of Stalinism, to return to their native lands after World War II under the triumphant protection of the Red Army. Once in power, they often cultivated a remoteness from the public as pronounced as was the custom of their counterparts in the Soviet Union. In turn, they were despised by the people over whom they held sway, both because of the oppressiveness of the system and because they were themselves widely seen as agents of a foreign power and as men whose principal loyalty was to Stalin.

Nowhere was Communism so disliked, and individual Communists so reviled, as in Poland. The rather odd title Teresa Toranska has given her collection of interviews with leading Communists of the Stalinist era in fact says a great deal about the huge gulf separating Polish society and the small ruling Communist elite. The Communists themselves do not dispute their unpopularity. Jakub Berman, the regime’s number-two man in the late 40′s and early 50′s, leaves unchallenged Miss Toranska’s assertion that fully 90 percent would prefer a non-Communist Poland. His defiant response: “As to the fact that we were few, and still are, history teaches us that the minority always rescues the majority.”

There is a great deal of talk about history in these interviews: the lessons of history, the sweep of history, history on the march. The reality of Polish Communism having been such an abject failure, its advocates defend their faith with abstractions, or by citing the presumed achievements of the future. Edward Ochab, a leading party official for over twenty years who briefly served as first secretary, can speak with sincere disapproval of Communism’s record of repression, deceit, and ugliness (he himself was decent enough to resign his party positions in protest against the anti-Jewish campaign of 1967-68); yet in practically the same breath he rattles on about the early years of Communism as “the foundation of a new era, a people’s era, in the march toward a classless society.”

Still, try as her subjects may to camouflage matters when touchy issues are raised, it is a tribute to Miss Toranska’s tenacity as a questioner that the formulaic language of Communism is kept to a relative minimum here. A journalist with strong oppositionist sympathies, Miss Toranska was initially commissioned to conduct her interviews with the early leaders of Polish Communism by an official state publishing house. This, however, was during the period when Solidarity enjoyed an aboveground life; after martial law was imposed, the project was dropped. Nevertheless, Miss Toranska pressed ahead; her first group of interviews (there are seven in the Polish version, of which five are included in the American edition) has been widely circulated in samizdat inside Poland and has been translated into eleven languages. Another collection of interviews, it is said, is on the way.

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With one exception, Miss Toranska’s subjects remain devoted to the Leninist faith. This in itself is remarkable, since all were variously demoted, purged, humiliated, or turned into nonpersons. Thus, Roman Werfel, who functioned for a time as the leading “party journalist,” was expelled from the party in June 1968, presumably a victim of anti-Semitism. Julia Minc, an editor of party journals, was “retired” in 1956 along with her husband, who for a time had controlled all aspects of economic policy. Stefan Staszewski, who held various leadership positions, was stripped of power and later expelled, yet another victim of the anti-Jewish witch hunt. Ochab resigned because of the 1968 events; Berman was expelled in 1957 and retired after working another twelve years as an editor.

Yet of them all, only Staszewski broke with Communism; the others remain convinced that Poland was fortunate to have joined the socialist camp. Although they admit that distortions, errors, and even crimes occurred, they tend to ascribe these deficiencies to events or social trends over which the Polish party had little or no control. The harshness of the Stalinist period is blamed on the United States, for having triggered the cold war. The failure of Edward Gierek’s economic strategy is laid to a worldwide economic slump.

Another scapegoat is the Polish people, who stubbornly refuse to accept a Communist destiny. Miss Toranska’s subjects betray an antipathy bordering on contempt for the traits generally identified as making up the Polish national character: rebelliousness, a preference for private over collective ownership, patriotism, and, above all, the yearning for national independence. These qualities are dismissed by Roman Werfel as “provincial, parochial, chauvinism.” According to Jakub Berman, Poles are “weighed down by complexes” and suffer from “mental backwardness.” Again, we are told by Julia Minc that Poland’s economic difficulties are due not to any flaws in the system but to “a perfectly visible reluctance to work.”

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To what degree were the early Polish Communists the “puppets” of Stalin? The label is perhaps unfortunate. True, proximity to the Soviet Union and the occupying presence of the Soviet armed forces sealed the country’s doom after World War II. And clearly, certain policies deemed particularly offensive were dictated from the Kremlin and prosecuted, sometimes reluctantly, by Stalin’s Polish subalterns. But at least in its early years, Polish Communism was presided over by men and women who had devoted their entire lives, at no little personal risk, to the effort to bring about a social order roughly resembling Poland in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. Those interviewed by Miss Toranska take advantage of every opportunity to blame the Soviets for their more unpopular initiatives, yet on the fundamental questions—nationalization, collectivization, political pluralism, the autonomy of popular institutions—Polish Communist opinion was in total harmony with orthodox Soviet thinking.

Berman and others do plausibly contend that they resisted Soviet pressure to adopt policies which were likely to produce chaos and bloodshed. Thus, Berman tells us, they understood the folly of massive, overnight collectivization, and even at the height of Stalinist control the Polish leadership proceeded with caution in its dealings with the peasants. Yet at the same time Berman rather derides the peasants for their rejection of collectivization—socialized agriculture, he contends, would put an end to the poverty and self-exploitation which are the dominating characteristics of the peasant’s life—and goaded by Miss Toranska he finally admits that political control of the countryside figured prominently in the regime’s thinking:

Let’s be honest about this: the peasant can also put a knife to our throats if we don’t have any back-up instruments in the countryside. We mustn’t be totally dependent on their private farms. . . . Why are they so terribly difficult to deal with? Because we haven’t got any more wheat for bread. And the amount of persuading we have to do to get these peasants to give us their wheat!

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The Polish party also attempted to blunt the impact of Soviet-mandated cultural policies, but according to Stefan Staszewski, who was responsible for the introduction of socialist realism throughout Polish artistic life, resistance had to be waged through the most prudent bureaucratic methods. Once Stalin decided that a policy was to be adopted throughout the bloc, overt opposition was futile. Indeed, the cultural climate became so heavily politicized that a decision on whether to publish two short stories actually came before the Politburo, the highest-ranking policy body.

The Soviet grip reached well beyond the cultural realm. The Soviets appointed the judges who heard politically sensitive trials and, of course, exercised considerable authority over the security apparatus. Berman even admits that Polish soccer teams deliberately lost matches to Soviet clubs, a practice which, astonishingly, he endorses on the ground that at these contests Poles frequently gave vent to chauvinistic and anti-Soviet sentiments. He also explains how high Polish party officials arranged their schedules to suit Stalin’s peculiar late-night work habits. But the story which perhaps best illuminates the political atmosphere of the period is Berman’s grotesque account of his dancing with Molotov at one of the ghastly midnight dinners which were Stalin’s favorite form of amusement:

Q. Surely you mean with Mrs. Molotov?

A. No, she wasn’t there; she was in a labor camp. I danced with Molotov—I think it was a waltz, or at any rate something very simple, because I don’t know the faintest thing about dancing, so I just moved my feet in rhythm.

Q. As the woman?

A. Yes, Molotov led; I wouldn’t have known how. . . .

Q. What about Stalin—whom did he dance with?

A. Oh, no, Stalin didn’t dance. Stalin wound the gramophone, considering it his duty as a citizen. He never left it. He would just put on records and watch.

Q. He watched you?

A. Yes, he watched us dance.

Q. So you enjoyed yourselves.

A. Yes, it was pleasant, but with an inner tension.

Q. You didn’t have fun, really?

A. Stalin really had fun. For us these dancing sessions were a good opportunity to whisper to each other things that couldn’t be said out loud. That was when Molotov warned me about being infiltrated by various hostile organizations.

Q. Was it a threat?

A. No, it was called a friendly warning. He took advantage of the situation—or perhaps he’d even arranged it himself, since he was the one who asked me to dance—to mention, in passing, a few things which he thought it would be useful for me to know. I took note of them and didn’t say anything in response.

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Finally, there is the issue of official anti-Semitism, which like so much else in the history of Polish Communism has both Polish and Soviet roots. As in many postwar East European countries. Jews were disproportionately represented within the hierarchy of the Polish Communist party. Many Jews held high posts within the security forces, making them particularly vulnerable tagets whenever the party, or the Soviets, needed scapegoats to propitiate a restive populace. One especially insulting method of sending the message that a particular Jewish party member was slated for purge was to have the media publish both his party pseudonym and, in parentheses, his real (i.e., Jewish) name.

During a visit to Poland, Khrushchev pointedly told the leadership that the Soviet Union maintained a numerus clausus for Jews: Jews were 2 percent of the population, and made up 2 percent of the ministries. When asked by Staszewski if such a quota might not represent a violation of revolutionary principles, the Soviet leader observed that while he was not personally an anti-Semite, “you have to know the limits.” Subsequently, Jews holding influential positions in the Polish party were shifted into less prestigious jobs, often in publishing houses. Even after this humiliation, the Jews could not escape the stigma of their birth. Staszewski relates the disgraceful story of how, in the late 60′s, editors of the Polish General Encyclopedia were persecuted by ultra-nationalist party elements, the putative grounds being that they had had the temerity to publish in the Encyclopedia the number of Polish Jews who had died in the Holocaust.

Staszewski observes that “the party always has to have an enemy in order to consolidate its ranks.” This is because Communism’s premise of material abundance and equality is so obviously false. Indeed, those interviewed by Miss Toranska are at their best when speaking of the scheming and duplicity that were normal features of party life; they are at their weakest concerning policy matters, or in addressing questions about the supposed achievements of Communism. In a sense, therefore, the revelations in “Them” simply ratify what is generally known about Communism’s record of failure. But the wealth of details and anecdotes, coming from the mouths of those who helped shape that tawdry history, make this book an indispensable source in the literature of the Communist experience.

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