On Wednesday, 16 November 2011, Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz – Professor of History and current holder of IWP’s Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies – delivered the sixth in a series of biweekly brown bag lectures entitled “Intermarium: The Lands on the Edge.”
The lecture focused on the crucial 1980s, a decade characterized by the implosion of communism-proper, paving the way for post-communist “transformation” during the 1990s.
As Dr. Chodakiewicz pointed out in lecture no. 5, the Sovietization of the Intermarium in the wake of the Second World War initially generated large-scale, popular resistance throughout the region. Communist terror, coupled with a lack of forthcoming Western assistance, succeeded in squashing overt armed opposition. Most members of societies occupied by communist regimes accommodated the new rulers whilst engaging in various forms of covert passive resistance. Most commonly, this amounted to soft sabotage through a lax, sluggish, and negligent work ethic. In addition, the population resorted to corruption to navigate the oppressive system. Unfortunately, these habits were all too often internalized, breeding pathologies and cynicism. Last but not least, the peoples of the Intermarium (as well as others under the Marxist-Leninist yoke) resisted official indoctrination by assuming that reality consisted of the opposite of propaganda. Yet, a knee-jerk negation of the Lie fails to lead one always to the Truth.
The communist system eventually became less repressive – both to impress the West in order to obtain loans, and because the population had already been sufficiently terrorized – but all manifestations of active opposition were ruthlessly suppressed. Often, the communists even managed to confine information about riots and protests within their own borders.
Even so, the “Solidarity” movement in Poland challenged the communist regime, and its influence spread beyond the frontiers of the Polish People’s Republic. Simultaneously, the new triumvirate of Pope John Paul II, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and President Ronald Reagan embraced a more realistic policy towards the Soviet Bloc with the goal of winning the Cold War.
The Soviet response to the coalescing of these unfavorable circumstances came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform. The goal, of course, was not to usher in democracy, but to save and bolster the Soviet system. His reforms constituted an attempt to emulate Lenin’s NEP. Gorbachev’s lauded Glasnost’ campaign was, in reality, an effort to introduce a Leninist-Stalinist denunciation campaign, initially limited to large enterprises. Soon, however, the frustrated population became emboldened and Glasnost’ snowballed, moving into apartment buildings. Moreover, the Soviet Empire’s numerous nationalities now seized the opportunity to voice their grievances. Anti-Soviet opposition was the strongest in the Baltic republics and the weakest in the Central Asian ones. Meanwhile, confused orders emanated from the Center in Moscow. Eventually, even the Soviet media began to address hitherto taboo subjects, such as Stalin’s crimes. Dr. Chodakiewicz pointed out that totalitarian systems are particularly vulnerable when they attempt to reform themselves, and the Soviet Bloc during the late 1980s served as a case in point.
The regime proved unable to contain the forces of long-suppressed social and ethnic discontent that its reform attempts had unintentionally unleashed. To acquire Western capital, Gorbachev wished to appear as a liberal reformer in the West. Thus, in spite of ruthlessly squashing several protests in the USSR, he proved unable to launch a Stalinist crack-down which would have killed millions. Dr. Chodakiewicz pointed out that some in the Soviet leadership seriously entertained plans to drown anti-Soviet opposition in the blood of approximately 1-3 million people. Yet, any attempts by the hardliners to assert power faltered with the failure of the Yanaev Putsch in August 1991, which sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.
Shifts in the Center’s political line naturally spilled over into the satellites. The Kremlin’s satraps in Poland and Hungary eagerly supported Gorbachev’s “reforms” whilst its underlings in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania proved uncooperative. To prod the latter, the KGB initiated “active measures,” such as spreading rumors and inciting student protests in favor of Gorbachev’s perestroika policy. Prague and East Berlin eventually buckled. The most intransigent vassal, Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, was, in turn, executed by his own men in December 1989. Approximately half of his secret police (the infamous Securitate) and security detail were simultaneous KGB employees. In general, the Gorbachevians strove to repeat the grand postwar deception operation whereby the communists initially formed and eventually dominated coalition governments with malleable, left-wing allies. In Poland’s case, the regime introduced perestroika packaged as an alleged reconciliation with “Solidarity.” The aim was to co-opt and control the popular movement’s liberal and leftist elements.
Yet, in spite of the utmost attempts by the communists to control events, the law of unintended consequences soon took its toll. The safety valves, once opened, rapidly burst under the pent-up pressure of decades of anti-communist anger. Even so, the apparatchiks proved sufficiently cunning and savvy to emerge generally unscathed from the implosion of the Soviet Bloc. During the era of post-communist “transformation” the post-communists often managed to consolidate and regain much of their power and influence throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
Dr. Chodakiewicz shall address this topic on Wednesday, 30 November at 2PM.