But they were tired old men who lacked the energy, will and imagination to deal with a crisis they knew was upon them. The decision-makers in the Kremlin were all in their late sixties or seventies and mostly in poor health. The Boss - more
capo di capi
than Tsar - was still Leonid Brezhnev, now seventy-six. The others all deferred to him, even when he was in his dotage and unable to work more than an hour or so a day. No major decisions were taken without his approval as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Towards the end of his life he appeared a ludicrous figure to be in charge of one of the world’s two superpowers. But he had not always been so. For more than a decade after he took power in 1964 from Nikita Khrushchev, he was a vigorous and impressive man, gifted in many ways. He may not have been much of an intellectual but he understood intuitively the nature of power and nobody knew better than he how the Soviet system worked.
Brezhnev had been a great bear of a man, immensely strong and physically fit. But from 1974 he began developing arteriosclerosis of the brain and suffered a series of strokes. He stumbled as he walked and slurred his speech. At moments of high stress he blacked out. The disease profoundly changed his personality. In his prime he had an easy-going charm, a cheerful disposition and a good sense of humour. He became a peevish old man as his nervous system collapsed. He was now prey to deep black moods and would often burst into tears for no obvious reason. He started to suffer from chronic insomnia. Brezhnev’s condition was aggravated by an addiction to sleeping pills and opiate-based tranquillisers. Occasionally he would take too many and end up comatose, followed by days of severe sluggishness. His doctors stopped prescribing the drugs, but his retinue of sycophantic cronies slipped him the pills without the physicians’ knowledge. Invariably he took them with his favourite Zubrovka vodka. The doctors and his more devoted security guards realised what was happening and would dilute the vodka with boiled water. Brezhnev sometimes looked at the glass and said: ‘There’s something not quite right about this vodka.’ The Kremlin’s chief physician, Yevgeni Chazov, concluded that Brezhnev’s addiction ‘contributed to the collapse of the national leadership’.9
He spent his days reclining on a divan closeted away with his cronies, the chief of whom was his long-time friend, Konstantin Chernenko, whom Brezhnev had made head of Communist Party appointments. Brezhnev used to love driving fast cars. He had a large collection of BMWs which he would steer at dangerous speeds on the narrow corniche roads around his villa in the Crimea. Now his favourite pastime was playing dominoes with his bodyguard Alexander Ryabenko. He displayed ever-increasing vanity. By the time he died he had accumulated more medals and honours than Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev combined. Entire history books were written about his war record - in truth undistinguished - which hagiographers absurdly presented as the crucial contribution towards the defeat of Hitler.
It was evident that Brezhnev was in serious decline but the truth about his health was a state secret known only to a few Kremlin insiders, close family members and some bodyguards sworn to silence. Elaborate efforts were made to hide the full extent of his infirmities from the Russian people and to prepare him for public appearances. On the big holy days of Soviet socialism, May Day and 7 November, the official anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, special escalators helped him climb up to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square. He was determined to be seen and to show the world that the Soviet Union was in safe hands. He even managed to make fairly frequent speeches, though his doctors admitted later that they were never sure that he would make it back from the podium. Speechwriters were told to ensure that they never used words he had trouble pronouncing. Doctors with resuscitation equipment travelled with him wherever he went. Chazov, as Brezhnev’s personal physician, went along with this charade reluctantly. The effort ‘to hide the General Secretary’s state of health was not only hypocritical but sadistic’, he said later.10
A troika of Party oligarchs ran the Soviet Union’s day-to-day affairs. Yuri Andropov was heir presumptive. No previous head of the KGB had climbed to the very top in the Soviet Union, but the devious sixty-nine-year-old spy chief had been carefully plotting for years to gain the prize. He was a man in a hurry, already diagnosed with a serious kidney condition, who knew his own time was limited. He was the first to be told of the details and extent of Brezhnev’s illness, but kept the information to himself for a long time, justifying the subterfuge to Chazov. ‘For the sake of peace in the country and in the Party, for the well-being of the people, we must keep silent,’ he told the doctor. ‘If a struggle for power begins in conditions of anarchy, at a time when there is no strong leadership, it will lead to the collapse of the economy and the entire system.’11
Andropov had a sharp analytical mind and was deeply sensitive to the dangers of ‘losing’ any of the satellite states of Eastern Europe. He had been Soviet Ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and played a prominent part in the brutal response to the uprising, when 2,500 Hungarians died. In 1968 he was a strong voice in favour of suppressing the Prague Spring. Andrei Gromyko, seventy-one, had been Foreign Minister for a quarter of a century, the stern, unbending face of Soviet diplomacy, known by successive Western governments as ‘Comrade Nyet’. Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, seventy-two, the Defence Minister, was a martinet with deeply orthodox views. He had been a bemedalled hero in World War Two, the Great Patriotic War, but not for fighting. He was the efficient organiser of the evacuation of the Soviet defence industry eastwards to Siberia, which contributed hugely to Russia’s victory. He still saw it as his job to speak for the military industrial complex - by 1980 the Soviets were producing 350 fighter planes, 2,600 tanks and heavy guns and 350 nuclear missiles each year.
A key decision facing the Soviets was what to do about Poland. It had to be referred upwards to the highest level. Though Brezhnev’s attention span was brief and his powers had waned, the major decisions were left to him. The Soviets were well aware at every stage of the deal Gierek was making with Solidarity. They had been kept well informed by the Polish Communists and by their own man on the spot, Ambassador Boris Aristov. They did not like it, but grudgingly they accepted it. As Aristov reported, it was the only way to get Poland back to work.
The ink on the Gdansk agreement was barely dry before the Soviets started looking for ways to subvert it. They regarded the Accords as merely a tactical retreat. Andropov ordered his own aides in the Lubyanka to draw up a response to the comrades in Warsaw. Just three days after the Gdansk agreement was signed a highly secret message was sent to Gierek and the Polish leadership. The text had been approved by Brezhnev, Andropov and Gromyko and seen by only a few Kremlin aides outside that trusted circle. It was meant as a rap across the knuckles and a warning that the Polish Communists had to crack down on Solidarity, whatever deal may have been reached with them. The Gdansk agreement, it states:
is a very high political and economic price for the ‘settlement’ you have achieved. Of course, we understand in what conditions you have had to take this difficult decision. The agreement practically means legalisation of the anti-socialist opposition . . . Now your task is to prepare a counter-offensive, and to win back the lost positions in the working class and among the people . . . To make efforts to restrict the activity and influence of the so called ‘self governed’ trade unions . . . To actively infiltrate the so called ‘self governed’ trade union with people loyal to the Party . . . In these conditions, you should clearly indicate the limits of the permitted. You should say openly that the law forbids statements against socialism.’12
But Gierek and his entourage were reluctant to embark on a renewed conflict with Polish workers which they thought they would lose. Instead they breathed a sigh of relief that the strikes were over - and proceeded to drift. In Moscow the magnates were losing patience. They met inside the Kremlin on 29 October amid general agreement that there was a ‘counter-revolution’ in Poland, which had to be reversed. Brezhnev felt this was important enough for him to be there in person. He complained that ‘Wałesa is travelling from one side of the country to the other and they honour him everywhere across Poland. The authorities are doing nothing to stop this outrage . . . Polish leaders keep their mouths shut and so does the press. Not even television is standing up to these anti-socialist elements.’ The newest and youngest member of the Soviet leadership, Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed. He said: ‘We should speak openly and firmly with our Polish friends. Up till now they haven’t taken the necessary steps. They’re in a sort of defensive position and they can’t hold it for long - they might end up being overthrown themselves.’
Gromyko was still furious about the rapturous reception the Pope had received in Poland the previous year. He accused Polish priests of inciting people to ‘political hooliganism’ and inciting ‘counter revolutionary disturbances’. He said: ‘The Polish Communist Party isn’t putting much effort into the struggle . . . things have reached the point when thousands upon thousands of people are crawling on their knees before the Roman Pope.’13
Instinctively, the Russians thought of a military answer, the kind of brutal solution they had adopted at other times they perceived a threat to the socialist bloc. Their first reaction was to order the Soviet General Staff to lay plans for a full-scale invasion of Poland. But they swiftly decided against military intervention. The difficulties were immense. They did not want worsening relations with the West and they knew the Poles would fight back. Instead the Soviets tried to bluff the Poles into thinking that theywould
send in tanks, hoping to make the Polish leadership act for themselves. It was an elaborate ploy. The most senior generals from all the Warsaw Pact countries were summoned to Moscow on 4 December to put the final touches to long-planned exercises, codenamed Soyuz, which were due to start at midnight four days later. During the meeting the Soviet delegation told the Polish generals, in private, that in fact Soyuz was not going to be an exercise, but a real invasion of Poland. They let the Poles see the maps which showed exactly where the Pact’s armies would be deployed in a carbon copy of the invasion of Czechoslovakia a dozen years earlier. The Soviets let it be known that the East Germans were insistent on the invasion and had promised three divisions. The prospect of German invasion troops entering Polish towns, according to the Soviets, really worried the generals from Warsaw. Secretly, Russian officials were reporting back to the Kremlin what the real purpose of their plan was, so we know now that there was never a real intention to invade Poland. ‘We must subject the Polish leadership to constant pressure,’ Marshal Ustinov told Brezhnev, Andropov and other colleagues. ‘We are planning manoeuvres in Poland . . . we should extend these manoeuvres so as to create the impression that our forces are ready to intervene.’14
The intimidation worked, up to a point. The Polish Communists drew up their own plans to introduce martial law and prepared a list of 4,000 Solidarity activists who would be interned immediately, with Lech Wałesa’s name at the top. Yet, maddeningly for Moscow, no action followed. In September the Kremlin bosses ousted Gierek. He was replaced by a new Communist Party boss, Stanisław Kania, and a new head of government was named, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, an experienced soldier who the Soviets hoped would be made of sterner stuff. But still the Polish Communists prevaricated.
The year and three months after Solidarity was legalised were, even by the anarchic standards of Polish communism, a baffling time. On the surface it remained a People’s Democracy. But scratch the carapace and the country was transformed utterly. There was a revolution in thinking, during which Poles began learning the truth about their recent history. There was something like free assembly and free speech, for the first time in nearly half a century. A parallel society developed at breathtaking speed. Solidarity achieved something that was not just unique in Eastern Europe but seemingly impossible. ‘I thought it was impossible, it was impossible. I still think it was impossible,’ Kuron said later. Communism did not disappear - far from it. But in many sectors of society the most repressive aspects corroded and fell into disuse. Within a few weeks Solidarity had more than eight million members, more than twice as many as the Communist Party. For a mass organisation - any organisation - to exist alongside the Party but outside its control was unprecedented.15
publications had always existed in People’s Poland. But now ‘illegal’ newspapers mushroomed and in effect they were permitted. The authorities made no serious efforts to halt them, though they still censored the official press as before. The Poles had another word for samizdat -bibula
(lavatory paper), because that was the quality of the paper on which most of them were printed. Now twenty-five new magazines and newspapers of good quality were produced every week on decent presses with big circulations of more than 50,000 each. The Independent Publishing House NOWA run by Mirek Chojecki - a true hero of the struggle for press freedom - also published hastily produced editions of long-suppressed classic texts and modern masters. Orwell’sAnimal Farm
was published in Poland for the first time, as was Polish exile Czesław Miłosz’s powerful and compelling critique of communism,The Captive Mind
. One of the most extraordinary events was the poet Miłosz’s emotional return to Poland from Scandinavia after receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. The film director Andrzrej Wajda’s tributes to the Polish working class,Man of Marble
andMan of Iron
, used to be shown to small groups in private homes. Now they were on general release. This period was ‘a revolution of dignity, a celebration for the rights of vertebrae, a permanent victory for the straightened spine’, said Michnik.16