1980: Solidarity in Poland

Solidarity and the Soviet Union

Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The formation in 1980 of the Polish trade union-cum-political movement, Solidarity, and the strike actions it organized throughout Poland profoundly disturbed Soviet authorities. It was, after all, acutely embarrassing for Marxist-Leninists to be confronted with a movement that so obviously enjoyed widespread support from among workers, the very class in whose interests the Polish and Soviet Communist parties claimed to rule. The ability of Solidarity to survive, despite coordinated attempts to repress it, demonstrated the weakness of the ruling Communist party in Poland, eventually leading to the demoralization of its leadership, and contributing to the collapse of ruling Communist parties throughout eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself.

The birthplace of Solidarity was the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. There, in December 1970, workers, disgusted with price increases in food, marched on the city's party headquarters which was set on fire. The ensuing strike and violence, which spread to other Polish ports, resulted in dozens of deaths. Over the next several years, as the Polish economy stagnated, strikes occurred at various enterprises throughout the country. Attempts to increase food prices again in 1976 provoked a wave of sit-down strikes and spurred a group of dissident intellectuals to form a Workers' Defense Committee (KOR). The increasing dependence of the Polish economy on western debt financing and the election in 1978 of the Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II emboldened worker-activists and put the Polish Communist authorities on the defensive. The immediate precipitant for the strikes that broke out in the summer of 1980 and led to the formation of Solidarity in August was a government decree raising meat prices. Over the next sixteen months, Solidarity and the Polish government engaged in a series of confrontations and negotiations, but without any clear resolution. On December 12-13, 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski, first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, ordered a massive military operation and imposed martial law. Solidarity's leaders were arrested and the organization was driven into the underground where it remained until 1989.

Documents from the Soviet archives demonstrate that the Politbiuro closely followed developments in Poland, and frequently consulted with and offered advice to Polish Communist leaders. On September 3, 1980, the Politbiuro came up with six "theses" on the situation, in which Solidarity was characterized as the "anti-socialist opposition" receiving assistance from abroad, and the Polish Communist party and the official trade unions were urged to take measures to strengthen their ties with the Polish working class and improve workers' standard of living. Subsequently, members of the Politbiuro reported on their meetings with Polish delegations, expressing their frustration with their counterparts' inability to restore order. Up to the declaration of martial law in December 1981, the Soviet leadership continued to extend economic assistance in the form of fuel and raw materials supplies, expressed doubts about Jaruzelski's firmness of intentions, but held to its position that Soviet armed intervention was out of the question.