Volume 29, No.1 - Spring 1983
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Jakub Karpinski. Countdown. The Polish Upheavals of 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980 ... 

Translated by Olga Amsterdamska and Gene M. Moore. Karz-Cohl Publishers, Inc., New York, 1982.

Poland, in its one thousand years of recorded history, had had more upheavals than any country in that part of Europe. In addition to countless wars and occupations by various enemies, Poland has had at least five divisions of the country: three occurred at the end of the 18th century, one in 1939 when Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union tore the country asunder, and one final one in 1945. And yet, there was always something left of the irrepressible Polish spirit which was not divided, which was not conquered. One has to cast his memory back to the year 1939: after all, World War II was started, initially, because of Hitler's demands to Poland. Poland, since 1939, suffered more than any country in the world. Its loss in blood, in the ruins of its cities, in the indescribable suffering of millions of its inhabitants is well known.

One may have hoped that, after 1945, some measure of peace and tranquility may have been granted Poland. But it was not. Merely the very fact that, since 1945, Poland has endured Moscow's domination be it through the stationing of the Russian troops in Poland, be it through the deportation of thousands of Poles to Siberia, be it through the Russian police supervising the local Polish Secret Police, in one form or another, there was no end. Only a few thaw-periods.

And, in view of the clamping down of the martial law on December 13, 1981, and, a few months later, the abolishment of the only independent union in the Eastern Bloc, the Solidarity, the book under consideration, appears much more tragic and hopelessly sad. Therefore, it sounds really sad when one reads on the back cover-page of this book:

From the imposition of Communism in 1944 through the hopes and betrayals that followed, COUNTDOWN is a chronicle of the Communist experience in Eastern Europe, of idealism and cynicism, of resistance and collaboration often indistinguishable. It is at bottom a portrait of a divided country: of the ruling party and society embracing fundamentally different world views and set on a collision course.

COUNTDOWN records the disintegration of the Polish Communist party and the integration of Polish society, culminating in the birth of Solidarity in August 1980. In the face of a totalitarian dictatorship, Polish society has achieved an independence, unity, and democratic commitment that the Communist party ignores at its own risk and that physical force cannot destroy.

And this last sentence, one has to assume, written by some P.R. person in the publishers' establishment, sounds even more hopeless than the whole situation in Poland since 1945. It is true, the book presents the inner political/social/cultural movements in Poland since 1945, but, in the opinion of this reviewer, it fails in one fundamental aspect: it simply does not show clearly enough how the Soviet Union, with its Communist party, its Red Army, its secret police, has managed to keep this volatile and religious nation in almost total bondage, and now, in 1982, even more than in earlier years.

Many people, in Poland itself, in Europe, and elsewhere, think that, although more than 90% of the Poles, in their hearts, hate the Russians and their Kremlin with all its nefarious machinations, yet less than 3% of the Poles, seemingly, can rule and reign, in spite of the fact that the entire world knows it too.

The truth of the matter is very simple: Poland has to live, to survive somehow between two huge and rapacious neighbors: the Germans and the Russians. And no real help from anybody else, only empty words be they of praise for the Poles, be they of condemnation of the Russians . . . That is why the Poles are now disheartened and scared. They do not want to fight the Russian tanks, and they were forced to try and survive as a nation.

It is quite possible that the author of this book, Jakub Karpinski, is perfectly aware of the importance of the role of the Soviet Union in all of these developments, but he most probably takes it for granted that the reader is aware of it throughout. Karpinski was a leader of the student demonstrations at the University of Warsaw in 1968. For his activities, he was imprisoned in 1968, and remained in prison until 1971. Later, he became professor of sociology at the same university until he left Poland and then taught for a while at the London School of Economics. At present, he teaches at the State University of New York at Albany. While in the West he published several books, in Polish: Ewolucja czy rewolucja, Paris, 1975; Porcja wolnosci pazdziernik 1956, Paris, 1979; Krotkie spiecie marzec 1968, Paris, 1977. Several chapters of the present book, Countdown, are adopted and translated from the three books we have just mentioned.

The book has five chapters: Chapter 1. The Origins of the system; Chapter 2. A measure of Freedom; Chapter 3. Short Circuit; Chapter 4. Interlude; Chapter 5. Reckoning. The first chapter gives the brief summary of the events leading to the postwar Poland, the second one deals, primarily, with the events leading to the disturbances in 1956, the third chapter explains and chronicles events revolving about the happenings of the 1968, etc. The last chapter describes the events of the last decade, i.e., from 1970 until August 1980, when the Polish party and government were forced to grant Solidarity the official right to exist. Although the book is marked as having come out in 1982, it is clear that it was prepared and printed before the tragic 13 of December, 1981, when the martial law was proclaimed, which eventually led to the banning of the Solidarity in October, 1982. Apparently, the author was much more optimistic and much more hopeful for the better future for Poland because he ends the book with the following lines:

"In July 1980 new food price increases triggered strikes lasting throughout July and August. On August 16, 1980, an Interfactory Strike Committee was created in Gdansk, followed shortly afterwards by the creation of Interfactory Strike Committees in other cities. These committees formulated demands that went beyond the issue of prices and wages. Their demands included the right to self-organization, the defense of one's interests, safeguards against the authorities, and uncensored information.

The August strikes ended with the signing of agreements between the government commission and the Interfactory Strike Committees in Gdansk, Szczecin, and Jastrzebie. The signing of an agreement by the authorities with representatives of society was an unprecedented event in the Communist countries . . ." (pp. 201-202).

And the book ends in the sentence:

"The existence of effective social pressure opened a new chapter in the postwar history of Poland" (p. 202).

Unfortunately, that new chapter of the postwar history of Poland did not last very long. Clearly, Moscow could not tolerate this kind of unheard of agreement, this heresy of heresies: an independent labor organization. And, as we know very well, it was destroyed a few months later. Officially, it was done by the Poles themselves, but everybody knows that it was Moscow's doing using those elements of the Polish society, that very thin layer of people who just cannot give up their special shops, their privileges for special hospitals, summer homes, in simple terms, a much better living than the majority of their fellow compatriots who are suffering now more than before 1980. And, finally, maybe the worst of all this is that some of these party hacks and the fellow travellers think that they are saving the Poles from the final occupation by the Russian tanks leading to the bloodshed of undescribable proportions.

The banning of Solidarity has very wide implications not only for Poland but also for the whole of Europe both under the Soviet domination and the free part. Although officially, these peoples could not say anything, there was hope everywhere. Now, this hope has been smashed again, and, again. It has become quite clear that, in spite of all the idealism, in spite of all the efforts and sacrifices, Kremlin holds the final word, and is more determined, as of now, not to surrender it to anybody at all.

Thus, the book will be a fine monument of that hopeless albeit heroic fight of the people subjugated yet alive, suppressed yet free in their hearts, and only that gives some hope for the future.

The University of Rochester