Jamie Glazov: The Communist Collapse: Twenty Years On, an Interview with Pavel Stroilov

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror.]

Twenty years ago, the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to fall one by one -- so quickly that the coming months will be very dense with 20th anniversaries of great historic events. That was the final battle of the Cold War, where the Iron Curtain was finally broken, and the monstrous Soviet Empire ruined. Freedom triumphed in Europe at last. Or so it seemed. For the next twenty years have shown that that victory was not as final as many hoped during that momentous autumn of 1989. Once more, we are threatened by the surviving heirs of the Soviet monster -- from the KGB regime in Russia to Middle Eastern terrorists, to the leftist collaborators in the West.

How did the communists wriggle out of what appeared to be their historic defeat? The answer to that question may very well be found in Soviet secret archives, which show the 1989 events in a profoundly new light.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, who has smuggled thousands of secret documents of that period out of Russia. In a series of anniversary interviews, we are going to re-examine the events of 1989.

FP: Pavel Stroilov, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Let’s begin with the first domino: Poland .

The Mazowiecki Government, the first non-communist government, took office on August 24, 1989.

What can you tell us?

Stroilov: The establishment of the Mazowiecki Government is sometimes seen as the final victory over Poland’s communist regime; but unfortunately, the reality was more complicated. That government was created by a compromise between the communists and the anti-communists, the so-called Roundtable agreements. Poland’s presidency was reserved for the Communist dictator, Gen. Jaruselski. As he himself commented behind closed doors: ‘metaphorically speaking, I have leopard-crawled around the elections into the position of president.’ (Transcript of the meeting between Gorbachev, Jaruzelski and Rakowski on 7 October 1989 in Berlin).

In the same way, the communists leopard-crawled into two thirds of seats in the Sejm – only 35 per cent of seats were democratically contested. Five ministers in the Mazowiecky Government were communists, and another six were former communists. Tadeusz Mazowiecky himself was chosen for premiership as a compromise figure, precisely because he was known as a moderate; the same was true about other ‘Solidarity’ ministers in that government.

The Roundtable agreements were, I believe, a tragic mistake of the opposition and a clever trick of the communists. It was the regime’s last, desperate attempt to salvage itself, an attempt which failed only partially.

FP: The significance of these events?

Stroilov: A lot of significance and it goes far beyond Poland. The events in Poland created a universal model of transition from communism to post-communism, and therefore, to a high extent determined the face of the whole post-communist world. The Polish example was followed in many other countries in 1989-1991, as the communist regimes fell one by one. Even much more recently, when we had the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, it ended in a kind of a roundtable agreement between the old regime and the democrats; when the communist regime was about to fall in Zimbabwe, it salvaged itself by its own roundtable agreement with the opposition. Right now, the Russian regime is trying to sell the Roundtable idea to the Chechens as a substitute for proper peace negotiations. And I fear we shall see more of such ‘roundtables’ when the communist or quasi-communist regimes reach the brink of collapse in Cuba and Venezuela, in Iran and Syria, in China and North Korea.

FP: Tell us what was wrong with this model in Poland, and what is wrong with it elsewhere.

Stroilov: To begin with, the communists only agree to negotiate a compromise when they are really driven into a corner. They would make concessions only as an alternative to complete capitulation. But then, what was the point of talking to them? According to the transcript of their meeting on October 7, 1989, Jaruzelski confided to the Soviet leader Gorbachev: ‘If not for our decision to create the Mazowiecki Government and to participate in it, we would have been defeated hands down in half a year.’ He was echoed by his party’s First Secretary Rakowski:

‘Walesa has now realised he has made a mistake by agreeing to form a government led by “Solidarity” figures. I think, if we were to keep all the power to ourselves, in half a year we wouldn’t have so much as a position of a gate-keeper. But now, the time is working for us, not for them.’ (Transcript of the meeting between Gorbachev and Rakowski on 11 October 1989).

Roundtable talks are always based on this kind of idea: ‘Communists or anti-communists, we are all Poles, we love our country, and together we can find the best solution to this crisis’. This is simply wrong, because a Communist’s homeland is wherever the red flag is. In this particular case, Polish communist leaders were Soviet-sponsored Gauleiters, and of course, all their moves in the Roundtable game were agreed with Moscow in advance.

Here before me lies the transcript of Mikhail Gorbachev’s meeting with the Polish Ambassador Czyrek on September 23, 1988. Czyrek explains that the Polish comrades want to start negotiations with the opposition. ‘Our tactics is to divide the opposition, to drag it, along with Walesa, into the realistic constructive mainstream, into the process of national reconciliation and revival’, he says. Gorbachev gave his approval, and only then the whole thing started. On October 21, 1988, Gorbachev discussed it in detail with Rakowski, and made him promise they would not concede Socialism as such:

M. RAKOWSKI: […] These are the specific subjects we are prepared to discuss.
M. S. GORBACHEV: But within the framework of the country’s socialist choice?
M. RAKOWSKI: Of course. It is precisely on this point that the opposition is divided. Its extremist part openly states its intention to push for a step-by-step movement towards a change of the regime.

Here we come to the most fundamental flaw of the roundtable model: while the opposition sincerely views those talks as negotiation of civil peace, the regime is playing a game of tricks. It was in these very terms that the communists described it between themselves – in the same conversation, Rakowski says: ‘If we play our game at the “roundtable” well, we can win many people over to our side’. As a consequence, the regime is consolidated, and the opposition is divided. That was the dominant theme in the discussions between Polish and Soviet communists in those months: how the Roundtable has created divisions between ‘Solidarity’ and the Catholic Church, between Mazowiecky and Walesa, between ‘Solidarity’ leadership and its parliamentary group; how they could identify several distinct factions in the opposition – ‘Catholic faction’, ‘Social-democratic faction’, ‘political science faction’ (whatever that was supposed to mean), ‘Jewish faction’, etc., etc.; how Archbishop Glemp was at odds with most of his clergy and suspicious of ‘the Jews’; how ‘the Jews’ were hostile to ‘Catholics’, and of course, how all these divisions could be useful to communists.

Basically, the strategy was to split the opposition, to provoke feuds, to isolate each faction, and then to corrupt and manipulate it to the benefit of the regime. In Rakowski’s words, ‘We shall play every key of the Polish piano.’ (Transcript of the meeting Gorbachev and Rakowski on October 11, 1989...

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