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POLAND: The Razor’s Edge

4 minute read

From time to time a Stalin purge victim turns up quietly in Moscow, but last week was the first occasion one was received with bands playing and flags flying. As the train bearing Poland’s First Party Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka pulled into Moscow’s Belorussian station, a curious crowd pressed at the barriers for a glimpse of the man Stalin had jailed as a suspected “Titoist” in 1951 and whose recent rehabilitation had caused Stalin’s successors much concern. Only a month ago First Party Secretary Khrushchev, flying in to Warsaw, had brushed Gomulka’s hand aside, crying: “Traitor! I will show you what the road to socialism looks like. If you don’t obey, we’ll crush you” (TIME, Oct. 29). Now, as Gomulka stepped out, the trace of a smile on his thin lips, Khrushchev and Premier Bulganin, plump as penguins in their astrakhan greatcoats and caps, waddled forward to pump the lean Gomulka’s hand.

The Old Jargon. “I am glad to be in the glorious capital of the great Soviet Union,” said Gomulka. “Nothing is more important than our fraternal and friendly relations.” Then, looking past the microphones, he let his thin smile fade and spoke with deadly earnestness: “The most lasting foundation for such relations are the Leninist principles of equality of rights of small and great nations . . .”

The Russians grinned. These were the very words they themselves use to describe their proposed new Commonwealth of Socialist Nations. If only Hungary’s deposed Communist Premier Nagy had spoken as correctly. Instead Nagy, yielding to the pressure of his people (and perhaps his conscience) had declared for neutrality, had denounced the Warsaw Pact and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Nagy had committed the cardinal crime of admitting non-Communists to his government. The good Gomulka, made wise by subsequent events in Hungary, had emphasized “accord” with the Soviet Union, had reaffirmed the Warsaw Pact and was rebuilding his government on strictly Communist lines. As they all drove off together in big black limousines, Kremlin cordiality seemed to promise a set of formulas aimed to satisfy Polish aspirations for “sovereignty and national independence.”

Some of those formulas were already working. At the time of Khrushchev’s descent on Warsaw the newly reinstated Gomulka had been on the point of firing the Soviet officers commanding Poland’s 25-division army and had promised reforms in government. Last week, instead of being fired from the Polish Defense Ministry, Russia’s Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky was apparently to be gently pushed upstairs into Marshal Ivan Konev’s job as top commander of all Warsaw Pact forces. Some 30 Soviet officers “resigning” from Polish units were wined and dined and presented with Polish decorations before going back to Russia.

For the Poles, there were some definite gains: the secret police has reportedly been reduced to the status of a counterespionage force, and the hated Ministry of State (Collective) Farms has merged with the Ministry of Agriculture. The press is still shackled, but Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts are no longer to be jammed. The Sejm (Parliament) enacted a new electoral law which promised liberalized, if not “free,” elections in January. In Moscow Gomulka negotiated for more wheat and coal.

Breathing Space. The Polish Communist leaders had settled for “gradualism.” The question is: Will a gradual transition to national Communism satisfy the Polish people? The Poznan trials had sparked a vast flare-up of national feeling in Poland. Peasant farmers abandoned their collective farms (280 farms dissolved in the Szczecin district alone), workers took over factories, and university students demonstrated all over the country. The situation paralleled that in Hungary, except that the Communist leadership apparently reacted in time, and so earned a breathing space. Now something of a hero for his defiance of Khrushchev, Gomulka is using every available means, including the pleas of released Cardinal Wyszynski, to foster “national unity and calm.” According to all reports out of Poland, the people are in a calmer and less demanding mood than for some time past, sobered not so much by Gomulka’s words as by the example of savage Soviet repression in Hungary.

Gomulka gradualism has something in it for everybody—a chance for Poles to bring pressure without civil war, a chance for Russia to give concessions while keeping control. Thin-faced Wladyslaw Gomulka was the necessary man in between, an attractive place to stand—if only a man didn’t have to plant both feet on a razor’s edge. As he left Moscow he observed: “We can say with joy that our fears are not confirmed.”

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