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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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)
FP: Be that as it may, they failed in the end, didn’t they? They clung to power in this way for a couple of years, only to be driven out as soon as there were fully democratic elections. The time did not work for them, after all. But there were serious consequences in a longer run weren’t there?
Stroilov: Of course there were. All of that would have really been unimportant if it was about some random couple of years. But the 1989-1990 period was a crucial couple of years in the history of Poland and, indeed, the world.
For example, it was precisely in the period of the Mazowiecki government that Moscow played a very complicated game around re-unification of Germany (which we’ll have a chance to talk about it in more detail in out following interview); and Poland was to play an important role in that game.
In the Soviet scenario, the Poles, remembering World War II, were supposed to be very scared of the prospects of a strong united Germany, and make all sorts of objections. In reality, of course, they were not scared, because unification of Germany was not about Germany’s strength or weakness. It was about ending the Soviet occupation and defeating communism in Europe. Poles were all for defeating communism, and no doubt, a democratic Poland would have taken a pro-Western position. The way things were, however, the Jaruzelski-Mazowiecki duet played its part according to the Soviet scripts. It appears from the documents that there was some implicit or even explicit agreement that ‘Solidarity’ ministers would go along with the communist foreign policies.
Even more importantly, it was in that very period that Poland made important choices about its general strategy in foreign relations. It could have, for example, led a new regional alliance in Central Europe, which would inevitably be strongly anti-socialist and pro-Atlanticist; or they could stake at the European integration, in accordance with Gorbachev’s idea of a socialist ‘common European home’.
Needless to say, the communists favoured the ‘European option’, and Mazowiecki went along with that. By the time communists were out, it was too late to change anything. And now Poland is struggling desperately with the imperial pressures of the European Union, which, apart from all other things, are pretty often pro-Russian and/or anti-American. All that could have been avoided, if not for the Roundtable.
The consequences were even graver inside the country; for those were the years when the nation’s new political elite was formed. Since the communists spent those two years dividing, corrupting and manipulating various parts of the opposition, no wonder the new elite would be divided, corrupt, open to manipulation, committed to all sorts of wrong things, and on the top of it, include communists as a significant part of the spectrum. And the most important task which this elite would face, the most vital task for the revival of the nation, was that of a thorough, top-to-bottom de-communisation of Poland. No wonder every step was sabotaged.
FP: Tell us more about the documents and how you obtained them.
Stroilov: The originals of those documents are still officially top secret in the top-security Kremlin Archive. However, some secret copies were made. When Gorbachev and his associates were thrown out of the Kremlin in 1991, they took a lot of such copies with them, just in case. In the then chaotic situation, nobody cared. So, these documents were scanned and stored in the computers of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow.
Some ten years later, the Gorbachev Foundation finally decided to open some parts of that archive to outside researchers such as myself. Of course, the access was very limited: we were not allowed to see the most interesting documents, or to copy any documents without Gorbachev’s personal permission (which he always refused to give even if you were lucky enough to reach him). Yet, when you are dealing with the computers, it is a purely technical task to turn a limited access into unlimited one. I did just that. I copied the whole archive in spite of the ban, and, as subsequent events demonstrated, not a moment too soon. In 2003, just days after I finished copying, the Kremlin finally learned of the existence of that archive in the Gorbachev Foundation. They summoned Gorbachev, banged the table, and most of the archive was locked again. And I fled to London with this priceless treasure: documented communist secrets in some fifty to hundred of thousands of pages.
Such is my story; but I must say, most of the credit for obtaining these documents and making them public goes to our mutual friend Vladimir Bukovsky. He was on the quest for Soviet Archives ever since 1991; he was the first to say that nobody has a copyright to history; and he covertly copied the first 7,000 pages of Soviet top secret documents in 1992. It was not only his example that inspired me, but also his plan that I was fulfilling. For I was his spy from the outset, and there is hardly any position in this world of which I could be more proud.
All the documents I’ve quoted here, save one, come from Inventory 1/1 of the Gorbachev Foundation Archive, that is, transcripts of Gorbachev’s talks with foreign leaders. Then individual items are only identified by name and date. The transcript of his talks with Ambassador Czyrek is from Inventory 2/3.
FP: What are you going to do with all these documents now?
Stroilov: Make them as public as possible. Vladimir and I are doing all we can to find the most effective ways for that. And I am absolutely prepared to share documents with any researcher, journalist, publisher, or whoever else would help make them public. Just e-mail me, and I will answer.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, thank you for joining us.