What I saw on a Red election day
"I stood at the village polling booths and talked to voters in the freest election behind the Iron Curtain.” Here's how free the Poles really are and what the West can do about it
On a tour of towns and villages near Warsaw Blair Fraser took these pictures of Poles going to cast their "free" vote
What I saw on a Red election day
BLAIR FRASER REPORTS FROM WARSAW .
"I stood at the village polling booths and talked to voters in the freest election behind the Iron Curtain.” Here's how free the Poles really are and what the West can do about it
One of the things holding the Soviet empire together today is its own disunity, the mutual hostility of its subject peoples.
One of the things tending to break it up is its supposedly common factor, the faith of international Communism.
This double paradox complicates the most important problem of Western statesmanship: how best to take advantage of the dislocation, |! which may become the disintegration, of
Soviet Russia's satellite domain.
The first point cropped up in a conversation in Prague. 1 was having dinner with a Czech, a man of unusual intelligence who had also shown unusual courage. He had already lost one good job because of consorting with foreigners, yet he was plucky enough to go on doing so. He was a Communist by conviction but no blind yea-sayer, for he had no hesitation in criticizing the still-Stalinist regime in I; his own country.
1 asked what he and people like him had thought of the Hungarian rebellion. He replied with some caution that at first they had sympathized, but later the “murders” and the “Fascist organization” had changed their minds. I pointed out that no one had been murdered except the professional murderers of the security police, and that it was silly to talk about “Fascist organization” in this rising || of a whole angry people.
“You must remember,” he said after a
pause, “that before the war the Hungarians did have a Fascist government, and seemed quite content with it.
“You must also remember that, generally speaking, we Czechs don't like the Hungarians and they don't like us. To us, Hungarian nationalism has always meant enmity. For instance, it might mean designs on their part to recapture Slovakia, which was part of Hungary for a thousand years.
“From our point of view, Polish nationalism has some of the same quality. We haven't forgotten that when Germany was carving up our country, the Poles grabbed a bit for themselves too.
“So we don't much like Poles and Hungarians, nor they us. They hate the Russians. We don’t. We get on very well with the Russians as people, and always have done — they are our kinsmen.
“Finally you must remember Munich itself, when Czechoslovakia was sold out. The West sold us out. The Russians then were our only friends and supporters. You can’t expect us lightly to trust the West now, and turn against the Russians.”
In Poland the same kind of apprehension is turned in another direction.
Poles don't talk much about the Czechs, and when they do their attitude is more contemptuous than hostile. For the Hungarian rebels they have continued on page 60
Blair Fraser reports from Warsaw continued from page 19
“The best hope for Poland’s safety is quiet in the Red empire”
passionate sympathy. Adam Wazyk, whose famous Poem for Adults was one of the first public outbursts against the Communist regime and made him a national hero, wrote three moving stanzas to the Hungarians.
The Polish government of Wladislaw Gomulka makes only the most perfunctory attempts to hide its fellow feeling for the rebels. Chou En-lai, prime minister of Red China, went to Warsaw from Moscow as a mediator; one of his objec-
tives was to make Gomulka toe the Russian line on the “attempted Fascist putsch” in Hungary. Gomulka refused to say anything of the kind. The most he would give was a rather cool recognition of the Kadar government in Hungary, and in ex-
change Chou En-lai had to pay lip service to “the Polish road to socialism”—i.e., Poland’s right to deviate from the Moscow line.
But though the Poles under Gomulka are willing to defy the Russians up to a point, they must be very careful not to go too far. This is not only because they fear the Russians; they also fear the Germans.
Poland’s western provinces were the eastern provinces of Germany before the war. When Russia helped herself to a slice of eastern Poland in 1945, the Poles in compensation got most of Silesia and East Prussia. From these lands they proceeded to expel four and a half million Germans and replace them with two million Poles. Many came from the territory taken by Russia, so now have nowhere else to go.
Only Russia and her satellites—including a reluctant East Germany—have recognized this western frontier of Poland. The Poles have no illusions about the real feelings of the Germans, either East or West. They want their lands back. A reunited Germany, whether it called itself Communist or anti-Communist, would make a strong bid to get them. Without Russia on their side, the Poles would have a hard time defending their postwar gains.
But even if they didn’t care about the new western provinces (as some of them don’t, I’m told) the Poles would still have good reason to hope that East Germany should remain quiet, Communist and captive as it is now. Poland is safer that way.
The ostensible reason for keeping Soviet troops and tanks in Poland, even now, is the need for maintaining a firm line of communication with East Germany. Trouble in East Germany, or even the threat of trouble, would give Russia a perfect excuse for moving back into Poland in full strength.
In those circumstances it is most unlikely that the Poles would fight back. One lesson of World War II is that Poland cannot survive standing alone between Russia and Germany. She has got to take one side or the other. Much as they may dislike the Russians, the Poles hate and fear the Germans more. Certainly the present Polish government, which for all its heresy is still avowedly Communist, would have no hesitation about which side to choose.
But the best course for Poland, obviously, is not to have to choose either. The best hope for her own national destiny is quiet, or comparative quiet, in the rest of the Soviet empire. I haven’t been in any of the Balkan satellites, but recent statements there and in Yugoslavia seem to indicate the same line of thought is prevalent among them. Each for its own national reasons, the various parts of the Soviet “bloc” want calm and the appearance of solidarity in order to take their own steps toward freedom.
However, the unifying effect of disunity in the Soviet empire is offset by the divisive effect of the common state religion, Communism. For a variety of reasons the Communist faith is tending to split the Communist world.
In all the satellites, even the poorest of them, the arrival of Communism brought a sharp drop in the ordinary man’s standard of living and a sharp rise in the severity of his work. In the coal mines of Poland, for instance, its most immediate result was the introduction of a sevenday week. But the extra work brought little or no extra return to the worker. An official statement last year that real wages had risen by twenty-seven percent brought such a storm of public indignation and ridicule that it had to be retracted.
I didn’t get these facts from Western propaganda, or even from conversations
with disgruntled individuals, though even the casual visitor finds plenty of those. I s>ot them from official pronouncements of the present government of Poland and its popular national leader. Gomulka.
Speaking last October to the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee, the governing body of the Polish Communist Party, Gomulka painted a brutally frank picture of his country's economy:
Coal output per man-day is twelve percent lower than in 1949 when Poland's Six-Year Plan began, and thirty-six percent below 1938.
Communist collective farms have had every encouragement — special privileges for machinery and fertilizer, tax concessions, great outlays of investment—yet production per acre on individual farms is still fifty percent higher than on collectives.
New housing has been less than half the amount required to maintain the level of 1950. “During the Six-Year Plan about six hundred thousand rooms fell into ruin.”
Strikes and riots like those in Poznan last June were a protest against bad economic planning. “The clumsy attempt to present the Poznan tragedy as the work of imperialist agents and provocateurs was very naïve politically.”
Who then is to blame? “Ourselves, the party, leadership of the government. The inflammable materials were accumulated for years.”
Talk like that, and the fact that he spent nearly five years in prison for holding such views prematurely, have made Gomulka a national hero in Poland. But it is a somewhat odd role for a Communist leader, and it poses a curious dilemma for the Communist faithful.
“He knows what hard times are”
There is no confusion or doubt among ordinary people, of course. Along with half a dozen other reporters 1 toured a number of towns and villages near Warsaw on Poland’s election day, stopping at every polling booth and talking to people as they went in and came out. Almost all said they were for Gomulka, but all for the same reason: “We think maybe things will be better now, with him.”
In the village of Kolbiel, a farming community near Minsk, we stopped in the street and were instantly the centre of a good-natured holiday crowd. They were full of a farmer’s usual complaints: taxes too high, prices too low; and they had no inhibitions about criticizing the government. But they thought Gomulka would do better than anyone else, because “he’s been in prison and he knows what hard times are like.”
What did they expect him to do for them?
“We want to be an independent country. We don't want any more interference from the Russians. Maybe Gomulka can get some money from the Americans, but we don’t want interference from them either.”
What did they think about Western countries—the U. S.. Britain, Canada?
“Stalinists used to tell us the United States was a poor country. (Roars of laughter.) If they are so poor, how can they send us parcels?”
A young girl cut in: “Why don’t they let some of us go and see how poor people are in other countries? I’ll volunteer to go.”
This jolly cynicism was all very well for ordinary folk. For the professed Communist, and especially for the sincere believer, the switchover from Stalin's to Gomulka’s doctrine was a much more difficult matter.
At another village we met one of these, a young man who was a Commu-
nist Party member and a community leader, the sort of lad who at home would be president of the junior board of trade. Asked why the support for Gomulka seemed to be so unanimous, he answered: “We feel that now, at last, we have a leader whom we can believe.”
I asked him whether he had held the same opinion of Gomulka before the momentous events of last October, when the old Stalinist crowd was ousted from power in Poland and Gomulka, the exheretic, brought in. The young man blushed a little, and said. “The big fish knew all the time what was going on, but little fish like me didn’t know.”
Little fish did not know, for example, what Communist officials now admit, that the trade agreements signed after the war were no more than a systematic looting of the satellite empire by the Soviet Union. Poland undertook to deliver twelve million tons of coal a year, about half of its total export, to the Soviet Union for $1.45 a ton. This at a time when coal was selling in the open market for twelve to sixteen dollars. Later the Soviet Union graciously raised the price to two dollars a ton in order to cover the actual cost of freight from the Polish mines to Russia. Not until after the death of Stalin was this “agreement” torn up and replaced by a more reasonable one, though even now Poland sells coal to Russia for about two dollars a ton less than the world price.
Apparently the same kind of relationship persists with other satellite countries, too. In Moscow, generally speaking, prices are high and quality low in consumer goods like clothing. Every once in a while, though, sensational bargains appear in the shops. For very low prices (by Russian standards) Muscovites can buy good men’s suits and women’s dresses -—made in Czechoslovakia.
But if little fish in the Communist ponds were ignorant of this sort of thing, still less did they know of the dreadful things done in the name of Communist justice. Last year among the political prisoners set free in Poland were three members of the wartime underground. They had spent eleven years in jail, and two of them were two years in the death cell before their capital sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, for the crime of working against the orthodox Communist underground and its high command in Russia.
These three men refused to accept the general amnesty; instead they demanded and got a new trial. The evidence was horrifying. They told of undergoing torture to elicit not only confessions of their own guilt, but testimony against other innocent people. The witnesses who had made the case against the three men swore that similar brutality had forced them to give false evidence.
Again, I don’t get these facts from hostile propaganda; I got them from the Polish press, where the retrial was fully reported.
The effect of these revelations among the Communist rank and file has been volcanic. Last November there appeared in a leading Warsaw newspaper a sensational article entitled Poznan-Budapest, in which the situations leading to riots in Poland and rebellion in Hungary were compared.
The author, Roman Jurys, is a young Communist. I’m told that before Nikita Khrushchev told the truth about Stalin at the Communist Party congress in Moscow a year ago, Jurys was rather rigidly orthodox in his Communist views. By last November he was finding the Poznan and Budapest situations almost identical. He found two resemblances between them in particular:
‘First, all social levels have opposed the existing authority,” and shown "immense hatred of the Stalinist system of terror.”
Second: “Disappearance of the Communist Party from the surface of political life. The party was ruled by its apparatus . . . The fiction of moral and political unity of our community corresponded to the fiction of an always uniform party, harmonious and consolidated."
Third resemblance: the struggle for national sovereignty. “It is unfortunate that Hungary lacked wise leaders.” On the other hand, it was not surprising that “the Communist Party of the Soviet Union failed to draw correct conclusions from the exposure of Stalinism, because the Soviet party itself was too deeply implicated. This may explain the particular carefulness of our Soviet comrades, their zigzagging, their lack of consistency and their return to Stalinist methods.”
Jurys concludes: “Hungary is a mutiny, on an international scale, against the Stalinist violation of objective rights in the process of developing socialism.”
Quite plainly he believes that the Poznan riot was a similar mutiny on a local or perhaps national scale.
Communists of this kind are now the supporters and lieutenants of Gomulka in Poland. Such men exist in all parts of the Soviet empire, including Soviet Russia itself, though here they have been more and more sternly repressed of late. But even in Poland they have not been able to put the ship of state about and set off on the new tack without considerable commotion.
Last December Gomulka himself went down into the mining areas to speak to the rebellious miners and appeal to them for more production. Poland had been five million tons below her export target for 1956, he said, which meant a deficit of a hundred million dollars in foreign exchange; in 1957, unless things improved, there w.ould be a shortage of ten million tons and a deficit of two hundred million dollars.
Working discipline would have to be restored in the mines, said Gomulka. In recent months some mine bosses had been beaten up by workers, others had even been run out of the mines in wheelbar-
rows. Some were now' afraid to go underground at all, and left the men to do their work unsupervised. Such behavior, said Gomulka, must stop.
But Gomulka’s party enemies, who nunber thousands, have said from the beginning that such behavior was inevitable when Stalinist severity was relaxed. These critics are silenced for the moment, but they are still there. One solid disgruntled group is the former security police, of whom thousands were dismissed when the ministry of internal security was abolished last year. Now these men cannot get other jobs, just because they were formerly members of the hated security force. They are biding their time, nursing their grudge. So are thousands of party officials who used to be influential and are now no longer so.
This is what is meant by the w;ry jest nov current in Warsaw: “Gomulka has the people w'ith him and the Roman Catholic Church w'ith him. but he has the Communist Party against him.”
What discredits these party regulars thcugh in the eyes not only of common folk, but of true believers in the Communist gospel, is their evident willingness to pay lip service to whatever faction is in power and whatever doctrine is official at the moment. They all sang the praises of Josef Stalin throughout that bloody tyrant’s lifetime, although they of all people knew' what he was really like. New they are dutifully denouncing the “cult of personality” because Khrushchev told them to do so. and repeating slogans against Stalin as glibly as they once proclaimed his wisdom and mercy. The whole Communist hierarchy has been exposed as a vast Vicarage of Bray.
Only a smashing victory was safe
The only Communists who completely escape this suspicion of time-serving are those who, like Gomulka, suffered for their heretical views in the previous dispensation. Gomulka was imprisoned six years ago for saying very much what he says today, for believing in “national Communism.” I hat is what gives him the confidence of his people.
Nevertheless, Gomulka is still a Communist. Even such anti-Communists as Cardinal Wyszynski, the Roman Catholic primate of Poland, recognize that the head of any Polish government today must be a Communist if the government is to survive. When Wyszynski and the priests of Poland led their flocks to the polls, and thus tacitly endorsed the Gomulka government, they were recognizing this hard fact. Any Polish government that rejected the philosophy of Communism would be overthrown by Russian tanks, as was the Nagy government in Hungary, and the now-deposed Stalinists of the so-called "Natolin group” would be restored to despotic power.
Gomulka seems to have feared that this might happen even if he got less than a smashing majority in the Polish election. Like all Communist elections it offered the voters only one approved list of candidates, but unlike the others it did permit some margin of choice. In most constituencies six candidates were offered for only four seats, and voters could pick the four they liked best. Those that the government liked best were the first foui on the list; if the top two on each list had been scratched off. this would have been a stinging rebuke to the government even though no alternative government could have been elected.
For a while it looked as if this might happen. Gomulka himself went on the radio and television on the eve of election day to appeal to the people, in tones that sounded almost desperate, not to exercise the privilege he had given them of
scratching off names. The punch line of his speech was this: “To cross out the candidates of our party means to cross out the independence of our country, to cross out Poland from the map of European states.”
One result of this appeal was mere intimidation. On election day we gave a lift to a peasant woman who was walking back from the polling station to her home a mile and a half away. Our interpreter asked whether or not she had crossed out any names on the ballot.
“No,” she said. “It said on the radio
that we are forbidden to cross out names.” Before she got out of the car she asked, “Why are you asking me these questions? Will 1 be arrested?”
However, she was an exception to the general rule. Most people we met had no hesitation in voicing their discontent, and were voting for Gomulka as the man most likely to change a bad situation. All foreign observers agree that Gomulka really has the backing of the vast majority of Poles.
Thus we get the curious paradox: the only man who can effectively oppose
Soviet Communism and bring some freedom of choice into the Soviet bloc is, and must be. a Communist. Moreover, the chief motive force behind his government is whatever fire and fanaticism remains in the Communist faith in satellite countries.
For Western nations, this makes a dilemma out of an urgent question of policy: should they or should they not support the Gomulka government and give it what help they can?
Gomulka needs help badly. Poland's desperate poverty is the main cause of
discontent there. People arc with him because they think he can relieve it; they may turn against him if he can’t, is it in the interests of the West to make sure that Gomulka does not fail?
He will not, of course, be an ally. Even if she wanted to—and there is no real evidence that she does want to— Poland could not turn against the Soviet Union. That would be national suicide. Hungary’s fate has shown what befalls a satellite country that tries to take even a neutral position.
Poland will still be part of the Soviet sphere of influence and part of the Soviet economic network. Poland has already got large amounts of economic aid from the Soviet Union; not enough to make up for the loot she lost during the last years of Stalin, hut enough to offset it considerably. What she wants from the West is not a replacement for Soviet aid, hut an addition to it.
Nevertheless, the consensus among Western diplomats in Poland seems to be that we ought to help Gomulka. His example, they think, is the best thing we could hope for in the Soviet empire. If he fails, the Communist bloc will be restored to all its monolithic unanimity. If he succeeds, other “national Communist” leaders may take heart, and a growing autonomy among Russia’s satellites may gradually and peacefully break up her domain.
It will not be easy for these diplomats to carry their point, especially in the United States. Before the U. S. Congress can be persuaded to vote money for a Communist country, many senators will have to change their minds. Also, some laws may have to be amended.
"Did you realize,” a Polish official asked me, “that in 1946 our country borrowed forty million dollars from the
Export-Import Bank in Washington?”
I said no, 1 hadn’t; what happened to the loan?
“It was no use to us. We tried to buy capital goods with it, but in 1949 we were prevented by export restrictions from getting even the goods we had already paid for. We had to resell them, at a considerable loss.
“Until last summer all our trade with the United States was one way. We sold there about fifteen or twenty million dollars worth each year, but we found we couldn’t do anything much with the money. Everything we wanted to buy was either forbidden because it was on the strategic list, or else we could get it cheaper elsewhere.”
This matter of trade with Communist Poland raises a question for Canada. Economic aid in the form of grants or massive loans must come mainly from the U. S.; Poland needs about a quarter of a billion dollars in capital equipment, over and above what she has already got from the Soviet Union, and Canada couldn’t contribute more than a small fraction of it. Trade is another thing.
Up to now Canada, like other NATO countries, has followed the U. S. lead in trading with the Communist bloc. Goods that the U. S. considers “strategic” are not sold by U. S. allies to potential U. S. enemies. But is Gomulka’s Poland still an enemy?
If we think not, should we nevertheless wait until the U. S. congress changes its mind and amends its own laws? Or should we, on our side of the curtain, take this occasion to assert our own independence?
These are some of the questions that Wladislaw Gomulka has forced upon the Western world. It will be interesting to see what the government and parliament of Canada decide to do about them. ★